There is a startling array of evidence which suggests some kind of link between the Egyptian Osiris and the Greek Dionysos. What I have done with this article is to collect as much of that evidence as I could, so that the reader can determine what sort of connection there may be between the two. I have no theological axe to grind, no hidden agenda in presenting this information, nor do I intend to persuade my audience one way or another. It may be, as certain ancient authors felt, that the two of them were in fact the same God, perceived through slightly different cultural lenses. Then again, it may also be that they are only Gods who share similar roles, myths, histories, and spheres of influence while remaining completely separate, autonomous individuals. And then again, it may be that their similarities are highly inflated, perceived only because the reader desires to see a connection between them, and conveniantly disregards those areas where they differ. Although I have my own personal theories, I have tried to keep these out as much as possible, for I do not feel that it is my place to dictate such an important matter for the reader. I have simply provided the information for you to draw your own conclusions – and would recommend that if this is a pressing issue for you, that you go directly to the Gods and ask them themselves. I think the answers you receive will be most interesting indeed.
A preliminary note: Although in personal usage, particularly devotions and prayers, I employ a more authentically Egyptian form of the God’s name, I have opted in this article to use Osiris instead of Wesir, Asr, Osr, etc. This is because this name will likely be more familiar to my general reading audiece, and because a signifigant portion of the material that I included already contained that name, and I felt that it would be aeshetically uneven to continually have to switch back and forth between the two.
The Testimony of Ancient Authors
There are numerous ancient authors who assert the essential unity of these two Gods.
“There is only the difference in names between the festivals of Bacchus and those of Osiris, between the Mysteries of Isis and those of Demeter.” – Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History, 1.13
“Osiris, they say, was reared in Nysa, a city of Arabia Felix near Egypt, being a son of Zeus; and the name which he bears among the Greeks is derived both from his father and from the birthplace, since he is called Dionysos.” – Diodorus Siculus 1.15
“Osiris has been given the name Sarapis by some, Dionysos by others, Pluto by others, Ammon by others, Zeus by some, and many have considered Pan to be the same God; and some say that Sarapis is the God whom the Greeks call Pluto.” – Diodorus Siculus 1.25
“That Osiris is identical with Dionysos who could more fittingly know than yourself, Clea? For you are at the head of the Thyiades of Delphi, and have been consecrated by your father and mother in the holy rites of Osiris.” – Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris, 35
“It is proper to identify Osiris with Dionysos.” – Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris, 28
“Dionysos was the first to bring from India into Egypt two bulls, one named Apis and the other Osiris.” – Phylarchus
“Dionysos and Osiris are the same, who are called Epaphus” – Mnaseas
“For no Gods are worshipped by all Egyptians in common except Isis and Osiris, who they say is Dionysos; these are worshipped by all alike.” – Herodotus, The Histories, 2.42
“Osiris is he who is called Dionysos in the Greek tongue.” – Herodotus 2.144
Cicero included Osiris among the many Gods equated with Dionysos by the Greeks. (De Natura Deorum 3.21)
“He [Kadmos future king of Thebes in Greece and grandfather of Dionysos] showed forth the Euian secrets of Osiridos (Osiris) the wanderer, the Aigyptian Dionysos. He learned the nightly celebration of their mystic art, and declaimed the magic hymn in the wild secret language, intoning a shrill alleluia. While a boy in the temple full of stone images, he had come to know the inscriptions carved by artists deep into the wall.” – Nonnos, The Dionysiaca 4.268
Under the entry for ‘Osiris’ in Suidas’ Lexicon we read the following: “Some say he was Dionysos, others say another – who was dismembered by the daimon Typhon and became a great sorrow for the Egyptians, they kept the memory of his dismemberment for all time.”
In a dedicatory stela erected by a Ptolemaic-era prophet of Chnubis, Dionysos is called Petempamenti, “He who is in Amenti”, a title usually reserved for Osiris. (E. R. Bevan, The House of Ptolemy, 295)
Whether as a result of this equation, or on his own and through his own name, Dionysos has long been associated with Egypt and her neighbors. For instance, Hesychius located Nysa, the mythical birthplace of Dionysos, variously in Egypt, Ethiopia, or Arabia. (Lexicon 742) Hesiod locates the mysterious city of Nysa “near the streams of Aegyptus” (Frag. 287) as do the author of the first Homeric Hymn to Dionysos and Apollonius Rhodius (Argonautica 2.1214). Herodotus placed Nysa alternately in Egypt (3.97) or Arabia (3.111) with which Diodorus Siculus was in agreement (1.15).
According to Apollodorus (Library1.6.3), Ovid (Metamorphoses 5.319ff), and Hyginus (Fabulae 152) among others, during the battle of Zeus and Typhon, the Gods were forced to flee Mount Olympos and take up residence in Egypt, where they took on the shapes of animals in order to conceal themselves. Hermes became an ibis, Aphrodite a dove, Apollo a hawk, and Dionysos a goat. This myth was, in all likelihood, an attempt by the Greeks to explain the predominance of zoomorphic Gods in Egypt, as the ancient author Lucian shrewdly perceived (On Sacrifices, 14).
Later on, Dionysos was said to return to Egypt during his wanderings, where he was kindly received by King Proteus (Apollodorus 2.29), and founded the oracle of Zeus-Ammon. (Statius’ Thebaid 3.476) Hyginus tells the story in greater detail:
“When Liber was hunting for water in Egypt, and hadn’t succeeded, a ram is said to have sprung suddenly from the ground, and with this as guide he found water. So he asked Jupiter to put the ram among the stars, and to this day it is called the equinoctial ram. Moreover, in the place where he found water he established a temple which is called the temple of Jupiter-Ammon.” (Fabulae 133)
Herodotus insisted that Dionysos and his worship had been brought from Egypt into Greece:
“Melampos was the one who taught the Greeks the name of Dionysos and the way of sacrificing to him and the phallic procession; he did not exactly unveil the subject taking all its details into consideration, for the teachers who came after him made a fuller revelation; but it was from him that the Greeks learned to bear the phallus along in honor of Dionysos, and they got their present practice from his teaching. I say, then, that Melampos acquired the prophetic art, being a discerning man, and that, besides many other things which he learned from Egypt, he also taught the Greeks things concerning Dionysos, altering few of them; for I will not say that what is done in Egypt in connection with the God and what is done among the Greeks originated independently: for they would then be of an Hellenic character and not recently introduced.” (2.49)
Herodotus claimed that the people of Meroe, in Ethiopia, “worship no other Gods but Zeus and Dionysos,” (2.29) while the Arabians believed only in Dionysos and Aphrodite Ourania, whom, he informs us, they called “Dionysos, Orotalt; and Aphrodite, Alilat.” (3.8) In Libya they celebrated a festival called the Astydromia or “Town-running”, which was sacred to Dionysos and the Nymphs and was, Suidas informs us, “like the birthday celebration of the city, and a Theodaisia festival.” [An ancient Dionysos festival connected with wine] And Anacreon says that one of the titles of Dionysos was Aithiopais, meaning “The Ethiopian”.
After the Ptolemies came to power in Egypt, Dionysos was one of the most popular Gods. He was the tutelar deity of their Dynasty – Ptolemy IV even adopted the title “Neos Dionysos” (Oxyrhynchus, ii No. 236b) – and under their reign, numerous temples and theaters were erected to him, including a few that are still standing, despite the best efforts of Christians and Moslems over the centuries. It was the destruction of Dionysos’ temple in Alexandria by a mob of insane, violent Christians instigated by the Bishop Theophilus which inspired the remaining Pagans of the city to rise to the defense of the Serapeum. (Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, XXVIII) Under Ptolemy IV Philopator, Egypt became a center of Dionysian mysteries. This King sent out an edict decreeing that “those who perform initiations for Dionysos” should travel to Alexandria and register there, declaring “from whom they have received the sacred things, up to three generations, and to hand in the hieros logos in a sealed exemplar.” Additionally, he required that the Egyptian Jews in the nomos of Arsinoe be initiated into the mysteries of Dionysos in order to “receive the same civic rights as the Alexandrians.” (3 Maccabbees 2.30)
Dionysos and his myths were a favorite subject of Egyptian artists – especially scenes depicting his courtship of Ariadne and his sojourn under the sea with Thetis – and many lovely murals, frescoes, and tapestries have been preserved. The Egyptian Nonnos of Panopolis wrote his monumental collection of the God’s myths the Dionysiaca – preserving some in the only form that has come down to us – in the 4th century C.E.
