The Dionysian Mysteries probably began as an ancient initiation society, or family of similar societies, centred on a primeval nature god (and his consort), apparently associated with horned animals, serpents and solitary predators (primarily big cats), later known to the Greeks in the eclectic figure of Dionysus. It seems to have first taken organised form in Minoan Crete or Greece between 3000 BCE and 1000 BCE. When absorbed into Greek culture, it gradually evolved into a complex mystery religion that utilized intoxicants and other trance inducing techniques, such as dance and music, to remove inhibitions and artificial societal constraints, liberating the individual to return to a more natural and primal state. It also afforded a degree of liberation for the marginals of Greek society, women, slaves and foreigners.
In their final phase the Mysteries apparently shifted from a chthonic, primeval orientation to a transcendental, mystical one, with Dionysus altering his nature accordingly (much in the same way as happened in the cult of Shiva, Dionysos' eastern counterpart, according to some). Other scholars see these Mysteries, with their resurrected god and secret knowledge about the afterlife, as the precursor of the Eleusinian Mysteries, Orphic Mysteries, Gnosticism and Early Christianity. Manifestations of all its phases are said to have existed in a diverse range of Dionysos cults on the shores of the Mediterranean up until late Roman times.
The sophisticated Dionysian Mysteries of mainland Greece and the Roman Empire are generally thought to have evolved from a more primitive initiatory cult of unknown origin, that had spread throughout the Mediterranean region by the start of the Classical Greek period. Its spread possibly associated with the dissemination of wine, a sacrament or entheogen with which it appears always to have been closely associated (though mead may have been the original sacrament). Beginning as a simple primitive rite it appears to have quickly evolved within Greek culture into a popular Mystery Religion, which absorbed a variety of similar ancient cults, and their parallel gods, in a typically Greek eclectic synthesis across its colonial territories. In one of its late forms it mutated into what some would call the Orphic Mysteries (not to be confused with the more general trend called Orphism). But all stages of this developmental spectrum appear to have continued in parallel in various locales on the shores of the eastern Mediterranean until quite late in pagan history.
On integration-individuation theories, read Carl Gustav Jung's "Analytical Psychology" (Princeton: Princeton U Press, 1991).
The original rite of Dionysus, as introduced into Greece, is almost universally held to have been associated with a "wine cult" (perhaps not too dissimilar to the entheogenic cults of ancient Central America in some ways), concerned with the cultivation of the grapevine, and a practical understanding of its life cycle - which was probably believed to have embodied the living god - as well as the production and fermentation of wine from its dismembered body - apparently associated with the essence of the dead god in the underworld. Most importantly however the intoxicating and disinhibiting effects of the drink itself were once regarded as due to possession by the god's spirit and later as a facilitator of this possession. Some wine was also given as libation to the earth and growing vine, completing the circle. The cult would not only have been solely concerned with the lore of the vine itself, but almost as much with other components of wine. Wine originally commonly included many other ingredients, herbal, floral and resinous, adding to its quality, flavor and medicinal properties, and was far more diverse than the simple drink we know today. Some scholars have suggested that given the very low alcohol content of early wine its apparent effects were perhaps due to an entheogenic ingredient in its sacred form. Honey and bees wax were also often added to wine, bringing with them the associations of the even older drink mead. Kerenyi in fact postulates that this wine lore superseded and partly absorbed a much earlier Neolithic mead lore, involving the very bee swarms that the Greeks associated with the presence of Dionysus. Mead as well as beer, and its cereal base, were certainly incorporated into the domain of Dionysus at some stage, perhaps via his identification with the wild Thracian corn deity Sabazius. Other plants believed to be viniculturally significant were also included in the retinue of wine lore. Thus were added ivy, once thought to negate the effects of drunkenness, and thus opposite of the grapevine - a symbolic relation also due to its blooming in winter rather than summer; the fig, thought to be a purgative of toxins; and the pine, a wine preservative. Similarly the bull - from whose hollowed horns wine was once drunk - and the goat - whose flesh provided wineskins, as well as acting as a natural 'pruner of the vine', were also included as wine cult animals and according to this theory eventually seen as manifestations of Dionysus. It is likely that some of these associations had long been linked with fertility deities like Dionysus and to a certain extent became reinterpreted in his new role. But an understanding of this vinicultural lore and its symbolic interpretation is crucial to an understanding of the cult that emerged from it, and would take on significance quite apart from wine making that would encompass life, death and rebirth and acquire a deep awareness of human psychology.
