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date: 20 October 2017

Dionysus

Dionysus (Linear B Diwonusos, Homeric Διώνυσος‎, Aeolic Ζόννυσσος‎, Attic Διόνυσος‎), is the twice-born son of Zeus and Semele. His birth alone sets him apart. Snatched prematurely from the womb of his dying mother and carried to term by his father, he was born from the paternal thigh. Perceived as both man and animal, male and effeminate, youthful as well as mature, he is the most versatile and elusive of all Greek gods. His myths and cults are often violent and bizarre, a threat to the established social order. He represents an enchanted world filled with extraordinary experiences. Always on the move, he is the most epiphanic god, riding felines, sailing the sea, and even wearing wings. His most common cult name was Bakch(e)ios or Bakchos, after which his ecstatic followers were called bakchoi and bakchai. Adopted by the Romans as Bacchus, he was identified with the Italian Liber Pater. While modern scholars inevitably regard Dionysus as a construct of the Greek imagination, in the eyes of his ancient worshippers he was a god—immortal, powerful, and self-revelatory.

Throughout antiquity, he was first and foremost the god of wine and intoxication. His other provinces include ritual madness or ecstasy (mania); the mask, impersonation, and the fictional world of the theatre; and, almost antonymically, the mysterious realm of the dead and the expectation of an after-life blessed with the joys of Dionysus. If these four provinces share anything in common that reflects the nature of this god, it is his capacity to transcend existential boundaries. Exceptionally among Greek gods, Dionysus often merges with the various functions he stands for and thus serves as a role model for his human worshippers. In the Greek imagination, the god whose myths and rituals subvert the normal/social identities of his followers himself adopts a fluid persona based on illusion, transformation, and the simultaneous presence of opposite traits. Both ‘most terrible and most sweet to mortals’ in Attic tragedy (Eur. Bacch. 861), he was called ‘Eater of Raw Flesh’ (Ὠμηστής‎) on Lesbos as well as ‘Mild’ (Μειλίχιος‎) on Naxos (1) in actual cult (Alc. fr. 129.9 L.-P., P. Oxy. 53.3711; FGrHist 499 F 4).

The name Dionysus appears for the first time on three fragmentary Linear B tablets from Pylos and Khania (Crete) dated to c.1250 bce. The tablets confirm his status as a divinity, but beyond that they reveal little about his identity and function in Mycenaean religion. One of the Pylos tablets may point to a tenuous connection between Dionysus and wine; on the Khania tablet, Zeus and Dionysus are mentioned in consecutive lines as joint recipients of libations of honey. However, thus far no physical remains of his cult have been identified with absolute certainty. A Dionysiac connection has been claimed for several archaeological finds. The most spectacular is the discovery in the early 1960s of a large number of terracotta statues in a Late Cycladic shrine at Ayia Irini on Ceos. Tentatively dated to 1500–1300 bce, these fragmentary, nearly life-sized figures represent mature women who stand or, perhaps, dance. A much later deposit of Attic drinking-vessels was found in the same room; among them is a scyphus of c. 500 bce inscribed with a dedication to Dionysus by Anthippus of Iulis (SEG 25.960). According to the excavators, the temple was in continuous use from the 15th to the 4th cent. bce. This remarkable find does not prove, however, that Dionysus was worshipped on the site before the Archaic period, let alone continuously from the bronze age to the classical period. Given the prominence of women in Minoan religion generally, it is equally far-fetched to identify these figures as Dionysus’ female attendants, whether nymphs, nurses, or maenads. Yet it is striking that typical features of Dionysus and his religion—including wine and ivy; divine epiphanies and ecstatic forms of worship; women dancing, handling snakes, or holding flowers; the divine child surrounded by nurturing females; and bulls with and without anthropomorphic features—are all prominent in Aegean, especially Cretan religion and art. The earliest Dionysus may indeed be sought in the culture of Minoan Crete (see religion, Minoan and Mycenaean).

