As a livelihood I produce classical themed artwork in public, most of these pieces have a Dionysian element to them which therefore encourages strangers to talk to me about Dionysos. This is an interesting position to be in as it gives me an idea of how much common people know of the gods, especially the one I love.
It is not uncommon for people to express their revulsion at the idea of him being the god of wine. Calling him a hedonistic god, a god of orgies and sex. I acknowledge that these aspects are very much in his realm, but also express that he has a far greater meaning than those three features. It’s an all too common misconception of Dionysos and one that devalues his place within the Pantheon of Greeks.
What’s more, it’s not uncommon for this misunderstanding to be found within the “pagan” community. A group of people one would hope to know better. Yet it happens.
Much of the demonising of Dionysos comes from cultures that maintained strict prudery (Romans) and later Christians that took every opportunity to make Dionysos as a god of excess.
Dionysos is a god of many things, some of which does involve drinking, parting and sex. But also he is the god of death, a god of life, nature, theatre and art, mysteries and refinement of our souls. He is a god of madness and a god that heals, he is many things other than what the common idea of him.
Whenever I discuss the cult of Dionysos I always add a plural, cults. There is no one authoritative singularity of the expressions of Dionysos. Throughout history people have viewed multiple identities of the god, even at the same time and place. For example there are references of two temples being side by side both dedicated to Dionysos, each dedicated to a specific aspect of Dionysos. Each with their own cultus, methods of worship, taboos, decorum and practice, yet they worshipped the same god. This is just one example in one city with differing cults. Imagine that across the entire Hellenic world.
Athens is often the default location to look at for Hellenic polytheists, but as we look outwards from there we see regional differences. In the barbaric north of Thracia and Macedonia the Dionysian expression is much more wild: involving hunts and practices which can be related to shamanism. To the west in Magna Graecia, the “Mecca” of Dionysos, the god plays a prominent role in everyday life with a emphasis on the deathly side of Dionysos. His place in this land is so strong that much of the artwork from there was dedicated to him.
This is a trait found within liberal polytheist cultures. When we look at monotheistic religions there is an orthodoxy in practice, only *one* legit way to honour and view god. Yet, when with the Greeks they allowed open interpretations of practice, this is usually regarded as the difference between orthodoxy and orthopraxis.
This environment invites regional cults and differing belief systems.
As a specific difference in cultic identities the most obvious in the Orphic religion. A belief system that claims to be derived from the hero, Orpheus. Even within Orphism there are variants that range from location and teacher. I’ve been studying this unique aspect of Hellenic religion for a long time now (5 years?) and even after all this research I cannot illustrate an absolute “common core” of their beliefs. In general, however, it is believed that that soul has a divine component which needs to be ‘unlocked’ to rest eternally in bliss. Most of the time this divine aspect is Dionysian in nature.
Co-existing with the Orphics is the Dionysian Artists, this was a sacred guild based in Athens but spread throughout the Hellenic world, including Egypt and Italy. I’ve written extensively on this guild and continue to do so. The identity that this guild mostly dealt with was the God of the Theatre.
So when examining ancient Hellenic culture it is key to keep in mind that the way people viewed the gods varied on circumstance, even in the same location and amongst the same people.
I hope it does not come as a shock that Dionysos has a complex and often confusing family tree. I’ve divided this into three tales:
Standard myth: has him the son of Zeus and Semele, daughter of the founder of Thebes, Cadmus (his grandfather) and Harmonia (his grandmother). If we look back through Cadmus’ family tree Zeus is something like Dionysos’ great, great, great, great grandfather via Io. Zeus is also his great grandfather on Dionysos’ grandmother’s family side. And as a technicality Zeus is his father and mother… is your mind twisted yet?
If we regard Orphic mythology: the Olympian Dionysos is a second incarnation. His first incarnation is known as Zagreus-Dionysos, the son of Persephone and Zeus.
Zagreus is a supreme deity that Zeus concedes the throne to his son, thus giving Zagreus the universe as a mere babe. As is typical in myth: Hera is jealous, and employs the Titans to kill Zagreus. The Titans play with the child with toys, eventually presenting Zagreus with a mirror. The reflected splendour of Zagreus entrances the god himself, giving the Titians an opportunity to pounce on him; killing the child and eating him.
