Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: Dionysus from Philip's Encyclopedia

Greek god of wine and fertility, identified with the Roman god Bacchus. The son of Zeus and Semele.


Summary Article: Dionysus
from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

In Greek mythology, the god of wine, mystic ecstasy, and orgiastic excess; son of princess Semele and Zeus. In his original savage form he was attended by satyrs, lustful, drunken creatures; and maenads, women considered capable of tearing animals to pieces with their bare hands when under his influence. Later, as a more benign deity, his rites became less extreme; the Roman Bacchus embodied this form.

Dionysus was the personification of nature's power to stir emotion, and the element of creativity opposite the law and order of Apollo, the two being complementary in the act of creation.

Childhood After Zeus consumed Semele with his fire, he hid the unborn Dionysus in his thigh until birth to shield the child from his jealous wife Hera. In another tradition, Dionysus was the son of Persephone by Zeus transformed as a snake. He was reputed to have invented wine as a child under the care of the Hyades, nymphs and daughters of the Titan Atlas, on Mount Nysa, in Libya.

Adventures and deeds Driven mad by Hera, Dionysus travelled through the world accompanied by numerous rowdy companions, including his old tutor Silenus, a rural god; they spread his worship and allegedly the use of wine. He was abducted by Lydian pirates, but entwined the ship with ivy and transformed himself into a lion, the oars into serpents, and the pirates into dolphins as they jumped overboard in terror. Landing at Naxos, he married Ariadne, who had been deserted there by the hero Theseus.

During the Trojan wars Dionysus supported the Greeks, empowering Anius, son of the god Apollo, to sustain their fleet with endless supplies of corn, oil, and wine.

His son by Aphrodite was Priapus, the god of fruitfulness.

Worship Reference to Dionysus in early Aegean tablets, suggests that he was introduced from Thrace. His original cult appealed mainly to women, and followers abandoned their homes to wander in bands over the mountains. The ritual climax of his worship involved the ripping apart and raw consumption of an animal, such as a deer, calf, goat, or occasionally even a human, held to represent the god himself. As a fertility rite, this may have stemmed from a belief that a god must die to be reborn in his followers, or simply that a being's power may be inherited by eating it.

His cult spread swiftly despite strong opposition from the authorities, illustrated through such legends as the tragedy of Pentheus of Thebes, who was torn apart by the maenads, including his own mother, after resisting the introduction of his worship. The event was dramatized in Euripedes' Bacchae.

A milder form of worship also existed in which Dionysus was simply the god of wine, honoured with song and celebration. His festivals, the Dionysia, were particularly associated with Athens and other centres in Attica.

© RM, 2018. All rights reserved.

Related Articles


Full text Article DIONYSUS
The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Love, Courtship, and Sexuality through History: The Ancient World

Dionysus, whom the Romans knew as Bacchus, was also worshipped in a mystery cult. He was the son of Zeus, the king of the gods, and Semele, a...

Full text Article DIONYSUS
Gods, Goddesses, and Mythology

Dionysus was the Greek god of wine, and, among other things, vegetation and human emotion. Worshiped throughout the Hellenic world, he was...

Full text Article Dionysus
Bloomsbury Dictionary of Myth

Dionysus' birth and upbringing. Dionysus ('lame god'; Latin Bacchus, 'raging'), in Greek and Roman myth, was the son of Zeus and Semele....

See more from Credo