At the most basic level, Dionysus is the son of the immortal god Zeus, and the mortal Semele, daughter of Cadmus. This coupling of immortal and mortal means that Dionysus is a demigod, and shares the characteristics of men and gods. The character of Dionysus embodies many seemingly contradictory ideals and philosophies, which is best summed up in a line from The Bacchae, “And he shall know Dionysus, son of Zeus, in his full nature God, most terrible, although most gentle to mankind.” Dionysus is both a blessing and a curse upon humanity; those who acknowledge and respect his power gain freedom through his Bacchic rites and the power of wine, while those who mock his worship (such as the ignorant Pentheus) are duly punished in horrific fashion.
The manner of Dionysus’ birth (or births) could perhaps be responsible for the dual nature of this god. Zeus was forced to kill Dionysus’ mother Semele in order to protect the as yet unborn god from the terrible wrath of Hera. His mother incinerated by Zeus’ thunderbolt, Dionysus was then secured in Zeus’ thigh with a set of golden pins, and remained hidden here until fully developed. Zeus then “gave birth” to Dionysus again, so Dionysus had been born a second time. The fact that Dionysus had been born of both man and woman could explain why he seems to possess both male and female characteristics. His long hair, pale skin and soft hands are all characteristics of a woman, yet when not in the form of a man Dionysus takes the form of a bull, which is the traditional representation of power and masculinity. Dionysus’ power over women could also be seen as a masculine trait.
In The Bacchae, Dionysus represents release from the restrictive nature of ancient Greek society, particularly for women who were heavily oppressed by the male-orientated nature of Greek society. The worship of Dionysus was a way to be free from the rules and regulations of city life, and people could become one with nature and their emotions. It is easy to see why the worship of Dionysus was popular throughout much of the ancient world, including Greece, Egypt, Rome and Italy. However, Dionysus is represented in The Bacchae as being a calm and rational individual, in stark contrast to Pentheus’ fiery, impetuous nature. This is somewhat ironic as we would naturally expect Dionysus to be the passionate one, and Pentheus the reserved one, however this is quite the opposite. Dionysus antagonises Pentheus by evading his questions, and he seduces him by playing on his secret desires and insecurities. Pentheus, on the other hand, is quick to anger, and is easily frustrated by Dionysus’ calm demeanour. When confronted with a problem such as that of the women of Thebes, Pentheus’ immediate response is to solve the problem using military strength and violence. He is short-sighted and arrogant, which eventually leads to his downfall.
Dionysus also represents the irresistible forces of nature, as the Bacchants (those who worship Dionysus) become one with nature, sometimes peacefully, sometimes not. While undisturbed by man the Maenads dance ecstatically, breastfeed animals and twine snakes in their hair. They are not harmed by otherwise deadly animals, and much like the legendary musician Orpheus music is a major part of their lives. The Bacchic drums provide the music for the Bacchants’ revels, and they also wear many symbols of nature on their bodies. The crown of ivy and the fawn skin are typical of the Bacchants, and they represent their total abandonment to the forces of nature.
Dionysus could also be seen as a Christ-like figure, as the rites used to celebrate Dionysus are very similar to those used to celebrate the Christian God. Dionysus is often said to take the form of a wild animal such as a deer, and yet his followers often tear apart and consume these animals as part of their worship of him. In this way, the Bacchants are in fact eating the body of the god himself. This has obvious parallels with the Christian Eucharist, during which bread and wine are blessed and are transformed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ, which is then eaten and drunk by the congregation. In this way, the god becomes one with his worshippers, and they are infused with his holy power.
The role Dionysus plays in human affairs is also comparable to the role that Christ plays. They could both be said to be saviours of Mankind, but the nature of their salvation is very different. Jesus died on the cross as a sacrifice to free the world from the shackles of sin, whereas Dionysus gives us the gift of the vine, which is a way of numbing the pain of life, and he also gives us freedom from the boundaries of civilised society and promises a return to nature and to baser instincts.