Dionysus: The God of Wine and Revelry
Dionysus, known as Bacchus to the Romans, was the Greek god of the vine. He oversaw all things connected to a good time, from wine itself to the parties it fuelled.
But he was more than just a god of intoxication.
The full story of Dionysus involves war, madness, innovation, and even a trip or two to the underworld.
While the image of Dionysus and his band of drunken followers may seem pleasant enough, there was a dark side to the god of Greece’s favorite drink.
Learning about Dionysus might make you look at wine in a whole new light.
There are many conflicting versions of the birth of Dionysus. Ancient writers were so aware of this that by the 1st century BC they made attempts to condense the many different narratives into one cohesive story.
The result was a confusing series of events that involved the god being born multiple times in different manifestations. Some even believed there had been different gods named Dionysus altogether.
One of the reasons for the confusing narrative was that very few stories of the god’s birth and early years seem to have been written at the time. Relying on oral tradition, the story changed more quickly than those which were more codified.
This could be, at least in part, because Dionysus was one of the oldest deities in the Greek pantheon.
For many years academics took his confusing birth and myths of world travel as evidence of a foreign origin and late acceptance into Greek culture. Several myths even depicted the god having to prove his divinity to doubting mortals or fight to have his cult accepted among the cities of Greece.
Evidence from both mainland Greece and Crete, however, has shown the Dionysus is one of the first Olympian gods to be attested in the region.
His conflicting birth stories aren’t due to foreign roots, but to hundreds of years of oral tradition that led to local variations.
In the Orphic tradition, the first Dionysus had been the son of Zeus and Persephone. This god, however, was torn apart in the war against the Titans.
In one version of the story, Hera was the one who induced the Titans to destroy the young god. She was jealous that Zeus had shown favouritism to a son that was not hers, even going so far as to consider making him his heir.
Saddened by the loss of a son, Zeus gathered up the pieces of the first Dionysus’ heart. These he put into a drink that he gave to Semele, the mortal daughter of the king of Thebes, causing her to become pregnant with the new Dionysus.
In another version of the story, Zeus did not trick Semele. He came to her in the shape of a giant eagle many times and she became pregnant naturally.
The goddess appeared before the young woman in disguise and planted doubt in her mind about Zeus’s love.
Semele asked Zeus if he would grant her any wish, and he swore a sacred oath to do anything to please her. She asked him to reveal himself in his full divine glory.
Zeus knew that no human could look at him in full power and survive, but his oath prevented him from denying her request. He tried to show her only the slightest glimpse of his power, but it was still too much.
Semele was struck by a lightning bolt and killed.
As the young woman was burned by lightning-induced flames, Zeus acted quickly to save the child she carried. He cut the baby Dionysus out of her but, knowing the baby was still too small to survive, sewed him into his own thigh.
Several months later, Dionysus was born from his father’s leg. This earned him the title of Twice-Born.
Zeus gave the baby to Semele’s sister Ino and her husband Melicertes. They attempted to hide the child from Hera by bringing him up as a girl.
Hera still found them, however, and drove the couple mad. They killed each other in a frenzy and once again the young Dionysus was saved by his father.
This time, Zeus hid him far away from humankind. He entrusted the child god to Silenus and the Hyades, a group of rain nymphs who resided far from Greece.
The nymphs kept him safe. According to some sources, the god was later associated with ivy because his caretakers used the vines to hide his cradle from view when Hera came looking for him.
Dionysus had an unusual education growing up in the wild. He learned dances and rituals from the wise centaur Chiron and philosophy from Silenus.
As he grew, Dionysus began to explore. It was during this time that he made his most important discovery.
Fascinated by vines and fruits from his childhood with the nymphs, Dionysus began to study them. This is how he discovered wine.
In some tales he had help from his friend and lover, the satyr Ampelus. When Ampelus was killed, the fate of all young lovers of the gods, he was transformed into the vine that Dionysus used to make the first wine.
After discovering how to make wine, Dionysus became a very popular god. Unfortunately, this new-found fame drew the attention of Hera.
Finally finding the young god she had sought for so long, Hera struck him with madness as she had his aunt and uncle. His mind shrouded, the wandered the world in a daze.
The one thing he remembered was how to make wine. He introduced his craft to Egypt, Syria, and Italy.
Eventually, he came upon the goddess Rhea who was able to nurse him back to health and sanity.
Zeus was unhappy that his son had suffered, but pleased when he saw how winemaking had spread throughout the world. As people enjoyed the alcoholic drink they toasted to the gods and poured libations for them.
There was one part of the world Dionysus had not reached in his madness, and thus one place that the gods of Olympus got no recognition. He ordered Dionysus to go to India to spread his knowledge of both wine and Olympus.
