"At Thebes Alone Do Mortal Women Bear Immortal Gods"
Dionysus has always been one of the most intricate and complex deities worshiped in the ancient world. Though he was best known for being the god of vineyards and wine making, he was also associated with ritualistic and religious furor, the theater and fertility rites.
Dionysus was the youngest of the Olympians and the last to be accepted into the Greek pantheon. He was always surrounded by an aura of unconventional sensuality which was aptly mirrored by the ceremonial acts of his vast number of followers.
The dual nature of the god was openly expressed by the ambiguous composition of his physical features. Though earlier accounts present him as a bearded gentleman of middle age, later depictions of Dionysus clearly represent him as being an androgynous being with highly feminine attributes.
Because of the odd circumstances surrounding his birth, Dionysus is often referred to as being "Twice Born." Though the details of the stories vary, all are in agreement that he was the only one of the twelve Olympians who was conceived by a mortal woman.
According to one account, Zeus came to Persephone in the form of a snake. For reasons unknown, Persephone willingly gave in to the god's inappropriate advances and before long found herself to be with child.
When Hera became privy to her husband's affair, she flew into a jealous rage and petitioned the Titans to murder the newborn. The infant was to be first torn into little pieces, and then promptly devoured to erase all traces of the crime.
The Titans did their best to carry out Hera's bidding, but just before the heinous act could be completed the goddess Athena appeared and salvaged the poor boy's heart.
She then ground the organ into a fine dust and presented it to her father Zeus, who secretly placed the powder into the cup of Semele, daughter of King Cadmus of Thebes.
After drinking the magical elixir Semele became pregnant and at the end of nine months successfully delivered the baby Dionysus. It is because of this second birth in Thebes that the god was given the title of Twice Born
In an alternate version of the story we once again find ourselves in the land of Thebes. It seems that after being seduced by Zeus, the princess Semele discovered that she was expecting a child. Furious over her husband's continuous infidelities, Hera disguised herself as the girl's nurse and took up residence inside of the palace.
One morning as she was pretending to care for Semele, Hera slyly whispered into the ear of her rival "If Zeus really loved you, would he not grant you all that your heart desired?"
Seeing that she had the impressionable young girl's full attention, the goddess artfully added "Why not ask him to appear to you in all of his glory, just as he does for his wife?"
Semele could not get the tempting idea out of her mind. For days she pondered over the odd proposition until finally the time came for Zeus to pay her another visit.
Without hesitation she eagerly asked the god if he would swear by the river Styx to fulfill her most coveted wish. Finding the request to be refreshingly childlike, Zeus laughed and cheerfully vowed to give his new love anything she desired.
He listened in disbelief as Semele emphatically stated her request. All feelings of mirth and joy vanished from the god's heart, for he knew he could not break the sacred oath.
Having no other choice but to adhere to his promise, Zeus removed his protective veil and stood before the maiden covered in only the light of his divinity. In an instant Semele was consumed by a raging ball of flames.
Luckily, Zeus was able to save the infant as he fell from his mother's womb. Carefully he stitched the baby into his own thigh, where he was able to safely grow to fruition. Once the boy was fully developed, Zeus removed the sutures and greeted his new son Dionysus.
Although the details regarding the birth of Dionysus vary slightly between the two accounts, both supply the reader with a clear explanation of how the mysterious god earned the title of Twice Born.
The texts also present contradicting storylines regarding the early life of Dionysus. One account states that Hermes took immediate possession of the newborn and placed him in the care of Semele's sister Ino.
In order to keep Dionysus safe from the wrath of Hera, Ino was instructed to dress the child as a girl. For this reason Dionysus is sometimes represented with feminine traits, the most common being female breasts.
Though Ino agreed to take the boy, she and her sisters Agave and Autonoe did not believe that he was truly the son of Zeus, and therefore refused to acknowledge him as one of the immortals.
Another version tells us that in order to protect his young son from Hera, Zeus transformed Dionysus into a goat. He was then taken to Mount Nysa by Hermes where he was hidden away inside of a cave and raised by the rain nymphs.
When the god later regained his human form these nymphs became his followers are were commonly referred to as maenads or mad women.
According to Robert Graves, after the rain nymphs grew old, Dionysus asked the witch Medea to restore their youth by boiling them in her magical cauldron.
There is also a conflicting myth which states that to show his gratitude, Zeus placed the nymphs in the heavens as the star cluster Hyades.
It came to be that a pirate ship set down upon the isle of Icaria. After disembarking their vessel the group of seafarers happened to catch a glimpse of Dionysus as he was walking along the shoreline. Believing him to be the son of a wealthy family, they approached the boy to see what he was up to.
When Dionysus confided to the sailors that he was in need of a ride to the island of Naxos, the unsavory bunch immediately deemed the lad's inopportune predicament to be an easy moneymaking opportunity for themselves.
Hoping to collect a substantial ransom from the boy's father, the band of hooligans eagerly welcomed their new passenger aboard. Much to his surprise, the young man was immediately overpowered by his hosts and quickly led away in chains.
Because of the god's exceptional beauty, many of the sailors attempted to have their way with him. This was true of all but the helmsman Acoetes, whose acute intuition told him that the mysterious stranger held captive upon their ship was in every probability a god.
Suddenly the boat came to an abrupt stop and the ghostly sounds of phantom flutes began to softly fill the air. The pirates watched in amazement as tangled clusters of grapevines rapidly began to twist themselves around the ship's oars.
Herds of wild beasts appeared upon the deck and savagely turned the ship's crew into a fine midday meal. In an attempt to save their lives, the men fearfully jumped into the sea, only to find themselves transformed into dolphins as soon as they hit the water.
As a reward for protecting Dionysus from the hands of his captors, Acoetes was spared the fate of his shipmates and successfully completed the god's journey to the island of Naxos.
Dionysus was not always fortunate enough to evade the avenging anger of Hera. While the god was still a youth, she cursed him with such intense feelings of madness that he was compelled to flee the protective arms of his faithful nurses and wander aimlessly through the lands of Egypt and Syria.
It was not until he reached the kingdom of Phrygia that his affliction was mercifully removed by the mother goddess Cybele. It was during this stay in Phrygia that the god's earliest forms of cult worship took root, later expanding into mainland Greece, Rome and the eastern Mediterranean.
The followers of Dionysus usually traveled in large bands. The groups were made up of maenads, satyrs and drunkards who enjoyed sipping from the sacks of the god's curiously potent grape wine. It was common for his male attendants to dress in the same flowing robes as the females, thus allowing for everyone to take on the same effeminate look.
During their celebrations, the patrons were known to carry baton-like poles called "thyrsi", which were ornately entwined with ivy and then topped off with pinecones. Cult worship involved nocturnal and orgiastic rites which were usually performed in the solitude of the surrounding mountains.
It was said that all those who embraced the sacred mysteries of Dionysus were taught the craft of grape cultivation and winemaking, while those in opposition were met with condemnation and ruin.
It was common for the attendees to fall into a religious trance or frenzy, which often conjured up visions of the god donning the likeness of a bull or goat. Sexual acts were common during these ceremonial rites, as well as deeds of profound violence.
During the early Mysteries of Dionysus it was believed that one could ingest the essence of the god by consuming the raw flesh of a sacrificial victim. A general practice was for women to leave their children behind and retreat to the hilltops, where they would openly suckle fawns and kids. The baby animals would then be torn to shreds and their flesh eagerly devoured by the crazed females.
The practice of using the hands to manually dismember a sacrificial victim was not solely reserved for animals. The ancient texts also describe rings of frenetic women, who after engaging men in sexual encounters proceeded to uncontrollably pull their limbs from their bodies.
In the later Mysteries the practice of consuming raw flesh was viewed as a great sin and was permanently banned from the god's religious celebrations. You can read more about this topic by going over to my page dedicated to Orpheus.
Pentheus was the son of the Thebian princess Agave and Echion, one of the mighty Sown-Men of old. It came to be that King Cadmus of Thebes, who was now quite up in age, decided to relinquish his royal title and bestow it upon his grandson Pentheus.It was during this time that Dionysus was traveling through the various towns and cities of the ancient world in an attempt to initiate new followers into his secret rites of worship. As generally found with the introduction of any new ideology, the god was met with strong waves of opposition.
He faced and conquered his adversaries in the lands of India and Thrace and then headed towards central Greece and the district of Boeotia.
Once inside of the gates of Thebes, Dionysus cordially invited all of the townswomen to follow him to Mount Cithaeron where a sacred festival was being conducted in his honor.
Taking an instant dislike to the unkept band of bohemians, Pentheus publically denounced the god and strictly forbade all from participating in any of his religious rites. In an act of retaliation, Dionysus defiantly caused all the city's women to be stricken with an acute bout of madness.
Deeply entranced by the god's hypnotic spell, the women abandoned their homes and blindly raced to the hills of Cithaeron. Outraged by the behavior of this unfamiliar stranger and his peculiar group of followers, Pentheus had the entire lot bound and imprisoned in the city jail.
However, it would not take long for the disgruntle king to realize his dungeon held more than a troublesome mortal, for seconds after the culprit was detained, his chains fell to the ground and the cell door miraculously sprung open.
Dionysus immediately put his charming ways to good use. He slyly convinced Pentheus to accompany him to the nearby mountain tops, where under the cover of night the two could safely observe the women's mysterious rites of worship.
Anxious to finally have these secrets revealed to him, Pentheus quickly dressed himself up as a maenad and enthusiastically followed after the god.
He then climbed atop of a giant pine tree and watched in amazement as the women below frantically danced in circles and devoured the raw flesh of animals.
But then the unthinkable happened. Just as the women were at the height of their frenzy, the rustling of the surrounding trees caused the band to look up and discover Pentheus hiding among the dark branches.
At that moment Dionysus caused a thick blue mist to fill the air and briefly cloud the eyes of the maniacal devotees. Mistaking the meddling young king for a lion, the crazed women rushed towards Pentheus and tore him apart with their bare hands. They next took the severed body parts and scattered them across the rocky mountainside.
Included among the murderous pack of women was none other than Pentheus' own mother Agave. While still in a state of trance, she placed the head of her unfortunate son on the end of her thyrus and proudly marched into Thebes.
At that moment Dionysus lifted his spell and allowed Agave to regain her senses. Because of the brutality of her actions she was turned away from the gates and forever banned from the city.
Her parents Cadmus and Harmonia were also exiled as punishment for refusing to accept Dionysus as a god. Pentheus was succeeded by his uncle Polydorus whose reign saw the recognition of Thebes as the principal center of worship for the god.
On another occasion Dionysus chose to punish the daughters of King Minyas of Orchomenus for going about their normal household duties instead of participating in the god's ongoing holy rites.
For their indifferent behavior, Dionysus caused the sisters to fall into a fit of madness and tear to pieces one of their own infant sons. Once the act was complete, the god transformed the crazed trio into a triumvirate of bats.
One of the best loved tales of Dionysus involves the god's elderly friend and teacher Silenus. One day Silenus, who was known to be a drunkard, went missing as the army of Dionysus crossed over the land of Phrygia.
It came to be that a group of peasants happened upon the bewildered old sot and brought him to the palace of King Midas. Midas treated his guest with the utmost kindness, filling him with food and drink and providing him with a comfortable place to rest.
Silenus entertained his host with interesting stories and whimsical songs for ten days. On the eleventh, Midas and his guards roused their caller from his wine induced sleep and set out to search for Dionysus.
It was not long before they met up with the worried god and placed Silenus back into his care. In order to show his gratitude to Midas, Dionysus offered to grant the king any wish that he desired.
In a foolish outburst, Midas demanded that everything he touched be turned to gold. Dionysus tried to reason with the king and make him see the folly of his words but Midas would not budge. Against his better judgement, the god reluctantly agreed and the wish was granted.
At first Midas was delighted with his freshly acquired talent, but things began to change when it came time for the king to sit down to his evening meal. Famished after a long day of trying out his new gift, Midas eagerly entered into the dining hall and took his usual seat at the table.
