The Cult of Dionysus: Birth, Death, Resurrection, and Raucousness

The Cult of Dionysus makes the Eleusinian Mysteries seem positively sedate. Its members would intoxicate themselves with wine, and this utter inebriation was considered to be actual possession by Dionysus. They would engage in orgies and the like, and, sometimes, violence. As if that wasn't enough, "Added excitement was provided by sacramental communion with the god in the eating of the flesh and drinking of the blood identified with him" (Noss 50). Understandably, this cult was spectacularly popular: it spread from Greece, to Egypt, to Rome, to Italy in the course of a couple hundred years (Brown).

There are several myths about Dionysus' birth, following death, and subsequent resurrection. According to the most popular, Semele was pregnant with Dionysus by Zeus. Zeus promised Semele that he would do anything she wished of him, and she asked him to show her his true form in all its glory. Zeus was forced to appear to her in his true form – as a thunderbolt – and Semele was promptly struck dead. Zeus proceeded to pluck Dionysus from Semele's womb and hid the baby in his side until it was born. When the time was right, Zeus removed him, and Dionysus became the only god of the pantheon who had one parent who was entirely mortal (Hamilton 54). Every year, upon the arrival of winter, Dionysus is shredded apart by Titans on the orders of Zeus' jealous wife, Hera. Every year, Dionysus arises from death, triumphant.

Like Demeter, Dionysus has a strong association with life and death: the "dying of the god is basic to his nature. . ." (Otto 191). "Dionysus. . .is a suffering, dying god who must succumb to the violence of terrible enemies in the midst of the glory of his youthful greatness" (103). Because of this, Dionysus has a strong association with death and the underworld; he is referred to as the lord of souls (49), and, furthermore, "Dionysus. . .is both life and death, for his spirit reveals itself out of the immeasurable depths where life and death are intertwined (190).

Dionysus offered an even more emphatic suggestion of some kind of immortality than did the Eleusinian Mysteries. The ascent and descent of Persephone, and the subsequent summer and winter, were the suggestion of immortality in the Eleusinian Mysteries. But because Persephone was wedded to Hades, and because there are a few stories out there about Persephone in the underworld, she seems like she is quite under the control of the powers of darkness. Dionysus, on the other hand, lacks such stories; on the contrary, the only story about him in the underworld is that of him retrieving his mother, Semele (Hamilton 62). After the rescue, he brought her up to Mount Olympus, and the other gods accepted her even though she was mortal because she was "the mother of a god, and therefore fit to dwell with the immortals" (56).

There are obvious parallels with Christian rites and religion. Dionysus' nature as a god who is part man and who violently dies only to be resurrected obviously corresponds to Jesus' condition. His status as a guardian for man between the worlds of life and death similarly corresponds. Semele playing the part of one who bears a god, suffers, and then ascends clearly echoes the story of the Virgin Mary in many respects, and the symbolic eating of the god is very much like Communion. Furthermore, Riley points out that the first miracle of Jesus was to turn water into wine, a miracle common in Dionysus' temple in the Roman world (128). Furthermore, as earlier mentioned, the Jews of Palestine would have been heavily exposed to Dionysus and Greek Religion, and therefore it does not seem unlikely that such stories would have figured into the creation and development of early Christianity.

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