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The cult of Dionysus : legends and practice




Dionysus was the god of fertility and wine. The etymology of the name can give us a lot of information as far as the origin of the cult is concerned. "Dionysus" consists of two components: "dios"and "Nyssos". Dios is the genitive of Zeus, which exact translation would be: Zeus's."Nyssos" is a word of frygic-thacic origin, synonym of the word "kouros". So Dionysus is the Kouros of Zeus, therefore the son of Zeus.

    In Thrace, Dionysus was considered to be the god of fertility and he was worshiped with orgies and ceremonies not compatible with the Greek tradition. As his worship spread to the South met with the Greek worship of Dionysus, where he was considered as the god of wine. The two forms of the same worship got mixed and the new worship of Dionysus, the god of fertility and wine got born.

    The oracle of Delphi had a great contribution to the stabilization of the new worship, because Dionysus was believed to have prophetical competence, long before Apollo. Both gods were so important in Delphi, that the Delphic year was divided in two periods, the Dionysian and the Apollonian.

    There are many legends about the birth of Dionysus. The dominant one is that Dionysus was born in Thebes. He was the son of Zeus and Semeli, daughter of Kadmos (king of Thebes). Hera, wife of Zeus, jealous because of the affair between her husband and Semeli, convinced Semeli to beg Zeus to appear in front of her in all his power. Zeus, willing to please his mistress appeared in front of her accompanied by thunders. Semeli's house got fire and she died. Before she died she gave birth to the embryo Dionysus (therefore Dionysus was called: "pyrigenes", which means born in fire).Zeus took the embryo and put it inside his thigh, until the day of his birth. Some believe that the surname "dithyrambus", attributed to Dionysus is due to this double birth of the god - Dithyramb = dyo (two) + thyra (door) : from two doors : the one who was born twice.

    After the 6th century BC the cult of Dionysus had conquered the whole of Greece. The elements of extasis and mysticism, that can easily be observed in Dionysian orgiastic ritual celebrations are not of Greek provenance. They had been transferred from the frygic-thracic cult of Dionysus.

    The most important element of that new worship was the exaltation of the soul, that reaches the point of enthusiasm, which is expressed by rapid movements of hands and body and by hysterical screamings.Women that had dedicated themselves to the god were moving around with pinewoods in their hands, so that they could lighten their way through the woods, following all night long  their invisible guide, god Dionysus. In return, Dionysus filled their souls with physical and spiritual pleasures and at the same moment their souls were purified and exalted to the perfection of a supernatural life.

    In another version of the legend, Dionysus conquered the immortal happiness through sadness and death. According to the ideas of the orphics, Dionysus symbolizes the ever powerful life. During the rituals and the orgies Dionysus was called back from the dead by his followers. As we can see there is a strong bond between the legend of Dionysus and the legend of Demeter and Persephone. The worship of these three gods was transferred as one to Greek South Italy and later on to the Romans.

    The Dionysian ceremonies, simple at the beginning, little by little became noisy and orgiastic. The enthusiasts were strolling holding the phallus in front of them, accompanied by flute, drums and forminx, eating the raw fleshes of the animals sacrificed to Dionysus.

    In Athens, four special festivities were organized to praise the god :

  • Rural Dionysia in month Neptune (December - January)
  • Lenea in the month Gameleon (January - February)
  • Small Dionysia in month Anthesterion (February - March)
  • Great Dionysia (City Dionysia) in month Elaphevolion (March - April)

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