When I first started writing the Conjurer of Rhodes series , I renewed my acquaintance with the ancient Greek gods and goddesses. Early in the Conjurer books the protagonist Korax recklessly summons the god Dionysus to help him win a singing contest. This leads Korax to a world of trouble, and led me to research the god of wine and frenzy.
Dionysus was the son of Zeus and a mortal princess, Semele. According to one version of the myth, the Goddess Hera, disguised as an old woman, paid a visit to Semele and convinced her to demand that her lover show himself in his true aspect. When Zeus swore an oath to give Semele anything she wished for, he was forced to comply. Unfortunately, mortals cannot gaze on the full glory of the gods, and poor Semele was incinerated.
Zeus rescued the unborn Dionysus and sewed the child into his thigh. Dionysus was born a few months later and is thus called “twice-born.” Oh, and no need to mourn for Semele. When Dionysus grew up, he took a journey to the Underworld, rescued the shade of his mother, and brought her to Olympus.
The Festival of Dionysis
The fact that Dionysus was incubated close to the generative organs of the King of the Gods doubtless reflects his later association with fertility and the generation of life. The Athenians celebrated his festival in the Spring, to mark the end of winter and the harvesting of new crops. This Great Dionysia was a time of singing, dancing, and theater, and Dionysus was considered the god of plays and players.
The Frenzy of the Bacchae
The most famous appearance of Dionysus in Greek literature is, of course, in Euripides’ The Bacchae.
In mythology the Bacchae, or maenads, were female worshippers of Dinoysus who followed the god through the hills, intoxicated and ecstatic.
But it wasn’t only the wine. According to scholar Walter Burkert (Greek Religion, English Translation 1985 by Harvard University Press, page 161):
“Intoxication as a change in consciousness is interpreted as the irruption of something divine … Everyone who surrenders to this god must risk abandoning his everyday identity and becoming mad; this is both divine and wholesome.”
The Fate of Pentheus
In Euripides’ play, the rulers of Thebes are not so welcoming to this divine madness. Pentheus the king outlaws the worship of Dionysius and actually imprisons the god, whom he takes for a mortal acolyte.
Angered, Dionysus inspires Pentheus’ mother and aunts to rush off to the mountains and join the Bacchic rites. He then lures Pentheus out to spy on the women. The maenads discover the king and tear him limb from limb. (A clear lesson, I must say, to those who would scorn either the gods or the power of women.)
A Hymn to Dionysus
The following poem recounts the story of Dionysus and sees a glimmer of relevance to our own times.
Dionysus, Lord of Voices
Appearing in the city street,
Ivy-crowned and panther-coated,
Speaking many tongues together,
Teacher of intoxication,
Herald of his own religion:
Honor and revere the god,
You poets of the sacred songs.
Born of mortal, Theban princess.
To gaze on god she insisted.
Zeus revealed himself in lightning,
Burned her flesh and bones to ashes.
Green vines sprang to shield the unborn
Child, sewn into the thigh of Zeus,
Carried to the sacred mountain,
Nursed by nymphs, nourished on honey–
Immortal child born of death.
Come of age, the god departed,
Journeyed through the lands of Asia,
Taught the Mysteries to mortals,
Conquered countries with his revels,
Spread the culture of the vine–
Sweet the pleasure of the dancing,
Whirling to the many voices,
Ecstasy of knowing god.
Only Thebes refused him worship:
Rulers adamant with power,
Arrogant and frozen-hearted.
So he lashed the town with madness,
Roused the women to rebellion,
Cast them roaming on the mountain,
Freed their willful hearts with shouting,
Till they tore their lords to pieces,
Prideful men disdaining god.
Now our nation too is frozen:
Princes gluttonous with power,
People circling dumb with fear.
Dionysus, Lord of Voices,
Will your call awake our cities?
Singer of the wild places:
Blessed are those who know your secrets;
Bereft are they who scorn the gods.