The god of wine and winemaking, 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.
Dionysus was adapted from religious traditions of non-Greek peoples in the greater Mediterranean world. Though he was recognized as a foreigner, Dionysus was still widely worshipped within Greek society. Perhaps more than any other deity of the Olympian pantheon, Dionysus reflected the extensive blending of different religious traditions in ancient Greece. He lived on in the Roman world under the name Bacchus, and aspects of him have survived in other Near East religions as well, including Christianity.
The name Dionysus was first recorded on Mycenaean tablets from the twelfth or thirteenth century BCE. Originally written in a script called Linear B, which predates the Greek alphabet, the name appears on these tablets as di-wo-nu-so. There is no consensus as to the exact meaning, but most philologists believe the word is rooted in Dios, the possessive (genitive) 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.”
Other etymologies for Dionysus’ name have also been suggested, however, and scholars disagree on which is the most accurate. Robert Beekes, arguing that all attempts to trace the name to Indo-European languages have proven dubious, has suggested a pre-Greek origin.
[dahy-uh-NAHY-suhs] /ˌdaɪ əˈnaɪ səs/
Dionysus had a colorful array of alternate names to correspond to his different cults in the ancient world. The best known of these is Bacchus, the name under which the Romans adopted him into their pantheon (but which was also used by the Greeks). The Romans also frequently called Dionysus by the name Liber, a translation of the Greek epithet Eleutherios (“liberator”).
Dionysus was central to Orphism, a Greek cult that believed a blissful afterlife could be attained through a combination of strict ritual and an ascetic lifestyle. In Orphism, Dionysus was called Zagreus and was usually regarded as a son of Zeus and Persephone (rather than Semele).
In the Eleusinian Mysteries, another cult that stressed the importance of ritual to achieving a blissful afterlife, Dionysus was called Iacchus and was identified as either the son or husband of the agricultural goddess Demeter.
In addition to his alternate names, Dionysus also had a number of epithets. The most important of these included Eleutherios (“liberator”), Bromios (“roaring”), and Baccheios (“reveler”). Dionysus was sometimes called Dimētōr (“twice-born”), an allusion to the myth of his double birth (first from Semele, then from Zeus).
As a god, Dionysus was associated primarily with wine and intoxication, but also with ecstasy and inspiration, theater and the arts, and the afterlife. It was in these four domains—wine, ecstasy, art, and the afterlife—that Dionysus’ presence was most strongly felt.
Perhaps more than any other figure of Greek mythology, Dionysus blurred the natural, social, and cultural boundaries of his world. In art, literature, and cult, Dionysus was imagined as both human and animal, masculine and effeminate, youthful and mature.
Iconography and Symbols
Dionysus appeared in ancient art more than any other Greek deity. He was usually found in the company of animals or half-animal creatures, such as satyrs and silens, as well as wild or intoxicated women, such as maenads or nymphs. Dionysus himself was very often shown riding atop wild cats, such as leopards, lions, and panthers.
Dionysus and those associated with him generally carried the thyrsus, a staff topped with a pinecone. Other symbols of Dionysus included grapes or wine, snakes, and the phallus.
- Heracles (Hercules)
Though there were many different versions of Dionysus’ birth and parentage circulating in antiquity—so many versions, in fact, that some authorities claimed that there had been more than one Dionysus—the most prevalent and widely known account made him the son of Zeus and the mortal woman Semele.
Semele was a beautiful daughter of Cadmus, the king and founder of Thebes. She was one of Zeus’ many mortal lovers. When Semele was already pregnant with the baby Dionysus, Zeus’ jealous wife Hera visited her disguised as one of her friends (or an old woman). She then convinced Semele to demand that her lover, Zeus—if he truly was Zeus—appear to her in the same glory with which he approached his divine wife Hera.
When Semele made this demand, Zeus had no choice but to give in. He revealed himself to Semele in all his divine glory: as blazing thunder and lightning. Ovid vividly imagines the scene in his Metamorphoses:
he sadly mounted to the lofty skies, and by his potent nod assembled there the deep clouds: and the rain began to pour, and thunder-bolts resounded. But he strove to mitigate his power, and armed him not with flames overwhelming as had put to flight his hundred-handed foe Typhoeus—flames too dreadful. Other thunder-bolts he took, forged by the Cyclops of a milder heat, with which insignia of his majesty, sad and reluctant, he appeared to her.
Semele was overwhelmed by the sight and burst into flames. But Zeus (in some versions with the help of Hermes) managed to save her baby, who was born prematurely as Semele was dying. Zeus then sewed the child into his thigh until he reached maturity, which is how Dionysus came to be born twice: once from his mother Semele, and again from the thigh of his father Zeus.
In antiquity, sources fiercely debated his place of birth. He was commonly said to have been born in Thebes, his mother Semele’s homeland, but other birthplaces include Naxos, Dracanum (a city on the island of Icaria), Crete, and Nysa (somewhere in the East). This controversy was already raging by the sixth or fifth century BCE, as seen in the only surviving portion of the first Homeric Hymn (which was written during this time):
For some say, at Dracanum; and some, on windy Icarus; and some, in Naxos, O Heaven-born, Insewn; and others by the deep-eddying river Alpheus that pregnant Semele bare you to Zeus the thunder-lover. And others yet, lord, say you were born in Thebes; but all these lie. The Father of men and gods gave you birth remote from men and secretly from white-armed Hera. There is a certain Nysa, a mountain most high and richly grown with woods, far off in Phoenice, near the streams of Aegyptus.
Whatever his birthplace, Dionysus was not destined to lead a carefree life. After he was born (for the second time), Hera continued to hunt Dionysus and those close to him: she could not forgive him for being her husband’s illegitimate son. In most (though not all) versions, Dionysus was raised by his aunt Ino (Semele’s sister) and her husband Athamas.
The indefatigable Hera targeted them next in her anger, driving them into a state of homicidal madness. The mythical tradition is not entirely clear or consistent about what happened next, but it appears that in most accounts Hermes helped his half-brother Dionysus escape Hera’s wrath (in some versions by turning him into a goat). Dionysus was then spirited away to a remote location (usually the geographically vague Mount Nysa), where he grew up to adulthood.
The Discovery of the Vine
In most traditions, Dionysus’ upbringing was associated with a place called Mount Nysa. The location of this mountain was variously identified as Thrace, Libya, or elsewhere in Africa or Asia. It was somewhere in the East that Dionysus, as a young man, was believed to have discovered or invented wine.
Nonnus’ Dionysiaca, a fifth-century CE epic that describes Dionysus’ life and travels in painstaking detail, tells a strange story about how Dionysus discovered wine. The adolescent Dionysus loved a satyr named Ampelus, though he knew that he was destined to die. Ampelus was soon killed in a bull-riding accident; his body was then transformed into a vine (in Greek, the word for “vine” is ampelos), and the heartbroken Dionysus made wine for the first time.
In an alternative version, also recorded by Nonnus, the vine already existed long before Ampelus. However, its secrets remained undiscovered until one day when Dionysus noticed a snake sucking the juice from the grapes. Dionysus then invented wine and, together with his satyrs, celebrated the first harvest, dead drunk. Nonnus paints a colorful picture of the frenzied scene:
The wine spurted up in the grapefilled hollow, the runlets were empurpled; pressed by the alternating tread the fruit bubbled out red juice with white foam. They scooped it up with oxhorns, instead of cups which had not yet been seen, so that ever after the cup of mixed wine took this divine name of Winehorn.
Dionysus and the East
According to the most widely known version, Dionysus was driven mad by Hera after he reached adulthood and was forced to wander the world. There are numerous myths associated with these wanderings, which took Dionysus to Egypt, Syria, and Mesopotamia.
Throughout his travels, Dionysus spread knowledge of the sacred vine, and with it his worship. He was not peacefully welcomed everywhere, however, and where he was opposed his anger was severe.
In Thrace, for example, Dionysus met with resistance from Lycurgus, the king of the Edonians. Lycurgus took Dionysus’ band of satyrs and maenads prisoner, and Dionysus was only able to escape by leaping into the sea and taking refuge with the kindly sea goddess Thetis (who later became the mother of Achilles).
Dionysus avenged himself by driving Lycurgus mad and causing him to kill his own son. He then put a curse upon the Edonians, telling them that their land would remain barren as long as Lycurgus was alive. In one version, the Edonians—fearing Dionysus’ wrath—bound Lycurgus and left him to be torn apart by man-eating horses. In another version, Lycurgus (while still mad) cut off his own legs, mistaking them for vines. With Lycurgus dead, Dionysus’ curse was lifted.
In one well-known tradition, Dionysus visited Phrygia in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey). There, he was purified by the mother goddess Rhea, or Cybele (often regarded as two names for the same goddess). In Phrygia Dionysus also learned the religious rites known as the “Mysteries.” According to Apollodorus, Dionysus’ visit to Phrygia took place before his forays into the Far East.
The most famous part of Dionysus’ wanderings was his expedition to India. Dionysus and his band of revelers were met with hostility by the powerful Indian king Deriades. But Dionysus, with the help of his satyrs, silenes, and maenads, was able to conquer the Indians after a long war (described in detail in Nonnus’ Dionysiaca). He then taught the Indians about wine and worship of the gods, founded several cities, and set up pillars and monuments in his own honor. After that, Dionysus returned to Greece,
Dionysus finally came back to Thebes, the homeland of his dead mother Semele. There, too, many refused to worship him or believe that he was the son of Zeus. As he had in Thrace and India, Dionysus set out to prove his divinity in no uncertain terms. He made the women inebriated and drove them to celebrate his rites in the mountains.
Pentheus, the king of Thebes (and Dionysus’ cousin), followed the women to the mountain to try to stop them. But his own mother, Agave—in her Dionysian intoxication—mistook Pentheus for an animal and, together with the maenads, tore him apart with her bare hands. This gory story is told in detail in Euripides’ final tragedy, the Bacchae.
Having thus proven his divinity to the Thebans, Dionysus moved on to the city of Argos. The Argives also did not accept him as a god. In one version, Dionysus punished them by driving the women mad and causing them to eat their own babies. In another version, the Argive hero Perseus (the slayer of Medusa) fought Dionysus, and even killed many of his maenads. Eventually, however, Perseus and Dionysus made peace, and the Argives adopted the worship of Dionysus.
The most famous of Dionysus’ consorts was Ariadne, who had played an important role in the Theseus myth. A daughter of King Minos of Crete, it was Ariadne who helped Theseus navigate the Labyrinth and slay the Minotaur. She then ran away with Theseus, hoping to become his wife in his homeland of Athens. But Theseus (either deliberately or accidentally) left Ariadne on Naxos, one of the Aegean Islands.
Dionysus happened to be roaming the Aegean at this time, and he noticed the abandoned and despairing Ariadne on Naxos. He immediately fell in love with the beautiful maiden and made her his wife. They had several sons together.
There were different versions of Ariadne’s ultimate fate. According to Hesiod, Dionysus brought Ariadne with him to Olympus and had Zeus make her immortal. But according to other traditions, Ariadne eventually died and received a glorious burial from Dionysus. Homer writes obscurely that Ariadne was killed by Artemis. Nonnus, on the other hand, tells us that Ariadne was killed during Dionysus’ war with Perseus: she was turned to stone when she looked upon Medusa’s head.
Whatever the case, Dionysus was said to have honored his beloved wife by turning her crown into the constellation Corona Borealis.
Dionysus on Olympus
As Dionysus’ earthly wanderings and adventures came to an end, his divinity was recognized and he was worshipped widely throughout the world. It was now time for him to ascend to Mount Olympus and become a full-fledged god.
In many traditions, however, Dionysus needed to achieve one final great deed before entering the ranks of the Olympians. He needed to go down to the Underworld and retrieve his mother Semele: only in this way could he demonstrate a truly divine mastery over death itself. Sure enough, Dionysus went to the Underworld and came back with Semele, whereupon Zeus made her immortal. Now deathless, Semele was renamed Thyone and lived forever with her son Dionysus among the Olympian gods.
Dionysus’ role among the Olympians was not unlike his role on earth: among the gods he represented wine, intoxication, and merriment. The story of Dionysus and Hephaestus illustrates this well. Shortly after Hephaestus’ birth, he had been expelled from Mount 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 Mount 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. Once Hephaestus was good and drunk, Dionysus carried him back to Mount Olympus on the back of a mule.
Dionysus’ status among the gods is one of the unanswered theological questions of ancient Greek religion and myth. It was universally agreed that there were twelve Olympian gods, but lists of these twelve gods varied in antiquity: some of them included Dionysus, while others had Hestia, the goddess of the hearth, instead.
Sometimes discrepancies were encountered even in the same city: in Athens, for example, the altar to the Twelve Olympians in the agora included Hestia and not Dionysus, while the frieze of the Twelve Olympians on the Parthenon included Dionysus and not Hestia.
Later sources and scholars have taken Dionysus’ presence among the Twelve Olympians as a sign of Hestia’s peaceful nature: ever the gentle goddess of the hearth and household, Hestia prevented conflict among the gods by giving up her seat to Dionysus. No such myth survives from antiquity, however; it remains unclear how the ancient Greeks reconciled the alternating presence of both Dionysus and Hestia with the other eleven Olympians.
Much of Dionysus’ mythos illustrates that he treated his loyal worshippers with great kindness, but inflicted terrible punishments on those who crossed him.
In one ancient story, Dionysus hired a ship to take him somewhere. It so happened that the ship belonged to Tyrrhenian pirates; noticing how beautiful Dionysus was, the pirates decided instead to sell their passenger in Asia. Realizing the pirates’ intentions, Dionysus caused them to start seeing strange things. According to the seventh Homeric Hymn:
First of all sweet, fragrant wine ran streaming throughout all the black ship and a heavenly smell arose, so that all the seamen were seized with amazement when they saw it. And all at once a vine spread out both ways along the top of the sail with many clusters hanging down from it, and a dark ivy-plant twined about the mast, blossoming with flowers, and with rich berries growing on it; and all the thole-pins were covered with garlands. When the pirates saw all this, then at last they bade the helmsman to put the ship to land. But the god changed into a dreadful lion there on the ship, in the bows, and roared loudly: amidships also he showed his wonders and created a shaggy bear which stood up ravening, while on the forepeak was the lion glaring fiercely with scowling brows. And so the sailors fled into the stern and crowded bemused about the right-minded helmsman, until suddenly the lion sprang upon the master and seized him; and when the sailors saw it they leapt out overboard one and all into the bright sea, escaping from a miserable fate, and were changed into dolphins.
Dionysus spared only the helmsman, who had earlier tried to dissuade the pirates from their criminal intentions. The rest were left in the ocean to live out their lives as dolphins.
In another story, Dionysus taught the Athenian Icarius how to make wine. Delighted by the discovery, Icarius in turn taught his neighbors the skill. But these neighbors became very drunk and ended up killing Icarius (possibly because they believed he had poisoned them).
When Icarius’ daughter Erigone discovered what had happened, she killed herself. Dionysus honored Icarius and Erigone by transforming them into constellations. This myth highlights the potentially dangerous consequences of drinking.
Another story, attested only in later antiquity, recounts that 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 everything he touched would turn to gold; thus, the king acquired his famous Midas touch (which he soon came to regret) at the graces of Dionysus.
Other Versions of Dionysus
The Orphic Mysteries
The Orphic Mysteries, or Orphism, was a mystical religion based on poems attributed to Orpheus, which emphasized purification and renewal through ritual. Little is known of their cult, since ancient “mystery” religions forbade the initiated from revealing important ritual information to the uninitiated. However, a few tantalizing slivers of evidence do allow us to reconstruct the outlines of the Orphic myth of Dionysus.
First of all, the Orphic Dionysus was a son of Zeus and Persephone, not Semele. He was born after Zeus seduced Persephone in the form of a serpent. This Dionysus, usually depicted as horned, was then raised in the mountains, where he discovered wine in his youth. One day, the Titans killed the boy and tore him apart. Soon, however, Dionysus was resurrected.
This form of Dionysus is identified by many modern sources with the god called Zagreus (though Diodorus called him Sabazius); however, followers of Orphism seem simply to have called their god Dionysus.
The Eleusinian Mysteries
A closely related alternative to the Orphic Dionysus was the Eleusinian Dionysus. This version of the god of intoxication was identified with Iacchus (possibly because of the similarity between the name Iacchus and Dionysus’ common alternate name Bacchus).
The Eleusinian Dionysus/Iacchus was the son of Zeus and either Persephone or Demeter (Persephone’s mother). He may have also been the consort of Demeter. Otherwise, his mythology was very similar to that of the Orphic Dionysus: as a boy he discovered wine, was attacked and murdered by the Titans, and was resurrected. Iacchus seems to have played a key role in the rites of the Eleusinian Mysteries (though, sadly, little else is known of him).
Due to this plurality of traditions, many later authors suggested that there was more than one figure by the name of Dionysus. According to the historian Diodorus of Sicily, for example, there were actually three Dionysi: the first was an Indian who discovered wine; the second was the Orphic Dionysus, the son of Zeus and Persephone; and the third was the traditional Dionysus, the son of Zeus and Semele.
According to the Roman statesman and writer Cicero, there were five Dionysi, variously born of Jupiter (Zeus) and Proserpina (Persephone); Jupiter (Zeus) and Luna; Nisus and Thyone; Nile; and Cabirus.
Ancient literature further confuses our knowledge of Dionysus by jumbling together different versions to produce strange and novel myths.
According to the Roman mythographer Hyginus, for example, Dionysus was originally born to Zeus and Persephone. After he was killed by the Titans, Zeus put Dionysus’ torn heart into a potion and gave it to the Theban princess Semele. Semele drank the concoction and became pregnant. Hera then brought about Semele’s death (as in the traditional version), but Zeus managed to save the unborn child from her womb. Thus, Hyginus’ Dionysus was born from two mothers (this was how Hyginus explained Dionysus’ epithet dimētōr, or “twice-born”).
Nonnus, the author of the 48-book epic Dionysiaca, recounted a similar story. The first Dionysus, called Zagreus, was the son of Zeus and Persephone. After his death at the hands of the Titans, the world was miserable and joyless. Zeus therefore impregnated Semele with the second Dionysus. Semele, unfortunately, was killed during her pregnancy, but Zeus was able to sew the premature Dionysus into his thigh. It was from Zeus’ thigh that this second Dionysus was born.
Later still, according to Nonnus, there was a third Dionysus (called Iacchus) who was celebrated in the Eleusinian Mysteries.
These are only a few of the variant mythologies of Dionysus; there are many more in the surviving ancient literature, and probably many more that we no longer know of.
Dionysus was honored in many festivals in different cities and regions. Some of these were annual, but many were only celebrated every third year (e.g., Dionysus’ festivals at Delphi, Thebes, Camirus, Rhodus, Miletus, and Pergamum).
Dionysus’ most famous festivals included orgia (“orgies”), riotous rituals that included dancing, singing, intoxication, and sacrifice. The most important orgia were held in Boeotia and Delphi. These events could be so raucous that some ancient cities and regions (including Attica) prohibited their practice.
Related to the orgia were the Dionysian or Bacchic Mysteries. Fueled by wine, music, and dance, the Dionysian Mysteries brought worshippers 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, worshippers would feel the true nature of Dionysus. Dionysus also played a central role in other mystery cults, such as the Orphic and Eleusinian Mysteries (whose respective mythologies have been outlined above).
Other festivals to Dionysus were somewhat more tame, stressing the god’s capacity to inspire art and culture. In Athens and within the region of Attica, the most famous annual festival of Dionysus was the Great Dionysia (sometimes called the City Dionysia). This fantastic, multi-day celebration included processions, sacrifices, and theatrical performances, and it was here that many of the famous plays composed by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes were originally performed.
Other Dionysus festivals in Athens included the Lenaia, another dramatic festival; the Rural Dionysia, whose central events were a phallic procession and contests; and the Anthesteria, called the oldest Dionysia, a kind of day of the dead in which the souls of those who had died were said to rise from the Underworld and wander the world of the living.
There was an interesting controversy in Rome regarding the worship of Dionysus/Bacchus. Imported from Greece, the god’s rites—called “Bacchanalia”—involved intoxication and omophagy (the eating of raw meat). By the early second century BCE, these Bacchanalia had become so out of control that they were largely banned by the government. This strange story from history—whose truth was confirmed by the discovery of the original edict limiting the Roman Bacchanalia, the so-called Senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus—highlights the extreme effect that Dionysus could have on his devotees.
On Naxos one can still see the remains of an especially ancient sanctuary of Dionysus. The site was probably in use as early as the fifteenth or fourteenth century BCE, but the temple whose columns are standing dates from around the sixth century BCE. There were also many temples of Dionysus in the region of Boeotia, where the god’s mother Semele lived.
In Athens, there was a temple of Dionysus connected with the theater complex at which the god was honored a few times per year. This temple was said to have been quite ancient and included paintings of various scenes from Dionysus’ mythology.
In Argos, there was also a temple of Dionysus that was said to be very ancient. The Argives claimed that Dionysus buried his beloved Ariadne near this temple after she was killed by Perseus. The cult image inside was thought to have been there since the time of the Trojan War.
Dionysus makes regular appearances throughout pop culture, often alongside the rest of the Olympic pantheon. He has appeared in countless retellings and reimaginings of Greek myth, 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.