Dionysus

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DIONYSOS (or Dionysus) was the great Olympian god of wine, vegetation, pleasure and festivity. He was depicted as either an older bearded god or a pretty effeminate, long-haired youth. His attributes included the thyrsos (a pine-cone tipped staff), drinking cup, leopard and fruiting vine. He was usually accompanied by a troop of Satyrs and Mainades (female devotees or nymphs).
-- from Theoi on Dionysos

Miscellaneous factoids from Theoi, wikipedia's pages on Dionysus and the Dionysian mysteries, Gods in Everyman

  • Dionysus is known as Lyaeus ("he who releases") as a god of relaxation and freedom from worry. He was also known as the Liberator (Eleutherios), freeing one from one's normal self, by madness, ecstasy, or wine. The divine mission of Dionysus was to mingle the music of the aulos and to bring an end to care and worry.
  • The retinue of Dionysus was called the Thiasus and comprised chiefly Maenads.
  • Myths say that Hera attempted to kill him as a baby, and then later struck him with madness
  • When Hephaestus bound Hera to a magical chair, Dionysus got him drunk and brought him back to Olympus after he passed out. For this act, he was made one of the twelve Olympians. The absence of an early Olympian Dionysus is today explained in terms of patterns of social exclusion and the marginality of the cult rather than chronology.
  • the god of cross-dressing and effeminacy: "to mislead the mind of spiteful Hera, he moulded his lips to speak in a girlish voice, tied a scented veil on his hair. He put on all a woman’s manycoloured garments: fastened a maiden’s vest about his chest and the firm circle of his bosom, and fitted a purple girdle over his hips like a band of maidenhood."
  • god of wine, party, pleasure ("Without wine there is no longer Kypris [Aphrodite, as goddess joy and pleasure] or any other pleasant thing for men." -- Euripedes, The Bacchae
  • god of madness and halluncinations. from Ovid: "[Dionysos makes phantoms appear:] the crash of unseen drums clamoured, and fifes and jingling brass resounded, and the air was sweet with scents or myrrh and saffron, and - beyond belief! - the weaving all turned green, the hanging cloth grew leaves of ivy, part became a vine, what had been threads formed tendrils, form the warp broad leaves unfurled, bunches of grapes were seen, matching the purple with their coloured sheen. And now the day was spent, the hour stole on when one would doubt if it were light or dark, some lingering light at night’s vague borderlands. Suddenly the whole house began to shake, the lamps flared up, and all the rooms were bright with flashing crimson fires, and phantom forms of savage beasts of prey howled all around."
  • Thus it is not surprising that many of the devotees of Dionysus were originally the outsiders of mainstream society: women, slaves, outlaws and foreigners, non-citizens under Greek democracy. All of these were considered equal in a cult that appears often to have transgressively inverted their roles, much like the Roman Saturnalia. In fact in Greece at its height the Dionysian rites were almost entirely associated with women, allegedly liberating themselves from their suppression in Greek society. However, the fact that the titles of the officers of the cult were of male and female gender disproves the once popular claim that the cult was solely a women's mystery.
  • Dionysos was often regarded as being beyond gender, and was sometimes represented androgenously, but he could also be represented as either highly effeminate or hyper-masculine (though not 'macho'), again manifest in both extremes and beyond all. In the latter case his absent aspect (his Shakti as the Hindus call it) was represented by the goddesses he was closely associated with. (from the Dionysian underground

The Dionysian mysteries

  • The notion behind the Dionysian Mysteries seems to have been of not only the affirmation of the primeval bestial side of mankind, but its mastery and integration into a civilized psychology and social culture. Given the dual role of Ariadne as the Mistress of the Minoan Labyrinth and consort of Dionysus, some have seen the Minotaur story as also partly deriving from the idea of the mastery of mankind's animal nature, though this remains controversial. The self mastery achieved on this way was not one of domination as in similar cults, most famously preserved in contemporary culture as George and the Dragon, and perhaps the original Minotaur myth, but one of acceptance and integration.
  • Following the torches as they dipped and swayed in the darkness, they climbed mountain paths with head thrown back and eyes glazed, dancing to the beat of the drum which stirred their blood' [or 'staggered drunkenly with what was known as the Dionysos gait']. 'In this state of ekstasis or enthusiasmos, they abandoned themselves, dancing wildly and shouting 'Euoi!' [the god's name] and at that moment of intense rapture became identified with the god himself. They became filled with his spirit and acquired divine powers.
  • The basic ritual that accomplished this appear to have been for men the identification with the god Dionysos in a ritual enactment of his myth of life, death and rebirth, including some form of ordeal. This involved a ritualised descent into the underworld or katabasis, apparently often carried out in actual caverns or catacombs, though sometimes more symbolically in temples.... Following this there was usually a communion with the god through shared wine.
  • In contrast the female initiate was prepared as a bride of Dionysos, an Ariadne, and encountered him in union in the underworld. In reference to this the ritual symbol of Dionysos hidden in the Arc till the culmination of the female rites was said to be a goat's penis and later fig wood phallus. After which she undertook a similar communion or wedding feast.
  • Dionysos was also revered at Delphi, where he presided over the oracle for three winter months, beginning in November, marked by the rising of the Pleiades, while Apollo was away "visiting the Hyperboreans". At this time a rite of known as the "Dance of the Fiery Stars" was performed, of which little is known, but appears to have been appropriation of the dead.
  • In sharp contrast to the daytime festivities of the Athenian Dionysia were the biennial nocturnal rites of the Tristeria, held on Mount Parnassus in the Winter. These celebrated the emergence of Dionysos from the underworld, with wild orgies in the mountains. The first day of which was presided over by the Maenads, in their state of Mainomenos, or madness, in which an extreme atavistic state was achieved, during which animals were hunted - and, in some lurid tales, even human beings - before being torn apart with bare hands and eaten raw (this being the infamous "Sparagmos", said to have been once associated with goat sacrifice, marking the harvesting and trampling of the vine). The second day saw the Bacchic Nymphs in their Thyiadic, or raving, state, a more sensual and benign Bacchanal assisted by satyrs, though still orgiastic. The mythographers would explain this with claims that the Maenads, or wild women, were the resisters of the Bacchic urge, sent mad, while the Thyiades, or ravers, had accepted the Dionysiac ecstasy and kept their sanity. This has some plausibility in terms of psychological repression, though sceptics claim the Maenad stories may have been exaggerations to scare away the curious tourist!

Other references

   Lord, with whom conqueror Eros
   and the blue-eyed Nymphs
   and radiant Aphrodite
   like to cavort, you who haunt
   precipitous mountain tops,
   I beseech you, graciously
   join me, take pleasure
   in my prayer and fulfil it:
   give Kleoboulos a piece
   of good advice: to return
   my love, o Dionysos.