Dionysian Mysteries

The Dionysian Mysteries were a ritual of ancient Greece and Rome which sometimes used intoxicants and other trance-inducing techniques (like dance and music) to remove inhibitions and social constraints, liberating the individual to return to a natural state. It also provided some liberation for those marginalized by Greek society: women, slaves, outlaws, and non-citizens. In their final phase the Mysteries shifted their emphasis from a chthonic, underworld orientation to a transcendental, mystical one, with Dionysus changing his nature accordingly. By its nature as a mystery religion reserved for the initiated, many aspects of the Dionysian cult remain unknown and were lost with the decline of Greco-Roman polytheism; modern knowledge is derived from descriptions, imagery and cross-cultural studies.


The Dionysian Mysteries of mainland Greece and the Roman Empire are thought to have evolved from a more primitive initiatory cult of unknown origin (perhaps Thracian or Phrygian) which had spread throughout the Mediterranean region by the start of the Classical Greek period. Its spread was associated with the dissemination of wine, a sacrament or entheogen with which it appears always to have been closely associated (though mead may have been the original sacrament). Beginning as a simple rite, it evolved quickly within Greek culture into a popular mystery religion, which absorbed a variety of similar cults (and their gods) in a typically Greek synthesis across its territories; one late form was the Orphic Mysteries. However, all stages of this developmental spectrum appear to have continued in parallel throughout the eastern Mediterranean until late in Greek history and forcible Christianization.

Early Dionysus cult

The ecstatic cult of Dionysus was originally thought to be a late arrival in Greece from Thrace or Asia Minor, due to its popularity in both locations and Dionysus' non-integration into the Olympian Pantheon. After the deity's name was discovered on Mycenean Linear B tablets, however, this theory was abandoned and the cult is considered indigenous, predating Greek civilization. The absence of an early Olympian Dionysus is today explained by patterns of social exclusion and the cult's marginality, rather than chronology. Whether the cult originated on Minoan Crete (as an aspect of an ancient Zagreus) or Africa – or in Thrace or Asia, as a proto-Sabazius – is unanswerable, due to lack of evidence. Some scholars believe it was an adopted cult not native to any of these places and may have been an eclectic cult in its earliest history, although it almost certainly obtained many familiar features from Minoan culture.[1]

Role of wine

The original rite of Dionysus (as introduced into Greece) is associated with a wine cult (not unlike the entheogenic cults of ancient Central America), concerned with the grapevine's cultivation and an understanding of its life cycle (believed to have embodied the living god) and the fermentation of wine from its dismembered body (associated with the god's essence in the underworld). Most importantly, however, the intoxicating and disinhibiting effects of wine were regarded as due to possession by the god's spirit (and, later, as causing this possession). Wine was also poured on the earth and its growing vine, completing the cycle. The cult was not solely concerned with the vine itself, but also with the other components of wine. Wine includes other ingredients (herbal, floral and resinous) adding to its quality, flavour and medicinal properties. Scholars have suggested that, given the low alcoholic content of early wine, its effects may have been due to an additional entheogenic ingredient in its sacramental form. Honey and beeswax were often added to wine, introducing an even older drink (mead). Károly Kerényi postulated that this wine lore superseded (and partly absorbed) earlier Neolithic mead lore involving bee swarms associated by the Greeks with Dionysus.[2] Mead and beer (with its cereal base) were incorporated into the domain of Dionysus, perhaps through his identification with the Thracian corn deity Sabazius.

Other plants believed to be viniculturally significant were also included in wine lore such as ivy (thought to counteract drunkenness—thus the opposite of the grapevine—and seen as blooming in winter instead of summer); the fig (a purgative of toxins) and the pine (a wine preservative). The bull (from whose horn wine was drunk) and goat (whose flesh provided wineskins, and whose browsing pruned the vines) were also part of the cult, eventually seen as manifestations of Dionysus. Some of these associations had been linked with fertility deities (like Dionysus) and became part of his new role. An understanding of vinicultural lore and its symbolism is key to understanding the cult which emerged from it, assuming a significance other than winemaking that would encompass life, death and rebirth and providing insight into human psychology.

Assuming the Dionysus cult arrived in Greece with the importation of wine, it probably first emerged about 6000 BC in one of two places—the Zagros Mountains and borderlands of Mesopotamia and Persia (with a rich wine culture via Asia Minor), or from wild vines on the mountain slopes of Libya and other regions in North Africa. The latter provided wine to ancient Egypt wine from about 2500 BC, and was home to ecstatic rites involving animal possession—notably the goat and panther men of the Aissaoua Sufi cult of Morocco (although this cult may have been influenced by the Dionysian one). In any case Minoan Crete was the next link in the chain, importing wine from the Egyptians, Thracians and Phoenicians and exporting it to its colonies (such as Greece). The Mysteries probably took shape in Minoan Crete from about 3000 to 1000 BC, since the name "Dionysus" exists nowhere other than Crete and Greece.


