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The traditional view of Dionysos’ worship as an import from Thrace or Phrygia was called into question with the discovery of the name Dionysos on Linear B tablets from Pylos, which show that the name, and probably the god, was known to Bronze Age Greeks.1 While Dionysiac myths present this most exotic of the Olympians as a literal stranger, an emigrant from foreign lands, they also maintain that he was born in Greece. At the same time, his worship shares features with the cults of Phrygian Kybele, who was likewise celebrated with ecstatic dancing to percussive music, and Egyptian Osiris, a chthonian vegetation god who experienced dismemberment and resurrection. The ecstatic nature of some Dionysiac rites, together with their special appeal to women, set the worship of Dionysos apart from that of any other Olympian deity. Though clearly a god of the vine and its product, Dionysos’ identity cannot be so easily delimited. He is also a deity of intoxication and madness, whose followers experience both profound surrender and glad liberation; this element of enthousiasmos, having the god within, is anomalous in Olympian worship. From the Archaic period, he offers hope for afterlife salvation through private initiatory rites. He is not a major civic or federal god, though his festivals can become essential to civic identity (as they do in Athens). The archaeological remains of his sanctuaries and temples are not impressive, but their modesty belies his great popularity. With respect to ritual, the most commonly recurring concept is the epiphany or advent of Dionysos and his reception. The dithurambos, often on the theme of Dionysos’ birth, was his characteristic hymn. Though the details of the process are unknown, it is clear that Greek tragedy and comedy arose in a ritual context from choral songs performed for Dionysos.
Dionysos has attracted a great deal of critical attention because a profound theology, analogous to certain Christian doctrines, can be extracted from his myths and cults in a way that is not true of the other Olympian gods. A suffering god, an ecstatic religious experience in which worshipers are united with the deity, the consumption of wine as part of the ritual, and the belief in the god’s ability to offer salvation from death: all these elements have contributed to theories that Dionysiac religion was co-opted by Christianity, on the one hand, and attempts to recast the pagan Greeks as Christian precursors, on the other. More recently, the psychosocial dimensions of Dionysiac religion have been extensively studied to reveal how the god offered temporary escape from normal modes of being into alternate states such as trance, masquerade, madness, and of course, intoxication, and how he subverted gender roles and other societal norms. These analyses are largely based on the portraits of Dionysiac worship in Greek poetry and myth, above all the Bacchae of Euripides. While they provide a valuable description of the god’s symbolic significance and cultural meaning, a study of Dionysos’ cults and the historically attested behaviors associated with them yields a picture rather different from what myth and poetry lead us to expect.2 In practice, the worship of Dionysos was not truly subversive; instead, it offered outlets for physical and emotional self-expression within socially acceptable contexts. Furthermore, Dionysiac cult was smoothly integrated into Greek civic systems of worship, with ecstatic and private components balanced by state- sponsored festivals and conventional sacrifices.
Dionysiac festivals and the calendar
While drama was a Panhellenic development, the major Dionysiac festivals can be assigned to the Ionian and Athenian Greeks (Anthesteria, Lenaia) or to the Dorians and the Aiolic speakers of Thessaly and Boiotia (Agriania and its variants, Theodaisia). This division also corresponds to two early centers of Dionysiac activity, the Aegean islands and Boiotian Thebes. The islands, particularly Chios and Naxos, were leading producers of wine and proponents of Dionysos as the god of viticulture whose sacred marriage with Ariadne ensured prosperity. The rituals and myths that involve Dionysos’ arrival from the sea, as in the ship processions of East Greece and Athens, seem to reflect the influence of the islands. The silens or satyrs, who are featured in the vase iconography of several myths set in Naxos (e.g. the return of Hephaistos and the meeting of Dionysos and Ariadne), are also a part of this Aegean Dionysiac tradition.3 They are conspicuously absent from the myths of Boiotian origin that involve resistance to Dionysos by royal women (the daughters of Kadmos, Minyas, Eleutheros, and Proitos). The Boiotian/ Theban strand of Dionysiac cult, exported to the rest of the mainland and beyond, focused on the god’s birth, themes of death and resurrection, and various benefits and purifications obtained through initiation into Dionysiac thiasoi (groups organized for worship). Mainadic activity seems to have been present in both traditions, though emphasized far more heavily on the mainland. The geographical position of Attica ensured that both the Aegean and Boiotian strands played an important role in the Athenian worship of Dionysos.
Dionysos, rather surprisingly, is a winter god. His festivals everywhere take place in the months we call December, January, February, and March: the seasons of winter and early spring. The biennial nature of many of these festivals, generally the winter ones with mainadic elements, has never been satisfactorily explained. One theory relates the phenomenon to the need for intercalary periods to reconcile the lunar and solar calendars and keep the months synchronized with the seasons.4 The Dionysiac festivals of winter have been described as rites by which the quiescent grape vines and other vegetation were recalled to life. While Dionysos is certainly a god who dies or vanishes and reappears periodically, it is difficult to plausibly match his comings and goings with the growth cycles of plants. On the other hand, he unquestionably has affinities with certain trees (pine, fig, plane) and vines (grape, ivy). The ivy, ubiquitous in art, actually eclipses the grapevine as the emblem of the god, perhaps because it retained foliage through the winter and was thus available for ritual use.5 The spring festivals are more easily explained because they correspond to the tasting of the new wine, but it is notable that no major Dionysiac festival addresses the vintage.
