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The following is the main body of a text that has just been published for a Dionysus exhibition at Museum Hecht, Haifa University, 1998. It is published as 'Dionysus: Myth and Ritual in sources of the Archaic Period' in: Dionysus and His Retinue in the Art of Ertetz-Israel (ed. R. Rosenthal-Heginbottom), Hecht Museum Catalogue 14 (1998), 52-56 (Eng,), 68-71 (Heb.).
As such it is not a scholarly article but an exhibition piece. I reproduce the text here in a larger font size to assist reading. Bibliography is at the end. ÝI do not reproduce the notes in my publshed verson.

If you desire to quote or cite it, please contact me at mluz@research.haifa.ac.il

You are the to read this since 14/2/98

Dionysus: Myth and Ritual in Sources of the Archaic Period
Menahem Luz

The myths and fables surrounding Dionysus, God of Wine, are the most savage and emotional in the whole of Greek mythology. They describe drunkenness, madness and wild ritual. They tell of cannibalism, voyeurism, transvestitism, infanticide, omophagia and the murder of a son by his mother. All of this by command of the Lord of Wine. Obviously, this mythological tradition also proves to be one of the richest in Greek literature. In this paper, we will confine ourselves to Dionysusą origin and his appearance in early Greek epic of the 8th-7th centuries B.C.E. However, although much of Dionysiac ritual can be dated only to the classical 5th century B.C.E., we also need to examine its relationship with mythology of the archaic period.

In classical Greek society, the festivities of Dionysus - the Dionysia or Bacchaea - signified a break from the routine of every day life: a rest for the wife from her weaving and for the husband from social conformity. Nonetheless, as early as the 8th century B.C.E., the God of Wine was thought to be an ambivalent source of good and evil. In Homer, he was considered to have been "the pleasure of mortals" (Iliad, xiv. 325), but in Hesiod, his is a "bittersweet gift to men" (Shield of Hercules" 400). Thus, from the very beginning of Greek poetry, Dionysus was considered both a good as well as an evil for those who abstain from his gifts.

The actual origin of the Dionysiac cycle of myths is lost in the mists of time. In Greek tragedy, Dionysus is portrayed as disseminating his cult rites in central Greece - specifically in his mother's birth-place, the town of Thebes. However, in the much earlier Homer, his holy mountain is Mt. Nysa in the barbarous land of Thrace. It is from there that mythology imagines that he emerged to teach viticulture throughout Greece.

It is obvious that the God of Wine did not conquer Greece as such, but rather was carried abroad by his believers who were bent on spreading his cult. Scholars have thus been preoccupied with the problem of the origins of Dionysus' mythic stories and his strange rituals. From an historical perspective, the Thracian people, from whose land he was said to have emerged, founded the kingdom of the Phrygia in Asia Minor, where they were known in the Iliad as "growers of the vine" (iii. 185). In fact, throughout the classical period, the inhabitants of Asia Minor were considered adherents of strange ecstatic cults, often regarded as ungreek in spirit. Consequently, many a scholar has sought Anatolian roots for the initiation rites (teletai) and cultic practices (orgia) entailed upon Dionysus' believers. In Dionysiac revelry, for example, the pine branch, surmounted by a cone and entwined with ivy, was known as a 'thyrsos'. Some have suggested a Hittite, or even Semitic origin for this word. Others even went so far as to suggest that Dionysus was himself a foreign, non-Greek god, who had been imported into Greece at a relatively late period. However, although it may be plausible that certain Dionysiac rites were borrowed from the east, the god himself had seemingly been known in the area of Greece as early as the Bronze Age. Evidence has in fact been uncovered to show that some god with a name like 'Diwonysos' was worshipped in southern Greece and the Aegean islands as early as the Mycenean period.