Upon smelling the foul odour of his son being cooked Zeus discovers the crime of the Titans and smites them to ashes (From which humanity rise from the ashes, part evil Titan and part divine Zagreus-Dionysos). Zeus saves the essence of Dionysos (his heart, soul or phallus) and impregnates Semele, therefore giving birth to Dionysos we know now.
If we want it take it further into the odd we can look at speculated myth: (What follows should not be treated as acceptable myth. There a few ancient sources to supports this, but not in a linear fashion I present it.)
In vague references Zagreus is the second incarnation, the last being the third. The first and most pure is Phanes, the first god of the cosmos. Zeus either eats Phanes or engages in cosmic fulicio… (that is not a joke) …. whatever the case, Zeus absorbs the supremacy of Phanes and passes this to his children. In some cases this can be Dionysos and Athena. (Thereby making them divine twins?)
This is source of Zagreus’ supremacy. Continue on with the the myth above.
These tales of back and forth death and rebirth, “refinement”, are typically regarded as the farming of vine and the process required to create drinkable wine. (As already mentioned in previous posts).
Immortalised in play by Euripides, The Bacchae is my favourite mythological tale of Dionysos: it tells of Dionysos’ return to his birthplace Thebes:
The common people and some nobles follow Dionysos. However the young king of Thebes (and the cousin to Dionysos), Pentheus, rejects the divinity of new god and quite literally has a hissy fit that his family and friends are honouring the “supposed” god and ignoring him.
Dionysos enters the city in which Pentheus thinks him only a priest, not a god. Pentheus confronts Dionysos and the two engage in a debate. Dionysos pleads to the king to concede to his divine argument and gives him a fair warning about the hubris being committed against the godly family member, but Pentheus does not listen, in fact he takes it to the next step and imprisons Dionysos.
Thus invoking the wraith of Dionysos.
Dionysos destroys the Theban palace (scaring the crap out of everyone). Somewhere between then (I’m doing verbatim here!) a herder appears informing Pentheus of the marvels of the Maenads, their powers and witnessing miracles.
Dionysos emerges from his prison as the great god, intoxicating the king, he convinces the Pentheus to dress as a maenad in order to spy upon the women. He then leads the king into the woods. Pentheus climbs a pine tree to view upon the mysteries of the women – only to have his disguise transmuted into a lion by Dionysos who then informs the mad women of the intruder. Thinking the king a lion, the frenzied women hunt and kill Pentheus, tearing him limb from limb.
The maenads, which include Pentheus’ mother and other female family members, enter the city with their trophy, proud of their hunt. To then realise from the shock and horror of others that the lion is their king, son and brother…
What follows is the exile of the royal family. Their neglect and crimes against the king is unforgivable.
The Bacchae is one of the most usual and violent plays in the Greek tragic cycles. It is also one of the most important tales to Dionysians. At face value it is easy to think this play is simply about the pride and hubris committed by a tyrant king. But with analysis it is apparent that Pentheus is the victim of his own family’s neglect. His family do not take the him seriously and refuse to counsel and teach him of his hubris, instead they only offering vague warnings before abandoning him to his own demise. Dionysos therefore is an agent, a force of nature. In the process of the debate between king and god and further with Pentheus’ intoxication and the manner of his death Pentheus is initiated into the Dionysian cult. Pentheus becomes Dionysos, the two merge into one as the Pharmakos, the sacrifice, which teaches the ills of the citizens of Thebes.
His death, as horrific as it is, is a blessing and cathartic. This is exemplified in later pottery where Pentheus stands amongst the Blessed Dead as a Dionysian hero.
Compared to other Greek gods, who’s wraith typically involve smiting – death and eternal punishment in Tartarus – a quality of Dionysos is that he converts his victims. His enemies become him, he forgives them and teaches them of their ills. He is also an indirect god in his wraith, he is the agent of his foes demise and thus works through others, the effect of his wraith is contagious to those that are influenced by him as they also learn of their own ills.
Dionysos has many symbols associated with him, I have divided these into categories for ease of use.
One of Dionysos’ major symbol is the grape vine. It symbolically represents his association with life. In terms of humours it is regarded as the hot plant. As the grape vine is a cultivated plant it requires constant maintenance for it to bear fruit. Meaning that the community had to care for it. After season it is, as a necessity, killed (i.e. pruned back for winter), the labours of its fruit turned into wine (which continues to be a community intensive work and symbolic life / death process.)