Almost not born
According to Plutarch, “They say that the Sun, when he became aware of Rhea’s intercourse with Cronus, invoked a curse upon her that she should not give birth to a child in any month or year; but Hermes, being enamoured of the Goddess, consorted with her. Later, playing at draughts with the moon, he won from her the seventieth part of each of her periods of illumination, and from all the winnings he composed five days, and intercalated them as an addition to the three hundred and sixty days. The Egyptians even now call these five days intercalated and celebrate them as the birthdays of the Gods. They relate that on the first of these days Osiris was born, and at the hour of his birth a voice issued forth saying, ‘The Lord of All advances to the light.'” (On Isis and Osiris, 12)
While Apollodorus relates the following story about Hera’s attempts to thwart the birth of Dionysos:
“But Zeus loved Semele and bedded with her unknown to Hera. Now Zeus had agreed to do for her whatever she asked, and deceived by Hera she asked that he would come to her as he came when he was wooing Hera. Unable to refuse, Zeus came to her bridal chamber in a chariot, with lightnings and thunderings, and launched a thunderbolt. But Semele expired of fright, and Zeus, snatching the sixth-month abortive child from the fire, sewed it in his thigh. On the death of Semele the other daughters of Cadmus spread a report that Semele had bedded with a mortal man, and had falsely accused Zeus, and that therefore she had been blasted by thunder. But at the proper time Zeus undid the stitches and gave birth to Dionysos, and entrusted him to Hermes. And he conveyed him to Ino and Athamas, and persuaded them to rear him as a girl. But Hera indignantly drove them mad, and Athamas hunted his elder son Learchus as a deer and killed him, and Ino threw Melicertes into a boiling cauldron, then carrying it with the dead child she sprang into the deep. And she herself is called Leucothea, and the boy is called Palaemon, such being the names they get from sailors; for they succour storm-tossed mariners. And the Isthmian games were instituted by Sisyphus in honor of Melicertes. But Zeus eluded the wrath of Hera by turning Dionysos into a kid, and Hermes took him and brought him to the Nymphs who dwelt at Nysa in Asia, whom Zeus afterwards changed into stars and named them the Hyades.” (3.4.3)
Concerning Osisirs, Diodorus Siculus wrote, “Osiris was the first, they record, to make mankind give up cannibalism; for after Isis had discovered the fruit of both wheat and barley which grew wild over the land along with the other plants but was still unknown to man, and Osiris had also devised the cultivation of these fruits, all men were glad to change their food, both because of the pleasing nature of the newly-discovered grains and because it seemed to their advantage to refrain from their butchery of one another.” (1.14)
Similarly, he wrote the following concerning Dionysos: “Some writers of myth, however, relate that there was a second Dionysos who was much earlier in time than the one we have just mentioned. For according to them there was born of Zeus and Persephone a Dionysos who is called by some Sabazios and whose birth and sacrifices and honours are celebrated at night and in secret, because of the disgraceful conduct which is a consequence of the gatherings. They state also that he excelled in sagacity and was the first to attempt the yoking of oxen and by their aid to effect the sowing of the seed, this being the reason why they also represent him as wearing a horn.” (4.4.1)
Tieresias, in Euripides’ Bacchae says Dionysos “discovered and bestowed on humankind the service of drink, the juice that streams from the vine clusters; humans have but to take their fill of wine, and the sufferings of an unhappy race are banished.” (279-82)
Hyginus in his Fabulae writes, “When Father Liber [Dionysos] went out to visit men in order to demonstrate the sweetness and pleasantness of his fruit, he came to the generous hospitality of Icarius and Erigone. To them he gave a skin full of wine as a gift and bade them spread the use of it in all the other lands.” (130)
Philochorus wrote, “Amphictyon, King of Athens, learned from Dionysos the art of mixing wine and was the first to mix it. So it was that men came to stand upright, drinking wine mixed, whereas before they were bent double by use of unmixed wine.” (FGrH 328 F 173)
And there are numerous references – too many to recount here – to Dionysos instituting the cultivation of the vine in various localities within the Greek world. (Apollodorus and Pausanias recount most of these in a fairly coherent order.)
Peaceful Conquest of the World
“Of Osiris they say that, being of a beneficent turn of mind, and eager for glory, he gathered together a great army, with the intention of visiting all the inhabited earth and teaching the race of men how to cultivate the vine and sow wheat and barley; for he supposed that if he made men give up their savagery and adopt a gentle manner of life he would receive immortal honours because of the magnitude of his benefactions. And this did in fact take place, since not only the men of his time who received this gift, but all succeeding generations as well, because of the delight which they take in the foods which were discovered, have honoured those who introduced them as Gods most illustrious.” – Diodorus Siculus I.17
Dionysos also gathered together a great army, comprised of his Nurses, Satyrs, Panes, Seilenoi, Mainades, Nymphs, and mortals who came to join him. (Nonnos’ Dionysiaca) They set out to “visit men in order to demonstrate the sweetness and pleasantness of his fruit … he gave a skin full of wine as a gift and bade them spread the use of it in all the other lands.” -(Hyginus Fabulae 130) and also to spread the worship of the Meter Kybele which included mysteries, nocturnal orgies, ecstatic trances, and wild dances. Dionysos “travelled over the whole earth civilizing it without the slightest need of arms, but most of the peoples he won over to his way by the charm of his persuasive discourse combined with song and all manner of music.” (Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris, 13) When confronted by the Indian army, the Goat-God Pan who travelled in Dionysos’ train gave a great shout, filling them with panic, and the army dropped their weapons and fled, thus allowing Dionysos to conquer India without even having to shed a drop of blood. (Nonnos, however, tells a different story, and glories in the bloodthirstiness of Dionysos’ battle with the Indians.)
Diodorus Siculus wrote, “And the discovery of the vine, they say, was made by Osiris and that, having further devised the proper treatment of its fruit, he was the first to drink wine and taught mankind at large the culture of the vine and the use of wine, as well as the way to harvest the grape and to store the wine.” (1.15)
Osiris was called “Lord of Drunkeness at the Wag-festival”, which took place during the season of the grape harvest, shortly before the inundation. (Sigfrid Hoedel-Hoenes, Life and Death in Ancient Egypt, pg. 114) And wine was frequently offered to him, for instance, in the stela of Thutmose the doorkeeper, from the 18th Dynasty, we find that “water, a cool breeze and wine” are to be given to “the spirit of the inundation” and Horemheb offers Osiris wine in order to be granted the “gift of life, each day, like Ra”. Vines could be depicted in funerary monuments associated with Osiris, the most famous example belonging to the 18th Dynasty Mayor of Thebes Sennefer, whose tomb was known for its stunningly beautiful depiction of a grape arbor as the “tombeau des vignes”. The ceiling of his tomb is covered in vines and grapes painted with utmost care, reaching down into the shrine of Osiris within the burial chamber, as if originating from the realm of the God of life and vegetation.
Wine offers a clear connection between Crete, the earliest home of Dionysos, and Egypt, as Carl Kerenyi observes, “The Minoan hieroglyph for wine, an ideogram in Linear B, is similar to the Egyptian hieroglyph of the same meaning. It recalls that form of grape arbor which is represented on a picture of the wine harvest at the time of the Eighteenth Dynasty.” (Dionysos: Archetype of Indestructable Life, pg. 56)
Wine is so intimately linked with Dionysos that scarcely anyone speaks of the God without mentioning it. It shares his nature, for like the God it is “fiery” (Euripides Alkestis 757), “wild” (Aeschylus Persians 614), and “madness-inspiring” (Plato Laws 7.773 d), and yet it brings “great joy to mankind” (Homer Iliad 14.325). Perhaps the best description of the powers of wine are to be found in a hymn of the Roman poet Horace, “You move with soft compulsion the mind that is so often dull; you restore hope to hearts distressed, give strength and horns to the poor man. Filled with you he trembles not at the trunculence of kings or the soldiers’ weapons.” (3.21) Like the God, it is not complete without a second birth, and suffers immeasurably before it attains its final form. Achilles Tatius called wine “the blood of the God” (The Adventures of Leucippe and Clitophon 2.2) and Nonnos compared it to the tears of the God. (7.367) Wine was said to spring up miraculously whenever the God approached (Homeric Hymn 7) and the female followers of Dionysos caused “the earth to flow with milk, with wine, with the nectar of bees,” (Euripides’ Bacchae 708). Wine was poured out in libations to the Gods, drunk at symposia, and used by intiates to attain a mystical union with Dionysos. Euripides equated Dionysos with wine itself, saying, “As a God Dionysos himself is poured out to the Gods.” (Bacchae, 284)
Strabo believed that barley beer was a drink peculiar to the Egyptians, and the cultivation of beer was attributed to Osiris by Didorus Siculus. An inscription dating from 2200 BCE says, “The mouth of a perfectly contented man is filled with beer.” And beer formed part of the traditional Egyptian offering formula, “O you who give bread and beer to beneficent souls in the house of Osiris, do you give bread and beer at the two periods to the soul of N who is with you.” We read that the bread and the beer of Osiris make the eater immortal, (Book of the Dead, 40) an idea which is frequently elaborated. In the Pyramid Text of Teta, Osiris Teta “receives thy bread which decayeth not, and thy beer which perisheth not.” In the Text of Pepi II, the aspirant prays for “thy bread of eternity, and thy beer of everlastingness. (390)
Although wine is the drink usually associated with Dionysos, we find beer connected with him as well through his allonymns Sabazius and Bromios. Sabazius was the Thracian-Phrygian form of Dionysos, a wild, bearded God of fertility, snakes, and ritual ecstacy, whose followers attained union with him by drinking seba, beer, much as Dionysos’ followers drank wine. Additionally, the Emperor Julian wrote a rather witty epigram upon discovering ‘wine made from barley’, that is beer, found in Gaul:
“Who are you, and whence, Dionysos? For by the true Bacchus, I do not recognize you: I know only the son of Zeus. He smells of nectar, you smell of the goat. Truly the Celts must have made you from grain only for lack of grapes. Therefore we should call you Demetrios, not Dionysos. rather born of grain [than of fire], and Bromos, not Bromios” (Epigram IX, 638 Greek Anthology )
Ivy, Vines, and Grapes
In the papyrus of Nebseni, written about 1550 B.C.E., Osiris is depicted sitting in a shrine, from the roof of which hang clusters of grapes; and in the papyrus of the royal scribe Nakht we see the God enthroned in front of a pool, from the banks of which a luxuriant vine, with many bunches of grapes, grows towards the green face of the seated deity. Hellanicus maintains that the vine was discovered first in Plithine, a city of Egypt and the physician Philomides says that the vine had been brought from the Red Sea into Greece (Athenaios 1.34a, 15.675)
According to Diodorus Siculus , “The discovery of ivy is also attributed to Osiris by the Egyptians and made sacred to this God, just as the Greeks also do in the case of Dionysos. And in the Egyptian language, they say, the ivy is called khenosiris, the ‘plant of Osiris’ and for purposes of dedication is preferred to the vine, since the latter sheds its leaves while the former ever remains green.” (1.17.4.)
