"Winter squalls are drained out of the sky. The violet
season of flowering spring smiles. The black earth glitters
under green lawns. Swelling plants pop open with tiny
petals. Meadows laugh and suck the morning dew, while the
rose unfolds. The shepherd in the hills happily blows the
top notes of his pipe. The gathered gloats over his white
kids. Sailors race across the thrashing waves. Their canvas
full of the harmless breeze. Drinkers acclaim the
grape-giver Dionysus, capping their hair with flowering
Dionysus, in Greek mythology is a god of wine and
vegetation, who showed mortals how to cultivate grapevines
and make wine. "He was good and gentle to those who honored
him, but he brought madness and destruction upon those who
spurned him or the orgiastic rituals of his cult" (Wendell
The yearly rites in honor of the resurrection of Dionysus
gradually evolved into the structured form of the Greek
drama, and important festivals were held in honor of the
god, during which great dramatic competitions were
conducted. The most important festival, the Greater
Dionysia, was held in Athens for five days each spring. It
was for this celebration that the Greek dramatists
Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides wrote their great
tragedies. Also, after the 5th century BC, Dionysus was
known to the Greeks as Bacchus.
Dionysus is the son of Zeus and Semele. He is the only god
to have a mortal parent. The birth of Dionysus began when
Zeus came to Semele 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. Word soon got
around and Hera quickly assumed who was responsible. Hera
went to Semele in disguise and convinced her that she
should see her lover as he really was. When Zeus visited
her again, she made him promise to grant her one wish. She
went so far as to make him swear on the River Syx that he
would grant her request. Zeus, was madly in love and
agreed. She then asked him to show her his true form. Zeus,
was unhappy, and knew what would happen, but having sworn
he had no choice. He appeared in his true form and Semel
was instantly burnt to a crisp by the sight of his glory.
Zeus did manage to rescue Dionysus, and stitched him into
his thigh to hold him until he was ready to be born.
Dionysus' birth from Zeus alone conferred immortality upon
him. But Dionysus' problem with Hera were not yet over. She
was still jealous, and arranged for the Titans to kill him.
The Titans ripped him into pieces, but luckily, Rhea
brought him back to life. After this, Zeus arranged for his
protection and brought him to the mountain nymphs to be
Once Dionysus had grown to a manhood, he decided to wander
far and wide, including areas outside of Greece. He t
raveled everywhere to preach the culture of the vine. It
was accepted most everywhere, except in his own country. He
wandered around Asia, accompanied by a wild group of Satyrs
and Maenads, involving himself in bizarre events. For
example, he flayed alive the king of Damascus, and chased
the Amazons to Ephesus where some of them took refuge in
the Temple of Artemis. Next, Dionysus returned to Europe,
and his grandmother Rhea purified him of the murders he had
committed during his madness and initiated him in her
Mysteries. He then visited Thebes, and there invited women
to join his revels. Pentheus, king of Thebes, arrested him
and all his Maenads, but went mad and locked up a bull
instead of the god. The Maenads escaped and went raging up
into the mountains. Pentheus tried to stop the frenzy, but
wild with religious ecstasy and wine they tore Pentheus
limb from limb. Finally, having established his worship,
Dionysus ascended to heaven and joined Zeus and the other
"Dionysus is also one of the very few that was able to
bring a dead person out of the underworld. Even though he
had never seen Semele he was concerned for her" (Bremmer
15). Eventually, he journeyed into the underworld to find
her. He faced down Thanatos and brought her back to Mount
In Greeks world, Dionysus appeared almost everywhere. He
can be seen in the art, drama and comedy. Greeks even built
a theater in honor of him. "Honor was paid to Dionysus, the
peasant god of Eleftheres, with a circular religious
dithyrambic dance performed by dancers dressed in billy -
goats (tragos) (Frazer 20). Thus, tragedy was born, at
first in the Orchestra of the Agora (ancient market place),
and then on the northern slope of Acropolis, in an area of
25 m. diameter, near the god's sanctuary which was
flattened for this purpose.
When tragedy was separated from religion, wooden and later
stone scaffoldings were placed for the spectators in 330
BC. The auditorium developed to have two landings which
separated the 88 rows of seats into the three sections and
65 tiers with a seating capacity of 15000-16000 spectators.
The ancient circular orchestra was paved with marble, while
marble thrones and honorary seats were installed in the 1st
century AC. After that time, theater was used as an arena.
The simple construction of the stage in the 5th century BC
changed into a rectangular building with wings and
proscenia in the 4th century BC. Also, all profiles of
Dionysus' life done in bas - relief have survived.
Dionysus also appeared in drama. An orchestra, or a dancing
ground of Dionysus with an arrangement for spectators
(theatron) was built in Athens, in the early sixth century.
It became the great center for drama where plays by
Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides were performed. Drama
was produced at festivals, honoring Dionysus in his theater
under the presidency of his priest, by performers wearing
masks and special dress. That is how tragedy (which
originally meant "goat song for Dionysus") began and
quickly reached heights never surpassed. Any formal tragedy
involves disaster: physical, mortal, or spiritual. The hero
is doomed. Tragedy deals with human suffering and the
courage of a hero who resists the inevitable. Pathos, or
melodrama, is acceptance submissively or without
comprehension of misfortune. "These ideas were found in
"Aristotle's Poetics," the work from which our appraisal of
tragedy was found. Aristotle, also notes the "tragic flaw"
in the hero (Patai 5). This defect of character and
inability to understand a situation creates his resistance,
and makes him to accept his fate. The audience identifies
with the hero and feels pity or fear, but the catharsis of
these feelings leaves the audience exalted.
Greeks included Dionysus in art form too. He usually
depicted as a bearded youth, wearing a crown of vines with
grapes. Often he holds the thyrsus (a wand - fertility
symbol) and a cup of wine. He is accompanied by Maenads.
These female devotees, pictured with tambourines and
swirling drapery, express physical abandonment. He is also
associated with a goat - like deities (Satyrs, Silenus,
Pan) who play pipes for the Bacchic rituals.
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
Tirant 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
then himself and do works he otherwise could not" (Bonnefoy
We can compare the festivals that was made in honor of
Dionysus to our Easter.
"The festival for Dionysus is in the Spring, when the
leaves begin to reappear on the vine. It become one of the
most important events of the year. It is focus became the
theater" (Jung 30). Most of the great Greek plays were
initially written to be performed at the feast of Dionysus.
All who took part - writers, actors, spectators - were
regarded as scared servants of Dionysus, during the
Dionysus died a horrible death among the cold monoliths,
devilishly torn to pieces. He rose from the dead again and
again, providing to his believers that the soul lives on
forever after the body dies.
Bernard, Suzane. "Plato and His Dialogues."
http://eawc.evansville.edu/essays/suzanne.htm (2 Feb. 1996).
Bonnefoy, Yves. Greek and Egyptian Mythologies. Chicago:
University of Chicago, 1992.
Bremmer, Jan. Interpretations of Greek Mythology. Totowa,
NJ: Harper, 1976.
Frazer, James. The Golden Bough. New York: Macmillan, 1950.
Jung, Carl. Man and His Symbols. New York: Dell, 1968.
Patai, Raphael. Myths and Modern Man. Englewood Cliffs, NJ:
Wendell, Bane, and William Doty. Myths, Rites, and Symbols.
New York: Harper, 1976.
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