Explorations of Dionysus: Cult, Myth, Mystery

posted on July 11, 2021
Related: Hellenic Culture, Deities

Dionysus is one of several deities whose popular worship was practiced throughout Greece. Commonly known as God of wine and vegetation, he is spatially associated with both Athens and Thebes, while mythology also links him to Crete and other islands. His worship is among the longest lived, beginning in the Minoan-Mycenaean period and enduring well into the Roman era. It is worth exploring the history of this successful God, from his origin in pre-Greek culture, to include some of his popular worship throughout the Greek periods, and finally examining the mystery cult that would allow his worship to continue into Hellenistic Greek and Roman eras.


Herodotus credits Melampus, son of Amythaon, with introducing Dionysus into Greece in name, worship, and rite. His opinion is that Melampus learned of an Egyptian procession for the vegetation God Osiris and imported much of it, including the phallic procession, into Greece as a Dionysian rite.

However, much evidence proves Dionysus was worshiped in the earlier Bronze Age Mycenaean era of Greece. Mycenaean Linear B script, used from about 1500-1100 BCE, shows worship of Dionysus at Pylos. There is even a hint of Dionysus worship continuing from the late Minoan period. A temple within a building dating to the fifteenth century BCE at Ayia Irini on Keos was in continuous use into the Greek period, at which time an inscription marks the sanctuary as belonging to Dionysus.

An origin before the Ionian migrations to Asia Minor in the tenth century BCE is also indicated by Thucydides. He notes the Anthesteria is practiced in both Athens and Ionia. All Ionian migrants had similar practices of this Dionysian festival to the Athenians, so this festival originated before migration.

Despite a long and popular history in Greece, the origin of Dionysus’ name is not known. Most of the word has not been deciphered, although it is believed to contain the name Zeus within it, as an indication of Dionysus as Zeus’ son. It appears to be non-Greek, as are Bacchus, his mother’s name Semele, and cult terms for the sacred wand and hymns. This argues for origin among the indigenous people of Greece or among early migrants.

Dionysus is clearly one of the most ancient of the Greek deities and is not originally an import of Osirus. Herodotus’ view may stem from the fact that during the 7th century BCE, Dionysus worship was influenced by the worship of Osiris, especially seen in the addition of the ship procession to his cult. Herodotus and all of Greece appear to be unaware of the long continuity of Dionysus worship, which may have implications about the extent to which the Greeks were aware of their Mycenaean cultural inheritance.

In his Theogony, Hesiod says the mortal Semele gave birth to Dionysus “in shared intimacy” with Zeus, his father. Dionysus is born fully immortal and Semele is transformed into a Goddess. This conflicts with later mythology, which claims that the mortal Semele could not withstand Zeus’ affection and dies as a result. Zeus rescues the fetus and carries it to term in his thigh, which is also the location of birth. These events occurred in Thebes.

A later myth of his birth, common in the Bacchic mysteries, claims Dionysus was born of the Goddess Persephone. Zeus, his father, places him on a throne while he is still a child. He is enticed by Titans, who murder him and tear him to pieces. Then he is born again.

Cult Festival

The Anthesteria celebrates the annual arrival of spring, notably flower blossoms, and takes place over three days. Offerings to the God were made at the sanctuary of Dionysus in the Marsh, which was only open during this festival. The entire population of free women, men, and children, as well as slaves, participated in the festival. For children, who began to participate at age three, the festival was one of four major lifetime events.

The festival begins at sunset when the first day, called Pithoigia, begins with the opening of the first wine of the year and a first offering is left in the sanctuary for Dionysus.

The second day, called Choes, includes a drinking contest for all participants in which everyone receives a jug of wine while sitting at their own table in silence. Even children are included, but have a smaller jug.

All other sanctuaries are closed, removing access to other deities, and no oaths may be sworn at this time. Spirits were allowed out of Hades and given free roam of Athens, whereas normally they were confined to areas near their graves. In early times they appear to be spirits of ancient Carians whom legend says anciently lived in the area, but later they were apparently the souls of all the dead. People smeared pitch on their doors and chewed buckthorn leaves for protection. Artwork on vases indicate masked mummers as an activity, although it was not part of the official cult. Revellers end this day by wearing ritual garlands as they return to the sanctuary to make sacrifices.

