The youthful, beautiful, but effeminate god of wine. He is also called both by Greeks and Romans Bacchus, that is, the noisy or riotous god, which was originally a mere epithet or surname of Dionysus, but does not occur till after the time of Herodotus.
The religion of Dionysus is the religion of people who pass
their lives among the vines. As the religion of Demeter carries
us back to the cornfields and farmsteads of Greece, and places
us, in fancy, among a primitive race, in the furrow and beside
the granary; so the religion of Dionysus carries us back to its
vineyards, and is a monument of the ways and thoughts of people
whose days go by beside the winepress, and under the green and
purple shadows, and whose material happiness depends on the crop
From: A Study Of Dionysus:
The Spiritual Form Of Fire And Dew
The god Dionysus or Bacchus is best known to us as a personification of the vine and of the exhilaration produced by the juice of the grape. His ecstatic worship, characterised by wild dances, thrilling music, and tipsy excess, appears to have originated among the rude tribes of Thrace, who were notoriously addicted to drunkenness. Its mystic doctrines and extravagant rites were essentially foreign to the clear intelligence and sober temperament of the Greek race.
Yet appealing as it did to that love of mystery and that
proneness to revert to savagery which seem to be innate in most
men, the religion spread like wildfire through Greece until the
god whom Homer hardly deigned to notice had become the most
popular figure of the pantheon. The resemblance which his story
and his ceremonies present to those of Osiris have led some
enquirers both in ancient and modern times to hold that Dionysus
was merely a disguised Osiris, imported directly from Egypt into
Greece. But the great preponderance of evidence points to his
Thracian origin, and the similarity of the two worships is
sufficiently explained by the similarity of the ideas and customs
on which they were founded.
From: The Golden Bough : A Study Of Magic and Religion
According to the common tradition, Dionysus was the son of Zeus and Semele, the daughter of Cadmus of Thebes (Apollodorus iii); whereas others describe him as a son of Zeus by Demeter, Io, Dione, or Arge. Diodorus (iii. 67) further mentions a tradition, according to which he was a son of Ammon and Amaltheia and that Ammon, from fear of Rhea, carried the child to a cave in the neighbourhood of mount Nysa, in a lonely island formed by the river Triton. Ammon there entrusted the child to Nysa, the daughter of Aristaeus, and Athena likewise undertook to protect the boy.
The same diversity of opinions prevails in regard to the native place of the god, which in the common tradition is Thebes, while in others we find India, Libya, Crete, Dracanum in Samos, Naxos, Elis, Eleutherae, or Teos, mentioned as his birthplace.
It is owing to this diversity in the traditions that ancient writers were driven to the supposition that there were originally several divinities which were afterwards identified under the one name of Dionysus. Cicero distinguishes five Dionysi, and Diodorus three.
The common story, which makes Dionysus a son of Semele by Zeus, runs as follows: Hera, jealous of Semele, visited her in the disguise of a friend, or an old woman, and persuaded her to request Zeus to appear to her in the same glory and majesty in which he was accustomed to approach his own wife Hera. When all entreaties to desist from this request were fruitless, Zeus at length complied, and appeared to her in thunder and lightning. Semele was terrified and overpowered by the sight, and being seized by the fire, she gave premature birth to a child.
Zeus, or according to others, Hermes (Argonautica) saved the child from the flames: it was sewed up in the thigh of Zeus, and thus came to maturity. Various epithets which are given to the god refer to that occurrence.
After the birth of Dionysus, Zeus entrusted him to Hermes, or, according to others, to Persephone or Rhea, who took the child to Ino and Athamas at Orchomenos, and persuaded them to bring him up as a girl. Hera was now urged on by her jealousy to throw Ino and Athamas into a state of madness, and Zeus, in order to save his child, changed him into a ram, and carried him to the nymphs of mount Nysa, who brought him up in a cave, and were afterwards rewarded for it by Zeus, by being placed as Hyades among the stars.
The inhabitants of Brasiae, in Laconia, according to Pausanias (iii. 24. § 3), told a different story about the birth of Dionysus. When Cadmus heard, they said, that Semele was mother of a son by Zeus he put her and her child into a chest, and threw it into the sea. The chest was carried by the wind and waves to the coast of Brasiae. Semele was found dead, and was solemnly buried, but Dionysus was brought up by Ino, who happened at the time to be at Brasiae. The plain of Brasiae was, for this reason, afterwards called the garden of Dionysus.