If Dionysus was indeed an Anatolian import, it is likely that he was brought to Greece either before or not long after the Greeks had begun to settle in this area. In fact, his traditional band of followers are all related to prehistoric powers of vegetation and the underworld. Among them may be counted the ecstatic Maenads, female bearers of Dionysus' thyrsus, as well as the oversexed Satyrs and Sileni, both characterised by a goat's ears, feet, tail and phallus. These forces of Nature have their origin in an era when man still believed that Nature was filled by demigods (daimones) and semi-divine nymphs, in whose hands the well-fare of animals and growth were placed. Some of them were imagined to inhabit the wells, mountains and trees which they represented. Others were depicted with the same form as the animals that they originally controlled. According to fable, the very first Maenads were simply the nymphs of Mount Nysa, who lost all control when they were filled with the god's spirit (entheoi) - while the Satyrs and Sileni always retained some aspects of a goat's form. Many scholars are convinced that these primitive forces were earlier than the Gods of Olympus themselves. At any rate, it should be noted that in the outlying countryside of Attica, Dionysus was represented as dressed in "a black goat-skin' and often as horned. In other words, not only was he accompanied by a choric band of semi-goats, but to some extent he can be said to represent a goat in the village (komikos) tradition. We can thus understand why annual competitions in drama were held in honour of the wine-god and included a 'satyr play' (satyrikon) and 'tragedy', which originally meant 'a hymn (ode) in honour of the goat (tragos)'. It is thus feasible that one of sources that later culminated in the figure of Dionysus was a prehistoric village goat-god, who symbolised the season of vintage and vegetable growth.

In the classical period, Dionysus was addressed by additional epithets and titles, several of them reflecting various aspects of his cult. Several of them recall his wild rites - as his Anatolian epithets, Bacchus and Iacchus, i.e. 'the Screamer'. The name of Dionysus' festival is derived from the first of these two epithets, known to many an art and music enthusiast under its Latin name, the 'Bacchanalia'. The god was also sometimes addressed as Bromius, 'the Thunderer' - an epithet reflecting not only his relationship to Zeus, God of the Heavens, but also the sonorous after-effects of intoxication on those who participated in the rituals. The god was also sometimes addressed as dithyrambus, that also served as the name of an ecstatic hymn sung in his honour. It is still uncertain which was the original meaning, or even what was the etymology of this non-Greek term. In fact, it seems that yet earlier it was the name of an Anatolian funeral dirge! However, by the fifth century B.C.E., it bore the sense of a choric hymn to Dionysus, sometimes sung by a tragic chorus in drama - and sometimes as an independent choric production. As an independent song, the dithyramb is known from a fragment of the seventh century lyric poet, Archilochus of Paros:

"How to produce a fine song for Lord Dionysus,

a dithyramb, that I know, (especially) when my mind is fuddled with wine"

(Archilochus, fr. 77).

After his death, Archilochus was subsequently imagined to be the actual inventor of the dithyramb!

The exact origin of the name, Dionysus, is also uncertain although one may speculate that the first part of the name reflects the belief that the god was "Son of Zeus (Dios)". This corresponds with an ancient myth that tells of an illicit love affair between the King of the Gods and Dionysus' mother, a nymph of Thebes, known as Semele. This story is known as early as Hesiod:

"Semele, Cadmus' daughter, lay with Zeus,

and bore to him a brilliant son, a god,

glad Dionysus, mortal though she was,

and now they both have joined the ranks of the gods"

(Theogony, 940-943).

These lines probably also hint at the unhappy end to the story, how Hera, wife of Zeus, envied their love and tricked Semele into begging Zeus reveal himself to her in all his glory. She, however, being a mere mortal, could not behold his lightening glance and was burnt to a cinder. However, before she was completely vaporised, Zeus snatched the embryo from her womb and sewed it into his thigh. Thus, Dionysus was in reality 'born' from his father and consequently known as 'Thigh Born'. After his birth, he was left in the hands of the nymphs of Mount Nysa, which subsequently became his holy spot. Nonetheless, there was some rivalry concerning which locality should be considered the true Mount Nysa! In a fragment from a Hymn to Dionysus, falsely ascribed to Homer, but still dated as early as the 7th-6th centuries B.C.E., there is already some record of this controversy:-

Was Mount Nysa situated on the Aegean Isles (near the cities of Icaria, or Naxos?) - or was it on the Greek mainland (near the streams of the Peloponnese, or near Thebes?) - or was is it in Egypt?

