previous.gif     next.gif    

by H. Crosthwaite



THE account given of the birth of Dionysus by the followers of Orpheus goes as follows: Dionysus was the son of Zagreus, a son of Zeus and Persephone. He was torn to pieces by Titans, who ate his limbs. Athene rescued the heart, and a new Dionysus was made from it. This dismemberment is in Greek sparagmos. Osiris, in Egypt, was also dismembered and then resurrected.

The Titans were burnt up by lightning, and men were born from the ashes and soot. Plato refers to man's 'Titanic nature. '

This 'original sin' was known to other writers as well. Of special interest to us is the fact that Zagreus is another name for Zeus Katachthonios, Subterranean Zeus, and is held to mean 'Great Hunter. ' He must be a god of long standing, since he assisted Kronos in a fight with a monster. The Greeks thought he was the same as the Egyptian Osiris.

The usual story is that Dionysus was the son of Zeus and Semele. Diodorus Siculus, 1st century B. C., refers to an old Dionysus with a beard, who joined in an attack on Kronos, and a young Dionysus, shaven and effeminate.

Semele is an earth goddess (Greek chamai, Latin humus, and Slavonic zemlya. She is long-haired [1] .

Euripides, in his play The Bacchae, tells us how the thunderbolt from Zeus destroyed Semele, and Zeus hid the infant in his thigh [2] . One version of the tale is that Zeus named him Dithyrambus because he emerged twice, from his mother and from the thigh of Zeus. But in The Bacchae, 526, Euripides appears to derive the name from his having entered a door in Zeus's thigh, Dios thura, the door of Zeus.

Much can be found about the nature of Dionysus in The Bacchae. Dionysus on his travels comes to Thebes in Boeotia, central Greece. His worship has been rejected by Pentheus, the young king of Thebes. The stranger, who is Dionysus, fills the women with divine frenzy; they rush out to Mount Cithaeron to worship and revel. Pentheus has the stranger imprisoned. There is an earthquake and the stranger breaks free. He induces Pentheus to dress up as a woman and spy on the women's revels. Pentheus is discovered and torn to pieces. His mother, Agave (sister of Semele), triumphantly carries his head back to Thebes, recovers her sanity, and recognises that she has killed her son. (Vide Agave in the glossary).

In The Bacchae, 594, "hapte keraunion aithopa lampada", the stranger urges the reveller to kindle the blazing lightning torch. The scholiast on Euripides, Phoenissae, 227, mentions automaton pur, spontaneous fire, at his sanctuary on Parnassus, with which we can compare the 'mega selas puros', great blaze of fire, at his sanctuary in Crastonia in Macedonia. The name of his priestesses, Thyadae, recalls the verb thuo, sacrifice by fire. As a god of mountainous places, see Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannus 1105: "Bacchic god dwelling on mountain peaks."

Pentheus vows to stop him "ktupounta thurson", making a noise with his thyrsus, and shaking his long hair. Ktupos is the sound of an electrical discharge: "ktupei Zeus Cthonios", Underground Zeus thundered; [3] . 'Chthonia brontemata', underground thunderings [4] . 'Ktupos' is a crash of thunder, Iliad XX: 66.

The plain near Cirrha was sacred to Apollo and was not to be cultivated. In the 4th century B. C., during the Sacred War, the Phocians were fined for disregarding this prohibition. In 347 B. C., the officers on the staff of the Phocian general Phalaecus searched for treasure. As they attempted to dig round the tripod in the shrine, an earthquake occurred and frightened them away. The people living in the district, known as the Amphictyonic League, had responsibility for the protection of Delphi.

The Bacchae, line 145: The Bacchant runs, waving a wand with a flame, rousing the wandering dancers, raising Bacchanalian cries, tossing his luxuriant hair in the aither, or air. Aither is an interesting word to use here; normally it is the upper air, home of the gods and heavenly fire.

Line 185: The aged Kadmos asks the prophet Teiresias to join the dance and shake his grey head. He loves to strike the ground with his thyrsus. Kroteo, strike, means to make a sound by striking, and is used in music.

Line 306: Teiresias says: " You will see him on the rocks of Delphi, and leaping with torches over the twin-headed mountain, striking and shaking the Bacchic branch." One peak of Parnassus was sacred to Apollo, one to Dionysus.

Line 313: Teiresias says: "Pour libations, dance, wear the stephanos." The stephanos, or crown, was of great importance, and a brief digression is necessary here.

