By Travis Muller
Of the many gods that Greek and Hellenistic civilizations worshipped, none have entertained a sense of mysticism quite like that of Dionysus. His role in Greek mythology, to the people that worshipped him, as well as his role in modern thought is commonly misunderstood (Bleiberg). When characterized as solely the god of wine and theatre, which is typical, the importance of Dionysus in Greek thought and mythology cannot be aptly appreciated. I will broadly cover the story of Dionysus, especially of his upbringing, and the Bacchae by Euripides. These stories illustrate the personal nature of a god that is “complex, often contradictory,” and relatable to the Greek explanation of the human condition (Grube 37).
Born of Zeus and the mortal woman Semele, Dionysus’s demigod status causes the distinction of “seeming like an outsider” to the other gods of Olympus (Blieberg 303). When Semele was 6 months pregnant, Hera, Zeus’s wife, enraged in jealousy, tricks her husband into killing Semele. However, Zeus took the unborn child and puts it into his thigh muscle until ready to be born (Blieberg). When Dionysus is born, Zeus “carried him off to a faraway place called Nysa where maenads attended to him until he grew to manhood” (Blieberg 304). When fully grown, Dionysus traveled as far east as India before returning to Greece. Bacchae by Euripides catalogues the events of his arrival in the city of Thebes to claim a place of followers and ascend to his rightful place as a god of Olympia. How Dionysus exacts his place atop the city of Thebes, however, illustrates the true nature of the god. Upon arrival, Dionysus seeks to show the people of Thebes the wonders and beauties of being in his following. Yet, when denied by his mother’s sisters and their brother Pentheus, the king king of the city, Dionysus seeks to demand their acceptance not only as family, but as their god. Dionysus then persists in an elaborate scheme that tricks all members of his family. In the end, all of them are dead due the chaos that he caused. After these tumultuous events have passed, the people of Thebes see Dionysus’s great power, and erect a great temple in his honor (Grube).
There are many significant aspects to the tale of Dionysus. What distinguishes him from all other Olympic gods is that he lived with humans on Earth for an extensive time period. This point becomes relevant in understanding the attributes of Dionysus. Although Dionysus is normally described as the god of wine and theatre, the domains are taken too literally (Long). Dionysus is more accurately described as the god of intoxication, ecstasy, chaos, and all “uncontrollable powers of nature” (Detienne 2357). The ideas of wine and theatre are generalized specializations of what Dionysus actually represented (Long).
The connection between Dionysus as an Earth-bound-god and as a symbol of nature is not isolated from one another in context. The point can be made that his connection with the natural is due to his earthly presence during the first part of his life. To grasp the essence of this concept requires the thought that gods were not assigned roles in Olympia until post-Hellenistic times (Detienne). The Greek myths served the purpose to explain events and concepts that the people at that time could not explain in any other fashion. For example, in the relationship between Dionysus and Apollo, two essential ideas of Greek thought were symbolized. Apollo, the sun god, represented the ideas of “civilization, order, moderation, and reason,” while Dionysus was a symbol for the opposing thoughts (Detienne 2357). To the Greek culture, the stories of these two gods shed light to the people over important concepts of the human condition. Essentially, these were order versus chaos, civilization versus nature, rigidness versus emotion and fluidity (Detienne). It is evident in these photos that the left is Apollo with a rigid body structure, and the left, Dionysus, looking relaxed.
The origins of Dionysus as Greek cannot be ignored, yet, neither can the influence these thoughts have on modern ideas. Sarah Maier discusses the role of Dionysian theory in Feminism. Dionysian theory is used to describe the patriarchal perception (better known as Apollonian Aestheticism) of women living solely “by nature.” This is easily understood by the patriarchal characterization that women are ruled by their emotions. Because of this men sit atop women in their ability to self-determine. Sarah Maier quotes Simone de Beauvoir describing Dionysian principles of art and literature in the following:
“Man seeks in woman the Other as Nature and as his fellow being. But we know what ambivalent feelings nature inspires in man. He exploits her, but she crushes him, he is born of her and dies in her; she is the source of his being and the realm that he subjugates to his will; Nature is a vein of gross material in which the soul is imprisoned, and she is the supreme reality; she is contingence and Idea, the finite and the whole; she is what opposes the Spirit, and the Spirit itself. Now ally, now enemy, she appears as the dark chaos from whence life wells up, as this life itself, and as the over-yonder toward which life tends. Woman sums up nature as Mother, Wife and Idea […] (144)”
The importance of Dionysus to Greek culture is undeniable as a way to integrate certain aspects of the human condition. What I believe to be the most impressive aspect of the symbolic manifestation of nature, chaos, and all of the ideas that a represented in Dionysus, is the applicability of these principles today. These ideas are still used to explain and discuss issues in modern society. As is the case with original advancements in science, mathematics, and philosophy, ideas in Greek mythology have remained in the formation of Western thought and identity.
Detienne, Marcel. "Dionysos." Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. Lindsay Jones. 2nd ed. Vol. 4. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005. 2356-2360. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 27 Jan. 2013.
"The Gods of Olympus." Arts and Humanities Through the Eras. Ed. Edward I. Bleiberg, et al. Vol. 2: Ancient Greece and Rome 1200 B.C.E.-476 C.E. Detroit: Gale, 2005. 294-307. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 27 Jan. 2013
Grube, George. “Dionysus in the Bacchae.” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association. Vol.66 (1935): 37-54. Print. 27 Jan. 2013
Long, H. S. "Dionysus, Cult of." New Catholic Encyclopedia. 2nd ed. Vol. 4. Detroit: Gale, 2003. 753. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 27 Jan. 2012
Maier, Sarah E. "Symbolist Salomés And The Dance Of Dionysus." Nineteenth-Century Contexts 28.3 (2006): 211-223. Academic Search Premier. Print. 27 Jan. 2013.
"Darkmatters: Apollo to the Left of Me, Dionysus to the Right...." Darkmatters: Apollo to the Left of Me, Dionysus to the Right.... N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Jan. 2013.