If the Dionysus Cult first came to Greece with the importation of wine, as seems likely, then it probably first emerged around 6000 BC in one of two places, either in the Zagros Mountains, the borderlands of Mesopotamia and Persia, both with their own rich wine culture since then (arriving in Europe via Asia Minor), or from the ancient wild vines on the mountain slopes of Libya / North Africa, the source of early Egyptian wine from around 2500 BC, and home of many an ecstatic rite involving animal possession - notably the goat and panther men of the Aissaoua Sufi cult of Morocco (though it is also possible that this was of later origin and influenced by Dionysian cults itself). Whatever the case it appears Minoan Crete was the next link in the chain of transmission, importing wine from the Egyptians, Thracians and Phoenicians and exporting it to its own colonies, such as Greece. Thus it was in Minoan Crete (c. 3000 to 1000 BCE) that the basic Mysteries probably took form — certainly the name Dionysus exists nowhere else other than here and Greece.
The rites were based on a seasonal death-rebirth theme and on spirit possession. The death-rebirth theme is supposedly common to all vegetation cults. The Osirian, for example, closely paralleled the Dionysian, according to contemporary Greek and Egyptian observers. Spirit possession involved an 'atavistic' liberation from the constraints of civilisation and its rules. It was a celebration of all that was outside civilized society and a return to the source of being — something that would later take on mystical connotations. It also involved an escape from the socialized personality and ego either into an ecstatic, deified state or into a primal herd, often both. Dionysus in this sense was the 'beast god' within, or as we moderns might conceive it, and Jung certainly saw it, the unconscious mindCitation missing. Such activity has been interpreted variously as fertilizing, invigorating, cathartic, liberational and even transformative. Thus it is not surprising that many of the devotees of Dionysus were originally the outsiders of mainstream society: women, slaves, outlaws and foreigners, non-citizens under Greek democracy. All of these were considered equal in a cult that appears often to have transgressively inverted their roles, much like the Roman Saturnalia. In fact in Greece at its height the Dionysian rites were almost entirely associated with women, allegedly liberating themselves from their suppression in Greek society. However, the fact that the titles of the officers of the cult were of male and female gender disproves the once popular claim that the cult was solely a women's mystery.
The trance induction that was central to the cult involved not only chemognosis, but also the 'invocation of spirit' by means of the bull roarer, and ecstatic communal dancing to drum and pipe, much like today's raves. The trances induced are described in terms familiar to anthropologists, with characteristic movements such as the backward head flick, found in all trance inducing cults, and represented most famously today by Afro-American Vodou and its counterparts. And just as in Vodou rites, and the best raves, certain drum rhythms were associated with the trance state. Rhythms are allegedly also found preserved in Greek prose that referred to the Dionysus rites, specifically the Bacchae of Euripides. This compilation of classical quotes describes such ancient rites in the Greek countryside, where they were held high in the mountains to which ritual processions were made on certain feast days:
This practice is represented in Greek culture by the famous Bacchanals of the Maenads, Thyiades and Bacchoi, and it was no wonder that many Greek rulers considered the cult a threat to civilized society and wished to control it, if not suppress it outright. The latter failing and the former ultimately succeeding in the foundation of a domesticated Dionysianism in the form of a State Religion in Athens! However this was but one form of Dionysianism, a cult that took on many forms in different localities, often absorbing indigenous divinities, and their rites, similar to Dionysus. The Greek Bacchoi claimed that like wine, Dionysus had a different flavour in different regions, reflecting their mythical and cultural soil, their Terroir, and appeared under different names and manners in different regions. On remote Greek islands and the barbarous fringes of Thrace and Macedonia, or so it was rumored, the most primeval forms of Dionysianism continued to be practised, some of which still included human sacrifice as late as the Roman period. A taste of the nature of the primal Dionysos might be more readily accessible to modern readers when we consider that when the Macedonian Greeks reached India under Alexander and his heirs, they claimed Dionysos had gone ahead of them, in the form of a local deity known to us as Shiva. Bactrian coins were minted with both gods on either side, and strangely the two gods would evolve along similar lines.