The differing stages of the grape vine symbolically represent Dionysos’ death and rebirth process.
The second major plant symbol of Dionysos is the Ivy, the counterpart of the grape vine. It represents his association with death, completing the dualistic nature of Dionysos. In humours it is cold, this is why drinkers of wine would wear ivy on their head, it was to level out their humours. As the grape vine represents life with its tasty fruit, ivy represents death with its poison fruit. The common ivy also bears fruit in winter as oppose to the grape (summer). In addition Ivy does not die back in any season, it continues to wildly grow spreading out it’s tendrils, whereas the grapevine requires support and tender care.
Fig and Apple tree
Dionysos is known to have discovered both the fig and apple tree, both being sacred to him. The fig is his most beloved fruit next to grape. He was worshipped as Dionysos Sykites (of the fig) and Meilikhios (Gentle) due to the gentle nature of the fruit. Figs were popular fruit in classical times and made up a stable diet and also there is sexual connotations in classical and Roman vulgarity they give appear like the anus, “fig fucker” and “giving the fig” being insults for “up the arse”. This is due to dried figs (and fresh figs cut in half) looking similar to the human anus.
In some mystery traditions the apple is one of Dionysos’ childhood toys.
The evergreen nature of the Pine has a strong connection to the everlasting, immortal life. Another concept that is important to Dionysos known as: Zoë. The symbolism continues today with the Christmas tree, potentially a remnant of the Dionysian cultic expression adopted by Christians.
The pine cone too is extremely sacred, see below.
A note: the pine tree is a feature in the death of Pentheus (more of this will come in following posts.)
Specifically the Ferula communis is another sacred plant. It is used as the support for Dionysos wand called a thyrsos, however he is featured in pottery simply holding the blooming fennel flowers. It may be symbolic of the phallus.
Thyrsos and Pine Cone
The Thyrsos is a staff carried by Dionysos and his followers, it is usually constructed as a long fennel shaft, with a pinecone atop and red and white ribbons. When wielded by a maenad it has to ability to create honey and milk from the earth and bring about springs of wine. It can raise the dead and also kill, again with the dualism of Dionysos.
The Thyrsos is usually broken up into symbols:
-The fennel shaft being the phallus.
-The pine cone is the head of the penis, it’s seamen being honey and bearing pine seeds.
-The two ribbons can be regarded as the liquids of life, seamen and blood.
As a god of nature and fertility the phallic symbolism of Dionysos is very strong. His earliest representations of him being a tree or a pole. The phallus is very easy to understand… a rod that produces life. During Dionysian processions it was often accompanied with a giant phallus that was carried around by men. This phallic procession would move out into the countryside blessing the farmland with fertility and regrowth.
The cup is commonly regarded as the counterpart of the phallus, it is a container that holds the liquids of life. As a vessel is sometimes connected with the vagina and female reproductive system. Cups were often decorated with Dionysian scenes and dedicated as votive offerings.
Masks and Eyes
Mask are perhaps the oldest known images of Dionysos, therefore he is god of masks. This establishes his connection to the theatre and mystic performance. Masks act as barriers in reality, living idols, a paradox of an inanimate object that is made animated by its living host – which by the nature of donning a mask is disconnected from reality. Only the actors eyes can be seen behind the mask.
Eyes hold a special purpose to Dionysos as a symbol that confronts. As a apotropaic (evil averting) his eyes hold special symbolism. This is especially noted when examine pottery, Dionysos is quite famous for confronting the viewer, as exemplified in the Francois vase where he is the only god looking at the viewer, and other examples where even in profile his eyes are prominent compared to other deities around him.
It should be noted that this is not exactly ancient in source, but the number 7 is thought to be sacred to Dionysos.
It comes several references related to Dionysos:
– The seven Pleiades were nurses to Dionysos.
– The Corona Borealis (Crown of Ariadne) was given to Ariadne as wedding gift by Dionysos. (seven stars)
– The seven youths and maidens given to the minotaur, (Dionysos is strongly connected to the minotaur, AKA the Starry Bull.)
– When Dionysos is dismembered and eaten by the Titans he is cut into seven portions, legs, arms, torso, head and penis.
Colours and Metal
Purple: a colour associated with priests, royalty and wine. It was commonly worn by high ranking members of the Artists of Dionysos.
