Dionysus: Greek God of Wine, Ecstasy, and Love
The Youngest Oympian god
Dionysus was the youngest Olympian god, the only one to have a mortal mother. The grapevine, animals, trees, and all of nature were dear to him. In his mythology, Dionysus was usually surrounded by women. They were either nursemaids as an infant, or starry eyed lovers who were possessed by him when he became a god. He was normally portrayed as an infant, holding grapes, or as a youthful and good looking young man, wearing a crown of ivy or vines on his head.
Jim Morrison, A Dionysus from our Time
Dionysus, Son of Zeus and Semele
Dionysus was the son of Zeus and Semele, the mortal woman and daughter of Cadmus, King of Thebes. She attracted Zeus’s interest, not a hard thing to do, but he impregnated Semele while disguised as a mortal man. His jealous wife Hera found out, and was determined to make Semele and her young child pay a price for the affair with Zeus. Hera appeared to Semele in the guise of her old nursemaid, Beror, and persuaded her to insist that Zeus show himself to her in his full divinity and splendor.
When Zeus went to visit Semele later that night, she begged him to show himself to her as the chief god of Olympus. He swore an oath to the River Styx to do whatever she asked, and that oath was irrevocable. Semele had no way of knowing that this act would result in her death, but Hera did. Zeus’s thunderbolts killed Semele, but her unborn son was made immortal. As soon as Semele died, Zeus tore Dionysus from her womb, and sewed him into his thigh, serving as his incubator until he was ready to be born. When the time came, Hermes acted as the midwife in this most unusual birth.
Dionysus was taken to Semele’s sister to be brought up as a girl, so he would be protected from Hera’s wrath. But Hera drove his caretakers crazy, and they tried to murder Dionysus. Zeus saved him once again by changing Dionysus into a ram, carrying him to a divine and mythic mountain country, Mt. Nysa, inhabited by beautiful nymphs. During this time his tutor Silenus taught him many secrets of nature, including that of winemaking. Dionysus as a god, archetype and man was always close to nature and women. He was sometimes an unwelcome and disturbing presence, a cause of madness in mythology, and a problem in a man’s psyche.
Dionysus traveled much as a young man, through Egypt, from India to Asia Minor, and to his birthplace Thebes, in Greece. He taught people how to grow the grapevine wherever he went. Madness and violence often traveled with him though. Sometimes he was said to be driven mad by Hera, but often he was the one responsible for his violent actions towards people. After King Lycurgus rejected Dionysus, Lycurgus went mad and killed his son, thinking he was just cutting down a vine. Women who rejected Dionysus often killed members of their own families by tearing them to pieces. Once he came home from India, the goddess Cybele purified him of the murders he committed in his madness, and more significantly, taught him her mysteries and rites of initiation, as she was a great Mother Goddess.
Dionysus Rescues his Mother
Ariadne was the daughter of King Minos of Greece, and fell in love with the Athenian hero Theseus. Ariadne showed him how to get through the famous labyrinth, where he killed the Minotaur, and retraced his steps until he made his way out. Then Theseus and Ariadne set sail for Athens, but he casually abandoned her on the island of Naxos. She would have killed herself because of her broken heart, had not Dionysus saved her by making her his wife. Zeus once again stepped in to favor Dionysus, and made Ariadne immortal. She was the most closely related to Aphrodite, Goddess of Love. Ariadne was once the Cretan Moon Goddess, but the Greeks turned her into a victimized mortal in their mythology. However, through Dionysus she was again deified.
Dionysus had to descend into Hades to bring his Mother, Semele, back to life. Once he did, they ascended to Mt. Olympus, where she became an immortal as well. Semele has been worshipped as a Goddess associated with the Moon and Earth (as Gaia) in early pre-Hellenic times. In Greek mythology, Dionysus is the only god who actually rescues and restores a woman to a better status, rather than dominating and raping her as many of the Greek gods did to women. So naturally Dionysus was worshipped by the women of ancient Greece, who often communed with this god in wild and remote mountain areas.
Dionysus loved nature, and when in its realm became emotional and irrational, dancing to frenzied music, making women feel like they were possessed by him. He lived in alternating states of wildness and then in deadly silence. The crazy celebrations of Dionysus came to be known as Orgia, the word from which orgy comes. He loved to have parties with wine or other kinds of sacramental intoxicants, while indulging in dancing to music of reed pipes, drums and cymbals. He would enter an ecstatic state, and the women felt “at one” with him as a god. However, sometimes these orgies got way out of control, and came to a climax by tearing an animal to pieces and eating its raw flesh. Dionysus viewed this as a sacramental act of communion, through which the divinity of Dionysus entered the celebrants.