Dionysus in this most bestial aspect is believed to preserve the archaic archetype of the "Lord of the Animals", and to a certain extent also the ambiguous "Trickster" archetype. His ritual procession of Maenads and Bacchoi was portrayed as heralded by a troop of panthers or tigers, sileni, and satyrs, often led by Pan himself.
The ritualized atavism of Dionysos was also associated with a 'descent into the underworld' of which Dionysos was also regarded as lord; thus Hades and Dionysos are one and the same, declared Heraclitus a philosopher closely associated with the Mysteries according to some commentators.
The notion behind the Dionysian Mysteries seems to have been of not only the affirmation of the primeval bestial side of mankind, but its mastery and integration into a civilized psychology and social culture. Given the dual role of Ariadne as the Mistress of the Minoan Labyrinth and consort of Dionysus, some have seen the Minotaur story as also partly deriving from the idea of the mastery of mankind's animal nature, though this remains controversial. The self mastery achieved on this way was not one of domination as in similar cults, most famously preserved in contemporary culture as George and the Dragon, and perhaps the original Minotaur myth, but one of acceptance and integration. Thus while the Mysteries did much to lighten the darker aspects of the Cult they often failed to reassure its perhaps excessively civilized critics and continued to be regarded by many as dangerously liberative (particularly given its egalitarian tendencies as well).
In Athens, atavistic possession was also channeled into dramatic masked ritual within the Bacchic Thiasos (Greek equivalent of a 'coven' or 'lodge'), seeding the emergence of acting and theatre, crafts also sacred to Dionysos, particularly in the form of tragedy and comedy. Thus the Dionysian Mysteries came to be seen as not only as a recognition and casting off the repressive over civilised masks we all wear, and the realisation our true nature, but with the creation of new more authentic masks as well, arguably also the deeper function of drama and comedy too. In other words the development of genuine character rather than socialised persona. In time as Dionysos became regarded as less bestial and more mystical, with the general shift of Pagan orientation, this also came to be seen as the generation of a soul and the survival of death. Themes that would become central to the later Orphic manifestations of Dionysianism that would influence early Christianity according to Roman commentators, denounced as devlilsh mockery of Christ by Justin Martyr (Dialogue with Trpypho ch. 64).
The basic ritual that accomplished this appear to have been for men the identification with the god Dionysos in a ritual enactment of his myth of life, death and rebirth, including some form of ordeal. This involved a ritualised descent into the underworld or katabasis, apparently often carried out in actual caverns or catacombs, though sometimes more symbolically in temples. This process always seems to have been a part of the rites, and one form of it may be preserved in Aristophanes play, the Frogs (405 BC), which features the descent of Dionysos into Hades, with the assistance of a surreal chorus of amphibian guardians, and the advice of his half-brother Heracles, who also appears in the iconography of the Dionysian Mysteries. In these narratives someone or something is sought after and brought back, with varying degrees of success, the details vary. However, in Classical Greek culture this probably involved more theatre, with the initiate acting the role of the Heroes, than the full possession of the original rites. Following this there was usually a communion with the god through shared wine. The Initiate was then afterwards known as a Bacchoi, or Bacchus, the alternative name for Dionysos, shown the secret contents of the Liknon or Arc and presented with the thyrsos wand. In contrast the female initiate was prepared as a bride of Dionysos, an Ariadne, and encountered him in union in the underworld. In reference to this the ritual symbol of Dionysos hidden in the Arc till the culmination of the female rites was said to be a goat's penis and later fig wood phallus. After which she undertook a similar communion or wedding feast. Flagellation also seems to have been a basic ordeal, at least for women, according to many depictions of Dionysian initiations, and there are indications of some sort of ritualised hanging. All of this would have taken place at the same time as the traditional Dionysian revelries.
