Mythman's Dionysus







Dionysus was the god of the vine. He invented wine on Mount Nyssa and spread the art of tending grapes around the world.  Dionysus was one of the most influential deities of the ancient Olympians, and If he chose to do so, the god of wine could drive a person mad - no normal constraints could hold him or his followers.

There are various accounts of his parentage, but the most widely accepted one holds that Dionysus was the son of Zeus and the mortal Semele. Zeus fell in love with Semele and came to her in the night, invisible, felt only as a divine presence.

Semele was pleased to be a lover of a god, even though she did not know which one exactly. Word soon got around and Hera quickly realized who was responsible for the seduction of this mortal woman. Hera went to Semele disguised as her trusted nurse, Beroe (or some say as her old neighbor) and convinced her she should see her lover as he really was, just to prove that he wasn't a monster, but truly a god.

When Zeus next came to visit her, Semele made him promise to grant her one wish. She was clever and thus made him swear on the River Styx that he would grant her request, an oath that could not be broken without severe penalty. Zeus was madly in love and agreed to grant anything she wished for.

She then asked him to show her his true form. Zeus was very displeased with this request, for he knew what would happen but Semele was very insistent and told Zeus that he could not see her anymore unless he granted her wish.

Zeus was furious, but since he had sworn by the River Styx, he had no choice but to comply. He appeared in his true form, flashing lightning and thunder, and Semele was instantly burnt to death by the sight of his divine glory.

As Semele was dying Hermes, the messenger god and Zeus' able assistant, did manage to rescue Dionysus and stitched the premature baby into the thigh of Zeus to hold him until he was ready to be born.

His birth from Zeus alone conferred immortality upon him. Later Dionysus brought Semele up from the Underworld, gave her the name Thyone, and ascended with his mother to Mount Olympus, where she was made immortal by Zeus.

Dionysus' problems with Hera were not yet over. She was still jealous and arranged for the Titans to kill him. The Titans seized the newborn son of Zeus and, despite the fact that he transformed himself repeatedly to evade them, they captured Dionysus and tore him into shreds. A pomegranate tree sprouted from the soil where his blood had fallen.

The Titans boiled the pieces in a cauldron, and Hera thought that Dionysus had perished, but Rhea, mother of Zeus, reconstituted the pieces and brought him back to life.

After this, Zeus arranged for his protection and turned him over to Persephone, wife of Hades, to care for. She in turn entrusted the baby to King Athamas of Orchomenus and his wife Ino, who reared the child hidden in the women's quarters, disguised as a girl.

You guessed it. Hera, still unhappy with Zeus' affair with Semele, was not deceived and proceeded to drive Athamas and Ino insane. The royal couple then mistook their son Learches for a stag, and in their madness Athamas killed him.

Hermes next intervened on behalf of Zeus and temporarily transformed the baby Dionysus into a kid (baby goat) - others say a ram - and presented him to the mountain nymphs of Heliconian Mount Nysa to be raised.

These nymphs were called Bacche, Nysa, Macris, Erato and Bromie, and they took good care of Dionysus in a hidden cave, fed him on honey and protected him from danger. To reward them for this service, Zeus placed their images among the stars, naming them the Hyades. It was during this time on Mount Nyssa that Dionysus invented wine.

Once he grew up Hera realized that he was a son of Zeus and drove him crazy. 
Dionysus wandered the world actively encouraging his cult, accompanied by the Maenads, who were wild women, flush with wine, shoulders draped with a fawn skin, carrying ivy-twined staff tipped with pine cones called the 'thyrsus'.

In his company were also found the Satyrs, wild men with goat feet, carrying swords and serpents and fearsome bull-roarers. Always at his side was the extremely obese Silenus, his wise mentor and tutor who had a huge fondness for wine.

Sailing to Egypt, the army of Dionysus was hospitably received by King Proteus of Pharos, and the god of wine gave him the vine and showed him its cultivation. Next Dionysus encouraged the Amazon Queens of the Nile Delta to join with him and do battle against the Titans, restoring King Ammon to his rightful kingdom. That was the first of his military triumphs.