Other men in history have had a deep and hypnotic affect on women, enhanced by the use of drugs. Jim Morrison of The Doors comes to mind, with his sexy voice, beautiful poetry, and love of women. Sadly, the partying lifestyle cost him his life and he died at age 27. A sinister example of a Dionysus man who could control women to do his will is Charles Manson, the man who, along with a group of brain-washed young women, murdered the pregnant Sharon Tate, her house guests, and ordered his minions to write words on the walls of her home in the victim's own blood. That story shocked the whole country at the time. So beware of the two types of Dionysus men, it is a powerful archetype, with strong positive and negative potentials. He can be mystical and ethereal, or he could be a murderer, depending on his impulses.
A Shamanic Personality
Apollo lent Dionysus his sanctuary for the three winter months, and the festival of Dionysus at Delphi was another excuse for a big orgy, but limited to official women representatives of Greek cities, and celebrated biennially. One might think Dionysus would be suppressed more in the city, but he was recognized, adored, and women loved being around him. They celebrated his time in Delphi by creating a new tradition. They began an annual, sacred dance with the “awakening” of the infant Dionysus in his cradle. New wine was brought in, and ceremoniously blessed. Dionysus has an important place in Orphism (sixth century BC) which took its name from the mythical poet, Orpheus. In orphic theology, the baby Dionysus was torn to pieces and eaten by jealous Titans, but his heart was saved by Athena, and he was reborn through Zeus. In another version, he was reborn as the son of Semele. Life and death are the themes of the mythology of Dionysus. His grave was in Apollo’s sanctuary at Delphi, where he was annually worshipped as a newborn babe. He was an adult god who died, a god who spent time in the Underworld, and a god who was a newborn child.
Dionysus and Hermes are the two archetypes that predispose a man to stay an eternal youth forever. He is intense and emotional, gets absorbed in whatever he is interested in, and forgets obligations, assignments or any appointments he may have made. He may wander around, attracting women and disrupting their lives, and then quickly move on. He can be very sad and despairing one moment, and ecstatic the next, depending on what or who transported him to his latest high in life. Since Dionysus’s mother died before his birth, he was surrounded by nursemaids and foster mothers whose care was inconsistent. He had to descend into Hades to find Semele. Men of this archetype often seek an idealized version of a perfect woman, who is both mother and lover, and have a string of affairs while unsuccessfully trying to find her. Another route may be to have a great love of nature, as the Great Mother, and he may enjoy being a caretaker or nurse, having a career that used to being seen as more feminine. A Dionysus man is also someone who may be drawn into being a follower of a charismatic woman religious leader. Just as he is drawn to women, they are drawn to him. He plays the part of the “Motherless Boy” and evokes maternal feelings in women, so may be constantly surrounded by them. Dionysus often stayed with these women, and later dressed as one. He was raised as a girl for part of his childhood while Zeus tried to hide him from Hera.
A shamanic psyche is often that of an androgynous, male-female type of person. Dionysus was described as “man-womanish” or as the “womanly one.” A priest serves the function of mediating between the visible and invisible worlds, and often wears vestments that are dresses, and very ornate ones. Psychological androgyny, an inward experience of both masculine and feminine perceptions, is the key to being able to enter this realm. People such as Carlos Castaneda wrote about his own initiations by shamans and medicine women. In Jungian psychology, which values the development of the feminine in men (as the anima) the invisible world is the world of archetypes, dreams and active imagination. Dionysus beckoned women out of their everyday lives to worship nature and find the ecstatic element in themselves, initiating them into a shamanic experience. Dionysus the god was both an initiate and priest of the Great Goddess. In our current resurgence of the Women’s Spirituality Movement, Dionysus is present in women who embody the priestess archetype as a mediator between two worlds. If you are familiar with the character of Morgaine, the priestess of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon, you may recall that a priestess of the Goddess could travel through the mists to Avalon, and take certain trusted people to the spiritual feminine realm, or isle of the Goddess, but this island could not be seen by everyone.
To be a man with a shamanic personality in a culture which is made up of men who get up and go to work every day is viewed as more than “different”, and most likely as “insane.” If Dionysus is the only strong archetype in a man, he will still be drawn towards experiencing altered states of consciousness. The realm of an invisible world feels right to him, and fascinates him with its insights. He can function as a mystic if he keeps it quiet, while functioning in the “real” world, but finding this Dionysian element of life gives him a larger sense of meaning.
