Dionysius: God of ecstasy and revenge

“Dionysius is, in essence, a god of ecstasy and retribution.” I will be looking at the tales of Dionysius, and how these tales support his role as god of ecstasy and retribution.

Dionysius

As the god of ritual insanity, Dionysius has the ability to make people go insane at will. He makes people go into a trance where they lose all awareness. He uses this skill for both good and bad reasons. The Maenads, also known as the Bacchantes, are sent into a state of joyful delirium through performing rituals in honour of Dionysius. This ecstasy is a good way in which insanity is associated with Dionysius. However, it is mostly used as a form of punishment for those who disobey Dionysius or deny his cult. The four daughters of Cadmos are representative of the four types of insanity and intoxication; drunkenness, loss of awareness, sexual appetite and madness. G. S. Kirk describes Dionysius as “the focus of an ecstatic religion” and that he “represents the irrational element in man.”

Dionysius is the god of wine, and at his festivals a vast amount of wine is drunk. In artwork he if often depicted with a drinking vessels and with a thyrsos made of vines and ivy, which represent the vines on which the grapes to make wine grow. “The thyrsus indicates that those who have drunk a lot of wine cannot function with their own two feet, but need thyrsoi for support” (Cornutus 30). Old Silenus is a famous character in the followers of Dionysius. He is a middle-age man with a pot belly and he rides on a donkey, because he is too drunk to stand or walk by himself.

Dionysian rituals were very noisy; with singing, music, dancing, screaming and shouting. These rituals were also seen as very sexual and were linked with a loss of inhibitions: “wine is a stimulant to intercourse.”The Satyrs were another mythological group that were part of Dionysius’ entourage. They were male followers who had the ears of a goat and the tail of a horse. They were naked, usually with erect phalluses and were associated with pipe playing. The erect phalluses signify their lust for the Maenads, who they would pursue. The Maenads were never pictures facing outwards, and this was to create the illusion of movement and dancing while they are in extasis.

Disney’s Fantasia contains a representation of a Dionysian ritual. In the film we can see centaurs preparing for the ritual by gathering grapes. It is a time of celebration for them. The fauns, which are half man and half goat, help to squeeze the grapes and play pipes or horns. These are similar to the Satyrs in their goat-like appearance and their choice of musical instruments. Dionysius is depicted as a figure which may be confused with Old Silenos. He is overweight, drunk, carrying a goblet of wine and is attempting to ride a donkey. He has grapes and ivy leaves as a head piece. All the characters join together in the celebrations. There are sexual undertones in this scene: Dionysius chases the female centaurs trying to kiss them yet they keep managing to evade him and in his drunken state he ends up kissing the donkey. The festivities are interrupted by Zeus, who throws thunderbolts out of the sky. However, Dionysius manages to forget all his cares with the help of the wine. The film is only takes the Dionysian rituals as a loose model for its own story, yet we can see them bowing down to the Dionysius character and laying red carpet under his feet.

Disney’s Dionysius/Silenos

The best example of both ecstasy and retribution regarding Dionysius is the myth of Pentheus. Dionysius’ mother Semele was killed when Zeus, Dionysius’ father, revealed himself to her in his true form and accidentally burnt her alive with a thunderbolt. Semele’s sisters spread rumours that she was killed by Zeus as a punishment for lying about Zeus being the father of her unborn child. One of the sisters was named Agave and it is her son Pentheus who became the King of Thebes. He banned the cult of Dionysius, believing it was unlawful, dangerous and promiscuous. In Euripedes’ play The Bacchae, Dionysius tells the audience about this; “[Pentheus] fights against the deity in my person, pushes me from my libations and makes mention of me nowhere in his prayers.” We know Dionysius wants to punish Pentheus for doubting his greatness. Not only does he want to punish Pentheus, he wants to punish all those who slandered his mother. Dionysius sends the women of Thebes insane and they go into the mountains to take part in an orgiastic festival. He puts them in a state of ecstasy to keep them from returning to their homes and families. In The Bacchae, Dionysius disguises himself as a human who spreads the word of Dionysius. Yet Pentheus is stubborn and refuses to back down. What Dionysius does convince him to do however, is to dress up as a woman and to spy on the Maenads. Pentheus is unaware that the penalty for spying on the Maenads is to be subjected to sparagmos, where they tear the spy limb from limb while still alive. The women of Thebes find Pentheus, but in their ecstatic state they believe he is a lion and the women, led by Agave, tear him apart. Dionysius is able to punish those who have wrong him using his ability to send people insane and lose awareness of their own actions.

Revenge is a key theme in the myth of Dionysius and the Pirates. They Tyrrhenian pirates try to hold Dionysius against his will. In Apollodorus M4, they wanted to sell him into slavery, in Hyginus 134 he has concealed himself as a young boy, so they want to rape him and in Homeric Hymns 7, Dionysius was captured on land and forced onto the ship by the pirates. Only one man on the ship tried to defy his captain and the other pirates but they abuse him. To get his revenge, Dionysius turns the mast and oars into snakes and filled the ship with ivy and the sound of flutes. In Homeric Hymns, Dionysius turns himself into a lion and makes a bear appear. The pirates are sent mad and jump overboard to escape his wrath, and they are turned into dolphins. Only the pirate who went again his captain was spared, and he was praised by Dionysius for his compassion. This shows Dionysius is not a cruel god, he only punishes those who have done him harm.

The story of Lycurgus is another where Dionysius is mistreated, and Lycurgus is made to repent for what he has done. After drinking too much wine, Lycurgus felt the urge to rape his mother. After this experience, he declared wine was evil and he tried to uproot the vines that grew the grapes. Dionysius drove Lycurgus mad as reparation for his wrongdoings. Ina state of frenzy and unawareness, Lycurgus killed his wife and son. Afterwards, Dionysius fed him to panthers. Again, we see how Dionysius can be powerful if crossed, and we should be fearful and respectful of him.

Dionysius uses his power of ecstasy as a form of reward, and a form of punishment. He can send people into trances; send them from rational to irrational thought. Susan G. Cole sees this; “One moment a place for ritual and source of spontaneous nourishment, the next… a place of murder and bloody dismemberment.” Dionysius punishes only those who have mistreated him or his cult; he is not a malicious god. His main method of retribution is sending people into a mindless frenzy, making them hurt those they love and care for. His role as a deity in charge of wine helps him to transport people into this condition. Though just like the pirate who tried to save him, if you are reverent and respectful of Dionysius, he will reward you; by putting you in a blissful state of extasis.

Works cited

  • Primary text: Trzaskoma, S. M., Scott Smith, R. and Brunet, S. (ed.) (2004) Anthology of Classical Myth. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.
  • Cole, Susan G. (2003) ‘Landscapes of Dionysos and Elysian Field’ in Cosmopoulos, Michael B. (ed.) Greek Mysteries: The Archaeology and Ritual of Ancient Greek Secret Cults. London: Routledge, pp 193-217.
  • Euripides. (1999) Bacchae and Other Plays. Translated by James Morwood. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Fantasia (1940) Directed by Hamilton Luske, Jim Handley and Ford Beebe [Film]. Los Angeles: Walt Disney Productions.
  • Kirk, G. S. (1974) The Nature of Greek Myths. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd.
  • Zielinski, Thaddeus. (1926) The Religion of Anceint Greece; an outline. Translated by George Rapall Noyes. London: Oxford University Press.
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