The rites were based on a seasonal death-rebirth theme, common among agricultural cults such as the Eleusinian Mysteries. The Osirian Mysteries paralleled the Dionysian, according to contemporary Greek and Egyptian observers. Spirit possession involved liberation from civilization's rules and constraints. It celebrated that which was outside civilized society and a return to primordial nature—which would later assume mystical overtones. It also involved escape from the socialized personality and ego into an ecstatic, deified state or the primal herd (sometimes both). In this sense Dionysus was the beast-god within, or the unconscious mind of modern psychology.[3] Such activity has been interpreted as fertilizing, invigorating, cathartic, liberating and transformative, and so appealed to those on the margins of society: women, slaves, outlaws and "foreigners" (non-citizens, in Greek democracy). All were equal in a cult that inverted their roles, similar to the Roman Saturnalia. Although the Greek Dionysian rites were associated with women, the cult officers' titles were of both genders—belying the claim that the cult was solely for women.

The trance induction central to the cult involved not only chemognosis,[4] but an "invocation of spirit" with the bullroarer and communal dancing to drum and pipe. The trances are described in familiar anthropological terms, with characteristic movements (such as the backward head flick found in all trance-inducing cults) found today in Afro-American Vodou and its counterparts. As in Vodou rites, certain rhythms were associated with the trance. Rhythms are also found preserved in Greek prose referring to the Dionysian rites (such as Euripides' The Bacchae). This collection of classical quotes describes rites in the Greek countryside in the mountains, to which processions were made on feast days:

Following the torches as they dipped and swayed in the darkness, they climbed mountain paths with head thrown back and eyes glazed, dancing to the beat of the drum which stirred their blood' [or 'staggered drunkenly with what was known as the Dionysus gait']. 'In this state of ekstasis or enthusiasmos, they abandoned themselves, dancing wildly and shouting 'Euoi!' [the god's name] and at that moment of intense rapture became identified with the god himself. They became filled with his spirit and acquired divine powers.[5]

This practice is demonstrated in Greek culture by the Bacchanals of the Maenads, Thyiades and Bacchoi; many Greek rulers considered the cult a threat to civilized society and wished to control it (if not suppress it altogether). The latter failed; the former would succeed in the foundation of a domesticated Dionysianism as a state religion in Athens. This was but one form of Dionysianism—a cult which assumed different forms in different localities (often absorbing indigenous divinities and their rites, as did Dionysus himself). The Greek Bacchoi claimed that, like wine, Dionysus had a different flavour in different regions; reflecting their mythical and cultural soil, he appeared under different names and appearances in different regions.

Dionysian paraphernalia

  • Kantharos, drinking cup with large handles, originally the rhyton (drinking horn from a bull), later a kylix, or wine goblet
  • Thyrsos, long wand with pine cone on top, carried by initiates and those possessed by the god
  • Stave, once cast into ground to mark ritual space
  • Krater, mixing bowl
  • Flagellum, a scourge
  • Minoan double axe, once used for sacrificial rites, later replaced by the Greek kopis (curved dagger)
  • Retis, hunter's net
  • Laurel crown and cloak, purple robe, or leopard or fawnskin nebix
  • Hunting boots
  • Persona masks
  • Bullroarer
  • Salpinx, long, straight trumpet
  • Pan flute
  • Tympanon, a frame drum
  • Liknon, sacred basket with fig

Traditional offerings to Dionysus

Musk, civet, frankincense, storax, ivy, grapes, pine, fig, wine, honey, apples, Indian hemp, orchis root, thistle, all wild and domestic trees, black diamonds.

Animals sacred to Dionysus

The bull and goat and their "enemies", the panther (or any big cat – after the Greeks colonized part of India, Shiva's tiger sometimes replaced the traditional panther or leopard) and the serpent (probably derived from Sabazius, but also found in North African cults); in addition, the fawn/deer, the fox, the dolphin, the lion, the bat and the bee.

Invocation of Dionysus (from Orphic hymns)

"I call upon loud-roaring and revelling Dionysus,
primeval, double-natured, thrice-born, Bacchic lord,
wild, ineffable, secretive, two-horned and two-shaped.
Ivy-covered, bull-faced, warlike, howling, pure,
You take raw flesh, you have feasts, wrapt in foliage, decked with grape clusters.
Resourceful Eubouleus, immortal god sired by Zeus
When he mated with Persephone in unspeakable union.
Hearken to my voice, O blessed one,
and with your fair-girdled nymphs breathe on me in a spirit of perfect agape".
"In intoxication, physical or spiritual, the initiate recovers an intensity of feeling which prudence had destroyed; he finds the world full of delight and beauty, and his imagination is suddenly :liberated from the prison of everyday preoccupations. The Bacchic ritual produced what was called 'enthusiasm', which means etymologically having the god enter the worshipper, who believed :that he became one with the god".[6]

Inscription about the mysteries in Plovdiv

An ancient Roman inscription written in Ancient Greek dated to 253 – 255 AD were discovered in the Great Basilica at the Plovdiv (ancient Philippopolis). The inscription refers to the Dionysian Mysteries and also mentions Roman Emperors Valerian and Gallienus. It has been found on a large stele which was used as construction material during the building of the Great Basilica.[7]

See also


  1. Rostovtzeff, M. Rome (translated from the Russian by J. D. Duff). London: Oxford University Press (1960), pp. 93–94.
  2. Die Religion der Griechen und Römer (The Religion of the Greeks and Romans), (1963).
  3. Aziz, Robert (1990). C.G. Jung's Psychology of Religion and Synchronicity (10 ed.). The State University of New York Press. ISBN 0-7914-0166-9.
  4. An altered state caused by drug use.
  5. Hoyle, Peter, Delphi, London : Cassell, 1967. Cf. p. 76.
  6. Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy.

Further reading

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