The Dionysian Mysteries were a ritual of ancient Greece and Rome which used intoxicants and other trance-inducing techniques (like dance and music) to remove inhibitions and social constraints, liberating the individual to return to a natural state. It also provided some liberation for those marginalized by Greek society: women, slaves and foreigners. In their final phase the Mysteries shifted their emphasis from a chthonic, underworld orientation to a transcendental, mystical one, with Dionysus changing his nature accordingly. By its nature as a mystery religion reserved for the initiated, many aspects of the Dionysian cult remain unknown and were lost with the decline of Greco-Roman polytheism; modern knowledge is derived from descriptions, imagery and cross-cultural studies.
The Dionysian Mysteries of mainland Greece and the Roman Empire are thought to have evolved from a more primitive initiatory cult of unknown origin (perhaps Thracian or Phrygian) which had spread throughout the Mediterranean region by the start of the Classical Greek period. Its spread was associated with the dissemination of wine, a sacrament or entheogen with which it appears always to have been closely associated (though mead may have been the original sacrament). Beginning as a simple rite, it evolved quickly within Greek culture into a popular mystery religion, which absorbed a variety of similar cults (and their gods) in a typically Greek synthesis across its territories; one late form was the Orphic Mysteries. However, all stages of this developmental spectrum appear to have continued in parallel throughout the eastern Mediterranean until late in Greek history and forcible Christianization.
Early Dionysus cult
The ecstatic cult of Dionysus was originally thought to be a late arrival in Greece from Thrace or Asia Minor, due to its popularity in both locations and Dionysus' non-integration into the Olympian Pantheon. After the deity's name was discovered on Mycenean Linear B tablets, however, this theory was abandoned and the cult is considered indigenous, predating Greek civilization. The absence of an early Olympian Dionysus is today explained by patterns of social exclusion and the cult's marginality, rather than chronology. Whether the cult originated on Minoan Crete (as an aspect of an ancient Zagreus) or Africa – or in Thrace or Asia, as a proto-Sabazius – is unanswerable, due to lack of evidence. Some scholars believe it was an adopted cult not native to any of these places and may have been an eclectic cult in its earliest history, although it almost certainly obtained many familiar features from Minoan culture.
Role of wine
The original rite of Dionysus (as introduced into Greece) is associated with a wine cult (not unlike the entheogenic cults of ancient Central America), concerned with the grapevine's cultivation and an understanding of its life cycle (believed to have embodied the living god) and the fermentation of wine from its dismembered body (associated with the god's essence in the underworld). Most importantly, however, the intoxicating and disinhibiting effects of wine were regarded as due to possession by the god's spirit (and, later, as causing this possession). Wine was also poured on the earth and its growing vine, completing the cycle. The cult was not solely concerned with the vine itself, but also with the other components of wine. Wine includes other ingredients (herbal, floral and resinous) adding to its quality, flavour and medicinal properties. Scholars have suggested that, given the low alcoholic content of early wine, its effects may have been due to an additional entheogenic ingredient in its sacramental form. Honey and beeswax were often added to wine, introducing an even older drink (mead). Károly Kerényi postulated that this wine lore superseded (and partly absorbed) earlier Neolithic mead lore involving bee swarms associated by the Greeks with Dionysus. Mead and beer (with its cereal base) were incorporated into the domain of Dionysus, perhaps through his identification with the Thracian corn deity Sabazius.
Other plants believed to be viniculturally significant were also included in wine lore such as ivy (thought to counteract drunkenness—thus the opposite of the grapevine—and seen as blooming in winter instead of summer); the fig (a purgative of toxins) and the pine (a wine preservative). The bull (from whose horn wine was drunk) and goat (whose flesh provided wineskins, and whose browsing pruned the vines) were also part of the cult, eventually seen as manifestations of Dionysus. Some of these associations had been linked with fertility deities (like Dionysus) and became part of his new role. An understanding of vinicultural lore and its symbolism is key to understanding the cult which emerged from it, assuming a significance other than winemaking that would encompass life, death and rebirth and providing insight into human psychology.