On the island of Keos some 40 km from the Attic coast, archaeologists have uncovered the earliest known Dionysos sanctuary. The Cycladic people who occupied the site of Ayia Irini in the Bronze Age built a temple and filled it with large-scale terracotta sculptures of women wearing typical Minoan dress. The statues, produced in large numbers, do not represent the resident deity. Instead, they were placed in the sanctuary for some unknown reason, perhaps as perpetual witnesses of the god’s epiphany or as pleasing gifts from worshipers. Eventually the temple collapsed and the town was deserted in the twelfth century. Around 750, votives began to accumulate in the innermost room of the same sacred building the Bronze Age inhabitants had used. The focus of this cult was a terracotta head that originally belonged to one of the Minoan-type statues in the sanctuary, many of which were buried at the site. The new occupants dug up this object or received it as an heirloom, and set it up on the floor of the temple in a specially made ring base, where the excavators found it in situ. With the head were found Geometric kantharoi, the characteristic wine cups of Dionysos; that he was the god of the sanctuary by the end of the sixth century is confirmed by a vase graffito. It has been suggested that the shrine originally belonged to a Minoan goddess, but it is also possible that a Bronze Age Dionysos was the occupant, surrounded by groups of dancing women just as he was in historical times. On the other hand, despite the unusual degree of continuity in the use of the temple at Ayia Irini, the cultic focus on the terracotta head shows that its original function was not well understood. Dionysos was apparently worshiped at Ayia Irini in the Geometric period, but how much earlier remains an open question.6
The Cyclades were famous for their wines, and Naxos in particular was considered sacred to Dionysos from at least the seventh century. The first coins minted there, c. 600, displayed the kantharos, and other emblems of the god followed. The island was the source of a cycle of Dionysiac myths, including tales of the god’s birth and nurture by nymphs, and his meeting with Ariadne.7 Unfortunately, we know little of the cults there. According to Plutarch (Vit. Thes. 20), there were two festivals of two Ariadnes, one a joyful occasion celebrating the bride of Dionysos, and the other a time of sorrow with sacrifices for the dead heroine (Ariadne was also honored as a heroine in Argos and Amathous). The Naxians possessed a pair of sacred masks, objects that signaled the god’s presence and served as cult images. One, made of grapevine wood, was known as Bakcheus, and the other, of wood from the fig, was Meilichios, the mild or sweet. The combination of an important god and a secondary female cult figure (Dionysos and Ariadne) is consistent with the finds from the recently excavated sanctuary at Hyria on Naxos, where a temple stood from Geometric times over the remains of a Mycenaean cult site. Later structures at the site included an Archaic dining room and a successor temple. The rich and varied votive gifts included some types, like terracotta female busts, that were typically offered to female deities.8
Phallic processions and images
Processions including wooden phalloi on poles or large painted phalloi in carts were a common mode of celebration for Dionysos throughout Greece; according to Herodotus (2.48-49), it was the Argive hero Melampous who first introduced this custom. Processional phalloi were a familiar sight in the rural and city celebrations of the Athenians, while epigraphic evidence starting in 301 shows that every year, the Delians created a winged, brightly colored phallos-bird and drew it through the streets in a wagon. This fanciful object was considered the image of the god himself, and while the direct evidence is Hellenistic in date, it is likely that the phallic parade was practiced from the Archaic period. Excavators found no temple of Dionysos on the island, but there was a deposit of items dedicated to the god including an Archaic stone phallos.9 The Delian phallos image of Dionysos, like the masked columns seen on Attic vase paintings, was intended to serve as a temporary simulacrum of the god, just as the phalloi used in the Athenian City Dionysia had to be replaced every year. The use of such ephemeral images is typical of Dionysiac cult but rare in other Greek worship.
The representation of the phallos in art and poetry is linked in sacred narratives with the proper reception of Dionysos. In Athens, for example, the men who failed to receive Dionysos Eleuthereus with honor made model phalloi in order to regain the god’s favor, while an inscription from Paros tells a similar, presumably apocryphal story about the poet Archilochus. When his attempt to introduce obscene Dionysiac poetry was rebuffed, the men of Paros were rendered impotent until they accepted the new mode of worship. Paradoxically, though the phallos has an important role in many Dionysiac cults, the god himself is rarely portrayed nude or in a state of sexual excitement; in fact he remains detached from sexuality except in the context of the sacred marriage. The Dionysiac phallos does not signify male sexuality or masculinity per se but the exuberant, animating force that makes arousal and procreation possible.10
Thucydides (2.15.4) notes that the “older Dionysia,” which takes place at Athens in the month of Anthesterion, is a festival also celebrated by the Ionian cities. Post-Classical inscriptions confirm that this was the case in Ephesos, Priene, Miletos, and Smyrna, and scholars have therefore included this festival among those that predate the Ionian migration of c. 1000. The month name Anthesterion is even more widely attested, from Eretria in Euboia to the Ionian colonies of Massilia and Kyzikos. Sometimes the celebration is called the Anthesteria (Festival of Blooming); otherwise it is the Dionysia or the Katagogia (Bringing Home) of Dionysos. The latter most likely refers to the advent of the god in a ship on wheels similar to a parade float and ultimately derived from Egypt; Attic vases illustrating this ritual scene suggest that it was an element of the Archaic and Classical Athenian festival, probably one of the initial events of the ritual sequence.
