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Dionysus (Free)

The following is excerpted from: Cults, Myths and Legends of Ancient Sicily (Author: Ignazio Caloggero - ISBN: 9788894321913) 



Head of young Dionysus. Hellenistic sculpture found near Rome. London, British Museum

Origins of the myth

The cult of Dionysus is very old, his name is already found in a Cretan tablet of the second millennium BC.

Dionysus is probably seen as the "son of God". In the Thracian-Phrygian language "nusos", in fact, means "son" [1].

dionysus-bacchus-caravaggioCaravaggio: Bacco (1595 ca. - Uffizi Gallery, Florence)

Dionysus was basically the protector of vegetation, in particular of the vine and, therefore, of wine. Also called Bacco, was identified by the Romans with the Italic god Liber Pater from which he took the name of Libero. His cult, like that of the Palici, is considered servile, therefore of a popular character.

Liber Pater Temple in Sabratha - Libya

His legend is quite complex, it is an intertwining, in fact, of Greek elements and elements of the neighboring countries of Greece such as Thrace and Phrygia [2]. Mount Nisa, where according to tradition Dionysus was born, is found in different countries: in Thrace, Arabia, India and Egypt; and cities with this name are remembered in Thrace, Euboea [3], Asia and Africa. [4]

There are several variants on the birth of Dionysus. According to one of these, Dionysus would be the son of Zeus and Persephone. It is said, in fact, that Demeter he hid his daughter Persephone in a cave in Sicily entrusting her to the custody of two snakes; Zeus, then, turned into a snake and was able to mate with Persephone generating Dionysus who was born inside the same cave and had a head adorned with two horns. According to the second variant, Dionysus would be the son of Zeus and the Theban Semele [5]. During love affairs, Zeus presented himself to Semele in the guise of an ordinary mortal. Having learned of her husband's umpteenth betrayal, she wanted to take revenge on her rival already six months pregnant and assuming the appearance of Semele's nurse, insinuated her doubt that her lover was not the god Zeus, advising her, to accept it, ask Zeus for an embrace in which he presented himself in the real divine garb and no longer under the guise of an ordinary mortal. Semele, fallen into the trap, asked Zeus to show himself to her in all his divine splendor and the god, to please her, granted her wish but, at the sight of so much splendor, poor Semele fell electrocuted. Zeus, then, stole the baby that Semele was carrying in her womb and helped by Hephaestus (who had already had the opportunity to operate as an obstetrician, on the occasion of Athena's birth) he had the baby sewn on his thigh, carrying out the gestation himself. Thus was born Dionysus, the god born twice.

A legend tells that Dionysus joined the Cretan Arianna, the daughter of Minos which followed Teseo after he killed the Minotaur. Theseus abandoned Ariadne on the island of Naxos, here she was seen by Dionysus who fell in love with her and made her his wife after obtaining immortality for her from Zeus [6].

 Many travels are attributed to Dionysus. It is said that during one of these trips, he was kidnapped by the Etruscan pirates who wanted to sell him

as a slave in Asia. The god then transformed the pirate oars into snakes, covered the ship with ivy and made every point of it resound with music coming from invisible flutes and finally paralyzed the ship with garlands of vine. The sailors, maddened, threw themselves into the sea where they turned into dolphins. It is from this legend that the belief was born according to which dolphins are friends of men and try to save them from shipwrecks: they are the repentant pirates of the legend of Dionysus.

The travels of Dionysus also interested Sicily, where he met, or rather, clashed with Alpo, a Sicilian giant. Alpo lived in the Peloritani mountains, he had many arms and his hair was made up of a hundred vipers. His favorite pastime was to wait for travelers who got lost in the gorges of the mountain, crushed them by throwing large boulders and, finally, devoured them. The mountain in which the giant lived remained, therefore, always deserted as no one had the courage to venture into those places. This situation lasted until Dionysus, during one of his many trips, decided to make a visit to those parts. Alpo, as soon as he saw him, attacked him using whole trees as weapons and a large boulder as a shield. Dionysus, to defend himself, threw his thyrsus against him, which reached him straight in the throat, killing him and thus freeing the mountain that could be populated again.