These two plants are especially sacred to Dionysos.
Homer calls Dionysos Kissokomes or “ivy-crowned” (Hymn 26) and Pindar calls him Kissophoros or “Ivy-bearing” (Olympian Ode 2.50). The Acharnian deme, which was supposedly the first place where the plant grew up, was more explicit, and simply called him Kissos or “Ivy”. (Pausanias 1.31.6) The plant was wrapped around the thyrsoi of the God and his followers, and draped around the life-size mask of Dionysos in Icaria. According to the scholion on Euripides’ Phoenician Women 65, ivy appeared simultaneously with the birth of Dionysos in order to protect the infant from the flames of lightning which consumed his mother. Arrian in his Anabasis says that there was no ivy to be found in all of Asia, except for Mount Meros and Nysa in India as a token that the God had been there. (5.1.6) In the Hellenistic period, Initiates in his Mysteries had themselves tattooed with ivy-leaves (3 Maccabbees 2.29) and decorated their tombstones with it. According to Plutarch, ivy had the power to insight madness, “For women possessed by Bacchic frenzies rush straightway for ivy and tear it to pieces, clutching it in their hands and biting it with their teeth; so that not altogether without plausibility are they who assert that ivy, possessing as it does an exciting and distracting breath of madness, deranges persons and agitates them, and in general brings on a wineless drunkenness and joyousness in those that are precariously disposed towards spiritual exaltation.” (Roman Questions, 112)
Vines are a prominant feature in the iconography of Dionysos. His statues were frequently draped in it, and the maenads twined vines as well as ivy around their fennel stalks in order to create the sacred wand of Dionysos, the thyrsos. Homer describes how the plant creeped up the mast of the pirate ship as Dionysos’ wrath was made manifest. (Homeric Hymn 7) Alcaeus said that no plant should be planted in preference to vine, and both Horace (Carmine 1.18.1) and Ennius (Trag. 124.5) called the vine sacred. But the most famous association of the vine with Dionysos are the miraculous “one-day vines” which Walter Otto describes as follows: “These flowered and bore fruit in the course of a few hours during the festivals of the epiphany of the God. A choral song in Euripides’ Phoenissae … sings of the twin peaks lit up by the fire of the Bacchic festival and the vine which ‘daily bears its yield of juicy thick grape clusters.’ As Sophocles tells us in his Thyestes, on Euboea one could watch the holy vine grow green in the morning. By noon the grapes were already forming, they grew heavy and dark in colour, and by evening the ripe fruit could be cut down, and the drink could be mixed. We discover from the scholia of the Iliad that this occurred in Aigai at the anual rite in honor of Dionysos, as the women dedicated to the God performed the holy rites. And finally Euphorion knew of a festival of Dionysos in Achaean Aigai in which the sacred vines blossomed and ripened during the cult dances of the chorus so that already by evening considerable quantities of wine could be pressed.” (Dionysos: Myth and Cult, pg. 98-99)
The Ivied Rod
The thyrsos is the supreme symbol of Dionysos, carried by all of his devotees. It is a stalk of fennel or other wood, topped by a pine-cone, and wreathed with ivy. It is a powerful tool, through which the God’s coursing, vibrant, ecstatic sexuality manifests. “The maenads, followers of Dionysos, pound the ground with the thyrsos, which drips honey and causes milk and wine to gush up from the earth; a phenomenon into which it is not difficult to read sexual symbolism.” (Delia Morgan, Ivied Rod: Gender and the Phallus in Dionysian Religion)
The thyrsos, also, is found in possession of Osiris. Before Lucius is initiated into the mysteries of Osiris, the God visits him in a dream, prefaced by an encounter with one of the God’s devotees. He was “clad in linen and bearing an ivied thyrsos and other objects, which I may not name.” (Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, 27)
Plutarch also attests to thyrsoi connected with Osiris. “For they fasten skins of fawns about themselves, and carry thyrsoi, and indulge in shoutings and movements exactly as do those who are under the spell of the Dionysiac ecstacies.” (On Isis and Osiris, 35)
And Lewis Spence informs us that, “A pine cone often appears on monuments as an offering presented to Osiris.” (Ancient Egyptian Myths and Legends p. 72)
Barley and Corn
John Ferguson describes a common practice associated with Osiris, “Effigies made of vegetable mould and stuffed with corn were buried in graves or placed between the legs of mummies. In a representation at Philae we see the dead body of Osiris with stalks of corn springing from it, watered by a priest. There is an inscription: ‘This is the form of him whom one may not name, Osiris of the mysteries, who springs from the returning waters.'” – An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Mysticism and the Mystery Religions
