The god of wine and wine-making, passion and fertility, music and dance, Dionysus represented the spontaneous and unrestrained aspects of human experience. Known as Eleutherios (the “liberator”), Dionysus produced euphoric states that freed his followers from both the constraints of society and their own inhibitions. Wherever music inspired dance, wherever wine led to revelry, wherever religion sparked ecstasy, Dionysus was thought to be at work. Though he is often shown with the symbolic grapes or wine, Dionysus’ symbols also include the snake and the phallus.
Dionysus was adapted from religious traditions of non-Greek peoples in the greater Mediterranean world. Though he was recognized as a foreigner thanks to his origins, Dionysus, was still widely worshiped within Greek society. Perhaps better than any other deity of the Olympian pantheon, Dionysus and his status indicate the depths of religious syncretism in ancient Greece. He lived on in the Roman world under the name Bacchus, and aspects of him have survived in other Near East religious as well, including Christianity.
The name Dionysus, written in Linear B a “di-wo-nu-so,” was first recorded on Mycenaean tablets from the twelfth or thirteenth century BC. There is no consensus as to the exact meaning, but most philologists believe the word is rooted in dio-, the possessive form of the name “Zeus.” The latter part of his name may be derived from Mount Nysa, where the infant Dionysus was thought to have been raised by nymphs known as the Nysiads. When put together, “Dionysus” probably meant something like “the Zeus of Nysa” or “of Zeus and Nysa.”1
Like the Egyptian god Osiris, from whom he took inspiration, Dionysus was twice-born. His first mother was Persephone, the daughter of Demeter and consort of Hades, who lived half her life in the Underworld. His second mother was Semele, princess of Thebes and the daughter of the goddess Harmonia and the mortal Cadmus. Though Dionysus had two different mothers, Zeus was his father in both instances.
Dionysus sired children with many women, both mortal and divine. His most productive relationships were with Aphrodite, goddess of sensual love and beauty, and Ariadne, princess of Crete and daughter of the legendary king Minos.
Other notable consorts include Circe, the goddess of magic and charm with whom Dionysus had Comus, a minor deity thought to oversee midnight trysts, and Aura, goddess of the breeze and daughter of Lelantos, with whom he had Iacchus, a god of ritual.
The Two Births of Dionysus
The mythos of Dionysus centers around his two births, though the stories describing those births are written in different traditions and scattered across many centuries. In the broadest telling, the god who would become Dionysus was born to Zeus and Persephone of the Underworld. According to Orphic tradition, Persephone had a child with Zeus, who slipped into the Underworld in the guise of snake.2 Sources referred to this child as Zagreus, and sometimes Liber.
Zagreus would not live long, however. During the Titanomachy, the cataclysmic struggle between the Olympians and the Titans for control of the cosmos, Zagreus was slain by the Titans and chopped into pieces.
According to Latin writer Gaius Julius Hyginus, after Zeus had claimed victory over the Titans, he reassembled the pieces of his lifeless son. Zeus then put Zagreus’ torn heart into a potion and gave to it Semele, a mortal priestess of his cult with whom he had become infatuated. Semele drank the concoction and became pregnant.
When Hera caught wind of the affair, she sought vengeance. She appeared to Semele in the form of an old crone and told the priestess that her lover was secretly the mighty Zeus in disguise. Curious, Semele approached the disguised Zeus and asked him to grant her a wish. Ignorant of Semele’s suspicions, Zeus agreed to grant any wish that was in his power to fulfill, and she asked him to approach her in his true form. Reluctantly, Zeus agreed and Semele immediately perished, for death fell upon any mortal who saw a god or goddess in their true form.
Zeus rescued the child from Semele’s womb and sewed it in his thigh. As Nonnus writes in the Dionysiaca (an epic poem dedicated to mythos of Dionysus):
Zeus the Father received Dionysos after he had broken out of his mother’s fiery lap and leapt through the delivering thunders half-formed; he sewed him in his manly thigh, while he waited upon the light of the moon which was to bring him to birth. Then the hand of Cronides guiding the birth was his own midwife to the sewn-up child, by cutting the labouring threads in his pregnant thigh. So the rounded thigh in labour became female, and the boy too soon born was brought forth, but not in a mother’s way, having passed from a mother’s womb to a father’s. No sooner had he peeped out by this divine delivery, than the childbed Seasons crowned him with an ivy-garland in presage of things to come; they wreathed the horned head of a bullshaped Dionysos with twining horned snakes under the flowers.3
Thus, Dionysus came into the world. Hera despised the child, however, and refused to allow him to live in Olympus. Zeus took action, and entrusted the infant Dionysus to the nymphs and satyrs of Mt. Nysa, a remote mountain beyond the lands of the Hellenes. He also appointed the wizened elder Silenus to tutor the young man. Dionysus’ upbringing in a distance land, his absence from Mt. Olympus, and his status as the only major deity to have a mortal mother all made him a foreigner in the eyes of the gods.
Dionysus, the Frenzied God of Wine
It was on Mt. Olympus that Dionysius first mastered the cultivation of grapevines and the making of wine. Hera rewarded him by striking him with madness and leaving him to wander the mortal world. During his travels, he went to Phrygia and spread wine cultivation to all he encountered.
Unsurprisingly, wine and drunkenness figure prominently in the mythos of Dionysus. In one famous story, Dionysus’ mentor Silenus became inebriated and wandered off, only to find himself in the garden of the great King Midas. The king welcomed Silenus to his court, where he was wined and dined for days. When Midas at last returned Silenus, Dionysus offered him anything his heart desired as a reward. Midas wished that anything he touched would turn to gold; thus, the king acquired his famous Midas touch at the graces of Dionysus.
When all else failed, Dionysus used wine to persuade the unwilling, as he did with Hephaestus. Shortly after Hephaestus’ birth, the blacksmith had been expelled from Mt. Olympus by his own mother, Hera, who was repulsed by his malformed foot (in other versions, his malformed foot was caused by his being hurled from Mt. Olympus). Seeking revenge, Hephaestus devised a trap for his mother: a chair with a hidden mechanism that ensnared Hera when she sat in it. Anxious to free her and restore order among the Olympian deities, the gods sent Dionysus to fetch Hephaestus. When Dionysus found the outcast, they drank wine and made merry. When Hephaestus was good and drunk, Dionysus carried him back to Mt. Olympus on the back of a mule.
Dionysus won his love, Ariadne of Crete, with the help of wine and an intrepid spirit. One day, Dionysus was walking along the shore when he was abducted by pirates, who believed him to be a prince. Biding his time, Dionysus allowed the ship to set sail, only to transform the masts of the vessel into crawling grapevines that dripped with sweet wine, intoxicating the crew. He then transformed himself into a lion and devoured the entire crew save the helmsman, who steered Dionysus to the island of Naxos. There he discovered Ariadne, who had been taken to the island by her abductor, the mortal hero Theseus, after he had slain the Minotaur. Dionysus fell in love with Ariadne immediately and soon married her. When she died, he set her crown into the heavens, creating the Corona constellation in her memory.
Dionysus and Popular Religion
The mythology of Dionysus was formed not only through static myths and stories, but also via the lived religious experiences of his many worshipers in the Greek world and beyond. To worship Dionysus was to experience Dionysus.
Dionysus was one of the most popular of Greek deities, and his cult was observed through a variety of festivals. Among them were the Eleusinian Mysteries, the rituals of decay and renewal held in honor of Persephone and Demeter, and the Dionysia—a festival featuring dramatic performances where participants would indulge in bread and wine and carry wooden phalluses.
Where the cult of the wine god truly thrived, however, was in festivals known as the Bacchic or Dionysian Mysteries (Bacchanalia, in the Roman world). Fueled by wine, music, and dance, the Dionysian Mysteries brought worshipers together in frenzied, orgiastic celebrations that freed them from social inhibitions. Many revelers wore masks to disguise themselves, and it was said that Dionysus himself would often appear among the throngs. Through a combination of heavy intoxication and the throes of religious ecstasy, worshipers would feel the true nature of Dionysus.
Dionysus makes regular appearances throughout pop culture, often alongside the rest of the Olympic pantheon. He has appeared in countless retellings and reimaginings, from Disney’s Hercules to the Hercules and Xena: Warrior Princess television series to Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson & The Olympians books and films. Dionysus is almost always depicted as a wine-besotted pleasure seeker.
Wine is heavily associated with Dionysus, and the god has lent his name to myriad wineries from Greece to Napa Valley.
Nonnus. Dionysiaca. Translated by W. H. D. Rouse. Theoi Classical Texts Library. https://www.theoi.com/Text/NonnusDionysiaca9.html.
Wikipedia contributors. “Dionysus.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dionysus.