A crown was awarded to a victor in the games. It was also worn by a poet, and by a victorious general. At Olympia, a victor received a crown of wild olive; at Delphi, of laurel, which was sacred to Apollo; at Nemea, of parsley; and at the Isthmian games, of ivy and pine. In the case of ivy, kissos, the fruit formed a yellow cluster, corymbus, sacred to Dionysus. Offering friends wine to drink in ancient Greece or Rome involved setting up a mixing bowl, krater, for the wine and water. One put a crown of flowers not only round one's head, but also round the rim of the bowl. A priest wore a crown when sacrificing. Wine is described as fiery, Greek 'aithon'. In a Homeric house, the krater, or mixing bowl stood on a tripod in the hall, left of the entrance. It was of silver, sometimes with a rim of gold, as in Odyssey IV: 615, sometimes all gilt. Vergil has his father Anchises crowning a bowl, filling it with wine, and calling upon the gods: "Tum pater Anchises magnum cratera corona induit implevitque mero, divosque vocavit." [5]

The Bacchae, line 341: Kadmos suggests to Teiresias that he should put on his head a garland of ivy to honour the god. In line 363 Teiresias has a wand with ivy on it. Pentheus interrupts and says: "Hands off! Don't wipe off your folly onto me." Avoidance of infection and pollution by touch and association was important in Greek life. The bringer of plague was Apollo. This deep-rooted fear may have been encouraged by the sensation and effect of electric shock, and even the movements of Greek dancing may have been influenced by it. The word skirtao, dance, is to make movements and skip like a goat. See above, Diodorus Siculus, on goats and herds at Delphi.

Line 494: Pentheus threatens to cut off the stranger's hair. The stranger replies: "My hair is sacred; I cherish it for the god." The word for a lock of hair, phobe, is very close to the word phobos, fear. In the Iliad, XXIII: 141, Achilles offers a lock of hair to the dead Patroclus. In Vergil, Aeneid VII: 391, in a description of Bacchic rout, we see the phrase "sacrum tibi pascere crinem", to let grow the hair sacred to you.

The Bacchae, 596. The chorus exclaim: "Do you not see the fire around the holy tomb of Semele?"

Line 626: The stranger tells the chorus how he escaped from prison in Pentheus's palace. The god caused an earthquake, and Pentheus, out of his mind, saw fire from Semele's tomb attacking his house. Water is of no use against this kind of fire. Pentheus attacks a phantom which Bromios (Dionysus) creates out of shining aither. The word used here for shining is 'phaennos', reminiscent of the old name for Kronos or Saturn, Phaeinos. (Compare the madness of Ajax in the play of that name by Sophocles. He slaughters sheep, thinking that they are his enemies).

Line 665: The Maenads go barefoot, 'leukon kolon'. In the Dionysiaca of Nonnos a Bassarid (follower of Dionysus) was apedilos, barefoot. One can compare the Selli, the flamen Dialis, and the augur, mentioned above. We might also quote The Bacchae, lines 137 ff.: "He is pleasant in the mountains when he falls to the ground." This recalls the giant Antaeus, who derived his strength from the ground, and was defeated when Herakles lifted him up.

Line 704: A messenger reports the revels of the Bacchants. One of them obtains water from rock by striking with a thyrsus, another strikes the plain and gets wine. Compare the words spoken to Moses, Old Testament Exodus XVII: 6: "Behold. I will stand before thee there upon the rock in Horeb; and thou shalt smite the rock, and there shall come water out of it, that the people may drink. And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel."

Line 757: Their hair is on fire but does not burn away. Line 918: The stranger talks to Pentheus until Pentheus has hallucinations. He sees two suns and two cities of Thebes, and horns on the stranger's head. Nonnus, Dionysiaca 46, has: "He saw two Phaethons and two Thebes." Vergil, Aeneid IV: 469, has: "Eumenidum veluti demens videt agmina Pentheus, et solem geminum et duplices se ostendere Thebas". Pentheus sees troops of Furies in his madness, a twin sun and two Thebes.

Line 943: The thyrsus is held in the right hand, and raised in time with the right foot (a somewhat equivocal instruction). Line 977: The hunting dogs of the goddess Lyssa are mentioned. Is there a link with Artemis, the huntress and sister of Apollo? 'Lyssa', rage, is used of martial fury, Iliad IX: 239. Later it is used of raving caused by gods.

In The Bacchae, line 851, "elaphra lyssa" means lightheaded madness.

Line 1082: Pentheus has been set up on a high fir tree, to see all the revels. The voice of Dionysus is heard from the aither, ordering his punishment. As he spoke, "he set up a column of holy fire to earth and to heaven, and the heaven was silent, and so were birds and beasts..."

Line 1103: The Bacchants attack, as though with lightning, the branches of oak trees, and scatter the roots (of the tree in which Pentheus is sitting) with levers not made of iron. The word 'synkeraunousai', striking with lightning, is noteworthy.

Line 1159: At the end of the messenger's speech announcing the fate of Pentheus, the chorus make a few comments, including the phrase "a bull leads to disaster." Already in lines 920 and 921 we have heard of the bull-like appearance of Dionysus. In this play, Dionysus signifies a bull, Kadmos (the founder of Thebes) a serpent.

In The Bacchae, the disturbing forces seem to be electrical, rather than alcoholic as one would be inclined to expect, given the connection between Dionysus and wine. Pentheus may see double, but he is not drunk and incapable, nor is anyone else for that matter. Wine would help when electricity failed. The thyrsus could be fitted with a sharp metal point to simulate electrical shock.

