Dionysos is my favourite of all Greek gods. Why? He invented the orgasm, ecstasy, revelry and wine for mortals, four of my favorite hobbies. But surely if he is known for something it is for the last one, being the god of wine. The effects of this drink have always been so powerful on human beings that the only way to explain it has been through divine intervention.
Dionysos, also known as Bacchus, was also identified in Rome with the italic god Liber Pater, and he was essentially the famous greek god of wine and intoxication, of ritual madness and a state of freedom from everyday identity. Homer calls him a ‘joy for mortals’ and Hesiod ‘he of many delights’. Dionysos also absorbed several similar cults from Asia Minor, and these partial identifications gave rise to various episodes in his mythology.
He introduced wine to men, says Euripides, ‘which, when they drink their fill, banishes the sufferings of wretched mortals, and bright forgetfulness of each day’s troubles in sleep. There is no other cure for sorrow…’. Wine played an important role in Greek culture with the cult of Dionysus as the main religious focus for unrestrained consumption.
Dionysos is a nature god, representing the sap of life, the coursing of the blood through the veins, the throbbing excitement and mystery of sex and life and growth.
If you walk into a museum with a Greek art section, stop by, it will be easy to recognize him: he is identified by his attributes of drinking vessel and ivy wreath, and by his special emblem, the thyrsos. He often appears accompanied by his ecstatic followers and sometimes by panthers and snakes. Until about 430 BC, he is shown as a bearded, ivy-wreathed, older man, wearing long robes and often a deerskin or panther-skin. He grows younger with time, and after 430 he is usually youthful, beardless and naked or semi-naked.
He was an Olympian deity, the son of Zeus and mortal Semele, a happy couple until the day, with Semele pregnant, that Zeus came to her as the great storm-god, lord of the lighting and she was burnt to ashes. Zeus took the unborn child, which was still only in its sixth month, from her womb and sewed it up inside his thigh. In due course it was born alive and perfectly formed. This was Dionysus, the ‘twice-born’ god.
He was grown among mountain nymphs, which is always nice. He spent most of his time touring the world in the company of satyrs, nymphs and maenads, interesting women who used to abandon themselves to the practice of wild dances and all sorts of excesses. They are normally represented with their heads left back as they dance and dance, exactly as I do when I get returns on my income tax.
On one of his trips Dionysos was captured by pirates who hoped to sell him as a slave at the market. But in mid-ocean, strange miracles began to occur: wine ran streaming through the ship, and vines and ivy grew from the mast and sail. A ravenous bear appeared on the deck, and the god became a dreadful, roaring lion and sprang upon the pirate captain. The terrified sailors leapt overboard and were transformed into dolphins, which is why dolphins, having once being human themselves, have ever since been friendly to men. A remarkable day, no doubt.
If I can give you a piece of advice related to this god it is this: don’t refuse to recognize his divinity, don’t try resist to him, usually it will come to a bad, and often bloody, end. He drove Lykourgos mad, and in his madness he struck his son Dryas dead with an axe, believing that he was pruning a grapevine. After cutting off his son’s extremities, he regained his sanity: Surprise! On another occasion the daughters of Minyas, king of Orchomenos, ignored the festival of Dionysos. He appeared to them in the form of a young girl and urged them not to neglect his rites. When they spurned his advice, he turned himself into a bull, a lion and a leopard, while milk and nectar flowed from their looms. They were finally turned into a bat and two kinds of owl; or, in other versions, a crow, a bat an owl, or bats all of them. Anyway, poor king. But the most famous of all the refusing to the god is that of Pentheus, king of Thebes, who was torn to pieces by his own mother, as Euripides tells in his famous tragedy The Bacchae.
Could all these myths be an explanation of the effects of the delirium tremens, that rapid onset of confusion caused by withdrawal from alcohol? When it occurs, it is often three days into the withdrawal symptoms and lasts for two to three days. People may also see or hear things other people do not. Physical effects may include shaking, shivering, irregular heart rate, and sweating. Occasionally, a very high body temperature or seizures may result in death. Remember, alcohol is one of the most dangerous drugs to experience withdrawal from.
Either way, as you can see, Dionysos was indeed a god with a dual nature: as Euripides puts it in his Backhai, he was a god most terrible and most gentle to mortals.