Dionysus, also called Bacchus, was a god of complex and mysterious dimensions. The ancients associated Dionysus with a variety of realms, including ecstasy, liberation, creativity, fertility, wine and intoxication, violence, and death and the afterlife.
The Greeks considered Dionysus a divinity of foreign origin, and the true sources of his worship are unknown. Dionysian cults* probably started in Thrace (northeast of ancient Greece) or in Asia Minor, although some evidence suggests his worship might have arisen in Greece during the Mycenaean age. By classical* times, his worship was widespread in the Greek world. Athens alone held seven festivals a year in his honor. Many of the rituals and festivals devoted to Dionysus involved drinking and frenzied dances. These festive occasions included such activities as drinking contests, male cross-dressing, and general carousing. His worship was also closely connected to drama. At the Great Dionysia festival held each spring, the spontaneous rituals performed in honor of the god of wine became formalized by about the sixth century B.C. into dramatic performances—the beginning of Greek tragedy.
* cult group bound together by devotion to a particular person, belief, or god
Dionysus was a popular figure in ancient art. In Greek vase painting he is represented with a grapevine in one hand and a drinking cup in the other. Other symbols associated with him include a mask, representing drama; a sacred, vine-covered wand called a thyrsus; and a drinking bowl called a kantharos.
According to myth, Dionysus was the son of Zeus and Semele, a mortal woman. Zeus disguised himself as a human to seduce Semele, and she became pregnant. As a favor, Semele asked to see Zeus in his divine form, but his sheer brightness—a thunderbolt—destroyed her. Zeus rescued the unborn Dionysus from Semele’s womb and put the infant inside his thigh, from where he was born. Zeus took his divine son to Nysa, a mythical mountain, where a tutor named Silenus and a group of satyrs* raised the child and taught him the secrets of nature, including how grapes are made into wine. Dionysus then journeyed back to Greece, accompanied by satyrs, nymphs*, and his women followers called maenads* or bacchants. In some stories, Dionysus married Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos of Crete.
Many tales tell of the rejection Dionysus encountered as he traveled through Greece and the harsh punishments he exacted on those who refused to recognize his divine nature. In Thebes, for example, the people would not receive him, even though Thebes had been his mother’s homeland. For revenge, he struck the Theban women with madness, and they abandoned their families, fled to the mountains, and became maenads. Clothed in fawn skins and carrying sacred wands of vine leaves and ivy, they laughed, shrieked, and danced through the woods in a possessed frenzy. When Pentheus, the king of Thebes, tried to spy on their revelry, the women in their madness mistook him for a wild beast and tore him apart. Horrified at the death of their king, the Thebans recognized their error, sang praises to Dionysus, and joined his wild rites. Eventually, Dionysus won over all of Greece to his worship. The worship of Dionysus is the subject of the Bacchae, one of the plays of the Greek tragedian Euripides.
* classical in Greek history, refers to the period of great political and cultural achievement from about 500 B.C. to 323 B.C.
* satyr woodland deity that was part man and part goat or horse
* nymph in classical mythology, one of the lesser goddesses of nature
* maenad frenzied female worshiper of the god Dionysus
* Hellenistic referring to the Greek-influenced culture of the Mediterranean world during the three centuries after Alexander the Great, who died in 323 B.C.
Many of the ceremonies associated with Dionysus were mysteries— that is, they were secrets known only to cult members. Some cults worshiped Dionysus as a fertility god, while others believed that he could provide protection after death. During the Hellenistic* period, Dionysian mystery cults spread to Rome, where the Roman Senate tried unsuccessfully to suppress them. (See also Cults; Dance; Divinities; Drama, Greek; Eleusinian Mysteries; Mycenae; Religion, Greek.)