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 D I O N Y S O S 
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The myth of Dionysos

  Cadmos    Birth     Childhood     Adventures     Orphism  

THE LEGEND

If we unite the assorted elements of the legend for consistency (not a particularly easy task, because all the myths have so many different versions according to ages and places) we can just about determine the following, based on sources of the classical age, and in particular Euripides' Bacchae, a text based on the Boetian legend of Thebes.

Dionysos is the illegitimate son of Zeus and Semele, daughter of Cadmos, king and founder of Thebes.

In his book L'univers, les dieux, les hommes (The universe, the gods, the people ; Seuil, 1999), Jean-Pierre Vernant underlines that in the story of Dionysos, everything is centred on the dialectic between identity and otherness, autochthony and acceptance of the outsider. It is not by chance that Dionysos is the god from the outside, always seen as foreign to the city and a threat to its stability.

His grandfather : Cadmos

His grandfather Cadmos is already a foreigner in Greece, he is Phoenician, son of Agenor - brother of Europe. He was stranded in Greece during his quest to find his sister, on the Boetian plain. The oracle of Delphi ordered him to abandon his pursuit and to follow a cow and found a city where it stops.
To be accepted locally, he follows Athena's advice to kill a dragon and sow its teeth in Boetian earth. From the sowed teeth grew fully armed warriors, truly autochthonous for even when emerging from the earth they began to kill each other. Five survivors are left from this battle, the spartoi (sown men), who were to become defenders and guarantors of Theban identity.
To make peace, Cadmos marries Harmonia, daughter of Aphrodite and Ares, of love and war; and gives the hand of Agave (one of his daughters) in marriage to Echion (one of the autochthonous warriors). Pentheus is born from their union.

The birth of Dionysos

Zeus, seduced by the descendent of Agenor, was the lover of Semele for enough nights for Semele (of her own initiative, or prompted by the pernicious advice of jealous Hera) to want to see the one who united with her only in darkness in the full splendour of his divinity. Zeus, who had unfortunately promised Semele to fulfil her every wish, is forced to reveal himself. Semele is consumed by lightening ! The death of Semele is depicted on an Attic red-figure krater. We can see reproductions of this in "The Beazley Archive Pottery Database" (particularly in the 5th photograph : Semele lays on a bed, Iris at her side ; Hermes brings the child to a nymph.

Zeus then extracts the child she is bearing from her innards, sews it into his thigh until the young Dionysos comes into the world, "born from the thigh of Jupiter" (Boston 95.39, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Perseus Project), according to the well-known expression which applies itself to the lofty.

Dionysos is twice born and twice son of Zeus.

Childhood

The child is first entrusted to his aunt Ino, another of Cadmos' daughters, and wife of King Athamas. But Hera strikes them both with such severe mania that they kill their own children.

Silenus with the infant Dionysos, IIIrd century B. C.
© Louvre.edu

Dionysos is then led by Hermes to Nysa (Hermes and the infant Dionysos, Olympia Museum, Perseus Project), a mysterious place which some assimilate to Mount Nysa in Thrace, and others such as Herodotus to a city of High Egypt, where he is brought up by local nymphs and by the old man Silenus (Munich GL.238, Perseus Project). Nysa means young lady and nysos young man, meaning that popular Greek etymology makes him "son of Zeus" (Dios is the genitive of Zeus) or "god of Nysa".

The adventures

At adolescence Dionysos is in turn victim to Hera, who strikes him with mania. Saved by Rhea, his paternal Grandmother, Dionysos then sets off on a long expedition, finding it hard to make himself accepted in all the cities he stops in. He is considered to be a dangerous god, from another place, bringing the vine, drunkenness and disorder.

He is made particularly unwelcome by king Lycurgos in Thrace, who throws his supporters into prison, the maenads (maenads, "the mad ones" has the same root as mania and mainomai). Dionysos frees them and in his turn strikes Lycurgos with murderous mania (London F271, British Museum, Perseus Project), who consequently kills his son with an axe. Pursued by Lycurgos, Dionysos dies from fear and dives into the sea where he once was hidden by Thetis (Iliad, Chant VI, v. 129-141).

After a long voyage to India, Dionysos returns to Thebes, accompanied by Asian maenads, to make himself well-known. This is the subject of Euripides' Bacchae.
King Pentheus resists against the new cult which the disguised god puts forward to him and gets him arrested along with his cortège. Dionysos flees, setting fire to the palace, and spreading mania amongst the Theban women, including Agave, Pentheus' mother and Dionysos' aunt, who scatter themselves on the slopes of Cithaeron. J.-P. Vernant says that Pentheus represents both unwavering determination in the face of faith, warlike violence and identity withdrawal; he allows himself to be tempted by the spectacle of the "other scene" (women in their intimate relationship with nature), and, disguised as a women, goes to spy on the women from the top of a pine tree. Blinded by the god, the maenads mistake Pentheus for a wild animal, and his own mother Agave dismembers him and brings back his head on the end of her thyrsos (Attic red-figure vase, Beazley Archive), mistaking it for the head of a lion. (Theocritus, Idylls, 26 - Boston 10.221, Museum of Fine Arts of Boston, Perseus Project). The tragedy ends with the distress of Agave on recognizing her dead son, the flight of Cadmos and the victory of Dionysos.

Woman seated on a swing, 530-520 B. C.
© Louvre.edu

The adventures of Dionysos recur in Argolide and Athens. Outcast, he spreads his mania and enforces his cult. In Argolide, the god turns the daughters of several kings mad, Eleuther, Proitos and Minyas. In Athens, Dionysos, received with kindness by the farmer Icarios, rewards him for his hospitality by offering him wine. Icarios is killed by his drunken comrades. Erigone (Icarios' daughter), hangs herself when she finds him dead, and is followed by all the girls of Athens. The Athenians side with Icarios and Bacchae, and found festivals in honour of Dionysos. A rite, celebrated during the Anthesteria festival, commemorates the tragic love of Dionysos and Erigone : illustrated on this Attic amphora, it consists in suspending girls on swings from trees.

Dionysos, not originally a member of the Olympians, accesses Olympus once he has managed to reconcile Hephaestus with his mother Hera (The return of Hephaestus, Toledo Museum of Arts, Perseus Project).

Dionysos is indeed the outsider, the foreigner for whom the city must make room at certain times of the year, and in whom reason must recognize its limits.

Dionysos in orphism

There is a different myth which, according to Pausanias (VIII, 37, 5), is very ancient, dating back to the time of Onomocritus, poet of the Pisistratus age, a myth which is developed in orphism.

According to this myth, Dionysos is not the son of Semele, but the son of the incestuous union of Zeus and Rhea, Demeter or Persephone (his mother, sister or daughter). He would have been dismembered then boiled by the Titans (Diodore from Sicily, V, 75, 4 ; fragment 14 by Euphorion of Chalcis, and fragment 643 by Callimachus).

Two different stories emerge from this dismemberment :
- Dionysos died, but his heart was spared and kept in the grave of Delphi (Clement of Alexandria, Protreptic, 2, 18, Orphicorum Fragmenta, 35)
- Dionysos' body is put back together and he is returned to life (Euphorion, OF, 36; Olympiodore, Comment on the Phaedo by Plato, 61c, OF, 211)

The point that these two traditions have in common is that Dionysos is the god of rebirth and eternal renewal.