If we had more information on the bronze age Dionysus, he would probably turn out to be a complex figure with a substantial non-Greek or Mediterranean component. Absolute ‘Greekness’ is a quality that few, if any, Greek gods can claim. This is especially true of their names. If Dionysus signifies ‘nysos (son?) of Zeus’, as some linguists believe, the god’s name would be half Greek and half non-Greek (not Thracian however, as its occurrence in Linear B demonstrates). But such etymological neatness is just as improbable as a divine name derived from the god’s genealogy. Hardly more plausible is the derivation from nysai, the dubious designation for three nymph-like figures on a vase fragment by Sophilos (Beazley, ABV 39.15). Attempts to derive the name Semele from Phrygian, bakchos from Lydian or Phoenician, and thyrsos—the leafy branch or wand carried by the god and his followers—from Hittite, though highly speculative, reflect the wide spectrum of potential cross-cultural contacts that may have influenced the early formation of Dionysus and his cult.

In Archaic epic, Dionysus is referred to as a ‘joy for mortals’ (Il. 14.325) and ‘he of many delights’ (Hes. Th. 941). The source of all this pleasure is wine, the god’s ambivalent ‘gift’ (Hes. Op. 614) which brings both ‘joy and burden’ (Hes. fr. 239.1). Dionysus ‘invented’ the wine, just as Demeter discovered agriculture (Eur. Bacch.274–83; see culture-bringers). By a common metonymy, the wine-god is also synonymous with his drink and is himself ‘poured out’ to other gods as a ritual liquid (Bacch. 284). Libations of mixed or, occasionally, unmixed wine normally accompanied animal sacrifice; wineless libations were the exception. In vase-painting, Dionysus is never far from the wine. Surrounded by cavorting satyrs and silens, nymphs, or maenads he presides over the vintage and the successive stages of wine-making on numerous black-figure vases. Holding in one hand a grapevine and in the other one of his favourite drinking vessels, either a cantharus or a rhyton, he is often depicted receiving wine from a male or female cup-bearer such as Oenopion, his son by Ariadne, or pouring it on an altar as a libation, or lying on a couch in typical symposiast posture (see symposium). Yet he is never shown in the act of consuming his own gift. His female followers, too, keep their distance from the wine, at least in maenadic iconography. While maenads may carry drinking-vessels, ladle wine, or pour it, they are never shown drinking it.

Longus' Dionysiac love story of Daphnis and Chloe culminates in the celebration of the vintage on the Lesbian estate of Dionysophantes, whose name evokes the divine epiphanies of Dionysus. Wine festivals were celebrated in many regions of the Greek world; in Elis as well as on Andros, Chios, and Naxos, they were accompanied by wine miracles. The oldest festival of Dionysus, the Ionian-Attic Anthesteria, was held each spring. In Athens, the highlight consisted of the broaching of the new wine followed by a drinking-contest. On this occasion, as on others, citizen women were excluded from the ceremonial drinking of wine. The admixture of wine and water was allegorized as the nurturing of Dionysus by his mythical nurses (FGrHist 325 F 12, 328 F 5), or more ominously, as the ‘mixing of the blood of Bakchios with fresh-flowing tears of the nymphs’ (Timoth., PMG fr. 780). In Attica, myths were told which connected the arrival of Dionysus and the invention of the wine with the murder of Icarius (schol. D Il. 22.29; LIMC Dionysos/Bacchus no. 257). Here and elsewhere, Dionysiac myths emphasize the darker aspects of the god, and the perversion of his gifts.

Of Dionysus’ four provinces, wine is the most dominant; it often spills over into the other three. Drunkenness can cause violence and dementia (Pl. Leg. 2.672d, 6.773d, μαινόμενος οἶνος‎). Yet the ritual madness associated with Dionysus in myth and cult had nothing to do with alcohol or drugs. Seized by the god, initiates into Bacchic rites acted much like participants in other possession cults. Their wild dancing and ecstatic behaviour were interpreted as ‘madness’ only by the uninitiated. As numerous cultic inscriptions show, the actual worshippers did not employ the vocabulary of madness (mania, mainesthai, mainades) to describe their ritual ecstasy; rather, they used the technical but neutral language of bakcheia and bakcheuein. The practitioners of bakcheia were usually women; the exception is Scyles, the ‘mad’ Scythian king who danced through the streets of Olbia—an early centre of Dionysiac cult—as a bakchos (Hdt. 4.79). While men, too, could ‘go mad’ for Dionysus, they could not join the bands (thiasoi) of maenadic women who went ‘to the mountain’ (eis oros) every other year in many Greek cities to celebrate their rites. Their notional leader was always the god himself (Eur. Bacch. 115 f.; 135 ff.; Diod. Sic. 4.3.2–3), who appears already in the Homeric version of the Lycurgus (1) myth—the earliest reference to maenadic ritual—as Dionysus mainomenos, ‘the mad god’ (Il. 6.132). Known mainly from post-classical inscriptions and prose authors like Plutarch and Pausanias, ritual maenadism was never practised within the borders of Attica. Athenian maenads went to Delphi to join the Delphic Thyiads on the slopes of Mt. Parnassus (Soph. Ant. 1126–52; Plut. De mul virt. 13. 249e-f; Paus. 10.4.3). Halfway between Athens and Delphi lies Thebes (1), the home town of Dionysus and ‘mother city (metropolis) of the Bacchants’ (Soph. Ant. 1122), from where professional maenads were imported by other cities (IMagn. 215). Erwin Rohde and E. R. Dodds were the first scholars to take a comparative approach to the psychological and anthropological aspects of maenadic ritual and behaviour, but they ignored the fundamental distinction between myth and ritual.

In poetry and vase-painting, Dionysus and his mythical maenads tear apart live animals with their bare hands (sparagmos) and eat them raw (omophagia). But the divinely inflicted madness of myth was not a blueprint for actual rites, and the notion that maenadism ‘swept over Greece like wildfire’ (Rohde, Nilsson, Dodds) is a Romantic construct that has now been abandoned along with the suggestion that the maenads sacramentally consumed Dionysus in the shape of his sacred animal. The ‘delight of eating raw flesh’ (Eur. Bacch. 139 ὠμοφάγον χάριν‎) appears in maenadic myth, where it can escalate into cannibalism. In the entire cultic record, however, omophagy is mentioned only once. In a maenadic inscription from Miletus, the following directive occurs: ‘Whenever the priestess performs the rites of sacrifice on behalf of the [entire] city, no one is permitted to “throw in” (deposit?) the omophagion (ὠμοφάγιον ἐμβαλεῖν‎) before the priestess has done so on behalf of the city’ (LSAM 48, 276/5 bce). Although the ritual details escape us, a piece of raw meat was apparently deposited somewhere for divine or human consumption. The mere reference to eating raw flesh is significant, given that sacrificial meat was normally roasted or cooked. In this instance, the perverted sacrifice, a mainstay of Dionysiac myth, has left its mark also on Dionysiac cult.

Dionysiac festivals were ubiquitous throughout the Greek world; in Athens alone there were seven such festivals in any given year, five of which were dedicated chiefly to Dionysus as wine god and patron god of the theatre—Oschophoria, Rural Dionysia, Lenaea, Anthesteria, and City Dionysia. The name Oschophoria involved cross-dressing (see Transvestism, Ritual) and the ritual carrying of vine branches hung with bunches of grapes. The Lenaea and both Dionysia featured performances of tragedy and comedy. Apart from the new wine, the Anthesteria celebrated the spring-time arrival of Dionysos from across the sea. Less is known about two other Dionysiac festivals at Athens, the Theoinia and the Iobakcheia ([Dem.] 59.78). Festivals of Dionysus were often characterized by ritual licence and revelry, including reversal of social roles, cross-dressing by boys and men, drunken komasts in the streets, as well as widespread boisterousness and obscenity. In Athens, as throughout Ionian territory, monumental *phalli stood on public display, and phallophoric processions paraded through the streets (Semos of Delos FGrHist 396 F 24). But, unlike Pan or the Hermes of the herms, Dionysus himself is never depicted with an erection. The god’s dark side emerged in rituals and aetiological myths concerned with murder and bloodshed, madness and violence, flight and persecution, as well as gender hostility (as during the Agrionia). Throughout the Athenian Anthesteria festival, merrymaking predominated, but it was punctuated by ritual reminders of a temporary suspension of the normal structures of daily life—the invasion of the city by strangers perhaps called ‘Carians’; the silent drinking at separate tables, explained by the myth of the matricide Orestes’ arrival in Athens and the fear of pollution it provoked; the ‘sacred marriage’ (hieros gamos) of the wife of the basileus to Dionysus (see marriage, sacred); and the cereal meal prepared on the festival’s last day for Hermes Chthonios (see chthonian gods) and the survivors of the Great Flood.

