The Death of Semele, by Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640)
THE BIRTH, CHILDHOOD, AND ORIGINS OF DIONYSUS
Here follows the traditional version of the birth of DIONYSUS [deye-o-neye'sus], or DIONYSOS; the Romans preferred the name BACCHUS [bak'kus], in Greek BAKCHOS. Zeus, disguised as a mortal, loved SEMELE [sem'e-lee], daughter of CADMUS [kad'mus], or KADMOS. Jealous Hera appeared to Semele and convinced her rival to trick Zeus into revealing himself to her in the full magnificence of his divinity. Thus Semele was burned to a cinder by the splendor of Zeus and his lightning flash. Their unborn child was saved by Zeus, who sewed him up in his own thigh to be born again at the proper time. As a divine child, Dionysus was brought up by nymphs and by Semele’s sister Ino on a mountain named Nysa [neye'sa], variously located. Dionysus came to Greece from Phrygia and Thrace; he is a latecomer to the Olympian pantheon. He brings happiness and salvation to those who accept him peacefully, and madness and death to those who do not.
THE BACCHAE OF EURIPIDES
Euripides’ play the Bacchae [bak'kee], or [bak'keye], is fundamental for an understanding of Dionysus and his worship.
Dionysus himself has come in anger to Thebes (the first city in Greece in which he has introduced his mysteries) because his very divinity has been challenged and the basic dogma of his religion repudiated. The sisters of his mother claim that he, Dionysus, was not begotten by Zeus, but that Semele became pregnant by some mortal; her father Cadmus induced her to say that Zeus was the real father, and Zeus struck her dead because of her deception.
Through the power of Dionysus, the women of Thebes have become possessed by frenzy, and dressed in fawn skins, they raise the Bacchic cry on Mt. CITHAERON [si-thee'ron], or KITHAIRON, to the musical beat of tambourines, with the thyrsus (an ivy-covered pine-shaft) in their hands. Cadmus has retired as king of Thebes, and his young grandson Pentheus (pen'the-us) is vehemently opposed to this new religion. Dionysus will vindicate his mother's honor and prove his godhead, with dire consequences for his enemies.
The cry of the Bacchae (the women followers of Dionysus) describes a pure and mystic joy in Bacchic worship.
Happy is the one who, blessed with the knowledge of the divine mysteries, leads a life of ritual purity and joins the holy group of revelers heart and soul as they honor their god Bacchus in the mountains with holy ceremonies of purification.
The play turns upon Dionysus’ victory over Pentheus. This hubristic and neurotic king, still in his teens, who is so violent in his opposition to a religion that he cannot understand, becomes an easy victim for the god. He is lured to his destruction through the ambivalence of his sexual identity and by his desire to see the orgies, which he imagines are being celebrated under the pretense of mystic rites. Led by Dionysus to Mt. Cithaeron, Pentheus is torn to pieces by the fury of the Bacchae, with his mother AGAVE [a-ga'vee] as their leader in the slaughter. She returns to Thebes with the head of her son affixed to the tip of her thyrsus and awakens from her madness to realize the horror of her deed.
In the last scene of the play (for which the text is corrupt), Dionysus metes out his justice, which includes exile for those who have sinned against him. As Agave takes leave of Thebes, she exclaims that she will go where Mt. Cithaeron will be out of her sight and where there will be no remembrance of the thyrsus. It is for others to become Bacchae and care for the things of Dionysus.
THE NATURE OF DIONYSUS, HIS RELIGION, AND HIS FOLLOWERS
Dionysus is a god of vegetation in general and in particular of the vine, the grape, and the making and drinking of wine, with the exhilaration and release it can bring. He is the coursing of the blood through the veins and the throbbing intoxication of nature and of sex. He represents the emotional and the irrational in human beings, which drives them relentlessly to mob fury, fanaticism, and violence, but also to the highest ecstasy of mysticism and religious experience. Within Dionysus lies both the bestial and the sublime.
Essential to his worship was a spiritual release through music and dance; in the history of religion, archetypal behavior demands music and dance as essential for the most exalted rituals. In Bacchic ceremonies, the god took possession of his worshipers, who ate the raw flesh of the sacrificial animal in a kind of ritual communion, since they believed god to be present in the victim. This ceremony was called OMOPHAGY [o-mo'fa-jee], and the religious congregation was known as the holy THIASUS [theye'a-sus], or THIASOS.
The female followers are called BACCHAE, or BAKCHAI; as we have learned, these are mortal women who can become possessed by the god. They are also called MAENADS [mee'nadz], or MAINADS. These names are also given to the mythological nymphs, spirits of nature, who follow in Dionysus’ retinue.
