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.