India was next. The King of Damascus opposed Dionysus and was thus flayed alive as punishment. Building a bridge made of ivy and vine across the river Euphrates he moved on, and a tiger sent by Zeus helped him cross the river Tigris. After encountering much resistance, he reached India and soon conquered the entire country, introducing the art of viniculture and founding great cities.

The army of Dionysus returned to Europe where Rhea purified him of the many murders he had committed and initiated him into her mysteries. Lycurgus, King of the Edonians, attacked the followers savagely and captured everyone except Dionysus himself, who plunged into the sea and took refuge in an underwater grotto of Thetis.

Rhea intervened, freed the prisoners, and drove Lycurgus mad. The crazy King of the Edonians then killed his own son, thinking that he was cutting a vine. By the time he came to his senses he had begun to prune the nose, ears, fingers and toes of his son's corpse, and the whole land of Thrace grew barren in total horror of his crime.

Dionysus returned from the sea and announced that this decay would continue until Lycurgus were put to death. Hearing this, the Edonians bound their hapless King, brought him to Mount Pangaeum and tied him to wild horses, who proceeded to pull his body apart!

Next fool to oppose Dionysus was Pentheus, King of Thebes. He arrested the god of wine and his Maenads, but at once he went mad and shackled a bull rather than Dionysus. The Maenads escaped and wreaked havoc on the mountains, in their frenzy tearing calves into pieces. When Pentheus attempted to stop them, the Maenads, inflamed by religious ecstasy and wine, tore the King limb from limb, led by his own mother Agave, who herself wrenched off his head.

Dionysus then toured the Aegean Islands, spreading joy and terror wherever he went. Hiring a ship that was bound for Naxos, however, he fell into a pirate trap. The ship's sailors, unaware that Dionysus was a god, steered a course for Asia, planning to sell him there as a slave.

Dionysus made ivy grow and twine around the rigging and vines to sprout from the deck and engulf the mast. The oars turned into serpents and Dionysus himself transformed into a lion, as the sound of flutes filled the ship along with phantom beasts. The terrified pirates leaped overboard and became dolphins.

At Naxos Dionysus met the beautiful Ariadne, who had been abandoned by the hero Theseus. Falling in love with her, they married and she bore him Oenopion, Thoas, Staphylus, Latromis, Euanthes, and Tauropolus. From Naxos he sailed to Argos and caused the women to go insane until their king, the hero Perseus, acknowledged his divinity and built a temple in honor of Dionysus.

His worship eventually firmly established throughout the world, Dionysus was then free to ascend to Mount Olympus, where he took his seat at the right hand of his father Zeus. Even Hera, his tormentor, finally accepted him. Some claim that the wise Hestia, goddess of the hearth, gave up her place at Olympus to make room for him, and indeed she was happy to be rid of the petty jealousies that were rampant in the heavens.

Dionysus was also one of the very few that was able to bring a dead person out of the underworld. Even though he had never seen his mother Semele, he was concerned for her. Eventually he journeyed into the Underworld to find her. He bribed Persephone, Queen of the Underworld, with a gift of myrtle to release his mother, faced down Thanatos (Death) and brought Semele back to Mount Olympus.

Still, just so other ghosts did not become jealous, Dionysus changed his mother's name to Thyone ('raging queen') and that's how he introduced her to the other Olympians. Zeus provided an apartment for her and Hera wasn't at all happy with this arrangement, but she kept a resigned silence.

Dionysus became one of the most important gods in everyday life. He became associated with several key concepts. One was rebirth after death. Here his dismemberment by the Titans and return to life is symbolically echoed in tending vines, where the vines must be pruned back sharply, and then become dormant in winter for them to bear fruit.

The other is the idea that under the influence of wine, one could feel possessed by a greater power. Unlike the other gods, Dionysus was not only outside his believers but, also within them. At these times, a man might be greater than himself and do works he otherwise could not.


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