This is given a poignant meaning by Coffin Text 330, where it says, “For I live and grow in the corn … I cover the earth, whether I live or die I am Barley. “
Diodorus Siculus describes how Osiris was associated with the grain, and how its harvesting was attended by rites of mourning:
“As proof of the discovery of these fruits they offer the following ancient custom which they still observe: Even yet at harvest time the people make a dedication of the first heads of the grain to be cut, and standing beside the sheaf beat themselves and call upon Isis, by this act rendering honour to the Goddess for the fruits which she discovered, at the season when she first did this. Moreover in some cities, during the Festival of Isis as well, stalks of wheat and barley are carried among the other objects in the procession, as a memorial of what the Goddess so ingeniously discovered at the beginning.” (1.14)
And in the Contendings of Heru and Set, Osiris declares, “It is I who created the barley and wheat to make the Gods live, and after the Gods, the herd of man.” (1.14.12)
Grain and barley are not the usual plants associated with Dionysos, but they have their place within his realm as well. For instance, Apollodoros says that Dionysos granted the daughters of Anius, the King of Delos, the power to cause wine, olive oil, and corn to rise up from the earth. (E 3.10) Additionally, grain, barley, and corn were connected with him in cult. The liknon, the fan-shaped winnowing basket in which the God resided, was often shown filled with grain in addition to grapes, other first-fruits, and the phallus. Bacchus’ image was drawn round the fields in a chariot and crowned by the matrons (Augustine, De civitate Dei, VII. 21). Pausanias records that in honor of Dionysos Aisumnetes, a group of children would go down to the river Melikhos “wearing on their heads garlands of corn-ears.” (7.20.1) At the Haloa, a festival he shared with Demeter, phallic cakes were made out of the grain to honor him, and at Eleusis, when the single sheaf of wheat was harvested in silence (Hippolytus 5.8.39) there were those who saw in it a manifestation of Dionysos-Iakkhos, “Hail the green ear that is harvested .. Bacchos, the shepherd of the shining stars.” (9.8)
Trees and Vegetation in General
Robert Graves observed that the character of Osiris as a tree-spirit was represented very graphically in a ceremony described by Firmicus Maternus. A pine-tree having been cut down, the centre was hollowed out, and with the wood thus excavated an image of Osiris was made, which was then buried like a corpse in the hollow of the tree. Further connections with vegetation can be enumerated:
“O thou lord of food, thou prince of green herbs,” – The Lamentations of Isis and Nephthys
“Through thee the world waxeth green in triumph.” – Papyrus of Ani, 2.
Osiris is hailed as “the Lord of the Acacia Tree” – Papyrus of Ani, 19.
The body of Osiris becomes enclosed in the trunk of a tree and is associated with the Djed pillar in Utterance 574.
Similarly, Dionysos was connected with all vegetation and green growth, not just the vine and and its alcohol-producing fruit.
A fragment of Pindar’s preserved in Plutarch reads, “May gladsome Dionysos swell the fruit upon the trees, the hallowed splendor of harvest-time.” Plutarch also informs us that Dionysos is worshipped “almost everywhere in Greece” as Dendrites “Tree God”. (On Isis and Osiris, 34) Dionysos’ image was found inside of a plane tree which had been split asunder in Magnesia, and the Corinthians were given an oracle by Apollo at Delphi to worship the pine tree “as the God” whereupon they had a statue of Dionysos carved out of its wood. (Pausanias 2.27) Dionysos was called Sykites, “Fig-God”, the wood from which phalloi were carved. The scholiast to Aristophanes’ Frogs mentions that the myrtle was sacred to Dionysos, and Ovid says that “Bacchus loves flowers”, (Fasti 5.345) specifically roses and violets, according to Pindar (Frag. 75) This is not surprising considering his epithets Anthios “Blossoming” and Euanthes “He Who Makes Grow” or his festival the Anthesteria which celebrated the return of life to the earth.
Aristotle observed that everything nourishing is moist, that warmth arises out of moisture, and that the seeds of all living things have a moist nature. (Metaphysics 1.983 B) So it is not surprising to find Dionysos associated with this element. According to Plutarch Dionysos was “the lord and master not only of wine, but of the nature of every sort of moisture” (On Isis and Osiris, 35) And he calls him outright Hyes “Moisture”. (34) Philolaus said that Dionysos held sway over moist and warm creation, whose symbol was wine, it being a moist and warm element, and Varro declared that the soverignty of Dionysos was not only to be recognized in the juice of fruits whose crowning glory was wine, but also in the sperms of living creatures.
