Myth Monday: Dionysus and A Resurrection or Three

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.

Tough Love

the-kiss-1908(1)
“The Kiss” by Gustav Klimt illustrates Dionysus and Ariadne on Naxos.

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?

Nope.

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.

Corona Borealis, Bootes

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.

800px-Cerberus-Blake
Cerberus, three-headed guard dog of the underworld, by William Blake

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.

Sources

  • 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.
Advertisements

Myth Monday: Ode to Bacchus

One of these days I will continue my blog series on Dionysus (Bacchus), god of wine, madness, and many other fun things. For now, here’s a poem on the guy that I read this last week by the Roman poet Horace. Follow the links for some background info.

Bacchus I saw in mountain glades
Retired (believe it, after years!)
Teaching his strains to Dryad maids,
While goat-hoof’d satyrs prick’d their ears.
Evoe! my eyes with terror glare;
My heart is revelling with the god;
‘Tis madness! Evoe! spare, O spare,
Dread wielder of the ivied rod!
Yes, I may sing the Thyiad crew,
The stream of wine, the sparkling rills
That run with milk, and honey-dew
That from the hollow trunk distils;
And I may sing thy consort’s crown,
New set in heaven, and Pentheus’ hall
With ruthless ruin thundering down,
And proud Lycurgus’ funeral.
Thou turn’st the rivers, thou the sea;
Thou, on far summits, moist with wine,
Thy Bacchants’ tresses harmlessly
Dost knot with living serpent-twine.
Thou, when the giants, threatening wrack,
Were clambering up Jove’s citadel,
Didst hurl o’erweening Rhoetus back,
In tooth and claw a lion fell.
Who knew thy feats in dance and play
Deem’d thee belike for war’s rough game
Unmeet: but peace and battle-fray
Found thee, their centre, still the same.
Grim Cerberus wagg’d his tail to see
Thy golden horn, nor dreamd of wrong.
But gently fawning, follow’d thee,
And lick’d thy feet with triple tongue.

-Ode II.19 by Horace

You can read my other posts on Dionysus here, here, and here.

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.

K12.15Tyrrhenioi
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.

899135
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!

Myth Monday: The Bacchae

Last week on Myth Mondays: meet Dionysus, god of wine and madness! See other Myth Monday posts here.

I ran out of time for a proper post today, so I will leave you with a quote, or rather a monologue. This is from The Bacchae, an ancient Greek play by Euripides. As we will see later on, theater is a huge part of the worship of Dionysus. In this monologue, Dionysus goes over his backstory (which we talked about last week) and announces his modest goals of world domination. Translated by Gilbert Murray. I put some words in bold – they’re important names or motifs in Dionysus’ myths.

Behold, God’s Son is come unto this land
Of Thebes, even I, Dionysus, whom the brand
Of heaven’s hot splendour lit to life, when she
Who bore me, Cadmus’ daughter Semelê,
Died here. So, changed in shape from God to man,
I walk again by Dirce’s streams and scan
Ismenus’ shore. There by the castle side
I see her place, the Tomb of the Lightning’s Bride,
The wreck of smouldering chambers, and the great
Faint wreaths of fire undying—as the hate
Dies not, that Hera held for Semelê.
Aye, Cadmus hath done well; in purity
He keeps this place apart, inviolate,
His daughter’s sanctuary; and I have set
My green and clustered vines to robe it round.
Far now behind me lies the golden ground
Of Lydian and of Phrygian; far away
The wide hot plains where Persian sunbeams play,
The Bactrian war-holds, and the storm-oppressed
Clime of the Mede, and Araby the Blest,
And Asia all, that by the salt sea lies
In proud embattled cities, motley-wise
Of Hellene and Barbarian interwrought;
And now I come to Hellas—having taught
All the world else my dances and my rite
Of mysteries, to show me in men’s sight
Manifest God.
And first of Hellene lands
I cry thus Thebes to waken; set her hands
To clasp my wand, mine ivied javelin,
And round her shoulders hang my wild fawn-skin.
For they have scorned me whom it least beseemed,
Semelê’s sisters; mocked my birth, nor deemed
That Dionysus sprang from Dian seed.
My mother sinned, said they; and in her need,
With Cadmus plotting, cloaked her human shame
With the dread name of Zeus; for that the flame
From heaven consumed her, seeing she lied to God.
Thus must they vaunt; and therefore hath my rod
On them first fallen, and stung them forth wild-eyed
From empty chambers; the bare mountain side
Is made their home, and all their hearts are flame.
Yea, I have bound upon the necks of them
The harness of my rites. And with them all
The seed of womankind from hut and hall
Of Thebes, hath this my magic goaded out.
And there, with the old King’s daughters, in a rout
Confused, they make their dwelling-place between
The roofless rocks and shadowy pine trees green.
Thus shall this Thebes, how sore soe’er it smart,
Learn and forget not, till she crave her part
In mine adoring; thus must I speak clear
To save my mother’s fame, and crown me here
As true God, born by Semelê to Zeus.

Coming up on Myth Monday: more Dionysus, Percy Jackson, and reviews!

Myth Monday: Dionysus’ Fun Beginning

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.

Sources

511px-Dionysos_kantharos_BM_B589
Source

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.

Roman_-_Sarcophagus_Depicting_the_Birth_of_Dionysus_-_Walters_2333.jpg
Source

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!