Assuming the Dionysus cult arrived in Greece with the importation of wine, it probably first emerged about 6000 BC in one of two places—the Zagros Mountains and borderlands of Mesopotamia and Persia (with a rich wine culture via Asia Minor), or from wild vines on the mountain slopes of Libya and other regions in North Africa. The latter provided wine to ancient Egypt wine from about 2500 BC, and was home to ecstatic rites involving animal possession—notably the goat and panther men of the Aissaoua Sufi cult of Morocco (although this cult may have been influenced by the Dionysian one). In any case Minoan Crete was the next link in the chain, importing wine from the Egyptians, Thracians and Phoenicians and exporting it to its colonies (such as Greece). The Mysteries probably took shape in Minoan Crete from about 3000 to 1000 BC, since the name "Dionysus" exists nowhere other than Crete and Greece.
The rites were based on a seasonal death-rebirth theme (common among agricultural cults) and spirit possession; the Osirian Mysteries paralleled the Dionysian, according to contemporary Greek and Egyptian observers. Spirit possession involved liberation from civilization's rules and constraints. It celebrated that which was outside civilized society and a return to primordial nature—which would later assume mystical overtones. It also involved escape from the socialized personality and ego into an ecstatic, deified state or the primal herd (sometimes both). In this sense Dionysus was the beast-god within, or the unconscious mind of modern psychology. Such activity has been interpreted as fertilizing, invigorating, cathartic, liberating and transformative, so it is not surprising that many devotees of Dionysus were those on the margins of society: women, slaves, outlaws and "foreigners" (non-citizens, in Greek democracy). All were equal in a cult that inverted their roles, similar to the Roman Saturnalia. Although the Greek Dionysian rites were associated with women, the cult officers' titles were of both genders—belying the claim that the cult was solely for women.
The trance induction central to the cult involved not only chemognosis, but an "invocation of spirit" with the bullroarer and communal dancing to drum and pipe. The trances are described in familiar anthropological terms, with characteristic movements (such as the backward head flick found in all trance-inducing cults) found today in Afro-American Vodou and its counterparts. As in Vodou rites, certain rhythms were associated with the trance. Rhythms are also found preserved in Greek prose referring to the Dionysian rites (such as Euripides' The Bacchae). This collection of classical quotes describes rites in the Greek countryside in the mountains, to which processions were made on feast days:
- Following the torches as they dipped and swayed in the darkness, they climbed mountain paths with head thrown back and eyes glazed, dancing to the beat of the drum which stirred their blood' [or 'staggered drunkenly with what was known as the Dionysus gait']. 'In this state of ekstasis or enthusiasmos, they abandoned themselves, dancing wildly and shouting 'Euoi!' [the god's name] and at that moment of intense rapture became identified with the god himself. They became filled with his spirit and acquired divine powers.
This practice is demonstrated in Greek culture by the Bacchanals of the Maenads, Thyiades and Bacchoi; many Greek rulers considered the cult a threat to civilized society and wished to control it (if not suppress it altogether). The latter failed; the former would succeed in the foundation of a domesticated Dionysianism as a state religion in Athens. This was but one form of Dionysianism—a cult which assumed different forms in different localities (often absorbing indigenous divinities and their rites, as did Dionysus himself). The Greek Bacchoi claimed that, like wine, Dionysus had a different flavour in different regions; reflecting their mythical and cultural soil, he appeared under different names and appearances in different regions.
Emergence and evolution
The mystery religions consisted of a series of initiations, benefiting the individual or their society. Initially associated with puberty, they later became an evolutionary rite. It was in the form of a mystery religion that the cult of Dionysus evolved, probably in the civilization of Minoan Crete. The rationale for the Dionysian Mysteries was to affirm the primeval, bestial side of mankind, while integrating it into civilization. The dual role of Ariadne (as Mistress of the Minoan Labyrinth and consort of Dionysus) and the Minotaur story may derive from the mastery of mankind's animal nature. The self-mastery thus achieved was not one of domination, as in similar cults (George and the Dragon, and the original Minotaur myth), but one of integration. While the Mysteries lightened the cult's darker aspects, they failed to reassure its civilized critics and were regarded as dangerously liberative (particularly in their egalitarianism).