Red, Black and White: Orphic colours with many symbolic purposes. More info here.
Gold: A metal famous for its purity, value and sacredness it was commonly worn by Dionysian priests and Artists of Dionysos. The myth of Midas associates Dionysos with gold.
Dionysos is god of all natural liquids, often categorised as all still fluid in nature. (That said, he has a strong relationship with the sea and some lakes.)
As with the grape vine, wine represents the life cycle of Dionysos. To make it the grape must die. It also requires a communal collaboration, dedication and patience. Wine is often thought of as the blood of Dionysos, the liquid of life and death
Dionysos discovers honey in myth. With deep connections with early prehistoric man. It is possible that he was a mead god before being a wine god. More info on this topic can be found in my writings. His Thyrsos is said to drip honey.
A life giving liquid, especially to babes. It is often connected with Dionysos. Milk too plays an important part in the Orphic mysteries and practice – where it was thought to be the only liquid to clean ritual tools. Also the saying: theos egenoy ex anthroopoy, eriphos es gala epetes – you have become god from man, lamb you fell into milk.
Water (Swamp water, the Sea)
He is known to be god of swamps and marshes. Some of the most organic and thriving environments of life.
Dionysos has strong connections to the sea, he uses it as a refuge and hiding place. Also he is often depicted in both pottery and festivals on a boat. The concept of a float during civic parades is Dionysian in origin.
Big cats: Leopards, lions and tigers
Lions illustrate a connection to the Rhea cult, Rhea being one of the few gods to aid Dionysos in his madness. Leopards and tigers being exotic animals illustrate his foreign nature and connection to the east and India.
Dionysos is a bull god, he has strong links with the Minotaur (Starry Bull) and also he turns into a bull in which form he is killed by the Titans and consumed. The bull is symbolic of his sacrifice and therefore his flesh (as like wine being his blood). The bull is a creature of considerable strength, power and fertility. It is also the victim to be killed and consumed. It’s death supporting the longevity of the community.
Snakes are sacred animals to many gods, they are dangerous, beautiful, alien, odd and cold animals. They are symbolic of living death, undead by their very nature. The snake is legless, yet quick and powerful creatures. They hold mysteries and educate Dionysians their power of reincarnation through shedding their skin. They taught Dionysos how to make wine in myth.
Griffons are common mounts for many gods, they often symbolise the sun and gold. In the case of Dionysos can be symbolic by their dual nature being part bird, part large cat. Part in flight, part grounded on earth.
The sacred mountain of Nysa is the home of Dionysos, the land that hid him from the agents of his step mother Hera. Nysa sits between the realms of reality and myth, existing in its own mythscape. Throughout history people have sort Nysa, especially Alexander, seeking out the sacred grove that protected the great god.
One of the first triumphal acts of Dionysos is conquering India, since it has been his land. India represents Dionysos’ exotic nature the land that is strange compared to what it known in ancient Greece.
Dionysos is famous for his few temples. However as a god of nature his temple is all around us. The theatre is a symbol of Dionysian expression, a place that is open to nature, but also built by man. It is set into a hill with carved seating and a theatrical circle, yet also exposed to the sky. The theatre is therefore a symbol of duality, nature and cultivation, in and out.
In some regards I was fortunate to be raised in a religiously liberal family. All members being agnostic with a New Age / Mystic streak. It was not unusual for us to attend New Age festivals, have “crystal parties”, we even had a family psychic / medium who was a close family friend.
My sister is a practising “Neo-Shaman”, “Earth worker” and “Light Worker”. She performs various rituals: “healing nature and correcting vibration energy that has been imbalanced by the wrongs of mankind”.
My mother is very causal, she has a shrine dedicated to Ganesh in her house and an ancestor shrine – she is naturalistic in her ‘practice’, I don’t even think she is aware of what she is has done – this makes it all the more beautiful.
Being raised in this environment was something I’m grateful for, but resulted in feeling “empty”. I have always been curious about religion and begun seeking something when I was very young. At around age fifteen I looked into several religions, including Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Wicca, Druids, Heathenry – none really clicked. Something I always found myself drawn towards was Greek mythology, the stories, the gods, the heroes inspired me. I would skip school and just read Greek myths all day until my mother came home from work where I would dress in my school uniform and pretend I went to school. This was when I first became aware of Dionysos and begun my devotion to Hellenic Gods. Throughout my teenage years I did this, reading Greek myths, history, cultic practices – despite my low attendance grades at school, my history teacher was impressed by my knowledge of history. At this time Hypnos, Nyx, Morpheus and Hermes were the first gods I was dedicated towards.
