|The son of Zeus and Thyone|
|Dionysos as Bacchus|
|The God of Nysos|
|In the Company of Dionysos|
|Names for Dionysos and Bacchus|
|The Introduction of Wine to Mortals|
|Dionysos and Hephaistos|
|Dionysos and Eurytos|
|Festivals for Dionysos|
|Dionysos and Ariadne|
|Images of Dionysos|
Dionysos (Dionysus) is the god of Wine. He is also called Bacchus. Dionysos is the son of Zeus and Thyone. To the Immortals, Thyone is known as Semele.
Princess Thyone was a daughter of King Kadmos (Cadmus) and Queen Harmonia of the city of Thebes. Thyone was the sister of Ino, Agaue, Polydoros (Polydorus) and Autonoe.
The life of Dionysos began with intrigue and disaster. Zeus was attracted to the lovely princess of Thebes but his appreciation of Thyone did not escape the notice of his sister/wife, Hera. The vengeful goddess dared not interfere overtly with Zeus's affairs but she was a master of subtlety. When it became obvious that Thyone was pregnant, Hera enchanted Thyone and induced her ask Zeus to come to her in his radiant splendor. Zeus was flattered and revealed himself to Thyone in all his flaming glory … she was utterly consumed by the flames.
Zeus's son Hermes rescued Thyone's premature child from the conflagration that consumed Thyone's mortal body and gave the babe to a woman named Makris (Macris), daughter of Aristaios, on the island of Euboea. Makris did what she could to sooth the child but Hera was quick to realize what had happened … she drove Makris from her home. Zeus took the infant from Makris and sewed it into his thigh so that it might have his protection.
Dionysos as a child.
The name Dionysos literally means God of Nysos, i.e. Dio = God and Nysos = Mount Nysos. His other name, Bacchus, came later and seems to be a variation of the word Iacchos, meaning Shout. Written records of the name Dionysos can be traced to the island of Keos (Ceos) as early as the fifteenth century BCE but despite his scarce mention in The Iliad and The Odyssey, the worship of Dionysos probably dates back to the Mycenaean Era which predates the Trojan War. This would mean that Dionysos was a relative latecomer to the Olympic pantheon but he was quickly assimilated into the rites of all the Immortals.
There are several versions to the story of how Dionysos became the god of Mount Nysos (Nysa):
1) When Dionysos emerged from Zeus's thigh he was entrusted to Thyone's sister, Ino. Hera again vented her anger towards Dionysos and compelled Ino's husband Athamas to murder his son, Learchos. To escape Hera, Ino leapt into the sea with her son Melikertes (Melicertes). Dionysos was then entrusted to the Nymphs of Mount Nysos to be reared;
2) Dionysos emerged from Zeus's thigh on Mount Nysos and was nurtured by the mountain Nymphs. Mount Nysos, according to the Homeric Hymn to Dionysos, is in Phoenicia near the streams of Aegyptus [the Nile] but according to the historian Herodotus, Mount Nysos is in Upper Egypt in Ethiopia.
The assent of Dionysos to Mount Olympos (Olympus) was gradual. After leaving Mount Nysos, Dionysos ventured eastward. His travels took him as far east as India and then eventually back to Greece. His return to Greek soil was tumultuous and he was either welcomed or rejected as he visited different cities and provinces. Those who welcomed him quickly adopted his rituals but those who rejected him were punished with physical afflictions, transformed into animals or reduced to madness.
As time passed, the worship of Dionysos became central to the religious activities of the ancient Greeks. Wine was the primary sacrament for the worship of Dionysos. Many Greeks used wine to promote frivolity and forget the cares of the day. Some Greeks abused the sacrament and simply used it as an excuse to indulge in unbridled lascivious behavior. This seems to be the same dichotomy of behavior induced by wine [or any alcoholic beverage] today, some use it and some abuse it.
Dionysos and his followers are distinctive in their attire and demeanor. Dionysos is almost always in the company of Nymphs, Satyrs and Maenads as they caper through the forests and city streets. There are several distinctive items which Dionysos and his followers wear or carry.
The thyrsus is a wand carried by Dionysos. The thyrsus has ivy entwined around the staff and a pine cone and vine leaves mounted on the top.
Krotalons are musical rattles consisting of tuned lengths of bone or hardwood suspended at one end from a hand-held frame and used by dancers in the worship of Dionysos. The same sort of musical rattles were used in the worship of the Asian goddess, Kybele (Cybele). Krotalons were also used by Herakles (Heracles) to frighten away the Stymphalian Birds during his Sixth Labor.
A Krokotos (Crocotus) is a saffron colored robe worn by Dionysos and his followers.
A Nebris is a robe made of fawn skin worn by Dionysos and his followers.
Maenads are the female companions of Dionysos and are usually represented as frenzied revelers.
Satyrs also accompany Dionysos and the Maenads in their travels. Satyrs are one of a class of woodland deities who were part human, part horse and sometimes part goat. Satyrs are noted for their riotousness and lasciviousness.
The above image shows a Maenad leading two young men in an ecstatic procession. The last young man holds a thyrsus as a panther frolics at his feet.
Silenus (Silenos) is the foster father, teacher and companion of Dionysos. Silenus is a forest Spirit but is often, and incorrectly, thought of as an elderly satyr. Silenus is usually represented as a drunken old man but sometimes he is depicted with the legs and ears of a horse.
Silenus often accompanies Dionysos as he travels but he also has his own rascally adventures. Midas was the infamous king of Phrygia in Asia Minor who was cursed with the Golden Touch. While Midas was entertaining Silenus, he was granted a wish by the wily Spirit. Midas foolishly wished that everything he touched be turned to gold. When Midas found that his food was also turned to gold, he renounced the wish that Silenus had inflicted upon him … by washing his hands in the river Paktolus (Pactolus), he lost his golden touch. The river Paktolus has had golden sand ever since.
A silver coin with the image of Silenus from the island of Naxos circa 410 BCE.
It should not be surprising that Aphrodite [goddess of Love] is a companion of Dionysos. She and Dionysos have a son named Priapos (Priapus) who is a rural god of Gardens and Vineyards. Inheriting virility from his father, Priapos is a god of the male procreative power.
Euios (Evius) - A name for Bacchus taken from the cry "Evoi" used by his worshipers.
Thriambos - A name for Bacchus as well as the hymns dedicated to Bacchus.
Iakchos (Iacchos) - A name for Bacchus as well as the name of hymns sung in his honor.
Lyaios - A name for Bacchus as The Deliverer.
Orotalt - The name which the Arabians used to denote Dionysos. According to the historian Herodotus, the Arabians only worshiped Aphrodite [goddess of Love] and Dionysos. Aphrodite was worshiped under the name Alilat, i.e. The Goddess. Herodotus mentions this connection between Dionysos and Orotalt when he was relating the pledge of peace that the Persian king Cambyses made to the Arabians so they would assist the Persian army by providing water for crossing the desert of the Sinai Peninsula and thus allowing the Persians to attack King Amasis of Egypt. The two men making the pledge would allow a third man to cut their hands and smear their blood on seven stones, all the while calling on Orotalt [Dionysos] and Alilat [Aphrodite] to witness the pledge. Herodotus says that Orotalt and Alilat were the only two Immortals the Arabians honored and that men would crop their hair like Dionysos by cutting it round the head and shaving the temples.
Osiris - Osiris is the Greek rendering of the name of the Egyptian god of the dead, Asar. According to the historian Herodotus, the Egyptian god Osiris was somehow equated with Dionysos. He states that the only two gods worshiped throughout Egypt were Isis [Ast] and Osiris [Asar] but exactly how Osiris and Dionysos are similar or equal is not explained.
Sakae Sabazius - An Asian god associated with Dionysos and worshiped mainly by women.