The traditions about the education of Dionysus, as well as about the personages who undertook it, differ as much as those about his parentage and birthplace. Besides the nymphs of mount Nysa in Thrace, the muses, Lydae, Bassarae, Macetae, Mimallones, the nymph Nysa and the nymphs Philia, Coronis, and Cleis, in Naxos, whither the child Dionysus was said to have been carried by Zeus, are named as the beings to whom the care of his infancy was entrusted.
Consorts and Children
By Aura he had twins
By Unknown mother
Mystis, moreover, is said to have instructed him in the mysteries and Hippa, on mount Tmolus, nursed him; Macris, the daughter of Aristaeus, received him from the hands of Hermes, and fed him with honey.
On mount Nysa, Bromie and Bacche too are called his nurses.
Mount Nysa, from which the god was believed to have derived his name, was not only in Thrace and Libya, but mountains of the same name are found in different parts of the ancient world where he was worshipped, and where he was believed to have introduced the cultivation of the vine. Hermes, however, is mixed up with most of the stories about the infancy of Dionysus, and he was often represented in works of art, in connexion with the infant god.
When Dionysus had grown up, Hera threw him also into a state of madness, in which he wandered about through many countries of the earth. A tradition in Hyginus makes him go first to the oracle of Dodona, but on his way thither he came to a lake, which prevented his proceeding any further. One of two asses he met there carried him across the water, and the grateful god placed both animals among the stars, and asses henceforth remained sacred to Dionysus.
According to the common tradition, Dionysus first wandered through Egypt, where he was hospitably received by king Proteus. He thence proceeded through Syria, where he flayed Damascus alive, for opposing the introduction of the vine, which Dionysus was believed to have discovered. He now traversed all Asia.
When he arrived at the Euphrates he built a bridge to cross the river, but a tiger sent to him by Zeus carried him across the river Tigris.
The most famous part of his wanderings in Asia is his expedition to India, which is said to have lasted three, or, according to some, even 52 years. He did not in those distant regions meet with a kindly reception everywhere, for Myrrhanus and Deriades, with his three chiefs Blemys, Orontes, and Oruandes, fought against him.
But Dionysus and the host of Pans, Satyrs, and Bacchic women, by whom he was accompanied, conquered his enemies, taught the Indians the cultivation of the vine and of various fruits, and the worship of the gods; he also founded towns among them, gave them laws, and left behind him pillars and monuments in the happy land which he had thus conquered and civilized, and the inhabitants worshipped him as a god.
Dionysus also visited Phrygia and the goddess Cybele or Rhea, who purified him and taught him the mysteries, which according to Apollodorus iii took place before he went to India. With the assistance of his companions, he drove the Amazons from Ephesus to Samos, and there killed a great number of them on a spot which was, from that occurrence, called Panaema.
Third century CE mosaic from, Sousse in Tunisia, showing the triumph of Bacchus, a winged Victory stands behind him.
Longfellow in his “Drinking Song” thus describes the march of Bacchus:
“Fauns with youthful Bacchus follow;
Ivy crowns that brow, supernal
As the forehead of Apollo,
And possessing youth eternal.
“Round about him fair Bacchantes,
Bearing cymbals, flutes and thyrses,
Wild from Naxian groves of Zante’s
Vineyards, sing delirious verses.”
According to another legend, he united with the Amazons to fight against Cronus and the Titans, who had expelled Ammon from his dominions. He is even said to have gone to Iberia, which, on leaving, he entrusted to the government of Pan.
On his passage through Thrace he was ill received by Lycurgus, king of the Edones, and leaped into the sea to seek refuge with Thetis, whom he afterwards rewarded for her kind reception with a golden urn, a present of Hephaestus.
All the host of Bacchantic women and Satyrs, who had accompanied him, were taken prisoners by Lycurgus, but the women were soon set free again. The country of the Edones thereupon ceased to bear fruit, and Lycurgus became mad and killed his own son, whom he mistook for a vine, or, according to others he cut off his own legs in the belief that he was cutting down some vines. When this was done, his madness ceased, but the country still remained barren, and Dionysus declared that it would remain so till Lycurgus died.