The Dionysiaca, written sometime between the 1st century BC and the 1st century AD, tells the story of the war Dionysus waged in India. Most historians, even in antiquity, believed this tale was a later addition to the mythology to incorporate new knowledge of the world.
Dionysus approached the people of India, but they refused to worship the Greek gods. Worse, in his mind, they refused to try his wine.
Dionysus assembled a makeshift army to march on the unresponsive Indians. It was made up mostly of his followers, satyrs and nymphs, and had the air of a party as much as a march to war.
Luckily for the war effort, the other gods were able to rally a more effective army than the wine god’s drunken devotees.
The one goddess that did not take their side, as usual, was Hera. Still motivated by the jealousy she felt toward Zeus’s lovers and their children, she aided the Indians against the invading Greek gods.
The first battle of the war was a disaster for the defending Indian army. At the sight of the bloodshed, however, Dionysus was moved to pity.
He turned the waters of a nearby lake to wine. Thus, the Indians finally tried his intoxicating drink and were soon passed out around their campfires.
Pushing further into India, the Greeks encountered the next contingent of native soldiers. Relishing the fight this time, Dionysus turned the battle in his army’s favor and won once again.
The army later turned toward Arabia, where Dionysus was almost defeated. The battle turned ugly and Zeus had to step in to calm both sides before Dionysus set the lands on fire.
Dionysus continued his campaign of conquest, taking six years to reach the Indus Valley. Aided by Rhea and Athena, Dionysus again defeated the Indian forces.
The story continues, culminating in a battle between the gods themselves. After years of warfare, and the machinations of Hera, the gods of Olympus had worked themselves into a full-blown war.
Meanwhile on Earth, Dionysus won the battle there in an epic sea battle.
This unusual story shows Dionysus in a much different light than one would expect from the god of wine. While he intoxicates his foes and has affairs with several nymphs along the way, the Dionysiaca seems out of character in showing him as a leader in war.
Written much later than the majority of Greco-Roman mythology, the story seems to conflate the god with the historical Alexander the Great, the Macedonian ruler who conquered the same lands.
Unlike Alexander, however, Dionysus didn’t wage war just to conquer. He waged war to give the people wine.
The Dionysiaca ended abruptly, so much so that historians generally agree it was left unfinished. Among its last scenes, though, the story returns to subjects that would have been more familiar to the Greek people who lived before Alexander’s conquests.
One of the final chapters in the Dionysiaca concerns the marriage of Dionysus.
The god’s wife was Ariadne, who was born a mortal princess. The daughter of King Minos of Crete, she had spent her entire life on that island.
Ariadne’s story is far older than the epic tale of her future husband’s Indian war. The legend of her involvement with the hero Theseus and the Minotaur dates back at least a thousand years before the earliest Greek poems were written down.
Her mother had, through the work of Poseidon and Eros, fallen in love with a mad bull. She had born the animal’s child, the monstrous Minotaur.
The creature was imprisoned in the great Labyrinth beneath the palace of Knossos for many years. Minos demanded the people of Athens send a tribute of young men and women to feed to the flesh-eating beast.
When the time came for the third such sacrifice, the Athenian king’s son volunteered to take the place of one of the tributes so he could attempt to kill the monster. The moment Ariadne saw Theseus she fell madly in love.
The young princess helped the hero in his quest. She told him everything she knew about the maze-like Labyrinth and gave him a spool of thread.
When Theseus face the Minotaur, he was able to find his way out of the prison by following the thread he had unwound behind him.
Once the monster was dead, Theseus set sail to return to his father’s city. He took the princess with him, promising her his love and devotion.
There are a few versions of what happened to the pair when they stopped for a rest on the island of Naxos.
In one, Theseus simply abandoned Ariadne when she fell asleep there.
Another, more gentle version of the myth says that Theseus was visited by one of the gods, either Dionysus or Athena, as his would-be bride slept. He was told that Dionysus had already chosen her to be his wife.
Under these circumstances, Theseus had no choice but to leave her for the god.
Either way, Dionysus found Ariadne asleep on the island of Naxos. He made her his wife in a celebration worthy of the god of revelry.
Naxos, girt by the Aegean sea, gave him [Dionysos] in marriage a deserted maiden [Ariadne], compensating her loss with a better husband. Out of the dry rock there gushed Nyctelian liquor [i.e. wine]; babbling rivulets divided the grassy meadows; deep the earth drank in the sweet juices … The new-made bride is led to the lofty heavens; Phoebus [Apollon] a stately anthem sings, with his locks flowing down his shoulders, and twin Cupides [Erotes] brandish their torches. Jupiter [Zeus] lays aside his fiery weapons and, when Bacchus comes, abhors his thunderbolt.