Whereas the vintage took place in the fall, the true advent of Dionysos as the wine god came in the early spring, when the casks of new wine were broached for the first time. This first day of the festival, 11 Anthesterion, was known at Athens as the Pithoigia (Cask-Opening). The second day, called Choes (Jugs), was a day of revelry and feasting even for slaves. It also included what has been described as a rite of passage for little boys who had reached the age of three, the usual age of weaning. They were crowned with spring flowers and given presents, including miniature versions of the wine jugs called choes, a shape produced for about fifty years during and after the Peloponnesian war. Infants who died before they could participate were sometimes buried with these jugs, which are gaily painted with scenes of chubby boys, naked but for their amulet strings, playing with small dogs, riding in carts, or making offerings of libations and cakes.11 As we learn from Aristophanes’ Acharnians (959-1234), adult males too looked forward to the Choes, when serious drinking was the order of the day. Each man was supplied with his own chous, a container which held about three liters of wine. (This custom was explained by reference to the hospitality shown Orestes when he came to Athens to be tried for matricide: to avoid sharing his pollution, all drank from separate jugs.) If we can take Aristophanes’ comic description as an accurate reflection of ritual, the archon basileus (King Archon) conducted a drinking competition with a skin of wine as the prize for the first man to empty his chous. In any case, numerous private contests and festive dinners were held around the city. At the end of the day, the revelers wrapped their choes in the garlands they had won and headed to the Limnaion, or sanctuary of Dionysos at Limnai (the Marshes), where they poured libations from whatever was left of the wine in the presence of a priestess.12
The Choes was the only day of the year when the Limnaion was open, and the sanctuary now witnessed an ancient and venerable rite: the sacred marriage of the King Archon’s wife (the basilinna or Queen) and Dionysos himself. A law stating that the basilinna was required to be of Athenian birth and a virgin at the time of her wedding to the King Archon was inscribed on a stone set up in the Limnaion. In a speech preserved in the Demosthenic corpus (Against Neaira 59.73-78), Apollodorus is indignant that an alien woman of questionable virtue was permitted to assume the title of basilinna and perform the sacred acts on the city’s behalf; he stresses the great antiquity and solemnity of the rite. This part of the festival was carried out in secret, and little is known of what actually constituted the “marriage.” Perhaps there was a wedding procession from the Limnaion to the old city center east of the Akropolis, where the sacred union is said to have taken place in the so-called boukoleion (cattle shed), the headquarters of the King Archon. Modern scholars have speculated that the King Archon himself played the role of Dionysos in order to consummate the marriage. He further chose fourteen women attendants known as the gerarai (Reverend Ones), who assisted with offerings at fourteen altars, witnessed the secret things, and were apparently present at other Dionysiac rituals during the year. According to Apollodorus, they took the following oath: “I lead a holy life and I am pure and chaste from intercourse with men and other polluting things, and I will hallow the Theoinia (Wine God’s Feast) and the Iobakcheia for Dionysos according to ancestral custom and at the appointed times.”13
The third day of the Athenian celebration was also named after a type of vessel: Chytroi (Pots). Unfortunately, there are no detailed contemporary sources for the events of this day, nor do the sources make a clear distinction between Choes and Chytroi. It is logical that the pots, like the casks and jugs of the first two days, should have something to do with wine, and they have been connected to Phanodemus’ account (FGrH 325 F 12) of Athenians mixing sweet wine with water for Dionysos Limnaios. The mixing of wine and water is attested for other Dionysiac festivals (below), and while mixing vessels came in a wide variety of specialized shapes, they were all essentially wide-mouthed pots. The scholiasts on Aristophanes and various lexicographers, however, give a different account, characterizing the Choes (or the month Anthesterion) as a time when ghosts rose from the underworld. They derive the name Chytroi from the cooking pots in which the Athenians prepared a mixture of grains as an offering to Hermes Chthonios (of the Underworld), with special reference to those who perished in the Flood. The sources portraying the Choes/Chytroi as a Halloween-like festival of the dead are late and somewhat confused accounts. On the other hand, Aristophanes’ Frogs places Dionysos’ visit to the underworld in the context of the Limnaion and the Anthesteria, lending plausibility to the connection between this festival and the dead.14 It should be noted that while the celebration of Dionysos’ advent in the month of Anthesterion seems to have been widespread among the Ionian peoples, the details of the Choes and Chytroi are apparently unique to Athens.15
The City Dionysia
