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Dionysos: the controversial Athenian Deity

Today’s article by guest blogger Alexis Prescott is all about one of the most interesting of the Greek gods: Dionysos. There is no doubt that he was a popular and well-loved deity from the Greek pantheon. Not least due to the Athenian festival held in his honour – the City Dionysia – in which the god was celebrated for being a bringer of festivities and pleasure through a series of pomp and circumstance culminating in a variety of theatrical performances.

He was also the subject matter of various Greek works of pottery, including this famous kylix by the pottery painter Exekias that displays the moment in his mythology when he transformed the pirates he had hired into dolphins for daring to attempt to kidnap him and sell him into slavery.

Exekias, c. 535 BC

However, the deity was also one of marked controversy. Indeed, as the 5th BC flourished, and Athens raised its status within the cultural sphere, playwrights and philosophers took it upon themselves to question the world around them. Karen Armstrong refers to this century as the “Great Transformation” (The Great Transformation: Atlantic Books: 2007) as humans explored other modes of thinking and analysing and especially questioned the validity of the divine. Dionysos is targeted in two significant plays against this cultural backdrop: one play by Euripides and the other by Aristophanes, and his divinity is scrutinised and re-evaluated as the 5th century BC drew to a close. This had a profound impact on how the deity was viewed in later centuries and empires.

Who was Dionysos?

Dionysos has always been a god of juxtaposition. He was the twice born son of Zeus and Semele and his birth alone sets him apart from others in the pantheon. He was snatched prematurely from the womb of his dying mother and carried to term by his father when he was born from the thigh of Zeus. He was perceived as both man and animal, male and effeminate, young and old, he was thus more versatile and elusive of all the Greek gods.

Symbol of fun

Dionysos was first and foremost the god of wine and intoxication, a symbol of festivity and fun. The City Dionysia festival in Athens became synonymous with Dionysos and his festive nature. This was a theatre festival where tragedies and comedies were performed and provided much needed entertainment for the people. Such festivities honouring the god included the ‘pompe’, a grand procession where a wooden statue of the god was paraded through the streets. The procession itself had a carnival atmosphere with general merriment, ending with the ‘dithyramb’ which was a choral song and dance written and held in the god’s honour. Such merriment would have provided much needed relief to the working Athenians and widespread joy during the period of the Peloponnesian War. Thus, Dionysos is to be seen as a god of jollity, relief and relaxation. This imagery of revelry and the Dionysiac connection is clearly demonstrated in the Pronomos Painter’s volute-Karter, c. 5th century, which displays the backstage of a theatre production with all its excitement and foray. Dionysos can be seen reclining with Ariadne, enjoying the fun and frivolity that is as a result of his divine status.

Pronomos Painter Volute-Krater, c. 5th Century

The Nature of his cult and the challenge to his divinity in the 5th century BC

Dionysos’ myths and cults are often violent and bizarre, a challenge to the established social order. The genres of tragedy and comedy in the 5th century increasingly incorporated the transgressive aspects of Dionysos, encouraging the audience to question his status as a god. Comedy re-enacted his frivolous wine drinking side of his character often mocking his power, whilst tragedy dramatised the negative, destructive traits of the God and his myths. In fact, Aristotle, connected the origins of tragedy and comedy with these respective sides of Dionysos. What is more, Dionysos’ power and violence are raised as significant and troubling issues in the 5th century.

In the stark tragedy, Euripides’ Bacchae, Dionysos and his followers, the Maenads, tear apart live animals with their bare hands and the women who form the basis of his cult are often seen as wild and frenzied and against their social norm as the virtuous ‘wife’. Dionysos is depicted as luring them from their domestic sphere to gather on the fringes of society to conduct frenzied rituals. The chorus of Maenads sing of the joy they have found in being set free in the mountains, yet their descriptions are troublesome:

O, what delight is it in the mountains!

There the celebrant wrapped in sacred fawnskin….

Hunts for blood, and rapturously

Eats raw flesh of the slaughtered goat..

Bacchae, 136 ff.

They also talk of wearing ‘wreaths of writhing snakes’ and nursing them before twining them round their hair (Bacchae, 80 ff.). Dionysos himself is portrayed gratuitously, with long effeminate hair, speaking proudly of his exploits in and around the Persian area. He seeks a deadly revenge believing his mother to be wronged by the people of Thebes and Pentheus to be impious, the play ends with sobering violence when he encourages Agave, the mother of Pentheus, along with her sisters, to tear Pentheus limb from limb, leaving Agave clutching the decapitated head of her own son. Dionysos is deadly in this play, his sense of justice is disturbed, and the destruction of the family is shocking, with even Cadmus, the founder of the house, and dear supporter of the god, transformed into a serpent and forced to leave the very homeland he had created. The women, too, are deliberately portrayed as uncivilised, wild, and terrifying, and the god himself seen as a clear enemy to anything that is typically ‘Greek’, being a fond lover of the east, namely the land of Persia, the common enemy, and also effeminate in appearance.

What is Euripides message here? I second David Stuttard’s view that the power of Dionysos in this play with his ability to transform into animals at will, invites the audience to see the world through the god and his followers and in doing so, become complicit in acts of terrifying brutality – a warning against fervent religious beliefs. In doing so, this enables the Athenians to question the very nature of the divine around them, a power that can not only destroy a king, but can also bring down a nation (Looking at Bacchae: London Bloomsbury Academic, 2016). There are obviously many scholars that disagree with this view, with a few, such as Gilbert Murray, believing that Euripides underwent a religious conversion when writing the play and uses the brutality within it as a warning to non-believers (Euripides: The Trojan Women and other plays: Liverpool University Press, 2005). But this does not give credit to the philosophical nature of tragedy and the period of transformative thinking that tragedians were writing in.

Pentheus being torn by Maenads. Roman fresco from the northern wall of the triclinium in the Casa dei Vettii, Pompeii.

Likewise in Aristophanes’ comedy “Frogs”, whilst Dionysos’ destructive nature is avoided, he is mocked and ridiculed as an all-powerful god: he is not only subjected to profanities by his slave Xanthius but is forced to row his own boat across the River Styx despite his divine status, and soils himself out of fear when he reaches the entrance of the underworld. Further, his purpose of entering the land of the dead was to retrieve Euripides, a mission that proves futile as it is decided that Aeschylus be the best option in the end, so showing a god that can make the wrong choices for the sake of the polis. Whilst this may be part of what we would expect from the satire of old comedy, Aristophanes’ portrayal of him is not only sacrilegious but makes the god an utter embarrassment for the city of Athens where he is supposed to be revered alongside Athena. Dionysos’ divinity here proves to be null and void and once again, allows the audience to question the nature and reason for his worship. This is made even more poignant given that Aristophanes is writing during a period of war and upheaval where no such god has come to the city’s aid. Indeed, as his parabasis attests, Athens is at the point of no return, having been forced to mint their own coinage in order to survive. Paul Cartledge explains further that Aristophanes’ comedy should be ‘taken seriously……(as it employs) the same rhetorical techniques practised in the assembly or law courts…in order to persuade his audience’ of important societal concerns – here the very nature of their divine status (Aristophanes and his Theatre of the Absurd: Bristol Classical Press, 2008).

A philosophical outlook from Athens and beyond

So why is Dionysos’ power and sense of morality challenged as a divine being during the 5th century? Fundamentally as a transformative era, the rise of philosophy from the Pre-Socrats to Socrates allowed people to question the role of the pantheon within culture.

Dionysos – and particularly his followers the Maenads – were subsequently used to stress the downsides of an irrational society driven by frenzied emotions. Vergil’s Aeneid for instance, as a piece of Augustan propaganda stressing the strong and pious attributes of the Romans, establishes stoicism as a respected characteristic in contrast to “furor”, rage and general frenzied behaviour. It is for this reason that Amata, wife of Latinus and mother of Lavinia, the future wife of Aeneas, is compared to an enraged Bacchic maenad when she stands in opposition to Aeneas settling in Italy. To stress her impious actions in refusing “Father Aeneas” a well-deserved place within their family and culture, Vergil has her ‘driven out of her mind….raged in a wild frenzy through the length and breadth of the city like a spinning top flying under the plaited whip when boys are engrossed in their play…not content with this, she flew into the forests…..possessed by Bacchus, and rose to greater impieties and greater madness by hiding her daughter in the leafy woods…..’ (Aened 7.378 ff).

Thus philosophically, the violence of Dionysos and his irrational followers help to stress the need for an ordered, and well-established stoic city where people recognise and uphold their duties. The tondo below from the 5th Century BC perfectly encapsulates the maenad at work with her leopard skin, snakes in her hair symbolising her wildness and general frenzy, it is no wonder why a society like Rome would see this as a fearful metaphor for destruction.

Maenad carrying a thyrsus and a leopard with a snake rolled up over her head. Tondo of an ancient Greek Attic white-ground kylix 490–480 BC from Vulci. Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich, Germany

Conversely, it has been argued that Dionysos represented the equilibrium in society of rationality and irrationality, frivolity and seriousness, the prosaic and the imaginative. In other words, the juxtaposed elements that make a society complete. But to me the portrayal of Dionsysos in the two aforementioned plays, leaves little respect for this god and his followers, and rather, he serves as reminder of extreme lawlessness and the destruction it can cause, and this, I think, was the playwrights’ fundamental message to audiences at large and encouraged later writers, such as the Roman poets to adopt a more disturbing image of him.

Alexis Prescott has been a Classics teacher for 15 years now, having taught in several secondary schools and been head of Classics. She studied a bachelors and masters in Ancient history at King’s College London, and a PGCE in Classics also at King’s. She has always been fascinated with ancient history since a young child so it has followed into her career! You can follow her on Instagram account @hecatearwen.

Bibliography and Further Reading:

Cartledge, P. ‘Deep Plays: Theatre as process in Greek Civic Life’, in The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy, 3-35, ed. P.E. Easterling (2007: CUP)

Cartledge, P. Aristophanes and His Theatre of the Absurd (2008: Bristol Classical Press)

Garvie, A. The Plays of Sophocles (2016:London Bloomsbury Academic)

Hall, E. ‘The Sociology of Athenian Tragedy’, in The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy, 93-126, ed. P.E. Easterling (2007: CUP)

Mills, S. Euripides: Bacchae (2006: London Bloomsbury Academic)

Moorwood, J. The Plays of Euripides (2016: London Bloomsbury Academic)

Murray, G. Euripides: The Trojan Women and Other Plays (2006:Liverpool University Press)

Stuttard, D. Looking at Bacchae (2016: London Bloomsbury Academic)



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