The Greek god Dionysus (or Dionysos, Iacchus or Iakkhos, Bacchus or Bakkhos, and also identified with the Italic Liber), represented not only the intoxicating power of wine, but also its social and beneficent influences, and the vital energies expressed in the growth of trees and vines. He was viewed as the promoter of civilization, a lawgiver, and lover of peace — as well as the patron deity of both agriculture and the theater.
Among his many titles were Firstborn (Protogonos), Fire-born, Roarer (Bromios), Twy-form (Diphues), Rain Giver, Flowery (Antheus), Fruity (Karpios), Black Footed, Two-Mothered (Bimater), and Torn Asunder (Sparagmos).
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Dionysus was a god of mystery religious rites, such as those practiced in honor of Demeter and Persephone at Eleusis near Athens. In the Thracian mysteries, he wore the bassaris or fox-skin, symbolizing new life.
Many scholars believe that Dionysus was a fusion of a local Greek nature deity and a more powerful god from Thrace or Phrygia such as Sabazios.
Herodotus was aware that the worship of Dionysus arrived later among the Greeks than the Olympian pantheon, for he remarks
- as it is, the Greek story has it that no sooner was Dionysus born than Zeus sewed him up in his thigh and carried him away to Nysa in Ethiopia beyond Egypt; and as for Pan, the Greeks do not know what became of him after his birth. It is therefore plain to me that the Greeks learned the names of these two gods later than the names of all the others, and trace the birth of both to the time when they gained the knowledge. (Histories 2:146)
Many Greeks were sure that the cult of Dionysus arrived in Greece from Anatolia, but Greek concepts of where Nysa was, whether set in Anatolia, or in Libya ('away in the west beside a great ocean'), Ethiopia (Herodotus), or Arabia (Diodorus Siculus), are variable enough to suggest that a magical distant land was intended, perhaps named 'Nysa' to explain the God's unreadable name, as the 'god of Nysa.' Apollodorus seems to be following Pherecydes, who relates how the infant Dionysus, god of the grapevine, was nursed by the rain-nymphs, the Hyades at Nysa. The Anatolian Hittites' name for themselves in their own language ("Nesili") was "Nesi," however. The Hittite's influence on early Greek culture is often unappreciated.
The above contradictions suggest to some that we are dealing not with the historical memory of a cult that is foreign, but with a god in whom foreignness is inherent. And indeed, Dionysus's name is found on Mycenean Linear B tablets. Clearly, Dionysus had been with the Greeks a long time, and yet always retained the feel of something alien.
In surviving depictions of Dionysiac cult activity, the god is often represented by a mask suspended on a pole. Dionysus's characteristic worshippers were bands of women, called maenads or bacchae. These women were said to perform the ceremonies of Dionysus in the wilderness in the early introduction of the cult. Among the male worshippers of Dionysus, the records suggest ritual transvestitism as a component of the cult.
Dionysus was strongly associated with the satyrs, centaurs and sileni. He always carried a thyrsus. The grapevine and its wild barren alter-ego, the toxic ivy plant, were both sacred to him, the fig was also his. The pine cone that tipped his thyrsus linked him to Cybele, and the pomegranate linked him to Demeter.
Dionysus had an unusual birth that evokes the difficulty in fitting him into the Olympian pantheon. His mother was Semele (daughter of Cadmus), a mortal woman, and his father Zeus, the king of the gods. Zeus's wife, Hera, a jealous and vain goddess, discovered the affair while Semele was pregnant. Appearing as an old crone, Hera befriended Semele, who confided in her that her husband was actually Zeus. Hera pretended not to believe her, and planted seeds of doubt in Semele's mind. Curious, Semele demanded of Zeus that he reveal himself in all his glory as proof of his godhood. Though Zeus begged her not to ask this, she persisted and he agreed. Mortals, however, can not look upon a god without dying, and she perished. Zeus rescued the fetal Dionysus, however, by sewing him into his leg. A few months later, Dionysus was born.