Tradition furnishes us with many connections to water. Dionysos was attended by the Halia or “sea women” who assisted him in his battle against Perseus at Argos. Nonnos relates how, “In the Erythraian Sea, the daughters of Nereus cherished Dionysos at their table, in their halls deep down under the waves. So he remained in the hall deep down in the waves under the waters, and he lay sprawled among the seaweed in Thetis’ bosom.” (Dionysiaca 21.170) At Brasia, it was said that Dionysos had washed ashore in a chest and at Methymna on Lesbos, fishermen found a prosopan “face” or “mask” of olive wood in their nets, which was afterwards worshipped in a procession to honor Dionysos Phallen. (Pasuanias 3.24.3-4, 10.19.3) Dionysos was said to come to Athens “from across the sea” on a dark ship on the second day of the Anthesteria, and Homer tells the story of Dionysos’ attempted kidnapping by the pirates, and his turning them into dolphins. (Homeric Hymn 7) In Pagasae he was worshipped as Pelagios “God of the sea”, in Chios, Sparta, and Sicyon as Aktaios “God of the Seacoast”. He also had his grottoes, as at Euboea (Pausanias 2.23.1) and his temple En Limnais “in the marshes” (Athenaios 11.465 A).
Osiris, too, was connected with water, as Plutarch observed in his On Isis and Osiris: “all kinds of moisture are called the ‘efflux of Osiris.’ Therefore a water-pitcher is always carried first in his processions, and the leaf of a fir-tree represents both Osiris and Egypt.” (36)
He was especially connected with the Nile, whose cyclic rise and fall found parallels in the God’s own life: “As to what they relate of the shutting up of Osiris in a box, this appears to mean the withdrawal of the Nile to its own bed. This is the more probable as this misfortune is said to have happened to Osiris in the month of Hathor, precisely at that season of the year when, upon the cessation of the Etesian or north winds the Nile returns to its own bed, and leaves the country everywhere bare and naked.” (Plutarch On Isis and Osiris, 39)
Herodotus called the Nile the “gift of Osiris” and Pausanias related that, “When the Nile begins to rise, the Egyptians have a tradition that it is the tears of Isis which make the river rise and irrigate the fields” (10.32)
The Pyramid Texts also speak of the Nile in connection with Osiris: “They come, the waters of life which are in the sky. They come, the waters of life which are in the earth. The sky is aflame for you, the earth trembles for you, before the divine birth of Osiris. The two mountains are split apart. The God comes into being, the God has power in his body. The month is born, the fields live.” (2063) And “O Osiris! The inundation is coming; abundance surges in. The flood-season is coming, arising from the torrent isssuing from Osiris, O King may Heaven give birth to thee as Orion!” (2113-2117) And in a hymn to Osiris, Rameses IV says “You are the Nile, Gods and men live from your outflow.”
In Egypt, there were a number of sacred bulls who were associated with Osiris. Perhaps the most famous of all of these was the bull God known to the Egyptians as Hapi and to the Greeks as Apis. According to Aelian, Hapi was held in the greatest of honour from the time of the first Pharaoh (De Natura 11.10) while in all probability his cult stretched back to Predynastic times.
According to Herodotus, the Apis bull was conceived by lightning and was recognized by the following signs: “it is black, and has a square spot of white on its forehead, and on the back the figure of an eagle, and in the tail double hairs, and on the tongue a beetle.” (3.28) Plutarch said that “on account of the great resemblance which the Egyptians imagine between Osiris and the moon, its more bright and shining parts being shadowed and obscured by those that are of darker hue, they call the Apis the living image of Osiris”. (On Isis and Osiris, 43) The bull, Herodotus says, was “a fair and beautiful image of the soul of Osiris”. Diodorus similarly states that Osiris manifested himself to men through successive ages as Apis. “The soul of Osiris migrated into this animal”, he explains.