The Edones, in despair, took their king and put him in chains, and Dionysus had him torn to pieces by horses. After then proceeding through Thrace without meeting with any farther resistance, he returned to Thebes, where he compelled the women to quit their houses, and to celebrate Bacchic festivals on mount Cithaeron, or Parnassus. Pentheus, who then ruled at Thebes, endeavoured to check the riotous proceedings, and went out to the mountains to seek the Bacchic women; but his own mother, Agave, in her Bacchic fury, mistook him for an animal, and tore him to pieces. ( Metamorphoses by Ovid III)
After Dionysus had thus proved to the Thebans that he was a god, he went to Argos. As the people there also refused to acknowledge him, he made the women mad to such a degree, that they killed their own babes and devoured their flesh. (Apollodorus iii) According to another statement, Dionysus with a host of women came from the islands of the Aegean to Argos, but was conquered by Perseus, who slew many of the women.
Afterwards, however, Dionysus and Perseus became reconciled, and the Argives adopted the worship of the god, and built temples to him. One of these was called the temple of Dionysus Cresius, because the god was believed to have buried on that spot Ariadne, his beloved, who was a Cretan.
Roman cameo plaque showing Bacchus and Ariadne. Louvre Museum, Paris
To return to the rites of Dionysus, Gilbert Murray, speaking of Orphism--a great wave of religious reform which swept over Greece and South Italy in the sixth century B.C.--says: "A curious relic of primitive superstition and cruelty remained firmly imbedded in Orphism, a doctrine irrational and unintelligible, and for that very reason wrapped in the deepest and most sacred mystery: a belief in the sacrifice of Dionysus himself, and the purification of man by his blood.
It seems possible that the savage Thracians, in the fury of their worship on the mountains, when they were possessed by the god and became 'wild beasts,' actually tore with their teeth and hands any hares, goats, fawns or the like that they came across. . . . The Orphic congregations of later times, in their most holy gatherings, solemnly partook of the blood of a bull, which was by a mystery the blood of Dionysus- Zagreus himself, the Bull of God, slain in sacrifice for the purification of man."
The last feat of Dionysus was performed on a voyage from Icaria to Naxos. He hired a ship which belonged to Tyrrhenian pirates; but the men, instead of landing at Naxos, passed by and steered towards Asia to sell him there. The god, however, on perceiving this, changed the mast and oars into serpents, and himself into a lion; he filled the vessel with ivy and the sound of flutes, so that the sailors, who were seized with madness, leaped into the sea, where they were metamorphosed into dolphins. (Apollodorus iii. Metamorphoses by Ovid iii.)
In all his wanderings and travels the god had rewarded those who had received him kindly and adopted his worship: he gave them vines and wine.
After he had thus gradually established his divine nature throughout the world, he led his mother out of Hades, called her Thyone, and rose with her into Olympus. The place, where he had come forth with Semele from Hades, was shewn by the Troezenians in the temple of Artemis Soteira the Argives, on the other hand, said, that he had emerged with his mother from the Alcyonian lake. There is also a mystical story, that the body of Dionysus was cut up and thrown into a cauldron by the Titans, and that he was restored and cured by Rhea or Demeter.
Various mythological beings are described as the offspring of Dionysus but among the women, both, mortal and immortal, who won his love, none is more famous in ancient history than Ariadne.
The extraordinary mixture of traditions which we have here had occasion to notice, and which might still be considerably increased, seems evidently to be made up out of the traditions of different times and countries, referring to analogous divinities, and transferred to the Greek Dionysus. We may, however, remark at once, that all traditions which have reference to a mystic worship of Dionysus, are of a comparatively late origin, that is, they belong to the period subsequent to that in which the Homeric poems were composed; for in those poems Dionysus does not appear as one of the great divinities, and the story of his birth by Zeus and the Bacchic orgies are not alluded to in any way: Dionysus is there simply described as the god who teaches man the preparation of wine, whence he is called the "drunken god", and the sober king Lycurgus will not, for this reason, tolerate him in his kingdom.
