Dionysos was born out of divine manifestation, His birth independent of the generation of this world; His soul divine, undefiled and pure, having emanated from the Creator, King Zeus. When we speak of the birth of Dionysos, we must deliver these divine truths through myths, of which must be understood through secret interpretation.
First-Birth of Dionysos & Sacrifice
The first incarnation of Dionysos happened when Zeus, in the form of a serpent, made union with the Kore. From this union came their offspring Zagreus, “the first-born Dionysos.” This birth is referred to as the first influence of Zeus. Ecstatic with His new son, Zeus enthroned Zagreus and gave Him His thunderbolts, presenting Him to the Gods as His partner on the throne and their King.
Filled with jealousy at this sight, Hera sent forth the seven pairs of Titans to destroy the young Zagreus. The Titans smeared their faces with gypsum and lured the youthful Zagreus away from His thunderbolts by mockingly giving Him a thrysus (a fennel staff which is tipped with a pine-cone that’s dripping with honey, which are all tokens of Dionysos) in place of His rightful scepter. Further, they gave Him seven toys, which are referred to as the Toys of Dionysos:
- Sphere or Ball
- Pokos (tuft of hair)
Zagreus came to be captivated by the mirror and gazed into it. At this moment the Titans grasped Him and prepared Him for a grand sacrifice. They dismembered and tore Him into pieces with their knives, being particularly careful about preserving His limbs and heart.
The Titans then took His remains and put them onto spits, roasting them and consuming a portion. Zeus smelled the aroma of this ritual and sent the blessed Athene, who rescued Zagreus’ still-beating heart and brought it back to Zeus in a silver casket. Zeus entrusted the limbs of Zagreus to Apollo, who buried them at Mount Parnassos. Zeus then delivered judgment as He struck the Titans with a thunderbolt, which turned them to ashes. From the soot which fell from their foul burnt bodies, Zeus crafted a new generation of creatures, from tiny and large animals of every kind, as well as humans, who have immortal souls but who are tied to a sorrowful cycle of rebirths, sometimes being reborn male, and sometimes female. Regarding this sad state of existence, Zeus, in great love for His creation, devised an astounding solution.
Second-Birth of Dionysos & Forecoming
Symbolically, in myth, Dionysos’ second birth came when Zeus used Zagreus’ recovered heart to produce a potion, which was given and consumed by the mortal Semele, a mortal woman who was the daughter of the Phoenician King Cadmus, founder of Thebes. Semele imbibed the potion and then conceived of the second Dionysos. Hera, having discovered the liaison between her husband and the mortal girl, disguised as a mere housemaid and begun to work in Semele’s household. Once Hera gained Semele’s confidence and was told that Zeus gave her an oath, she became beguiled by the jealous Hera to entreat Zeus to visit her as He appeared to Hera when he courted the divine Goddess. Unable to refuse due to His oath, Zeus came down with His chariot and lightning and thunder. Unable to endure the unrestrained brilliance of Zeus, Semele’s frail body was consumed by the flames of lightning. Zeus bade Hermes to snatch the unborn Dionysos forth, and he cut open His own thigh and sewed the baby therein.
In truth, as explained by the divine Julian, the second birth of Dionysos was not a literal birth. The mortal Semele was the first prophetess of Dionysos, first among the Greeks to perceive the forthcoming Dionysos before any visible manifestation of the God. However, Semele was without patience, and gave signal of the mystic rituals connected with the worship of Dionysos prematurely. Because she had not waited for the appointed time, she was overwhelmed and consumed by the fire of a thunderbolt that fell upon her, dying in the blazing flames. She was called the “Mother of Dionysos,” because it was she who predicted the forthcoming of Dionysos, and it was also Dionysos who honored her as having been the first prophetess of His coming.
Third-Birth of Dionysos & Salvation
In due course when the time was ripe for the child’s birth, Zeus, in the pangs of travail, came to the Nymphs of Nysa, a region somewhere in India, who by their song over the thigh undid the stitching, which also brought light to us the dithyramb.