-Seneca, Oedipus 487 ff (trans. Miller)
Among the gifts the god gave his new bride was a beautiful crown, later placed in the heavens as the constellation Corona.
Ariadne was taken to Olympus to sit beside her husband as a goddess.
The god’s love life was not always so romantic, though.
The Titaness Aura was a close follower of Artemis and, as such, had taken a vow of chastity. When she offended her goddess, however, Artemis and Nemesis came up with a particularly cruel punishment.
They asked Eros to target Dionysus with one of his arrows, causing the god to fall madly in love with the unsuspecting Titaness. Overcome with desire, he got the Titaness drunk and shared her bed.
When she awoke, Aura did not know who had broken her oath of virginity. Driven mad, she set out to kill every man she came across.
A short time later, Aura realized she had become pregnant. When she gave birth to twin boys, she wanted nothing to do with them.
The insane Titaness attempted to feed the newborns to a lioness, but the animal refused. Having completely lost her mind, Aura began to eat the children herself.
Horrified by the consequences of her revenge, Artemis raced to save the twins. She was only able to rescue one of the children, though.
As an act of mercy to end her suffering, the gods turned Aura into a stream. Dionysus’ surviving son, Iacchus, was raised among the Olympians and became a minor god of the Eleusinian Mystery cult.
When Ariadne married Dionysus she joined a company of beings that were associated with him.
The Bacchides, his sons with Ariadne, were each given an island. They made these regions rich centres of wine production, thereby making them also favorite haunts of their father and his revellers.
Wherever he went, the god attracted both human and divine followers.
His human devotees were called Maenads, or Bacchantes in Rome. They eventually replaced the nymphs as the majority of his mob of followers.
Fuelled by alcohol, the Maenads would work themselves into a frenzy during his festivals.
Together, this retinue was called the Thiasus. The greatest gathering was on the god’s return from Greece, which marked the first of the triumphal processions that would become famous in the Roman Empire.
Among the members of his retinue were:
- Acoetes – In his travels, Dionysus was once captured by a crew of pirates. Acoetes was the only one who recognized the god’s divinity, so he was the only one who wasn’t transformed into a dolphin. He became a devoted follower of Dionysus.
- The Hyades – The five nymphs who nursed him as a child became his followers later in life. He had the witch Medea extend their lives before placing them in the stars.
- Silenus – The tutor of the young Dionysus, he was the god’s lifelong friend. When intoxicated, he gained the ability to make prophecies.
- Orpheus – The famed musician was a close companion of Dionysus. When he was killed by frenzied Maenids, the god turned the women into trees as punishment.
- Midas – The mythical king was a loyal follower of the god, who gifted him with his golden touch.
- Pan – The amorous goat-footed god often drank and played his pipes in Dionysian processions.
- Aristaios – A brother of Semele, he joined the host of Dionysus and was made immortal.
- Satyroi – Dionysus was almost always portrayed in the company of a host of satyrs. In his Indian war they formed the bulk of his army.
- Heracles – The hero was not a follower of Dionysus, but was forced to join his troupe for a time after losing a bet. The embarrassing scene was popular art.
In Roman images of Bacchus, Silenus often plays a more prominent role than he did in Greece. The older god, usually shown with the ears of a horse, was usually depicted as so obviously drunk that he could not stand on his own.
Often, he was shown riding a donkey. A rotund and jolly figure in these scenes, he became a symbol of the joys of excess under the bacchic influence.
Like the satyroi and panes, Silenus was shown as the leader of a race of sileni who danced and played around the nymphs and mortal women who followed the god’s procession.
The god himself rode in the middle of the mob on his golden chariot. It was usually pulled by exotic animals like tigers or leopards that reflected his journeys to foreign locales.
This exoticism was emphasized by the god’s clothing. He was often draped with the skin of a tiger or other animal foreign to the average Greek.
It wasn’t all dancing and laughter, though. The god’s revels could sometimes take a dark turn.
The first followers to celebrate a festival to Dionysus in Thebes were arrested for their licentious behavior. At their request, Dionysus transformed them into leopards so they could tear the king who ordered their captivity apart.
One of the attacking women was the king’s own mother, Agave, who didn’t recognize her son as she helped to kill him.
The Maenids were known to become violent and unruly under the influence of their god and his wine.
A story from Corinth said they slaughtered a man who tried to spy on their revels. In another legend, a Thracian king who tried to expel the Thiasus from his lands was driven mad and killed his own family with an ax.
Dionysia, as his rites came to be called (Bacchanalia in Rome), were often associated with bloody animal sacrifices, sexual promiscuity, and feats of inhuman strength.
