(ORDO NEWS) — Being a figure of myth and superstition even in his time, Dionysus might well have been dismissed by cynical people as an unworthy interpolation into the realm of true religion.
However, although “he is an enchanted world and an extraordinary experience” (Albert Henrichs), the extent of his temporary power can hardly be overestimated.
The twice-born Dionysus is formally, like Hercules, a demigod, but unlike the twelve-fold worker, his divinity prevails over humanity.
The bizarre incubation of Dionysus began when Zeus impregnated Semele, daughter of Cadmus, king of Thebes.
Subsequently, Zeus’s jealous wife, Hera, devised a plan for revenge. She convinced Semele to ask her to see Zeus in all his divine glory, knowing that the sight of the god would overload Semele’s fragile human form, resulting in instant incineration.
From this ashes, Zeus drew Dionysus by sewing the charred and blackened fruit into his thigh.
So the king of the gods gave birth to Dionysus (a bizarre but not unique feat – Athena was also born from the broken skull of Zeus). The baby was then given into the custody of his human aunt, Ino.
However, Hera, whose spleen had not yet fully come out, sent Ino and her family into insanity and suicide.
Thus, Dionysus was handed over to the nymphs from Mount Nis (whence he got his name), and there began his initiation into everything sublime, sensational, sexual, greasy and sinister.
He prophesied throughout Greece, Asia, and India, bringing madness and death to those who rejected him.
A prime example of this was the poker-faced rage he unleashed on his cousin Pentheus, King of Thebes, known to us through Euripides’ Bacchus.
However, not all stories about Dionysus are dark and depraved.
A particularly charming story about him is contained in the seventh Hymn of Homer, which tells of his captivity by pirates.
The unsuspecting robbers got more than they bargained for when the bonds fell from the god and he turned into a lion, and a huge vine grew around the mast of the ship.
It is quite understandable that all the pirates jumped overboard, but, once in the water, turned into dolphins.
In this and other stories, Dionysus “is perceived as man and animal, male and effeminate, young and old, he is the most versatile and elusive of all the Greek gods.” (Albert Henrichs).
Of course, it is the vine motif that first comes to mind when we think of Dionysus.
Indeed, this aspect of his personality is represented in some of the most famous works of art, where he is the subject of the image.
For example, the famous painting “Hermes and the baby Dionysus” depicts an older god holding grapes over the head of a younger one.
Similarly, this image of the god has appeared regularly in literature.
Among the earliest poets, it can be seen that the giver of wine has a special place in the hearts of poets:
“Pick all the bunches of grapes… show them to the sun for ten days … cover them for five, and on the sixth day pour the gifts of joyful Dionysus into vessels.” (Hesiod, Works and Days).
In other places, Hesiod calls the god “crowded”, and Homer in the Iliad calls him “the comforter of mankind.”
The following twist on this theme from Euripides’ Bacchus will be of particular interest to those of us for whom Sunday is not just a day of watching football and mowing the lawn:
“When mortals drink wine, the suffering of our unfortunate race is expelled, and all day’s troubles are forgotten in a dream.
There is no other cure for sorrow.” Dionysus, who is himself a god, is thus poured out as a sacrifice to the gods, so that through him a blessing may come upon mankind.”
Although, unlike Mr. JC from Nazareth, Dionysus could well be, surprisingly, a teetotaller.
Although there are some Renaissance images in which he uses his own gift, this is not the case in antiquity.
However, he is almost always depicted alongside wine, grapes, or drunkards; his retinue of satyrs is forever indulging in intoxicated dancing, fornication and fun in general.
And if satyrs represent all the mischievous fun and merriment that goes hand in hand with excessive drinking, then it is the maenads (or Bacchus), the female followers of God, who give it all a gloomy and sinister look.
Maenads, during their annual pilgrimage to the mountains, paid tribute to the god by inducing ritual madness in each other, often described (by others) as madness.
While commentators have often used alcohol or drugs to explain this, contemporary sources explain it as an infusion of the god into the body, possibly a form of intense, liberating meditation.
In both art and literature, this mania culminates in tearing a living animal with bare hands (sparagmos) and eating its flesh (omophagy).
The once popular idea that this carcass was a ritual absorption of the god himself is no longer in vogue (although it has yet to be convincingly refuted).
The fact that Euripides introduces King Pentheus into the role of a sacrificial animal implies that cannibalism, while disgusting, does not seem completely out of place.
Ignoring the aspect of god/human eating, the fact that the sacrificial meat was uncooked is in itself a perversion and an example of how Dionysus revels in his role as a destroyer of social order.
This is also reflected in his public festivities, of which no less than seven were held annually in Athens alone.
The characteristic features of these holidays were excessive and open drunkenness, obscenity, debauchery and transvestism; and all this surrounded by huge decorative phalluses, giving any event a zest.
Along with wine, intoxication, and ritual madness, Dionysus was also the god of the theater comedy and tragedy, perfectly reflecting the dichotomy in his soul as well as masks, parodies, and, almost paradoxically, the afterlife.
Indeed, this aspect should not be underestimated, as it constantly appears in funerary art. The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus said: “Dionysus, in honor of whom they rage in Bacchic madness, and Hades are one and the same.”
How should we relate to this internally incongruous, but undoubtedly important god?
Dionysus is, of course, a joke, but a joke born of lust and power, wine and malice, ecstasy and shame.
His beauty and cruelty are so all-pervading that sometimes he becomes almost the embodiment of the last request, the last moment of violent delight before the hatch opens and the noose is tightened.
He is death, blood, beauty, pain, art, ecstasy, delight and envy; a person for whom they would happily throw a feast, perhaps without acknowledging the terrible truth about what might be on the menu.
Euripides certainly depicts him as a creature of horror and violence, desiring torture and humiliation.
Perhaps, being so cruel and beautiful, powerful and appetizing, it is not only universal, but also strikes at the very heart of our divine sympathy.
After all, there is hardly a single person who does not have something in common with Dionysus. And, perhaps, it is precisely this, like nothing else, that fascinates and repels almost equally.
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