So there’s a discussion playing out on Tumblr about whether all the gods love all people which was started by someone’s comment that Aphrodite hates asexuals, based on a rather shallow reading of Euripides’ play Hippolytos. Not going to comment on any of that, though in passing someone remarked:
Also I think people forget about Dionysus?? Like he is the God of sex and wine. Although I don’t think he would out right smite them, but I think he’ll try to tempt them.
Which I will address, as it touches on something that I think a lot of people, including really smart and seriously devoted people, tend to overlook when it comes to him.
Dionysos is paradox.
Just about everything one can say about him is true, and it’s complete negation is also true.
This is something the Orphics of Olbia knew well when they wrote:
βίος. θάνατος. βίος. ἀλήθεια. Ζαγρεύς. Διόνυσος
Life. Death. Life. Truth. Zagreus. Dionysos.
εἰρήνη. πόλεμος. ἀλήθεια. ψεῦδος. Διόνυσος
Peace. War. Truth. Lie. Dionysos
Διόνυσος. ἀλήθεια. σῶμα. ψυχή
Dionysos. Truth. Body. Soul.
Dionysos is definitely about the sexy times, as evidenced by the giant imitation cocks people carried in his festivals which often turned into violent drunken orgies. His best friends are lusty satyrs and home-wrecking madwomen. He churns up erotic excitement and a lot of folks, particularly in Southern Italy, looked forward to carnal union with him in the afterlife. His own proclivities run the gamut from pretty boys and genderqueers to fairly straight-laced, heteronormative, monogamy.
That’s not paradox though.
In Euripides’ play The Bakchai Pentheus is obsessed with the idea that the Theban women have been led astray by the perverse stranger and are engaged in all sorts of lewd activities on the mountainside:
They creep off one by one
to lonely spots to have sex with men,
claiming they’re busy maenads worshipping.
But they rank Aphrodite, goddess of sexual desire,
ahead of Bacchus their lord.
People say some stranger has arrived,
some wizard, a conjurer from the land of Lydia—
with sweet-smelling hair in golden ringlets
and Aphrodite’s charms in wine-dark eyes.
He hangs around the young girls day and night,
dangling in front of them his joyful mysteries.
If I catch him in this city, I’ll stop him.
He’ll make no more clatter with his thyrsos,
or wave his hair around. I’ll chop off his head,
slice it right from his body.
To which the aged Tieresias replies:
On women, where Aphrodite is concerned,
Dionysos will not enforce restraint
such modesty you must seek in nature,
where it already dwells. For any woman
whose character is chaste won’t be defiled
by Bacchic revelry.
Once Pentheus has the stranger (who is none other than Dionysos himself) in his possession he presses the point:
Well, stranger, I see this body of yours
is not unsuitable for women’s pleasure—
that’s why you’ve come to Thebes. As for your hair,
it’s long, which suggests that you’re no wrestler.
It flows across your cheeks that are most seductive.
You’ve a white skin, too. You’ve looked after it,
avoiding the sun’s rays by staying in the shade,
while with your beauty you chase Aphrodite.
Their exchange is like a tango, part duel and part dance of desire, with Dionysos cool, calm and collected the whole time as Pentheus becomes increasingly hysterical. At one point they are interrupted by the Messenger whom the king had sent out to spy on the women and what he reports is completely at variance with Pentheus’ lust-fueled delusions:
They were all asleep, bodies quite relaxed,
some leaning back on leafy boughs of pine,
others cradling heads on oak-leaf pillows,
resting on the ground—in all modesty.
They weren’t as you described—all drunk on wine
or on the music of their flutes, hunting
for Aphrodite in the woods alone.
Once she heard my men,
your mother stood up amid those Bacchae,
then called them to stir their limbs from sleep.
They rubbed refreshing sleep out of their eyes,
and stood up straight there—a marvelous sight,
to see such an orderly arrangement,
women young and old and still unmarried girls.
First, they let their hair loose down their shoulders,
tied up the fawn skins (some had untied the knots
to loosen up the chords). Then around those skins
they looped some snakes, who licked the women’s cheeks.
Some held young gazelles or wild wolf cubs
and fed them on their own white milk,
the ones who’d left behind at home a new-born child
whose breasts were still swollen full of milk.
They draped themselves with garlands from oak trees,
ivy and flowering yew. Then one of them,
taking a thyrsos, struck a rock with it,
and water gushed out, fresh as dew. Another,
using her thyrsos, scraped the ground. At once,
the god sent fountains of wine up from the spot.
All those who craved white milk to drink
just scratched the earth with their fingertips—
it came out in streams. From their ivy wands
thick sweet honey dripped. Oh, if you’d been there,
if you’d seen this, you’d come with reverence
to that god whom you criticize so much.
