Last week on Myth Monday: book recommendations of myth retellings
This is the first of a few posts I will be doing on Dionysus, Greek god of the vine&wine, fertility, madness, and other similarly fun things. Why did I pick this guy to focus on?
A. He’s a personal fave
B. I’m reading this incredibly wild book called Dionysus: Myth and Cult by Walter F. Otto and I wanted to talk about it
C. He’s the patron of theater kids everywhere!
D. All of the above
Spoilers: the answer is D. Which stands for Dionysus. Obviously.
For this post, I’m going to talk a little about my sources, introduce you to Dionysus’ family, and go over his early life – both as a character in old stories and as a Greek cult.
Dionysus (or Bacchus) has been around for a bit – just how long is a matter of conjecture. He isn’t mentioned by name in Homer’s mainstream poems, although elements of his myths are (like the Maenads, his crazy band of girlfriends). He is also mentioned in Hesiod’s Theogony, a real old Greek poem and a sort of Who’s Who of Greek gods and such. Dionysus pops up now and again in the Homeric Hymns as well, which are ALSO real old Greek poems that are dedicated to this that and the other Greek god. Dionysus has a big role in at least one play by Euripides. I’ll talk more about Euripides and Greek drama a bit later.
The books I’m drawing on from these posts are more of compendiums of all the old myths and songs and poems and plays. Primarily, they are:
- Mythology by Edith Hamilton: This is my favorite mythology retelling collection so far. Hamilton does a good job of condensing everything but still telling a good story and telling it well, so that it’s entertaining and terrifying, but still getting across all of these random details and encompassing all of the many characters in Greek mythology.
- The Age of Fable by Thomas Bulfinch: This does the same job as Edith Hamilton’s book, but his writing style isn’t as poetic or engaging. He includes details and stories that Hamilton doesn’t, though, and he tries to be as comprehensive (I was tempted to say “unbiased,” but no one ever manages that) as possible.
- Dionysus: Myth and Cult by Walter F. Otto: Otto likes Dionysus. A lot. So much. It’s a little terrifying. Anyway, this book delves into the cult that worshiped Dionysus, the different rites and versions of Dionysus’ story, and the cultural and religious impact of the Greek god.
The Fam, The Birth, The Legacy
Dionysus is one of the twelve Olympians, the most powerful and important of the Greek gods. He’s the son of Zeus, king of the gods, god of thunder and, I don’t know, adultery probably. One of Zeus’ many girlfriends is Semele, a princess of Thebes. Hera, Zeus’ wife (and goddess of marriage, because the Greeks are just really ornery), finds out about Semele, because Hera always finds out about all of the girlfriends. Hera disguises herself and convinces Semele that her boyfriend isn’t really Zeus, king of the gods – Semele will have to prove it somehow. Semele, in a sort of Samson-and-Delilah adventure, persuades Zeus that if he really truly loves her, he’ll give her whatever she wants. He makes an unbreakable vow to do so, and Semele asks him to reveal himself in his true form. Zeus is like, “um, honey, but-” “YOU PROMISED.” Zeus reveals himself, and Semele is so lit she catches fire and burns to death because mere mortals can’t look at gods.
So that’s a fun story.
The part where it gets really weird is that Semele is pregnant, and to save their kid, Zeus pulls the baby out of Semele’s womb and puts him in his side. Then, a few months later, Dionysus is born! Because a dude’s side is exactly like a womb! I don’t know, maybe Zeus magically spawns a temporary womb for a while. Supposedly, since Dionysus spends some time in his human parent AND in his godly parent, that makes him more special than your average demigod (half-god, half-human) kid.
In any case, Zeus isn’t sure he wants to bring this kid home – Hera might set him on fire, after all. So Dionysus is raised by the rain-nymphs of Nysa, otherwise known as the Hyades. Dionysus grows up in the wild, which might be important later.
However, Hera isn’t ready to let this go just yet. Hera finds him and curses Dionysus with madness, so he leaves Nysa and travels the earth as a lunatic. He is eventually found by Rhea, a Titan and queen of the earth, and also Zeus’ mom. So Dionysus’ grandma takes him in, cures his madness, and teaches him many helpful things about the earth and how to grow plants in it, including the grapevine. She may or may not throw in some helpful hints about fermentation.
TO BE CONTINUED on future Myth Mondays!