"Some, O divine Eiraphiotes (Dionysus), say that Drakanon was your birthplace,

but others claim it was at the wind-swept island of Ikaros, others at Naxos,

and others by the deep-eddying river Alpheios

that Semele conceived and bore you to Zeus who delights in thunder;

and, O lord, some liars say you were born

at Thebes when in truth the father of gods and men

gave birth to you and kept you well out of the sight of men and white-armed Hera.

There is a certain Nysa, a lofty mountain overgrown with trees,

far from Phoinike and near the flowing stream of Aigyptos."

(Homeric Hymn, 1 lines 1-9 ).

Controversies surrounding the supposed location of a mythological event often reflect some rivalry between various cult centres. In Dionysus' case, particularly, the variety of sites associated with his activity is often accompanied by a variety of fables. The classic form records how he sets out on a journey, in which he stops at various sites to teach viticulture and encourage local women to set up religious groups (thiasoi). Generally, there is an account of some confrontation between the god and the men-folk, that ends in cruel punishment and the lesson of the wine cult. On one occasion, we do hear of women who refused to join the maenad communities. Among the fragments of a lost poem by Hesiod, called Catalogue of Women, there is a description of Dionysus' arrival at Argos, where the daughters of King Proteus: "were driven mad since they refused the rites of Dionysus" (fr. 131 (18)). According to a later source, they were thought mad since they wandered around on the mountainsides under the impression that they were cows! The lesson, presumably, was that they were driven permanently mad by the god because they refused to enjoy the licence of festive drinking.

The motive of obstinate opposition and punishment is mentioned as early as Homer, who tells how Lycurgus, King of Thrace, paid with his life for having driven out Dionysus' nymphs from Mount Nysa, at which incident, the god was himself forced to flee to the sea for refuge:

"Since even the son of Dryas, Lykourgos the powerful, did not

live long; he who tried to fight with the gods of the bright sky,

who once drove the fosterers of rapturous Dionysos

headlong down the sacred Nyseian hill, and all of them

shed and scattered their wands on the ground, stricken with the ox-goad

by murderous Lykourgos, while Dionysos in terror

dived into the salt surf, and Thetis took him to her bosom."

(Iliad vi. 130-137).

This partly comic story is also a precedent of the Theban tradition, so well known from classical Greek drama. In the Bacchae of Euripides, Pentheus, King of Thebes, forbade the women to perform the rites of Bacchus and even cast the god himself into prison. According to this tradition, Dionysus freed himself and deceived the king as follows: first he persuaded him to dress in women's clothing in order to spy on their secret ecstatic cult (orgia), in which his mother had a leading hand. However, the king was discovered in his hide-out among the branches of a tree and in unconscious frenzy, his mother tore his head from his body.

A less cruel variation on this theme is related two hundred years previously in a Hymn to Dionysus falsely ascribed to Homer. Here it is related how Dionysus once walked along the strand in the disguise of a nobleman from a foreign land:

"Soon on a well-benched ship

pirates moved forward swiftly on the wine-dark sea;

they were Tyrsenians led by an evil doom" (Hymn 7 lines 6-7).

In accordance with his plan, the god was captured by these robbers and in spite of the warnings of the kindly pilot, they planned to put the god up for ransom. However, although they bound him "with painful shackles" (line 12), the god released himself and turned the ship's mast into a thyrsos:

"But soon wondrous deeds unfolded before their eyes:

first throughout the swift black ship sweet and fragrant wine

formed a gurgling stream and a divine smell

arose as all the crew watched in mute wonder.

And next on the topmost sail a vine spread about

all over, and many grapes were hanging down

in clusters" (lines 34-40).

At this point, the god transformed himself into a lion and attacked the pirates along with a bear of his creation. In madness, the pirates jumped into the sea and were turned into dolphins. This early story contains all the characteristic elements of the cult and myth of Dionysus: the god masks his true identity in order to deceive his enemies. The kindly pilot who accepted the god's power gains his grace while the pirates who opposed him are punished. Furthermore, this account also contains an element well known from ancient Greek art of the classical period: Dionysus' journey in a ship, whose mast comprised a vast thyrsus. Drawings of this scene in fact also reflect the ritual of the spring festival as it was enacted throughout the Ionian world.

