Classical Mythology: Eat, Drink, and Be Merry: Dionysus

Eat, Drink, and Be Merry: Dionysus

Mythed by a Mile

The followers of Orpheus insist that Zeus did not originally conceive Dionysus by the mortal Semele. Instead, he took the form of a snake and conceived a child with Persephone, the daughter of Demeter. The child of this union, born with horns and a crown of serpents, was named Zagreus.

But ever-jealous Hera gave this infant to the Titans. Though the baby tried changing shapes to escape his captors, the Titans tore him limb from limb, boiled up the pieces, and ate him. Yet Athena managed to save the boy's heart. When she presented it to Zeus, he swallowed it and then seduced Semele in order to conceive the child a second time. Only after this second conception was the god renamed Dionysus.

Of all the gods of Olympus, none was quite so complex as Dionysus, the god of wine and revelry. Dionysus brought entirely new rites and a new spirit into Greek worship, yet he was accepted and even embraced by the gods and goddesses whom he joined. Indeed, some say that he became the twelfth of the great Olympians, taking the place of Hestia, whose importance and influence gradually faded away.

Yet unlike the other Olympians—who often seemed cold, forbidding, and distant—Dionysus lived many years in the company of mortals and concentrated his attention on the earthly sphere.

The other gods required the construction of temples, the enactment of sacrifices, and other rites that emphasized the vast separation between gods and mortals. Dionysus and his followers, on the other hand, taught that through a combination of wine, revelry, and religious ecstasy, mortals could achieve a mystical oneness with him. They could not only be like Dionysus, but in a certain sense, they could become Dionysus.

This seemed entirely foreign to the established Olympic pantheon. Yet the myth—and the rites—of Dionysus nonetheless became an integral part of classical mythology.

Turning Water Into Wine: How Dionysus Came to Be

Mythed by a Mile

Pausanias, the writer of travelogues who described the mythology of a place as well as the place itself, related an obscure story regarding the birth of Dionysus that he had heard from the Laconians. In this tale, Semele did not die before giving birth to Dionysus. Her father, Cadmus, refused to believe that a god had seduced her. No longer able to bear the sight of her or her bastard son, Cadmus locked Semele and his grandson in a chest and tossed it into the sea. By the time the chest washed ashore on the Laconian coast, Semele had died. Yet her sister Ino, who had plotted to murder her stepchildren Phrixus and Helle before going mad (see Even the Wisest Cannot See: Oedipus the King and Crimes of Passion: Jason, Medea, and the Argonauts), wandered to Laconia, too. There Ino brought her nephew to her own breast. Taking refuge in a Laconian cave, Ino nursed Dionysus during his infancy.

Zeus, Father of the Gods, had already conceived five children (by four different mothers) who had taken their place on Mount Olympus: Athena, Ares, Artemis, Apollo, and Hermes. Yet Zeus apparently had it in him to create one more god—by yet another mother.

Zeus took a fancy to Semele, a daughter of King Cadmus of Thebes. So he disguised himself as a mortal in order to carry on a discreet love affair with her. With this subterfuge, Zeus hoped not only to keep his presence among mortals a secret, but also to protect Semele from the jealous wrath of Hera.


Dionysus means the “god of Nysa.” No one knows where Nysa was located. It may have been as close as Thrace or as far as India or across the Mediterranean in Libya or Ethiopia. Or it may never have existed at all, merely invented in order to explain his name.

Even more than the other Greek gods, Dionysus was called by many names. The most common was Bacchus, though some also called him Bromius. Dionysian revelers often called out a special word: evoe! This exclamation, however, did not name the god; it simply indicated the joy of the Dionysian worshipper.

Together, Zeus and Semele conceived a son: Dionysus.

Be Careful What You Wish For

Though his disguise may have fooled the mortals he met, Zeus could not hoodwink Hera so easily. The Queen of the Olympians saw through his ruse and jealously set out to destroy Semele and her bastard son.

No doubt inspired by her husband's trickery, Hera disguised herself as an old woman—perhaps Semele's nurse, Beroe—and appeared before the young girl during the sixth month of her pregnancy. After gaining her confidence, Hera urged the unsuspecting Semele to ask her lover to reveal his true self to her, to let her see him in the same form that his wife did. Hera insisted that this was the only way Semele could make sure that the father of the child inside her wasn't a monster.

Zeus loved Semele so much that when she asked for a boon, he swore he would grant her anything she desired. When he heard what Semele wanted, Zeus tried to talk her out of it, but she would not budge. Bound by his promise, the storm god granted her request. He appeared to her as a thunderbolt—or perhaps riding a chariot that blazed with thunder and lightning. Awestruck by the sight, Semele was consumed by her lover's lightning.

Though he had lost his lover, Zeus refused to lose his son, too. The god rescued the as-yet unborn child from the ashes of his mother. Summoned by his father, Hermes removed the baby son from Semele's womb, placed the child inside the god's thigh, and sewed up the tear. Zeus then carried the child to term in his thigh. After three months, the wound was reopened and the child, Dionysus, delivered. For this reason, Dionysus became known as the “Twice-Born God.”

Kids Will Be Kids—Literally

Zeus did his best to keep his baby under wraps, far from the eyes of Hera. At his father's bidding, Hermes brought his stepbrother Dionysus to Ino, Semele's sister. Ino and her husband, King Athamas of Orchomenus, agreed to care for the child, whom they dressed as a girl in order to keep him hidden from Hera.

But once again, Hera easily saw through these attempts at subterfuge. She drove both Ino and Athamas mad. Athamas, deluded into seeing one of their sons as an animal, hunted and killed the boy. Ino boiled her other son in a cauldron and then leapt into the sea.

But Zeus once again managed to save his child, transforming Dionysus into a kid (not a child, but a young goat). This time, the deception succeeded. Unknown to Hera, Hermes brought Dionysus to the nymphs of Mount Nysa. The nymphs nurtured, cuddled, and nursed Dionysus through his youth. Hidden away in a sweet-smelling cave, the son of Zeus grew up as a goat-child.

After Dionysus was restored to human form, the nymphs of Nysa became the maenads, the female votaries of the god. Like Dionysus himself, the maenads would suffer intense persecution from those frightened or appalled by their frenzied, ecstatic rites.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Classical Mythology © 2004 by Kevin Osborn and Dana L. Burgess, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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