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Mythic Profile: Dionysus, God of Revelry

Updated: Jun 20, 2023

DISCOVER


Dionysus is one of Greece's most well-loved gods. After all, he is the god of wine, fertility, fruit, vegetation, ecstasy, insanity and theatre! Let's find out more about Greece's wildest god.

Dionysus riding a leopard. Macedonian mosaic from Pella, Greece (4th century BCE). Image source: Creative Commons.


How to spot Dionysus


Dionysus did many unique things, which make him unmistakable from any other god. He conquered India, he rode leopards, and he was born out of Zeus' leg! But there are other ways that you can pick Dionysus out in a crowd...


First, he usually carries a thyrsus. This is a staff made of a giant fennel stalk, topped by a pinecone. He is also often surrounded by ivy leaves and a consort of satyrs and maenads.


LEFT: Dionysus with a thyrsus and a wreath of ivy leaves. RIGHT: A maenad holding a thyrsus and wearing a live snake as a crown. Image source: Creative Commons.


Satyrs were men with the ears and tail of a horse, who followed Dionysus around and caused nothing but trouble. Maenads were female worshippers of Dionysus, who lived in the mountains, wore snakes around their heads as crowns, and were able to tear animals apart with their bare hands in what was called a sparagmos!


Dionysus proves his power


Because Dionysus was the son of a mortal woman (named Semele), he had to travel the earth and prove his divinity before being accepted among the Olympian gods.

Bronze Bacchus by Ponte Garibaldi. Image source: Creative Commons.

The story of Dionysus’ greatest show of power begins with him sitting on the beach. He had taken on the shape of a mortal man and was enjoying the sun and the smell of the sea spray when a band of pirates spotted him from their ship, and believed that he was a prince.


Imagine, they said, how much money we could demand if we kidnapped such a stately prince! When such an opportunity presents itself, it is our duty to seize it!


So the pirates grabbed the god and took him onto their ship. Dionysus, meanwhile, softly smiled and did not resist.


The pirates attempted to strap Dionysus to the ship, but no rope would hold him. They grew frustrated and stared at the god, scratching their heads.


Dionysus, however, said nothing but only smiled back. Then his smile grew wider, and wider, and wider still, until all of a sudden his mouth transformed into a lion's mouth, and he leapt forward with a terrible roar!


The pirates jumped back — their kidnapped prince had just transformed into a lion before their very eyes! Some ran as the lion approached them, but the others did not wait. All the ship’s crew jumped overboard into the sea to save themselves. Once they were in the water, the lion gave a flick of his tail, and the pirates were

Kylix (cup) showing Dionysus on the pirates' ship, with dolphins swimming transformed into dolphins.

around. Image Source: Creative Commons.


Then, the sun still shining, Dionysus transformed from a lion back into a man and continued to rest, chuckling to himself as he heard the distant calls of dolphins.

 

CREATE

Figs and grapes: two foods closely associated with Dionysus. Image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/arx0nt/30283809926


Did you know that Dionysus was also a harvest god? The ancient Greeks associated him with growth, abundance, and the finest foods. So this month, we’re going to use our creativity to combine all of Dionysus’ favourite foods into one meal! With the help of a parent or guardian, why not get creative this weekend and honour Dionysus by making something delicious from the list of ingredients below?


Dionysus' favourite foods:

  • Fig: Figs were one of the most popular fruits in ancient Greece, and a common symbol of Dionysus. They were often eaten during his festival. The Spartans even called Dionysus Sykites, “the fig man.”

  • Grapes: As the god of wine, Dionysus also introduced grapes to Greece! In one version of the story of Dionysus’ encounter with the pirates (told above), grape vines shoot out of the ship's deck and climb up the mast!

  • Beef: Dionysus was sometimes called Taurophagos (“bull-eater") by the ancient Greeks. (Vegetarians can of course skip this ingredient!)

  • Fennel: Dionysus’ thyrsus staff was made from a stalk of giant fennel.

  • Any leafy herb: Dionysus is often depicted surrounded by ivy leaves, and was called Thyllophoros, or “leaf-bearing.” Humans can’t eat most kinds of ivy, but you can replace it in your recipe with bay leaf, basil, rosemary, thyme, sage — any leafy herb you like!

Try to include as many of these ingredients in one recipe as you can!


Example recipe:


When I proposed this activity to my crew of Argonauts, we came up with meatballs and sultana couscous!

Once ready, fluff the couscous with a fork, and add olive oil and lemon juice as a light dressing. Finally, mix in sultanas (for grapes) and diced dried figs.


Now combine the meatballs and couscous, dig in, and feel the power of Dionysus flowing through you. Tie a wreath around your head, pull a thyrsus out of the earth, and shout “Iacche! Iacche!” the way the ancient Greeks did!


But don’t feel limited by our suggestion — you might want to make a beef and fennel pie; eat cheese with fig jam; combine fennel, fig, sultanas, chickpeas and rice; or just eat a bunch of grapes (called a botrys in ancient Greek!)


Let us know how you go by sending a photo and a description of your dish to education@hellenic.org.au — we’d love to hear about it.


Until next time, λεῖος πλόος!

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