While all the Athenian festivals of Dionysos included dramas or dithyrambs, the City Dionysia was transformed during the sixth century into the premier dramatic festival of the Athenian year, and, with the Panathenaia, played a crucial role in the construction of Athenian civic identity. Originally the urban version of the winter festivities held in the demes, the City celebration was moved to the spring month of Elaphebolion for the convenience of spectators and visitors traveling to Athens. Unlike the ancestral rites of the Lenaia and Anthesteria, which were the responsibility of the King Archon, the City Dionysia was treated like a newer festival and placed under the jurisdiction of the eponymous Archon. A preliminary to the festival was the “bringing in (eisagoge) of Dionysos from the altar,” the ceremonial torch-lit escort of the god’s image from a temple near the Academy to its permanent home in the theater precinct. Dionysos Eleuthereus was the god of this festival, and tradition held that a man named Pegasos had first brought the image to Athens from the town of Eleutherai on the border with Boiotia. When the Athenians failed to receive the god with honor, they found themselves stricken with a disease of the male genitals. An oracle advised the Athenians to make model phalloi and honor the god with them. Scholars view the eisagoge ritual either as a re-enactment of Dionysos’ original advent in Athens, or more specifically as a commemoration of the Athenian annexation of Eleutherai and adoption of its Dionysiac cult. Our main sources for the eisagoge are Hellenistic inscriptions, but it is likely that this complex of myth and ritual dates to the sixth century, when the modest temple of Dionysos Eleuthereus was built beside the theater at the foot of the south slope of the Akropolis.16
The main ritual of the Athenian festival was a relatively inclusive pompe or procession which, like the Panathenaic parade, featured women and scarlet- robed metics as well as male citizens. A kanephoros (basket-bearer), a maiden of noble birth, led the procession with a golden basket, followed by people carrying loaves and libations of water and wine, or guiding sacrificial animals. (The goat was probably the preferred victim, given that tragedy seems to have the root meaning of “goat song.”)17 The colonies of Athens were required to send phalloi for the festival and presumably had their own representatives in the parade. The most colorful participants were the choregoi or sponsors of the plays, who wore elaborate robes embroidered with gold and golden crowns. The procession traveled through the agora, pausing at various altars to allow choruses to perform. Perhaps that evening was the time for the komos, a male-oriented, wine-soaked revel. The competitions included ten dithyrambic choruses made up of boys and ten of men, as well as comedies, tragedies, and satyr-plays. Before they began, the theater was purified with piglets’ blood and libations were poured for the god, whose statue was present during performances. The crowds in the theater also witnessed the proclamation of crowns for honored citizens, the display of tribute from Athens’ subject states, and the introduction of citizen youths reared at public expense because their fathers had fallen in battle.18
Dionysos in Attic Ikarion
The Country Dionysia of Attica, as its name implies, was a decentralized celebration that focused on Dionysos as an agricultural deity. Throughout the winter month of Posideion, villagers in the various demes of Attica organized processions such as the one described in Aristophanes’ Acharnians (237-79), which includes a basketbearer with a sacred cake, slaves holding a large phallos on a pole, and the protagonist Dikaiopolis as a reveler, singing a ribald hymn to Phales, personification of the phallos. According to Aristotle (Poet. 1449a), comedy developed from these phallic songs. Many of the demes had their own theaters and presented comic and tragic performances. Ikarion, a wine-producing village at the northern foot of Mt. Pentelikon, had a unique status among the Attic demes as the first to receive Dionysos. According to legend, Ikarios welcomed the god and received the gift of wine, which he offered to his unsuspecting fellows. When they passed out from overindulgence, their relatives thought Ikarios was a poisoner and killed him. His daughter Erigone discovered the body with the help of Ikarios’ faithful dog, and in her grief, she hanged herself from a tree. As a result of their impiety toward Dionysos, the villagers were struck with a plague, and the Delphic oracle directed them to hang up a female effigy to swing in the trees as an appeasement of Erigone. This story was connected with a purification ritual called the Aiora (Swinging), during which girls sat in swings suspended from trees. It has sometimes been assigned to the Anthesteria, though similar rituals involving boys and girls may have taken place at other times in the year.19
Its material remains show that Ikarion was indeed the home of a venerable Dionysiac cult. Beneath a Byzantine church were found the fragments of a massive cult statue once housed in the Dionysion. This marble image is dated to about 520, making it one of the earliest known cult statues in stone (most early examples were sculpted in wood or ivory). The seated, draped god held a kantharos and originally measured 2 m from head to foot. His history can be tentatively reconstructed with help from several inscriptions detailing the cult and the system of liturgies for the presentation of dramatic performances in Ikarion. A fifth-century inscription (IG I3 254) mentions that the choregoi, the demesmen organizing the dramas for the Country Dionysia, were sworn in with one hand on a statue – presumably that of Dionysos. Ancient repairs to the statue are suggested by the present state of the head (which has sometimes been mistaken for a mask) and confirmed by a fourth-century inscription (IG II2 2851). When first sculpted, this statue would have been one of the most impressive in Attica. It was certainly housed in a temple, though the extant architectural remains are not complete enough to tell us more.20
Like the Anthesteria, the Lenaia was a widespread festival among the Ionians, to judge from the appearances of the winter month name Lenaion in inscriptions. At Athens, the festival was celebrated in the corresponding month Gamelion, and was overseen by the King Archon and officials connected with the Eleusinian mysteries, who organized a procession and musical contest, later expanded to include dramas. These competitions, at which several of Aristophanes’ comedies debuted, were held in the Lenaion, a sanctuary that has left no trace but was probably located in the agora. Little is known about the ritual activities of the Lenaia, except that Dionysos was invoked as “Iakchos, son of Semele, giver of wealth.” In a custom common to the Lenaia and Anthesteria, scurrilous gibes were cast at the spectators by young men in the processional wagons.21