The evolution of Dionysianism continued in the Roman Empire, with the Bacchic Mysteries, as they were known in Italy after their arrival in 200 BC. Here Dionysos was merged with the local fertility god Liber, whose consort Libera was the inspiration for the statue of liberty, a principle she and her partner also represented. The Roman Bacchic Cult typically emphasised the sexual aspects of the religion, and invented terrifying, chthonic ordeals for its Mystery initiation. It was this aspect that led to the cults banning by the Roman authorities in 186 BC, for alleged sexual abuse and other criminal activities, including accusations of murder. Whether these charges were true or not is uncertain, there may have been individual cases of corruption as in any institution, but there is no evidence of widespread corruption, and the general opinion is that these were trumped up charges levelled against a cult seen as a danger to the State. The Roman Senate thus sought to ban the Dionysian rites throughout the Empire, and restricted their gatherings to no more than a handful of people under special licence in Rome. However, this was never fully successful and only succeeded in pushing the cult underground. They gained even more infamy due to the claims that the wife and inspirer of Spartacus, leader of the Slave Revolt of 73BC, was an initiate of the Thracian Mysteries of Dionysos, who considered her husband an incarnation of Dionysos Liber. But they were revived in a slightly tamer form under Julius Caesar around 50 BC, with his one time ally Mark Anthony becoming an enthusiastic devotee, and gaining much popular support in the process. They remained in existence, along with their carnivalesque Bacchanalian street processions, until at least the time of Augustine (A.D. 354-430) and were implanted in most Romanised provinces.
Although much scholarship in these studies, like so much of ancient history, is based on educated guesswork, we do have some insight into the female initiation process through the murals of the Bacchic Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii. Here a series of murals painted on the walls of an initiation chamber have been almost perfectly preserved after the eruption of Vesuvius, though there remains controversy as to whether the entire process is shown and how it should be interpreted.
This is all we definitely know of the Roman rites of initiation.
Dionysos was also revered at Delphi, where he presided over the oracle for three winter months, beginning in November, marked by the rising of the Pleiades, while Apollo was away "visiting the Hyperboreans". At this time a rite of known as the "Dance of the Fiery Stars" was performed, of which little is known, but appears to have been appropriation of the dead, which was continued in Christian countries as All Souls Day on November 2.
In sharp contrast to the daytime festivities of the Athenian Dionysia were the biennial nocturnal rites of the Tristeria, held on Mount Parnassus in the Winter. These celebrated the emergence of Dionysos from the underworld, with wild orgies in the mountains. The first day of which was presided over by the Maenads, in their state of Mainomenos, or madness, in which an extreme atavistic state was achieved, during which animals were hunted - and, in some lurid tales, even human beings - before being torn apart with bare hands and eaten raw (this being the infamous "Sparagmos", said to have been once associated with goat sacrifice, marking the harvesting and trampling of the vine). The second day saw the Bacchic Nymphs in their Thyiadic, or raving, state, a more sensual and benign Bacchanal assisted by satyrs, though still orgiastic. The mythographers would explain this with claims that the Maenads, or wild women, were the resisters of the Bacchic urge, sent mad, while the Thyiades, or ravers, had accepted the Dionysiac ecstasy and kept their sanity. This has some plausibility in terms of psychological repression, though sceptics claim the Maenad stories may have been exaggerations to scare away the curious tourist!
While the Athenians celebrated Dionysos in various day festivals, including those during the Eleusinian Mysteries, a far older tradition was the two year cycle, where for a whole year the death and absence of Dionysos was mourned, in his aspect of Dionysos Chthonios, Lord of the Underworld. Followed by a second year in which his resurrection as Dionysos Bacchos, was celebrated at the Tristeria and other festivities, including one marked by the rising of Sirius). Why this unusual period was adopted is uncertain, though it may have reflected a long fermentation period. All the most ancient Dionysian rites reflected stages in the wine production process. It was only later that the Athenians and others synchronised the Bacchic festivities with the common agricultural seasons.