Tragedy and comedy incorporate transgressive aspects of Dionysus, but they do so in opposite ways. While comedy re-enacts the periods of ritual licence associated with many Dionysiac festivals, tragedy dramatizes the negative, destructive traits of the god and his myths. Innocent and humorous in comedy, wine and inebriation are problematized in tragedy. Aristotle connected the origins of tragedy and comedy with two types of Dionysiac performance—the dithyramb and the phallic song respectively. Yet, in his own analysis of the tragic genre, he ignored not only Dionysus but also the central role of the gods in the drama. In addition to the mask worn by the actors in character, including the disguised god himself in both Bacchae and Frogs (see Aristophanes (1)), the choral dance is the most palpable link between Attic drama and Dionysiac ritual. Tragic and comic choruses who refer to their own dancing invariably associate their choral performance with Dionysus, Pan, or the maenads. Despite Aristotle’s silence, tragedy in particular has a lot to do with Dionysus. The tragedians set individual characters, entire plays, and indeed the tragic genre as a whole in a distinct Dionysiac ambience (see comedy (Greek); tragedy, Greek).

The god so closely associated with exuberant life is also connected with death, a nexus expressed as ‘life-death-life’ in one of the Dionysiac-Orphic bone inscriptions from Olbia. ‘Hades and Dionysus are the same’ according to Heraclitus (1) (fr. 15 DK). On an Apulian funerary crater by the Darius Painter, Dionysus and Hades are shown in the underworld each grasping the other’s right hand while figures from Dionysiac myth surround them (Toledo 1994.19). A ‘sacred tale’ ascribed to Orpheus and modelled on the Osiris myth describes the dismemberment of Dionysus Zagreus by the Titans and his restoration to new life (see Orphism); his tomb was shown at Delphi (Orph. 322 F Bernabé; Callim. fr. 643 Pf.). According to another myth, Dionysus descends to the underworld to rescue Semele from Hades (Iophon, TrGF 22 F 3); Aristophanes’ comic parody of the god’s catabasis has Dionysus retrieve Aeschylus (Ar. Frogs). In a related ritual, the Argives summoned Dionysus ceremonially ‘from the water’ with the call of a trumpet hidden in thyrsi ‘after throwing a lamb into the abyss for the gate-keeper’, i.e. for Hades (Plut. De Is. et Os. 35, 364 F). Dionysus loomed large in the funerary art and afterlife beliefs of Greeks and Romans alike. In many regions of the ancient world, tombs were decorated with Dionysiac figures and emblems like the maenad, the kantharos, and the ivy, or bore inscriptions with a Dionysiac message. The tombstone of Alkmeionis, chief maenad in Miletus around 200 bce, announces that ‘she knows her share of the blessings’ (καλῶν μοῖραν ἐπισταμένη‎)—a veiled reference to her eschatological hopes (GVI 1344). Found in tombs from southern Italy to Thessaly, the so-called Bacchic gold tablets contain ritual instructions and underworld descriptions for the benefit of the deceased (see Orphic Literature). Two ivy-shaped specimens refer to a ritual rebirth under the aegis of Dionysus and to wine-drinking in the afterlife; a third identifies the dead person as a Bacchic initiate (mystes).

No other deity is more frequently represented in ancient art than Dionysus. Until about 430 bce, Dionysus is almost invariably shown as a mature, bearded and ivy-wreathed adult wearing a long chiton often draped with the skin of fawn or feline, and occasionally presenting a frontal face like his satyrs; later he usually appears youthful and beardless, effeminate, and partially or entirely nude. From his earliest depictions on vases by Sophilos and Kleitias (c.580–570 bce) to the proliferating images of the god and his entourage in Hellenistic and Roman imperial times, Dionysiac iconography becomes more varied while remaining remarkably consistent in its use of certain themes and motifs. Major mythical subjects comprise the Return of Hephaestus and the Gigantomachy; Dionysus’ birth and childhood; his punishments of Lycurgus, Pentheus, and the impious sailors whom he turns into dolphins; and his union with Ariadne (as on the Derveni krater of c.350 bce). Cult scenes in vase painting include those on the so-called Lenaia vases, which show a makeshift image of Dionysus—fashioned from a mask attached to a pillar—surrounded by women carrying or ladling wine. It is unclear whether these settings refer to a single festival or represent an artistic montage of authentic ritual elements. The Hellenistic friezes of his temples at Teos and Cnidus displayed the thiasus of satyrs, maenads, and centaurs; at Perge, we find scenes from the god’s mythical life. Most conspicuously, sarcophagi of the imperial period abound with scenes from Dionysiac mythology such as the god’s birth and his Indian triumph—the theme of Nonnus’ monumental epic.

The very existence in the bronze age of a divinity named Dionysos came as a complete surprise when it was first revealed by Michael Ventris in 1953 (see Mycenaean Language). His discovery disproved the widespread theory of Dionysus as a latecomer who arrived on the Greek scene just in time to receive the barest mention in Homeric epic. Throughout antiquity Dionysus was considered a foreign god whose original home was Thrace or Asia Minor and who was unknown in Greece before the 8th cent. bce. Modern scholarship followed suit. Friedrich Nietzsche’s Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik (1872) fundamentally changed the perception of the god in literature and art by contrasting the ‘Apollinian’ with the ‘Dionysian’ and emphasizing the suffering Dionysus as the divine archetype of the tragic hero. Nietzsche’s essay remains a milestone in the modern reception of the god. Nevertheless, like Friedrich Creuzer before him, Nietzsche believed that the Greeks had Hellenized the ‘Asian’ worship of Dionysus by mitigating it. The non-Greek origin of Dionysus achieved the status of scholarly dogma with the second volume of Rohde’s Psyche (1894). In Rohde’s view, which echoes Nietzsche’s, the Thracian Dionysus invaded Greece, where his wild nature was ultimately civilized and sublimated with the help of the Delphic Apollo, a process commemorated in the myth of Dionysus’ exile abroad, the resistance with which his cult was met upon its arrival in Greece, and his ultimate triumph over his opponents. Rohde’s Dionysus—barbarian but happily Hellenized, occasionally wild but mostly mild—appealed to successive generations of scholars from Jane Harrison to Dodds. Wilamowitz derived Dionysus from Phrygia and Lydia rather than Thrace, while Nilsson adopted a theory of multiple foreign origins. As early as 1933, however, Walter F. Otto dissented, emphasizing instead the Greek nature of Dionysus as the epiphanic god who comes and disappears. According to Otto, the myths of Dionysus’ arrival—with their dual emphasis on resistance to his otherness as well as on acceptance of his gifts—articulate the essential aspects of the god’s divinity rather than the historical vicissitudes of the propagation of his cult. Otto’s notion of a polar and paradoxical Dionysus categorizes the diversity of Dionysiac phenomena, thus making them more intelligible. It has been argued, after Otto, that the ‘foreign’ Dionysus is a psychological rather than a historical entity which has more to do with Greek self-definition and the ‘Dionysus in us’ than with the god’s actual arrival from abroad. More recently, Dionysus has emerged as the archetypal ‘Other’—in a culturally normative sense—whose alterity is an inherent function of his identity as a Greek divinity. However, if such abstractions are pushed too far, Dionysus ceases to be the god he was to the Greeks—present in his concrete manifestations, and in the perplexing diversity of his myths, cults, and images—and is reduced to a modern concept.

Bibliography

General

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Bronze Age

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Dionysus in literature

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(Philodamus, Paean to Dionysus =

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Regional Cults and Festivals

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Maenadism

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Mystery Cults and After-Life

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Iconography

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Modern Reception

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