Myth Monday: Dionysus Gets Some Followers

A few weeks ago I began a series of posts on Dionysus, one of the twelve Olympians in Greek mythology. Today we’re going to be picking up where my last post left off. See that post also for sources and recs on this crazy guy.

So last time we saw Dionysus, his grandmother Rhea had cured him of his madness and taught him the classic arts of gardening and fermentation. Like any enterprising young man, he has no interest in living and gardening with his grandma for the rest of his life, so he sets off to make his fortune. Now, along with his impressive baggage which includes both mommy AND daddy issues, Dionysus has a few different things that make him very popular throughout the known world. If I were to pick his top three weapons for making friends and enemies, they would be: booze,  madness, and dramatic flair. When push came to shove, he could always resort to shape-shifting or strangulation.

But I’m getting distracted from the story.

According to the stories, Dionysus went as far as India, teaching humankind about how to grow plants (especially the grapevine) and how to make wine. As he went, he gathered many followers and created a few enemies. Usually he would come along to some town or other, make everyone completely crazy, and then lead them into the wilderness where they would have wild parties and chase down animals (or occasionally people) and tear them to pieces.

Sounds fun, right?

Additionally, most of his followers (who were called the Maenads or the Bacchae) were women. There was nothing Dionysus liked more than finding meek, obedient women working quietly in their homes and lead them out into the streets into drunken revelry or violent hunts. There’s a lot of talk about Dionysus wanting to compensate for his dead mother by surrounding himself with nursemaids at all times. There are a lot of weird dualities in Dionysus’ story; one of which is that the Maenads sometimes appear as nurturing and loving, for example when the nymphs find baby Dionysus and care for him; but other times, when they’re in Crazy Mode they tear apart their own children. There is also a contrast between the Maenads’ freedom/ecstasy and their brutality. Basically, if you’re going to go to one of Dionysus’ parties, maybe keep your kids and your wife and your husbands locked up in a cellar somewhere, for their own protection. Because of their tendency to go on rampages, the Maenads didn’t make temples for Dionysus – all of their worship was outside, in the wilderness or among the plants Dionysus made grow.

Of course, not everyone liked the guy – for obvious reasons. And it took a while for Dionysus to become well-known and established as a worthy god to be worshiped. It’s hard to say whether opposition or indifference angered him more.

At some point early on in his career of lunacy, Dionysus wound up captured by pirates.  It’s hard to say whether he goaded them into this or not. I mean, he was just walking along like the beach like a young rich helpless person, sooo…. The pirates capture him and of course there’s That One Guy who is like, Guys? Guys? “Why did you kidnap this random beautiful man stuck in the middle of nowhere? Have you ever read a myth? Or heard a myth? THIS WILL NOT END WELL.” And of course, no one listens to That One Guy because they’re all going to get rich by ransoming this kid.  The kid, Dionysus, doesn’t do anything at first but then weird things start happening to the boat. Vines start creeping over it. Wine starts running over the deck. At some point the pirates lose their minds and try to escape vine-strangulation by jumping into the sea. Dionysus turns them into dolphins.

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Source  (The pirates turning into dolphins)

I mean, people often accuse Dionysus of over-reacting, but at least the pirates were living dolphins and not dead from being struck by lightning.

Besides the pirates, there are a couple of kings who are particularly famous for trying to keep Dionysus out of their countries and failing spectacularly. King Lycurgus makes a good effort – at one point, Dionysus and his forces are repelled so thoroughly that Dionysus himself leaps into the sea to hide. However, in the end Lycurgus is captured by Dionysus and thrown into a cave to think about what he’s done. I’m not sure how long he has to think about it before admitting that fighting against a guy who can make everyone around you powerful enough to tear boars and stags into pieces is probably not a great career move.

Pentheus, king of Thebes, is the other king. He refuses to allow Dionysus’ worshippers to establish themselves in Thebes. Pentheus captures one of Dionysus’ followers and interrogates him. In one version, this is Dionysus in disguise. In another, this is That One Guy from the pirate story. In both versions, Pentheus interrogates and threatens the man, the man makes some extremely unsettling and confident threats, and then proceeds to escape from his bonds and disappear.

Meanwhile, guess who has converted to Dionysus’ cult? Pentheus’ mother and sisters. Dionysus stirs up his followers and sends them on a hunt after a “wild beast.” The women, not realizing that the beast is in fact Pentheus, tear him to pieces. They only realize what they’ve done afterwards, when the madness has faded.

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The Maenads tearing Pentheus up. Source

What a fun guy. There’s plenty more where this came from! To be continued on a future Myth Monday!

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