Dionysus  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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See Apollonian and Dionysian

Dionysus or Dionysos is the Ancient Greek god of wine, the inspirer of ritual madness and ecstasy, and a major figure of Greek mythology.

He was also known as the Liberator (Eleutherios), freeing one from one's normal self, by madness, ecstasy, or wine. The divine mission of Dionysus was to mingle the music of the flute and to bring an end to care and worry. There is also an aspect of Dionysus on his relationship to the "cult of the souls", and the scholar Xavier Riu writes that Dionysus presided over communication between the living and the dead.

Within Greek mythology Dionysus is made to be the son of Zeus and Semele; other versions of the story contend that he is the son of Zeus and Persephone. He is described as being womanly or "man-womanish".

The name Dionysus is of uncertain significance; it may well be non-Greek in origin, but it has been associated since antiquity with Zeus (genitive Dios) and with Nysa, which is either the nymph who nursed him, or the mountain where he was attended by several nymphs (the Nysiads) who fed him and made him immortal as directed by Hermes; or both.

The retinue of Dionysus was called the Thiasus and comprised chiefly Maenads.

Contents

Significance

Dionysus was often seen as the god of everything uncivilized, of the innate wildness of humanity that the Athenians had tried to control. The Dionysia was probably a time to let out their inhibitions through highly emotional tragedies or irreverent comedies. During the pompe there was also an element of role-reversal - lower-class citizens could mock and jeer the upper classes, or women could insult their male relatives. This was known as aischrologia - αἰσχρολογία or tothasmos, a concept also found in the Eleusinian Mysteries.

The plays themselves could highlight ideas that would not normally be spoken or shared in everyday life. Aeschylus' The Persians, for example, while patriotic to Athens, showed sympathy towards the Persians, which may have been politically unwise under normal circumstances. The parodies of Aristophanes mocked the politicians and other celebrities of Athens, even going so far as producing an anti-war play (Lysistrata) at the height of the Peloponnesian War. The circumstances of the Dionysia allowed him to get away with criticisms he would not normally be allowed to voice.

Mythology

Birth

Dionysus had a strange birth that evokes the difficulty in fitting him into the Olympian pantheon. His mother was a mortal woman, Semele, the daughter of king Cadmus of Thebes, and his father was Zeus, the king of the gods. Zeus' wife, Hera, discovered the affair while Semele was pregnant. Appearing as an old crone (in other stories a nurse), Hera befriended Semele, who confided in her that Zeus was the actual father of the baby in her womb. Hera pretended not to believe her, and planted seeds of doubt in Semele's mind. Curious, Semele demanded of Zeus that he reveal himself in all his glory as proof of his godhood. Though Zeus begged her not to ask this, she persisted and he agreed. Therefore he came to her wreathed in bolts of lightning; mortals, however, could not look upon an undisguised god without dying, and she perished in the ensuing blaze. Zeus rescued the fetal Dionysus by sewing him into his thigh. A few months later, Dionysus was born on Mount Pramnos in the island of Ikaria, where Zeus went to release the now-fully-grown baby from his thigh. In this version, Dionysus is born by two "mothers" (Semele and Zeus) before his birth, hence the epithet dimētōr (of two mothers) associated with his being "twice-born".

In the Cretan version of the same story, which Diodorus Siculus follows, Dionysus was the son of Zeus and Persephone, the queen of the Greek underworld. Diodorus' sources equivocally identified the mother as Demeter. A jealous Hera again attempted to kill the child, this time by sending Titans to rip Dionysus to pieces after luring the baby with toys. It is said that he was mocked by the Titans who gave him a thyrsus (a fennel stalk) in place of his rightful sceptre. Zeus turned the Titans into dust with his thunderbolts, but only after the Titans ate everything but the heart, which was saved, variously, by Athena, Rhea, or Demeter. Zeus used the heart to recreate him in his thigh, hence he was again "the twice-born". Other versions claim that Zeus recreated him in the womb of Semele, or gave Semele the heart to eat to impregnate her.

The rebirth in both versions of the story is the primary reason why Dionysus was worshipped in mystery religions, as his death and rebirth were events of mystical reverence. This narrative was apparently used in several Greek and Roman cults, and variants of it are found in Callimachus and Nonnus, who refer to this Dionysus with the title Zagreus, and also in several fragmentary poems attributed to Orpheus.

The myth of the dismemberment of Dionysus by the titans, is alluded to by Plato in his Phaedo (69d) in which Socrates claims that the initiations of the Dionysian Mysteries are similar to those of the philosophic path. Late Neo-Platonists such as Damascius explore the implications of this at length.

