Photograph of a Grecian statue of Dionysus riding a Satyr taken by Haiduc

A statue of Dionysus riding a Satyr, photographed by Haiduc

Back to the Classics, for an often-misunderstood god of wine. And fertility. And romance – like most major gods, his areas of influence don’t neatly fall into clerical domains.

The worship of Dionysus was a mystery cult – which is to say, the details were never written down, so we know little about it. We do know that a central tenet involved descending into caves and enduring a second birth – the Dionysians were perhaps the first ‘born-again’ faith. We also know that followers of the god were held in suspicion – Alexander the Great was said to have suppressed the cult on more than one occasion.

Most of the Greek pantheon transferred to their Roman counterparts largely intact. Dionysus did not – he transformed from the patron of wine to the drunken Bacchus, and the ceremonial rebirth became the Bacchanalia – a wild revel, the Roman orgy.

Story of the God – the Twice Born

Dionysus was conceived to a mortal mother, Semele, and the divine King Zeus. Not long before the birth, an old woman, who was Queen Hera in disguise, came visiting. She would not believe that the father was Zeus, and taunted the young mother.

“Make him show you his full glory. Then we’ll know for sure!” cackled the crone.

So the next time Zeus visited, Semele begged and cajoled him to show her his divine form. Eventually, Zeus relented. But mortals are not made to see the divine, and Semele perished.

In sorrow, Zeus gathered up the unborn child from her womb. Having nowhere else to hide him, he sewed him into his great thigh.

As he was heading away, he met with Hera, who had lurked to see the results of her scheming. Because the babe was concealed, she did not hear him, and he was protected from the jealous queen’s wrath.

Zeus took little Dionysus to a grove in Asia, where he was born from Zeus’s thigh and entrusted to a group of nymphs. The child grew to be a great god, and the nymphs who raised him became his followers – the Maenads.

In your Stories and Games

As an adversary, Dionysus makes for a suitable patron for panderers and peddlers of all kinds of illegal goods. Imagine Gotham’s Scarecrow – only instead of madness, he’s got religion. Whilst this is less true to the original god, the modern perception of him is colored by the medieval portrayal of all the pagan gods as their least acceptable – their most demonic – aspects.

The caves in which the Dionysians worshipped could become a suitable setting for a dungeon. The Oracle at Delphi was almost certainly under the influence of gas vents found in volcanic Greece – such vents might make entertaining traps, and the caves might be home to vicious satyrs or crazed maenads – not evil, but enraged by unexpected disturbances.

Modern day followers of Dionysus could adopt a very Buddhist attitude of “There are many paths and this is mine”. Think of the stoner with a twist – taking a variety of consciousness-expanding drugs, because such an altered state really does allow him to commune with his god.

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D is for Dionysus – Mythic Mondays — 1 Comment

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