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Birth of Dionysus, the Greek God of Wine and Ecstacy

Sarah has a PhD in classical civilisation from Swansea University. She continues to write on the ancient world and other topics.

Dionysus Greek god

Dionysus Greek god

Dionysus the God

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 special 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 the festivals of Dionysus. Presiding over the unreal world of theatre was another way in which the god transgressed the boundaries of everyday life.

Death of Semele by Rubens, painted before 1640.

Death of Semele by Rubens, painted before 1640.

How Was Dionysus Born?

Unlike most of the Olympian deities, who 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 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 lightning and thunderbolts 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.

Athamas being driven by a Fury to kill his son. Painting by Arcangelo Migliarini, 1801.

Athamas being driven by a Fury to kill his son. Painting by Arcangelo Migliarini, 1801.

Ino and Athamas

The baby still needed to be protected from the malign jealousy of Hera, so Zeus handed the baby to Hermes, the 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.

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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.

Silenus with the baby Dionysus - Roman marble copy from Greek original.

Silenus with the baby Dionysus - Roman marble copy from Greek original.

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.

Silenus, 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.

Greek krater depicting maenads and satyrs making wine.

Greek krater depicting maenads and satyrs making wine.

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, purified 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 thyrsus – a ritual wand with a pinecone on its top. City after city fell to his worship; those who showed him hostility, such as King Lycurgus, were visited with madness and death.

Pentheus being torn apart by maenads. Fresco from the House of the Vetti

Pentheus being torn apart by maenads. Fresco from the House of the Vetti

Return 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.

Hephaistos returning with Dionysus. Attic Red Figure Krater from Museum of Cycladic Art, Athens

Hephaistos returning with Dionysus. Attic Red Figure Krater from Museum of Cycladic Art, Athens

Reconcile 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.

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.


Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. Frank Justus Miller, revised G.P. Gould, Harvard University Press, 1921

Euripides, Bacchae, trans. Phillip Vellacott, Penguin, 1973

Art and Myth in Ancient Greece by T. H. Carpenter, Thames and Hudson, 1991

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2014 SarahLMaguire


Debasish Sengupta on December 18, 2018:

Birth of Dionysus,the write up is very very nice n informative.I gained some knowledge which I did not know.Thanks a lot.

crystalpuppy on December 14, 2017:

informative and intresting

Carolyn Emerick on January 08, 2014:

Ok great. Will do :-)

SarahLMaguire (author) from UK on January 08, 2014:

Hi Carolyn! Your mythology magazine sounds very interesting - I've added you on twitter if you want to PM me with more details. Thanks.

SarahLMaguire (author) from UK on January 08, 2014:

Hi Electronician! Thanks :) Interestingly, there are versions of the Dionysus myth in which he is indeed brutally murdered. The historic worship of Dionysus does seem like it would often have been a thrilling affair. It lead to the invention of Western theatre after all..

SarahLMaguire (author) from UK on January 08, 2014:

Thanks! I'm glad you found this hub meaningful. Dionysus is a fascinating and powerful deity. Have you found him approachable to work with? My main devotional focus is with Isis.

Dean Walsh from Birmingham, England on January 08, 2014:

Religion used to be so much more interesting and fun than it is today. If my girlfriend was hassling me to go to the temple of the god of 'wine and ecstasy' each week rather than the god of being brutally murdered and feeling guilty (shes Catholic) I would be much more inclined to go. Great hub btw.

SarahLMaguire (author) from UK on January 08, 2014:

Thanks Mystic Moonlight! \:) It's really nice to know that these hubs are being enjoyed.

Mackenzie Sage Wright on January 07, 2014:

This was awesome; not only do I love mythology, but I worship the Hellenic Gods, so the Greek myths speak to me in particular and lift my spirits. This was a delightful read, and very well researched. Great job on this hub.

Carolyn Emerick on January 07, 2014:

I love finding images also! I write for a free Celtic magazine and am planning on launching my own Mythology Magazine sometime this Spring or Summer, so I'm always searching for public domain images. Sometimes it can be a real challenge when it's something obscure or unusual. If you happen to be looking to expand your reach as a writer, Mythology Magazine is recruiting submissions for our first issue. I have 11,000 fans on the FB page I run for the Celtic magazine, and the Myth Mag FB page has over 500 fans without it even being launched yet! So I'm expecting it to be somewhat of a success. Offer stays on the table if you ever decide you'd like to try it. :-)

MysticMoonlight on January 07, 2014:

I love mythology and I agree with Carolyn, I wish there were more articles of such here on HubPages. Great job, voted!

SarahLMaguire (author) from UK on January 07, 2014:

Thanks so much Carolyn! :) It's really nice to know you're finding these interesting. I'm glad you like the pictures that go with this. Finding relevant images and discovering the range of how artists have treated a particular myth over the centuries is one of the most fun and interesting things about doing these articles. Makes me want to read up more on ancient art.

Carolyn Emerick on January 07, 2014:

Great article! I for one think there needs to be more mythology, folklore, history, arts and humanities on HubPages! So I love that you write on this. Thank you for educating me on Greek mythology :-) upvoted and sharing :-) ps - pinned your wonderful images to pinterest too

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