Infancy at Mount Nysa

According to the myth Zeus gave the infant Dionysus into the charge of Hermes. One version of the story is that Hermes took the boy to King Athamas and his wife Ino, Dionysus' aunt. Hermes bade the couple raise the boy as a girl, to hide him from Hera's wrath. Another version is that Dionysus was taken to the rain-nymphs of Nysa, who nourished his infancy and childhood, and for their care Zeus rewarded them by placing them as the Hyades among the stars (see Hyades star cluster). Other versions have Zeus giving him to Rhea, or to Persephone to raise in the Underworld, away from Hera. Alternatively, he was raised by Maro.

Dionysus in Greek mythology is a god of foreign origin, and while Mount Nysa is a mythological location, it is invariably set far away to the east or to the south. The Homeric hymn to Dionysus places it "far from Phoenicia, near to the Egyptian stream". Others placed it in Anatolia, or in Libya ('away in the west beside a great ocean'), in Ethiopia (Herodotus), or Arabia (Diodorus Siculus).

According to Herodotus:

"As it is, the Greek story has it that no sooner was Dionysus born than Zeus sewed him up in his thigh and carried him away to Nysa in Ethiopia beyond Egypt; and as for Pan, the Greeks do not know what became of him after his birth. It is therefore plain to me that the Greeks learned the names of these two gods later than the names of all the others, and trace the birth of both to the time when they gained the knowledge."

Apollodorus seems to be following Pherecydes, who relates how the infant Dionysus, god of the grapevine, was nursed by the rain-nymphs, the Hyades at Nysa.

Childhood

When Dionysus grew up, he discovered the culture of the vine and the mode of extracting its precious juice; but Hera struck him with madness, and drove him forth a wanderer through various parts of the earth. In Phrygia the goddess Cybele, better known to the Greeks as Rhea, cured him and taught him her religious rites, and he set out on a progress through Asia teaching the people the cultivation of the vine. The most famous part of his wanderings is his expedition to India, which is said to have lasted several years. Returning in triumph he undertook to introduce his worship into Greece, but was opposed by some princes who dreaded its introduction on account of the disorders and madness it brought with it (e.g. Pentheus or Lycurgus).

Dionysus was exceptionally attractive. One of the Homeric hymns recounts how, while disguised as a mortal sitting beside the seashore, a few sailors spotted him, believing he was a prince. They attempted to kidnap him and sail him far away to sell for ransom or into slavery. They tried to bind him with ropes, but no type of rope could hold him. Dionysus turned into a fierce lion and unleashed a bear onboard, killing those he came into contact with. Those who jumped off the ship were mercifully turned into dolphins. The only survivor was the helmsman, Acoetes, who recognized the god and tried to stop his sailors from the start. In a similar story, Dionysus desired to sail from Icaria to Naxos. He then hired a Tyrrhenian pirate ship. However, when the god was on board, they sailed not to Naxos but to Asia, intending to sell him as a slave. So Dionysus turned the mast and oars into snakes, and filled the vessel with ivy and the sound of flutes so that the sailors went mad and, leaping into the sea, were turned into dolphins.

Other stories

Midas

Once, Dionysus found his old school master and foster father, Silenus, missing. The old man had been drinking, and had wandered away drunk, and was found by some peasants, who carried him to their king, (alternatively, he passed out in Midas' rose garden). Midas recognized him, and treated him hospitably, entertaining him for ten days and nights with politeness, while Silenus entertained Midas and his friends with stories and songs. On the eleventh day, he brought Silenus back to Dionysus. Dionysus offered Midas his choice of whatever reward he wanted. Midas asked that whatever he might touch should be changed into gold. Dionysus consented, though was sorry that he had not made a better choice. Midas rejoiced in his new power, which he hastened to put to the test. He touched and turned to gold an oak twig and a stone. Overjoyed, as soon as he got home, he ordered the servants to set a feast on the table. Then he found that his bread, meat, daughter and wine turned to gold.

Upset, Midas strove to divest himself of his power (the Midas Touch); he hated the gift he had coveted. He prayed to Dionysus, begging to be delivered from starvation. Dionysus heard and consented; he told Midas to wash in the river Pactolus. He did so, and when he touched the waters the power passed into them, and the river sands changed into gold. This was an etiological myth that explained why the sands of the Pactolus were rich in gold.