SATYRS [sa'ters or say'ters] are the mythological male counterparts of these nymphs. They, however, are not completely human, but part man and part animal, with a horse's tail and ears and a goat's beard and horns. They are usually depicted nude and often sexually excited.
SILENI [seye-lee'neye], or SILENOI (sing.: silenus, silenos), are also older satyrs, some of whom are wise.
Animal skins and garlands are typical attire for the Bacchic revelers; they carry a most characteristic attribute of Dionysus, a THYRSUS [thir'sus], or THYRSOS, a pole wreathed with ivy or vine leaves, pointed at the top to receive a pinecone. It can become a deadly weapon or act as a magic wand by which to perform miracles.
DIONYSUS AND APOLLO
Dionysus, with the emotional din and clash of his music and the unrestrained freedom and passion of his worship, is often presented in direct contrast to Apollo, god of the lyre’s disciplined melody, reason, and self-control. These two antithetical forces of the irrational (Dionysian) and rational (Apollonian) are dominant archetypal motifs inherent in human nature, and they have attained a particular importance and influence because of Friedrich Nietzche's study of drama entitled The Birth of Tragedy.
Dionysus is a god of mystery religion, with a message of salvation. Mystery religions, mentioned earlier, are more fully described in M/L, Chapters 14 and 16. As god of the mysteries, Dionysus was sometimes invoked by the name of Dionysus-Zagreus, or merely Zagreus, for whom specific dogma was established through a variation of the traditional myth about his birth.
Zeus mated with his daughter Persephone, and she bore a son, ZAGREUS [zag're-us] (another name for Dionysus). Hera, because of her jealousy, incited the Titans to dismember the child and devour the pieces. The heart of the child was saved; and Dionysus was born again, through Semele and Zeus, as recounted above. Zeus in anger destroyed the Titans, and from their ashes mortals were born.
This is one of the most potent and basic myths in its elucidation of the teachings of mystery religions. It explains why human beings are endowed with a dual nature. Our body is gross and evil because we are sprung from the ashes of the Titans, but we have a pure and divine soul, since the Titans had devoured the god. From this myth of human generosity evolved concepts of virtue and sin, life after death, and reward and punishment. This myth of Zagreus was incorporated into the mystery religion attributed to Orpheus.
DIONYSUS AND ARIADNE
ARIADNE [ar-i-ad'nee] gave the hero Theseus a thread by which he could find his way out of the labyrinth after killing the Minotaur. She escaped with him from Crete, but he abandoned her on the island of Naxos. Desperate and alone, she was rescued by Bacchus, who placed the wreath that she wore in the heavens, where it became the constellation Corona. This damsel in distress found deliverance through a god, not a hero; and this story of salvation illustrating the love and compassion of Dionysus (benevolent god of the mysteries) has inspired great works of art.
ICARIUS AND ERIGONE
Sometimes Dionysus is accepted in peace. In Attica in the days of King Pandion (see MLS, Chapter 23), the god rewarded the hospitality of ICARIUS [i-kar'i-us], or IKARIOS, by giving him the gift of wine. When the people first felt its effects, they thought that they had been poisoned and killed Icarius. ERIGONE [e-rig'o-nee], his loving daughter (with her dog Maira), searched everywhere, and when she found her father dead, she hanged herself. A plague ensued until the people instituted a festival honoring Icarius and Erigone.
KING MIDAS OF PHRYGIA
Midas and Silenus. As we know, sileni were older satyrs, often leacherous drunkards but not always; some were wise. When one of them, SILENUS [seye-lee'nus], or SILENOS, was captured and brought before MIDAS [meye'das], king of Phrygia, he said that the best fate for human beings was not to be born at all, and the next best thing was to die as soon as possible—a pessimistic philosophy reminiscent of that of Solon in Herodotus (see MLS, Chapter 6). Midas recognized Silenus as a follower of Dionysus and returned him to the god.
Midas and His Golden Touch. Dionysus was so grateful to Midas for the release of Silenus that he promised to give the king any gift that he wished. Midas foolishly asked that whatever he should touch might be turned to gold. At first Midas was delighted when he saw everything turn into gleaming riches by the mere touch of his hand. Soon, however, this blessed power turned out to be a curse. Everything he tried to eat and drink was immediately turned into a solid mass of gold, and even his beloved daughter was transformed. He begged Dionysus for release, and the god took pity. He ordered Midas to cleanse himself in the river Pactolus, near Sardis, and his power of the golden touch passed from his person into the stream. Midas became devoted to the god Pan. Once again he showed his folly by preferring the music of the pipe of Pan to the lyre of Apollo, and his ears were turned into those of an ass (see MLS, Chapter 11).