When Dionysos was traveling in Attica, he was entertained by a kindly man named Ikarios (Icarius). As a reward for his hospitality, Dionysos gave Ikarios the gift of wine which was unknown to mortal men at that time. When Ikarios shared the wine with his neighbors, they became drunk, murdered Ikarios and hid his body. Knowing something was wrong, Ikarios's daughter Erigone used her faithful dog Maira (Maera) to search for her father. When Erigone found Ikarios's dead body she was so overwhelmed with sadness that she committed suicide by hanging herself from a tree. With Erigone and Ikarios both dead, the faithful dog Maira was placed in the sky as the brightest star and thereafter called the Dog Star.
Another tragic consequence from the introduction of wine to mortals concerned a man named Dryas. Dryas was the son of the king of Thrake (Thrace) and was killed by his father after Dionysos drove the old king mad. In his drunken state, the confused king mistook his son Dryas for a grape vine and killed him.
The above image shows Dionysos [left] watching as the king attacks his wife [center] after he has murdered Dryas [right]; the winged goddess of Madness, Lyssa, hovers above the tragic scene.
Hephaistos (Hephaestus) was the lame son of Hera who was thrown from Mount Olympos and crashed to the earth on the island of Lemnos. Hephaistos grew to manhood as a master artificer but was unwilling to join the other Immortals on Mount Olympos. Dionysos was sent to retrieve Hephaistos. In order to get the lame god to return to Mount Olympos, Dionysos had to subdue him with wine and then put him on a donkey. Hephaistos was quickly welcomed by the Olympians because of his phenomenal building skills.
The above image shows Dionysos with the inebriated Hephaistos riding a donkey to Mount Olympos.
Lykurgos (Lycurgus) was the son of a man named Dryas. The story of Lykurgos is an object lesson as to why mortal men should not do battle with the Immortals. While Dionysos was still a child, Lykurgos raged down the slopes of Mount Nysos with an ox-goad and scourged the Nymphs who cared for young Dionysos. The Nymphs dropped their wands to the ground and fled for their lives. Dionysos was so terrified of Lykurgos that he jumped into the sea to escape the murderous brute. The goddess Thetis saved Dionysos but the assault was not unnoticed or unforgiven by the other Immortals. Zeus blinded Lykurgos as a just punishment but Lykurgos did not live long with his affliction because all the Immortals hated him for what he had done to Dionysos.
Aura was a companion of Artemis [goddess of the Hunt] who bore twins to Dionysos. Zeus changed Aura into a spring because she, in a fit of madness, killed one of Dionysos's children.
King Proteus of Tiryns had three daughters: Lysippe, Iphinoe and Iphianassa. The girls refused to receive the rites of Dionysos and denied the divinity of Hera. For this sacrilege, they were driven mad and believed that they had been turned into cows. They were finally cured by Melampous (Melampus) who could understand the speech of animals.
Eurytos (Eurytus) was one of the huge monsters collectively known as the Giants … the Giants were the children of Gaia [Earth] engendered by the blood of Ouranos [Heavens].
The Giants waged an unsuccessful war on the Olympians and were severely punished after their defeat. The poet Hesiod states that the Giants were banished to the Underworld but Apollodorus of Athens clearly describes the brutal death of the Giants. The Giants were mostly human in form but their bodies were massive and they were invincible in their might. They had long drooping locks on their heads and chins … their feet had scales like a dragon or serpent. Whether they actually had the feet of dragons or whether they were simply scaled was a point of contention among several of the ancient authors. The traveler and historian Pausanias disputed the fact that the Giants literally had dragon feet but ancient artwork generally represented the Giants with serpent-like feet. The origin of the Giants was either Phlegrae or Pallene but it has been suggested that the two names represent the same place.
The Immortals were given an oracle that stated that the Giants could not be killed by a god or goddess so they decided to enlist the aid of Herakles (Heracles) to do the actual killing. When Gaia learned of the oracle, she began the preparation of a drug that would protect her awful children but Zeus culled a cunning brew of his own that would make the Giants vulnerable to the wrath of the Immortals. In order to have the time necessary for the creation of the drug, Zeus forbade Eos [Dawn], Selene [Moon] and Helios [Sun] to shine until his task was complete. The goddess Athene (Athena) summoned Herakles and the war against the Giants began. Eurytos was killed by Dionysos with a thyrsus, i.e. his wand. The other giants met a similar fate at the hands of Herakles and other Immortals.
