1902 Encyclopedia > Dionysius

Ancient Greek god of wine

DIONYSUS, in Greek Mythology, is principally the god of the vine; and in the myths concerning him it is clear that the effects of wine and the spread of vine growing have both been kept in view. No sooner had the god grown up than he started on distant expeditions to teach men to cultivate the vine, and on these occasions his followers were known for their ecstatic ceremonies. It would seem also as if the story of his birth was only a mythical representation of the growth and ripening of the grape. Thebes in Bceotia was originally the local centre of his worship in Greece; and he was a son of Semele, a daughter of Cadmus, the king of Thebes, his father being Zeus, who among other divine functions exercised also that of god of the fertilizing spring showers. Before the child was mature, Zeus appeared to Semele at her request in his majesty as god of lightning, by which she was killed, but the infant was saved from the same fate by cool ivy which grew up suddenly around him. Zeus took him up, inclosed him within his own thigh till he came to maturity, and then brought him to the light, so that he was twice born ; and it was to celebrate this double birth that the dithyrambus was sung. He was now con-veyed by Hermes to be brought up by the nymphs of Nysa, from which place it is probable his name Dio-nysus, or " god of Nysa," is derived; but among the many places of this name claiming to have been the true one it is impossible to decide. In his journeys to teach the cultiva-tion of the vine he met with opposition in some cases, as in that of Lycurgus, a Thracian king, from whose attack Dionysus saved himself by leaping into the sea, where he was kindly received by Thetis. Lycurgus was blinded by Zeus and soon died, or, according to another story, became frantic and hewed down his own son, mistaking him for a vine; while in a third story Ambrosia, who was changed into a vine, clung so closely round him that, failing to escape, he died. A similar incident is that of Pentheus, ting of Thebes, who opposed the orgiastic ceremonies introduced by Dionysus among the women of Thebes, and, having been present watching one of these ceremonies, was mistaken for some animal of the chase, pursued, and slain by his own mother. At Orchomenus, the three daughters of Minyas refused to join the other women in their nocturnal orgies, and for this were transformed into birds. It was in accordance with this tradition that in after times, at the festival of the Agrionia, the priests of Dionysus pursued the women of the race of Minyas with drawn swords, and if they captured them, killed them, which incident, it will be seen, also justifies the title of _____; applied to Dionysus. On the other hand, when the god was received hospitably he repaid the kindness by the gift of the vine, and of this the chief instance is that of Icarius of Attica, who lived in the time of King Pandion. But Icarius, instead of keeping secret the use of the vine, spread it among the herdsman and labourers, who, becoming intoxicated with the wine, slew him and threw him into a well or buried him under a tree, where his daughter Erigone found his grave, and in her despair hanged herself on the tree. In recollection of this it was the custom to hang small figures and masks on trees at the ceremony in her honour. The district of Icaria, though in Attica, was on the borders of Bceotia, which latter was the earliest and chief seat of the worship of Dionysus in Greece, with its famous festival on Mount Cithaeron. Festivals of the same ecstatic kind spread to Attica, to Mount Parnassus, and north to Thrace. But in Bceotia Dionysus was personally associated with so many festivals and incidents that he has more the appearance of a hero or demigod than of a god, and it may have been from a sense of this that Herodotus (ii. 52) calls him the most recent of the gods. In Homer also he has a secondary character. To what extent the idea of his functions may have been derived from the Vedic god Soma cannot be determined, but the similarity between the two deities becomes the more striking when we remember how actively the worship of Dionysus was con-ducted in Asia Minor, particularly in Phrygia and Lydia, where he was styled Sabazius, with the epithet also of /3ayaio9, from which it is supposed his Greek name of Bacchos was derived. As Sabazius he was associated with the Phrygian goddess Cybele, and was followed in his expeditions by a thiasos of Centaurs, Pan, Satyrs, and Silenus. In Lydia his triumphant return from India was celebrated by an annual festival on Mount Tmolus, and it was in Lydia that he assumed the long beard and long robe which were afterwards given him in his character as the " Indian Bacchus." The other incidents in which he appears in a purely triumphal character are his transforming the Tyrrhene pirates who attacked him into dolphins, as told in the Homeric hymn to Dionysus, and as represented on the monument of Lysicrates at Athens, and his part in the war of the gods against the giants. The adventure with the pirates occurred on his voyage to Naxos, where he found Ariadne when she had been abandoned by Theseus. At Naxos Ariadne was associated with Dionysus as his wife, and their marriage was annually celebrated by a festival. (See ARIADNE.) Another phase in the myth of Dionysus originated in observing the decay of vegetation in winter, to suit which he was supposed to be slain and to join the deities of the lower world, in which connection he figured in the mysteries of Eleusis. This phase of his character was developed by the Orphic poets, he having here the name of Zagreus, and being no longer the Theban god, but a son of Zeus and Persephone. The child was brought up secretly, watched over by Kuretes; but the jealous Hera discovered where he was, and sent Titans to the spot, who, finding him at play, tore him to pieces, and cooked and ate his limbs, while Hera gave his heart to Zeus. To connect this with the myth of the Theban birth of Dionysus, it is said that Zeus gave the child's heart to Semele, or himself swallowed it and gave birth to the Theban god. Altogether there were, it was said, five different gods " Dionysus," each having different parentage. The conception of Zagreus, or the winter Dionysus, appears to have originated in Crete, but it was accepted also in Delphi, where his grave was shown, at which sacrifice was secretly offered annually on the shortest day. This feature of going away in the winter and returning at spring, which was common to Dionysus and Apollo, would commend the former god to the priests of Apollo at Delphi. Dionysus had further, in common with Apollo, the prophetic gift. Like Hermes, he was a god of the productiveness of nature, and hence Priapus was one of his regular com-panions, while not only in the mysteries but in the rural festivals his symbol, the phallus, was carried about ostentatiously. His symbols from the animal kingdom were the bull, panther, ass, and goat. His personal attributes are an ivy wreath, the thyrsus (a staff with pine cone at the end), a drinking cup (cartfharus), and sometimes the horn of a bull on his forehead. Artistically he was repre-sented mostly either as a youth of soft nearly feminine form, or as a bearded and draped man, but frequently also as an infant, with reference to his birth or to his bringing up in Nysa. The earliest images were of wood with the branches still attached in parts, whence he was called Dionysus Dendrites. He was figured also, like Hermes, in the form of a pillar or term surmounted by his head.

The Greek colonists of Southern Italy (Magna Graecia) had taken with them the worship of Dionysus, and so successfully had it spread there that Sophocles (Antig. 1106) speaks of him as the god who rules in Italy. Prom Campania the joint worship of Dionysus (Liber), Demeter (Ceres), and Kore (Libera) was introduced into Borne, and a temple was erected to them 495 B.C., in obedience to the Sibylline books. But the mysteries which were held in con- nection with this worship were suppressed by the senate, 186 B.C. In Campania Dionysus was styled Hebon, and conceived in the form of a bull with a human head. Libera, usually identified with Kore, corresponds rather to the goddess Hebe as worshipped at Phlius. (A. S. M.)

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