Though known primarily as the god of grapes and wine, Dionysus or Dionusos is a god of many functions and forms. He is the (semi-) respectable patron of the theatre and actors, as Greek drama developed out of the masked rituals and celebrations in which his life was acted out by and for his followers. (In fact a mask was often used as an idol for this god, carved out of vine or fig wood). In this guise Dionusos is a god of civilization and peace and community. Dionusos is also the effeminate yet phallic, savage mystery-god who leads his followers – the wild maenads (the ‘raging ones’) – in blood thirsty festivals, ripping animals to pieces with their bare hands and dancing all night within the flames. Dionusos is also a fertility god, worshiped along side Demeter; where she is the solid, receptive force of nature he is the liquid, active aspect. Dionusos is a divine saviour who dies for mankind and is reborn, and through eating of his flesh and drinking of his blood humanity is granted eternal life in paradise. Dionusos presides over communication with the dead, over euphoria, insanity, fear, liberation and intoxication. Dionusos releases from the mundane and allows the breaking of society’s rules and through his intoxicating possession he grants his followers the ability to perceive the world from a divine point of view.
A god of savagery and sensuality, a god of pandemonium and quiet self-reflection, of creation and destruction, of fertility and death - Dionusos is a god of many dualities, of polar opposites, and of what brings those opposites together as a whole, blurring the lines between the known and the unknown.
Dionusos is the only Olympian to have mortal blood. He is the son of Zeus and the princess of Thebes, Semele (daughter of Harmonia, who herself was the daughter of Aphrodite and Ares). Semele was befriended by Hera, the wife of Zeus who tricked the mortal woman into asking to see Zeus in all his divine glory. However, mortals are not able to look upon the fullness of a god and Semele was turned to ash, but not before Hermes was able to swoop in and save the unborn child in her womb who was then sewn into the thigh (or perhaps testicles) of Zeus to finish its gestation. This mimics the transfer of honey mead from vats to skins to finish its last fermentation, and there is much evidence that Dionusos was a god of mead long before wine was discovered.
As a child Dionusos was hidden away from Hera’s wrath (raised by the Nysian nymphs, by Selenoi or disguised as a girl and raised by his aunts Ino and Athamas), but upon reaching adulthood he set out to discover the world and was stricken mad by the wrathful goddess. He was cleansed by Kybele-Rhea and taught her mysteries and travelled from land to land with his train of nymphs and maenads, satyrs, kentaurs and sileni, panthers and leopards spreading the knowledge of viniculture and winemaking and punishing those who refused his gifts or denied his divinity.
Of all the Greek gods, Dionusos perhaps has more variations of his life and birth. The Orphic version of his birth calls him a child of Zeus and Persephone and names him Zagreus. In this guise he is the first power of the universe – Panes, or Eros – reborn and is declared the heir of Zeus. In her jealousy Hera sends the titans to slaughter and cannibalize the child. The titans are struck down by the thunderbolts of Zeus and from the remains (which were buried under Apollon’s tripod at Delphoi) – titan and divine – humanity was born. The heart (or phallus) of Zagreus was saved and brewed into a potion and fed to Semele at which point the Orphic story converges with the mainstream. Another version of his birth calls Dionusos the child of Zeus and Demeter and brother-husband of Persephone. In this variation, Dionusos is a fertility god who dies and is reborn with the crops and as the husband of Persephone takes on functions (and possibly even the name) of Haides.
Dionusos’ name is a mysterious one and the origins of it are uncertain with some claiming its meaning as ‘the god of Nysia’ where Dionusos was said to have been raised while others see the name translated as ‘twice-born’, an indication of his second birth from Zeus as well as his rebirth through initiation in the mysteries. Though the origin of his name is shrouded in obscurity, many of his epithets are very revealing of his character and history. Iacchus (which became Bacchus) comes from the iakchos, a type of hymn sung in his honour; Dendrites is ‘he of the trees’ and describes Dionusos in his fertility aspects. Eleutherios means ‘the liberator’, Oeneus connects him to the wine-press, Khoiropsalas, or ‘cunt-plucker’ refers to his orgiastic nature as does Phallên ‘Of the Fertile Phallus’. As Lyaeus ‘he who releases’ he is a god of relaxation; Morychos ‘dark one’, Agrios ‘wild one’ and Diphyes ‘two-natured’ all refer to the darker aspects of his personality and worship; though perhaps the best epithet is simply Dionusos Polyonomos – Dionusos of many names.
There are also many deities in related pantheons that share origins or are developed from Dionusos. Di-wo-nu-so-jo is the name that he appears under in Kretan Linear B Mykenean writings and it appears his worship was introduced to mainland Greece via Krete and from the Near East. In fact Dionusos has many Near Eastern traits, including his dress, long hair and his sceptre – the ivy covered, pinecone tipped Thyrsus. Sabazius is the Phrygian deity that merged with Dionusos and Fufluns is the Etruscan. Fufluns developed into the Roman Bacchus (also a name used by the Greeks) who was also known as Liber Pater – ‘the free one’
Of all the younger Olympians it is only Dionusos who takes a wife, Ariadne (‘pure’ or ‘holy’), princess of Knossos and in earlier times the Kreten goddess of the labyrinth and queen of the mysteries. Beyond this Dionusos is also one of the few gods who remains faithful to his partner, though he does claim many lovers before his marriage. Ampelos was one of Dionusos’ first lovers and was killed by a mad bull and reborn as the first grapevine; the wine squeezed from it was dedicated to his memory. Prosymnus guided Dionusos to the entrance to Haides (so that the god might descend to retrieve his mother) in exchange for the right to make love to Dionusos but he died before the god returned; to keep his bargain, the god fashioned a phallus from an olive branch and sat on it at Prosymnus' tomb. Some claim this is the origin of the wooden phallus that was carried in many of his ritual processions. Dionusos fathered many children, Hymen the god of marriage was his son by Aphrodite as was Priapus, the over-endowed fertility god; while Komos, the god of revelry was his son by the witch-goddess Kirke. Many of the Younger Kharities are also counted among his offspring. The Kharities are goddesses of beauty and celebration and are often seen in the train of Aphrodite. Antheia, the goddess of wreaths worn at festivals and parties; Eudaimonia, the goddess of opulence; Paidia of play and amusement, Pandaisiass of rich banquets; Pannykhis of night festivities and parties and
Pasithea the goddess of hallucinatory drugs are all Younger Kharities who are said to have Dionusos as a father.
A can be seen from the names of his children, much of Dionusos’ nature revolves around excess and indulgence, revelry and joy. But it is not merely excess for its own sake (though this too is a part of his nature) but indulgence to overwhelm the essences and force the consciousness into an altered state of awareness in which the world – both physical and metaphysical – can be perceived and worked with. The use of strong drink, hallucinatory drugs, ecstatic dance and sex were all used in rituals such as the Dionyssia, (or as it was known to the Romans, the Bacchanalia) in order to create this altered state. Sex was also used in the Athenian ritual the Antethistera in which the wife of the cities ruler was ritually married to the god and through their sexual union fertility brought to the crops, livestock and people of Athens.
Of all the gods, of all cultures and times, none is more dear to me than Dionusos, I honour him above all others and I have dedicated my life to serving him and discovering his mysteries. I give thanks to Dionusos by loving life, by searching for joy and happiness in all that I do and in attempting to find the balance between the opposites that he represents. In walking the fine line between extremes I partake of both feast and famine, life and death and the known and the unknowable.