Dionysus God of Wine and Madness
Birth of Dionysus is the only god to have a human mother. Semele was the daughter of Cadmus, king of Thebes. Seduced by Zeus, she inspired Hera’s jealousy. Hera tricked her into asking Zeus to show himself to her in his true form. Exposed to divine reality, she was burned up. Zeus sewed the embryo into his thigh and birthed it himself. Only the glowing embryo of Dionysus remained.
Birth of Dionysus As Athena’s birth from Zeus’s head signifies her intellect and purity, Dionysus’ birth from Zeus’s thigh associates him with physical sensation and chaotic sexuality. Also a little bit of gender bending. Dionysus was raised by various nymphs and other woodland creatures. Here Hermes brings him to Silenus, the old, forest-living, wine-loving satyr often shown in the god’s retinue.
Appearance of Dionysus may be shown as a bearded older man. . . or as a sensual, even effeminate, beardless youth. Flexible age image, as with Hermes.
The Nature of Dionysus This dual nature, especially the efeminate aspect, was a little scary. Greek mythology emphasized the foreign, Eastern origins of Dionysus, but archeological evidence suggests he is as old as the other Greek gods. “The East” was a symbol of decadence and extremes. The wild, effeminate portrayal of Dionysus emphasizes the threat of ecstatic experience to what is dignified and proper.
Dionysus & the Pirates First of all a sweet and fragrant wine flowed through the black ship, and a divine ambrosial odor arose. . . immediately a vine spread in all directions from the top of the sail, with many clusters hanging down. . . the sailors escaped an evil fate and leaped into the shining sea and became dolphins. Homeric Hymn to Dionysus
The Nature of Dionysus On the other hand, the Greeks regarded a little drunken partying as a good thing. In the Anthesteria, a 3 -day Athenian festival, much of the second day was devoted to wine tasting and drinking contests, open to all men above the age of three, slave and free alike. Dionysus matched Demeter’s gift of grain, with wine. He turned the grapes into a flowing drink and offered it to mortals, so when they fill themselves with the liquid vine, they put an end to grief. Euripides, Bacchae
The Nature of Dionysus was the god of drama, which embodied aspects of ecstasy (“standing outside oneself”): the actors impersonated mythological characters, and the audience experienced feelings and emotions incited by the plays. katharsis, or emotional release, is one of the things Dionysus offers.
The Nature of Dionysus But drama was also a civic, community thing. Major civic festivals, such as the dramatic festivals of Lenaia and Dionysia, as well as the more “sober” parts of the Anthesteria, emphasized Dionysus’ role as a god whose power supported a well balanced life, both family and civic.
Dionysus & his retinue Dionysus is thought of as accompanied by not-quitehuman satyrs (half-man, halfgoat). Satyrs are another symbol of the mysterious powers of nature and the wild. Satyrs are a little bit crazy, often over-sexed, fond of wine. Pan is the quintessential satyr.
Dionysus & his retinue Satyrs and nymphs accompany the god. The satyrs play musical instruments and the nymphs are shown dancing with krotala (castanets). Music and dance are essential to Dionysiac celebration. Attributes: • wine cup • nymphs & satyrs • music & dance • trailing ivy
Dionysus & his retinue Maenads are a key feature of Dionysus’ retinue. Attributes: • thyrsus (pinecone or ivy-tipped rod, kinda phallic) • fawn skin or panther • mastery over & skin (dappled, connection with wild “camouflage”) • wild, ecstatic dancing, animals head turned up or back
Maenads (Madwomen) Maenads reverse the conventions of life for Greek women: staying inside, being family oriented, domestic pursuits, keeping to themselves. Maenads go out into nature, abandon their families, rove in bands, and hunt wild animals. This maenad participates in the rituals of the Dionysiac “orgy” (wild celebration): tearing an animal apart (sparagmos) and probably, eating its flesh raw (omophagia). This is the exact opposite of civilized behavior! Scary. . .
Maenads (Madwomen) The Greeks show a fascination with sexual assault of Maenads. Sleeping Maenads may expect rude awakenings. . .
Maenads On the other hand, Maenads are usually shown defending themselves pretty effectively. Dionysus encourages riotous behavior and freedom for women, but it’s about ecstacy, not sex. Chastity depends on character, and in Dionysus’ celebration, no decent woman is seduced. Tiresias, in Euripides, Bacchae
Maenads How many real women worshipped Dionysus as ‘maenads? ” Evidence shows the practice more in some parts of the Peloponnese and Asia Minor, though not all women would have participated. Pausanias mentions Athenian women who traveled to Delphi, performing dances at set points along the way, in the 2 nd century CE – could this reflect earlier practices? Feminine solidarity is reflected in the story of the women of Amphissa
Maenads Maenadism provided women “with a temporary respite from the routine and isolation of their domestic existence, but it also allowed them, through their experience of ecstasy, to a modeof expression which gave free reign to pent-up emotions and hostilities” (Blundell) The term “maenad” (mad-woman) “signified possession by a god but at the same time carries derogotory connotations, implying masculine disapproval of uncontrolled feminine behavior” (Blundell)
Maenads I. M. Lewis, in a study of possession in many different societies, argues that rituals like Maenadism allow women (and other disenfranchised groups) to express their pent-up frustrations at their subjected social role, but is only tolerated because the men in power recognize this outlet as essential for the maintenance of the status quo. Zeitlin (Blundell): “Dionysiac worship which incorporates rituals of inversion (such as abandonment of home and children, demonstrations of aggression, and eating of raw flesh) would have conformed to the male view of women’s nature as a subversive and less fully integrated element of society. ” This supports “a negative ideology of the female as unruly and disorderly”
Ariadne Dionysus married Ariadne, the daughter of the king of Crete, when he found her sleeping on Naxos
Euripides’ Bacchae Major characters: Dionsysus: The god is disguised as his own priest. Pentheus: The young king of Thebes. He wants to run his city in a strict, orderly fashion. Euripides wrote the Bacchae at the end of his life. It is one of his most masterful plays and shows the tension between the drive to live a normal, controlled life, and the divine power of chaos that Dionysus brings. Bacchae: the chorus, a group of women who followed their god from Asia, sleeping in the woods, dancing, and hunting.
Euripides’ Bacchae Cadmus, the oldking of Thebes (Pentheus’ & Dionysus’ grandfather) Tiresias, the old blind seer: two old men who, ridiculous though it is, have recognized the god’s power and are dancing in celebration of him. Chorus: What is wisdom? What is beauty? Slowly but surely the divine power moves to annul the brutally minded man who in his wild delusions refuses to reverence the gods. . . Euripides, Bacchae
Euripides’ Bacchae It’s a foregone conclusion: Pentheus cannot fight the power of the god; brainwashed and driven insane, he participates in his own sparagmos. . . The innocent suffer too, as his mother and grandfather are bereaved, despite accepting the god.
• What principles fuel the conflict between Pentheus and Dionysus? • Are these inevitable conflicts of the human soul? • What is wisdom, according to the Dionysiac perspective?
So hail to you, Dionysus, rich in grape clusters; grant that we may in our joy go through these seasons again and again for many years. Homeric Hymn to Dionysus