Privileged, Good Looking Picture of Youth
Although Dionysus is different than the other guys, he may have many close male friendships. He can have long and meaningful conversations with a Hermes man, and he will appreciate all the beautiful things a Hephaestus man knows how to make. He touches works of art with a sense of reverence that Hephaestus understands very well. Dionysus could cry for a friend, when his friend Ampelos died, Dionysus wept at his grave, and wine sprang up from his tears.
The god Dionysus was youthful, described as an elegant, good looking one, with long, flowing hair over his shoulders. This is the image of a privileged eternal youth. When it comes with wealth, you have a sensuous playboy. But such a person lives only for the next party or the next intense affair. As he keeps seeking altered states of consciousness, he is seriously at risk for substance abuse problems. The phrase “spiritus contra spiritum” means using spiritual communion against the addiction of alcoholic or other narcotic spirits; substituting God (in whatever way that means) for these substances as a means to bring about sobriety. When a Dionysus man is important in a woman’s life, it goes without saying that her life will be anything but boring. But how joyful, painful or tumultuous the relationship is depends on the structure of the relationship. Is it a friendship, a living together arrangement, or a marriage? What hopes does she have for it? Dionysus is often a significant figure to a woman who is experiencing a major transition in her life. He’s the guy who will activate her passion if she’s been left by another man, or she will revel in his reckless behavior if she has repressed her emotions all her life. Sadly, the children may be the ones most hurt in these scenarios.
It is obvious that many Dionysus men may not live long lives, as they party hard and fall prey to drugs and alcohol to keep getting the high they seem to crave so much. However, in the mythology of Dionysus, several gods gave him help. Zeus, Hermes, and Apollo are all archetypes a Dionysus man needs to develop if he wants to live to see an old age. Zeus saved Dionysus’s life two times, first by taking him from his dead Mother’s womb and sewing him into his thigh, then rescuing him when Hera drove his foster parents mad. A caring and positive father image can help Dionysus, even if he is different, by helping him to see he cannot act on all of his feelings, especially the irrational ones. Dionysus can be a positive person who can love himself and feel worthy if he has a good father or mentor.
Hyacinths, Named after a Lover of Apollo
Lover of Women and Nature
Women can also have a Dionysus archetype, as men can emulate the Goddess archetypes. The Maenads were women worshippers who sought the god on mountaintops, but could turn from loving, maternal women to raging maniacs with little urging or little mercy. Beauty and danger are hallmarks of this dualism, as are tendencies for intense feelings which disrupt life and others, depending on how stable or unstable the person is.
Dionysus played the role of persecuted warrior, as he fled into nature and to his beloved mountains with his women followers. He traveled through the Greek world, calling women to leave home and hearth and follow him, encountering much hostility, especially from Hera, the Goddess of Marriage. She honors enduring marriage and its obligations, constancy, and fidelity. Dionysus brings out inappropriate passions which call on women to forget their usual roles. Dionysus is also woven into a dismembered archetype along with his mythology. He shared the fate of Osiris, the Egyptian god. The “dismemberment” is a metaphor for someone having a problem “keeping it together” in life, as Dionysus is unable to reconcile the powerful and opposing feelings inside him. This archetype is especially difficult if someone has been brought up in a religion which stresses guilt, such as the Judeo-Christian ones. Since mysticism and sensuality are both aspects of Dionysus, he may be drawn to Catholic mysticism, but feel he is a terrible sinner because of his erotic images and sensual feelings.
The god Dionysus had a powerful father who cared much about him. In the mythology of Dionysus, Zeus actually tried harder with him than he did with any of his other sons, even as far as protecting him before his birth until afterward. Later Zeus made Ariadne immortal. So if a Dionysus boy has a loving and approving father who supports his choices, his personality and masculinity are affirmed more than a boy like him who has a distant or unfeeling father.
On the other hand, many men suffer from being unable to express their emotions and sexuality, and cultivating some traits of Dionysus could be helpful to them. They represent living in the moment, instead of always focusing on goals. Dancing and lovemaking are realms in which Dionysus is especially comfortable, enabling intensity, spontaneity, and merging with a lover. Once the man is aware of the clock ticking away though, Dionysus has left the room! To get in touch with an inner Dionysus, it would be great to go to the woods or a mountainous place for a weekend.