The eros that these women experience is not directed towards other humans, nor even to the god who has driven them frenzied from their homes, husbands and children – it is rather a transpersonal connection to nature and the beasts of the wild, with whom they feel a profound kinship. He has roused them from ordinary existence, lifted them out of the confines of their small and circumscribed identities, blurred the boundaries between them and all of creation, showed them that they are capable of being so much more than they ever dreamed of and given them the power to work miracles. They are filled with a lust for life and take animals, literally life embodied, to their breasts not for pleasure but to share the sustenance of their own life with them. They are imitating the primordial nymphs who had been the nurses and care-givers of the infant god when he was most vulnerable, as Diodoros Sikeliotes explicitly states:
Consequently in many Greek cities every other year Bacchic bands of women gather, and it is lawful for the maidens to carry the thyrsos and to join in the frenzied revelry, crying out ‘Euai!’ and honouring the god; while the matrons, forming in groups, offer sacrifices to the god and celebrate his mysteries and, in general, extol with hymns the presence of Dionysos, in this manner acting the parts of those who of old were the companions and nurses of the god. (Library of History 4.3.2-5)
Nor is this the only instance where we may observe such Dionysian chastity. There are numerous vases and other artistic representations of mainades fending off the unwanted sexual advances of satyrs with their thyrsoi, as well as thiasoi that were restricted to the female sex and sometimes even elderly women who were outside the domain of Aphrodite, such as in Italy:
Then Hispala gave an account of the origin of these rites. At first they were confined to women; no male was admitted, and they had three stated days in the year on which persons were initiated during the daytime, and matrons were chosen to act as priestesses. (Livy, History of Rome 39.13)
And at Athens:
I wish now to call before you the sacred herald who waits upon the wife of the king, when she administers the oath to the Gerarai as they carry their baskets in front of the altar before they touch the victims, in order that you may hear the oath and the words that are pronounced, at least as far as it is permitted you to hear them; and that you may understand how august and holy and ancient the rites are. I live a holy life and am pure and unstained by all else that pollutes and by commerce with man and I will celebrate the feast of the wine god and the Iobacchic feast in honor of Dionysos in accordance with custom and at the appointed times. (Demosthenes, Against Neaira 74-78)
Interestingly, there were also thiasoi that excluded women (I.Kallatis 47) and men who abstained from sex in service to the god:
I, who never in my life experienced Kypris and was an enemy of wickedness, was taken as a companion (hetairos) by Bromios together with the Fates. Bromios has me as a fellow-initiate in his own dances. My name is Julianus, and I lived 18 years. My father was Julianus and my mother was Apphia. Having died, they honored me with the tomb and this inscribed monument. His step-father Asklepiades, his aunt Juliane, his maternal uncle Dionysios, Ammianos, and Stratoneikos honored him. Year 325 of the Sullan era, 12th of the month of Peritios. (TAM 5.477)
And in myth Dionysos helps bring sanity to a raging hermaphroditic deity by castrating hir:
In him there had been resistless might, and a fierceness of disposition beyond control, a lust made furious, and derived from both sexes. He violently plundered and laid waste; he scattered destruction wherever the ferocity of his disposition had led him; he regarded not gods nor men, nor did he think anything more powerful than himself; he contemned earth, heaven, and the stars. Now, when it had been often considered in the councils of the gods, by what means it might be possible either to weaken or to curb his audacity, Liber, the rest hanging back, takes upon himself this task. With the strongest wine he drugs a spring much resorted to by Acdestis where he had been wont to assuage the heat and burning thirst roused in him by sport and hunting. Hither runs Acdestis to drink when he felt the need; he gulps down the draught too greedily into his gaping veins. Overcome by what he is quite unaccustomed to, he is in consequence sent fast asleep. Liber is near the snare which he had set; over his foot he throws one end of a halter formed of hairs, woven together very skilfully; with the other end he lays hold of his privy members. When the fumes of the wine passed off, Acdestis starts up furiously, and his foot dragging the noose, by his own strength he robs himself of his sex; with the tearing asunder of these parts there is an immense flow of blood; both are carried off and swallowed up by the earth; from them there suddenly springs up, covered with fruit, a pomegranate tree. (Arnobius of Sicca, Against the Heathen 5.5-6)
A fate which Dionysos, himself, is said to have suffered as Clement of Alexandria’s Exhortation to the Greeks relates:
If you wish to inspect the orgies of the Corybantes, then know that, having killed their third brother, they covered the head of the dead body with a purple cloth, crowned it, and carrying it on the point of a spear, buried it under the roots of Olympus. These mysteries are, in short, murders and funerals. And the priests of these rites, who are called kings of the sacred rites by those whose business it is to name them, give additional strangeness to the tragic occurrence, by forbidding parsley with the roots from being placed on the table, for they think that parsley grew from the Corybantic blood that flowed forth; just as the women, in celebrating the Thesmophoria, abstain from eating the seeds of the pomegranate which have fallen on the ground, from the idea that pomegranates sprang from the drops of the blood of Dionysos. Those Corybantes also they call Cabiric; and the ceremony itself they announce as the Cabiric mystery. For those two identical fratricides, having abstracted the box in which the phallos of Bacchus was deposited, took it to Etruria–dealers in honourable wares truly. They lived there as exiles, employing themselves in communicating the precious teaching of their superstition, and presenting phallic symbols and the box for the Tyrrhenians to worship. And some will have it, not improbably, that for this reason Dionysos was called Attis, because he was mutilated. And what is surprising at the Tyrrhenians, who were barbarians, being thus initiated into these foul indignities, when among the Athenians, and in the whole of Greece–I blush to say it–the shameful legend about Demeter holds its ground?