As the cultivation of the vine spread in Greece, the worship of Dionysus likewise spread further; the mystic worship was developed by the Orphici, though it probably originated in the transfer of Phrygian and Lydian modes of worship to that of Dionysus. After the time of Alexander's expedition to India, the celebration of the Bacchic festivals assumed more and more their wild and dissolute character. As far as the nature and origin of the god Dionysus is concerned, he appears in all traditions as the representative of some power of nature, whereas Apollo is mainly an ethical deity.
Dionysus is the productive, overflowing and intoxicating power of nature, which carries man away from his usual quiet and sober mode of living. Wine is the most natural and appropriate symbol of that power, and it is therefore called "the fruit of Dionysus." Dionysus is, therefore, the god of wine, the inventor and teacher of its cultivation, the giver of joy, and the disperser of grief and sorrow.
As the god of wine, he is also both an inspired and an inspiring god, that is, a god who has the power of revealing the future to man by oracles. Thus, it is said, that he had as great a share in the Delphic oracle as Apollo and he himself had an oracle in Thrace. Now, as prophetic power is always combined with the healing art, Dionysus is, like Apollo, called larpos, and at his oracle of Amphicleia, in Phocis, he cured diseases by revealing the remedies to the sufferers in their dreams. Hence he is invoked against raging diseases.
The notion of his being the cultivator and protector of the vine was easily extended to that of his being the protector of trees in general, which is alluded to in various epithets and surnames given him by the poets of antiquity and he thus comes into close connexion with Demeter.
This character is still further developed in the notion of his being the promoter of civilization, a law-giver, and a lover of peace.
As the Greek drama had grown out of the dithyrambic choruses at the festivals of Dionysus, he was also regarded as the god of tragic art, and as the protector of theatres.
The orgiastic worship of Dionysus seems to have been first established in Thrace, and to have thence spread southward to mounts Helicon and Parnassus, to Thebes, Naxos, and throughout Greece, Sicily, and Italy, though some writers derived it from Egypt. Respecting his festivals and the mode of their celebration, and especially the introduction and suppression of his worship at Rome and Dionysia.
Granting, then, that elements in the worship of Dionysus, Aphrodite, and other gods, may have been imported with the strange Ægypto-Assyrian vases and jewels of the Sidonians, we still find the same basis of rude savage ideas. We may push back a god from Greece to Phœnicia, from Phœnicia to Accadia, but, at the end of the end, we reach a legend full of myths like those which Bushmen tell by the camp-fire, Eskimo in their dark huts, and Australians in the shade of the gunyeh—myths cruel, puerile, obscene, like the fancies of the savage myth-makers from which they sprang.
From: Custom and Myth, by Andrew Lang
In the earliest times the Graces, or Charites, were the companions of Dionysus and at Olympia he and the Charites had an altar in common. This circumstance is of great interest, and points out the great change which took place in the course of time in the mode of his worship, for afterwards we find him accompanied in his expeditions and travels by Bacchantic women, called Lenae, Maenades, Thyiades, Mimallones, Clodones, Bassarae or Bassarides, all of whom are represented in works of art as raging with madness or enthusiasm, in vehement motions, their heads thrown backwards, with dishevelled hair, and carrying in their hands thyrsus-staffs (entwined with ivy, and headed with pine-cones), cymbals, swords, or serpents. Sileni, Pans, satyrs, centaurs, and other beings of a like kind, are also the constant companions of the god.
The temples and statues of Dionysus were very numerous in the ancient world. Among the sacrifices which were offered to him in the earliest times, human sacrifices are also mentioned.
Subsequently, however, this barbarous custom was softened down into a symbolic scourging, or animals were substituted for men, as at Potniae. The animal most commonly sacrificed to Dionysus was a ram.
Among the things sacred to him, we may notice the vine, ivy, laurel, and asphodel; the dolphin, serpent, tiger, lynx, panther, and ass ; but he hated the sight of an owl.
The earliest images of the god were mere Hermae with the phallus, or his head only was
represented. In later works of art he appears in four different
1. As an infant handed over by Hermes to his nurses, or fondled and played with by satyrs and Bacchae.
2. As a manly god with a beard, commonly called the Indian Bacchus. He there appears in the character of a wise and dignified oriental monarch; his features were expressive of sublime tranquillity and mildness; his beard is long and soft, and his Lydian robes are long and richly folded. His hair sometimes floats clown in locks, and is sometimes neatly wound around the head, and a diadem often adorns his forehead.
3. The youthful or so-called Theban Bacchus, was carried to ideal beauty by Praxiteles. The form of his body is manly and with strong outlines, but still approaches to the female form by its softness and roundness. The expression of the countenance is languid, and shows a kind of dreamy longing; the head, with a diadem, or a wreath of vine or ivy, leans somewhat on one side; his attitude is never sublime, but easy, like that of a man who is absorbed in sweet thoughts, or slightly intoxicated.
4. He is often seen leaning on his companions, or riding on a panther, ass, tiger, or lion. The finest statue of this kind is in the villa Ludovisi. Bacchus with horns, either those of a ram or of a bull. This representation occurs chiefly on coins, but never in statues.
Dionysius and the Bacchanalia
From: Livy: History of Rome, c. 10 CE
186 B.C. A Hellene of mean condition came, first, into Etruria, a low operator in sacrifices, and a priest of secret and nocturnal rites. These mysterious rites were, at first, imparted to a few, but afterwards communicated to great numbers, both men and women.
To their religious performances were added the pleasures of wine and feasting, to allure a greater number of proselytes. When wine, lascivious discourse, night, and the intercourse of the sexes had extinguished every sentiment of modesty, then debaucheries of every kind began to be practiced, as every person found at hand that sort of enjoyment to which he was disposed by the passion predominant in his nature. Nor were they confined to one species of vice---the promiscuous intercourse of free-born men and women; but from this store-house of villainy proceeded false witnesses, counterfeit seals, false evidences, and pretended discoveries. From the same place, too, proceeded poison and secret murders, so that in some cases, not even the bodies could be found for burial. Many of their audacious deeds were brought about by treachery, but most of them by force; it served to conceal the violence, that, on account of the loud shouting, and the noise of drums and cymbals, none of the cries uttered by the persons suffering violence or murder could be heard abroad.
The infection of this mischief, like that from the contagion of disease, spread from Etruria to Rome; where, the size of the city affording greater room for such evils, and more means of concealment, cloaked it at first; but information of it was at length brought to the consul, Postumius...There was a freedwoman called Hispala Fecenia, a noted courtesan...who gave a full account of the origin of the mysteries. "At first," she said, "those rites were performed by women. No man used to be admitted. They had three stated days in the year on which persons were initiated among the Bacchanalians, in the daytime. The matrons used to be appointed priestesses, in rotation. Paculla Minia, a Campanian, when priestess, made an alteration in every particular, as if by the direction of the gods. For she first introduced men, who were her own sons, Minucius and Herrenius, both surnamed Cerrinius; changed the time of celebration, from day to night; and, instead of three days in the year, appointed five days of initiation, in each month.
From the time that the rites were thus made common, and men were intermixed with women, and the licentious freedom of the night was added, there was nothing wicked, nothing flagitious, that had not been practiced among them. There were more frequent pollution of men with each other than with women. If any were less patient in submitting to dishonor, or more averse to the commission of vice, they were sacrificed as victims. To think nothing unlawful was the grand maxim of their religion. The men, as if bereft of reason, uttered predictions, with frantic contortions of their bodies; the women, in the habit of Bacchantes, with their hair disheveled, and carrying blazing torches, ran down to the Tiber; where, dipping their torches in the water, they drew them up again with the flame unextinguished, being composed of native sulphur and charcoal. They said that those men were carried off by the gods, whom the machines laid hold of and dragged from their view into secret caves. These were such as refused to take the oath of the society, or to associate in their crimes, or to submit to defilement. This number was exceedingly great now, almost a second state in themselves, and among them were many men and women of noble families. During the last two years it had been a rule, that no person above the age of twenty should be initiated; for they sought for people of such age as made them more liable to suffer deception and personal abuse."