The first large scale religious worship of Dionysos in Greece seems to have begun in Thebes in around 1500 BC, around a thousand years before the development of the Athenian Mysteries. Here a cult worship of Dionysos, and his mother Semele, a Moon goddess, was performed in the earliest Dionysian temples, usually located in the liminal spaces beyond the walls of the city, on the edges of swamps and marshes. Its first rituals were probably similar to those ancient rites still held on Greek islands, such as Keos and Tenedos, even in Classical times, but which probably originated in the Mycenaean period. Here the first wine was offered to Dionysos, and to the now growing vine, and a bull was sacrificed with a double axe, its blood mixed with the wine. There are indications that at one time the sacrificer of the sacred bull was himself then stoned to death, though this became a mere symbolic act quite early on in most places. The more economical practise of goat sacrifice seems to have been added to the rites later. The goat, like the bull, being regarded as a manifestation of Dionysos, but was also seen as the 'killer of the vine', due to its tendency to consume it, welcome in times of pruning, but unwelcome in times of growth. The death of the goat could thus be interpreted as a combined Dionysos sacrifice and the vengeful slaying of the sacrificer. It was usually torn apart, just as the vine had been at the harvest. Other archaic rites found on the Greek islands include festivals to his consort, Ariadne, which included some form of tree swinging game, said to date to a time when Ariadne hung herself from a tree. Some see a remnant of ritual hanging or partial asphyxiation in these games.
In Rome the Bacchanalia, essentially a milder form of the Tristeria, were held in secret and originally attended by women only, on three days in the year in the grove of Simila near the Aventine Hill, on March 16 and 17. Subsequently, admission to the rites were re-opened to men and celebrations took place five times a month! Initiation could take place at any of these times.
Within these public rituals were hidden the secret rites of initiation, the public festivals largely setting the ambiance for these private rites, as A E Waite evocatively puts it, perhaps getting a little carried away:
"Whatsoever may have remained to represent the original intent of the rites, regarded as Rites of Initiation, the externalities and practice of the Festivals were orgies of wine and sex: there was every kind of drunkenness and every aberration of sex, the one leading up to the other. Over all reigned the Phallus, which - in its symbolism a rebours - represented post ejaculation the death-state of Bacchus, the god of pleasure, and his resurrection when it was in forma errecta. Of such was the sorrow and of such the joy of these Mysteries". (A E Waite, New Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry)
Whatever we make of Waite's interesting interpretation, the phallus does appear to have been a connecting link between the outer and inner rites. Not only was it prominent in the Bacchic carnival in Rome, carried by the Phallophoroi at the head of the procession; it also appears to have been the secret object in the Liknon, the sacred basket, or Arc, revealed only to initiates after their final initiation. Other possible contents could have been sacred fruit or leaves, or alternatively loafs, possibly with entheogenic qualities, with some scholars speculatively combining these possibilities in imaginative ways. Some sources suggest that the phallus used was made from fig wood (see Prosymnus), while even older sources indicate it may have once been the phallus of the sacrificed goat. Indeed the contents probably changed over the centuries and in different modes of initiation, the general idea being that the final stage of the initiation involved the revelation of the god in one form or another.
The sacred loci of the Dionysian Mysteries have varied over time and place, just like the rites themselves. The earliest rites took place in the wilderness - in the forests and woods, the marshes, and particularly high in the mountains, where the lower oxygen content was suitable for trance induction. Later the 'priest' would simply cast their staff into the ground, at any suitable location, and hang a mask and an animal skin from it, the circle drawn around this centre becoming the sacred precinct for however long the staff remained. This practise soon became archaic, but was apparently revived by the nomadic healers of the Orphic Mysteries. In Classical times dedicated temples were built for Dionysos, the earliest being circular buildings open to the sky - probably the origin of Greek theatres and forums, the later no different from any other Greek temple as Dionysos was gradually assimilated. The Lenos, or the building that contained the wine press, also became a temple to Bacchus, and was often solely used as such. Underground chambers were also often used for initiations, which may have originally taken place in natural caves, particularly those by the shoreline. Liminal boundary zones being especially sacred to Dionysos. By the final days of the cult however any temple could be dedicated or rededicated to Dionysos.