In Athens, as in other Ionic cities, there was a custom each spring to celebrate the "Festival of the Vine Flower" (Anthesteria), parts of which were sacred to Dionysus as Lord of the Vine. The first day of the festival was termed "The Opening of the Jars", on which the jars of new wine were opened. Then master and slave partook of the wine, side by side. The second day was known as "Beakers", on which they blessed the new wine and competed in drinking from it to the sound of trumpets. On that day, children had a holiday from school and were supplied with small beakers in order to participate in the festivities. It was then that the public procession (pompe) set forth, in which Dionysus' image was paraded through the streets of Athens in a ship driven on wheels. Accompanying it, were bands of participants dressed as satyrs and maenads. On reaching the Temple of 'Dionysus in the Bog' - some distance outside the walls - there took place the ritual marriage of the Queen to Dionysus. The Queen was in fact the wife of a civic magistrate given the title of 'the King Magistrate', who was, among other things, supervisor of religious affairs. It was in his chambers that his wife was united with the god. Scholars are still much perplexed how to interpret this ritual. Was it a symbolic union with Dionysus' image? or was it a union with her husband in his role as 'King' and perhaps as representative of Dionysus? However it was performed, the ritual must have symbolised the mythological marriage of Ariadne to Dionysus on the island of Naxos. We hear about this in as early as Hesiod:

"And golden Dionysus took to wife

the fair-haired Ariadne, Minos' child:

The son of Kronos saved her from death and age.

(Theogony, 947-949).

This marriage too was between Dionysus and a king's wife, for Ariadne had married the god on the island of Dia (Naxos) since her lover, the mythological King Theseus, had abandoned her in order to return to Athens:

"I saw Phaedra, Procne and the beautiful Ariadne

she who had been the daughter of baneful Minos, she whom Theseus

had once tried to take from Crete to the hill of sacred Athens

but did not even enjoy her"

(Odyssey xi. 321-324).

Possibly, in remembrance of this, there took place girls' competitions in swinging from trees on the last days of the festival for Ariadne was said to have tried to hang herself in despair on being abandoned in Naxos by Theseus of Athens. The very last day of the Anthesterion was called "Pots", because it was customary for each family to invite the spirits of the dead to dine from their pots. At the end of the festival, they pronounced the words, 'Out Spirits, the Anthesterion is no longer!'

Each spring, there was held 'The Greater Dionysia', at which tragic compositions competed for a prize. In the city, this festival opened with a phallic parade, in which the god's image was born through the streets of Athens from outside the walls and brought to the Temple of Dionysus on the slopes of the Acropolis. After completion of the sacrifices, the image was now born to the theatre dancing floor (the orchestra) accompanied by torch bearers - and there it stood throughout the presentation of the plays. In the dead of winter, there was also held the 'Lesser Dionysia', called also the 'Lenaea' after the Temple of 'Dionysus in Lene'. Then were held the competitions in Comedy. By the end of the fifth century, however, there were also added competitions in tragic composition as well.

The cult and myth of Dionysus are not only the richest in the Greek Pantheon, but also the earliest cult ritual. Following the classical period, Dionysus' cult still continued to play a role in Greek society. In the Hellenistic period, especially, it absorbed new concepts. Along with the Orphic faith, that of Dionysus was used as a means to express philosophical ideas. Much of this had already by criticised by Plato in the fourth century and later revived under Nietzsche. However, that is another story.

Sources cited

    Wender, D. 1976 Hesiod Theogony Works and Days Athanassakis, A. N. 1982 The Homeric Hymns Lattimore, R. 1965 The Iliad of Homer


    Burkert, W. 1990 Greek Religion: 161, 222, 242 Burkert, W. 1972 Homo Necans: The Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth: 223-247 Rose, H.J. 1958[6] A Handbook of Greek Mythology: 149