See M. Nilsson, The Dionysiac Mysteries of the Hellenistic and Roman Age (1975).
In classical mythology, Dionysus or Dionysos (in Greek, Διόνυσος or Διώνυσος; associated with Roman Liber), is the god of wine, the inspirer of ritual madness and ecstasy, and a major figure of Greek mythology. The geographical origins of his cult were unknown, but almost all myths depicted him as having "foreign" (i.e. non-Greek) origins.
He was also known as Bacchus and the frenzy he induces, bakcheia. He is the patron deity of agriculture and the theatre. He was also known as the Liberator (Eleutherios), freeing one from one's normal self, by madness, ecstasy, or wine. The divine mission of Dionysus was to mingle the music of the aulos and to bring an end to care and worry. Scholars have discussed Dionysus' relationship to the "cult of the souls" and his ability to preside over communication between the living and the dead.
The name Dionysos is of uncertain significance; its -nysos element may well be non-Greek in origin, but its dio- element has been associated since antiquity with Zeus (genitive Dios). Nysa, for Greek writers, is either the nymph who nursed him, or the mountain where he was attended by several nymphs (the Nysiads), who fed him and made him immortal as directed by Hermes.
The above contradictions suggest to some that we are dealing not with the historical memory of a cult that is foreign, but with a god in whom foreignness is inherent. And indeed, Dionysus's name is found on Mycenean Linear B tablets as "DI-WO-NI-SO-JO", and Karl Kerenyi traces him to Minoan Crete, where his Minoan name is unknown but his characteristic presence is recognizable. Clearly, Dionysus had been with the Greeks and their predecessors a long time, and yet always retained the feel of something alien.
The bull, the serpent, the ivy and the wine are the signs of the characteristic Dionysian atmosphere, and Dionysus is strongly associated with satyrs, centaurs, and sileni. He is often shown riding a leopard, wearing a leopard skin, or in a chariot drawn by panthers, and may also be recognized by the thyrsus he carries. Besides the grapevine and its wild barren alter-ego, the toxic ivy plant, both sacred to him, the fig was also his symbol. The pinecone that tipped his thyrsus linked him to Cybele, and the pomegranate linked him to Demeter. The Dionysia and Lenaia festivals in Athens were dedicated to Dionysus. Initiates worshipped him in the Dionysian Mysteries, which were comparable to and linked with the Orphic Mysteries, and may have influenced Gnosticism. Orpheus was said to have invented the Mysteries of Dionysus.
Dionysus is equated with both Bacchus and Liber (also Liber Pater). Liber ("the free one") was a god of fertility, wine and growth, married to Libera. His festival was the Liberalia, celebrated on March 17, but in some myths the festival was also held on March 5.
Dionysus sometimes has the epithet Acratophorus, by which he was designated as the giver of unmixed wine, and worshipped at Phigaleia in Arcadia. In Sicyon he was worshiped by the name Acroreites. As Bacchus, he carried the Latin epithet Adoneus, "Ruler". Aegobolus, "goat killer", was the name under which he was worshiped at Potniae in Boeotia. As Aesymnetes ("ruler" or "lord") he was worshipped at Aroë and Patrae in Achaea. Another epithet was Bromios, "the thunderer" or "he of the loud shout". As Dendrites, "he of the trees", he is a powerful fertility god. Dithyrambos is sometimes used to refer to him or to solemn songs sung to him at festivals; the name refers to his premature birth. Eleutherios ("the liberator") was an epithet for both Dionysus and Eros. Other forms of the god as that of fertility include the epithet in Samos and Lesbos Enorches ("with balls or perhaps "in the testicles" in reference to Zeus' sewing the babe Dionysus into his thigh, i.e., his testicles). Evius is an epithet of his used prominently in Euripides' play, The Bacchae. Iacchus, possibly an epithet of Dionysus, is associated with the Eleusinian Mysteries; in Eleusis, he is known as a son of Zeus and Demeter. The name "Iacchus" may come from the Ιακχος (Iakchos), a hymn sung in honor of Dionysus. With the epithet Liknites ("he of the winnowing fan") he is a fertility god connected with the mystery religions. A winnowing fan was similar to a shovel and was used to separate the chaff from the grain. In addition, Dionysus is known as Lyaeus ("he who unties") as a god of relaxation and freedom from worry, and as Oeneus he is the god of the wine press.
Dionysus had a strange birth that evokes the difficulty in fitting him into the Olympian pantheon. His mother was a mortal woman. Semele, the daughter of king Cadmus of Thebes, and his father Zeus, the king of the gods. Zeus' wife, Hera, a jealous and prudish goddess, discovered the affair while Semele was pregnant. Appearing as an old crone (in other stories a nurse), Hera befriended Semele, who confided in her that Zeus was the actual father of the baby in her womb. Hera pretended not to believe her, and planted seeds of doubt in Semele's mind. Curious, Semele demanded of Zeus that he reveal himself in all his glory as proof of his godhood. Though Zeus begged her not to ask this, she persisted and he agreed. Therefore he came to her wreathed in bolts of lightning; mortals, however, could not look upon an undisguised god without dying, and she perished in the ensuing blaze. Zeus rescued the foetal Dionysus by sewing him into his thigh. A few months later, Dionysus was born on Mount Pramnos in the island of Ikaria, where Zeus went to release the now-fully-grown baby from his thigh. In this version, Dionysus is borne by two "mothers" (Semele and Zeus) before his birth, hence the epithet dimētōr (of two mothers) associated with his being "twice-born".