It is very difficult to explain just how a Dionysus type man would manifest in today’s society. By general standards, he will be judged too feminine, mystic, unconventional, threatening, or just too attractive to the women around him. This is a fascinating person who just cannot live an everyday kind of mundane life. He makes regular people uncomfortable, and their lives are just too boring for him to want to live. He has no desire to conform, so even if he tried at first, soon his differences will become blatant. Seeking the ecstatic may move him toward being a priest, because a Dionysus will love the drumming and sacraments. He could join an Ashram, where drumming, meditation, and chanting can be used to alter states of consciousness. The sensual mystic experiences of tantric yoga would suit him very well too. He is not competitive or really interested in academics. He can succeed in creative spheres such as writing or acting. But most Dionysus men can be found as rock stars, musicians, poets, and people who have had to battle drug or alcohol addictions.
Dionysus Can Grow Psychologically
Hermes was the midwife at Dionysus’s birth, and delivered him to his foster parents. Hermes could travel to the Underworld, the Earth, and the heights of Olympus, and not get trapped emotionally in any of the places. A Dionysus lives in the moment, so if he is depressed, it feels like forever to him. Hermes can help him understand that wherever he is emotionally, it is only temporary. Hermes is the communication god, and can help Dionysus put his feelings into words, and share them with others. If Dionysus can discuss his problems with more people, he can gain a wider perspective on life. Sensible and measured Apollo is the third ally a Dionysus man needs to develop. Apollo shared Delphi with Dionysus, and the two personalities are opposites. Apollo sees everything from a rational, objective perspective, a personified left-brain thinker, who sees things in a linear way and values clarity. Dionysus sees life in a right-brained, subjective and emotional way, and both need a little of what the other has. A good education is the way a Dionysus man develops the Apollo trait of rational thought.
So if Dionysus if going to live and grow psychologically, he must leave his identification as the divine child, the eternal adolescent, and become the hero. This has been discussed in the mythologies of other Gods and Goddesses, and many are familiar with Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey. To do this, Dionysus must expose himself to the unconscious and the non ego, the darkness, nothingness, void, Underworld, primordial womb of the Great Mother. The hero has to endure the perils of the Underworld and emerge with his ego intact, and been made stronger for the encounter. The last thing Dionysus did before taking his place on Olympus was to rescue his mortal Mother Semele, who died and was in Hades. He had access to the Underworld through a bottomless pool. He dived in and came to the dark and dismal Hades and its horrors, and rescued his Mother, freed her, and led her up to Earth, and finally onto Mount Olympus. He then separated his personal Mother from the Great Mother, and overcame both his fear of the unconscious, and the masculine ego’s fear of devouring the feminine. When a man can love and accept his Mother as just a woman, who has no unusual powers over him, he has grown up.
The next step is finding a committed love. Dionysus has intense and ecstatic merging with a partner, but sometimes it feels like a personal connection may be missing. He needs to find compassion and empathy for a particular woman, as he did when he felt sorry for Ariadne, when he found her alone and abandoned by Theseus. When Dionysus finally forms a bond with a woman who he loves even when they are not making love, he can find his way into a personal relationship. That was what eluded him for so long!
This article on Dionysus concludes the series I have been writing on Greek Gods and Goddesses on and off for several months now. I hope my readers have enjoyed reading it as much as I have enjoyed reading and learning about Greek Mythology! Many women wrote to me at Hubpages and we decided together that most women have two main archetypes, and maybe a trait or two from a third. I have not heard much from my male readers in this regard. I owe many thanks to Dr. Jean Shinoda Bolen, for her astute insights and revelations regarding her work in psychotherapy. By using models of Greek Gods and Goddesses, she used their archetypes to help patients see what traits they needed to acquire to help them solve their personal issues. Many of her books discuss Spirituality in Women, and how aging affects women. I would be remiss if I did not mention Joseph Campbell, for many books, but especially The Hero of a Thousand Faces, and Carl Jung for his large and fascinating body of work, especially his writings on archetypes.
Great Love of our Dionysus
Bolen, Jean Shinoda, M.D. 1989 Gods In Everyman A New Psychology Of Men's Loves and Lives Publisher Harper & Row New York Chapter 10 Dionysus, God of Wine and Ecstasy, Mystic, Lover, Wanderer pgs. 251-279
Campbell, Joseph 1949 The Hero With A Thousand Faces Publisher New World Library Novato, CA Chapter 4 The Crossing of the First Threshold pgs. 64-73
The Western Humanities Volume 1 Beginnings through the Renaissance 1992 Publisher Mayfield Mountian View, CA Chapter 3 Classical Greek Civilization General Characteristics of Hellenic Civilization pgs. 53-56
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© 2011 Jean Bakula