Disclaimer: My exploration of the rise and fall of Dionysus is a work in progress. While it necessarily touches on religion (Greek mythology and Christianity), my inquiry is more about the passing of time and how Dionysus (as an archetype was suppressed).

Musical Accompaniment: Cold Play, Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends

How does a seemingly magnificent culture like ancient Greece fall after attaining such heights of grandeur and enlightenment? More specific to my interests, what became of the Greek god, Dionysus? How did he seemingly fade from the spiritual world of the Greeks and all those who honored this god? I’m not going to spiral down too far into the fall of Greece but will spend a bit more time on the question of Dionysus.

A high-level view of the history (from an admittedly layman’s perspective) reveals that with the passing of Alexander the Great, Greece existed as a loosely connected set of regional powers (known as city-states) with no overarching national government to manage Greek society and affairs.

These city-states fought against one another for power and control. Intermittently, they also sought the aid of the Roman’s in these conflicts. Compared to the Persians, for whom the Greeks united and fought against as one, the Romans were viewed by the Greeks as being somewhat similar in culture to themselves and not an inferior or oppressive society. In some cases, the Romans actually served as valued allies to some Greek city-states in wars against other Greek city-states. Through a series of wars and alliances over four centuries between approximately 300 BC – 100 AD, Greece was ultimately absorbed into the Roman empire.

Life in Greece under the Roman Empire was much the same as it always been. In fact, it is was the longest period of peace the Greek’s had experienced and it was also a period of great prosperity. Culturally though, it was as if Greece had conquered Rome. Greek language became a favorite among the educated and elite in Rome. Greek literature, philosophy, and architecture were also widely embraced as well as elements of the Greek gods. Many temples and public buildings continued to be built in Greece by Roman emperors and wealthy Roman nobility to include sites dedicated to the Greek gods.

As Roman control of western Europe fell to the Visigoths in 400 AD, much of the eastern Roman empire remained with its strongest base in Greece. During the period 100 – 400 AD, Greece and much of the remaining Roman empire came under the influence of early Christianity.

What became of Dionysus in this time of Roman influence and the eventual adoption of Christianity?

Dionysus Tab 1

It was common for ancient civilizations to recognize elements of their own gods in those of other civilizations. Often, the traits of these deities were merged. To the Greeks, Dionysus was the god of wine, patron god of the theatre, spiritual ecstasy, fertility, flow of energy in the dancing universe, and the cycle of life. To touch Dionysus was to enter into the realm of the spirit and experience the transcendent ecstasy of union with the divine. Over time with Roman conquest, the Romans perverted Dionysus into Bacchus where he came to be synonymous with drunken orgies. Dionysus was no longer the god of wine and spiritual ecstasy, he was Bacchus – the god of drunkenness. The nuanced essence of the dual-formed Dionysus and the counter-balancing force of divine ecstasy to divine madness was lost.

While the Romans perverted Dionysus into Bacchus, they elevated Apollo, the god of light, who had at one time been honored equally with Dionysus at Delphi. Apollo gradually came to represent analytical thought and the preservation of law and order. The unpredictable, irrational, ecstatic Dionysus had no place in this scheme and became the enemy of it. The chief god was now officially found in the sky as the sun god, Apollo. On Earth, the influence and celebration of the nature god – Dionysus – was marginalized by the ruling powers. Still, Bacchus had a devoted, well organized, and well funded following of Bacchantes.

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The worship of Bacchus eventually reached a state where the controlling power viewed Bacchus as a destructive force of divine madness and a danger to the Roman state. Around 186 A.D., the Romans began systematically to persecute the worshippers of Bacchus–the Bacchantes. The Bacchantes were charged with immoralities and crimes and thousands were executed. The Roman senate eventually banned the Bacchanalia—which had formerly been the Dionysian festivals.

With the rise of Christianity in the Roman empire, Bacchus was turned into the very image of the devil which reflected the divine madness aspect of denying Dionysus but also shows how the meaning of “zoe” (spirit of life) and transcendent divine ecstasy of Dionysus experienced by the Greeks was lost to the Romans and later by the Christians. It should also be noted that Apollo was also cast as the devil (just not his image).  Christianity restored balance to the ecstatic transcendent principle in the figure of Christ. We see here that Dionysus—as a psychological archetype—was split in two and channeled into both the Devil and Christ. Dionysus was both to the Greeks.

