The Miracles of Dionysos

[ Follow Ups ] [ Post Followup ] [ Old Message Board ] [ Greek Connection ]

Posted by Achilles on May 21, 2002 at 23:48:25:

The Miracles of Dionysos

by Sannion

There are moments when the ordinary and the uncanny overlap. When the divine and the tempral merge. When the Gods break through and touch our lives in some unexpected manner. These moments, rare and beautiful and full of incredible personal meaning, are by definition, miracles. Dionysos, both today and in antiquity, is the God most closely associated with epiphanies and miracles. Here are some of the ways in which Dionysos, the God Who Appears, has made himself known in the past.

Wine Miracles

Wine is so closely associated with Dionysos that for most Dionysos is simply the God of wine and drunkenness, the lord of the vine's sweet harvest. Anyone who will bother to scratch the surface will see that there is more to him than this, but it is important to remember too that, no matter how far he wanders, how great the extent of his power, the God always has the wine-cup in his hand. Therefore it's not surprising to count the great number of Dionysian miracles that involve wine.

Perhaps the earliest of these involves the origin of the vine and grapes. According to the Orphics, when the young Dionysos was torn apart by the ferocious Titans, his blood splattered on the ground, and from that spot rose the vine, thick with clusters of red grapes, resembling the drops of blood that had been shed. The grapes, then, contain a part of Dionysos within them, and whenever we crush the grapes, and drink their juice, we are drinking the God. It was Dionysos who taught man the art of fermenting the juice of the vine, and how to pour libations during festivals (Ovid's Fasti 3.727). As Euripides puts it in the Bakkhai, "Himself a God, he is poured out to the other Gods, so that from him we mortals have what's good in life." (332-35)

In myth, the wine of Dionysos figures prominantly. It calms the angry Hephaistos, allowing Dionysos to talk sense into him (the Caeretan vase, as well as others), it overcomes the unstoppable hermaphrodite monster Agdistis (Pausanias 7.17.9-12), and Dionysos' maenad companions often bring up springs of wine and milk simply by striking the ground with their thyrsoi (Euripides' Bakkhai 708).

Achilles Tatius, in his delightful romance The Adventures of Leucippe and Clitophon (2.2-3) recounts the story of how Dionysos first introduced wine to mankind. Icarius was a kindly farmer and herdsman, and one day Dionysos came to visit him. He set before the God a fine meal, but in those days men had no great refreshments - they drank the same water as their oxen. Dionysos thanked the herdsman for his hospitality, and pledged him in a friendly cup. But instead of water, Icarius found the God's own wine. He was very excited, and begged the God to know how such fine drink was made. Dionysos told him where it came from, and how to ferment the grapes and make wine. The manufacture of wine spread from there, and a festival was established to honor the God's gift to man.

A number of miracles are associated with wine and grape harvests. Pausanias recounts a curious occurance in Ellis, which happened during the Dionysian festival of the Thyia, which the God was thought to attend regularly. "The place where they hold the Thyia is about eight stades from the city. Three pots are brought into the building and set down empty in the presence of citizens and of any strangers who may chance to be in the country. The doors of the building are sealed by the priests themselves and by any others who may be so inclined. On the morrow they are allowed to examine the seals, and on going into the building they find the pots filled with wine. I did not myself arrive at the time of the festival, but the most respected Elean citizens, and with them strangers also, swore that what I have said is the truth. The Andrians too assert that every other year at their feast of Dionysos wine flows of it's own accord from the sanctuary." (Description of Greece, 6. 26.1-2)

Both Didorus Siculus and Pliny the Elder talk of fountains of wine that flowed by themselves from the ground, and of spring water from his temple which had the flavor of wine on festival days (Library of History, 3.66.1-2; Natural History, 2.106, 31.13).

Later, when the Christians wished to lend their God legitimacy, they would claim that his first miracle mimicked those of Dionysos, by turning water into wine (John 2-3). Although they would also claim that Jesus was the "True vine" (John 15) the people knew otherwise, and continued calling out the name of Dionysos during the treading of the grapes, even after a Council of Constantinople in 691 CE forbid them to do so, or to wear satyr masks while they worked. (Carl Kerenyi, Dionysos pg 67)

Miracles of Growth

According to Carl Kerenyi, it was not intoxication which was the essential element of the religion of Dionysos, but the "quiet, powerful, vegetative element which ultimately engulfed even the ancient theaters, as at Cumae." (Dionysos, pg xxiv) For Jane Ellen Harrison, Dionysos was more than just the God of the Vine: he was "Dendrites, Tree-God, and a plant god in a far wider sense. He is god of the fig-tree, Sykites; he is Kissos, god of the ivy; he is Anthios, god of all blossoming things; he is Phytalmios, god of growth." (Prolegomena pg 426) In short, he is the God of the impulse of life in nature, a God of growth and the green earth. And there are a whole range of miracles associated with this aspect of his being.