After high-school I focused on my artistic inclinations and went to arts school, at this time I became more connected with Hermes, Hephaestus, Athena and Apollon. These four “patrons” being the core of my practice.
In art school I meet my life partner and we made plans for when we finished school, establishing a business call Hephaestian Studios: making and selling statues dedicated to the Greek gods. After two years we decided to close business and downgrade our work to making art on the streets of Melbourne for free, moving into the city. Another two years we decided to go the next step, throw out our belongings and go homeless. Travelling around Australia making art.
This is when Dionysos entered my life.
I cannot put an exact date when it happened, but it was the around the end of 2011 to 2012, I experienced a number of epiphanies from Dionysos. He has been a massive part of my life ever since.
Today marks a year since my initiation by formal ritual (22nd of October 2015). As such I thought I’d celebrate this with the 30 days of devotion challenge. This will be dedicated to Dionysos. Most of this writing will be deliberately written as a brief, only exploring basic concepts. I hope turns out as a basic and helpful resource for new comers.
A basic introduction to Dionysos
Dionysos was and still is a popular god, most famously known as the god of wine, but he has many other important attributes. Our first archaeological proof of his name comes from linear-B clay tablets found in Pylos, dating his existence (in terms of proof) to 1200BCE. Dionysian cultic expressions, such as ambiguous artefacts that share similar themes, go far back further into history, meaning it is more than possible that his cult existence is much older, potentially running far into pre-history.
In terms of linguistics his name is very unusual, “Dios” is usually regarded as Zeus/God, the “nysos” part being linguistically mysterious in origin. Both ancient and modern scholars have attempted to find its meaning, the most accepted being God of Mount Nysa – the mountain where Dionysos was raised and protected as an infant. The others meanings being: Dios Nous – Mind of Zeus. Diemai nũsa – he who runs amongst tree. Nonnos claims that it means Zeus-Limp, the Nysos meaning limping in Syracusan language. (Source: Ecstatic by H. Jeremiah Lewis)
By the classical period of Athens, Dionysos was well established as the god we know today, the god of wine, theatre, mystery, nature and ecstasy. There were two major festivals dedicated to him one being: Lenaia (celebrated between January to February) and Anthesteria (February to March; dates depends on the lunar cycle). Lenaia being a private civic festival celebrated by woman and comedic plays, Anthesteria being a public festival lasting three days, including massive theatrical performances, games, pomp / parades, public mockery, drunkenness and fun, coming of age ceremonies and finally a day of the dead. After Anthesteria in Athens the Dionysia spread throughout Greece with traveling performers dedicating plays and inviting celebrations to the far reaches of the Hellenic world.
There is always a misunderstanding of Dionysos, he is often considered the god of excess, sexual promiscuously, god of hedonism… but Dionysos is a god of duality. The God that confronts. As equal to his celebratory nature is his death (chthonic) connection. This expression of Dionysos is found in his mysteries and funerals. Many Dionysian artefacts, such as pottery, sarcophagus, votive icons etc., originate from funeral sites. In fact, a large sum of what we know of Dionysos and his cult originates from tombs and grave monuments. A god of life and a god of death.
The Dionysos of the afterlife became popular especially with the unusual Orphic cult that sometimes see Dionysos as a saviour of souls. Being initiated into this cult granted passage to blissful death, the end of the grievous cycle of reincarnation.
Dionysos is also a god of nature and agriculture. He has strong connections to earth including seasons. He is a god of trees, plants and fruits.
As I’m attempting to keep this brief I will discuss one final major aspect of Dionysos as being the god of Ecstasy. This is perhaps the eldest expression of Dionysos, (I suspect it having to do with what we now call Shamanism.) Dionysos is the god of Epiphany, The God that Comes, he does this through ecstatic performance of man. If it be through intoxication via substances, dance, music or performance. He manifests and blurs the lines of reality inviting us into the divine through his ecstatic presence. He breaks down the inhibitions and logic that hinder our potential and opens the world to us. This gift he grants to all humanity, regardless of who you are.