The tomb of Dionysus was close to Apollo's tripod in the sanctuary at Delphi, and his successor Apollo is described as Dionysodotes, a dispenser of Dionysus. When we think of the ancestry of Dionysus, the name Zagreus, and the links with thunder, lightning and earthquake, it seems that Dionysus is almost a double of Zeus. Zeus is a sky god, lord of the clouds and the thunderbolt. The Romans worshipped Jupiter Diespiter, god of the open sky. The Greeks also had Zeus Katachthonios, Subterranean Zeus. The Roman counterpart was Jupiter Veiovis, or Vedijovis, Subterranean Jupiter. The title suggests seeing and knowledge.

We have already seen Fragment 93 of Heraclitus: "The god whose is the oracle at Delphi neither speaks nor hides. He signals." Another passage from Heraclitus is relevant: "Fire's turnings: First sea, and of sea one half is earth, the other prester ...(?) is spread about as sea, and is measured to the same account as it was before becoming earth." 'Prester' may be connected with pur, fire, sterope, lightning flash, and aster, star or meteor. Turnings presumably imply transformations, but might also imply a changing course.

There are two other fragments to consider with this one: Fragment 34: "The beginning and the end on a circle are common;" and "The way up and the way down are one and the same." It seems possible that Heraclitus is comparing celestial fire with electrical 'fire' as experienced at shrines and in caverns in the earth.

Plutarch writes that a visitor to some islands near Britain had been greeted by a great tumult in the air and many signs from heaven. There were violent winds, and presters fell.

Passages relating to: Dionysus, The Bacchae, fire, crowns. Homer, Iliad IV: 533: "Threikes akrokomoi" Thracians with hair on the crown. This may mean shaved, except for a crest, or it may mean drawn up in a top-knot. Iliad VII: 321: Agamemnon sacrifices a five year old ox to Zeus, and gives Ajax the best part, the chine. Why is chine best? Presumably because of mane and bristles which may have electrical significance.

Vergil, Aeneid III: 125: The Trojans leave Delos and sail past "bacchatam Naxum", the island of Naxos, where Bacchic revels take place.

Aeneid IV: 469: Dido, despairing of marriage with Aeneas, begins to go mad, like Pentheus who saw the Eumenides and two Thebes. Pausanias IX: 12: 3: There is a story that when the thunderbolt struck Semele a log fell with it. Polydorus decked out the log in bronze and called it Dionysus Kadmos. Nearby is a statue of Dionysus in solid bronze. Polydorus was a son of Kadmos, brother of Semele.

Euripides, a fragment from The Cretans: The chorus address King Minos: "For when I become an initiate of Zeus and herdsman of night-watching Zagreus..."

At Elis there was a festival, called Thyia, in honour of Dionysus. The anaklesis, or invocation, has survived; the women call on him to be present with the Graces (Charites), raging with his ox-foot. Plutarch, in his Quaestiones Graecae, asks the reason for this in question 36.

The god's epiphany was followed by the miraculous creation of wine. There is reference to Dionysus Tauromorphos, Dionysus in the shape of a bull, in Plutarch's Isis and Osiris. In Orphic Hymns 44: 1: we have "Come, blessed Dionysus, created in fire, with the face of a bull."

Sophocles, Fragment 94: "Iacchus with horns of a bull." Athenaeus mentions a tauriform statue of Dionysus at Cyzicus. Frazer, The Golden Bough XLIII, says that Dionysus was worshipped as Dionysus of the Tree. The Corinthians were commanded by the oracle at Delphi to worship a pine tree "equally with the god," and they made two images, with red faces and gilt bodies.

In Naxos he was Dionysus Meilichios, with face of figwood. There is a connection with honey (scholiast on Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus 159).

He was Dionysus Liknites, He of the Winnowing Fan. A winnowing fan was a shallow basket. As an infant he was cradled in it, and his mask is portrayed on it as it is carried in the phallic processions at the Eleusinian Mysteries. Greek 'kalathos' = basket. We shall attempt an explanation of the word kalathos in a later chapter.

Plutarch refers to the immortality of the soul as revealed in the Dionysiac mysteries.

At Cynaetha (a name suggesting 'blazing dog') there was a winter festival of Dionysus. The men annointed themselves with olive oil and carried a bull to the sanctuary.

He was in the shape of a bull when torn to pieces by the Titans. His worshippers thought that by devouring a bull they were eating the god and drinking his blood. As a goat, he was worshipped as 'He of the black goatskin'.

Dionysus wore long hair, phobe. Compare phobos, flight, the outward sign of fear.

For burning which does not consume, compare Old Testament Exodus III, Verse 2: "And the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed. And Moses said, I will now turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt. And when the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said, Moses, Moses. And he said, Here am I. And he said, Draw not nigh hither; put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground."

Apollodorus, The Library, III: 4: Dionysus was entitled 'Kid', in Greek Eriphos. He was turned into a goat when the gods fled to Egypt to escape the fury of Typhon.

Antoninus Liberalis, Transformations 28) . Apollodorus III: 5: 3: Dionysus descended to Hades to bring back Semele, whom he named Thyone.

Notes (Chapter Three: Dionysus)

1. Pindar: Olympian II: 26

2. Euripides: 'The Bacchae' 525

3. Sophocles: 'Oedipus at Colonus' 1606

4. Aeschylus: 'Prometheus Bound' 994

5. Vergil: 'Aeneid' III: 525

previous.gif     next.gif