Whenever Dionysos appears, he does so attended by wild vegtation, whether it is with the vines of ivy and lush grapes he wears in his hair (Orphic Hymn 30), or that entwines itself around pillars and altars (Euripides' Antiope 203), a face appearing in a plane tree that has been split asunder (Kern's Inschr. von M. 215), or in a burst of beautiful flowers (Pindar fr.75). When Dionysos finally reveals himself in fullness to the Tyrrhenian pirates, it is through vegetation. "Then in an instant a vine, running along the topmost edge of the sail, sprang up and sent out its branches in every direction heavy with thick-hanging clusters of grapes, and around the mast cloud dark-leaved ivy, rich in blossoms and bright with ripe berries, and garlands crowned every tholepin." (Homeric Hymn 7)

In a number of places, but most famously at Parnassus, miracles of the "one-day vines" occurred. These vines "flowered and bore fruit in the course of a few hours during the festivals of the epiphany of the God." (Walter Otto, Dionysus pg 98). Sophocles in his Thyestes records that in Euboea, one could watch the holy vine grow green in the early morning. By noon the grapes were already forming, and by evening the dark and heavy fruit could be cut down, and a drink made from them. (fr. 234) Euphorion tells us that this miracle was related to the performance of cultic dances and the singing of choral hymns by the God's followers in Aigia - that it was their celebration which caused the vines to grow. (Euphorionis Fragmenta 118)

Ovid recounts a wonderful story that reveals Dionysos' power, not only over the vine and ivy, but over all vegetation. Anius was the king of Delos, and he had three daughters who served Dionysos well as priestesses. During a famine, the God appeared to them, and gave them the power to produce corn, oil, and wine for their people, simply by touching the ground. This wonderful gift almost proved their downfall, as Agamemnon tried to abduct the girls to feed his men at Troy, but they called out to Dionysos in prayer, and he turned them into white doves, so that they could escape. (Metamorphoses 13.628-704)

Other Miracles

There are a number of Dionysian miracles which are not connected to the natural or vegetative aspects of the God. Such miracles would be those connected with Dionysos as a supernatural and supremely powerful being, or with the sphere of madness and ecstacy which are uniquely his.

For Walter Otto, it is impossible to understand Dionysos, except through madness. Madness is a state of intense emotional overflowing, when our small rational minds are swallowed up by a far greater thing - the beautiful but terrible Mad God himself, Dionysos - and for a brief moment, we see the world and ourselves as we truly are. In this sublime state of ecstacy, when we feel our soul to be touched by the hand of God, the most amazing things are possible. Euripides in the Bakkhai describes some of the miracles that the maenads or mad women accomplished, while possessed by Dionysos. They raise up fountains of wine, milk, and honey. (710) They gird themselves with snakes, and give suck to fawns and wolf cubs as if they were infants at the breast. (699) Fire, swords, and rocks fail to harm them. (767) They can tear live bulls apart with their bare hands. (743) And they can uproot sturdy, full-grown trees. (1109)

Dionysos revealed his supreme divinity through a number of signs. He descended into the underworld to raise up the spirit of his beloved mother. (Homeric Hymn 2) He transformed Ariadne into a Goddess, and put her bridal crown in the heavens as the Corona Borealis. (Odyssey 11.324) He slew giants and monsters. (Numerous passages in Nonnos' Dionysiaka) After conquering and civilizing the peoples of the East, he founded a temple to the Great Mother of the Gods. (Lucian's De Dea Syria 16) And he moved the very heavens to create the constellations Asellus Borealis, Lyra, Aries, Bootes, Virgo, and the dog-star Sirius. (Hyginus' Poetica Astronomica 2.17; 2.23; 2.4; 2.7)

Such are the many wonderful things that Dionysos did in the past. But do not think that that is all that he did, or that his miracles ceased at some point in his history. Indeed, he still acts in the world, and I have felt his gentle touch on many an occasion. The purpose of this article has been to make you aware of how he has acted in the past, that you might better be able to see when he makes his appearance in your life.


The Ancient Mysteries; a Sourcebook - Marvin W. Meyer HarperCollins ISBN 0-06-065576

Dionysus: Myth and Cult - Walter Otto Indiana ISBN 0-253-20891-2

The Gods of the Greeks - Carl Kerenyi Thames and Hudon ISBN 0-500-27048-1

Masks of Dionysus - Thomas H. Carpenter & Christopher A. Faraone Cornell ISBN 0-8014-8062-0

Polegomena to the Study of Greek Religion Hane Ellen Harrison Princeton ISBN 0-691-01514-7

Ovid's Fasti trans. A. J. Boyle Penguin ISBN 0-14-044690-7

collected by: Achilles

Follow Ups:

Post a Followup





Optional Link URL:

Link Title:

Optional Image URL:

[ Follow Ups ] [ Post Followup ] [ Old Message Board ] [ Greek Connection ]