God of the Week: Dionysus

God of the Week: 9/28/09: Dionysus


Dionysus was the ancient Greek god of wine and celebration and was given credit for liberating people from the toils of daily life. He was the son of the chief god Zeus and the mortal woman Semele.

Like other gods of vegetation Dionysus was believed to have died a violent death, but to have been brought to life again; and his sufferings, death, and resurrection were enacted in his sacred rites. His tragic story is thus told by the poet Nonnus. Zeus in the form of a serpent visited Persephone, and she bore him Zagreus, that is, Dionysus, a horned infant. Scarcely was he born, when the babe mounted the throne of his father Zeus and mimicked the great god by brandishing the lightning in his tiny hand. But he did not occupy the throne long; for the treacherous Titans, their faces whitened with chalk, attacked him with knives while he was looking at himself in a mirror. For a time he evaded their assaults by turning himself into various shapes, assuming the likeness successively of Zeus and Cronus, of a young man, of a lion, a horse, and a serpent. Finally, in the form of a bull, he was cut to pieces by the murderous knives of his enemies. – Sir James Frazer, The Golden Bough, chapter 43.

The play, the Bacchae was written by Euripides around 400BCE. In the opening scene, Dionysus speaks to the audience, defending his virgin birth:

Lo! I am come to this land of Thebes, Dionysus’ the son of Zeus, of whom on a day Semele, the daughter of Cadmus, was delivered by a flash of lightning. I have put off the god and taken human shape, and so present myself at Dirce’s springs and the waters of Ismenus.

Three day long celebrations in his honor, known as the Bacchanalia, were held in the spring and where originally attended only by women. In later antiquity, however, his worship became the focus of a Grecco-Roman Mystery Religion, open to both genders, but requiring initiation. The celebrations became so notorious for their wild excess and suspicion of political subversion that they were eventually prohibited by the government.

The rites of the Mysteries of Dionysus were far from trivial,though,  and many relied upon them for the future of their souls, including the ancient historian Plutarch:

In a letter to his wife following the death of their young child, Plutarch refers to “mystic symbols of the Dionysiac mysteries” (into which he himself had been initiated). He consoles her with the thought that these symbols mean that their daughter was too innocent to have acquired any stain and will enjoy a happy afterlife
-Earl Doherty, The Mystery Cults and Christianity, Part One: Introduction and Survey of the Cults (referring to Consolatio ad Uxorem by Plutarch, p.611D)

Image of the Temple of Bacchus in Baalbek

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2 Comments on “God of the Week: Dionysus”

  1. Frank Says:

    Please send any info regarding Wine Gods, Italian wine,when ever possible. I collect this type of inf. Great post!

    Regarding Jesus wine consumption; Jesus was a teacher of “Moderation” and in many of this teachings Jesus “Condemned” drunkenness!
    Most Italians, French consume around 12 – 25 oz
    a day and in our family around 12 oz a day with meals. The longevity in our family averages 90 + years in life with NO liver damage!

  2. thematrixq Says:

    Reblogged this on ?verything!.

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