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 Floor E / Ancient Art / Greek


Story of Dionysus (Bacchus)



Birth of Dionysus (or Bacchus)

The Dionysus was born -- killed, and then he was born again. Even though his mysteries started centuries earlier this is an important attribute for a Hellenistic mystery god.

The story of Dionysus' origins tells that he was born first from the union of Zeus with Persephone. Zeus designated the baby he named 'Zagreus' as his heir. The Titans, being fearful of losing power, lured him away while yet a child, dismembered him and devoured the pieces. Athena rescued his heart and preserved it. Zeus in anger reduced the Titans to ashes.

Prometheus used the clay and ash and fashioned mankind. Thus each man contains ashes of Dionysus within his 'titanic' earthly body.

From the heart of the god was brewed a love-potion given to Semele, a mortal, who forced her lover, Zeus, into revealing himself to her in his primal form. The disclosure was so overwhelming as to burn her to a crisp. The child she was carrying was saved.

Zeus enclosed the embryo in his loins until the time came for its birth as Dionysus. The young Dionysus grew up in Thrace, suckled by goats and raised by satyrs and sileni.

Story of Dionysus

Later, Dionysus descends into the Underworld to release his mother Semele and to raise her to Olympus. In his sailing through the world, Dionysus he brought men knowledge of the vine and wine-making. He finds his wife Ariadne on Naxos, where she had been abandoned by Theseus, son of the King of Athens. Naxos is the reputed place of the discovery of wine; probably in part because of this story. The marriage of Dionysus and Ariadne is a favorite subject in art.

They ascend into the heaven Dionysus takes his place in the council of the Gods as the final Olympian. His followers are allowed to follow him into the celestial realm.

The appearance of Dionysus at the end of the Olympian history suggests something of importance for the Greeks as they begin to show implicit disrespect for the Gods--a tendency we see as early as Plato.

Dionysus and Pentheus

Euripides at the end of his life wrote three plays including: The Bacchæ at the Macedonian court in Pella. The three were first performed in Athens in 405 BC a year after his death where the group won first prize in the annual drama contest. In The Bacchæ Dionysus comes to Thebes, Semele's home. Kadmos, her father, fails to understand his daughter or her son Dionysus. Kadmos gives his throne to Pentheus, the son of another daughter. Dionysus says:


At the beginning of the play Dionysus says:

This city must learn, and know, against its will or not
that it is uninitiated in my mysteries.
As for Semele, her memory
will be vindicated when I appear
to mortal eyes as the power she bore Zeus.
Cadmus has abdicated now to Pentheus
the son of Agave, another of his daughters,
and Pentheus is warring with divinity
by excluding me from rituals
and not invoking my name in prayers.

Because of this, I'm going to demonstrate to him
and to all Thebes the god I really am.
When order is established, I'll go on,
revealing my identity in other lands.
But if, by rage and force of arms, the citizens
of Thebes drive the Bacchæ from the mountain,
then I lead the army of my Mænads into war.
This is why I have assumed a mortal shape,
shedding my divine form for a human's.

later Pentheus returns and labels Dionysus as a fraud.

I'll have them all in cages.
I'll stamp out these obscene orgies.
There's an intruder, too, I hear, a foreigner,
a sorcerer, a charlatan, from Lydia.
Long, scented yellow hair, they say, cheeks like wine, with Aphrodite's love charms in his eyes.
Day and night he mixes with young girls,
holding his mysteries up from them to admire.
Once I get him here, though, inside the walls,
he won't be tossing his locks or beating the ground
with his famous thyrsus. Not when I have his head.
He's the one who claims Dionysus is a god,
that he was stitched into the thigh of Zeus,
when really the child and mother were both
consumed by lightning, because she'd lied
and said that Zeus had been her lover.

from the C.K. Williams translation of The Bacchæ


In the end Pentheus' inability to recognize a God in human form leads to his destruction.


The Changing Role of Dionysus and his Worship

In classical Greece when the Homeric Olympian Religion was strong, Dionysus was primarily a minor god responsible for the theater and wine. The Greeks reorganized the out-of-body experience of acting and of drunkenness as similar. Modern theater descends from ancient greek theater which was dedicated to Dionysus. The masks of tragedy and comedy represent this out-of-body experience -- for as an actor lets the mask take over his personality changes. But for the classical Greeks this shedding of rationality was only seen as desirable in controlled circumstances.

Thus Apollo, Dionysus older brother, is the God who champions life, law, rationality, and all the stable elements that we seek. A god which would inspire the Greek aristocracy. And in part, because its belief would help control the common crowd.

However in late the classical era, and starting perhaps a bit before, the Greeks began to develop Bacchic worship. This never became panhellenic, nor was there ever a primary center of Bacchic religion. During the Hellenistic period the dissatisfaction with the Olympian Gods became generally widespread. Mystery religions from the East concerning rebirth, both spiritual and actual, came from Egypt and Persia. Remember that this is the period after Alexander the Great had conquered all of Persia, so much of the known world East of Greece was Greek. Religious ideas don't get conquered by arms. And the expanded trade and flow of people in the extended Greek civilization allowed ideas to flow more freely. The Persian God: Mythra and Egyptian Gods: Isis and Osirus, both mystery religions of death and rebirth, were competing with the Olympian Religion of the ancient Greeks for the hearts of the common people.

In response, Dionysus grew in stature and importance and the number of people following him. Bacchic cults spring up with a new worship which permits, or even requires, letting rationality go; permitting the release of “animal” urges. Drunkenness is one path to diminishing the rational. Orgies and violence commonly are the result. Dionysus personifies these irrational and uncontrollable urges of man and beast. His followers, the maenads, were women. Finding him irresistible, they abandon hearth and home for drinking and dancing in the dark under the light of the moon. Later, men too were allowed to join his religion.

Dionysus is the God who lets one find ecstasy. Interestingly, Dionysus almost never makes war or becomes angry. When he is attacked, as he is constantly, for claiming to be a god, his powers save him in a humorous way. For example, one story relates that when he is captured by pirates, the ship bursts into growth. The masts become trees, the ropes grasses, etc. This overgrowth liberates him.


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