 Among the attributes associated with Dionysus is the rod. About this Diodorus Siculus [7] gives the following explanation:

 "When wine was first discovered it was not thought of mixing it with water, so the wine was drunk pure, but when some friends, gathered, went mad because of the abundance of wine drunk pure, they used their wooden sticks to hit each other. Consequently, since some were injured and others received fatal wounds in their vital points, Dionysus was offended by what had happened, and although he did not prescribe refraining from drinking pure wine in abundance, precisely because drinking was the fruit of pleasure, he ordered them to bring a rod and not wooden sticks ”.

 Among the figures who often accompanied Dionysus are to remember: Sileno, his teacher and travel companion, who rode a donkey because he was old and obese but above all because he was always drunk, the Satyrs [8] and the Bacchantes or Maenads, as the women who took part in the orgiastic cult of Dionysus were called. These carried a long stick which had a pine cone on the top, and, chewing ivy leaves, entered into a state of fury; at times, at the height of excitement, they tore a fawn, the incarnation of Dionysus, and ate its raw meat.

SilenusLouvre Museum: statue of Silenus

Dionysus with Satyr and two Maenads. Attic krater (end of the XNUMXth century BC)

Reconstruction of the Temple of Dionysus of Selinunte

In Greece, as well as in Italy, the cult of Dionysus took on the characteristics of a mysteriosophical religion, allowing the birth of links between Dionysus and other divinities including Cybele and Demeter, whose cults were based, in part, on the mysteries.

The feasts in honor of Dionysus were many and almost all of an orgiastic character. Famous le Baccanali, during which the population (especially the women), taken by a mystical delirium, traveled the countryside shouting rituals. In Rome, due to their orgiastic character, these festivals were prohibited by the Roman senate in 186 BC. In Greece they were called Agrionia and they were characterized by extreme violence: the Bacchantes, in fact, invaded by the Dionysian fury, tore to pieces, tearing them to pieces, the beasts they encountered along their path.


No less famous were in Greece the Nittelie during which, throughout the night, there was a celebration of orgies and noises of all kinds.

Almost every month there was a festival dedicated to Dionysus.

In January the Lenee during which, in the temple consecrated to Dionysus and precisely called Lenèo, they feasted and attended theatrical performances.

In February, the Antesterie which lasted three days: the first day the barrels were opened and the new wine was drunk abundantly; the second day was celebrated the feast of jugs (obviously full of wine), with competitions between who could empty the most and with a religious ceremony in honor of Dionysus; the third day was the feast of the pots, in the houses were cooked seeds of various kinds offered to Dionysus. For the entire duration of the Antesterie the temples were closed and ceremonies were held to ward off the spirits of the dead, since it was believed that in those days they roamed freely.

In October, the Oscophoria, in which the god was thanked for the good harvest of olives and (especially) grapes.

Finally, in December, the Ascalie or festivals of the Otre, in which competitions were held between those who managed to jump over a wineskin swollen with wine by jumping with one leg.

 The dissent for the Dionysian religion did not take place only in Rome, therefore the need arose to defend the cult of Dionysus. In Greece, to this end, a whole series of legends and mythological tales are born about the punishments suffered by those who opposed the Dionysian religion.

Homer[9] speaks of a certain Lycurgus, king of Thrace, who chased the nurses of Dionysus attacking them with an ax and for this action was made blind by the gods.

The king of Thebes Pentheus he opposed the inclusion of the Dionysian rites in Thebes and for this reason he was quartered by his mother Agave, taken by the Dionysian fury.

pompeii _-_ house_of_vettii _-_ pentheusPenteo is quartered by the Bacchantes. House of the Vettii, Pompeii, Italy, XNUMXst century AD


When the three daughters of Black, king of Tiryns, refused to participate in the mysteries of Dionysus, the god punished them by making them mad and making them wander the mountains at the mercy of erotic frenzies.

Just as the Bacchantes adopted a rather bloody behavior, since often their victims, animals or men they were, ended up in pieces, also the initiation of the adepts to the Dionysian mysteries implied particularly difficult tests to overcome.

The same sacrifices dedicated to Dionysus were often characterized by extreme violence, so much so as to include real human sacrifices. Only in the annual party of Orchomenus, dedicated to Dionysus, the victims were the same bacchantes who were chased by the priest who had the right to kill the first of those he could reach.

Despite the advent of the Christian religion, some bloody rites attributed to the adepts of the mysteries of Dionysus continued to remain. In Greece, near Thessaloniki, until some time ago, on the feast of the saints, Constantine and Helen, a rite was held, prohibited by the Orthodox church, which originates from the Dionysian initiation rites: some delirious people perform dances on the burning coals, waving crosses and prayer books [14].

