Bacchus (Dionysus) and the Primeval Forces of Nature: 5 Myths

Dionysus was the god of wine, revelry, ecstasy, and primeval regeneration of nature. Read more about the deity’s ambiguous mythology.

Aug 22, 2020By Maria Dragatakis, BA Classics, Classical Languages and Literature
bronze bacchus caravavaggio painting
Detail of A Large Roman Inlaid Bronze Bacchus, 2nd century AD, via Christie’s (left); with Bacchus by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 17th century, via The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg (right)


The Greek god Dionysus-Bacchus, later venerated by the Romans as Bacchus-Liber was the Olympian god of wine, plant life, indulgence, revelry, folly, and wild passion. Usually portrayed as an effeminate, long-haired youth or as an older, bearded god. His symbols include the thyrsus (a pine-cone tipped pole), a drinking cup, and a crown of ivy. He was usually accompanied by a troop of Satyrs, male disciples of the god, and Maenads raving female followers.


dionysian procession mosaic
Dionysian Procession Mosaic depicting a Maenad followed by Dionysus on a lion and Satyrs, 2nd century AD, in the Archaeological Museum of El Djem, Tunis


He was such a vibrant and controversial god that many myths surrounded him, his worship developed into a cult, with rituals and celebrations that have survived through the centuries.

But who was Dionysus, and what are the facts behind the myths?


1. The Ambiguous Origins Of Dionysus


Myth: Dionysus was the son of Zeus, King of the Gods, and Semele, a mortal princess of Thebes. The god was known as the “twice-born,” as his mother was slain by the lightning-bolts of Zeus during her pregnancy,  the unborn infant was rescued by his father who implanted the infant in his thigh and carried him to term. 


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Semele was a mortal, the daughter of King Cadmus of Thebes, who was the founder of the city of Thebes in Greece. Cadmus was a Phoenician prince sent to Greece in search of his sister Europa who was kidnapped by Zeus, he then settled in Greece and established his kingdom.


the birth of dionysus
Apulian red-figure krater depicting The Birth of Dionysus, 4th century BC, in the National Archaeological Museum of Taranto


“Melampos [a mythical seer] was the one who taught the Greeks the name of Dionysus and the way of sacrificing to him . . . I [Herodotus] believe that Melampos learned the worship of Dionysus chiefly from Cadmus of Tyre [the mythical Phoenician grandfather of Dionysus] and those who came with Cadmus from Phoenicia to the land now called Boeotia.” Herodotus, Histories 2. 49 (trans. Godley) (Greek historian 5th BC.) 


Fact: By the etymology of the name Dionysus, we derive two words – dio- either referring to his father Zeus (Dias, Dios, in Greek) or to the number two (dio in Greek), that implies to the dual nature of the god and -nysus- indicating the place he grew up, Mt. Nysa. The dual nature of the god is primarily his association with wine, he brought joy and divine ecstasy, while he could also unleash brutal and blinding rage, thus echoing the dual nature of wine.


bacchus michelangelo caravaggio
Bacchus by Michelangelo Merisi detto il Caravaggio, 1598, via The Uffizi Galleries, Florence


Dionysus’ duality is further established as he often seems to stand somewhere between god and man, male and female, death, and life.  Identified as a male god, but always surrounded by women, his chief worshippers. His worship included transvestism and rather obscure sex roles. Men and women both dressed in long robes covered by fawnskins, and women, as bacchants, left their homes and danced madly on mountainsides. Dionysus even looks somewhat ambiguous sexually, effeminate in his long curls and his pale complexion. Dionysus is also, unlike most of the other gods, the son of a mortal woman, Semele, whom he later rescued from the underworld and made her immortal. This means that by birth he is a native son of two realms, the mortal and the divine, the dual nature of man as found in monotheistic religions. This theme also shows in Dionysus’ marriage to a mortal woman, Ariadne. Many of the gods had brief affairs with mortals; Dionysus loved one and made her divine.


2. Mount Nysa And Connections With Hinduism


sarcophagus triumph dionysus
Sarcophagus with the Triumph of Dionysus, 190 AD, via The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


Myth: According to the myth Zeus, his father, entrusted the infant to the care of the Nymphs on Mount Nysa. Hera, the legitimate wife of Zeus, never acknowledged this illegitimate child of her husband, so the child was left in the care on the Nymphs of Mount Nysa and later as an adolescent he wandered all around the world where he acquired knowledge and customs from local cultures and has been associated to many eastern deities.