In another version of the same story, Dionysus was the son of Zeus and Persephone, the queen of the Greek underworld. A jealous Hera again attempted to kill the child, this time by sending Titans to rip Dionysus to pieces after luring the baby with toys. Zeus drove the Titans away with his thunderbolts, but only after the Titans ate everything but the heart, which was saved, variously, by Athena, Rhea, or Demeter. Zeus used the heart to recreate him in the womb of Semele, hence he was again "the twice-born". Other versions claim that Zeus gave Semele the heart to eat to impregnate her.
The rebirth in both versions of the story is the primary reason why Dionysus was worshipped in mystery religions, as his death and rebirth were events of mystical reverence. This narrative was apparently used in several Greek and Roman cults, and variants of it are found in Callimachus and Nonnus, who refer to this Dionysus with the title Zagreus, and also in several fragmentary poems attributed to Orpheus.
The legend goes that Zeus gave the infant Dionysus into the charge of Hermes. One version of the story is that Hermes took the boy to King Athamas and his wife Ino, Dionysus' aunt. Hermes bade the couple raise the boy as a girl, to hide him from Hera's wrath. Another version is that Dionysus was taken to the rain-nymphs of Nysa, who nourished his infancy and childhood, and for their care Zeus rewarded them by placing them as the Hyades among the stars (see Hyades star cluster). Other versions have Zeus giving him to Rhea, or to Persephone to raise in the Underworld, away from Hera. Alternatively, he was raised by Maro.
When Dionysus grew up he discovered the culture of the vine and the mode of extracting its precious juice; but Hera struck him with madness, and drove him forth a wanderer through various parts of the earth. In Phrygia the goddess Cybele, better known to the Greeks as Rhea, cured him and taught him her religious rites, and he set out on a progress through Asia teaching the people the cultivation of the vine. The most famous part of his wanderings is his expedition to India, which is said to have lasted several years. Returning in triumph he undertook to introduce his worship into Greece, but was opposed by some princes who dreaded its introduction on account of the disorders and madness it brought with it. (See Pentheus or Lycurgus.)
As a young man, Dionysus was exceptionally attractive. Once, while disguised as a mortal sitting beside the seashore, a few sailors spotted him, believing he was a prince. They attempted to kidnap him and sail him far away to sell for ransom or into slavery. They tried to bind him with ropes, but no type of rope could hold him. Dionysus turned into a fierce lion and unleashed a bear onboard, killing those he came into contact with. Those who jumped off the ship were mercifully turned into dolphins. The only survivor was the helmsman, Acoetes, who recognized the god and tried to stop his sailors from the start. In a similar story, Dionysus desired to sail from Icaria to Naxos. He then hired a Tyrrhenian pirate ship. But when the god was on board, they sailed not to Naxos but to Asia, intending to sell him as a slave. So Dionysus turned the mast and oars into snakes, and filled the vessel with ivy and the sound of flutes so that the sailors went mad and, leaping into the sea, were turned into dolphins.
A third descent by Dionysus to Hades is invented by Aristophanes in his comedy The Frogs. Dionysus, as patron of the Athenian dramatic festival, the Dionysia, wants to bring back to life one of the great tragedians. After a competition Aeschylus is chosen in preference to Euripides.
When Theseus abandoned Ariadne sleeping on Naxos, Dionysus found and married her. She bore him a son named Oenopion, but he committed suicide or was killed by Perseus. In some variants, he had her crown put into the heavens as the constellation Corona; in others, he descended into Hades to restore her to the gods on Olympus.
Callirhoe was a Calydonian woman who scorned a priest of Dionysus who threatened to inflict all the women of Calydon with insanity (see Maenad). The priest was ordered to sacrifice Callirhoe but he killed himself instead. Callirhoe threw herself into a well which was later named after her.
E. Kessler has theorized that a mosaic appearing on the triclinium floor of the House of Aion in Nea Paphpos, Cyprus details a monotheistic worship of Dionysus. In the mosaic, other gods appear but may only be lesser representations of the centrally-imposed Dionysus.
Martin Hengel argued Dionysian religion and Christianity to be significantly parallel, stating that "Dionysus had been at home in Palestine for a long time", and Judaism was influenced by Dionysian traditions.
The modern scholar Barry Powell thinks that Christian notions of eating and drinking the "flesh" and "blood" of Jesus were influenced by the cult of Dionysus. In another parallel Powell adduces, Dionysus was distinct among Greek gods as a deity commonly felt within individual followers. Another example of possible influence on Christianity, Dionysus' followers, as well as another god, Pan, are said to have had the most influence on the noncanonical depiction of Satan as animal-like and horned.