The Myth of Dionysus in Sicily


In Sicily the cult of Dionysus had, therefore, a certain affinity with that of Demeter and Persephone. It flourished mainly in Syracuse where, in one of its temples, there was a statue of Aristeo that was stolen by Verre [10].


Although in a minor form, the cult of Dionysus was present in the rest of the island; of the three temples of Selinunte, traditionally designated with the letters of the alphabet E, F, and G, the temple designated by the letter F is attributed to the cult of Dionysus [11], confirmed by the discovery in Selinunte of a metope [12] depicting Dionysus, now preserved in the Museum National Archaeological of Palermo [13].

Religious syncretism

In Sicily, until a few years ago, residues of the Bacchanalian forms could be seen in some religious festivals. Famous was the "descent of drunkards”Where the veterans of the party of Sant'Alfio di trecastagni, after having eaten, out of devotion to S. Alfio, baked sheep meat accompanied by abundant wine, they put on a show during the return trip to the various municipalities of Etna from where they had left. Pitrè, about the descent of the drunks said [15]:

 “You see how many there are in a cart pulled by a poor donkey or a bolso mule! See how they play, sing, shout, beating cymbals, bumping tin plates, tearing violins and guitars, blowing against whistles and jars! Men are relieved of wine and sleep; their women more than them: and all with certain haunted faces, drooping and moving only to flounder in the air or to draw off words without construct or meaning ”.

 A Gratteri, in the province of Palermo (not far from Cefalù), the protector of the grape harvest and of the vine is S. Giacomo. During the patronal feast, the most beautiful bunches of grapes were offered to the statue of St. James, tying them to his silver stick. Furthermore, wine in abundance was drunk during the procession and offered to the bearers of the statue; the effects of the wine drunk in honor of the saint were soon felt, characterizing the procession in this way.

gratteri_sangiacomo_ evening process04 Gratteri: Feast of San Giacomo

But the Christian saint who more than any other has taken the place of Dionysus, as protector of wine, is undoubtedly S. Martino. The popular calendar celebrates this saint on November 11, just in the period in which the new wine is tasted, not surprisingly the motto that reads:

  In San Martino Every must is wine

 In Sicily a popular motto is even more explicit:

 Cui rises of vinu you say: long live Sammartinu!

 During the Sicilian folk festivals in honor of S. Martino, the barrels with the new wine are opened and, again in his honor, the wine glasses are raised in competitions that resemble those once dedicated to Bacchus, there are many similarities with the Antesterie Greek. 

[1] Ambrogio Donini: A brief history of religions. p.140.

[2] Phrygia is a region of Turkey, in the northwestern part of Anatolia.

[3] Euboea is an island in Greece, separated from the Balkan peninsula by the Talandi and Euripo channels.

[4] EWStoll: Handbook of religions and mythology of the Greeks and Romans. p.136.

[5] Diodorus lib IV.4

[6] Pausanias Lib. I, 20,3

[7] Diodorus Siculus Lib.IV.4

[8] In classical mythology, Satyrs were demons of nature. They were depicted in different ways: now the lower part of the body was that of a horse and, the upper part, starting from the waist, was that of a man; now their animality was that of a goat. In both cases, they were endowed with a long and broad tail similar to that of a horse, and a perpetually erect virile member of superhuman proportions.

[9] Iliad VI.130

[10] Cicero, Verrine II.IV 128.

[11] Filippo Coarelli and Mario Torelli: Sicily “Laterza Archaeological Guides” p.84.

[12] The metope is a smooth panel between two triglyphs, typical of Doric architecture. It consists of a large block of stone (terracotta or marble) inserted in lateral grooves. The triglyph is an architectural element of the Doric temple, it is composed of a quadrangular plate that reproduces the end of the beams resting on the architrave.

[13] Filippo Coarelli and Mario Torelli: Sicily “Laterza Archaeological Guides” p.26.

[14] Ambrogio Donini: A brief history of religions p.192

[15] Giuseppe Pitre: Patronal feasts in Sicily. p.239

Card insertion: Ignazio Caloggero

Photo: web, Ignazio Caloggero

Information contributions: Ignazio Caloggero, Region of Sicily

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