His travels took him to India to extend his cult. He stayed there for two years and celebrated his triumph by riding an elephant. The sarcophagus above depicts a procession of Dionysus and his followers as they make a triumphant return from India to Greece. The procession includes Satyrs, Maenads, as well as, animals exotic to Greece – elephants, lions, and a giraffe. On the right, a snake lurks in a tree. Dionysus himself is at the back of the procession in a chariot drawn by panthers. From left to right the lid of the sarcophagus has three scenes, each of which also has Hermes in it: the death of Semele, the birth of Dionysus from Zeus’ thigh, and the care of the infant god being entrusted to the nymphs of Nysa. At either end of the lid is a satyr head, one smiling, one frowning, representative of the tragedy and comedy, as Dionysus was also the god of Theatre.


Mercury Entrusting Bacchus to the Nymphs of Mount Nysa by Pierre-Jacques Cazes
Mercury Entrusting Bacchus to the Nymphs of Mount Nysa by Pierre-Jacques Cazes, via Sothebys


Fact: As a Greek deity he was always considered as an imported god, eastern and foreign. Herodotus, the Greek historian, dates Dionysus’ birth to the sixteenth century BC, which is well supported by the mention of the deity on a Linear B tablet. The worship of Dionysus was established sometime in the sixth millennium BC, during the Neolithic period, and evidence is found also in Mycenae, Greece

Mount Nysa is placed in several locations around the world, from Ethiopia to certain locations in Greece and Asia Minor. The location that prevails among researchers is Mount Nysa in India. Dionysus is identified with Shiva, Mount Nysa as the mountain of Shiva, and that Nisah is an epithet of the Hindu deity. This fact is supported by the historian Philostratus who states that the Indians call Dionysus the God of Nysa. The symbols of this Neolithic religion are seen across the ancient world in Egypt, Anatolia, Sumer, and the Middle East, extending from India all the way to Portugal. As such, it would not be a surprise to see remnants of the cult of Dionysus in India, from where it spread to the ancient world.


Although a concrete comparison cannot be made with an extinct religion, the study of Hinduism and the effects of the religion on the culture of its people may help give some insight into ancient Greek culture. The worship of the Hindu Shiva is still prevalent, and it bears similarities and links to the Greek Dionysus, who was viewed by his worshippers as Eastern and foreign.


shiva parvati victoria albert museum
Shiva and Parvati, 1810-20, via The Victoria and Albert Museum, London


Besides the lofty mountainous abode of the Olympians, Dionysus is also always associated with Mount Nysa, just as Shiva. It is suggested by scholars that Shiva and Dionysus were the same deity whose rites and symbols began to appear in the sixth millennium BC, during the Neolithic period. The above Hindu painting depicts a few of those symbols shared by the two gods: the snake, the Lady of the Mountains, the leopard skin, and the bull.


At the very least the Dionysiac cult belonged to an Eastern tradition and that tradition still exists today in modern polytheistic cultures.


3. The Connection Between Dionysus And Osiris


Myth: In Greek and Egyptian Mythology the Titans, giants who were deities before the Olympian gods,  as the myth goes, dismembered Osiris the Egyptian god who was later rescued and reborn by the divine intervention of his wife Isis. This myth of death and rebirth was shared in Greek Mythology, as Dionysus had a similar fate. Hera, still jealous of Zeus’ infidelity and the birth of his illegitimate child, she arranged for the Titans to kill him. The Titans ripped him to pieces; however, the female god and a Titan herself, Rhea brought him back to life. 


dionysus slaying giant
Dionysus Slaying a Giant, 470-65 BC, via The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg


In another version of the same myth, Dionysus was born twice, the first infant was slain by the Titans, rescued and reassembled by Zeus who then impregnated Semele with the same infant and was thus reborn, as we see in the first myth. 