He reached forward to place a bite of food on his plate but just as he pierced it with his fork the delectable morsel turned into a hunk of gold. He tried again and again but each time the results were the same. All of the royal dinner had been turned to gold!
Just then the king's daughter appeared in the entrance way and happily ran towards her father. Before Midas could react the young maid pranced forward and gleefully threw herself into her father's arms.
Midas sat speechless as he felt her warm body turn into a lifeless statue of gold! "How could I be so foolish?" he cried out, "To place my love of wealth above all other things!".
He pleaded with Dionysus to remove the golden touch and restore his daughter back to her human state. Satisfied that the greedy king had learned a valuable lesson, Dionysus agreed to withdraw the gift and instructed Midas to bathe in the Pactolus River.
Once his body had been cleansed of its affliction Midas reversed his daughter's curse by submerging her gilded image into the water. In an instant the sand along the river bed took on a rich golden hue, a characteristic that remains to this very day.
To read about the fate of King Midas please see my story on the contest of Apollo and Pan.
A rather sad tale concerning the god Dionysus involves an Athenian named Icarius and his daughter Erigone. It came to be that Dionysus traveled to the city of Athens to unveil the mysteries of his new religion.
Immediately Icarius ran to the gates and extended a warm welcome to the god and his curious band of followers. In order to reward Icarius for his hospitality, Dionysus decided to teach the old man the art of wine making.
When the lessons were complete, Icarius loaded up his wagon with wineskins, and along with his beloved dog Maera set out to spread these new teachings across the land.
After some time, Icarius came upon some shepherds who were standing idly along the roadside. Eager to test out his new wares, he quickly stopped his cart and offered the men a taste of his delicious wine.
The unseasoned gents quickly consumed the full-bodied infusion and soon found themselves to be very light in the head. Being unfamiliar with the effects of fermented beverages, the tipsy men began to suspect that they had been poisoned.
In a fit of drunken rage, the deranged group savagely beat Icarius to death and buried his body under a nearby tree. When Icarius did not return home, Erigone became worried and set out to search for her missing father.
Laboriously she scoured the countryside looking for any clue she could find until Maera finally led her to her father's place of burial. Filled with an unbounded amount of grief, Erigone sadly fashioned a noose and hung herself above her father's grave. With both of his masters gone, the faithful dog Maera also chose to end his life by jumping into a nearby well.
When Dionysus learned the fate of his loyal followers, he swore vengeance against their attackers. As a punishment for the crimes inflicted upon Icarius and Erigone, the god caused a madness to come over every maiden found living in the city Athens.
One by one the unmarried females took up ropes and followed in the footsteps of Erigone. The heartbroken Athenians sought the help of an oracle, and through her words learned of both the murder of Icarius and the tragedy that befell upon his daughter.
The assassins were quickly found and justly punished for their wicked deeds. As a tribute to Icarius and Erigone the people of Athens instituted a rite known as The Swinging Festival.
During this time young women honored the memory of Erigone by coming together and playing on swings that had been suspended from trees.
Dionysus also paid homage to his friends by placing them in the sky as constellations; Icarius as Bootes, Erigone as Virgo and Maera as the Dog Star.
Like his father Zeus, Dionysus often sought out the company of mortal women. Below I have listed a few examples of his many encounters.
While visiting Aetolia, Dionysus had a brief affair with Althaea, the wife of King Oeneus of Calydon. Althaea subsequently found herself to be with child and eventually gave birth to a daughter whom she called to Deianeira.
Dionysus was also said to have fathered many sons with Araidne, the daughter of King Minos of Crete.
It is said that the god found Ariadne sleeping on the island of Naxos after being left behind by her suitor Theseus. Finding her to be very beautiful, Dionysus took Ariadne as his wife and together produced the following children:
Dionysus also had children by the goddess Aphrodite, the most famous of them being the god Priapus. Priapus was a satyr type creature who was born with abnormally large genitals.
He was said to be a sylvan deity, ruling over gardens, bees, goats and sheep. In spite of his distinguishing attributes, Priapus never reached a position of notoriety in the Greek stories.
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