DIONYSUS dī ə nī’ səs (Διονύσος). Dionysus was the god of an ecstatic and emotional cult, which appears to have reached Greece from Thrace. The cult satisfied that strange and somewhat terrifying urge in human nature that found expression in the “dancing madness,” which periodically invaded Europe from the 14th to the 17th cent. and even appropriated to its mass excitement perverted forms of Christianity. The “Shakers,” the Jewish Hasidim, the Moslem dervishes, and the Siberian shamans were and are other examples of such psychological maladies.

Mythology made Dionysus the son of Zeus and Semele, snatched unborn from his mother’s womb when Semele was incinerated before the burning glory of Zeus that she had insisted on seeing. The babe was born in due time from his divine father’s thigh in which he was sewn. Myths clustered around the young god’s name, the most famous of which forms the theme of Euripides’ last and strangest tragedy, the Bacchae, a drama which, rightly viewed, is a moving and horrifying study of the worship of Dionysus as Euripides encountered it in its northern homeland in his final years.

The Dionysiac myths are of little account. They are accretions around a form of primitive worship of vast antiquity, which came to Greece from ancient times and found new forms and adaptations as society grew more sophisticated and civilized. The drama, tragedy, and comedy, but esp. the former, had their primitive roots in the worship of Dionysus, and the Attic Dionysiac festivals produced their final splendid fruit in the magnificent theater of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.

Beneath the mass of myth and the final shape of the ritual, it is possible to see the worship of a vegetation spirit and the fertility cult so frequently associated with such deities in primitive religion. Dionysus’ cult titles confirm this. He was “the Power of the Tree,” the “Blossom-bringer,” the “Fruit-bringer,” the “Abundance of Life.” His domain was, as E. R. Dodds puts it, “Not only the liquid fire in the grape, but the sap thrusting in a young tree, the blood pounding in the veins of a young animal, all the mysterious and uncontrollable tides which ebb and flow in the life of nature.” The tidyminded Romans turned this ancient deity into the jolly Bacchus, the wine god with his reveling nymphs and satyrs, theme of Titian and Rubens, and turned “orgia” into “orgies,” not the ecstatic acts of the transforming and horrible devotion that they were in their primitive context of nature worship and religious “possessions.”


J. E. Harrison, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (1903); W. F. Otto, Dionysos (1933); E. R. Dodds, The Bacchae (1944); W. K. C. Guthrie, The Greeks and their Gods (1950); E. M. Blaiklock, The Male Characters of Euripides (1952), 209ff.; C. Seltman, The Twelve Olympians and Their Guests, ch. XIII (1952).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

The youngest of the Greek gods. In Homer he is not associated with the vine. In later Greek legend he is represented as coming from India, as traversing Asia in a triumphal march, accompanied by woodland beings, with pointed ears, snub noses and goat-tails. These creatures were called satyrs. The vine was cultivated among European-Aryans first in Thrace, and here Dionysus is said to have established his worship first in Europe. Then the cult of Dionysus passed down through the Balkan peninsula to Thebes; and in the localized form of the myth the deity was born here--son of Zeus and Semele. "Offspring of Zeus on high .......................... Thou that carest for all Who on Bacchus in Italy call And in Deo’s sheltered plain Of Eleusis lord dost reign, Whither worshippers repair! O Bacchus that dwellest in Thebes, On whose broad and fertile glebes Fierce warriors from the dragon’s teeth rose, Where Ismenus softly flows, The city that Semele bare!" --Sophocles, Antigone. Among all the Greek deities none appealed more vividly to the imagination than Dionysus. Greek tragedy is a form of worship, the ritual cult of the god of wine, who makes the initiate wise and the ungodly mad. Dionysus speaks most strongly to the sense and to the spirit at the same time. There is nothing monotonous in the Dionysiac legend; it is replete with both joy and sorrow--in some aspects it is a "passion" in others a triumph. All the passion plays of the world (even the Oberammergau Schauspiel) are in the ancient spirit. One Dionysus after another has been substituted, but from the first there has been a desire on the part of the devotee to realize his god vividly with thrilling nearness, to partake of his joys and sorrows and triumphs in his manifold adventures. In the early myths Dionysus was one of the lesser gods; he is mentioned only twice in the Iliad and twice in the Odyssey; but he is always represented as being more nearly akin to man than the great august deities of Olympus.

He is a man-god, or god-man. To the inhabitants of the vine-clad slopes of Attica, to which his cult had been brought from Phrygia through Thracian Boeotia, he was particularly dear. At their vintage feasts last year’s cask of wine was opened; and when the new year brought life again to the vines, the bountiful god was greeted with songs of joyful praise. The burial of the wine in the dark tomb of the jars through the winter, and the opening of these jars at the spring festival symbolized the great awakening of man himself, the resurrection of the god’s worshippers to a fuller and more joyous life. The vine was not the only manifestation of the god--oil and wheat were also his; he was the god of ecstasy, the giver of physical joy and excitement, the god of life, the god of certain laws of Nature, germination and extinction, the external coming into being and the dying away of all things that are, fructification in its widest aspect whether in the bursting of the seed-grain that lies intreasured in the earth, or in the generation of living creatures. Hence, the prominence given to the phallus in the solemn processions in honor of the god.

Nicanor (2 Macc 14:33) and Antiochus Epiphanes (2 Macc 6:7) thought that the cult of Dionysus would not be objectionable to the Jews. Ptolemy Philopator branded the Jews with an ivy-leaf (3 Macc 2:29), which was sacred to Dionysus. See also BACCHUS.