When it was the will of Zeus to bestow on all humankind the transition from a nomadic to a more civilized mode of life, Dionysos came from India and revealed Himself as a very God made visible before man. He visited cities of men with a great host of divine beings, such as Satyrs, Bacchanals, Pans, and other lesser divinities, inspiring the minds of people with the Bacchic frenzy of His true knowledge of the Gods. This was the gift of the Mysteries, rites, and sacrifices which allowed humanity to free their souls from the cycle of metempsychosis and the suffering of lower realms of matter, and back into the heavens. In these Mysteries he delivers us another gift, the manifestation of the plant, wine (oínos/οἶνος), or the “gentle vine,” a name given to it by the Greeks for the vine’s ability to ease our sufferings and make life gentler.
It was from here that the great Dionysos traveled throughout the world, often pushed on by Hera, which would drive Him to madness. However, setting foot in the region of Phrygia in Anatolia, the Great Mother went on to purify His tortured mind and heal Him of His sickness. It is sometimes said that it is She who taught Him the mystic rites of initiation, after which He received from Her much of his gear and enthusiastically set out (Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 3. 33). From here the great God wandered throughout parts of the world, from India, to Egypt, to Thrace, and to Greece.
Role in the Cosmos
Dionysos and His brother Asklepios are expressions of the Sub-Lunar Demiurge. The Sub-Lunar Demiurge is subsumed or “contained,” within the Celestial Demiurge (Zeus-Helios), though operate on a lower level. Their Activities are focused on the Sub-Lunar Level, literally the realm “Below the Moon,” or alternatively “Below the Heavens,” which means the material cosmos below the sphere of the moon, i.e., our world. The Sub-Lunar Realm is part of the Encosmic Realm, and Iamblichus splits the Sub-Lunar Realm into three; the aither, ruled by Kronos, the air, ruled by Rhea, and the sea or water ruled by Phorcys. It is the Sub-Lunar Demiurge’s roles to direct the Sub-Lunar Realm and all within it, including human souls who fall into it and Daimons whose job is to lead them upwards again.
The Sub-Lunar Demiurge is an imitator, not a creator. They are called “image-maker,” eidolopoios, and “purifier of souls,” kathartis psychon. They separate and re-assemble the logoi (manifestation of the Forms shaped and directed by the Celestial Demiurge) in the Realm of Generation, organizing them to give shape to the hylic matter of the cosmos. Dionysos represents the Sub-Lunar Demiurgic power of separation or division. As He is torn asunder by the Titans themselves, Dionysos is the activity of dividing wholes into their constituent parts, separating the logoi from the bodies within which they are contained. Asklepios, however, is a God of healing, and the ill go to His sanctuaries to receive healing dreams. Whereas Dionysos takes things apart, Asklepios restores them, putting the logoi appropriate to us in their proper order.
As souls descend into generation, Dionysos removes from them logoi inappropriate to their nature, and Asklepios attempts to give those souls a life appropriate to the logoi properly belonging to them. In doing so the Sub-Lunar Demiurge also deeply binds the soul into the Realm of Generation. They are the Master Daimons, megistos daimon, especially over Personal Daimons.
Worship & Wine
Wine is primarily associated with Dionysos, having been a gift to humankind from the deity to make life milder. It is said to share His nature, being variously described as “fiery” (Euripides Alkestis 757), “wild” (Aeschylus Persians 614), “madness-inspiring” (Plato Laws 7.773 d), but simultaneously bringing “great joy to mankind” (Homer Iliad 14.325). It would be poured out during libations to the divine and consumed at symposia. It was used by initiates to attain union with the divine Dionysos.
The Greek epic poet Nonnos tells us in the 12th book of the Dionysiaca the myth of the Thracian Satyr, Ampelos, a lover of the divine Dionysos who was killed by a bull. Grieving deeply for His beloved companion, Dionysos resurrected Ampelos in the form of the grapevine, from which the first wine comes from.
