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Dionysus: The Peoples God
Dionysus was one the most influential of the Greek Gods. Even though he didn’t arrive in Greece until approximately 800 BC, the impact from his followers is still felt in the world we live in today. Dionysus was a demi-god meaning that he was only a half god, which makes his rise to Mount Olympus even more amazing. Dionysus represented everything that the people could relate with. He was looked upon as a god of Life bringing water and viability to plant, animal and man. Dionysus was also the lone God of Wine, which was a common drink in ancient Greece. Finally he was a god that could grant ecstasy or madness in reward or punishment. Due to these three concepts that Dionysus represented, he was considered to be a god of the people who was fimiliar with the lifestyle of man.
To begin to learn how Dionysus affected the Classical Greeks one must first know of his origin. Dionysus was the offspring between Zeus, King of the Gods, and Semele, a princess of Thebes. Hera was jealous of Semele and convinced her to make Zeus show Semele his true form, only knowing that this would kill her and her baby. When Semele is burned to death Zeus saves his unborn son and transplants the fetus into his leg. Once born Dionysus was taken to Semele’s sister, Ino the Queen of Orchomenus. To hide the child from Hera, Ino disguises him as a girl. Hera was not fooled, so to punish Ino she drove her to madness. Zeus changed Dionysus into a goat and sent him to live with the Nymphs in Nysa. It was Nysa where Dionysus learned of fertility and wine. When Hera found him she imposed the same madness on him as she did on Ino. Dionysus wandered the earth for many years in a state of insanity. He wandered until he met the Rhea, who cured him of his madness and made him the Olympian god he was destined to be. This brief history of the coming of Dionysus has a great effect on how he rules as a god.
Dionysus, other than his famed title of God of Wine, was also a go of birth and rejuvenation for all life. One of the major components of the history of Dionysus was that he had multiple births. His first birth was due to the death of Semele, his mother. His second birth was when Zeus removed Dionysus from his leg and exposed him to the world. Due to these events, the Greek people associated Dionysus with birth and revitalization of all living things. In the early days of Dionysian worship, Dionysus was regarded as a Tree God in Thrace, his birthplace. His first power of mankind was using magical spells to help dead crops grow or to help simple men with moral problems. One such myth that proves this is the myth of Midas. The myth consists of two main characters, Dionysus and King Midas of Thrace. King Midas was in love with gold so much that he asked Dionysus to allow everything Midas touched to be turned into gold. Dionysus happily granted this wish to Midas as he requested. Midas became frustrated with the fact that everything he knew and loved was now made of pure gold. King Midas begged Dionysus to undo the wish and become normal again. Dionysus agreed and with that he gave instructions about how to cleans himself of the curse. This myth shows Dionysus’ closeness to the people of Greece. His powers in this early stage of his god hood allowed him to use nature, gold, to help the people learn valuable moral lessons.
By being a God of Life and Rejuvenation Dionysus did not only think of his role as a natural one but in all aspects of life. Many historians believe that he was the God of Democracy. The Greeks believed this because of his outlook on life and especially his closeness to the everyday man. This is related to being a god of life because he brought life to a new form of culture. A culture where every man has an opportunity and a voice. This is where he contrasts with his relative Apollo. Apollo was a god of the aristocracy who did not have casual interaction with the everyday people. With the rise of the festivals in the name of Dionysus the common people of Thrace, Thebes, Athens and others had a common bond under a god who gave life to them. Therefore Dionysus, as being a god of life and rejuvenation help unite the people into a formation of a new political life, the democracy.
As well as learning about life and rejuvenation in the Forest of Nysa, Dionysus also brought to the Greeks the art of making wine. The God of Wine is Dionysus’ most popular title because he held it independently. Even in this day and time Dionysus-Bacchus is still the patron saint of drinkers. In Classical Greece, wine was the drink of the people. Due to the fact that Dionysus was the God of Wine, many festivals were held, all across Greece, in the name of Dionysus. The greatest Dionysian festival was the Anthesteria. The main theme of the Anthesteria was the unity between Dionysus and the death souls of the past. This represented the dual function of the earth, life and death. On the first day of celebration the kegs of wine were opened in the name of the inventor, Dionysus. On the second day each participant of the festival sampled the quality of the gods wine by drinking an entire pitcher. This aspect of the ritual is understood better in another myth that has no importance to Dionysus or his role on the Greek culture. The festival of Anthesteria shows the closeness of Dionysus to his followers and that anyone could worship the God of Wine without any social barriers.
