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I O N Y S O S
The cult of Dionysos
In Athens In other cities In the hellenistic and roman world
Extreme care must be taken over the position given to Dionysos within the Greco-Latin pantheon, because of the very rejection to which he is subject from the Greeks and the Latins, but also because of the scholars who, in an attempt to understand his cult, competed in ingenuity to give him an origin other than Greek : Dionysos is considered to be a unique god, because of the very disorder he creates, a god often rejected as a foreigner and latecomer to the city (he was assigned a Thracian, Phrygian or Egyptian origin, like Herodotus). Alternatively he is considered to be the god of childhood, bestiality and barbarism, threatening sanity and conventions, in particular the institution of marriage, because he influences men to indulge in the excesses of sex and drunkenness, and leads the women into trance and intimacy with nature, endangering the function assigned to them in the city.
Internal or external barbarism, such is the stake of Dionysos.
He is the god of boundaries and disobedience, the god of an ancient and distant, immediate and sometimes violent, connection with nature. He is also the central and all-important god of renewal, of joy and life, of opening to the other, who works against the tendency of man and the city to fall back on the certainties of their mastery and their autochthonous identity.
He is omnipresent, in all Greek cities since most ancient times (he is referred to in the Mycenaean age in Pylos' tablets), linked to the fertilizing humidity, wine and theatre, to the expansion and halving of the self, to the death and revival of vegetation as well as the individual..
He is the god that is invoked or called (Bacchos, lacchos, are words that came later from the verbs bacchan or baccheuein meaning "to be driven by mania", "to scream").
The cult of Dionysos in Athens
Four festivals are dedicated to Dionysos, from the beginning of Winter to the beginning of Spring :
- The rustic Dionysia, during the month of Poseidon (corresponding to our December),
- The Lenaea, during the month of Gamelion (January-February),
- The Anthesteria, during the month of Anthesterion (February-March),
- The Great Dionysia, during the month of Elaphebolion (March-April).
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The cult of Dionysos in other cities
He is linked to the mysteries of Eleusis, in which he is invoked by the name of Iacchos (cf. Aristophane, The Frogs, v.324 to 334 and 340 to 350). Like in the myth of Demeter and Persephone, when Persephone returning to see his mother in Spring is symbolic of the return of vegetation and in particular wheat, Dionysos too is linked to the death and return of vegetation.
Delphi was proud to be in possession of Dionysos' tomb. Dionysos, chased away by Lycurgos, would have ended his journey there (Maria Daraki, Dionysos et la déesse-mère (Dionysos and the goddess-mother), Champs, Flammarion, p. 19). His heart would have been collected there, the only part of Dionysos' body to have escaped the violence of the Titans. Dionysos replaces Apollo in winter, when Apollo goes to the country of the Hyperboreans. This can be interpreted according to the seasons and the agriculture : in winter the sunlight lowers, and vegetation waits under damp earth. In Antigone, Euripides alludes to a cortège of maenads on Mount Parnassus.
The legend of the daughters of Minyas punished by Dionysos is perpetuated by the Agrionies festival.
According to Herodotus, the tyrant Cleisthenes replaced the theatrical games in honour of the local hero Adrastus with games in honour of Dionysos, as if the cult of Dionysos was substituting local aristocratic cults universally.
The two expanding forms of dionysism are on one hand the growth of theatre, and on the other the spreading of orphism.
Evolution of the cult in the Hellenistic and Roman world
The Romans have a god called Liber who is associated with the passage from childhood to adulthood: it is at the Liberalia festival that the child dons the toga virilis (Dumézil, La religion romaine archaïque (Archaic Roman religion), Payot, 1974, pp. 382-385). The likening of Liber to Bacchus (simply a Greek nickname for Dionysos), and the general development of the cult of Bacchus, would stem from Southern Italy and Sicily, otherwise known as Greater Greece. Dumézil mentions the phallophoric processions of Southern Italy.
The Bacchanalia, symbolic of slackening customs, which according to Tite-Live weakened the warrior strength of Hannibal and his troops in Capoue, were officially forbidden in 186 (Tite-Live, Histoire romaine (Roman history), Book XXXIX, 8-18).
Furthermore, the cult of Dionysos had been introduced very early in Carthage. In his book Splendeurs des mosaïques de Tunisie (Splendours of the Tunisian mosaics), Mohamed Yacoub dates back to at least the IVth century B.C., before the Punic wars even, the introduction of his image in Punic sculpture, and the possible syncretism with the Phoenician god Shadrapa, since Hercules is fast assimilated in Melqart. Some specialists also take pleasure in comparing Punic masks with masks of the Greek theatre. The theme of the Dionysian procession and illustrations of Dionysos as an animal-taming infant, are particularly developed in the Byzacene (region of Sousse and El Jem, now Tunisia's Sahel region) at the end of the IInd century and throughout the IIIrd century, perhaps due to the rule of the Severan dynasty (the gods protecting them were precisely Hercules and Dionysos), originating from Leptis Magna on the banks of the Syrtes.
Dionysism in Africa - the country of farming -, without returning to the status it held in Greece, is such a persistent scene that it is difficult to perceive it as simple ornament. Growing Christianity saw in it an unbearably Pagan cult of nature, fertility, and vital force.