In this same chapter, wine is referred to as blood (Ichor/Ιχώρ) a few times:
“But the poets have another and older legend, how once upon a time fruitful Olympian ichor fell down from heaven and produced the potion of Bacchic wine…”
(W.H.D. Rouse 1962, 12.292, p. 419.)
“…the pine swayed by Boreas brought her branches near the bunches of grapes, and shook her fragrant leafage soaked in the blood.”
(W. H. D. Rouse 1962, 12.316, p. 421.)
Additionally, wine is furthermore referred to as “the blood of the God” in Achilles Tatius’ The Adventures of Leucippe and Clitophon (2.2). We can begin to understand that wine, especially dark red sweet wine, is a symbola of the blood of Dionysos. Just as the Titans consumed His body in a grand sacrifice, we partake in the God’s essence, and by that extension the essence of His father, by consuming wine. This is especially seen when we perform libations to the Gods, where we pour the majority of the wine to the ground and drink a portion ourselves. In doing so, we share in the divinity of Dionysos, and re-enact His sacrifice. With this, we partake in His essence and in the essence of His father, for Dionysos is subsumed or “contained” within Zeus, the Celestial Demiurge. This is the actual meaning of the ritual consumption of wine, and why, when we perform libations and drink the wine, it is a profoundly holy deed. It is why Dionysos is the radiant God of wine and grape, for the wine represents and partakes in the divine essence of King Zeus Himself, the highest God of the cosmos.
It should be warned that though beer can be associated with Dionysos, it is nothing compared to wine. The divine Emperor Julian writes against the consumption of beer, going so far to write a poem about it that called it un-Dionysian:
“Who and from where are you Dionysus?
Since by the true Bacchus,
I do not recognize you; I know only the son of Zeus.
While He smells like nectar, you smell like a goat.
Can it be then that the Celts because of lack of grapes
Made you from cereals? Therefore one should call you
Demetrius, not Dionysus, rather wheat born and Bromus,
(Epigram IX, 638 Greek Anthology)
Dionysos is frequently depicted in three distinct forms:
- Dionysos the infant
- Dionysos the beautiful long-haired youth
- Dionysos the maturely bearded God
He is often depicted with an ivy or grape-vine crown, holding His signature thrysus, and sometimes bearing a wine-cup. He also frequently wears panther skin. He arrives with an entourage of Satyrs, Bacchanals, Maenads, and Pans. Sometimes He rides a tiger, a lion, a panther, or merely a donkey. Symbola strongly associated with Him include the phallus, goats and snakes. Sometimes, He is depicted with bull horns. Also, of course, He is associated with ivy, vines and grapes; but He is also deeply connected with greens and all plant life.
Damascius, Commentary on the Phaedo, I, 170, see in translation Westerink, The Greek Commentaries on Plato’s Phaedo, vol. II (The Prometheus Trust, Westbury) 2009
Flavius Claudius Iulianus Augustus, and Wilmer Cave. Wright. The works of emperor Julian. London: Heinemann etc., 1962.
Iamblichus, and Emma C. Clarke. Iamblichus on The mysteries. Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003.
Kupperman, Jeffrey S. Living theurgy: a course in Iamblichus philosophy, theology and theurgy. London: Avalonia, 2014.
Lewis, H. Jeremiah. Balance of the Two Lands: Writings on Greco-Egyptian Polytheism. Alexandria, Egypt: Bibliotheca Alexandrina, 2009.
Panopolis, Nonnos De, William Henry Denham Rouse, Levi Robert Lind, and H. J. Rose. Dionysiaca. Cambridge: Mass., 1962.
Sallustius, “On the Gods and the Cosmos”, 4th Century AD, February 03, 2018. http://www.platonic-philosophy.org/files/Sallustius%20-%20On%20the%20Gods%20(Taylor).pdf
“The Wine of Bacchus-Dionysus.” http://Www.HellenicGods.org. Accessed February 03, 2018. http://www.hellenicgods.org/the-wine-of-bacchus-dionysus.