Dionysus (Bacchus), God of Grapes
by: P. Dionysius Mus
Dionysus (or Bacchus), god of wine, grape harvest and fermentation, god of flush and drunkenness, is seen as a later deity on Mount Olympus. He is said to have driven out either Hermes or Hestia to take his place among the Twelve Olympian Deities. While the other deities use their myths and ceremonies to urge their believers to law-abidingness, Dionysus walked his own uninhibited but dangerous way.
Dionysus was the only Olympian who was told to have mortal parent. According to some myths Zeus was his father and the Theban princess Semele his mother. Semele was the daughter of Cadmus and Harmonia, and thus she fell even more into disgrace with Hera, because Zeus had loved her aunt, Europa. When Zeus fell in love with Semele and made her pregnant, Hera's jealousy did not know any limits, as did her hatred. Her revenge was as terrible as it was crafty: disguised as Semele's previous lover, she went to Semele and made her command to Zeus to prove that he was indeed a god, by appearing to her in all his majesty. Semele first let Zeus promise to do whatever she would ask, and then demanded him to show her his true form. No mortal being could possibly bear this sight, and a god could not break his promise. So Zeus appeared before Semele in all his majesty, and immediately she burnt to ashes. But her unborn child was saved: Zeus is said to have kept the foetus in his thigh until it could be born.
This story about the birth of Dionysus differs enormously with another version, where Zeus battles, together with the other Olympian deities, against the Titans. According to this story Dionysus was the son of Zeus and Persephone, and a jealous Hera demanded the Titans to attack the boy. They slashed him into pieces, but he recovered with the help of Zeus.
This motive of reincarnation also returns in another story, where Dionysus goes to the Underworld to bring his mother Semele back to life. Dionysus' having powers in the Underworld has always appealed to mortals, so they told his followers they could look forward to a life full of drink and pleasure.
Concerning Dionysus' education most myths seem to agree with each other: nymphs should have raised Dionysus and his divine powers grew when he became older. A nice story tells of the young Dionysus being kidnapped by pirates while he was sleeping, and they wanted to sell him as a slave. When he woke up he angrily stopped the boat he was kidnapped with, by surrounding the rigging with vine leaves. Next he transformed the whole crew into dolphins, and still they swim after and next to ships, hoping to get their human forms back.
In all stories about Dionysus one aspect always returns: his mysterious journey from the east. Because of those stories, scientists assume that he came to Greece from Thracia, or from Phrygia in Asia Minor, where his cult always had many followers. Leading an army of men, women, children, satyrs and maenads, he is said to have conquered all people on his journey only with peaceful means. The tribes his army passed were eager to get to know them, especially their delights of wine and fermentation. He also educated those people about agriculture and apiculture.
In art Dionysus is most of all a young, effeminate man. He has his youth and long hair in common with Apollo, but instead of Apollo's golden locks, Dionysus has always dark hair and he is also a little fleshier. His depictions are less stately; most of all he is depicted nude, carried on the shoulders of his companions. Sometimes he is also depicted as a rather fat boy, with a bunch of grapes in his hand and a trumpet near his mouth.
Next to a god of drunkenness and pleasure, Dionysus was also an honourable fertility god, essential in the cycle of plant growth, in agriculture and arboriculture. Among his retinue were many spirits of land and forest. Pan, for example, was his servant and companion; Silenus, a wise demigod of the grasslands, was his teacher and dedicated counsellor; and in his 'army' marching west there were many spirits of nature from the most ancient classical mythologies.
Dionysus was known as a generous, good-natured deity, who rewarded services royally. He was also merciful. He married Ariadne, after he had brought her back to life (she had herself killed when her first husband Theseus left her on the island of Naxos). They had many children and in all stories Dionysus seems to be faithful, unlike other deities. On the other hand Dionysus would also punish terribly those who had offended him, or those who did not recognize his divinity. When king Lycurgus of Thracia banned the cult of Dionysus, forbade his citizens to build vineyards and tried to remove the deity and his followers from his kingdom, Dionysus drove him to madness. In his madness, Lycurgus killed his son Dryas and then chopped off his own legs because he took them for vine branches. At last Lycurgus was tortured to death by his people because an oracle had told them they would not drink wine as long as hewas alive.
The story of Pentheus, told in Euripides' "Bacchantes", may be even more cruel, also because he was Dionysus' nephew. Pentheus, king of Thebe, declared the new, orgy-like rites of Dionysus scandalous, despite the many female followers among his own citizens. He forbade the rites, and when Dionysus came to Thebe to extend his cult, Pentheus tried to capture him. But not one prison, built by human hands, was strong enough, and Dionysus escaped and took his local followers with him to celebrate his liberation. Pentheus angrily commanded his soldiers to execute all followers, but they refused. Dionysus, angry about his nephew's lack of respect, made him unbearably curious for the secret rites. The king watched from behind a tree how the women danced in ecstasy, but when they noticed him, they all ran up to him and tore him apart with their bare hands.
The idea that Dionysus had the power to bring mortals into ecstasy, was often rather terrifying when magistrates tried to maintain the public order. In Greek literature there have been many complaints about the pernicious influence of Dionysus' orgies on public morality. In the second century BC the Bacchanals in Rome took such enormous proportions, the Senate had to declare a prohibition on these rites. The cult of Dionysus seemed however indestructible; approximately one century after this prohibition, many mysterious and secret cults flourished again in public. Until Christianity as state religion stopped these rites definitively.