The name Lenaia is usually derived from the Ionic term lenai (wild women or mainads), though an alternative theory links it to lenos (a vat for treading grapes). If the former etymology is accurate, it points to an early mainadic element in the festival. Mainads (also known as bakchai) worshiped Dionysos in a “maddened” state of ecstasy, which was expressed primarily through physical movement: energetic dancing performed out of doors, particularly on the mountainsides. They wore distinctive animal skins over their dresses, left their hair unbound, and carried ivy-tipped staffs called thursoi. Their activities simulated those of the female half of Dionysos’ entourage, the band of nymphs who reared him in Nysa. Archaic and Classical sources have much to say of these madwomen who leave the confines of their homes for the wild mountains, but rather surprisingly, there is no unambiguous evidence of real- life mainads as opposed to mythic ones before the Hellenistic period. Still, the wealth of literary evidence strongly suggests that mainadism was practiced in at least some areas (Boiotia, the Peloponnese, and Delphi) from an early date. Again, the literary accounts often focus on mainadic transgressions (those who reject the god are driven to crimes such as the dismemberment of their own children) or tell of superhuman invulnerability and strength (e.g. the rending of a bull in Euripides’ Bacchae). It is difficult to separate the mythic elaborations from the authentic ritual core in these accounts.
A different type of evidence for Classical mainads are the so-called Lenaia vases, which depict women moving about a temporary, outdoor cult image of Dionysos, a draped column or pole topped with a bearded mask. This masked column appears first on black figured vases, mostly lekuthoi, where the presence of satyrs suggests that the female figures in attendance are to be understood as nymphs. Red figured examples (mostly stamnoi produced for export) include vases showing ecstatic, mainad-like females dancing around the column and altar of the god. On one side, we typically see stately women ladling wine from twin stamnoi set up on a table before the masked column; the other side shows women walking or dancing and holding drinking cups. Whether any of these scenes can be assigned to a specific Attic festival has been the subject of debate since the early twentieth century, with one camp opting for the Lenaia as the “festival of madwomen,” another for the Anthesteria, and a third suggesting that the scenes are generic or mythical. It is probable that the use of the masked column was not limited to a specific festival, for the vases do not form a coherent group. The scenes of dancing women are consistent with the hypothesis of cultic mainadism in Classical Attica, but they cannot confirm it in the absence of other evidence.22
Mainadism: myth and history
Epigraphic evidence of cultic mainadism from the third century and later can be used to construct a model of Classical mainadic ritual, but there are nagging questions about the origins of Hellenistic mainads: were they the direct recipients of authentic ancient traditions, or were they creatively drawing from poetic descriptions, such as the Bacchae, to “revive” cultic traditions that had long since lapsed? The possibility that the Bacchae may have played an instrumental role in such mainadic revivals is especially relevant to the famous Magnesian mainad inscription. In the reign of Hadrian, a time of keen antiquarian interest, a Hellenistic inscription recording an oracle of Apollo was copied onto a new stone (IMagn. 215). The inscription told how the inhabitants of Magnesia on the Maiandros river consulted Delphi after finding an image of Dionysos in a plane tree. The Pythia told them, “Go to the holy plan of Thebes to get mainads who are from the race of Kadmeian Ino. They will give you orgia (ecstatic rites, or perhaps sacred objects) and noble customs and will establish thiasoi (worship groups) of Bakchos in your city.” The inscription continues with the story of how three Theban mainads were indeed brought to Magnesia and ultimately buried in places of honor. The organization of the Magnesian thiasoi closely follows the scheme laid out in the Bacchae: Kadmos’ daughters Ino, Autonoe, and Agave lead three mainadic groups who rove over Mt. Kithairon. Whether this arrangement reflected Classical Theban ritual practice, we simply do not know. In any case, this inscription, taken together with others, shows that post-Classical mainads were highly respected members of the community, performing state- sponsored and presumably decorous rituals.23
When conducted under state auspices, sacrifices for Dionysos usually followed the same conventions as those for other gods, but non-standard sacrifices are prominent in Dionysiac myth, particularly in mainadic contexts.24 Many Attic vases depict the mainads or Dionysos himself holding the torn remains of an animal, a fawn or goat. This motif refers to a specialized form of sacrifice: the mainads violently tore animals limb from limb (sparagmos). Scholars and late antique sources, particularly the Christian fathers, often assume that mainads ate the raw flesh of animals so sacrificed (oomophagia), but this is less clear. The chorus in the Bacchae (138) speaks of “the joyful act (charis) of eating raw meat,” but they are describing Dionysos’ behavior, not necessarily their own. Later, the raving mainads tear apart a herd of cattle (734-47), but there is no mention of omophagy. The consumption of raw flesh, however, may have played a role in certain Dionysiac mysteries. A fragment of Euripides’ Cretans (472 TrGF) alludes to a sacred meal of raw meat, which formed a stark contrast to the pure vegetarian diet of the initiates. Dionysos Omestes (Raw-Eater) is mentioned already by Alcaeus, a native of Lesbos, and the related epithet Omadios is attested for Chios and Tenedos, where there are rumors of human sacrifice.25 Greek myth is full of accounts of men or infants torn to pieces by the mainads, who fail to distinguish between human and animal quarry, yet there is no credible evidence that such forms of “sacrifice” were regularly practiced in any Greek city.
