Dionysus | Greek God

Dionysus | Greek God

Dionysus (Greek: Διόνυσος, transl.: Dionysos) or Bacchus (from Greek Bakkhos) - not to be confused with Dionysus, a man's name meaning "dedicated to Dionysus" - is in ancient Greek religion the god of life cycles, of feasts, of wine, of insanity, of theater, of religious rites but above all of intoxication that fuses the drinker with the deity.

He was the last god accepted on Olympus, son of Zeus and the princess Sêmele, he was also the only Olympian son of a mortal, which makes him an atypical Greek deity.

Dionysus was represented in Greek cities as the protector of those outside conventional society and thus symbolizes all that is chaotic, dangerous and unexpected, all that escapes human reason and can only be attributed to the unpredictable action of the gods.

Dionysus is described as of "golden hair" by Hesiod.

Birth, according to the classical texts

Cadmo, king and founder of Thebes, was married to Harmonia, daughter of Ares and Aphrodite. Cadmo and Harmonia had several children, Autônoe, Ino, Sêmele, Agave and Polydoro.

Zeus impregnated Sêmele, without Hera's knowledge, and promised Sêmele that she could ask for whatever she wanted; deceived by Hera, she asked Zeus to show himself to her in his royal form, as he showed himself to Hera.

Unable to refuse, Zeus appears in a chariot of lightning and thunder, and Sêmele dies, from fright; Zeus takes the six-month premature baby, and raises it in his thigh. Sêmele's sisters, however, said that she had become pregnant by a mortal, falsely accusing Zeus of having murdered her with lightning.

At the time of Dionysus' birth, Zeus undid the stitches, and gave the baby to Hermes, who gave him to Ino and her husband Atamante, commanding that he should be reared as a girl. But Hera made Atamante go mad, and killed her son Learco, mistaking him for a deer; Ino then killed her other son Melicertes, and threw herself, with her dead son, into the bottom of the sea.

Zeus, however, deceived Hera by turning Dionysus into a boy, and gave him to the nymphs who lived in Nisa, in Asia; these nymphs, as a prize, were transformed into the stars called Hyades.

Birth, according to the Orphic religion

Zagreu is a god of the Orphic religion, possibly of Phrygian origin, whose cult began around the 6th century BCE. Pindar alludes to Zagreu, but the one who first connected Zagreu to Greek mythology was Nono of Panopolis.

Zagreus was the son of Persephone and Zeus, who raped Persephone before she was abducted by Hades; at Hera's instigation, Zagreus was torn apart by the titans, but his heart was rescued by Athena and given by Zeus, as a drink, to Sêmele, before she became pregnant with Zeus.

Modern synthesis of the myth

From the recasting of these versions comes the following account of the birth of Dionysus.

From the union between Persephone and Zeus in the form of a serpent the god Zagreu was begotten. Hera, jealous, persuaded the titans to attack the infant god as he looked into a mirror. Not only did the titans tear him apart, but they ate the pieces of his body - all except the heart that Athena rescued.

Athena brought Zeus the heart, and Zeus used it to prepare a potion with which to impregnate Sêmele, who then begat Dionysus.

It happened that Hera, who was jealous of yet another betrayal by Zeus, instigated Gemini to ask her lover (in case he was the real Zeus) to come to her dressed in all his splendor, in other versions asking him to show her his true form.

Sêmele then asked Zeus to fulfill a request of hers, not knowing what it would be, in some versions, she made him make a promise by the Styx, the most sacred vow, which not even the gods can break. He agreed, and when he learned what it was all about, he immediately regretted it. Once the request was granted he would have to fulfill it.

He then returned to Olympus and put on his wonderful robes (or demonstrated his true form), already knowing what would happen. In fact, Sêmele's mortal body was not able to withstand all that splendor, and she turned to ashes.


Zeus pulled the aborted child out of the fire in the sixth month of gestation and sewed him to his thigh. In due course, Zeus undid the stitching and gave birth to Dionysus.

He entrusted him to Hermes, and Hermes passed him on to Ino, sister of Sêmele and Athamas, who raised them. When Hera learned of Dionysus' location, she made the couple go mad, leading them to kill themselves and their own children.

After he was grown, still Hera's anger made Dionysus mad and he was left to wander through various parts of the earth. When he passed through Phrygia, the goddess Cybele cured him and instructed him in his religious rites. Healed, he goes across Asia teaching grape cultivation. He was the first to plant and cultivate grapevines, so the people began to worship him as the god of wine.

Main myths

King Lycurgus of Thrace attacked Dionysus and his companions when they were traveling through his land and threw them into the sea. As punishment, the god caused him to go insane by making him murder his wife and son and mutilate himself with an axe. Another king Pentheus of Thebes refused to accept the god's divinity and tried to imprison him.

Dionysus retaliated against Pentheus, causing the king's mother, aunts and sisters to go into a crazed frenzy and dismember him. Such an episode is described in the tragedy The Bacchantes.

Dionysus instructed the hero Icarus of Athens in the art of winemaking. However, some shepherds, after drinking the wine, thought he had been poisoned and killed him. The sad god then placed Icarus among the stars of the constellation of Boötes.

When Dionysus was traveling through the Aegean islands, he was captured by a band of Tyrrhenian pirates who thought to sell him into slavery. The god infested his ship with ghosts of creepers and wild animals, and in fear the men jumped overboard and were turned into dolphins.

The god launched a campaign against the Indian nation in the far reaches of Asia, leading an army composed of satyrs, maenads, and demigods. War is a central theme of the epic poem Dionysus of Panopolis' Ninth, which relates Dionysus' life, war, and triumphant return to the west. It is the longest Greek poem of antiquity.

Dionysus traveled to the underworld to retrieve his mother Sêmele and brought her to Olympus where Zeus made her a goddess.


Dionysus' great love was the princess Ariadne. He married Ariadne after discovering her abandoned by her lover Theseus on the island of Naxos. Dionysus takes her to the mountain called Drius. After that, the two disappeared, and Ariadne was never seen again.

However there are several conflicting versions of the myth. In Pseudo-Apolodorus' version, Dionysus falls in love with Ariadne, kidnaps her to Lemnos, where she bears his sons Toas, Staphylus, Enopion and Peparetus. According to Pausanias, Dionysus and Ariadne were the parents of the hero Céramo; the Athenian district of Ceramus is named after Céramo.


In Roman mythology, Dionysus became Bacchus, who turns into a lion to fight and devour the giants that climbed the sky, and was later regarded by Zeus as the most powerful of the gods.

He is usually represented as a young, beardless, laughing and festive man with long blond, floating hair, holding in one hand a bunch of grapes or a cup, and in the other a tirso (a dart) adorned with foliage and ribbons. His body is covered with a mantle of lion or leopard skin, on his head he carries a crown of pythons, and drives a chariot driven by lions.

He may also be represented sitting on a barrel, with a cup in his hand, overflowing with generous wine, where he absorbs the intoxication that makes him stagger. The magpie, the goat and the hare were consecrated to him.

Companions of Dionysus

Dionysus is usually shown in the company of others who are enjoying the fruit of the vine. An inescapable figure is that of Silenus, his teacher, faithful companion, and notorious wine drinker, who taught him the cultivation of the vine, the pruning of the branches, and the making of the wine, and who is attributed the role of tutor to the young god in the Orphic hymns.

In addition to Silene, satyrs, centaurs and nymphs drink the wine, play flutes, take part in dances and amorous pursuits. Portrayals of Dionysus may also include the ménades, human women driven mad by the god of wine who wandered the hills at night and took part in ritualistic activities, such as nursing wild animal offspring and drinking wine, honey, and milk.

These mythological women are shown to be intoxicated and violent, as when they tear Pentheus, king of Thebes, to pieces in Euripides' tragedy The Bacchae.

The Dionysian cult

The religious rites dedicated to Dionysus were known as the Dionysian mysteries. They usually involved intoxicating agents, mostly wine, to induce trances that eradicated inhibitions. The Cult of Dionysus was based on rituals, but there is very little concrete information about most of them.

It is known that the rites centered on a death-rebirth theme and that most of the practitioners were "intruders," that is, foreigners, outlaws, slaves, and especially women. It is believed that they went into trances and used rhythmic music in the rites.

The women who participated in these rituals imitated the conduct of the maenads. They performed frenzied, ecstatic dances, often around the image of Dionysus. In these dances, the women threw back their heads, exposing their throats, rolling their eyes, and screaming like wild animals. They also performed a sacrificial ritual, during which the women killed goats, lambs, and cattle and devoured their raw meat.

Dionysus and the theater

The development of the Greek Theater originated in the worship paid to Dionysus in Athens. The main festival in which the competing tetralogies (three tragedies and one satire) were performed was known as Urban Dionysia. It was an important annual event for democracy.

The theater of Dionysus was located on the southern slope of the acropolis of Athens, with seating for an audience of 17,000. There were also the dramatic contests of the Rural Dionysia and the Lenaia festival, whose name is a synonym for "Ménade". Plays were also performed at the Antestéria festival, which honored Dionysus as the god of wine.

The actors in the plays performed in honor of Dionysus wear masks, symbols of the submersion of their identity into that of another. This loss of individuality is demonstrated in the theater not only by the masks the actors wear, but also by the chorus.

The members of the chorus dance and sing in unison, chanting the same words; they have no identity, each is simply an insignificant part of the whole, with no individuated will. All individuality and willpower must be offered to Dionysus when the god so wishes.

It has been suggested that every tragic hero who suffers and dies on stage at the time of the great dramatic festival in Athens, is in fact Dionysus himself being killed. It has also been proposed that the plot of the sacrifice is the original plot of the tragedy, and that the festival of Dionysia honors Dionysus by reproducing his death.

According to the myth, Dionysus ordered his subjects to bring him a drink that would enliven him and engage all the senses. They brought him various nectars, but Dionysus was not satisfied until they offered him wine.

The god was delighted to see the drink, its colors, nuances and the way it sparkled in the sun, and at the same time he felt the fruity aroma exhaling from the jars in front of him. When the drink touched his lips, he felt the softness of the wine's body and realized its unique, smooth, intoxicating flavor.

So happy, Dionysus made everyone present toast with their glasses, and the sound of the toast could be heard throughout the fields of that region. From then on, Dionysus blessed and protected everyone who produced such a divine drink, and was worshiped as the god of wine and joy.

The musical instrument played in the urban Dionysias was the flute, a verse called Ditirambo was used, and the hymn was accompanied by a choral dance with illustrative movements. The participants wore masks (the personas) that symbolized the dramatic transformation.

It was, therefore, in the Urban Dionysian festivals that the first manifestations of theater emerged, which is why Dionysus is also considered the god of theater.


Dionysus was a god of many names. Besides the Roman version Bacchus (Baccus) was also called:

Dendrites ("the one of the trees," referring to the fertility attributed to him), Bromios ("the one who makes thunder" or "the one who shouts loudly"), Lesbos Enorches or just Enorches ("in the testicles," in reference to the myth that Dionysus, after the death of his mother while still pregnant with him, ended up being sired in the thighs of his father Zeus, that is, near his testicles), Eleutherios ("the liberator," an epithet for both Dionysus and Eros).

In Dionysus' initiation rituals, the future bacchantes would shout a mantra invoking all the names of Dionysus: Io! Io! Bromios!, Io! Io! Dendrites!

Modern literature and philosophy

Dionysus remained an inspiration for artists, philosophers, and writers in the Modern Age. In The Birth of Tragedy in the Spirit of Music (1872), the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche proposed that the tension between Apollonian and Dionysian aesthetic principles were the pillars of the development of Greek tragedy.

Dionysus represented that which was full, unrestricted, chaotic and irrational, while Apollo represented the rational and ordered. This opposition or rivalry between Dionysus and Apollo is regarded as a "modern myth" because it originates in the philosophy of thinkers such as Nietzsche and Johann Joachim Winckelmann, and such representational rivalry is not found in classical works.

However, the theme's acceptance and popularity in Western culture has been so great, that its undercurrent has influenced conclusions of classical literature.

Nietzsche also proposes that the earliest forms of Greek tragedy were based entirely on the suffering of Dionysus. In Beyond Good and Evil (1886), and later in Twilight of the Idols, The Antichrist, and Ecce Homo, Dionysus is conceived as the unrestricted personification of the will to power.

In The Hellenic Religion of the Suffering God (1904), poet Vyacheslav Ivanov develops the theory of Dionysism based on the origins of literature, and particularly tragedy, associated with the ancient Dionysian mysteries. Ivanov said that the suffering of Dionysus "was the distinctive feature of the cult," just as the suffering of Christ would be the fundamental feature of Christianity.

Hungarian philologist Károly Kerényi defines Dionysus as representative of the psychological concept of life force (Greek: ζόη; transl. : Zoé). Several psychological approaches consider Dionysus' emotionalism as his main characteristic, focusing on the analysis of joy, hysteria, and terror associated with the god.