The Dionysia were orgiastic and dramatic festivals held periodically in honor of Dionysos especially the celebrations held in Attica. The public performances that were central to the Dionysia served as the foundation of later Greek comedy and tragedy.
Great Dionysia [City Dionysia] was a festival of Athens in honor of Dionysos that was celebrated in the early Spring and notable for the performance of dithyrambs [a wild and irregular choral song or chant], tragedies, comedies and Satyr plays [ribald dramas with a chorus of Satyrs].
Lesser Dionysia [Rural Dionysia] was a festival consisting of series of wine feasts, processions and dramatic performances in honor of Dionysos. The Lesser Dionysia was held in the second half of the month of Poseideion which was the sixth month of the Attic year and would approximately correspond to the third week of November to the third week of December of our calendar.
The Theater of Dionysos on the Acropolis of Athens as seen from the top row of seats.
The Haloa was a festival of Attica where women would dance around a giant phallus in honor of Dionysos and Demeter [goddess of the Harvest]. The Haloa was a winter festival held on the twenty-sixth day of the month of Poseideion, which would be in mid-December by our calendar.
The Lenaea (Lenaia) was an Athenian festival in honor of Bacchus that featured dramatic contests. The Lenaea was held in the month of Gamelion and was a four day festival from the twelfth to the fifteenth day of the month … approximately the second week of January by our calendar.
The Anthesteria or Feast of Flowers was an Athenian festival that was a celebration of Dionysos. The Anthesteria was a winter festival celebrated in the Athenian month of Anthesterion … the month of February by our calendar.
The Bacchanalia was a festival in honor of Bacchus that was fueled by wine-incited frenzy in the participants. The Bacchanalia was banned by the Romans in the second century BCE because of the depraved and wanton nature of the festivities.
The Theoinia was a local form of the Dionysia celebrated by feasts and sacrifices at small shrines.
Princess Ariadne was the daughter of King Minos and Queen Pasiphae of the island of Crete. She is best known for her unbridled love for the Athenian hero, Theseus. However, her ultimate fate was intertwined with Dionysos.
Ariadne met Theseus when he went to Crete to end a deadly feud that had developed between King Aegeus of Athens and King Minos. When King Minos's son Androgeus went to the first Panathenaic Games in Athens he attracted the ire of Theseus's father King Aegeus by winning all the prizes. Aegeus had Androgeus killed and Minos waged war on Athens to avenge the murder of his son. Peace was won only with the promise that Athens would send seven young men and seven young women every nine years to Crete in order to be slain by the ungodly bull-man known as the Minotaur.
The Athenian youths were placed in a labyrinth where the Minotaur would hunt them down and savagely kill them. The tradition continued until Theseus voluntarily entered the labyrinth and killed the Minotaur. Theseus was given a spool of thread by Ariadne which he unwound as he entered the labyrinth and was thus able to retrace his steps and escape the intricate maze.
After the ordeal with the Minotaur, Theseus and Ariadne fled Crete. According to The Odyssey, Odysseus encountered the "shade" of Ariadne when he evoked the spirits of the Underworld. Theseus was taking Ariadne to Athens but abandoned her on the island of Dia where Dionysos "bore witness against her."
At that point, the final fate of Ariadne becomes unclear but there are several compelling stories that involve Dionysos:
1) Theseus abandoned Ariadne for a woman named Aigle. Ariadne was then taken to the island of Naxos where she married a priest of Dionysos named Oenarus;
2) Dionysos found Ariadne on the island of Dia and married her. After Dionysos made Ariadne his wife, Zeus made her immortal and un-ageing;
3) There were two women named Ariadne stranded on the island of Naxos. One was married to Dionysos and her passing was celebrated with gaiety. The other Ariadne had been abandoned by Theseus and her passing was commemorated with sorrow and lamentation.
A statue of a mature Dionysos wearing an ivy wreath. This is Roman copy [circa 40-60 BCE] of a Greek original [circa 350-325 BCE]. This beautiful statue is now on display at the British Museum in London.