Dionysos' Mysteries

As the god of wine, Dionysos (or Dionysus, also known as Bacchos) was especially associated with ecstatic and wild power. While this god is most often depicted as a curly-haired young adult with soft, feminine (according to ancient gender expectations) features, he was also associated with and depicted as a bull, the symbol of male fertility. Perhaps even more interesting is the depiction of Dionysos as a vulnerable baby. According to some versions of the god’s story, an elderly figure, named Silenos (a chief among the satyrs or spirits of the wild), protected and raised the infant Dionysos (as in a statue in the Louvre museum of Paris).

As to the mysteries and rituals themselves, there were many symbols associated with these practices, among them the vine and the holy wand or reed (thyrsos). Most important to the secretive ritual, however, was the revelation of the central holy object: a replica of a phallus. The phallus, as a symbol of fertility and power, would be placed within a special basket and covered with a sheet. At the critical point in the initiation of a new member, the phallus would be revealed to the initiate-to-be, often by lamp-light. This is one among the many Dionysiac scenes depicted in the famous fresco paintings in the so-called Villa of the Mysteries (or Villa Item) at Pompeii, which seem to depict the stages of initiation into and experience of the mysteries. Other archeological evidence for rituals among such groups devoted to Dionysos comes from the meeting-place of the (all-male) Iobacchoi at Athens (c. 176 CE). Found within this building was a column with the inscribed rules of the Bacchic-association (one of the lengthiest surviving inscriptions concerning associations), which happens to mention some of their social and religious activities. Among their practices were sacred dramas depicting the stories of their patron deity. In this case, the members of the group were each assigned a specific part to play and were expected to “say and act [their] allotted part with all good order and quietness” under the direction of the priest.

Both men and women participated in the rites of Dionysos. Perhaps most famous is Euripides’ play, the Bacchae (fourth century BCE). The story tells of how Dionysos drove the women of Thebes mad (“mad-women” = maenads) because the king of Thebes failed to fittingly honour the deity with a temple and rites. In the process of the story, the king himself dons women’s clothing in imitation of the other maenads and is ultimately ripped apart limb from limb by the maenads, led by his mother. Mythology also associates the maenads with other unconventional behaviour, including eating the raw flesh (omophagia) of their victims, but it is unlikely that this was taken literally (or replicated) among actual initiates. Dionysos was powerful! And it was important to give him his due. . . or else!

By the Roman period, associations devoted to the mysteries of Dionysos often included both men and women, and many such groups (often called “initiates” = mystai) existed in the cities of Roman Asia Minor, as I explore in my book. At Pergamon, for instance, there was an association that called itself the “dancing cowherds” and the banqueting hall (Hall of Benches) of this group has been excavated. Here it is worth citing one inscription from the city of Magnesia (on the Maeander river), which was set up by an initiate in the Roman era and claims to preserve an ancient oracle from Apollo at Delphi in Greece (IMagnMai 215; second century CE). It places the origins of Dionysiac associations at the very inception of the city and mentions the importance of maenads in the mysteries:

(Side A) To good fortune! During the presidency of Akrodemos, son of Dioteimos, the Magnesian people consulted the god concerning a sign which happened. For an image of Dionysos was visible in a tree that had been struck by lightening and blown by a heavy wind. What does this mean? Why does it continue? In order to find this out, oracular messengers named Hermonax, son of Epikratos, and Aristarchos, son of Diodoros, were sent to (the oracle of Apollo at) Delphi.

The god (Apollo) answered:

Magnesians, who obtained the holy city on the Maeander river and defend our possessions: you came to hear from my mouth what the appearance of Bacchos, seen lying by a bush, means. He was made manifest while still a youth, when the clear-aired city was founded but temples were not yet built for Dionysos.

Now do the following, oh extremely strong people. Dedicate temples which delight in the wand of the god (thyrsos) and appoint a perfect and sacred priest. Come onto Thebes’ holy ground, so that you may receive maenads who are descendants of Ino, Kadmos’ daughter. They will give to you good rites and customs and will consecrate Bacchic associations (thiasoi) in the city.

According to the oracle and by means of the oracular messengers, three maenads named Kosko, Baubo, and Thettale were sent from Thebes. Kosko gathered together the association of Platanistenai, Baubo the association before the city, and Thettale the association of Kataibatai. They died and were buried by the Magnesians. Kosko lies in Koskobounos district, Baubo in Tabarnis district, and Thettale near the theatre.

(Side B) Apollonios Mokolles, ancient initiate, dedicated this ancient oracle to the god Dionysos, inscribing it upon a plaque together with the altar.


Read more about Dionysiac mysteries in the following articles: