Dionysus, God of
Known by Many Names,
The Resurrection God,
The Wanderer, and The Wild Man
And Zagreus, the Underworld Dionysus.
The Greek god Dionysus is also
known as the Roman god Bacchus.
Dionysus, Greek God of Wine
The Greek god Dionysus was lucky to even survive long enough to become an adult. The
story of the premature birth of Dionysus is an interesting one.
Dionysus was the son of the beautiful and gentle mortal Semele, who had been a moon
goddess during the reign of the Titans, and the mighty Zeus, ruler of the Olympian
deities. Zeus and Semele had been having a love affair for quite a while...only Semele had
no idea who her lover really was since Zeus always came to her in another form, refusing
to disclose his identity. But Hera, the wife of Zeus and Queen of Mount Olympus, didn't
have any trouble figuring out what her husband was up to and decided to put an end to it.
Hera, disguised as Semele's nurse, convinced her to make Zeus take an oath that he
would grant her a single wish. And he did. Semele then asked him to reveal his identity,
his true self. Zeus knew what would happen should he grant her request and was
heartbroken. But Semele refused to change her request, and Zeus had no choice to to comply
since he had sworn an oath. So he changed into his true form, and his thunderbolts filled
the room. Semele was struck by the lightning and died.
Zeus, with the help of his trusted assistant Hermes, had to rescue Dionysus from
Semele's womb as she lay dying. They stitched the premature infant into his thigh, and
Zeus carried him there until the baby was ready to be born. (Needless to say, Hera was not
amused with this turn of events!)
So Hera had the newborn Dionysus killed by a couple of Titan assassins
who tore him to bits, even though he kept trying to escape them by changing forms to hide
from them. When he died a pomegranate tree began to grow where his blood had fallen.
Disconcerted by this, the Titans decided to be on the safe side and boil the pieces
of his body in a great cauldron.
Luckily he was resurrected by his grandmother (though in some accounts it
was by his half sister, Athena) and was entrusted to the goddess Persephone for
safekeeping. Persephone, in turn, hid him with a king and his wife, who disguised him in
girls clothing and hid him in the women's quarters of their palace. Eventually, of course,
Hera discovered he was still alive and resumed her campaign of harassment, driving his
royal foster parents insane and causing them to kill their own son when they mistook him
for a deer.
To protect the infant god, Hermes changed Dionysus into a baby goat and took him to
a group of mountain nymphs (the Hyades) to be raised. They doted on the child, feeding him
honey and doing everything they could to help him feel wanted. While living in the
mountains with the nymphs, Dionysus invented the process of growing grapes and making
wine. (Who wouldn't need a drink after all he'd been through!)
|As he grew to manhood, Hera found him again and drove him into a state of madness.
Dionysus started to wander mindlessly though the Greek countryside where he became known
as "The Wanderer".
He developed quite a following of men and women who
worshipped him in the mountains, drinking, dancing ecstatically to frenzied music, and
otherwise behaving like "wild ones".
Their celebrations alternated with periods of deep meditation and extended
contemplative silences. ( The word "orgy" comes from these gatherings where the
celebrants reached an ecstatic state and felt that they were "at one" with the
Greek god.) Dionysus was rapidly becoming well-known as a result of his followers and
their wild celebrations.
Naturally, Hera soon heard of him. Rather than deal with her next moves,
Dionysus did the smart thing and simply "took off". Travelling to Egypt, India
and the Aegean Islands, Dionysus had many adventures and acquired many friends and
worshippers, teaching the locals to grow grapes and make wine wherever he went.
In some versions of the myths of the Greek god Dionysus, he traveled as a
warrior with his troops and became a military hero. During a foray into the Middle East,
while warring with the king of Damascus, Dionysus built a bridge from vines and ivy that
allowed him to cross safely across the Euphrates river. And the river Tigris got
its name from one of the myths of Dionysus--Zeus had dispatched a tiger to help him cross
During his travels abroad, Dionysus continued to gather more followers, which was very
threatening to the rulers of these countries. Many of them opposed him, and there
was often great bloodshed. Frequently Dionysus used the "trick" of turning the
ruler, or his family, or the citizens of his country (especially the women) completely mad
. . . often with horrific results.
In one of the more dramatic myths, Dionysus and his followers, the Maenads, had been
arrested by the king of Thebes, who instantly went mad and mistook a bull for Dionysus and
shackled the bull instead. The Maenads escaped and ran throughout the countryside brutally
killing all the livestock. Then they returned and tore the king to pieces, with the
assistance of his mother who tore off his head, having been driven insane as well.
Dionysus tired of his travels and began to yearn for home. To make the trip, Dionysus
boarded a ship scheduled to sail to Greece, not realizing that it was actually a pirate
ship. The sailors, unaware that he was a god, turned the ship around to sail for
Asia where they planned to sell him into slavery. Realizing their intent, the Greek god
Dionysus foiled their plans. Turning their oars into serpents, causing vines and ivy to
engulf the mast and rigging, Dionysus turned himself into a ferocious lion. While all of
this was happening the air was filled with the eerie sound of flutes and ghost-like beasts
floated around the ship. Crazy with fear the pirates jumped into the ocean and quickly
turned into harmless dolphins.
Given his spectacular success in foreign lands and with his worship now
being established world-wide, his divinity could no longer be ignored on Mount Olympus and
Dionysus was asked to come home and take his rightful place among the other Greek gods.
Even the vengeful Hera finally accepted him.
In addition to his having been resurrected from the dead himself, Dionysus
brought his mother Semele back to life, descending into the Underworld and escorting her
back to live on Mount Olympus.
By bribing Persephone, Queen of the Underworld, with a sprig of myrtle to
gain admittance, and then by standing up to Thanatos, the Greek god of Death, dionysus
secured Semele's release.Although Semele had to change her name and live in an apartment,
so that her presence among them would not be scandalous, even Hera was willing to accept
her presence there.
Dionysus married Ariadne, a princess who had been a moon goddess during earlier times
when the Titans ruled. Ariadne had been engaged to the hero Theseus who had deserted
her. Dionysus fell in love with her and together they had several children, none of whom
achieved great fame. The Greek god Dionysus was one of the few Greek gods who were
faithful to their wives (perhaps because he'd already sown his wild oats before settling
The recurrent themes of life and death, run though the legends of
Dionysus. They teach us that the journey from being the Divine Child to a fruitful
kingship requires the "giving up" (death) of the old self and rebirth in a more
mature form. The myths of the Greek god Dionysus remind us that the possibilities of
intense, ecstatic experience (whether through alcohol, other drugs, dancing, or spiritual
experience) include both a dark side with the potential for great harm to ourselves and
others, as well as a bright potential for communion with others, including a greater
power, and for works of healing.
The Symbols of the Greek
- grapes (vine, leaves, & fruit)