Chytroi, the third and final day, begins at sunset as Choes ends. The wife of the Archon Basileus, ruler of Athens, becomes Ariadne, wife of Dionysus, and has marital union with the God in the Agora. This union may have been literally with a herm or a masked person, but most of the sacred duties of the queen were secret and are not expressly discussed. During the day children’s contests take place. The main activity revolves around pottage, a cooked mixture of grain and honey. Pottage offerings were made to Hermes Chthonios for the dead and some was eaten by participants. Hermes was a guide of souls and the offering secured his aid in returning the souls to their proper place in Hades.

Burkert assesses the festival as a new beginning and a method of reinforcing one’s identification as an Athenian. None of the usual daily activities, including business and worship of city deities, is permitted. Instead, threatening spirits and drunken revelry abound and end all semblance of normal life. Activities reach out to include both the highest and lowest levels of Athenians: the ruler and his wife as well as children and slaves. Burkert further suggests that if reference to the Basileus derives from the Mycenaean period, when basileus was the title for a guild master, the festival was possibly geared more to the common person than to the aristocrat.

Many myths are related to the variety of sacred activities which take place as part of the Anthesteria. One has direct involvement with the Minoan-Mycenaean periods: Dionysus and his wife Araidne.

Ariadne is the daughter of the mythical King Minos of Crete. She is known as the wife of both Dionysus and Theseus, the first ruler of Attica. The most common explanation for this claims Theseus abandoned her on Naxos, where Dionysus later found and married her. Other accounts claim Theseus had to give Ariadne to Dionysus either completely, as the God’s wife, or conditionally, during each night. This generally follows suit with the Archon’s surrender of his wife to the God during the Anthesteria.

All of this is rather different from the earliest version of their marriage myth, which is in the Odyssey. In this text, Araidne is in Hades after her murder by the hand Artemis, apparently because Dionysus testified against Araidne for eloping with Theseus.

It has been suggested that Araidne was originally a Cretan Goddess but by the eighth century BCE she was considered to be a human princess who became immortal through the efforts of Zeus when Hesiod wrote Theogony. One analysis of the marriage, which considers the possibility of Araidne as a Minoan vegetation Goddess, explains that her relationship with Dionysus begins before the arrival of the Mycenaean hero Theseus. She breaks her vow to Dioysus with Theseus. The opposition between the God and Theseus is reconciled through two Athenian festivals founded by Theseus for that purpose, the Oschophoria and Anthesteria. This would explain the sacred marriage in the Anthesteria between the Archon’s wife and Dionysus as a ritual which appeases the God’s anger and creates blessing.

Bacchic Mysteries

Mystery cults existed at the same time as regular religious practice, such as festivals. Individuals made a personal decision to enter a mystery cult through initiation, using them as a supplement to the common religion. The mysteries brought one into close contact with the divine.

The Bacchic mysteries began by the late archaic period, if not earlier. Corinth is closely associated with its origin, at about 600 BCE. Corinthian vase painting depicts scenes of Bacchic revelry, the dithyrambos (cult hymn) was invented in Corinth, and a ruling family clan called Bacchiadai claimed descent from Dionysus. But the Bacchic Mysteries did not belong to one place. Wandering clergy spread the mystery cult throughout all parts of Greece.

Bacchic clergy were of both genders and claimed knowledge of the mysteries from previous teachers or directly from Dionysus. Eventually there seems to have been concern over the legitimacy of the wandering clergy. In the third century BCE, priestesses of the Bacchic mysteries at Miletus and in the surrounding country had to register themselves with the city’s regular priestesses of Dionysus, and also had to pay fees. In Hellenistic Egypt, at about 210 BCE, Ptolemy IV Philopater declared clergy performing Bacchic initiations must register in Alexandria and list three generations of teachers from whom they had learned the mysteries.

Bacchic initiation has four stages. First one must conceive the desire to join and then apply, this is followed by a preparation period, then the sacred rites were performed, and finally one is integrated with other initiates.