In Athens, spiritual possession was channelled into dramatic masked rituals within the Bacchic Thiasos (Greek equivalent of a coven or lodge), sowing the seeds of acting and theatre—crafts sacred to Dionysus, in the forms of tragedy and comedy. The Dionysian Mysteries were seen not only as recognizing and casting off the repressive, over-civilised masks all humans wear and the realisation of true human nature—the creation of new, authentic masks, the deeper function of drama and comedy (in other words, the development of genuine character rather than a socialised persona). In time, as Dionysus became less bestial and more mystical with the general shift of pagan orientation, this was viewed as the preservation of the soul and the survival of death. These themes would become central to the later Orphic manifestations of Dionysianism that would influence early Christianity (according to Roman commentators, but denounced as a devilish mockery of Christ by Justin Martyr).
Male initiation rituals
The basic rituals for men involved identifying with the god Dionysus in an enactment of his life, death and rebirth (including some form of ordeal). This involved a ritualised descent into the underworld or katabasis, often performed in caverns or catacombs (sometimes, more symbolically, in temples). This process was an original part of the rites; one form of it may be seen in Aristophanes' play The Frogs (405 BC). The Frogs features the descent of Dionysus into Hades with the aid of a surreal chorus of amphibious guardians and his half-brother Heracles (who also appears in the iconography of the Dionysian Mysteries). In these narratives someone (or something) is sought after and brought back, with varying degrees of success. However, in classical Greek culture this probably involved more theatre (with the initiate playing the role of the Heroes) than the spirit-possession of the original rites. Following this, there was communion with the god through shared wine. The initiate was then known as a "Bacchus" (the alternative name for Dionysus), shown the secret contents of the liknon and presented with the thyrsos wand.
Female initiation rituals
In contrast, the female initiate was prepared as Ariadne (bride of Dionysus), and united with him in the underworld. In reference to this, the ritual symbol of Dionysus—hidden in the liknon until the culmination of the female rites—was first a goat's penis, and later a fig-wood phallus. After this rite, she participated in a similar communion or wedding feast. Flagellation also seems to have been a basic ordeal (at least for women, according to depictions of Dionysian initiations), and there may have been ritualised hangings. The female rituals took place at the same time as the traditional Dionysian revelries.
Villa of the Mysteries
Insight into the female initiation process may be gained through the murals of the Bacchic Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii. Here a series of murals painted on the walls of an initiation chamber have been almost perfectly preserved after the eruption of Vesuvius, although there is controversy about its interpretation.
- The first mural shows a noble Roman woman (possibly the initiate's mother, who can cross no further) approaching a priestess or matron seated on a throne, by which stands a small boy reading a scroll – presumably the declaration of the initiation. On the other side of the throne the young initiate is shown in a purple robe and myrtle crown, holding a sprig of laurel and a tray of cakes. She appears to have been transformed into a serving girl, but may be bringing an offering to the god or goddess.
- The second mural depicts another priestess (or senior initiate) and her assistants preparing the liknon basket; at her feet are mysterious mushroom-shaped objects. At one side a sileni (a horse element) is playing a lyre. (Silenus was the tutor and companion of Dionysus.)
- The third mural shows a satyr playing the panpipes and a nymph suckling a goat, in an Arcadian scene. To their right, the initiate is in a panic. This is the last time we see her for a few scenes; when she appears again, she has changed. Some scholars think katabasis has occurred.
- In the direction to which she stares in horror, another mural shows a young satyr being offered a bowl of wine by Silenus while behind him, another satyr holds up a frightening mask which the drinking satyr sees reflected in the bowl (this may parallel the mirror into which young Dionysus stares in the Orphic rites). Next to them sits a goddess (Ariadne or Semele), with Dionysus/Bacchus lying across her lap.
- The next mural shows the initiate returning. She now carries a staff and wears a cap, items often presented after the successful completion of an initiation ordeal. She kneels before the priestess, and appears to be whipped by a winged female figure. Next to her is a dancing figure (a Maenad or Thyiad) and a gowned figure with a thyrsus (an initiation symbol of Dionysus) made of long stalks of wrapped fennel, with a pine cone on top.
- In her penultimate appearance we see her being prepared with new clothes, while Eros holds up a mirror to her. After this scene, there is another image of Eros.
- Finally, the initiate is shown enthroned and in an elaborate costume. This is all we know of the Roman rites of initiation.
The evolution of Dionysianism continued in the Roman Empire with the Bacchic Mysteries (as they were known in Italy after their arrival in 200 BC). Dionysus merged with the local fertility god Liber (whose consort, Libera, inspired the Statue of Liberty). The Roman Bacchic cult emphasised sexuality, inventing terrifying ordeals for its Mystery initiation. It was this aspect which caused the cult to be banned by Roman authorities in 186 BC, for sexual abuse and other criminal activities (including murder). Whether these charges were true is unknown; there may have been individual cases of corruption but there is no evidence of widespread abuse. Scholarly opinion is that these were trumped-up charges levelled against a cult perceived as a danger to the state. The Roman Senate sought to ban Dionysian rites throughout the Empire, restricting their gatherings to a handful of people under special license in Rome. However, this only succeeded in pushing the cult underground. They gained further notoriety due to claims that the wife of Spartacus (leader of the Slave Revolt of 73BC) was an initiate of the Thracian Mysteries of Dionysus and considered her husband an incarnation of Dionysus Liber. The Mysteries were revived in a tamer form under Julius Caesar around 50 BC, with his onetime ally Mark Antony becoming an enthusiastic devotee and obtaining popular support. They remained in existence (along with their carnivalesque Bacchanalian street processions) until at least the time of Augustine (A.D. 354–430) and were an institution in most Romanised provinces.
Mystery and public rites
The Dionysian Mysteries are believed to have consisted of two sets of rites: the secret rites of initiation and the public rites, or Dionysia. The public rites are believed to be the older of the two. In Athens and classical Attica, the main festivities were held in the month of Elaphebolion (around the time of the spring equinox). The greater (or city) Dionysia had evolved into a dramatic festival; Dionysus was the god of acting, music and poetry for the Athenians, and the festival became an urban carnival (or Komos). Its older precursor was the lesser (or rural) Dionysia, which preserved ancient customs centred on celebrating the first wine. This festival was timed to coincide with the "clearing of the wine" (a final stage in the fermentation process), which occurred during the first cold snap after the winter solstice when Dionysus was said to be reborn.
In contrast with the daytime festivities of the Athenian Dionysia were the biennial nocturnal rites of the Tristeria, held on Mount Parnassus in winter. These celebrated the emergence of Dionysus from the underworld, with orgies (orgia) in the mountains. The first day was presided over by the Maenads in their state of Mainomenos (madness), during which animals—and perhaps humans—were hunted, torn apart with bare hands and eaten raw. This was the Sparagmos, once associated with goat sacrifice and marking the harvest (and trampling) of the vine. The second day saw the Bacchic nymphs in their Thyiadic state. Although still orgiastic, this was a more sensual and benign bacchanal (assisted by satyrs). Mythographers claim that the Maenads (or wild women) resisted the Bacchic urge and were driven mad, while the Thyiades accepted the Dionysian ecstasy and kept their sanity.
While the Athenians celebrated Dionysus in various one-day festivals (including those during the Eleusinian Mysteries), a far older tradition was the two-year cycle where the death and absence of Dionysus (in his aspect of Dionysus Chthonios, Lord of the Underworld) was mourned for a year. During the second year, his resurrection (as Dionysus Bacchus) was celebrated at the Tristeria and other festivals (including one marked by the rising of Sirius). Why this period was adopted is unknown, although it may have reflected a long fermentation period. All the oldest Dionysian rites reflected stages in the wine-production process; only later did the Athenians (and others) synchronise the Bacchic festivities with agricultural seasons.
The first large-scale religious worship of Dionysus in Greece seems to have begun in Thebes about 1500 BC, around a thousand years before the development of the Athenian Mysteries. Cultic worship of Dionysus (and his mother Semele, a moon goddess) was performed in the earliest Dionysian temples (usually located beyond the city walls, on the edges of swamps and marshes). Its first rituals probably originated in the Mycenaean period, but were probably similar (even in classical times) to rites still held on Greek islands such as Keos and Tenedos. Here the first wine was offered to Dionysus and the now-growing vine; a bull was sacrificed with a double axe, and its blood mixed with the wine.
There are indications that at one time the sacrificer of the sacred bull was himself then stoned to death, although this became a symbolic act quite early. The more-economical practise of goat sacrifice was later added to the rites. The goat (like the bull) was regarded as a manifestation of Dionysus. However, it was also seen as the "killer of the vine" by eating it—welcome in times of pruning, less so in times of growth. The death of the goat could thus be interpreted as a combined sacrifice of Dionysus and the sacrificer. The goat was usually torn apart, as the vine had been at harvest. Other archaic rites found on Greek islands include festivals to his consort Ariadne, which include a tree-swinging game (said to date to a time when Ariadne hanged herself from a tree). In Rome the Bacchanalia (a milder form of the Tristeria) were held in secret and originally attended by women only; they were held over three days (around March 16 and 17), in the grove of Simila near the Aventine Hill. Admission to the rites was then opened to men, and celebrations took place five times a month. Initiation could take place at any of these times.
Within the public rituals were the secret rites of initiation, the public festivals largely setting the stage for these private rites:
- "Whatsoever may have remained to represent the original intent of the rites, regarded as Rites of Initiation, the externalities and practice of the Festivals were orgies of wine and sex: there was every kind of drunkenness and every aberration of sex, the one leading up to the other. Over all reigned the Phallus, which—in its symbolism à rebours—represented post ejaculationem the death-state of Bacchus, the god of pleasure, and his resurrection when it was in forma arrecta. Of such was the sorrow and of such the joy of these Mysteries".
The phallus appears to have been a connecting link between the outer and inner rites. Not only was it prominent in the Bacchic carnival in Rome (carried by the Phallophoroi at the head of the procession), it also appears to have been the secret object in the liknon (the sacred basket, or Arc, revealed only after final initiation). Other possible contents could have been sacred fruit, leaves or loaves (possibly with entheogenic qualities). Some sources suggest that the phallus was made from fig wood (Prosymnus), while even older sources indicate it may have once been the phallus of a sacrificed goat. The contents probably changed over the centuries and in different modes of initiation, the general idea being that the final stage of the initiation involved the revelation of the god in one form or another.
Temple and officers
The sacred loci of the Dionysian Mysteries have varied over time and place, as the rituals themselves have. The earliest rites took place in the wilderness—in the forests, the marshes and in the mountains (where the low oxygen content is suitable for trance induction). Later the priest would simply cast his staff into the ground at a suitable location, and hang a mask and animal skin from it; the circle around this centre was the sacred precinct for however long the staff remained. This practise became archaic, but was revived by the nomadic healers of the Orphic Mysteries. In classical times temples were built for Dionysus, the earliest being circular buildings open to the sky—probably the origin of Greek theatres and forums—and later no different from any other Greek temple as Dionysus was assimilated. The lenos (the building that housed the wine press) also became a temple to Bacchus, and was often solely used as such. Underground chambers were often used for initiations, which may have originally taken place in natural caves (particularly those by the shoreline). Although boundary zones were sacred to Dionysus, by the final days of the cult any temple could be dedicated or rededicated to him.
Most mystery religions had a hierarchy of priests maintaining them, but it is uncertain if this was the case with the Dionysian Mysteries. The Orphic texts of the late period record a boukolos (or "cowherd") as an offerer of sacrifice, sayer of prayers, and hymn singer, who seems to have been the equivalent of a priest. Other inscriptions record an archiboukolos ("chief cowherd") presiding over the boukoloi; in some records there is also mention of boukoloi hieroi ("holy cowherders") as well as hymnodidaskaloi ("hymn teachers"). According to Athenian sources, when the Dionysus cult was state-controlled a high priest (hierophant) and a high priestess (referred to in Rome as the matrona, with two assistant priestesses) were appointed as overseers. One late text describes a complex hierarchy of three archiboukoloi, seven boukoloi hieroi and eleven boukoloi. The names of many senior priests and priestesses reveal them to be aristocrats, although the high priest in at least one text has the name of a slave (indicating equality within the cult, where slaves and masters were encouraged to exchange roles). There is no evidence of a complex hierarchy in the Bacchic Mysteries of Rome, which seem to have been presided over by a Domina and Dominus (priestess and priest), so it is possible that only the Athenian form of the Mysteries and the Orphic religion had this structure. The original Mysteries of Dionysus seem to have had no hierarchy at all; only ritual functionaries (such as the Phallophoroi) are mentioned, the rest being participant Bacchoi, Thyiades or Maenads. However, a key role was always reserved for the Heroes and his "bride" (who were possessed by the god), and initiates may have played officiating roles in this process.
- Kantharos, drinking cup with large handles, originally the rhyton (drinking horn from a bull), later a kylix, or wine goblet
- Thyrsos, long wand with pine cone on top, carried by initiates and those possessed by the god
- Stave, once cast into ground to mark ritual space
- Krater, mixing bowl
- Flagellum, a scourge
- Minoan double axe, once used for sacrificial rites, later replaced by the Greek kopis (curved dagger)
- Retis, hunter's net
- Laurel crown and cloak, purple robe, or leopard or fawnskin nebix
- Hunting boots
- Persona masks
- Salpinx, long, straight trumpet
- Pan flute
- Tympanon, a frame drum
- Liknon, sacred basket with fig
Traditional offerings to Dionysus
Animals sacred to Dionysus
The bull and goat and their "enemies", the panther (or any big cat – after the Greeks colonized part of India, Shiva's tiger sometimes replaced the traditional panther or leopard) and the serpent (probably derived from Sabazius, but also found in North African cults); in addition, the fawn/deer, the fox, the dolphin, the lion, the bat and the bee.
Invocation of Dionysus (from Orphic hymns)
- "I call upon loud-roaring and revelling Dionysus,
- primeval, double-natured, thrice-born, Bacchic lord,
- wild, ineffable, secretive, two-horned and two-shaped.
- Ivy-covered, bull-faced, warlike, howling, pure,
- You take raw flesh, you have feasts, wrapt in foliage, decked with grape clusters.
- Resourceful Eubouleus, immortal god sired by Zeus
- When he mated with Persephone in unspeakable union.
- Hearken to my voice, O blessed one,
- and with your fair-girdled nymphs breathe on me in a spirit of perfect agape".
- "In intoxication, physical or spiritual, the initiate recovers an intensity of feeling which prudence had destroyed; he finds the world full of delight and beauty, and his imagination is suddenly :liberated from the prison of everyday preoccupations. The Bacchic ritual produced what was called 'enthusiasm', which means etymologically having the god enter the worshipper, who believed :that he became one with the god".
- Rostovtzeff, M. Rome (translated from the Russian by J. D. Duff). London: Oxford University Press (1960), pp. 93–94.
- Die Religion der Griechen und Römer (The Religion of the Greeks and Romans), (1963).
- Aziz, Robert (1990). C.G. Jung's Psychology of Religion and Synchronicity (10 ed.). The State University of New York Press. ISBN 0-7914-0166-9.
- An altered state caused by drug use.
- Hoyle, Peter, Delphi, London : Cassell, 1967. Cf. p. 76.
- Linda Fierz-David, Katherine Bradway, Nor Hall, and Mary Beard are several excellent sources on interpreting these murals.
- A. E. Waite, New Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry.
- Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy.
- Merkelbach, Reinhold, Die Hirten des Dionysos. Die Dionysos-Mysterien der römischen Kaiserzeit und der bukolische Roman des Longus (Stuttgart, Teubner, 1988).
- Padilla, Mark William (editor), "Rites of Passage in Ancient Greece: Literature, Religion, Society", Bucknell University Press, 1999.
- Brigitte Le Guen, Les Associations de Technites dionysiaques à l'époque hellénistique, 2 vol. (Nancy, 2001).
- Sophia Aneziri, Die Vereine der dionysischen Techniten im Kontext der hellenistischen Gesellschaft (Stuttgart, 2003).
- Michael B. Cosmopoulos (ed), Greek Mysteries: the archaeology and ritual of ancient Greek secret cults (London, Routledge, 2003).
- Delneri, Francesca, I culti misterici stranieri nei frammenti della commedia attica antica (Bologna, Patron Editore, 2006) (Eikasmos, Studi, 13).
- Giovanni Casadio and Patricia A. Johnston (eds), Mystic Cults in Magna Graecia (Austin, TX, University of Texas Press, 2009).
- Hugh Bowden, Mystery Cults of the Ancient World (Princeton, Princeton UP, 2010).
- Richard Noll, Mysteria: Jung and the Ancient Mysteries (unpublished page proofs, 1994)https://www.academia.edu/6698999/Mysteria_Jung_and_the_Ancient_Mysteries_1994_uncorrected_page_proofs_of_a_book_cancelled_prior_to_publication_due_to_objections_by_the_Jung_family_