It’s been a while since I’ve continued my series on Dionysus, son of Zeus and god of agriculture, madness, and a few other things. You can catch up on the other Dionysus posts here. Previously, we went through Dionysus’ birth and childhood, and looked at his worshippers and some of the stories of his infectious madness ruining kings and pirates. Dionysus has a tendency to inspire passionate frenzy in his followers and frenzied outrage from his opposition.
One of the mythical figures most associated with Dionysus is his wife, Ariadne.
Ariadne is probably most famous for her role in the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur. Ariadne falls in love with a boy (Theseus, prince of Athens) and betrays her family (the royal line of Crete) to help said boy defeat her monstrous half-brother (the Minotaur) and escape the Labyrinth. After everything she goes through, Ariadne is abandoned by Theseus on the island of Naxos. Understandably, Ariadne does not take the break-up well and curses Theseus, sending the Furies after him.
Dionysus finds Ariadne’s agony and fury extremely hot. You’d think Ariadne would be super done with guys at this point, but she lets herself be swept off her feet and marries Dionysus. There’s a story of a miracle on Naxos, in which wine gushes from the spring located where Dionysus and Ariadne were married. If anyone was going to have a magical wine-spring at his wedding, it would be Dionysus, who invented it.
AND THEN THEY LIVE HAPPILY EVER AFTER, RIGHT?
Dionysus ends up in a war with Perseus (of the Golden Fleece fame), because Perseus is one of those kings who just won’t fall in line with the Dionysian cult. Ariadne is accidentally killed during their battle. Whooooooooooooooops.
After Ariadne dies, Dionysus throws her wedding diadem into the night sky and it becomes the constellation Corona Borealis.
Dionysus, in spite of his raucous followers and orgiastic habits, doesn’t have a bunch of mythical lovers, and definitely had fewer than his dad Zeus, for example. Ariadne is the primary spouse or lover he’s got (although he had a couple of kids with a couple other mortal ladies).
You Can’t Keep A Good Girl Down
Dionysus regularly loses the important women of his life, but he does try to get them back. Remember his mom Semele, who burst into flame while pregnant after seeing Zeus’ true form? At some point Dionysus decides that was a Bad Deal and goes on the traditional underworld quest to get her back. He’s a bit luckier than Orpheus and Dionysus doesn’t have to do any of that “Don’t look back” nonsense. However, he does have to bribe* a certain shepherd (named either Hypolipnus or Prosymnos or Polymnus) to help him find an entrance to the underworld. Once Semele has been retrieved, Dionysus guilts Zeus into making her a minor goddess named Thyone.
There are stories that Dionysus rescues Ariadne and makes her a goddess as well, but those are more obscure and came along later. I like them, though, because Ariadne had a rough enough time as it was.
Aside from the occasional rescue, Dionysus has a complicated relationship with the underworld. In his cult, Dionysus dies every year and resurrects in the winter with the grapevine, symbolic of his status as the god of agriculture and wine. The ancient author Hesiod uses the epithet “he who eats flesh raw” to describe Dionysus, which he also uses to describe Cerberus (three-headed dog of the underworld) and Echidna (the mother of monsters). This implies that Dionysus has at least some monster-attributes linking him to the more overt mythological monsters, if not an actual monster himself.
In some versions of his myths, Dionysus is in fact the son of Zeus and Persephone, but complications lead to Zeus moving the baby to Semele’s wound instead because THIS IS MYTHOLOGY AND NOTHING IS NORMAL. The Orphic Hymns (attributed to Orpheus, another dude who went to the underworld to try to save a girl), say that Dionysus hangs out in Persephone’s house during the time of year when he is dead (Orphic Hymn 53). Another Hymn (46) says that Dionysus was raised in Persephone’s house, rather than being raised by nymphs of Nysa.
So, like Persephone, Dionysus has a lot of seasonal connotations for his worshippers and a cycle of power and decline that he goes through every year.
TO BE CONTINUED on a future Myth Monday!
*Not a monetary bribe; Dionysus generally took the form of a really really really attractive younger dude. USE YOUR IMAGINATION OR DON’T, I’M NOT HELPING YOU.
- 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 Meridian Handbook of Classical Mythology by Edward Tripp: This is a more recent find, but it’s a decent encyclopedia of Roman and Greek mythological characters.