Mythic Monday: Spirited Dionysus

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This statue of Dionysus, the god of wine, stands at Holy Trinity Bridge (Ponte Santa Trinita) in Florence, Italy. Credit: © Shutterstock

What do wine lovers, farmers, and thespians have in common? All owe a debt of gratitude to this week’s star of Mythic Monday, the Greek god Dionysus. Dionysus was the god of wine and farmers, and the art form of drama was first performed in his honor.

In Greek mythology, Dionysus’s parents were Zeus, king of the gods, and Semele, the mortal daughter of King Cadmus of Thebes. Dionysus married Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos of Crete.

The ancient Greeks associated Dionysus with violent and unpredictable behavior, especially after drinking too much wine. Most stories about Dionysus tell of his leading sessions of drunken merrymaking. Dionysus’s followers included nymphs (maidens), creatures called satyrs that were half man and half horse or goat, and women attendants called maenads.

But not all the stories about Dionysus concern drunkenness or violent behavior. Many Greeks believed that Dionysus taught people farming techniques, especially those related to viticulture (the cultivation of grapes) and making wine.

The Greeks also dedicated the great theater in Athens to Dionysus. Their concept of tragedy in drama grew from a ceremony that honored Dionysus. The word tragedy comes from the Greek words tragos, meaning goat,and oide, meaning song. The goat was sacred to, and symbolic of, Dionysus. Why a goat? One explanation is that at festivals honoring Dionysus, a goat was sacrificed and the satyrs sang a song of lamentation to their hircine (goatlike) “half brother.” Another explanation is that satyr plays—bawdy tragicomedy performed by people dressed as satyrs—were performed at the festivals to honor Dionysus. Yet another explanation is that song contests were held in the god’s honor at these festivals and that a goat was given as a prize to the winner. In fact, in about 534 B.C. in Athens, the Greek actor Thespis, who helped to create drama as we know it, won the prize at the first production of tragedies at the festival honoring Dionysus. Competitions in playwriting were held regularly at the festival after this time. Whichever the explanation, the goat connection stuck to Dionysus, the “good time” god of “tragedy.”

The ancient Romans had their own version of Dionysus. After coming into contact with Greek culture in the 700's B.C., the Romans adopted Dionysus as their god of wine, but they called him Bacchus. The Romans held an annual festival honoring Bacchus. This festival, called the Bacchanalia, featured drinking and wild behavior. The word bacchanalian means drunken or riotous, and bacchant means merrymaker. Roman artists showed Bacchus as a handsome young man. But many later artists, especially painters of the Renaissance, portrayed Bacchus as a drunken, fat old man.

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