By Patrick Garner
The ancient Greeks considered Dionysus the 12th and final Olympic god. He was not taken seriously by his father Zeus nor by most of the other gods. His mother Semele was an unfortunate village girl who had caught Zeus’ wandering eye, and she died just before his birth when Zeus’ wife Hera took revenge. As a result, the boy was raised as a girl to hide him from Hera’s continued rage.
Dionysus overcame his challenging origin with a rare charisma that turned him into a notorious celebrity. Men looked at him as a danger to their women, and women rejoiced in his strange mystique.
As the god of wine and ecstasy, he held moonlit dances — we would call them raves — for women only. They went deep into the woods to drink wine and dance themselves into a frenzied state. Husbands and fathers did not approve but were helpless to stop them. These raves induced a bliss that few women would otherwise experience.
Many of them would follow Dionysus from town to town. They were like our groupies, with one exception. Any man caught spying on them was likely to be killed.
In essence, Dionysus was a conjurer — a force of nature. He was also a god of extremes. He loved to wear silk and flaunt his hypnotic dances. yet those who muttered about him and mocked him as effeminate rarely lived to apologize.
He could transform in an instant to a lion or a bull. He did so to terrorize and intimidate. He was often called Bromios, which means “he who roars.”
Popular with women
Ancient Greeks also referred to Dionysus as Bacchus. This was in reference to the excess and debauchery associated with his wine and dances. Women who succumbed to his madness were called bacchae.
Another name for these women was maenads, or “the raving ones.” While under Dionysus’ influence, they had extraordinary physical power, often tearing wild animals apart. Even girls could pull trees from the ground or strike the earth and cause wine to flow from rocks.
Dionysus would appear dressed in silk or fawn or fox skins. The maenads carried long phallic wands called thyrsoi, which were made from giant fennel stalks. These were bound with grapevines and tipped with ivy. In torchlight, the women would often dance until dawn. Some of the raves ended in a ritual feast called omophagia, which referred to the eating of raw meat.
Dionysus’ popularity among women was not surprising. A woman’s life in ancient Greece was carefully controlled. Girls married at 12 to 14 years old, then lived within their home, weaving and maintaining the household. Social life was limited. None were educated. They were rarely allowed in public.
Imagine their attraction to a god who called to them, who danced and laughed and encouraged them to make the woods ring with revelry. No wonder men opposed these festivities!
Satyrs — ancient beings with male upper bodies, horse ears, tails and the rear legs of a goat — were devout followers of Dionysus. They had a mixed reputation among the ancients because of their considerable enjoyment of wine and women. When the versatile Dionysus invaded India with an army, his soldiers were the loathsome satyrs.
Dionysus betters the King
There’s a story that the playwright Euripides tells some 2,500 years ago. A conservative king named Pentheus rules the city of Thebes and forbids all worship of Dionysus. He calls it “decadent.”
His command is ignored. In fact, one day the entire female population of Thebes leaves the city to dance with the god on a nearby mountainside.
The king is outraged and decides to dress as a woman to spy on them. Dionysus — himself disguised as a stranger — encourages the king, even giving him fashion tips. Pentheus is delighted, and turns to the stranger as he twirls in a gown asking, “How do I look?”
The stranger says half-mockingly, “Not even your mother or sisters will know you.” Together, the disguised king and “the stranger” enter the woods.
When they approach the spot where the maenads are gathered, Dionysus suggests that the king climb a tree to get a better view. Unfortunately, once he settles in his perch, he is seen.
The women scream and shake the tree. His mother — their leader — cries, “Come, girls, stand ‘round the tree and grip it. We must catch this beast or he’ll reveal the secret dances of Lord Dionysus.”
Hands grip the tree and tear it from the earth. As Pentheus falls, the women grab him. His mother, seeing an animal instead of her son, grips his arm and tears it from his shoulder. His sisters pull on his legs. Under the spell of Dionysus, the hundreds of women howl in triumph as the king is torn apart.
At the play’s end, Dionysus appears standing on the roof of the king’s palace and proclaims: “The royal house is overthrown. The fate he has suffered is just. Mortal men must know that the gods are greater than they.”
A multi-faceted God
Dionysus was the proverbial bad boy who led women astray. Yet the Greeks generally ignored this and sang his praises for his other qualities. He was celebrated for his many gifts to mortals. One of the greatest was wine. He was its inventor and the teacher of its cultivation. Many ancient writers applauded him, saying that only through wine could sorrow be ended.
Like Apollo, he was believed to reveal the future. He established a temple north of Greece where he issued prophesies through a priestess. He was also instrumental in developing the Eleusinian mysteries to help humans overcome their fear of death. Finally, to make life more enjoyable, he invented comedic and tragic theater.
When we think of Dionysus, we must include the story of King Mi-nos of Crete and the Minotaur. Dionysus married the king’s daughter Ariadne after finding her abandoned on a Naxos beach. She had been betrayed by Theseus, the young man she helped escape the minotaur’s labyrinth.
Dionysus and Ariadne built a palace on the island and had four sons. These were halcyon years, but she had kept a terrible secret from her husband.
Before she escaped her father’s kingdom with Theseus, she cut a deal with the goddess Artemis to protect her from disaster at sea. In return, Ariadne promised Artemis that she would remain a virgin.
Ariadne kept her vow for less than a month. Artemis retaliated a decade later. As Ariadne walked by herself to the beach to swim, Artemis was waiting. Ariadne saw her, and stood proudly, trying to stare her down. Artemis simply raised her bow and shot her in the throat. The girl had failed to keep her vow.
There’s a further twist to this story. Dionysus’ raves began only after Ariadne’s death. For months afterward, the distraught husband confined himself to their empty palace. Time did nothing to soften the memories. He began to wear her gowns, trying to close the gap between the living and the dead.
His few friends thought him mad. “Poor Lord Dionysus,” they would whisper.” He thinks he can bring her back by wearing her silk.” He knew what they whispered, but ignored them all.
One afternoon, inspired suddenly by the soft movement of her clothing as he paced the rooms of the palace, he took a few, hesitant dance steps. Experiencing a rush of joy he had not felt in months, he wandered down to the small village at the end of the island and announced that he would be holding a dance that night. Only women could attend.
The dance that took place was a sensation. As he expected, all who attended entered a state of ecstasy. So began the Dionysian raves. The other Olympic gods looked on with disdain.
Dionysus was indisputably a popular god. After all, he introduced Greeks to wine, ecstatic expression, religious mysteries and theater. He also personified romantic love with his marriage and devotion to Ariadne.
He was different. Unlike the majority of Greek gods who expected mortals to be worshipers and a source of entertainment, Dionysus gave them gifts. His unusual childhood and his shunning by the other Olympians had given him empathy. For this, he was celebrated throughout the ancient world.
In the last century, Dionysus deeply influenced Jung and Nietzsche, as well as countless artists. Perhaps in this way, the least of the Olympians became the most compelling.
Patrick Garner is an author and podcaster. Dionysus and Ariadne appear in his novel and audio book HOMO DIVINITAS, which is part of THE NAXOS QUARTET. His breakout podcast, Garner’s Greek Mythology, has listeners in 178 countries.