Dionysus was the last of the gods to become an Olympian. He was the son of Zeus and Semele, the daughter of Cadmus and Harmonia. This was another of the affairs of Zeus that infuriated his wife Hera whom tricked Semele into demanding to see her divine lover in his full splendor. Zeus reluctantly agreed, and when he fully displayed his power his thunderbolt incinerated Semele to ashes. When sensing what would happen, Zeus immediately seized the child from its mother’s body and stitched it into his thigh and at the appropriate time the child emerged perfectly formed. This is the reason the Dionysus became known as twice born. Zeus entrusted him to the care of nurses. Ino, the second wife of King Athamas of Orchomenus, was the first to take care of him. Hoping to divert Hera’s jealousy Zeus suggested dressing Dionysus in girl’s clothing; but Hera was not fooled and caused both Athamas and Ino to go mad. Athamas killed his younger son, Learchus, by throwing him into a cauldron of boiling hot water, and Ino committed suicide with the elder boy, Melicertes. She threw herself into the sea with him, and later was transformed into the sea-goddess, Leucothea (white goddess), and the child became the little god Palaemon. After this tragedy Zeus placed the child in the care of the nymphs of Mount Nysa, which was often claimed to be upper Armenia, who disguised him as a kid, which may account for the epithet of “kid” later being applied to Dionysus in ritual.
According to another tradition, associated with the Greek Orphic mystery cult, Dionysus was born of an incestuous union between the serpentine Zeus and his daughter Persephone. Persephone also was born from such a union between Zeus and Rhea. This serpentine birth of Dionysus has been recognized as important in that the serpent is an arcane symbol of earth and water, both vital to life, and the serpent can penetrate the tomb, and in sloughing its own skin represent the resurrection of the dead. Dionysus’ birth has been likened to that of Christ.
Dionysus discovered the grapevine and its uses while growing up in the countryside around Mount Nysa. But Hera was not through for him, for she caused him to go mad, and afterwards he wandered about the entire East, which began for Dionysus a series of triumphs. He was purified in Phyrgia by the goddess Cybele (the great goddess of the land, whom the Greeks often identified with Rhea and called the mother of the gods; her cult was orgiastic, finding expression in violence, and was therefore vaguely connected to the cult of Dionysus). When regaining his sanity Dionysus went to Thrace, but the ruler, Lycurgus, gave him a poor welcome. When the king about imprisoned him, Dionysus fled to Thetis, the Nereid. However, Lycurgus was able to capture the Bacchantes, women who followed the god and celebrated his rites. In return Dionysus made the king go mad, and while thinking he was cutting down a grapevine, Lycurgus severed his own leg with an axe. Further, his kingdom was beset by sterility. And, when an oracle was consulted, it declared that the king should be put to death; so his subjects tore his body to pieces.
From Thrace Dionysus went to India, in which he conquered armies that he mustered on his way by the aid of his own spells. With these troops he returned to Greece accompanied by a triumphal procession in a chariot decorated in vine-leaves and drawn by panthers; his escorts were the Sileni, Bacchantes, satyrs and other fertility demons, such as the god Priapus.
Eventually Dionysus reached Boeotia in Greece, which was his mother’s region. It was his wish to introduce Bacchanalia into Thebes, where Pentheus reigned as king. During these revels, the populace, especially the women, went into a sort of a mystic delirium, and ran about the mountainsides shouting and oblivious to all decorum. Pentheus forbade such rites, but he received punishment from his own mother, Agave, in a state of religious fervor, tore him aprt with her own hands when mistaking him for a fawn.
Dionysus demonstrated his powers in Agros in a similar way. There he drove the two daughters of King Proetus into madness, and they wandered about he countryside thinking they were cows. The seer Malainpus cured them, and for this act obtained for himself and his brother Bias two-thirds of the kingdom of Argos. Another tradition attributes the delirium of Proetus’ daughters to the wrath of Hera.
When Dionysus sought to gain access to Naxos he hired the services of pirates who tried selling him as a slave. The god changed their oars into serpents and filled their vessel with clinging ivy. Becoming afraid the pirates threw themselves into the sea and were transformed into dolphins.
As the final episode of his travels, Dionysus descended into the underworld in search of his mother, Semele. Hades agreed to give Semele back to Dionysus, and following this she took to the sky assuming the name of Thyone. Before his return to Olympus, the god abducted the young Ariadne, who was abandoned by Theseus on the island of Naxos, and made her his wife.
Dionysus’ Roman counterpart is Bacchus. A.G.H.
Grimal, Pierre, Larousse World Mythology, Secaucus, New Jersey, Chartwell Books, 1965, pp. 137-139 Cotterell, Arthur, A Dictionary of World Mythology, New York, G. P. Putman’s Sons, 1980, pp. 138-139