In another version of the same story, Dionysus was the son of Zeus and Persephone, the queen of the underworld. A jealous Hera again attempted to kill the child, this time by sending Titans to rip Dionysus to pieces after luring the baby with toys. Though Zeus drove the Titans away with his thunderbolts but only after the Titans ate everything but the heart, which was saved, variously, by Athena, Rhea, or Demeter. Zeus used the heart to recreate Dionysus and implant him in the womb of Semele, hence he was again "the twice-born". Sometimes it was said that he gave Semele the heart to eat to impregnate her. The rebirth in both versions of the story is the primary reason he was worshipped in mystery religions, as his death and rebirth were events of mystical reverence. This narrative was apparently used in certain Greek and Roman mystery religions. Variants of it are found in Callimachus and Nonnus, who refer to this Dionysus under the title Zagreus, and also in several fragmentary poems attributed to Orpheus.
The legend goes that Zeus took the infant Dionysus and gave him in charge to the rain-nymphs of Nysa, who nourished his infancy and childhood, and for their care were rewarded by Jupiter by being placed, as the Hyades, among the stars. Alternatively, he was raised by Maro.
When Dionysus grew up he discovered the culture of the vine and the mode of extracting its precious juice; but Hera struck him with madness, and drove him forth a wanderer through various parts of the earth. In Phrygia the goddess Rhea cured him and taught him her religious rites, and he set out on a progress through Asia teaching the people the cultivation of the vine. The most famous part of his wanderings is his expedition to India, which is said to have lasted several years. Returning in triumph he undertook to introduce his worship into Greece, but was opposed by some princes who dreaded its introduction on account of the disorders and madness it brought with it. (See King Pentheus or Lycurgus.)
As a young man, Dionysus was exceptionally attractive. Once, while disguised as a mortal on a ship, the sailors attempted to kidnap him for their sexual pleasures. Dionysus mercifully turned them into dolphins but saved the captain, Acoetes, who recognized the god and tried to stop his sailors.
Ariadne, the daughter of the Cretan king Minos, was the wife of Dionysus. Although she was mortal when the god married her, she was apotheosized through her union with him. She was worshipped in her own right on Cyprus, where her cult was fused with that of Aphrodite. According to Plutarch, the Cypran festival in her honor included a ritual in which a young man would act the part of a woman giving birth. The characteristic ornament of Ariadne is a crown which comes from the sea.
Once, Dionysus found his old school master and foster father, Silenus, missing. The old man had been drinking, and had wandered away drunk, and was found by some peasants, who carried him to their king, Midas (alternatively, he passed out in Midas' rose garden). Midas recognized him, and treated him hospitably, entertaining him for ten days and nights with politeness, while Silenus entertained Midas and his friends with stories and songs. On the eleventh day he brought Silenus back to Dionysus. Dionysus offered Midas his choice of whatever reward he wanted. Midas asked that whatever he might touch should be changed into gold. Dionysus consented, though was sorry that he had not made a better choice. Midas rejoiced in his new power, which he hastened to put to the test. He touched and turned to gold an oak twig and a stone. Overjoyed, as soon as he got home, he ordered the servants to set a feast on the table. Then he found that his bread, meat, daughter and wine turned to gold.
Upset, Midas strove to divest himself of his power (the Midas Touch); he hated the gift he had coveted. He prayed to Dionysus, begging to be delivered from starvation. Dionysus heard and consented; he told Midas to wash in the river Pactolus. He did so, and when he touched the waters the power passed into them, and the river sands became changed into gold. (Note: this explained why the sands of the river Pactolus were rich in gold)
In the Holy Books of Thelema
The god Dionysos (often under his names Bacchus and Iacchus) appears repeatedly in the Holy Books of Thelema. He is a prominent figure in chapters III and IV (the Jovial and Solar chapters) of Liber Lapidis Lazuli sub figura VII. In Liber Cordis Cincti Serpente, it is written:
- Bacchus grew old, and was Silenus; Pan was ever Pan for ever and ever more throughout the Aeons. (I:63)
And in Liber Tzaddi:
- Only your mouths shall drink of a delicious wine -- the wine of Iacchus; they shall reach ever to the heavenly kiss of the Beautiful God. (v. 32)
And in Liber A'ash:
- Yet I give more than Bacchus and Apollo; my gifts exceed the olive and the horse.
Dionysus as True Christ
From the very earliest age of Christianity, comparisons were made between Jesus and Dionysus. The Orphic cults of Dionysus, with their similar emphases on martyrdom and resurrection, sacramental meals, a savior of divine paternity, and personal redemption, predated and competed with Christianity. As a result, early Christian writings are ambivalent towards Dionysus, sometimes viewing him as pre-figuration of Jesus, and at other times indicating him and his maenads as representing the savagery of paganism.