Fact: Dionysus was identified with Osiris from ancient times. The story of dismemberment and rebirth was common to both, and as early as the fifth century BC the two gods had been considered as a single deity known as Dionysus-Osiris. The most notable record of this belief is found in Herodotus’ ‘Histories’ written circa 440 BC. “Before men, the rulers of Egypt were gods . . . the last of them to rule the country was Osiris’ …. he was the last divine king of Egypt. Osiris is, in the Greek language, Dionysus.” (Herodotus, Histories 2. 144).


Plutarch also described his belief that Osiris and Dionysus were identical, stating that anyone familiar with the secret rituals associated with both gods would recognize obvious parallels and that their dismemberment myths and associated public symbols are enough additional evidence that they are the same god worshiped by two different cultures.


anubis defender osiris
Anubis as Defender of Osiris / Dionysus (?), 2nd–3rd century AD, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


If we inspect closely the above figurine, we will notice strong elements from Egyptian and Greek mythology are intricately combined. The view taken here is that Anubis is represented, in Greek military costume and breastplate, signifying his role as a fighter against the enemies of Osiris. He holds a staff topped by a cone-shaped object – the thyrsus carried by followers of Dionysus, with whom the Greeks equated Osiris. In his other hand, he carries a falcon.


The Hellenistic era’s Pharaohs, the Ptolemies descendants of Alexander the Great, claimed direct and divine descent and lineage to both Dionysus and Osiris. The double identity of Dionysus-Osiris also suited the Ptolemaic Dynasty as they ruled over both Greek and Egyptian subjects. The epitome of this pairing was the deification ceremony of Mark Anthony, the Roman general, and his lover Queen Cleopatra, where he became god Dionysus-Osiris, and she was declared as Isis-Aphrodite reincarnate.


4. Dionysus-Bacchus And The Birth Of Theatre


relief dionysus drama poet
Relief of Dionysus Visiting a Drama Poet, 1st century BC, via The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg


Myth: Dionysus was one of the most popular gods in the Greek Pantheon. However, being identified as a ‘foreign’ god, his popularity was not easily earned. For the people in Athens, the center of religion and culture, Dionysus Eleutherius (Liberator), as they called him, did not gain popularity until the 6th century BC, during the rule of Peisistratus. Worship of the god was originally a rural festival in the region outside Athens. When a statue of Dionysus was placed in Athens, the Athenians promptly refused to worship him. Dionysus then punished them with a Plague affecting the genitalia of men. The plague was alleviated after the cult was accepted by the Athenians, who celebrated the event with a massive procession through the city carrying phalli to honor the god.


This first procession was then established as an annual ritual dedicated to Dionysus. The Dionysian /Bacchic Mysteries that were primarily rural and a fringe part of Greek religion were thus adopted by the major urban center of Athens and later spread throughout the Hellenistic and Roman empires.


bacchanal nicolas poussin
Bacchanal by Nicolas Poussin, 1625-26, via Museo del Prado, Madrid


In Rome, the most well-known festivals of Bacchus were the Bacchanalia, based on the earlier Greek Dionysia practices. These Bacchic rituals were said to have included sparagmos and omophagia, dismemberment and eating raw animal parts, in memory of what Dionysus suffered by the Titans,  as a re-enactment of the infant’s death and rebirth. This ritual but also produced “enthusiasm”, the Greek etymology of the word depicts letting a god enter a human body and become one.  


Fact: The cult of Dionysus quickly became one of the most important in Greece and spread throughout the ancient world. Athens became the epicenter of worship to God, just below the rock of Acropolis we find the archaic temple of Dionysus in the Sanctuary of Dionysus Eleutherius and situated next to it the oldest theatre in the world dedicated to Dionysus. 


Greek Drama, as in tragedy and comedy, had deeply religious roots and was attributed to the worship of Dionysus.


sanctuary theatre dionysus
Sanctuary and Theatre of Dionysus on the south slope of the Acropolis in Athens, via Warwick University, Coventry


The South Slope of the Acropolis features probably the oldest theatre structure in the world, host to Dionysia, one of the largest Theatrical Festivals in the ancient world. It shaped and pioneered the genres and format of performing arts that we use today and propagated theatre practices to many other areas in the ancient world.


