Skip to main content

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.

[h. s. long]

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Dionysus, Cult of." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . 14 Aug. 2018 <>.

"Dionysus, Cult of." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . (August 14, 2018).

"Dionysus, Cult of." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Retrieved August 14, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.