Dionysus or Bacchus: God of Revelry and Wine

Dionysus was the Greek god of wine, agriculture, and the theater. He was also the protector of vines, and trees. He was mainly associated with the intoxicating effects of wine. His Roman names are Bacchus and Liber. His followers were known as Bacchants, and his female followers were known as Maenads. He hated owls, which, incidentally, were the symbol of his sister Athena (the goddess of wisdom). His symbols were the wine cup, the thyrsus (a staff with pine cones on top), the vine, and the dolphin.

Statue of Dionysus or Bacchus

Dionysus was the son of Zeus (the ruler of the gods and the god of storms and the sky) and Semele (a mortal woman). Hera (the wife of Zeus and the goddess of marriage) found out about Zeus and Semele before Dionysus was born. She was furious! In disguise, she went to Semele and said that Hera got to see Zeus in all of his splendor, so why shouldn't Semele get to see him also? Seeing a god or goddess in his/her true form was deadly to mortals, but Semele did not know that. The next time Semele met Zeus she told him that if he truly loved her, he would swear on the river Styx (the most serious oath a deity can make) that he would do any favor that she asked. Zeus gladly obliged, but once he heard her request he was very dismayed, for she had asked to see him as he truly was. He had to do it, because he swore on the river Styx, but in doing so he killed her. However, Zeus took Dionysus, unborn, out of her womb while she was dying and put him in his thigh until he was ready to be born. This time spent in Zeus made Dionysus immortal.

Another version of the story is that Dionysus was born before Zeus killed Semele and that Hera fed Dionysus to the titans, who ate everything but his heart. When Zeus found out, he recreated Dionysus around his heart. From this myth comes Dionysian epithet "twice-born".

When Dionysus was born, Zeus hid him from Hera by dressing him like a girl and bringing him to Ino, Semele’s sister. Ino raised Dionysus until Hera found out and tried to kill him. Zeus saved him by turning him into a ram. Then he took him to the nymphs of Mount Nysa.

Dionysus once fell in love with a mortal man named Ampellos. However Ampellos was gored by a wild boar. As he died, Dionysus turned him into a grape vine. A bit after this, Hera found Dionysus and drove him mad. He wandered over the deserts of Egypt, looking for water. Then a ram sprung up beside him, took one look, and ran away. Dionysus chased the ram, and, in doing so, found water. Dionysus later built a temple to Zeus where he found water and made the ram a constellation. However, at the moment he was still insane.

As Dionysus wandered, he met Rhea (mother of Zeus and goddess of agriculture). She cured his madness and taught him her rites. He then went to India and erected pillars to hold up the sky. Then Dionysus went to Western Asia, where Eros (Cupid) shot both he and Poseidon with an arrow that carried love for Beroe, who was a mortal daughter of Aphrodite (the goddess of love). They both declared that she would be their bride. Aphrodite, dismayed by this state of affairs, said that they would battle each other for Beroe, but after the battle they had to be nice to each other and Beroe’s village. They agreed, and Poseidon won.

A Thracian king named Lycurgus once drove Dionysus and his followers into the sea, saying that Dionysus was not truly a god. In revenge, Dionysus drove Lycurgus mad and made all the vine plants in the area stop growing. He then had his oracle say that if Lycurgus was killed, the vine plants would grow again. Meanwhile, Lycurgus was killing his own son with an ax, because in his madness he thought his son was a vine plant. These two events conspired to make the subjects of Lycurgus kill him. True to his word, Dionysus let the vine plants grow again once they killed their king.

Dionysus then went to Thebes to punish a woman named Agave for spreading rumors that Zeus really was not his father. Her son, Penethus imprisoned Dionysus, but Dionysus escaped, and, in disguise, convinced Penethus to dress up like a woman so that he could spy on the Maenads. While Penethus slept a drunken sleep on this idea, he drove Agave mad and turned her into a Maenad. When Penethus woke up, he decided that Dionysus’s idea was sound and spied on the Maenads. Of course, they figured out that he was not one of them. Agave killed her own son thinking he was a lion. When she found what she had done, she committed suicide.

Dionysus then went to Greece and fell in love with a mortal woman named Althea, who was married to a king named Oneus. Oneus knew what was going on, but, out of respect for the god, said nothing. Dionysus knew that Oneus knew, so, in thanks, gave him the grape plant and declared that it would be called oinos after him.

Dionysus then boarded a ship to Argos. However, the crew decided to sell him as a slave. As they passed by the island of Naxos, he found out about their plans and turned the crew into dolphins. He then got off at Naxos and searched for someone who would shelter him. However, the only person he found was Ariadne, who had helped Theseus (a hero) kill the Minotaur on the condition that he take her to Greece with him. However, Theseus only took her to Naxos, where he set her ashore and left her. Dionysus married Ariadne, and convinced Zeus to grant her immortality.

After Dionysus did this, he rescued his mother from Hades (the land of the dead) and turned her into a goddess named Thyone. Hera hated both Dionysus and Thyone, but her anger melted somewhat when Dionysus rescued the queen of the gods from a trap. Hephaestus (the god of the forge) created a golden throne that imprisoned her as soon as she sat down. He did this because Hera had thrown him off Mount Olympus when he was a baby. Hephaestus would not let her go until Dionysus got him drunk. Then the gods and goddesses were able to convince him to let Hera go.

A mortal king named Midas once saved one of the followers of Dionysus. In thanks, Dionysus offered to grant him a wish. Midas wanted everything he touched to turn to gold. Dionysus was amazed, but granted his wish. Midas was having fun turning things to gold when he started getting hungry. However, everything that he tried to eat turned to gold! Dionysus ran to Dionysus and begged him to remove the curse, for that was what it was. Dionysus told him to bathe in the river Paktolos. Midas did, and not only did his golden touch go away, but the river was filled with gold specks from then on.

Scholars think that Dionysus was not part of Greek mythology in its early period of formulation, but that he originated from a wilder god that was fused in the minds of the people to a god imported from Phrygia. He is usually depicted in Greek art as a long-haired youth holding a wine cup or a thyrsus. Hermes (the messenger god and god of thieves and travelers) is commonly associated with Dionysus. Most sacrifices made to Dionysus were rams. His worshipers tended to mysterious rites and intoxicated revels to forget the cares of the work-a-day world. Some cults were quite destructive, as indicated in the play The Bacchae by Euripides. A song sung in honor of Dionysus is called a dithyramb, which is an impassioned, wild song, usually accompanied by an ecstatic dance.

Written by Kate Rayment


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