Birth of Dionysus the Greek God of Wine and Ecstacy
Dionysus is the Greek God of wine, ecstasy and theatre. A powerful and mysterious god, his worship was very popular, though sometimes controversial in the ancient Greek and Roman world. He had an especial importance to women worshippers who would sometimes go off in groups to lonely places outside the city and take part in ecstatic dancing and other rites. In a culture in which women were expected to stay close to home under the supervision of their male guardians, this provided a powerful alternative to the norms of everyday life.
Greek tragedies and other plays were also performed at festivals of Dionysus. Presiding over unreal world of theatre was another way in which the God transgressed the boundaries of everyday life.
Semele and the Birth of Dionysus
Unlike most of the Olympian deities, descended from Rheia and Kronos or Zeus and Hera, Dionysus is said to have had a mortal mother, Semele, daughter of the Greek hero Cadmus of Thebes.
Cadmus, the founder of the city of Thebes in Boetia, and his wife Harmonia, the daughter of Ares and Aphrodite, had four daughters; Ino, Semele, Agave, and Autonoe and a son, Polydoros.
Zeus, king of the Gods, fell in love with Semele and visited her in her chamber in Cadmus' palace. When his wife Hera discovered the affair she became very angry, the more so when she learned that Semele was pregnant.
Plotting a cruel revenge, Hera appeared to Semele in the guise of her old nurse Beroe. Pretending concern, she asked the girl how she could really be sure that the mysterious stranger who visited her at night was really Zeus as he claimed and not a mortal man exploiting her credulity.
She then advised Semele that if she wanted to be certain of the truth, she should insist that her visitor come to her in his true form in which he came to Hera.
The next time Zeus visited Semele in her chamber, the girl asked him to swear an oath to do whatever she asked him. Deeply in love, Zeus swore by the River Styx, which is the unbreakable oath of the Gods, to fulfill her request, whatever it might be.
Semele then asked that Zeus come to her in his true guise, as he would to his wife Hera. As she spoke the fatal words, Zeus groaned and tried to stop her speaking; but the words had been spoken and Zeus was bound by his oath to fulfill Semele's request, although he knew it would mean her death.
Full of sorrow, Zeus made his way back up to Mount Olympus and arrayed himself with flashing lightening and thunderbolt and returned to Semele's chamber. Semele's mortal frame was consumed by the unbearable intensity of the Storm God's presence and she died.
As the unfortunate girl perished, Zeus seized her unborn child from her womb and stitched it up inside his own thigh. When the time came for the baby to be born, he unpicked the stitches and brought the infant Dionysus forth into the world.
Ino and Athamas
The baby still needed to be protected from the malign jealousy of Hera, so Zeus handed the baby to Hermes, messenger of the Gods, who took him to his aunt Ino and her husband Athamas. They brought him up in the guise of a girl. Hera punished them by sending them mad.
Athamas was deluded into believing that his eldest son Learchos was a deer and hunted and killed him.
Ino, meanwhile, leapt into the sea with her little son Melicertes in her arms. They were transformed into the sea deities Leucothea and Palaimon, to whom sailors prayed when they ran into trouble at sea. The Isthmian Games were also founded in Melicertes' honour.
Dionysus on Mount Nysa: Silenus the Satyr
Zeus, however, managed to save Dionysus himself from his wife; seizing the child, he changed him into the form of a kid and sent Hermes to give him to the nymphs who live on Mount Nysa.
Silienus, a pot-bellied, wine-drinking old Satyr, gifted with wisdom and prophecy, despite his uncouth appearance, was Dionysus' tutor and afterwards accompanied him on all his expeditions.
Madness and Triumph of Dionysus
When Dionysus had grown up and discovered the secret of the vine and wine-making, Hera struck him with madness in his turn. Afflicted, he wandered all over the East and Egypt. Finally, he came to Phrygia in Asia Minor, where Cybele, or Rhea as the Greeks called her, the Great Mother Goddess, purifed and healed him, initiating him into her rites.
Dionysus then roamed over the known world, as far as India, spreading the knowledge of vine cultivation and accompanied by a riotous train of Satyrs and Maenads or Bacchantes, ecstatic, dancing women waving the thrysus – a ritual wand with a pinecone on its top. City after city fell to his worship; those who showed him hostility, such as King Lycourgus were visited with madness and death.
Dionysus Returns to Thebes: The Death of Pentheus
Eventually, Dionysus returned to his native Thebes, where he learned that his remaining aunts had been slandering his dead mother Semele, saying that she lied about her relationship with Zeus to excuse her pregnancy and that Zeus had struck her dead as a punishment.
King Cadmus had now gone into retirement and Thebes was being ruled by his young grandson Pentheus. Pentheus was hostile to the new cult and harassed and imprisoned the women worshippers. Dionysus, in disguise, beguiled Pentheus into going alone to Mount Kithareon to spy on the women at their ecstatic revels. He then caused his mother Agave and his aunts Autonoe and Ino to mistake Pentheus for a wild animal in their Bacchic frenzy and tear him to pieces. (Women in the grip of Dionysus were said to either suckle or rip apart any wild animals they found in deserted places.) Thus, Dionysus was revenged on behalf of his mother and himself.
Dionysus Reconciles with Hera: the Return of Hephaistos
Eventually, Dionysus became reconciled with Hera in the following way: in defiance of her husband Zeus, Hera conceived and gave birth to a child independently, without male seed. The child, however, a boy was born lame in both legs. Disgusted by this, Hera threw her baby son down from Mount Olympus, where he was rescued and cared for by the sea goddesses, Thetis and Eurynome.
The baby grew up to be Hephaistos, the God of Smiths and Craftsmen. In revenge for his mother's unloving treatment of him, he sent her a present of a golden throne. When Hera sat down in it, invisible bands wrapped around her, imprisoning her in the chair and no one but Hephaistos was able to free her. Many appeals and efforts were made to Hephaistos to return to Olympus and release his mother but he stubbornly refused.
Finally, Dionysus sought out the angry Smith God, got him drunk, and led him back to Olympus on the back of an ass. Hephaistos then freed Hera and accepted his place among the immortals. Hera then ceased her resentment against Dionysus and allowed him, too, to take his place among the Gods.
Dionysus' Descent to the Underworld and Deification of Semele
Dionysus' final act in his life as a mortal was to make the descent to Hades, the Land of the Dead and bring back his mother, Semele. Having brought her safely out of the Underworld, Dionysus escorted Semele to Mount Olympus, where she became the goddess Thyone .