Dionysus - The Divine Witch: Goddesses and Gods

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

The Divine Witch: Goddesses and Gods

Also called Bacchus.

Popularly called the God of Wine, Dionysus is much more than that: the spirit of vegetation, fertility, and generation, Dionysus presides over the mysteries of life and death. He is the spirit of untamed wilderness and irrepressible male procreative energy, intoxication, shamanism, magic, joy, madness, and sexual healing.

Dionysus is the Green Man. His images are adorned with grapevines and ivy.

Among his epithets is “the night prowler.”

He was the last of the twelve deities incorporated into the Olympian pantheon and is thus usually classified as a “Greek god.” However his original homeland is believed to be Thrace: modern Bulgaria and Romania both claim to be the location of his birthplace.

According to archeologist Marija Gimbutas, Dionysus was the most ancient non-Indo-European god of Old Europe and was initially a botanical spirit.

Dionysus was originally served only by women. His female devotees were known as Maenads (in Greece) or Bacchanals (in Rome). Although men served him too, women were the leaders and initiators in the Dionysian rites, and certain rites were celebrated solely by women. Witch-hunters’ later descriptions of naked, wild-haired women dancing in the forest around the figure of a lone virile, horned man could theoretically describe Dionysian rites.

Dionysus was twice born, first as the child of Zeus and his daughter Persephone (in one version, Zeus in the form of a snake either rapes or seduces Persephone). Zeus named him Zagreus and designated him his heir over all his other children. Jealous Titans kidnapped Zagreus, ripped him to pieces and ate him, except for his heart which Athena rescued.

Livid, Zeus reduced the Titans to ashes and formed humans from these ashes, thus all people share in Dionysus’ (Zagreus’) essence. Zeus then brewed a love potion from Zagreus’ heart and fed it to Princess Semele. She conceived Dionysus once again but died before giving birth.

Zeus rescued the unborn child, removing him from his mother’s body and sewing him up in his own thigh to incubate until ripe and ready to be born. Dionysus was then hidden away for his own safety; he grew up in the wilderness of Thrace where he was nursed by goats.

Always loving toward women, Dionysus’ first act as a full-fledged god was to travel to Hades and bring his mother Semele up to Olympus to share in his glory. Dionysus is also the only Olympian god to be happily married. There are conflicting reports as to whether May Eve or Midsummer’s Eve marks Dionysus and Ariadne’s wedding anniversary.

Reaching maturity, Dionysus led a caravan through the Middle East, North Africa, and India, accompanied by a parade of Maenads, satyrs, and panthers. Wherever Dionysus traveled he taught people assorted agricultural and artisanal arts, especially viniculture—the creation of wine. In addition to wine, Dionysus was also associated with opium and mushrooms. (See BOTANICALS: Amanita muscaria, Opium Poppy.)

Dionysus’ festivals featured nocturnal processions with music and masked, costumed revelers. The floats, masks, clowns, dancing, public drunkenness, and erotic theater that characterize modern Carnivals and parades are descendants of Dionysian festivities.

Dionysus manifests in the form of a man, a bull or a goat. In Dionysiac processions, the deity was represented by a huge phallus. Dionysus is wine; by drinking wine one shares the sacrament of Dionysus’ body.

His was a widespread cult: a fourth-century CE report states that women crowned with leaves danced and performed rites of Bacchus in Britain’s Channel Islands. According to the report, they “shouted even louder than the Thracians.”

Dionysus’ symbols include cymbals, frame drums and other percussion instruments, leopards and panthers, garlands, vines and snakes, mules, donkeys, and lions. His primary attribute was the thyrsus—a wand (often a stalk of fennel) topped with a pinecone. (See DICTIONARY: Benandanti.)

Dionysus is a friendly god who is most frequently surrounded by a retinue including devotees, sacred animals, and other deities. Among the deities closely allied with Dionysus are Pan, Hecate, Kybele, Demeter and Persephone, and Apollo. Dionysus eventually became Apollo’s altar-equal at Delphi, taking over the shrine in winter. He was considered Apollo’s opposite, representing hot ecstatic energy rather than Apollo’s cold rationalism.

Dionysus’ cult survived until well into the Christian era. Outlawed and driven underground, surviving pockets of Dionysian tradition were demonized by the Church. Maenads fled to the forest.

See CALENDAR: February Feasts: Dionysia; CREATIVE ARTS: Dance: Maenad Dances, Processionals.