Dionysia was held in March. For three days three tragic plays were performed during a day, followed by a lewd Satyr play to round the day off. These plays were judged by notable citizens who chose the best of the playwrights. The winner’s play was recorded and stored for future use, thus the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, have survived, translated to all modern languages, and are performed today around the world. The fourth day was reserved for comedies, intended to both entertain the citizens, but also criticize the wrongdoings of the government, they were satires, satirical plays all rooted back to the rituals of Dionysus. The most prominent comedy playwright was Aristophanes whose comedies have also survived and produced in abundance to date.


5. The Matrimonial Union Of Dionysus and Ariadne


bacchus ariadne
Bacchus and Ariadne by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1696–1770, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Ariadne was a mortal princess, daughter of renown King Minos of Crete. When the Athenian hero Theseus visited Crete in his quest to slay the Minotaur, Ariadne assisted him in his task and fell in love against the wishes of her father. She eloped and fled with the hero aboard his ship. When they landed on the island of Naxos Theseus abandoned her as she slept. Left destitute in a strange land she was in great distress when Dionysus appeared, rescued her and made her his wife. She became immortal, ascended to Mt. Olympus, and together they had five children and a harmonious marriage.


The rogue god of wine, ritual orgies, and ecstasy kept Ariadne as his lawful wife, loving her exceedingly and because of the affection he had for her, he placed her among the stars of heaven as the ‘Crown of Ariadne’, the constellation Corona Borealis, the Northern Crown.


Fact: Ariadne and Dionysus, their mythical love affair and marriage has been the subject of a multitude of works of art, and some of the finest ancient works, on gems, statues, as well as paintings, are still extant and adorn museums around the world.


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Bacchus and Ariadne by Titian, 1520-23, via The National Gallery, London


The painting by Titian, commissioned for the Alabaster Room in the Ducal Palace of Ferrara, painted between 1518 to 1525 is a masterpiece that illustrates the myth. Bacchus appears with his custody to find the abandoned Ariadne. We can still see Theseus’ boat sailing away and the distressed maiden Ariadne, startled by the god’s appearance. Love at first sight! He leaps from his chariot, drawn by two cheetahs, towards her and this is the beginning of a great love story, a blessed marriage, where Dionysus offered her immortality, where the stars above her head represent the constellation, the god named after her. A short video on Bacchus and Ariadne by Titian produced by the National Gallery in London will enlighten our readers further on the great master’s perspective of the myth.


To conclude this fascinating journey through the myths and the facts around this multifaceted god, and his extensive influence on religious, social and cultural aspects of our modern days, one cannot resist looking at Dionysus-Bacchus through the eyes of another great master, Peter Paul Rubens, who captures an elderly Bacchus unlike his traditional representation as a slim youth with a handsome face. Rubens instead showed him as a corpulent, flaccid reveler. Seated on a wine-barrel as if on a throne, one leg resting on a tiger, Bacchus looks both repulsive and majestic.


bacchus pieter paul rubens
Bacchus by Pietro Pauolo Rubens, 1638-40, via The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg


Rubens sums up in this extraordinary masterpiece the essence of life, as a circle of life and death. Dionysus or Bacchus was conceived by the artist as the apotheosis of earth’s fruitfulness and the beauty of man and his natural instincts. In terms of painting technique, Bacchus is one of the pearls of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. Using a refined scale of color gradations, Rubens achieved an effect of depth and a close link between the figures and the landscape, as well as a clarity of form and a vibrant warmth in the human bodies.


Amongst the myths and the facts surrounding this versatile god, who existed in Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Indian mythologies and spun intricate tales. It is conclusive that he represents the need of the humans to express their owe to nature as a formidable reproductive force and the humans’ interaction with this force through revelry and rituals inducing states of ecstasy. Humans had to identify with nature, they felt obliged to appease its forces and celebrate its rebirth every year and Dionysus was the god who led the way and taught them to live as one with nature.

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By Maria DragatakisBA Classics, Classical Languages and LiteratureMaria Dragatakis lives and works in Athens, Greece as an International Productions Coordinator for a local theater company. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Classics and Classical Languages and Literatures from Ohio University. Art is her passion which she is been blessed to relish in her daily tasks, in the world of the theater, and the city she lives in with its rich cultural heritage. Her work has taken her around the world in a never-ending journey, always seeking the finer sentiment of euphoria that only art can produce.