Postumius represented the affair to the Senate, laying before them the whole circumstance, in due order; the information given to him at first, and the discoveries gained by his inquiries afterwards. Great consternation seized on the Senators; not only on the public account, lest such conspiracies and nightly meetings might be productive of secret treachery and mischief, but, likewise, on account of their own particular families, lest some of their relations might be involved in this infamous affair. The Senate ordered that the officials in those rites, whether men or women, should be sought for, not only at Rome, but also throughout all the market towns and places of assembly, and be delivered over to the power of the Consuls; and also that proclamation should be made in the city of Rome, and published through all Italy, that "no persons initiated in the Bacchanalian rites should presume to come together or assemble on account of those rites, or to perform any such kind of worship;" and above all, that search should be made for those who had assembled or conspired for personal abuse, or for any other flagitious practices.
Postumius then addressed the assembly of the people: "Romans, to no former assembly was this solemn supplication to the gods more suitable or even more necessary: as it serves to remind you, that these are the deities whom your forefathers pointed out as the objects of your worship, veneration, and prayers: and not those which infatuated men's minds with corrupt and foreign modes of religion, and drove them, as if goaded by the furies, to every lust and every vice....That the Bacchanalian rites have subsisted for some time past in every country in Italy, and are at present performed in many parts of this city also, I am sure you must have been informed, not only by report, but by the nightly noises and horrid yells that resound through the whole city; but still you are ignorant of the nature of that business. Part of you think it is some kind of worship of the gods; others, some excusable sport and amusement, and that, whatever it may be, it concerns but a few. First, then, a great part of them are women, and this was the source of the evil; the rest are males, but nearly resembling women; actors and pathics in the vilest lewdness; night revelers, driven frantic by wine, noises of instruments, and clamors. The conspiracy, as yet, has no strength; but it has abundant means of acquiring strength, for they are becoming more numerous every day....
Of what kind do you suppose are the meetings of these people? In the first place, held in the night, and in the next, composed promiscuously of men and women. If you knew at what ages the males are initiated, you would feel not only pity but also shame for them. Romans, can you think youths initiated, under such oaths as theirs, are fit to be made soldiers? That arms should be intrusted with wretches brought out of that temple of obscenity? Shall these, contaminated with their own foul debaucheries and those of others, be champions for the chastity of your wives and children?....The impious assembly at present confines itself to outrages on private citizens; because it has not yet acquired force sufficient to crush the commonwealth; but the evil increases and spreads daily; it is already too great for the private ranks of life to contain it, and aims its views at the state....
"How often in the ages of our fathers was it given in charge to the magistrates, to prohibit the performance of any foreign religious rites; to banish strolling sacrificers and soothsayers from the forum, the circus, and the city; to search for, and burn, books of divination; and to abolish every mode of sacrificing that was not conformable to the Roman practice! For they, completely versed in every divine and human law, maintained that nothing tended so strongly to the subversion of religion as sacrifice, when we offered it not after the institutions of our forefathers, but after foreign customs...."
On the assembly being dismissed, great terror spread throughout the city; nor was it confined merely within the walls, or to the Roman territory, for everywhere throughout the whole of Italy alarm began to be felt, when the letters from the guest-friends were received, concerning the decree of the senate, and what passed in the assembly, and the edict of the consuls. During the night, which succeeded the day in which the affair was made public, great numbers, attempting to fly, were seized, and brought back by the triumvirs, who had posted guards at all gates; and informations were lodged against many, some of whom, both men and women, put themselves to death. Above seven thousand men and women are said to have taken the oath of the association. But it appeared that the heads of the conspiracy were the two Catinii....
Those who, as it appeared, had been only initiated, and had
made after the priest, and in the most solemn form, the
prescribed imprecations, in which the accursed conspiracy for the
perpetration of every crime and lust was contained, but who had
not themselves committed, or compelled others to commit, any of
those acts to which they were bound by the oath--all such they
left in prison. But those who had forcibly committed personal
defilements or murders, or were stained with the guilt of false
evidence, counterfeit seals, forged wills, or other frauds, all
these they punished with death. A greater number were executed
than thrown into prison; indeed, the multitude of men and women
who suffered in both ways, was very considerable....A charge was
then given to demolish all the places where the Bacchanalians had
held their meetings; first in Rome, and then throughout all
Italy; excepting those wherein should be found some ancient altar
or consecrated statue.