Delphi and Dionysos
The Panhellenic sanctuary of Delphi, primarily dedicated to Apollo, welcomed Dionysos during the months of winter and early spring, when Apollo was said to be visiting the Hyperboreans. Delphic theology emphasized an intimate fraternal relationship between the two deities. Excavation of the Sacred Way brought to light a stele inscribed in 340/339 with a paian in which Dionysos is urged to appear “in the holy season of spring” for the Theoxenia (Hospitality to the Gods), a festival at which deities were provided with food, drink, and entertainment.26 It also describes major additions to Dionysos’ Delphic cult: the establishment of a sacrifice and dithyrambic competition, the erection of a statue of Bakchos “in a chariot drawn by golden lions” and the building of a grotto “suitable for the holy god.”
Already in the fifth century, tragedians speak of the ecstatic worship of Dionysos high on the slopes of Mt. Parnassos. Here the entourage of Diony- sos, whether mortal women or nymphs, were called Thyiads (Raving Ones), and they are described as scaling the twin peaks above the Korykian cave, roving over the mountain with torches to light their way and wetting the rocks with sacrificial blood.27 No special altar or cult place is mentioned either on the mountain or in the sanctuary itself, though by the fourth century Dionysos and some rather sedate Thyiads, whose fragmentary remains have been recovered, were sculpted in the west pediment of Apollo’s new temple. Like other mainadic festivals, this one took place every other winter; the Thyiads must have experienced great dangers and discomforts on the cold, dark slopes of Parnassos. It would be difficult to believe that Greek women actually danced on the mountain at night, were it not for the testimony of Plutarch (Mor. 249e-f, 953d), who served as a priest at Delphi during the turn of the first century CE. In his day, the Thyiads once had to be rescued when they were caught in a snowstorm on Parnassos. Pausanias (10.4.3) reports that he spoke with Thyiads from Attica, who joined with their Delphic counterparts every other year to perform mysterious rites for Dionysos.
An early spring month Agrionios and a corresponding festival called Agr(i)ania/Agr(i)onia are well attested among the Dorian Greeks and in Boiotia. The name seems to be related to the adjective agrios “wild, savage,” and the myths and rituals associated with this festival involve women who run wild under the influence of Dionysos. What distinguishes the Agriania from other mainadic traditions is the role played by men, who oppose and check the women’s ravings, yet are themselves led by the priest of Dionysos or his surrogate. At Boiotian Orchomenos, the three daughters of Minyas were driven mad when they refused to participate in Dionysiac dances. Tearing apart an infant in their care, they dashed outdoors, only to be chased away as murderers. During the Agrionia, women said to be descended from the Minyads were pursued by a sword-wielding priest of Dionysos who was empowered to kill any woman he caught. Yet if this power was ever more than symbolic, it had lapsed by Plutarch’s day (Quaest. Graec. 299c-300a), when the priest Zoilos actually killed a woman and his family was deprived of the priesthood as a result.