Wine was important to Dionysus, imagined as its creator; the creation of wine from water figures also in Jesus's Marriage at Cana. In the 19th century, Bultmann and others compared both themes and concluded that the Dionysian theophany was transferred to Jesus. At Elis during the Thyeia, the festival of Dionysus, three pots would be placed by priests in a sealed room and the following day be found to miraculously be filled with wine. At Andros and Teos water flowing from the spring in the temple of Dionysus changed to wine on his feast days, January 5 and 6; the Marriage at Cana is placed on 6 January in the Christian calendar. Heinz Noetzel's Christus und Dionysos disagrees, arguing Dionysus never actually did turn water into wine. Martin Hengel replied that opposing traditions would be anachronistic, and that since all Palestinians were familiar with the transformation of water to wine as a miracle, it was expected from the Messiah to perform it.
Peter Wick argues that the use of wine symbolism in the Gospel of John, including the story of the Marriage at Cana at which Jesus turns water into wine, is intended to show Jesus as superior to Dionysus.
Possible parallels have also been suggested between Pentheus' arrest and questioning of Dionysus in Euripides' Bacchae and the arrest and questioning of Jesus by Pontius Pilate.
Dionysus has remained an inspiration for artists, philosophers and writers into the modern era. In his book The Birth of Tragedy, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche contrasted Dionysus with the god Apollo as a symbol of the fundamental, unrestrained aesthetic principle of force, music, and intoxication versus the principle of sight, form, and beauty represented by the latter.
The Russian poet and philosopher Vyacheslav Ivanov elaborated the theory of Dionysianism, which traces the roots of literary art in general and the art of tragedy in particular to ancient Dionysian mysteries. His views were expressed in the treatises The Hellenic Religion of the Suffering God (1904), and Dionysus and Early Dionysianism (1921).
Inspired by James Frazer, some have labeled Dionysus a life-death-rebirth deity. The mythographer Karl Kerenyi devoted much energy to Dionysus over his long career; he summed up his thoughts in Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life (Bollingen, Princeton) 1976.
Dionysus is the main character of Aristophanes' play The Frogs, later updated to a modern version by Burt Shevelove (libretto) and Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) ("The time is the present. The place is ancient Greece. ... "). In the play, Dionysus and his slave Xanthius venture to Hades to bring a famed writer back from the dead, with the hopes that the writer's presence in the world will fix all nature of earthly problems. In Aristophanes' play, Euripides competes against Aeschylus to be recovered from the underworld; In Sondheim and Shevelove's, George Bernard Shaw faces William Shakespeare.
Both Eddie Campbell and Grant Morrison have utilised the character. Morrison claims that the myth of Dionysus provides the inspiration for his violent and explicit graphic novel Kill Your Boyfriend, whilst Campbell used the character in his Deadface series to explore both the conventions of super-hero comic books and artistic endeavour.
Walt Disney has depicted the character on a number of occasions. The first such portrayal of Dionysus, as the Roman Bacchus, was in the "Pastoral" segment of Walt Disney's 3rd classic Fantasia. In keeping with the more fun-loving Roman god, he is portrayed as an overweight, happily drunk man wearing a tunic and cloak, grape leaves on his head, carring a goblet of wine, and riding a drunken donkey named Jacchus ("jackass"). He is friends with the fauns and centaurs, and is shown celebrating a harvest festival. Other portrayals have appeared in both the Disney movie and spin-off TV series of Hercules. He was depicted as an overweight drunkard as opposed to his youthful descriptions in myths. He has bright pink skin and rosy red cheeks hinting at his drunkenness. He always carries either a bottle or glass of wine in his hand, and like in the myths, wears a wreath of grape leaves upon his head. He is known by his Roman name in the series 'Bacchus', and in one episode headlines his own festival known as the 'Bacchanal'.
In music Dionysius (together with Demeter) was used as an archetype for the character Tori by contemporary artist Tori Amos in her 2007 album American Doll Posse, and the Canadian rock band Rush refer to a confrontation between Dionysus and Apollo in the Cygnus X-1 duology.
In literature, Dionysius has proven equally inspiring. Rick Riordan's series of books Percy Jackson & The Olympians presents Dionysus as an uncaring, childish and spoilt god who as a punishment has to work in Camp Half-Blood. In Fred Saberhagen's 2001 novel, God of the Golden Fleece, a young man in a post-apocalyptic world picks up an ancient piece of technology shaped in the likeness of the Dionysus. Here, Dionysus is depicted as a relatively weak god, albeit a subversive one whose powers are able to undermine the authority of tyrants. A version of Bacchus also appears in C.S. Lewis' Prince Caspian, part of the Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis depicts him as dangerous-looking, androgynous young boy who helps Aslan awaken the spirits of the Narnian trees and rivers. He does not appear in the 2008 film version.