In the Renaissance, Dionysus served as a divine symbol for magically-oriented humanists like Pico della Mirandola and Cornelius Agrippa. The writings of Thelemic harbinger Francois Rabelais identify Bacchus with Christ. The last of Rabelais' books culminates in events at a great temple of Bacchus, Pan and Silenus.
Friedrich Nietzsche distinguished his own philosophy of Will by an effort to incorporate "the Dionysiac World View." In "An Attempt at Self-Criticism" prefaced to his Birth of Tragedy, he notes
- Thus my instinct turned against morality at the time I wrote this questionable book; as an advocate of life my instinct invented for itself a fundamentally opposed doctrine and counter-evaluation of life, a purely artistic one, an anti-Christian one. What was it to be called? As a philologist and man of words I baptized it, not without a certain liberty--for who can know the true name of the Antichrist?--by the name of a Greek god: I called it Dionysiac. (p. 9)
Aleister Crowley, mutatis mutandis, considered Jesus of Nazareth to be a "pseudo-Christ," and Dionysus to be the true Christ. In a footnote to The Book of Lies, Crowley wrote that
- The legend of 'Christ' is only a corruption and perversion of other legends. Especially of Dionysus: compare the account of Christ before Herod/Pilate in the Gospels, and of Dionysus before Pentheus in 'The Bacchae'. (p. 25)
Crowley went on to compare the legends of Dionysus and Jesus very extensively in The Gospel According to St. Bernard Shaw (later published as Crowley on Christ). While he dismissed Jesus as a fiction, he insisted that Dionysus was a euhemerized god, and that originally he was an actual human adept. In the section of Liber Aleph that discusses the Magi of A.'.A.'., Crowley wrote:
- But Dionysus, by the Word INRI, laid the Foundations of all Science, as we say Science to-day in a particular Sense, that is, of causing external Nature to change in Harmony with our Wills.
Crowley recognized this purported historical Magus as one of The Gnostic Saints.
Other Thelemic Mentions of Dionysus
The Theosophist James Morgan Pryse wrote that Dionysus "is the personification of man's Immortal Self." Likewise, in his "Notes for an Astral Atlas" (an appendix to Magick), Crowley used Dionysus as a figure of the Holy Guardian Angel:
- Bacchus, divine and human! Bacchus, begotten on Semele of Zeus, the adulterous Lord of Thunder ravishing, brutally, his virginal victim! Bacchus, babe hidden from hate in the most holy of holies, the secret of thy sire, in the Channel of the Star-Spate, Whereof one Serpent is thy soul! Bacchus, twy-formed, man-woman, Bacchus, whose innocence tames the Tiger, while yet thy horns drip blood upon thy mouth, and sharpen the merriment of wine to the madness of murder! Bacchus, Thy thyrsus oozes sap; thine ivy clings to it; thy Lion-skin slips from thy sleek shoulders, slips from thy lissome loins; drunk on delight of the godly grape, thou knowest no more the burden of the body and the vexation of the spirit.
- Come, Bacchus, come thou hither, come out of the East; come out of the East, astride the Ass of Priapus! Come with thy revel of dancers and singers! Who followeth thee, forbearing to laugh and to leap? Come, in thy name Dionysus, that maidens be mated to God-head! Come, in thy name Iacchus, with thy mystical fan to winnow the air, each gust of thy Spirit inspiring our Soul, that we bear to thee Sons in Thine Image!
In Magick Without Tears, Crowley identified "the legend of Dionysus" as the point of inception for the "White tradition" among the "Three Schools" of magick. (Letter 7)
The "method of Dionysus" and "invoking Dionysus" are often references to intoxication by wine particularly, or drugs in general, as written in Crowley's Confessions, and in his technical essay "Energized Enthusiasm (http://www.hermetic.com/crowley/libers/lib811.html)."
The name Dionysus has been a popular mantonym among Thelemic magicians. One significant example is Frank Bennett (1868-1930), who used it as Crowley's O.T.O. Viceroy to Australia.
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- Wikipedia. (2004). Dionysus (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dionysus). Retrieved Sept. 23, 2004.