Artwork and texts indicate that both women and men were initiated into the Bacchic mysteries. Initiation was not confined to the Greek population. As seen in Herodotus’ account of Scythian king Scylas, foreigners could become initiates. Scylas was initiated into the mysteries of Dionysus at Borysthenites. However Bacchic release was a disgrace to the Scythians. When they saw their king in Bacchic frenzy, they rebelled and murdered him.

The Bacchic mysteries held two attractions for initiates: renewal after a release from madness and the promise of an afterlife. Dionysus is generally associated with madness, both the frenzy that descends upon his worshippers and as a God able to cure madness. The Bacchic rites cure suffering and afflictions of the mind with the divine madness, allowing initiates to express their emotions in the frenzy. The frenzy is considered a divine revelation, a direct experience of Dionysus, perhaps even possession. The other offer of the rites is the hope for a blissful afterlife, as opposed to reincarnation or an unconscious existence in Hades. To that effect, texts with instruction on how to proceed after death have been found in tombs from areas as far apart as Italy, Thessaly and Crete. Bacchic images appear on funerary items, and in southern Italy fourth century vases show Bacchic and funerary symbolism.

Although much of the Eleusinian mysteries has been kept secret, they also promised an afterlife, revealed through Goddesses Demeter and Persephone. After the sixth century BCE, crossover began between Dionysus and the Bacchic mysteries with the Eleusinian mysteries. Iacchos, who leads the Eleusinian procession, seems to be Dionysus. This conclusion is made on the basis of the similarity of his name to Bacchus, the Dionysian nature of the procession, and from artwork which shows Iacchos dressed as Dionysus. It was anciently noted that during the Lenaia celebration Iacchos was called the son of Semele, the mother of Dionysus.

Initiates of both mysteries are seen enjoying an afterlife in Aristophanes’ Frogs. Dionysus journeys into Hades and encounters a procession singing of Iacchos, just as the Eleusinian initiates did when alive. This group is called the Saved and the Blessed Ones. They ask Demeter to bring forth the holy child Iacchos to join them, as they are votaries of Bacchus.

The relation of these two mystery cults is also seen in the Bacchic myth in which Persephone gives birth to Dionysus, who is soon murdered and reborn. This is a Chthonian Dionysus of the Underworld, the location of the throne Zeus places him on. Ritually this chthonic association was acknowledged in Bacchic rites by wearing a garland of poplar, which was associated with the Underworld.

Throughout the centuries of his worship, Dionysus appears strongest in uniting the population. From the Mycenaean influence and possible origin of the Anthesteria festival to its well-known Athenian practice, Dionysus worship serves to unite the whole population and reinforces social identification with the polis. Dionysus worship also offers salvation through direct contact with the divine. It is indirectly offered to the polis and population through the sacred marriage of the God with the Archon’s wife in the Anthesteria of Athens. At the same time, his mystery cult offers the individual personal salvation through direct experience of his divine being and additionally offers life after death. In essence, this unites the worshippers with the God, which reinforces their bonds. This must have strongly contributed to his long duration as a popular God for nearly two millennia.

  • Aristophanes, “Frogs,” Trans. Robert H. Webb, in Hadas, Moses, ed. The complete plays of Aristophanes, (New York: Bantam Books, 1962) 367-415
  • Burkert, Walter, Ancient Mystery Cults, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987
  • Burkert, Walter, Greek Religion (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985)
  • Herodotus, The Histories, Trans. Aubrey De Selincourt (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1996)
  • Hesiod, Theogony/Works and Days, Trans. M.L. West (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988)
  • Johnston, Sarah, Restless Dead: Encounters Between the Living and the Dead in Ancient Greece, (Berkeley: University of Ca l ifornia Press, 1999)
  • Nilsson, Martin, Greek Folk Religion, (Gloucester: Peter Smith, 1971)
  • Pollard, John, Seers, Shrines and Sirens: the Greek Religious Revolution in the Sixth Century B.C. (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1965)

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posted on July 11, 2021 | Related: Hellenic Culture, Deities
Citation: "Explorations of Dionysus: Cult, Myth, Mystery", Ár nDraíocht Féin, July 11, 2021, https://ng.adf.org/article/explorations-of-dionysus-cult-myth-mystery/