At Argos, we are told, the Agriania was held to honor Iphinoe, another victim of the Dionysiac pursuit. According to Hesiod (fr. 131 M-W), the three daughters of Proitos refused to join Dionysos’ worship and fell into a murderous frenzy, soon joined by the other women and girls of the city. With the strongest youths of the city, the Dionysiac prophet Melampous pursued the women to Sikyon, where Iphinoe met her fate (a fourth-century inscription marking her tomb in the agora has been excavated). Other versions tell how Melampous cured the women of their madness and purified them, marrying one of the surviving daughters and succeeding to the kingship.28 Thus the Agriania, performed on a biennial basis like other mainadic rituals, enacted a dissolution of social order and gender norms followed by a return to stability. The ritual segregation of men and women, not unusual in itself, was escalated into an overt opposition between raving women and pursuing men. The earliest attested version is the Homeric story (Il. 6.130-40) of Thracian Lykourgos, who drove the nurses of raving Dionysos over the sacred plain of Nysa, striking them with an ox-goad while the god himself leapt fearfully into the sea and was received in the bosom of Thetis. King Perseus of Argos carried out a similar pursuit, killing the mainadic Haliai (Sea Women), but ultimately honoring their tombs and founding a temple of Dionysos. These myths probably arose from pursuit rituals like those attested for the Agrionia.29
Wine miracles and the Elean hymn
More than the other Olympian gods, Dionysos is credited with supernatural wonders: springs of wine gush from the ground, thursoi drip with honey, vines spring up in minutes and bear fruit. These miracles are strongly associated with Dionysiac ecstasy (e.g. Eur. Bacch. 699-707) and with the epiphany of the god, particularly in his bull form. Such wonders, including magic “ephemeral” vines that grow and bear fruit in one winter day, are mentioned in Greek tragedies, but it is unclear what role they played in cult during the Archaic and Classical periods.30 Later sources speak of sanctuaries in which miraculous springs of wine were to be found, sometimes in connection with a lesser-known Dionysiac festival, the Theodaisia (God’s Feast). Haliartos in Boiotia celebrated the Theodaisia by the spring Kissousa, where local tradition held that the infant Dionysos was bathed. The water of Kissousa was delicious and “had the color and sparkle of wine,” the result of the holy bath.31 The month name Theodaisios and/or the festival were observed in Kyrene, Rhodes, and Krete, where arrheta (unspoken things) were performed in connection with the Theodaisia of the city Olous. Springs of wine are also found in Ionian contexts. Pliny (HN 2.106, 31.13) says that wine flowed in the sanctuary of Dionysos on the island of Andros for the seven days of the Theodaisia in the winter. Similar wonders are attested for Teos and Naxos, where the miracle was inaugurated when Dionysos and Ariadne met. Based on the little evidence we have, the Theodaisia seems to have been a biennial winter festival, hence mainadic in origin, concerned with the mysteries of the god’s birth and characterized by supernatural signs of his presence.
We see a similar combination of wine miracle, epiphany, and women’s ritual in Elis at the celebration of the Dionysia or Thyia (Raving). According to Pausanias (6.26.1-2), the Eleans believed that Dionysos attended the festival, manifesting himself in the wine. At his sanctuary outside the city, the priests placed three empty pots in a room and sealed the doors in the presence of witnesses. The next day, when the seals were broken, the pots were found filled with wine. Plutarch (Quaest. Graec. 299a-b) reports that the Elean women sang a song of invocation to the god: “Come, hero Dionysos, with the Charites to the holy Elean temple, raving (thuon) to the temple on bovine foot, worthy bull, worthy bull.” This hymn, which scholars consider one of the most ancient attested cult songs, was most likely sung as part of the Thyia. It illustrates the visualization of Dionysos as a bull, a recurrent feature of his worship.32 In the Bacchae, for example, the ecstatic chorus praises Dionysos as the bull-horned god (100) and he appears to the demented Pentheus in the form of a bull (922). The designation of Dionysos as “hero” has not been satisfactorily explained.
Thebes and Semele
The tradition of Dionysos’ birth at Thebes was very ancient, attested by both Homer (Il. 14.323-25) and Hesiod (Theog. 940-42). There the god was called Dionysos Kadmeios because his sanctuary was located on the akropolis (Kadmeia) near that of Demeter. It included the part of the old palace where Kadmos’ daughter Semele, the lover of Zeus, was destroyed by a thunderbolt. In keeping with Greek custom regarding places hit by lightning, the shrine/ tomb (sekos) was delimited by a wall and declared off limits for human feet. Euripides (Bacch. 7-8) describes it as “smoldering with the still-living flame of Zeus,” perhaps an eternal flame of some sort, yet overgrown with lush vines. Centuries later, Pausanias (9.12.3) viewed the same spot, now called the bridechamber (thalamos) of Semele, and was told that the ancient image of Dionysos Kadmeios consisted of a log that fell from heaven with the thunderbolt.
Considering the importance of Thebes in the history of Dionysiac cult, we know surprisingly few specifics about the rituals performed there. The existence of a mainadic ritual conducted on Mt. Kithairon, probably the Agrionia, can be deduced from the myth of Pentheus’ pursuit of the mainads as told in Euripides’ Bacchae. As we have seen, the authority of Thebes in Dionysiac matters was supported by the Delphic oracle, and certain Theban cults were imitated by other cities. For example, the Pythia instructed the Korinthians to obtain the tree from which Pentheus was dragged and to “worship it just like the god.” Two images made of pinewood from Thebes were called Dionysos Lysios (Liberator) and Bakcheios. Sikyon too had a statue of Dionysos Lysios, brought from Thebes at the behest of the oracle, and paired with a Bakcheios. The sanctuary in Sikyon was located beside the theater, and one night each year the citizens escorted the god’s two images to this Dionysion while carrying torches and singing hymns.33 The Athenians practiced a similar ritual with respect to Dionysos Eleuthereus, originally a Boiotian god, who was installed beside the theater. The cult pattern can be traced ultimately to the sanctuary of Dionysos Lysios near the theater at Thebes.
