The Mysteries of Dionysus

Dionysus or Bacchus, god of wine, was one of the gods most important to daily life in Greece. Wine mixed with water was the common drink of both rich and poor. The cultivation of the vine was the common care of every farmer, so that the harvesting and the treading of the grapes in the wine press were almost as important events as the reaping which was sacred to Demeter.

Then too Dionysus was a particularly human god. Wine made the tongue loosen and the heart be at ease. It was associated with gaiety and feasting. It brought refreshment after a day of toil, and sound sleep to the weary or sorrowful. For all these reasons the Greeks thought of Dionysus as a god who was in his way very close to them. He dwelt on earth more than on Olympus.

He was born late, in the age of mortal heroes rather than the age of gods, and he was born of a mortal woman. Semele, a princess of the royal house of Thebes, was his mother. Zeus loved her, and she implored him to appear to her in his divine glory, but when she had persuaded him to do so, she was burned to ashes by the fire of his heavenly presence.

Zeus saved the infant and sent him to Asia to be brought up. There he lived in the woodland glades with the nymphs and satyrs, who were little, goat-legged gods with pointed ears and shaggy hair, followers of Pan, the great god of the woodlands. These played with Dionysus, while old, fat Silenus was tutor to the child. At least it was so at first, but as the boy grew older, it was he who led and the others who followed him.

Dionysus became a beautiful young god with long, curling locks and the pink-and-white complexion of one who feasts in shady halls rather than running, wrestling, or working in the open air. Yet he was in a way an outdoor god, and those who followed him were woodland creatures. When he was grown and the time was come, he gave to man the vine and traveled with it through all the eastern lands across to India.

He returned thence across Asia and came finally to Greece. With him came all the nymphs and satyrs, laughing and dancing about the car in which he rode, while behind him followed old Silenus, rolling from side to side on the back of an ass. He himself stood in his car wreathed with ivy, and all the noisy crowd about him had ivy and vine leaves in their hair. They stripped rods from the trees, twining them with ivy and vine, and since men love music with feasting, they had pipes to entertain them and the rhythmic beat of clashing cymbals to which they danced.

All sorts of wild beasts joined Dionysus’ train, their savagery forgotten under the influence of wine. Leopards drew his ivy car. Spotted lynxes and lions followed him. The whole group, dancing, reveling, and making wild music, poured through the land, leaving the vine wherever they went and instituting the rites of Dionysus.

The ceremonies of Dionysus were mysteries. That is to say, they were secret from all but those who had been initiated. They were held outside the cities on the mountains or in the woodland and were open to anyone, though they concerned chiefly women. The women worshipers were called Bacchantes after the other name of Dionysus, and they were smitten by the god with a mad frenzy. When, for instance, he came to Thebes, his mother’s home, the people would not receive him, and in revenge he maddened the women. They left their homes, their husbands, and their young children, and poured out of the city one and all, from fair-haired girl to toothless grandmother, to revel with Dionysus on the mountains. There, clothed in skins of leopard or of fawn, they wreathed their streaming hair with ivy, split wands from trees, and ran laughing and shrieking through the woods. Nothing could hurt them in their ecstasy. In sudden frenzy they would hunt savage beasts and tear them limb from limb.

Even Pentheus, king of Thebes and Dionysus’ greatest enemy, was slain in this way as he went out to spy on the mysterious revels. His own mother and her followers fell on him and, taking him for a mountain lion in their madness, killed him. Such were the Bacchic revels, for if Dionysus was often kindly, he could be fierce and terrible.

One story says that as he stood alone on a headland that overlooked the sea, some pirates saw him and, noting his rich garments of scarlet and gold, determined to capture him. They made for shore, seized him, and thrust him into their ship. Then the rest of them took up the oars and put their backs into the work, lest in a moment the alarm be sounded and the friends of this rich young prince come out to rescue him.

The helmsman, however, kept watch on the prisoner and saw a smile in his dark eyes, while the bonds fell off his hands and feet as though they had never been tied. At that he guessed the truth and called out in terror to his companions, “This is no prince that we have in our boat, but a god. Bonds cannot hold him. Let us set him on shore at once, lest he loose tempest on us and destroy us.” The captain, however, had no glance to spare for the prisoner. His mind was already dwelling on the rich ransom he would get. Without taking any notice of the helmsman, he ordered his men to hoist the sail. Even as they seized the sheets, a strange scent of wine filled the air, and the rowers bending forward saw a dark trickle flowing past their feet. Then a vine spread suddenly along the top of the square sail. It put out flowers while they gaped at it. Tendrils wriggled down the mast, and dark purple clusters hung down across the canvas. Up the mast from the deck coiled an ivy stalk to meet the vine. Berries and blossoms grew out upon it as it mounted. Even the oars grew garlands until the rowers could move no more. They called out in panic to the helmsman to see if he could put them in to land, but it was too late to get rid of their dangerous passenger.

Amidships a black, shaggy bear stood up from nowhere with a growl and lurched towards them. As they recoiled, from behind them came far louder roar, and there in the bows beside the god, a lion crouched ready to spring. Before anyone had time to make a movement, the lion had the captain in his jaws. At that the pirates jumped overboard with screams of fright and were changed there into black dolphins. Only the helmsman was left on the deserted ship, for Dionysus saved him because he had urged the others to release the god. As he guided the helm, the ship of itself sailed the god across to Greece.

Dionysus is also important because he was god of tragedy. Every year at his festival there was a dramatic contest in the outdoor theatre at Athens. Three playwrights were chosen, each of whom wrote three tragedies, presenting some one of the legends of ancient Greece. All the citizens of Athens went to listen, and a prize was given to the man whose plays were judged the best. Plays were written in honor of Dionysus by some of the greatest dramatists of all time. These have made the name and festival of Dionysus famous even today.

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