Most Mystery Religions had a hierarchy of priests maintaining them, but it is uncertain if this was the case with the Dionysian Mysteries. The Orphic texts of the late period record a boukolos, or 'cowherd', as an offerer of sacrifice, sayer of prayers, and hymn singer, who seems to have been the nearest thing they ever had to a priest. Other inscriptions record an archiboukolos, or 'chief cowherd' presiding over these boukoloi, and in some records there is also mention of boukoloi hieroi, 'holy cowherders' as well as hymnodidaskaloi,'hymn teachers'. According to Athenian sources, where the Dionysos Cult was State controlled, over all of these was placed a High Priest, or Hierophant, as well as a High Priestess, later referred to in Rome as the Matrona, who had two 'assistant priestesses'. One late text even describes a complex hierarchy of three archiboukoloi, seven boukoloi hieroi and eleven boukoloi. The personal names of many of the senior priests and priestesses reveal them to be aristocrats, though the high priest in at least one text has the name of a slave, indicating the supposed equality within the cult, where slaves and masters were encouraged to exchange roles. Curiously there is no evidence of such a complex hierarchy in the Bacchic Mysteries of Rome, which seem to have been simply presided over by a Domina and Dominus, serving as a High Priestess and Priest, and so it is possible that only the established Athenian form of the Mysteries and the Orphic Religion had this structure. The original Mysteries of Dionysos seem to have had no real hierarchy at all, as only ritual functionaries, such as the Phallophoroi, are mentioned, the rest being participant Bacchoi, Thyiades or Maenads. However, a key role was always reserved for the Heroes, and his 'bride', who were possessed by the god, and initiates may have played officiating roles in this process.
The Kantharos, a drinking cup with large handles, originally the Rhyton, a drinking horn (from a bull), and later a Kylix, or wine goblet; the Thyrsos, a long wand with a pine cone on top, carried by initiates, and those possessed by the god; the Stave, once cast into ground to mark ritual space; the Krater, or mixing bowl, the Flagellum, or scourge; the Minoan Double Axe, once used for sacrificial rites, later replaced by the Greek Kopis, or curved dagger; the Retis, the hunter's net; the Laurel Crown and Cloak (purple robe, or leopard or fawn skin nebix); the Hunting Boots; the Persona or Masks; the Bull Roarer; the Salpinx, a long straight trumpet, the Pan Pipes, Tympanon, Bells and Drums; the Liknon, the sacred basket; with the ''Fig
Traditional offerings to Dionysos:
Animals sacred to Dionysos:
The Bull and Goat, and their 'enemies' the Panther (or any big cat, after the Greeks colonised part of India Shiva's Tiger sometimes replaced traditional Panthers or Leopards) and the Serpent (probably largely from Sabazius, but also found in North African cults). Also the Fawn / Deer, the Fox, the Wolf, the Bear, the Dolphin, Bees and all Dragons.
An invocation of Dionysos, from the Orphic hymns
"I call upon loud-roaring and revelling Dionysos,
primeval, double-natured, thrice-born, Bacchic lord,
wild, ineffable, secretive, two-horned and two-shaped.
Ivy-covered, bull-faced, warlike, howling, pure,
You take raw flesh, you have feasts, wrapt in foliage, decked with grape clusters.
Resourceful Eubouleus, immortal god sired by Zeus
When he mated with Persephone in unspeakable union.
Hearken to my voice, O blessed one,
and with your fair-girdled nymphs breathe on me in a spirit of perfect agape."
"In intoxication, physical or spiritual, the initiate recovers an intensity of feeling which prudence had destroyed; he finds the world full of delight and beauty, and his imagination is suddenly liberated from the prison of everyday preoccupations. The Bacchic ritual produced what was called 'enthusiasm', which means etymologically having the god enter the worshipper, who believed that he became one with the god." (Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy).