Dionysos is a badass God

A portion of this piece was recycled into the last post. As it is pertinent to the discussion I’m going to share it in its entirety.

During the Classical period there was a pretty broad repertoire of Dionysiac depictions, many of which cast the God in a hardly favorable light. The comic poet Aristophanes, for instance, made him a bumbling fool in The Frogs who has to ask directions to the underworld and pisses all over himself when confronted by Empousa (288 ff).

Certainly this is the sort of thing that one expects from Aristophanes (who regularly included jabs at the audience in his plays, calling them cock-suckers, parricides, and greedy cowards) but Dionysos isn’t treated much better by the respectable authors.

Euripides called him “effeminate” (Bakkhai 350), Aiskhylos a “womanly man” and a “weakling” (Edonoi frag. 30-31). Stories were told of Dionysos being dressed in the clothing of little girls or changed into a goat to escape the wrath of Hera, and eventually he was said to have been driven insane when she inevitably caught up with him. (Apollodoros 3.28)

But perhaps the most embarrassing tale of all was the one that Homer told:

“I will not fight against any God of the heaven, since even the son of Dryas, Lykourgos the powerful, did not live long; he who tried to fight with the Gods of the bright sky, who once drove the fosterers of Mainomenos Dionysos headlong down the sacred Nyseian hill, and all of them shed and scattered their wands on the ground, stricken with an ox-goad by murderous Lykourgos, while Dionysos in terror dived into the salt surf, and Thetis took him to her bosom, frightened, with the strong shivers upon him at the man’s blustering. But the Gods who live at their ease were angered with Lykourgos and the son of Kronos struck him to blindness, nor did he live long afterwards, since he was hated by all the immortals.” (Iliad 6.129)

Nor, unfortunately, was this the only such fable that circulated in the Greek mainland.

Pausanias relates (2.20.4) that in Argos there was a tomb “which they claim belongs to the maenad Khorea, saying that she was one of the women who joined Dionysos in his expedition against Argos, and that Perseus, being victorious in the battle, put most of the women to the sword. To the rest they gave a common grave, but to Khorea they gave burial apart because of her high rank.” Both Pausanias (2.23.7-8) and Nonnos (25.104) maintain that during this battle Perseus slew the beloved bride of Dionysos who was powerless to save her.

What a different situation we find in Egypt! This Dionysos is a mighty God who more than knows how to handle his enemies.

Consider the following passage from a 3rd century epic poem about the conflict between Dionysos and Lykourgos. Our fragment picks up in the middle, after Lykourgos and Dionysos have been going at it for some time. The God has just wrought a terrible miracle, transforming the lush countryside into a barren desert wasteland:

No longer flowed the spring beside the elm, nor were there ways of watering, nor paths nor fences nor trees, but all had vanished. Only the empty plain was visible. Where a meadow was before, close came Lykourgos, heart-stricken with mighty fear and speechlessness. For irresistibly, beyond mortal defense, all their works were upset and turned about before their eyes. But when Lykourgos knew him for the glorious son of Zeus, pale terror fell upon his spirit; the ox-goad, wherewith he had been at labor smiting, fell from his hand before his feet. He had no will to utter or to ask a word. Now might that poor wretch have escaped his gloomy fate: but he besought not then the divinity to abate his wrath. In his heart he foresaw that doom was nigh to him, when he saw Dionysos come to assail him amid lightnings that flashed manifold with repeated thunderclaps, while Zeus did great honor to his son’s destructive deeds.

So Dionysos urged his ministers, and they together sped against Lykourgos and scourged him with rods of foliage. Unflinching he stood, like a rock that juts into the marble sea and groans when a wind arises and blows, and abides the smiting of the seas: even so abode Lykourgos steadfast, and recked not of their smiting. But ever more unceasing wrath went deep into the heart of Thyone’s son: he was minded not at all to take his victim with a sudden death, that still alive he might repay a grievous penalty. He sent madness upon him, and spread about the phantom shapes of serpents, that he might spend the time fending away, til baneful Rumor of his madness should arrive at Thebes on wings and summon Ardys and Astakios, his two sons, and Kytis who married him and was subdued to his embrace.

Then, when led by Rumor’s many tongues they came, found Lykourgos just now released from suffering, worn out by madness. They cast their arms around him as he lay in the dust – fools! They were destined to perish at their father’s hand before their mother’s eyes! For not long after, madness, at the command of Dionysos, aroused Lykourgos yet again, but this time with real frenzy. He thought that he was smiting serpents; but they were his children from whom he stole the spirit. And now would Kytis have fallen about them, but in compassion Dionysos snatched her forth and set her beyond the reach of doom, because she had warned her lord constantly in his storms of evil passion. Yet she could not persuade her master, too stubborn; he, when his sudden madness was undone, recognized the God through experience of suffering. Still Dionysos abated not his wrath: as Lykourgos stood unflinching, yet frenzied by distress, the God spread vines about him and fettered all his limbs. His neck and both ankles imprisoned, he suffered the most pitiable doom of all men on earth: and now in the land of Sinners his phantom endures that endless labor – drawing water into a broken pitcher: the stream is poured forth into Haides.

Such is the penalty which the loud-thundering son of Kronos ordained for men that fight against the Gods; that retribution may pursue them both while living and again in death.

We aren’t dealing with the weak and impotent Dionysos of Homer here, who flees to the bosom of Thetis and can’t protect those near and dear to him. The Greco-Egyptian Dionysos is a potent force of nature and master of all vegetative life. He is also harsh and cruel when provoked, and the punishment he metes out to Lykourgos is nothing compared to what he has in store for an Indian spy in the Bassarika of the Greco-Egyptian poet Dionysios. There is some speculation that Dionysios may have lived in Panopolis: he certainly influenced the epic school that flourished there a couple centuries later. Not only does Nonnos continue the theme of the Indian War, but he even borrowed the names Deriades and Modaios for his Dionysiaka.

In the Bassarika fragment that has come down to us a spy sent into the camp of Dionysos by the Indian king Deriades has just been discovered. The God orders several of his soldiers to go out and hunt a stag. That’s when the fun starts.

They slew it and flayed it, and stripping off the skin, arrayed the wretched man from head and shoulders down. The new-flayed hide clave to his body, moulded to the flesh; above, the horns gleamed to be seen afar; to one that beheld him, he wanted nothing of the wild beast’s form. Thus had they transformed a man into a counterfeit animal … The Bacchanal God leapt into the midst of the enemy army, where most of all the Kethaians were rushing to the flame of battle. Standing there he cried aloud to Dereiades and the rest: ‘Slaves of women, Indians, consider now this way: to Deriades above all I speak this from knowledge. You shall not, in your present straits, withstand the onslaught of the gleaming wine and escape your evil fate, before in the swift night you tear apart the raw flesh of a living animal and eat it. Behold this tall stag straight of horn, the finest that followed us from holy Hellas, a marvel to behold! Come, hasten to rend it in good conflict for its flesh.’ So he spoke, and they of their own accord were fain to fall upon human flesh, and to appease their boundless desire, smitten by eager madness. And Deriades answered the son of Zeus, saying: ‘Would that I might cut your body limb from limb and swallow the flesh raw ….’

And that, unfortunately, is where the fragment cuts off. You just know that Dionysos had some witty retort, perhaps even revealing the horrendous sparagmos and cannibalistic omophagia that he had compelled the Indians to unwittingly commit upon their kinsman. Perhaps it even ended with him saying something along the lines of, “Bitch, this is what happens when you send spies into my camp. Don’t try it again or you will know that I am the Lord Dionysos!”

We find this sort of reveling in the raw power and ferocity of the God in other Greco-Egyptian poets as well. One thinks especially of the great Alexandrian Theokritos who composed a cult-hymn that recounted the conflict between Dionysos and the insolent king Pentheus. I won’t bother to cite The Bacchanals in full – though it is a lovely poem, subject-matter notwithstanding – and instead cut to the climax, which is very relevant to our discussion:

“His mother took her son’s head and roared like a lioness with cubs; and Ino, setting her foot upon his stomach, tore off the great shoulder with the shoulder-blade, and in like fashion wrought Autonoa, while the other women parted among them piecemeal what was left of him: and to Thebes they came all blood-bedrabbled, bringing from the hill not Pentheus but tribulation. I care not. And let not another care for an enemy of Dionysos – not though he suffer a fate more grievous than this and be in his ninth year or entering on his tenth. But for myself may I be pure and pleasing in the eyes of the pure, like the eagle which is honored by aegis-bearing Zeus. To the children of the righteous, not of the unrighteous, comes the better fate. Farewell to Dionysos, whom Lord Zeus set down on snowy Drakanos when he had opened his mighty thigh. Farewell to comely Semele and her sisters, Kadmean dames honored as heroines, who, at Dionysos’ instigation, did this deed, wherein is no blame. At the acts of the Gods let no man cavil.”