Semele’s cult was observed at both the major Theban sanctuaries of Dionysos, on the Kadmeia and at the theater. Euripides (Phoen. 1755-56) mentions Theban women’s dances in the mountains for Semele. The cult spread to Attica, for Pindar (fr. 75.19 Snell-Maehler) speaks of Athenian “choruses for Semele with her circlet wreath” in a dithyramb composed for the City Dionysia, and the deme Erchia sponsored sacrifices for Dionysos and Semele during the same festival. Scholars often call Semele a “faded” earth goddess because she is shown on Greek vases, like Persephone/Kore and Ge, rising from the earth. The Greeks, however, always thought of her as a heroine who both suffered and transcended mortality. Hesiod notes her special character as a mortal who birthed a god, and narratives about her focus almost exclusively on her death and Dionysos’ descent to the underworld to retrieve her. Every eight years the Delphic Thyiads conducted the Heroi’s, a festival of Semele that included both public rites and secrets kept hidden from men. From what he was able to observe, Plutarch (Mor. 293b-c) concluded that the Heroi’s celebrated the anagoge (bringing up) of Semele from the underworld.34
According to the Ionian philosopher Heraclitus (fr. 15 DK), Hades and Dionysos were the same. The concept of a chthonian, underworld Dionysos who had a role to play in the fate of the soul was widespread, though not fully manifested in state religion. Instead, it was disseminated through private Bakchic mysteries, which seem to have arisen in the late Archaic period. An inscription from a chamber tomb at Cumae in Southern Italy restricts use of the tomb to Bakchic initiates (c. 500). At the other end of the Greek world, Dionysiac mysteries were celebrated in the Black Sea colony of Olbia. Herodotus’ story (4.78-79) of the Skythian king who had himself initiated at Olbia finds support in the excavations there, which yielded a sixth-century mirror inscribed with the names of a couple and the Bakchic ritual cry euai. Here too were collected a scattering of bone tablets from the fifth century, one with the message “life, death, life, truth . . . Dio(nysoi), Orphik(oi).”35 Discoveries like these have made it clear that the movement scholars call Orphism, which consisted of teachings and rituals concerned with the secret knowledge and purifications necessary to achieve a blessed afterlife, overlapped with Dionysiac religion. An esoteric Orphic tradition held that Persephone was the mother of Zagreus, who as a child was torn apart and consumed by the Titans, yet came to life again as Dionysos in the womb of Semele.36 This unique experience meant that Dionysos, in conjunction with Persephone, was able to grant release from the miserable lot of the dead; thus his epithet Lysios (Releaser) had one meaning for the general public and another for the initiate. In the late Classical and Hellenistic periods, many initiates went to their graves with tiny folded leaves of gold, inscribed with the special instructions and passwords they would require. A small trapezoid of beaten gold from a grave at the south Italian city of Hipponion (c. 400) advises its owner to avoid the spring on the right when entering the house of Hades. Instead, she must look for the cold water flowing from the Lake of Memory, and speak the right words to the guardians. If she succeeds, she will “travel a road, a sacred road, which other famous initiates and bakchoi also tread.” Roughly a century later, a Thessalian woman was buried with two gold tablets shaped like ivy leaves positioned over her breasts, tablets which also provided the password to life after death: “Tell Persephone that the Bakchic one himself has set you free!” More than forty of these gold leaves have been uncovered in Thessaly, Krete, Italy, and other sites, witnesses to a form of religious experience that is rarely described in literary sources.37
Plato and other authors speak scornfully of the itinerant prophets who offered initiations and purifications to the ignorant, and it is clear that Orphic/Bakchic initiation did not have the same cultural prestige as the Eleusinian or other state-sponsored mysteries. Instead of journeying as pilgrims to a sanctuary and becoming a member of a public cohort of initiates, Bakchic devotees received initiation privately or as part of a small group from prophets who traveled about plying the family trade with their heirloom sacred books and spoken formulas. (Although written texts seem to have played an important role in the Orphic traditions, recent scholarship on certain hexameter texts from the gold leaves suggests that they can be traced to an oral archetype.)38 The Dionysiac prophets, who induced “telestic madness” as a remedy for physical and spiritual ills, had a long history reaching back to mythic figures like Melampous and Polyeidos. What is less clear is how such rites were related to those of Bakchic thiasoi, particularly those that engaged in mainadism. Euripides’ Bacchae (e.g. 22, 73, 238) is sprinkled with allusions to Dionysos’ teletai, initiatory rites, which were an integral part of the “Theban strand” of his worship.39 The Delphic Thyiads, for example, had a limited membership, generally restricted to females who had experienced teletai preparing them for the mystical aspects of the cult.
Henrichs 1983a provides an excellent, brief survey of Dionysiac religion, and Gould 2001 usefully examines recent scholarly perspectives. Otto 1965 (originally published in 1933) is still essential reading, a sensitive and seminal discussion of “the god who comes.” Carpenter and Faraone eds 1993 collects several excellent essays. Chapter 4, “Orpheus and Egypt,” in Burkert 2004 provides an account of recently discovered texts pertaining to Dionysiac mysteries, with current bibliography. Parker 2005, Chapter 14, provides detailed discussion of the festivals in Athens.