While the god was widely honored by the wine-loving Greeks, the arrival of his retinue often meant destruction and chaos.
These frenzied rites became synonymous with the worship of Dionysus, but they were not the only way in which the Greeks revered the god of the vine.
In many places, Dionysus shared a shrine with Apollo. The god of festivities and the god of music were natural partners in celebrating the joys of social life and the myths often showed them as having a close bond of friendship.
This was the case in Athens, where ancient writers described many shrines dedicated to the god, both on his own and with Apollo. During an annual festival in his honor, it was said the whole city indulged and became drunk, drawing spectators from throughout Greece.
Even when not renowned for their riotousness, festivals to Dionysus were marked by fun and entertainment. In the town of Hermione, for example, he was honored every year with music contests and boat races.
Even the stern Spartans worshipped Dionysus in their own way. While drunken abandon was not acceptable to them, they marked his feasts with footraces.
These races and other rites of Dionysus in Sparta were restricted only to women. This was common across Greece, where women made up the majority of his devotees and cult members.
Herodotus claimed that Dionysus was one of the only gods that was worshipped in the barbaric lands of Thrace, alongside Artemis and Ares.
In cities and towns throughout the Greek world, Dionysus came to be associated with society’s misfits and castaways. Anyone who didn’t fit in or have a place in the social order was welcomed to join his followers.
With this association came a link to all things that were dangerous, chaotic, or outside the norm. This could be fun in times of celebration and festivities, but in day to day life the Greeks, like many cultures, saw such deviance as suspicious and dangerous.
As much as Dionysus was associated with revelry and the loss of inhibitions, he was also linked to much darker ideas.
The god of wine was also a god of death.
One of the god’s epithets was Chthonios, relating to the world below. This title is typically used for beings associated with death and the underworld, including Hades.
In the stories of Dionysus, he made at least one trip to the underworld. When he had grown to adulthood, he travelled to the realm of his uncle Hades in search of the mother who had died before he was born.
According to one tradition, Heracles held back the hell hound Cerberus so Dionysus could pass. He brought his mother out of the land of the dead near Lake Lerna.
In another version, he was guided by Prosymnus, a young shepherd who lived near the lake. The mortal boy was in love with the god and asked to become his lover as a reward for his service.
Unfortunately, Prosymnus died before Dionysus could repay him.
Dionysus was successful in fetching Semele out of the underworld, however, and he raised her to godhood and immortality. In doing so, he became one of the few even among the gods who walked freely in Hades’ realm.
Other myths imply that he made this trip more than once for a woman he loved.
In some legends, Ariadne did not become a goddess as soon as she married Dionysus. She eventually grew old and passed away.
However, she was later revered as a goddess, meaning she must have been taken out of the underworld at some point. While no stories survive that fill in the missing resurrection of Ariadne, the story may be similar to that of Semele.
Some historians believe that Dionysus, Zeus, and Hades were part of a tripartite god. They were three aspects of the same being and, as such, often interchangeable.
Ariadne and Persephone, too, were seen as similar enough to be linked. In some traditions Dionysus never married the Cretan princess at all and was instead linked to Hades’ wife.
There is evidence that a link between Dionysus and Hades was recognized in the mystery cults. He became a prominent figure in the Eleusian Mysteries, for example, which were typically devoted to underworld beings like Persephone.
The Maenids in their frenzy felt this connection to death. Their goal in the drunken revelry of Dionysus was to become so detached from the physical world that they could catch a glimpse of the next life.
In some places, his shrines were shared with chthonic deities like Hecate, Persephone, and Nix.
The birth story of Dionysus also links him to ideas of death. The interpretation of the death and dismemberment of an earlier Dionysus made him a god of resurrection.
The Greeks themselves recognized this when they compared him to the Egyptian god Osirus who was known, not for wine or dancing, but for his rebirth after dismemberment.
When we think of Dionysus, the first image that comes to mind is that of his cadre of followers and Maenads. The frenzied women and lustful satyrs are as closely linked to his image as the ivy and grapevines that typically grew up around them.
It’s easy to associate the god of wine and revels with a fun, party-like atmosphere.
But Dionysus also represented the dangers of excess.
He was a god of frenzy and madness. The pleasures he induced often led to pain and suffering.
The god of wine could also be a god of death.
The Greeks revered Dionysus. Wine was an important part of Mediterranean culture and occasional overindulgence was considered one of life’s great pleasures.
But within that philosophy was a recognition that too much devotion to Dionysus could be dangerous. The Maenads lost themselves in the madness of his revels and his festivals could turn entire cities upside down.
Dionysus was a favorite god of the ancient Greeks, but he was also one to be treated with caution.