While researching for this post, it struck me that the lost half of Dionysus was found in Jesus. There is actually a surprising amount of literature exploring this connection to include the origin stories. Dionysus was the son of Zeus, the supreme Greek god. Dionysus was born of a mortal mother and Zeus. Dionysus was killed, resurrected, and ascended to Olympus to sit at the right hand of Zeus. Among the Olympian gods, Dionysus was the only god to have walked among us on earth with a mortal existence and performed miracles…such as turning water into wine. The worship of Dionysus involved drinking wine which was perceived as the blood of Dionysus. The worship of Dionysus, in part, was about seeking transcendence of the spirit and preparation for the afterlife.

The worship of Dionysus wasn’t an obscure cult following. His influence had spread across Asia and Europe with an impassioned following by 1300 BC. Traces of Dionysus are found in gods of civilizations even predating this period. By 600 BC, the Greeks had placed Dionysus among the pantheon of Olympian gods. The Greeks had temples, rituals, and multiple festivals dedicated to Dionysus. I will explore the Dionysian festivals in a future post and the spiritual meaning behind these events.

Phallus Worship 5 v2

It is likely that if an ancient Greek, from say 500 BC, visited with us today, he would say we have indeed split the dual-natured Dionysus in half. He would say that Dionysus is Jesus and that the devil is the divine madness that comes from denying the spiritual ecstasy of Dionysus. Well, as they say, archetypes are timeless patterns of human thought and dreams. Archetypes don’t die, they simply morph with time to return to us in different forms with different names.

This break in the duality of Dionysus causes us some challenges…especially when it comes to sexuality. Some of us feel shame about our physical desires because we want to be “good” people. Perhaps we feel unworthy of divine spiritual ecstasy because we have impure thoughts. The Greeks, through Dionysus, didn’t have this cognitive dissonance because sexuality wasn’t viewed as a “sin”. It was a necessary and encouraged aspect of human nature. Similarly, we have a sense that we in some way should be suffering and sacrificing in our worldly existence to reap rewards in the afterlife. The Greeks believed in celebrating life and attaining states of transcendent ecstasy on earth, touching the divine for moments in preparation for the afterlife.

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Dionysus – Liminality (Between Heaven and Earth)

How did we lose Dionysus? I covered the history briefly but there is more. Psychologically, the story of his loss is the triumph of rationality over irrationality; thinking over feeling; the concrete “masculine” ideals of power, aggression, and progress over the intangible “feminine” values of receptivity, growth, and nurturing. It is the elevation of Apollo by the Romans as patriarchal religions gained in power as the displacement of the matrifocal ways of Dionysus were discouraged, diminished, and finally lost. I should mention here that a large portion of Dionysus’ followers were women.

Perhaps it was necessary to suppress Dionysus – certainly Bacchus – in order to nurture the rational, organized, knowledge-seeking world of Apollo and attain the progress we have made. But, it has come at a cost and there seems to be a unfulfilled spiritual yearning rising in our collective unconsciousness…even in emerging in our consciousness. The rising popularity of Yoga, mindfulness, meditation, and eastern philosophy/practices are examples of more people seeking deeper spiritual connection and meaning. Symptoms of denied spiritual ecstasy (divine madness) are also on the rise and we see it daily in the news as it envelopes individuals and even portions of some societies.

Most of my writing on The Dionysian Experience is focused on my relationships with women so I’d like to close with that in mind. Take time to open your soul to a lover and receive their energy. Be fully present in the moment beyond the superficiality of fleeting physical sensations. Go deeper behind their mask and allow them behind yours. Feel your lover deep inside while making love (vigorously, sensually, or both ways). Release your own emotions and reach a state of connection where you induce tears of joy in one another. This is one form of divine ecstasy…perhaps even heaven on earth. This would be one example of a Dionysian experience.

For more of my mythology/psychology focused content, please visit here – Dionysus

Sources used to inform this writing:

  • Ecstasy, Understanding the Psychology of Joy, by Robert Johnson
  • Gods of Love and Ecstasy, The Traditions of Shiva and Dionysus, by Alain Danielou
  • Dionysus, Exciter to Frenzy, by Vikki Bramshaw