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Dionysus, Cult of

DIONYSUS, CULT OF

Dionysus was a god of the mysterious, uncontrollable powers in nature, and became associated with wine only by a later specialization. The Greeks generally supposed that his worship spread from Thrace southward to Boeotia, where he is said to have been born, and eastward with those Thracians who became the Phrygians. His cult took two forms: (1) In Asia Minor the rites were generally held in spring and were based upon the belief that Dionysus, as a vegetation god, died in winter and was reborn in spring as a child. Rites of this type spread in Asia Minor and are represented at Athens by the Anthesteria.(2) Greek literature and art were more concerned, however, with the orgiastic cult, which spread rapidly like a type of mass hysteria. Of these rites Euripides' Bacchae is the most impressive account.

The orgiastic cult was limited almost exclusively to women, who went, dressed in animal skins and carrying thyrsi or torches, to the woods and mountains, where they danced until exhausted and sometimes devoured wild animals that they had caught and dismembered. Dionysus was regarded as being present at times in snakes, lions, goats, bulls, and other animals. Hence, when his votaries dressed in animal skins and devoured the flesh of animals, they were practicing a form of communion with their god. The Greeks usually approached their gods through a priest as intermediary, but, in the ecstatic cult of Dionysus, the god was believed to be personally present among, and even within, men.

The orgiastic cult was taken up into the official religion of various Greek states, being regulated and tamed in the process, especially under the influence of the Oracle of Delphi. The phallic procession was a typical form of the rites of Dionysus and was intended to promote fertility. At Athens his official worship was orderly, with emphasis on music and drama. It is to the cult of Dionysus that we owe the origins of the drama that produced the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes. There were also private Bacchic mysteries, and Dionysus was introduced into the Orphic mysteries by identification with Zagreus.

See Also: mystery religions, greco-oriental.

Bibliography: m. p. nilsson and h. j. rose, The Oxford Classical Dictionary, ed. m. cary et al. (Oxford 1949) 288289. m. p. nilsson, Geschichte der grieschischen Religion, 2 v. (2d ed. Munich 195561) 1:532568. o. kern, "Dionysus (2)," Paulys Realenzklopädie der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft, ed. g. wissowa et al. 5.1 (1903) 101046. f. a. voigt and e. thraemer, "Dionysos," w. h. roscher, ed. Ausführliches Lixikon der griechischen und römischen Mythologie, 6 v. (Leipzig 18841937); suppl., 3 v. in 2 (1893, 1902, 1921) 1:10291153. euripides, Bacchae, ed. e. r. dodds (2d ed. New York 1960), esp. xixxv.

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