The God of Wine, Dionysus, also served another purpose during the large consumption, ecstasy. During many festivals, including Anthesteria, the people did not drink for the purpose of being social but to relieve themselves from reality. As historian, Louis Dyer, put it, “Wine belonged to Dionysus as the good gift that freed man’s soul from man’s self and made way for the power of the god to speak his will.” Dyer is pointing out that Dionysus did not give man wine for everyday use, but it was a gift for the worship of the God of Wine and a way for man to contact the god. Twentieth century wine drinkers wonder how alcohol intoxication could actually make people believe that they could communicate with a god. Though what is different between the wine now and the wine in Classical Greece is the ingredients. If wine in Classical Greece was consumed without dilution, the drinkers could receive brain damage or even death as a consequence. The wine was diluted 20:1 proportionately to reduce the chance of death caused by the harsh wine. The alcohol percentage was not the toxic ingredient in the wine. The Classical Greeks added caps of poisonous mushrooms to their wine to act as a hallucinogen. This hallucinogen allowed the Bocchie to fall into a nocturnal trance and stay up all night. It is said that the hallucinogen also took the worshippers minds to a primal state, like an animal. This also incorporates another aspect of the effect that Dionysus had on Classical Greek culture, madness.
The last, but not the least, important influence that Dionysus had on Classical Greece was the fear or acceptance of madness. Dionysus’ experiences with madness go back to when Hera turned both Dionysus and his aunt crazy. Madness became Dionysus’ trademark of both defiance and acceptance. When Dionysus returned to Thebes to start a cult in his name the people of Thebes refused to worship him. In retaliation to their opposition Dionysus drove the population of Thebes to madness and murder. The madness is similar to both the intoxication of the hallucinogen found in the wine and of primal instinct found in wild beasts. The paradox between worshipping Bacchie and the punishment handed out by Dionysus is that they are both the same. This is because many of Dionysus’ followers were peasants wanting to forget about everyday life. While the opposition to the God of Wine were aristocratic and needed a rational mindset. As Nietzsche compares this contrast he wrote, “The individual with his limits and moderation’s forgot himself in the Dionysiac vortex and became oblivious to Apollo.” In this quotation Nietzsche is stating how easy it is to become too addicted to the Dionysian way of life and forget what the actual reality is. Dionysus represented joy in the hearts of Greek followers and punished all who value reason above all else.
One of the prime factors of Dionysus’ madness was represented by sexual urges. Many Greek paintings and vases portrayed Dionysus to be a man with horns on a goat’s body. The important aspect of the appearance of Dionysus was his large falluc that represented his high fertility. Most Dionysian celebrations consisted of consumption of a large quantity of wine followed by a nocturnal orgy. Following Dionysus as he traveled from city to city was a large band of followers. The Corbantes played drums to a rhythmical beat, which resembled the racing heartbeat of two lovers. Bacchanal woman followed in a large array of primal chanting and dancing. Both of these Dionysus followers display the sexuality involved in a cult of Dionysus. With sexual morals as shown above it is obvious to see how many of the Classical Greeks, at first, rejected the ideas of Dionysus. With the combination of wine, hallucinogens, music and dancing, the cults of Dionysus helped lowly peasants to forget their everyday problems and have an erotic orgy.
The cult of Dionysus was a cult that the average Greek could understand, participate in and believe. Dionysus was first the God of Trees and of Nature. He then progressed to the God of Fertility. All of these traits of Dionysus were useful to the people of Classical Greece who embraced him as one of their Olympians. Dionysus then brought wine to Greece where the people used this substance to relieve them selves from the every day pressures of life. As wine spread across the country, Dionysian cults changed once again to one that revolved around the mental state created by a large consumption of wine. His cults progressed even farther to include all night orgies to communicate to the god himself. The one aspect of all of these transformations to the cult of Dionysus is that they all represent the average persons needs and hopes for life. The Greeks looked to Dionysus to help simplify their lives anyway possible. This is why Dionysian cults are still around in the world today and may never disappear.
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