[BACK]          [Blueprint]         [NEXT]

From Greek and Roman Mythology & Heroic Legend, by Professor H. Steuding, Translated from the German and Edited by Lionel D. Barnett. The Temple Primers, London: J. M. Dent; 1901; pp. 64-68.


Greek Religion from the Beginning of the Homeric Age

IX.  The Religion of Dionysos.   § 113.  An entirely new kind of worship spread through Greece when the fanatical 65 service of Dionysos was introduced. This was to some extent known already to Homer, but it finds in him only a passing mention. The cult of Dionysos had its origin in Thrace; thence, like the service of Ares, it was carried by emigrants moving south-westwards to Phokis and Boiotia, and later also to Attica. The Thracians were closely akin to the Phrygians of Asia Minor, among whom he was adored under the name of Sabazios, as the son of the divine mother Ma. In his own home, as later in Greece, the god was worshipped at night-time by women, who wandered about the mountain woodlands in passionate excitement with torches in their hands; these are the ‘orgies,’ ὄργια, a word connected with ὀργάω (’swell,’ ’be excited’) and ὀργή (‘impulse’). These worshippers became in myth his nurses the Nymphs or his attendants the Bacchai (‘shouters’), Mainades (‘mad-women’), and Thyiades (‘raging ones’).

§ 114.  The wild round-dance, the shaking of the head, the shouting, and the distracting music of the flute, together with the use of intoxicating drinks, especially of wine, which was grown in Thrace from early times, roused them to an ecstasy in which they imagined themselves united with the god. Their souls seemed to leave their bodies and join the troop of spirits attending on him; or they fancied the god himself entered into their bodies and inspired them. The feeling of the opposition between soul and body which displays itself in this rapture (ἔκστασις) leads to a belief in the divine nature of the spirit, and hence at the same time to a conviction of its imperishability; for if the soul can part from the mortal body and live on by itself in ecstasy, it can do so equally well in death. To Dionysos the god of souls, as to the souls themselves, was now attributed the form of a snake; in order to take him up into themselves, his worshippers tore to pieces and swallowed snakes or other young animals which were consecrated to him and in earlier times were imagined to represent him, such as calves and goats, — probably too in the oldest times even children, — drank the blood, which was looked upon as the seat of vital power, and enwrapped themselves 66 in the raw skins. Meanwhile they called in a loud voice upon the god, conceived at the time of the winter solstice as a child slumbering in a winnowing-fan, to vouchsafe fruitfulness in the commencing year. From the cry of rejoicing uttered by them the god himself was called Bacchos or Iacchos.

§ 115.  The same meaning is betrayed by the festal rites of the Little Dionysia, celebrated at the Anthesteria (‘flower-feast’) in the country and in Athens by a symbolic wedding of the god with the queen, representing the land; her place was taken in the time of the republic by the wife of the Archon Basileus.

An intoxicating drink was prepared also from the fruit of the ivy; hence this likewise was sacred to Dionysos. As Lyaios (‘setting free from care’) he carries as his symbol the vine-branch or the thyrsos (a staff capped with a pine-cone) wreathed with ivy. In his honour was held at Athens the vintage-festival of the Oschophoria (‘carrying of grape-clusters’), as well as the feats of the wine-press, the Lenaia. In vine-growing Naxos, which was the centre of the worship of Dionysos on the islands populated by Ionians, the dithyrambos was probably sung to him at first as a simple drinking ditty. In Corinth this was remodelled into a choral song performed by singers attired as satyrs; from this grew up at the Dionysiac festivities of Thebes the dithyramb of Pindar, and in Athens the Drama in its earliest form as τραγῳδία (‘goat-song’) or ‘Satyr-play’ (σατυρικόν, σάτυροι). Hence in Athens at the spring games of the Great Dionysia the most important part of the feast was the production of the dramas that had grown out of this song.

§ 116.  When the true meaning of the above mentioned sacrifice of children was no longer understood, the Orphics, or expounders of the religious poetry founded on the worship of Dionysos, created about the time of Peisistratos a fiction to explain that rite. Dionysos himself, they said, had as a child or in the shape of a beast been torn to pieces by the Titans, the foes of the gods, and thence had received the 67 name Zagreus. The word seems to be properly a by-name of the death-god who ravishes all away (Ζα-αγρεύς, the ‘Wild Hunter’ ?).

Once introduced into the Hellenic system of deities, the Thracian stranger becomes the son of Zeus, his mother Semele the daughter of Kadmos of Thebes, as he was there chiefly worshipped. On her premature death Zeus conceals the still undeveloped embryo in his own thigh until the time of birth. Then Hermes conveys it for further care to the nymphs of Nysa or to their equivalents the Hyades (‘maidens of the rain-cloud’).

§ 117.  Other myths refer to the opposition with which the introduction of this foreign cult was met. Even in Thrace, the god’s home, barbarian foes of his worship seem to be typified in Lykurgos, who pursued him and his nurses with a double-axe. In the Minyeian Orchomenos he is opposed by the sober industrious daughters of Minyas, and similarly in Argos by those of Proitos, in Thebes again by King Pentheus himself. They however all perish through the madness sent upon them by the god, which is the final stage of drunken excitement.

The marriage of Dionysos with Ariadne, a Cretan goddess of near kindred to Aphrodite, which is localised in Naxos or Dia, is in complete agreement with the character he bears elsewhere; its meaning is clearly marked by the names of the sons sprung from it, Oinopion (‘wine-drinker’), Staphylos (‘grape’), and Euanthes (‘blooming one’). By Aphrodite again he is the father of Priapos the god of gardens and herds worshipped at Lampsakos on the Hellespont, who seems to be of kindred nature to himself.

§ 118.  The oldest symbol of his worship was a consecrated post or pillar formed probably from a holy tree, from which again the earliest true cult-statues developed on the addition of a mask and clothing. The representation of him as a bearded, fully-clad man remains the standard one until the fourth century B.C.; later he appears as a child on the arm of Hermes or of a bearded satyr. After Praxiteles had figured 68 him as a naked youth clad only in the skin of a fawn (νεβρίς), this nude boyish type came to be universally accepted.

Olympian Deities :

X.  The Goddesses of Fate.

[BACK]          [Blueprint]         [NEXT]