DIONYSUS AND THE PIRATES
The Homeric Hymn to Dionysus (7) tells how pirates, seeing the elegant Dionysus on the seashore, thought him to be the son of a king and carried him off on their ship. When they tried to bind him, however, the bonds miraculously would not hold. Only the helmsman realized that they had tried to capture a god, but his warnings of dire consequences went unheeded by the commander of the ship.
Then wondrous miracles appeared in the midst of the astonished sailors. Wine flowed through the ship and with it arose a divine odor. A vine entwined about the mast and grew up to the very top of the sail, luxuriant with flowers and grapes. The god created a raging bear and he himself became a terrifying lion, which seized the ship’s commander. The sailors, by now in a state of panic, leaped into the sea and became dolphins.
Dionysus declared his true identity as a mighty god to the surviving helmsman, who had become dear to his heart, and he pitied him and saved him and made him happy.
This marvelous poem offers a depiction of Dionysus’ majesty and power and the essential characteristics of his worship: miracles, bestial transformation, violence to enemies, and pity, love, and salvation for those who understand.
The god Pan has much in common with the look and spirit of Dionysiac satyrs and sileni. He is part man, with the horns, ears, and legs of a goat. His mother was a nymph, variously named, and his father often identified as Hermes; like him, he is a god of shepherds and of music. His haunts are the mountains, particularly of Arcadia, and he is often accompanied by a group of revelers dancing to the tune of his panpipe. He was extremely amorous. As he pursued the nymph PITYS [pit'is], she was turned into a pine tree (the meaning of her name). The following transformations are more famous.
Pan and Syrinx. SYRINX [sir'inks], “panpipe,” a lovely nymph devoted to Artemis, ran from the advances of Pan and was transformed into a bed of marsh reeds. The wind produced such a beautiful sound as it blew through the reeds that Pan was inspired to cut two, fasten them together with wax, and fashion his own musical instrument, the pan-pipe.
Pan and Echo. As the nymph Echo ran away from him, Pan spread such madness and “panic” among a group of shepherds that they tore her to pieces and only her voice remained.
ECHO AND NARCISSUS
More famous is Echo’s love for NARCISSUS [nar-sis'sus], or NARKISSOS. In this story she is still a lovely nymph, but garrulous. She once detained Juno (according to Ovid) in a lengthy conversation so that the goddess would not be able to catch her husband Jupiter lying with the nymphs. Juno was furious and caused Echo to have a limited use of her tongue, by which Juno had been tricked. Thereafter Echo could only repeat the final words spoken by others.
The river-god Cephisus and the nymph Lirope were the parents of a beautiful son named Narcissus. When his mother inquired if Narcissus would live to a ripe old age, the seer Tiresias answered, “Yes, if he will not have come to know himself.”
Echo and Narcissus, by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665). Narcissus lies dying on the ground as Echo, helpless, watches from behind.
Narcissus had reached the age of sixteen and was so extraordinarily beautiful that many youths and many maidens desired him, but they did not dare even to touch him because of his fierce pride. One of his male admirers who was scorned called out to the heavens, "So may he himself fall in love, so may he not be able to possess his beloved." Nemesis (“retribution”) heard his just prayer.
When Echo saw Narcissus as he was hunting, she burned with an insatiable passion. She followed him wherever he went but could only echo the last words that he had uttered. Narcissus vehemently rejected her advances and so, spurned and embarrassed, Echo hid in the woods and from that time has inhabited solitary caves.
Once when Narcissus was hot and tired from the hunt, he came upon a pool of glistening clear water amidst a lovely, cool grove. As he continued to drink, he was captivated as he gazed upon his own beauty, and he fell hopelessly in love with his insubstantial reflection. He marveled at what others had marveled at and like them could not quench his passion. As he bestowed kisses and tried to embrace himself, he could never get and possess his deceptive image. Gradually he was so weakened and consumed by love of his own reflection that he wasted away and died. While he was dying, poor Echo watched and felt sorry for him as she repeated his cries of woe and his last farewell. At his death the nymphs of the waters and forest wept, and Echo sounded their laments. In the Underworld, Narcissus gazed at himself in the waters of the river Styx. On earth his body had disappeared, and in its place was a yellow flower with white petals in its center.