Pentheus

Euripides composed a tragedy about the destructive nature of Dionysus in The Bacchae. Since Euripides wrote this play while in the court of King Archelaus of Macedon, some scholars believe that the cult of Dionysus was malicious in Macedon but benign in Athens.

In the play, Dionysus returns to his birthplace, Thebes, which is ruled by his cousin Pentheus. Dionysus wants to exact revenge on Pentheus and the women of Thebes (his aunts Agave, Ino and Autonoe) for not believing his mother Semele's claims of being impregnated by Zeus, and for denying Dionysus's divinity (and therefore not worshiping him).

Dionysus slowly drives Pentheus mad, lures him to the woods of Mount Cithaeron, and then convinces him to spy/peek on the Maenads (female worshippers of Dionysus, who often experienced divine ecstasy). The Maenads are in an insane frenzy when Pentheus sees them (earlier in the play they had ripped apart a herd of cattle), and they catch him but mistake him for a wild animal. Pentheus is torn to shreds, and his mother (Agave, one of the Maenads), not recognizing her own son because of her madness, brutally tears his limbs off as he begs for his life.

As a result of their acts the women are banished from Thebes, ensuring Dionysus's revenge.

Lycurgus

When King Lycurgus of Thrace heard that Dionysus was in his kingdom, he imprisoned all the followers of Dionysus; the god fled, taking refuge with Thetis, and sent a drought which stirred the people into revolt. Dionysus then made King Lycurgus insane, having him slice his own son into pieces with an axe, thinking he was a patch of ivy, a plant holy to Dionysus. An oracle then claimed that the land would stay dry and barren as long as Lycurgus was alive, so his people had him drawn and quartered; with Lycurgus dead, Dionysus lifted the curse. This story was told in Homer's epic, Iliad 6.136-7. In an alternative version, sometimes shown in art, Lycurgus tried to kill Ambrosia, a follower of Dionysus, who was transformed into a vine that twined around the enraged king and restrained him, eventually killing him.

Prosymnus

A better-known story is that of his descent to Hades to rescue his mother Semele, whom he placed among the stars. He made the ascent from a reputedly bottomless pool on the coast of the Argolid near the prehistoric site of Lerna. He was guided by Prosymnus or Polymnus, who requested, as his reward, to be Dionysus' lover. Prosymnus died before Dionysus could honor his pledge, so in order to satisfy Prosymnus' shade, Dionysus fashioned a phallus from an olive branch and sat on it at Prosymnus' tomb. This story is told in full only in Christian sources whose aim was to discredit pagan mythology. It appears to have served as an explanation of the secret objects that were revealed in the Dionysian Mysteries.

Ampelos

Another myth according to Nonnus involves Ampelos, a satyr. Foreseen by Dionysus, the youth was killed in an accident riding a bull maddened by the sting of an Ate's gadfly. The Fates granted Ampelos a second life as a vine, from which Dionysus squeezed the first wine.

Chiron

Young Dionysus was also said to have been one of the many famous pupils of the centaur Chiron. According to Ptolemy Chennus in the Library of Photius, "Dionysius was loved by Chiron, from whom he learned chants and dances, the bacchic rites and initiations."

Secondary myths

When Hephaestus bound Hera to a magical chair, Dionysus got him drunk and brought her back to Olympus after he passed out.

A third descent by Dionysus to Hades is invented by Aristophanes in his comedy The Frogs. Dionysus, as patron of the Athenian dramatic festival, the Dionysia, wants to bring back to life one of the great tragedians. After a competition Aeschylus is chosen in preference to Euripides.

When Theseus abandoned Ariadne sleeping on Naxos, Dionysus found and married her. She bore him a son named Oenopion, but he committed suicide or was killed by Perseus. In some variants, he had her crown put into the heavens as the constellation Corona; in others, he descended into Hades to restore her to the gods on Olympus. Another different account claims Dionysus ordered Theseus to abandon Ariadne on the island of Naxos for he had seen her as Theseus carried her onto the ship and had decided to marry her.

Callirrhoe was a Calydonian woman who scorned a priest of Dionysus who threatened to afflict all the women of Calydon with insanity (see Maenad). The priest was ordered to sacrifice Callirhoe but he killed himself instead. Callirhoe threw herself into a well which was later named after her.

Acis, a Sicilian youth, was sometimes said to be Dionysus' son.

Consorts/Children

  1. Aphrodite
    1. Charites (Graces)
      1. Pasithea
      2. Euphrosyne
      3. Thalia
    2. Priapus
    3. Hymenaios
  2. Ariadne
    1. Oenopion
    2. Staphylus
    3. Thoas
    4. Peparethus
    5. Phanus
    6. Eurymedon
    7. Euanthes
    8. Latramys
    9. Tauropolis
    10. Ceramus
    11. Maron
  3. Nyx
    1. Phthonus
  4. Althaea
    1. Deianeira
  5. Circe
    1. Comus
  6. Aura
    1. Iacchus
    2. twin of Iacchus, killed by Aura instantly upon birth
  7. Nicaea
    1. Telete
  8. Araethyrea or Chthonophyle (or again Ariadne)
    1. Phlias
  9. Physcoa
    1. Narcaeus
  10. Pallene

Names

Etymology

The name Dionysos is of uncertain significance. The dio- element has been associated since antiquity with Zeus (genitive Dios): the -nysos element is cited as of unknown, possibly non-Greek origin. In Dionysiac tradition, the place of the god's childhood and education is called Nysa. Nisah is an epithet of Shiva, and means supreme. Nisam is bliss, nisâ, joy. Nysa, the Happy mountain, is the equivalent of Kailâsa, the Earthly Paradise, home of Shiva and his current wife, Parvati. Dionysus and Shiva bear many resemblances other than name etymology, and aside from both being gods of love and ecstasy, namely, their association with the bull and the snake. The earliest attested form of the name is Mycenaean Greek di-wo-nu-so, written in Linear B syllabic script, presumably for /Diwo(h)nūsos/, found on two tablets at Mycenaean Pylos and dated to the 12th or 13th century BC. Later variants include Boetian Template:Lang and Template:Lang, and Ionic and Aeolian Template:Lang and Template:Lang. The Thessalian variant Template:Lang may be the most archaic form: the Template:Lang prefix is found in other names, such as that of the Dioscures, and may derive from Dios, the genitive of the name of Zeus.

Janda (2010, following Peters 1989) sees the verbal stem of diemai "to chase, hurry, impel". The second element Template:Lang is associated with Mount Nysa, the birthplace of the god in Greek mythology, where he was nursed by nymphs (the Nysiads), but according to the testimony of Pherecydes of Syros, Template:Lang was an archaic word for "tree".

The cult of Dionysus was closely associated with trees, specifically the fig tree, and some of his bynames exhibit this, such as Template:Lang "he in the tree" or Template:Lang, "he of the tree". Peters suggests the original meaning as "he who runs among the trees", or that of a "runner in the woods". Janda (2010) accepts the etymology but proposes the more cosmological interpretation of "he who impels the (world-)tree." This interpretation explains how Nysa could have been re-interpreted from a meaning of "tree" to the name of a mountain: the axis mundi of Indo-European mythology is represented both as a world-tree and as a world-mountain.

Epithets

Acratophorus, ("giver of unmixed wine), at Phigaleia in Arcadia.

Acroreites at Sicyon..

Adoneus ("ruler") in his Latinised, Bacchic cult.

Aegobolus ("goat killer") at Potniae, in Boeotia.

Aesymnetes ("ruler" or "lord") at Aroë and Patrae in Achaea.

Agrios ("wild"), in Macedonia.

Bromios ("the thunderer" or "he of the loud shout").

Dendrites ("he of the trees"), as a fertility god.

Dithyrambos, form of address used at his festivals, referring to his premature birth.

Eleutherios ("the liberator"), an epithet for both Dionysus and Eros.

Endendros "he in the tree"

Enorches ("with balls", Used in Samos and Lesbos.

Erikryptos ("completely hidden"), in Macedonia.

Evius, in Euripides' play, The Bacchae.

Iacchus, possibly an epithet of Dionysus and associated with the Eleusinian Mysteries; in Eleusis, he is known as a son of Zeus and Demeter. The name "Iacchus" may come from the Ιακχος (Iakchos), a hymn sung in honor of Dionysus.

Liknites ("he of the winnowing fan"), as a fertility god connected with the mystery religions. A winnowing fan was used to separate the chaff from the grain.

Lyaeus ("he who unties") or releases from care and anxiety.

Melanaigis ("of the black goatskin") at the Apaturia festival.

Oeneus, as god of the wine press.

Pseudanor ("false man"), in Macedonia.

In the Greek pantheon, Dionysus (along with Zeus) absorbs the role of Sabazios, a Thracian/Phrygian deity. In the Roman pantheon, Sabazius became an alternate name for Bacchus.

See also




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