A friend has been writing an assignment on Dionysus. The Hellenistic God of booze and questionable life choices. I found her enthusiasm for the subject infectious and it has led to a lot of discussion, debate and reading. I also mentioned in my post on Camulos that in particular Gods of war often come in multiples to represent the varying aspects of war as opposed to the concept. This led to a few emails from readers asking me to explore this a bit further.
Spirituality and belief in the divine in some form appears to have been universal amongst developing cultures. The world into which early man appeared was full of wonders, and hazards. As technology and understanding developed less and less natural phenomena were attributed to the Gods. Many of the earliest religions were polytheistic and involved a large host of less shiny, not fully divine supernatural beings. The God that made it rain was not in any way related to the demon that caused erectile dysfunction. Within this specialisation of labour, we often find specific chthonic deities emerging. Gods that rule the dead, whose domain is pretty much everything after life. Often these are depicted with fearful reverence, their names hidden in metaphor and epithet.
If we accept that belief structures and Gods are an indicator of the social state of their respective cultures, it makes sense that there is often a fear around chthonic Gods. As sentient, living beings we are hard wired to want to continue living, talking about a God of the dead may attract his attention. However, these Gods are often at, or near the top of their respective pantheons. Great and terrible kings and eventually all men become their subjects.
A good example of this is Poseidon who, prior to the emergence of Hades was both the God of the underworld and the aegis barer (top God). In many of the earliest surviving texts he is simply referred to as “the earth shaker”. This Poseidon and his Pantheon are reflections of the beliefs and priorities of the pre-Hellenistic Mycenean period. We have an incomplete understanding of Mycenean culture and a large part of what we know is supposition drawn from later works. However, there is consistency in reporting them as a highly militaristic culture, whose priorities were largely martial and highly proficient seafarers. Supporting this is the heavy emphasis on Ares, a God of War and Poseidon a God of the Dead and the Sea.
Now the Mycenean script, Linear B has been deciphered we have found three Gods associated with war. The first two may not be that surprising. Ares, who for all intents and purposes was an avatar of the visceral savagery of war, primal and masculine. Athena, who represented strategy and tactical prowess, the clean and noble aspects of war. The third surprised me, Aphrodite, a Goddess primarily associated with physical love. However, the more you contemplate this the more sense it makes. Battle lust is not a new concept and nor are fatal love rivalries. The largest recorded campaign in the ancient world, the Trojan War was almost single handedly started by the fickle Aphrodite and the horny Paris. Incidents of sexual assault, even today after combat are exceptionally high. Blood lust cools into sexual lust very easily. Added to this consent wasn’t exactly a thing in classical Greece. All of which ties combat to Aphrodite. I have also heard a well-reasoned argument that Aphrodite was imported from Mesopotamia, where she was worshipped as Astarte who was very definitely a War Goddess.
There is a “Dark Age” between Mycenean Greece and Classical Greece where few records of any description survive. We can infer a great deal of activity during this period however as when records resume the Hellenistic pantheon had undergone a total restructuring. This clearly involved some TUPE and Redundancy process as some Gods simply disappear, Zeus is the new top man and Poseidon’s role in the underworld was handed to the newly emerging Hades. Aphrodite strolled out of this period with considerably more chill. Her war-like characteristics appear to have gone, she can absolutely be described as hot-headed and ditsy though.
So, what about our party boy Dionysus? I will admit a lot of what I know is new information from discussions with my friend and subsequent reading. It appears Dionysus is much older than I initially believed and shares a lot of his backstory and traits with Zagreus, there are also Orphic elements to his story in that he went to the underworld and returned alive and significant chthonic connotations in what we know of his worship. Given similarities in their origin story in the depiction of death and rebirth, and what we believe to be true of the rites and rituals of their cults it is likely that both Zagreus and Dionysus were rebranding’s of Osiris.
He is also celebrated as a God of Madness due to the obvious deleterious effect of wine and the fact that Hera doped him, and he had an epically bad acid trip. Literally there is an epic about it. Which only resolved when Rheia cured him, which I can only presume involved a cold shower and a gallon of hot coffee.
Side Note: Rheia is absolutely going to get her own post. If I were to apply a clinical diagnosis to Hera using every story and depiction of her it would be that she is absolutely fucking mental, scary bat shit crazy. There are very few Gods or Goddesses that would fuck with her Rheia does so on a number of occasions without even blinking.
The big difference with Dionysus is that he seemed to morph after the dark ages so we can plot his development with some reliability. The best explanation I can find for why this happened is that he started shedding attributes at the very end of the dark ages and the new and old Dionysus took a bit of time to synchronise across the Mediterranean.
Though a tenuous link we may still see a connection from the new, playboy Dionysus to the old God of the Dead in the pouring of funerary libations, the gift Dionysus gave the world being used as an offering to secure a souls safe passage to the underworld.
The transition of these Gods tells us a lot about the change in the cultures of the Mediterranean at the time. As we enter the classical period war becomes less dominant and the focus shifts to Art, Fertility and Trade. However, they never lose their old, darker edges. Something always remains brooding and sinister behind the surface of the Goddess of Erotic Love and the God of Wine and Frenzy. I would be interested in people’s thoughts and comparisons to other world belief systems.