Dionysos in a ship, sailing among dolphins. At...
Dionysos in a ship, sailing among dolphins. Attic black-figure kylix, ca. 530 BC. From Vulci. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dionysus was the Greek god of wine but with implications and influence far outreaching such a description. Son of  Zeus and Semele, Dionysos was also known for his cult of frenzied followers who allegedly ate live animals and children during ecstatic orgies.

He’s been associated with the raw, natural, emotional and unconscious forces of the psyche, in contrast to the cool and orderly aspects of ego-consciousness, as personified by Apollo. He’s inspired artists (David Bowie) and philosophers (Friedrich Nietzsche) alike, with his ritual madness and ecstasy perhaps appealing to those fascinated by the outer limits of normality and living on the edge.

In contrast to benign deities like Jesus Christ and the Buddha, Dionysus didn’t take kindly to those who didn’t respect him. Myths abound where he severely punishes people, even children, for not honoring his apparently divine status.¹ Nevertheless, he’s one of the most widely represented deities in ancient art,² and was worshipped in the country and the city.

In Rome his counterpart was Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, invoked and honored at musical and dramatic functions. But there was a dark side to the Roman worship of Bacchus. When occupying Judea, the Roman authorities forces the Jews to wear ivy during the annual festival of Dionysus, and they threatened to destroy the Jewish temple and replace it with one dedicated to Dionysus if the chief priests didn’t hand over Judas Maccabeus.

¹ For instance, in the Homeric Hymn 7 he turns a ship full of pirates into dolphins for not recognizing his divinity. See Susan Guettel Cole “Dionysus” The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome. Ed. Michael Gagarin. © Oxford University Press 2010. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome: (e-reference edition). Oxford University Press. Toronto Public Library. 13 August 2012 http://www.oxford-greecerome.com/entry?entry=t294.e384

² The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 1999, pp. 479-483.

³ The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary, 1987, p. 284.


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