The ancient Greek God Dionysus was the god of wine, revelry, and madness! The Roman name of this god was Bacchus. This party hardy deity had a huge cult following all through the ancient world. There are several unique things about this particular god. He is the only god of Olympus to be borne of a mortal woman, as Seleme was his mother and Zeus his father. He was actually seen as being twice borne, the first time as son of Zeus and Persephone, and then he was killed and conceived again by Seleme. Hera in a fit of jealousy had Seleme torn apart when pregnant with Dionysus, and Zeus saved the unborn child by sewing him into his own divine leg. Therefore Zeus bore Dionysus from his thigh just as he had borne Athena from his head!
Dionysus is a god that encouraged his own cult following. He travelled and inspired the revels in which he was worshipped. Most gods would be happy to be worshipped from afar, but not this drunken madman! He was a god that wandered through many places across the world. This role as wanderer reminds me of the Norse All-Father Odin, who was known to wander often through many realms.
Being a god so entwined with partying and drunken revelry, it is no surprise that Dionysus was a god that took several lovers. Notably he had a tryst with Aphrodite, the goddess of love herself! With Aphrodite he had a son named, Priapos. It was said in many versions of the myth that Hera cursed Priapos with ugliness to punish Aphrodite for her lustful nature! The most important woman in Dionysus’ life was Ariadne, whom he would take as his bride.
Ariadne was the daughter of King Minos of Crete, and she helped Theseus to slay the Minotaur. It was Ariadne that provided Theseus with the sword he used to slay the Minotaur (this theme of a young woman providing a sword to a hero appears countless times in classical myth and legend). After Theseus succeeded in killing the Minotaur, he and Ariadne eloped. But this union would not last, either because Dionysus would seduce her away, or because she was already married to Dionysus. No matter which version of the tale is used, she ends up with Dionysus in the end, and is his great love. She would give birth to many children by Dionysus including Oenopion, (who was the personification of wine), and Staphylus (who was the personification of grapes), among several others. Upon her death Dionysus would take her crown and place it among the stars to form the constellation Corona Borealis.
The symbols of Dionysus include the thyrsus (a pinecone topped staff), the grapevine, leopard skin, panther, and cheetah. During his festivals his followers could be identified by their wearing of leopard skin. Festivals to honor Dionysus often included many incredible horrors, like the tearing apart of animals and eating of the raw animal flesh! On a more positive note, these revelries also were times of great sexual freedom. There was nothing off limits when you partied with the ultimate god of raucous fun!
The followers of Dionysus included satyrs and nymphs, but his most notable followers were the maenads! Maenads were the women who worshipped Dionysus, and served him throughout his revelries. They were sometimes forced into madness, and participating in atrocities to please this god. Others were happy to follow this Greek God, very similarly to those groupies who follow Rock Gods! In fact you can think of Dionysus as the first rock star.
Other notable information about this god is that he invented wine, and ruled over viticulture (winemaking). Along with Demeter he was the most prominent god of agriculture. He also is considered a god that was cross cultural, especially given the god’s known love of wandering around.
I hope you have enjoyed this overview of Dionysus! Let me know your thoughts in the comments section. Don’t forget to stop by each day this week in order to learn more about the Cult of Dionysus!
Note on Image: The image at the top of the post is Bacchus by Carrivagio. I found the image on britannica.com.
- Mythology by Edith Hamilton
- The Age of Fable by Thomas Bulfinch