Delia Morgan explores this side of Dionysos in her powerful piece, The Ivied Rod: Gender and the Phallus in Dionysian Religion:
Nowhere is the paradox of Dionysos more dramatic than in the stark contrast between the god of the phallus and the ‘effeminate’ god of women. Ancient sources make frequent reference to Dionysos as ‘womanly’ or ‘not a real man’ (Evans, 20-21; Jameson, 45); they sometimes dress him in women’s clothing as well. Dionysos himself was never shown with an erection. This iconographic convention, along with the occasional reference to effeminacy or androgyny, has led to various theories seeking to drastically unman the god, as it were; some writers read into these details the idea that perhaps Dionysos himself was asexual (Jameson, 44), or even emasculated through castration (Kerenyi, 275-277, 285). Jameson, for example, in examining some of the mythic fragments dealing with Dionysos, has arrived at the idea of the wine god as weak, cowardly and asexual – all aspects which would support the charge of effeminacy. (Jameson, 50, 59-63). He cites the myth of Lycurgus, who drove the young god into the ocean with an ox-goad. Francois Lissarrague states: “Dionysos as depicted is scarcely sexed; he is never seen in an erect state or manipulating his phallus.” Another factor frequently cited as support for the effeminacy of Dionysos is his feminine appearance. Early iconography of Dionysos shows him as a youthful adult with long hair and a beard, exotically dressed in a long chiton and himation. Dionysos had to be feminine, for the same reason that he had to be foreign and bestial: he was Other, opposed by nature to the dearest values of Greek society. He was wet and wild, emotional and disorderly, a god of madness and shape-shifting. He could not be a ‘real man’ in the eyes of the Greeks because a real man could not be allowed to possess these attributes. He was a strange god, and a god of the periphery – edging on the dark and unknown. The periphery, the uncivilized, was the realm of women and beasts; hence his companions were maenads and satyrs. His dangerous influence further exacerbated the problem with women: possessed by Dionysos, they became even more irrational, passionate and wild. Liberated by the god, they abandoned their chaste behavior and wifely duties and danced madly through the forests, defying all social restraints. By enhancing those qualities that were seen as the dark side of femininity, Dionysos himself could be seen as partaking of a female extreme; his nature was in some threatening ways even more feminine than that of an ordinary woman. The charge of effeminacy was not taken lightly in ancient Greece or Rome; there were social stigmas and sometimes civil penalties attached to the label. In Greece, a man earned a reputation as a ‘kinaidos,’ an effeminate man, through a penchant for taking a passive role in sexuality or through excessive unrestrained lust; he was not to be allowed to take leadership roles or any active public role in government. (Winkler, 176-178, 188-190) Given the seriousness of the accusation when directed against a man, what religious import could be read into the charge of effeminacy when directed against a god? Dionysos was the only major god to be spoken of in this way; he was thought by many to be a dangerous foreign import, although evidence points to his presence in the pantheon from the Mycenean era. He was seen as a subversive influence, who in his myths faced opposition by kings and led entire cities into chaos and revolt. His religion was always regarded with some fear and ambivalence, almost as a necessary evil.
This is something that I have experienced myself and discussed a while back in Chthonic Dionysos and the Saints of the True Vine:
This Dionysos is dark and still and somber, the quiet amid the storm, the masked pillar around which those filled with his frenzy dance and shout in ecstatic celebration. He is not completely immobile – his movements are just slow like the shoots of a plant triumphantly rising up through the soil, like the gradual formation of stalactites in a cave, like the procession of the stars through the heavens. The face of this Dionysos is always concealed in shadows, except for his eyes which are bright with the flames of madness and gaze into the depths of your soul and beyond. His voice echoes across a vast chasm even when he is nearer to you than your next heartbeat. There is an impenetrable denseness to his spirit, a gloom so black and so full of painful memories that even he has difficulty bearing its weight. He is ancient beyond all reckoning and yet remains unwearied by all that he has witnessed and experienced. His heart is fierce with love for the fragile and ephemeral things of this world, rejoicing and suffering along with them. He cannot turn his face away from them – he must witness it all, even if it makes him mad. And though part of him remains forever down in the caverns deep beneath the earth, another part extends upwards into our world, surrounded by an innumerable host. The lusty satyrs, the madwomen, the nymphs who nurse him and the dead who belong to him, an invisible troop of wild spirits that march unseen but clearly heard in his processions, who race through the fields and forests and city streets on certain especially dark nights in pursuit of the victims of the hunt.
Nothing about Dionysos is simple so we would do well to avoid the sort of simplifications one frequently finds in discussions about him on Tumblr.