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02/12/2007
Dionysus

Aikaterinh Balla
Source: C.E.T.I.
© Region of Eastern Macedonia and Thrace
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The cult of Dionysus, god of sprouting, wine and fertility originated in Thrace and soon propagated throughout Greece. Dionysus, son of Zeus and Semele, was a very popular deity worshipped in the area of Thrace together with Artemis and Ares already from the times of the Pelasgians and long before the times of Homer. In the Homeric epic poems as well as in other mythical cycles, Dionysus is represented as barbarian and savage having a lot in common with Ares, the god of war. Herodotus mentioned that there was an Oracle of Dionysus on the high mountain peaks of Rodopi, WHICH was later visited by Alexander the Great and Octavian Augustus. In addition, there was a temple dedicated to Dionysus in the city of Abdera, where, according to the sources, the Dionysian games were held.

According to the myth, Zeus entrusted the upbringing of Dionysus to Ino, a sister of Semele and later to the Nymphs of Nysa, who are said to have been following him in his journeys, in order to protect his son from Hera’s envy. According to mythology, Dionysus introduced the grapevine in Thrace, taught people how to cultivate it and offered them the wine.

Ariadne became the consort of god Dionysus after she was abandoned by Theseus in Naxos. With Dionysus, she gave birth to two sons, Staphylos and Oenopion.

The cult of Dionysus is associated with the ecstasy through which a man could be freed from himself and be possessed and overwhelmed by his god, a state called “enthusiasm”. This kind of unification of the faithful with the god, which is considered as the major aspiration in many religions in human history, can be achieved in the Dionysian cult than in other cults and this may explain why it was spread in such a dashing way. However, according to the myths, the Dionysian cult included two types of frenzy: on one hand there was the psychical ecstasy of the devout and on the other hand there was the blind madness that the god sent upon his rivals when they did not recognized him, like Lycurgus and many others.

Dionysus is also associated with the Satyrs or the Sileni, who were daemons with mane, ears and tails of a horse, sometimes with horse-like legs, and followed of Dionysus. Another follower of the god was Pan, a lustful god with horns and legs of goat. Yet, his permanent companions were the Maenads or Bacchae, “raving” women usually represented in pottery dancing with wild frenzy and carrying the “thyrsus”, a staff covered with ivy vines or topped with a pinecone. Very often, the Maenads are represented holding or tearing apart animals, as they believed that these animals were the incarnation of god Dionysus and by devouring them, they received the blissfulness and the power of god.

The cult of Dionysus in Thrace was identified with the cult of Savazius, a Phrygian god that symbolized the death and the rebirth of the nature. Savazius was also identified with Pluto as the god of Hades and his daughter Vendis with Persephone. Nevertheless, Dionysus from Thrace was also welcomed in Delphi, where a dithyramb dedicated to him was performed in his honour during the winter alternating with the Apollonian Hymn (paean). Very soon, several festivals began to take place in many cities in honour of the god (Lenaea, Dionsysia, Anthesteria etc) that were related to the “Dionysian Orgies”, the ceremonies and rituals that offered to the faithful the charm of the ecstatic worship and animated the mystical powers of sprouting. Dionysus is considered as the patron god of drama, which developed in the framework of this god’s worship, when the actor transcending himself was entering a state similar to the enthusiasm of the Maenads.