Classical Mythology: Sex, Drugs, and Rock 'n' Roll: Dionysus on Tour

Sex, Drugs, and Rock 'n' Roll: Dionysus on Tour

Dionysus grew up to be a beautiful—if somewhat effeminate—young man, boisterous and full of life. Unfortunately, after Dionysus had lived many years hidden in the cave on Mount Nysa, Hera—who had never given up the search for her bastard son—finally caught up to him. Though the god was still only a youth, Hera did not hesitate to drive the boy mad. For many years, Dionysus wandered aimlessly throughout Egypt and Syria.

Eventually, the young god arrived at Phrygia. Cybele, the Phrygian mother goddess, perhaps recognizing him as a kindred spirit, welcomed Dionysus. Cybele exercised a powerful influence on Dionysus. She not only purified him and cured him of his madness, she also initiated him in her religious rites. Dionysus learned well, and before long had begun creating his own rites based on those taught by Cybele. To honor her, the god also adopted the costume of the Phrygians: long, flowing robes and a crown of ivy.

The Original Flower Child

Thereafter, Dionysus declared himself the god of the grapes as well as all other vegetation, and, of course, wine. Indeed, some even say he discovered the vine and the use to which its fruit could be put, for Dionysus invented wine: the medicine for misery, the bearer of sleep and relief from human troubles.

Dionysus began frequenting woods, mountains, and valleys. Unlike some of the other gods, Dionysus enjoyed reveling with mortals. The god, who loved wine, women, and song, traveled with a sometimes raggedy band of Bacchants: maenads, satyrs, and silens (see Friends, Fairies, and Fairy Tale Monsters) who worshipped him.

The Star and His Groupies

Worshippers celebrated Dionysus as a kind of fertility god. Through a combination of wine, music, dancing, and religious fervor, followers achieved a mystical communion with the god. Indeed, they even called themselves by his name: Bacchus.

Male and female followers alike dressed in long flowing robes that the traditional Greeks—those who had difficulty accepting the deity of this new god—considered girlish. While caught up in their revelry, the Bacchants covered their robes in animal skins, sometimes said to be fastened to their shoulders with snakes that enjoyed licking their cheeks. In addition, each reveler carried a thyrsus, a pole wrapped in live ivy and grapevines and topped with a pine cone.


Sparagmos involves the ritualized dismemberment of a living animal. Its use in the rites of Dionysus contrasted sharply with the scrupulous preparations for slaughter and sacrifice observed in more traditional Greek religious practices. Sparagmos thus showed just how unorthodox the Dionysian religion was.

High in the mountains, hidden in the secluded forests, Dionysus and his followers would engage in wild, frenzied rites, often at night. A parade of nymphs and Bacchants would dance through the forest, all making quite a racket. Under the influence of copious amounts of wine and religious ecstasy (and some say sexual ecstasy as well), revelers became one with their god. Even after he ascended to Olympus, his followers could still see Dionysus—often in the form of a bull or goat—in visions brought on by their religious rites.

In the orgiastic celebrations of Dionysus and his mostly female followers, women sometimes suckled gazelles, wolves, fawns, or kids. At other times, they engaged in sparagmos, ripping cows, goats, or sheep to pieces with their bare hands and eating them raw. By banging their thyrsi on the ground, the Bacchants sometimes created springs of water, wine, milk, or honey.

Don't Make Him Mad

Leaving Phrygia, Dionysus began doing his own missionary work. He traveled from land to land, spreading the culture of the grape. He introduced people to the cultivation of the vine and to the joys—and sometimes the perils—offered by wine. Equally important, he spread the word about his own divinity and initiated countless followers in his religious mysteries. This mission would take him throughout the Greek world and beyond—as far east as the land of the Amazons on the Black Sea, across the Mediterranean to Egypt—and even as far as the Ganges in India.

Needless to say, the young god aroused much anger and resentment. Not everyone embraced Dionysus, accepted his teachings, and adopted his ideas on worship and religious practice. The kind of worship that Dionysus and his followers preached was foreign to Greece. And the many tales of mythic battles between Dionysus and the kings he encountered no doubt reflect very real battles between those who preached the word of Dionysus and those who fought the spread of this cult.

The first to insult and mistreat Dionysus in the course of his missionary work was Lycurgus, king of the Edonians in Thrace. Lycurgus brutally attacked Dionysus and his maenads with an ox-goad, forcing them to flee his kingdom. Many Bacchants were captured and imprisoned, but the Nereid Thetis offered Dionysus refuge deep beneath the sea.

Read All About It

The Homeric Hymn to Dionysus beautifully tells one version of the tale of Dionysus among the Tyrrhenian pirates. The hymn is the seventh of 33 songs of praise to the many gods and goddesses of ancient Greece. Though once attributed to Homer, these Homeric Hymns are now almost universally regarded as the works of another, unknown poet.

To avenge this insult to himself and his followers, Dionysus drove the king mad—the first of many times the god would employ this weapon. The madness of Lycurgus first manifested itself when, after getting drunk, he attempted to rape his own mother. Temporarily restored to his senses, Lycurgus realized what he had done.

Blaming the wine, the king then attempted to destroy all the vines that Dionysus had taught the Edonians to plant. But Lycurgus again suffered a fit of madness. The king slaughtered his wife and son, thinking them vines, and then chopped off his own feet with his ax.

Dionysus vowed to keep the land barren until the king's death. As drought and famine wasted the land, his subjects brutally killed Lycurgus. They tied their king up and threw him among the wild, man-eating horses that roamed Mount Pangaeus.

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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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