Dionysus was the most widely worshipped and popular god in ancient
Greece. It’s not difficult to see why; he was their god of wine, merriment,
ritual dance, warm moisture, and later, civilization. He was often depicted as
a handsome young man, dressed in fawnskin, and carrying a goblet and an ivy-
Some myths hold that Dionysus was the son of Zeus–the king of the god–
and Persephone–queen of the underworld–but most myths state that he is the son
of Zeus and a mortal woman named Semel. This woman Semele was not any mortal,
though. She was a princess, and a beautiful one at that. Zeus was notorious
for being rather prolific, and when his wife, the goddess Hera heard that he had
gone off and mated with a mortal, she became quite upset. Hera, in an attempt
to exact her revenge, appeared to Semele and told her to ask Zeus to appear to
her in his divine form. When Zeus obliged, Semele was immediately consumed in
flames, for no mortal can look upon a god in his natural state. However, Zeus
saved the unborn Dionysus by sewing him up in his thigh, thus incubating him.
What happened next is different in every story. Some myths say he lived
with a king and queen loyal to Zeus until Hera discovered him, and, in a jealous
rage, warped their brains. In this version of the story, Dionysus was turned
into a goat by his father in an attempt to hide him from Hera; from then on he
had small horns on his head.
After he was safe, he went to live with the nymphs, who taught him to
make wine. Hera eventually found him again, and this time she also warped his
brain. The nymphs rejected him, and he went to live with the satyrs, who were
men with goat legs and horns, and their leader Silenus. Dionysus traveled with
the satyrs, who disgusted everyone they encountered with their rude, drunken
Silenus is usually portrayed as a fat drunken man who rides on an ass.
He was once captured by King Midas. When Dionysus intervened, Midas freed
Silenus in exchange for the power to turn all he touched into gold. Dionysus
and his band eventually encountered the maenads. The maenads were a group of
wild, warlike creatures. They were horribly vicious, and unfortunately, they
were also incredibly stupid. They started quite a few unsuccessful wars against
kingdoms in Africa.
When Zeus finally found Dionysus again, he returned his mind to normal.
However, Dionysus refused to give up his unruly traveling companions. The people
of Achaea loved Dionysus, but hated his satyr and maenad friends. One time,
when Dionysus was visiting a port city, he was captured by a group of pirates
who weren’t aware of his divine powers. He destroyed the pirates and sailed
their ship to the Island of Naxos. It was there that he met his bride and only
love Ariadne. Dionysus then made a journey into the depths of Hades to bring
back his mother Semele. He took her to Mt. Olympus, and changed her name to
Thyone. This fooled Hera, and Semele managed to remain safe. It was at this
time that Dionysus was thought to have fully returned to his godly state.
The Greeks worshipped Dionysus with two festivals known as Dionysia.
The lesser Dionysia was held in December, and the greater was held in March.
These Dionysia were usually marked by drunken orgies. The highlight of the
festivities was the sparagmos. During this part of the ceremony, a live goat
would be disemboweled, and the partygoers would feast upon its raw flesh.