Dionysus - Wine God

Dionysus - The God a Foolish Mortal Imprisoned

Mosaic of Bacchus
Mosaic of Bacchus. Clipart.com

In the Athenian playwright Euripides' tragedy Bacchantes, which is named for the followers of the wine god Dionysus+, Euripides describes the powers of the gentle but terrible god, the son of Zeus and Semele:

"O Dionysus! now 'tis thine to act, for thou
art not far away; let us take vengeance on him.
First drive him mad by fixing in his soul a wayward
frenzy; for never, whilst his senses are his own, will
he consent to don a woman's dress; but when his
mind is gone astray he will put it on. And fain
would I make him a laughing-stock to Thebes as
he is led in woman's dress through the city, after
those threats with which he menaced me before.
But I will go to array Pentheus in those robes
which he shall wear when he sets out for Hades'
halls, a victim to his own mother's fury; so shall he
recognize Dionysus, the son of Zeus, who proves
himself at last a god most terrible, for all his
gentleness to man."
- Euripides Bacchantes

Dionysus provided mankind with a gift that was as important as Demeter's gift of grain. This was especially true for ancient people for whom alternatives to alcoholic beverages, like most modern recreational drugs and bottled water, were unavailable. Gifts from wine were

  • Relaxation
  • Escape
  • Liquid refreshment that also
  • Made water potable, and, not least important,
  • The truth that's found only in vino.
Dionysus' gift of wine had a price. He expected to be worshiped. It was his due. Proud and confident that mortals would realize the value of his gift, he was willing to give humans a second chance, but after repeated rejections, Dionysus took revenge on the mortal members of his family.

Euripides' The Bacchantes tells the most familiar story of the revenge of Dionysus. In it Dionysus is a wild, luxurious god, with flowing locks, who dresses and looks effeminate. The women who worship Dionysus, known as Bacchants or Maenads, leave their homes and husbands to honor the wine god during his festivals.

They even abandon their newly born children in order to frolic in the forests. There, if engorged, new mothers suckle wild beasts -- when they aren't hunting and tearing them to shreds. But such revelry is tame compared with the spectacular events involving Pentheus and his mother.

Dionysus was a new god when Pentheus was king in Thebes.
Pentheus was king because his grandfather Cadmus, founder of Thebes, had stepped down. Dionysus had recently (recently for a god, that is) sprung to life from his father Zeus' thigh because when his mortal mother was killed, Zeus snatched the embryo and sewed it into his leg. Whispers and mysteries about Dionysus' birth made some of the Thebans quick to despise the newcomer. Dionysus' mother, Semele, the doubters said, used Zeus as an excuse to hide an illicit lover. Dionysus says:
"...since my
mother's sisters, who least of all should have done
it, denied that Dionysus was the son of Zeus,
saying that Semele, when she became a mother by
some mortal lover, tried to foist her sin on Zeus-a
clever ruse of Cadmus, which, they boldly
asserted, caused Zeus to slay her for the falsehood
about the marriage. Wherefore these are they
whom I have driven frenzied from their homes,
and they are dwelling on the hills with mind
distraught...."
- Euripides Bacchantes
King Pentheus, Dionysus' cousin, was particularly hostile to the new god, perhaps threatened in his own masculinity by the sexually appealing, gender-bending Dionysus. For whatever reasons, Pentheus despised him, denied his divinity, bound him with shackles, and threw him in jail. Dionysus continued to try to reason with Pentheus -- as did the wise seer Tiresius. But they failed.

Next: Dionysus' Revenge

+ The Bacchantes have other names, Bacchae, Bacchants, and Maenads. Bacchae, Bacchants and Bacchantes come from the Roman name for the god Dionysus, which is Bacchus. Dionysus is called by other names, in addition to Bacchus: Bromius, Zagreus, Iacchos, Bassareus, Euios, Sabazios, Thyoneus, Lenaios or Eleuthereus. (From Philip Slater's Glory of Hera, p.211.)

Dionysus Quiz - Note: Not all the answers are in this article.

Alternative stories of the birth of Dionysus

More on Dionysus

Dionysus in Myth | Dionysus the Thrice-Born | What Does Dionysus Have to Do With Dismemberment? | Dionysus Returns Hephaestus

Maenads, Bacchants, and Other Terms to Know in Connection with Dionysus

Previous Page: What Pentheus Did to Dionysus

As a god, Dionysus couldn't be held in chains involuntarily. Pentheus only believed he had captured the god because of a magic cast upon him. When the glamor wore off, Pentheus thought his prisoner had escaped. It didn't take him long to find Dionysus again. Again the god tried to reason with him, but Pentheus remained obdurate.

This time, in retaliation, Dionysus drove Pentheus to do the very thing he most despised, wear women's clothing.

So garbed Pentheus set off to join the Maenads -- among whom were numbered his mother and aunts. They did not mistake him for a woman but a wild animal. After he sought the protection and vantage point of a tree, the deluded women uprooted it, shook the wild beast-Pentheus from its branches, and tore him limb from limb.

"Soon as they saw my master
perched upon the fir, they set to hurling stones at
him with all their might, mounting a commanding
eminence, and with pine-branches he was pelted
as with darts; and others shot their wands through
the air at Pentheus, their hapless target, but all to
no purpose. For there he sat beyond the reach of
their hot endeavours, a helpless, hopeless victim.
At last they rent off limbs from oaks and were for
prising up the roots with levers not of iron. But
when they still could make no end to all their toil,
Agave cried: 'Come stand around, and grip the
sapling trunk, my Bacchanals! that we may catch
the beast that sits thereon, lest he divulge the
secrets of our god's religion.'"

Then were a thousand hands laid on the fir, and
from the ground they tore it up, while he from his
seat aloft came tumbling to the ground with
lamentations long and loud, e'en Pentheus; for well
he knew his hour was come. His mother first, a
priestess for the nonce, began the bloody deed
and fell upon him; whereon he tore the snood from
off his hair, that hapless Agave might recognize
and spare him, crying as he touched her cheek, 'O
mother! it is I, thy own son Pentheus, the child
thou didst bear in Echion's halls; have pity on me,
mother dear! oh! do not for any sin of mine slay
thy own son.'"

"But she, the while, with foaming mouth and wildly
rolling eyes, bereft of reason as she was, heeded
him not; for the god possessed her. And she
caught his left hand in her grip, and planting her
foot upon her victim's trunk she tore the shoulder
from its socket, not of her own strength, but the
god made it an easy task to her hands; and Ino set
to work upon the other side, rending the flesh with
Autonoe and all the eager host of Bacchanals; and
one united cry arose, the victim's groans while yet
he breathed, and their triumphant shouts."
- Euripides Bacchantes