Classical Mythology: The Kindness of Strangers

The Kindness of Strangers

Though traditionalists tended to persecute the Bacchants for their belief in the divinity of Dionysus and for their wildly ecstatic rites, the young god did not meet with resistance everywhere he went. True, he often alienated kings and noblemen as he toured the Mediterranean, but he nonetheless attracted a great number of followers. And he had a particularly strong appeal among women.

Those who embraced his godhood and observed his rites were often rewarded handsomely. The maenads, for example, eventually grew very old—as even nymphs do. But in gratitude for their lifelong devotion to him, Dionysus prevailed upon the sorceress Medea to restore their youth.

Mythed by a Mile

According to another version of the union between Dionysus and Ariadne, Theseus really did love Ariadne, but when Dionysus fell in love with her, too, the god forced the hero to go on without her. Still other storytellers suggest that Dionysus laid the groundwork for his marriage to Ariadne while visiting her father, King Minos. At that time, he bribed her to sleep with him by offering her a stunning crown.

Though he had countless lovers, Dionysus married only one: Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos of Crete. Ariadne had helped Theseus escape from the Labyrinth, an elaborate maze that housed the vicious Minotaur. But after getting him safely out of Crete, Ariadne was cruelly abandoned by her lover (see Lucky in War, Unlucky in Love: Theseus) on the island of Dia (later known as Naxos). Dionysus found her there, fell in love, and married her.

The Lemnians claim that the god and his bride settled on the island of Lemnos. Ariadne bore Dionysus several sons, among them:

  • Thoas, a king of Lemnos whose daughter secretly spared him when the women of Lemnos killed all the other men on the island (see Crimes of Passion: Jason, Medea, and the Argonauts)
  • Staphylus, who sailed with Jason on the Argo
  • Phanus, who joined his brother on the Argo
  • Oenopion, who became a king of Chios, an island famed for its wine

Swing Time

When he introduced wine to Attica (the region surrounding Athens), Dionysus chose to teach the cultivation of the grape and wine-making to an ordinary citizen, Icarius, and his daughter Erigone. (Some storytellers say that he picked Icarius in gratitude after having seduced Erigone.) They embraced his arts and learned their lessons well.

When Icarius went to his neighbors and began offering his wineskin, however, some local farmers unfortunately drank too much and passed out. When they awoke, still groggy, they accused Icarius of trying to poison them and beat him to death. Erigone, after much searching, discovered her father's body and hanged herself in despair.

What a Life!

Icarius had a remarkably loyal dog named Maera. The dog accompanied him when he introduced wine to his neighbors. Its howling over its master's body helped Erigone find her father. And it jumped into a well and killed itself when Erigone hanged herself. Dionysus rewarded the dog's incredible faithfulness by placing it, too, in the sky as the Dog Star.

Furious at the murder of his disciple, Dionysus drove the Attic women mad. Like Erigone, they started hanging themselves from trees all over town. After discovering the cause of these suicides through an oracle, the men of Attica quickly tracked down and punished the murderers of Icarius. They also instituted an annual “swinging festival” to honor Erigone, in which the young girls of Athens played on swings hanging from the town's trees. These acts of atonement appeased the wine god and persuaded him to restore sanity to the Attic women. To honor his Athenian disciples, Dionysus placed both father and daughter in the stars as the constellations Bootes and Virgo.

Oeneus of Calydon was the first Greek king to offer Dionysus a warm welcome. Indeed, Oeneus treated his guest to unsurpassed hospitality. Recognizing that Dionysus wanted to sleep with Queen Althaea, Oeneus even left his kingdom for a short time to allow the god to fulfill his desire. This recess allowed some storytellers to speculate that Dionysus, rather than Oeneus, was the father of Althaea's daughter Deianira—a beautiful girl who would one day marry the hero Heracles (see The Labors of Heracles).

All That's Gold Does Not Glitter

What a Life!

The three daughters of King Anius of Delos became devotees of Dionysus, and he rewarded them with a touch much more valuable than Midas's golden one. Simply by touching something, Oino (wine) could transform anything into wine; Spermo (seed) could change anything into corn; and Elais (olive) could turn anything into oil. Agamemnon, leader of the Greek forces, recognizing their value to troops on the move, seized the girls on his way to Troy. But they prayed to Dionysus, who released them by transforming the girls into white doves.

Once while traveling through Phrygia, Silenus, the leader and namesake of the silens—the demigods of the forest skilled at both music and prophecy (see Friends, Fairies, and Fairy Tale Monsters)—disappeared. Midas, a Phrygian king, had lured him away from the rest of his company by adding wine to a spring that flowed outside his castle—perhaps to take advantage of the goat-man's gift for prophecy. Midas played the perfect host, entertaining his guest for several days before sending him back to Dionysus.

To thank Midas for his hospitality, Dionysus offered the king any boon he desired. The avaricious king did not hesitate a second: He wanted everything he touched to turn to gold. Dionysus reluctantly granted him this power.

Midas enjoyed his golden touch for only a brief time before he discovered that he could no longer eat, because everything he lifted to his mouth turned to gold (which has little nutritional value). Recognizing his foolishness, Midas petitioned Dionysus to take back his gift. This lay beyond even a god's power, but Dionysus advised the king to bathe in the river Pactolus, which washed away his touch of gold forever.

Mama's Boy

Dionysus, unlike his half-brother Heracles, had always been divine. Once he completed his missionary work throughout the eastern Mediterranean, Dionysus made up his mind to join his fellow gods on Olympus.

But ever the devoted son, Dionysus wanted to bring his mother Semele with him. So the god headed first to the Underworld. A guide told him that he need not take the long land route to the Palace of Hades. He could go more quickly by diving down into the water at the bottomless Alcyonian Lake or the Bay of Troezen.

In talking to Dionysus, the guide became smitten with the beautiful god. Knowing his generosity to kind strangers, the guide asked Dionysus to sleep with him in return for the advice he had provided. But now that he had directions in hand, Dionysus urgently wanted to reunite with his mother. As he hurried off, however, he swore he would pay the guide whatever he wanted when he returned from the Underworld.

After fetching his mother, Dionysus returned to honor his oath, but the guide had died in his absence. So the god carved a wooden image of his own genitals and left it at the guide's tomb. It was the least he could do to repay the stranger's kindness.

His business on Earth completed, Dionysus then brought Semele up to Olympus, where she became known as Thyone. At last, Dionysus had taken his place among the Olympians.

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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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