The fusion of Osiris and Apis was known as Asar-Apis, which became in Greek Sarapis or Serapis. It is often claimed that the cult of Serapis was invented by Ptolemy I in order to provide a deity which both his Greek and Egyptian subjects could worship in common. However, the union of Asar-Api is found in an inscription from the 18th Dynasty where he is hailed as “the great God, Khent-Amentet, the lord of life forever,” – an equation which predates Alexander’s conquest of Egypt by almost a thousand years. However, it wasn’t until Ptolemaic times that the cult of this syncretic deity truly came to prominance. According to Plutarch (On Isis and Osiris, 28), Ptolemy Soter had a dream in which he beheld a huge statue. Afterwards he communicated his dream to certain close associates of his, who remembered seeing a statue exactly like it at Sinope. The King sent for the statue, and when it was shown to Timotheus, an Eleusinian priest, and Manetho an Egyptian, they said that it resembled the Greek Hades, because of the three-headed dog Kerberos which attended it, but also that it resembled Asar-Api. Ptolemy established the cult of Serapis at Alexandria, building a huge temple for him there which also possessed a library that was said to contain over 300,000 volumes. Serapis’ worship was successful, in that both Greeks and Egyptians felt that they were worshipping their own native deity, but his cult really took off once it spread West into Rome, where it became one of the ancient world’s most popular religions, patronized by Emperors such as Otho, Caligula (under whom the first Serapeum was built at Rome), and Gaius Julius Verus Maximinus, as well as people from all ranks of society. Serapis acquired the attributes and symbols of a number of Greek and Roman Gods – he was depicted in the traditional form of Zeus/Iuppiter, complete with long beard and lightning-bolts, from Asklepios he gained the power to heal and his serpent companions, from Helios he took the solar-crown and dominion of the heavens, from Hades he became Lord of the Underworld and gained Kerberos as a companion, and from Dionysos he was given a thyrsos, ivy, and the kantharos, as well as rule over nature. A number of authors came to equate Dionysos and Serapis, most notably Diodorus Siculus (1.25) and Plutarch (On Isis and Osiris, 28). However, Serapis and his origins in the Apis bull were not Osiris’s only connection with this most holy and powerful of creatures.
Plutarch informs us that the Mnevis Bull, which was kept at Heliopolis was “second only to the Apis” and that “like Osiris, it was black in colour,” (On Isis and Osiris, 34). In temple inscriptions the two are actually identified through the names “Mnevis-Osiris” and “Mnevis-Wennefer” (Richard H. Wilkinson, The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt, 174). Ammianus Marcellinus claimed that the Mnevis was sacred to the Sun as Apis was sacred to the Moon, and in the Pyramid Texts he was regarded as the ba of Re and linked with Re-Atum, not unlike Osiris himself. In Utterance 307 we read, “I am the wild bull of the grassland, the bull with the great head who comes from Heliopolis. I come to you the wild bull of the grassland, for it is I who generates you, and continuously generates you.”
In the vignettes of Chapter 148 of the Book of the Dead, Osiris is connected with Kai Imentet, the Bull of the West, or Heavenly Bull, who was said to be the husband of seven cows, which accompanied him in his travels.
Another bull connected with Osiris (and which suggests a strong link with Dionysos as well) was the sacred bull of Hermonthis, whose name was variously given as Pacis, Bacchis, Bakha and Onuphis. (The last, found in Aelian 8.11, was in all likelihood a corruption of Osiris Un-nefer, according to Budge.) The Bacchis bull was said to change its colour every hour of the day (Macrobius Saturnalia 1.26), and was regarded as “an image of the sun shining on the other side of the world, i.e. the Underworld.” (E. A. Wallis Budge, Gods of the Egyptians vol II, pg 352.) He was further styled “Bull of the Mountain of the Sunrise, and the Lion of the Mountain of Sunset” providing an interesting link with Dionysos which runs deeper than the similarity of their names.
Dionysos was represented as having bull horns (Sophocles Fragment 959) and Ion of Chios refers to him as the “indominatble bull-faced boy” (Athenaios 2.35 d-e) like the author of Orphic Hymn 45 who invokes Dionysos as the “bull-faced God conceived in fire”. The women of Elis sought Dionysos to come “storming on your bull’s foot” and hailed him as the Axie Taure “Worthy Bull”. In Euripides’ Bacchae, the Theban maenads ask him to appear as a bull (1017) and Pentheus discovers that in place of the effiminant stranger he had thought he’d imprisoned in the palace, there is a mighty and ferocious bull in his place. At Pergamon and elsewhere, priests of Dionysos were called boukoloi and arkhiboukoloi (IPergamon nos. 485-88) and the sacred marriage of Dionysos and the Basillina was celebrated in the boukoleion or sacred cow-shed at Athens. (Aristotle Constitution of the Athenians 3.5)
The panther is perhaps Dionysos’ favorite animal. It is almost universally depicted in his train, pulling his chariot, ferociously tearing apart his enemies such as Lykourgos, laying docilely at his feet, or as Philostratus tells us, “leaping as gracefully as the Bacchantes”. (Imag. 1.19.4) The panther was even said to have a fondness for wine. (Oppian Cynegetica 3.80) Its intractable savagery was compared to that of Dionysos’ own. (Athenaios 2.38e)
However, Dionysos was also connected with the lion, in whose guise he appears to frighten the pirates in the 7th Homeric Hymn and the daughters of Minyas. In this form, he fought in the battle against the Giants (Horace Carmina 2.19.23) and it was as a lion that the Theban women sought him in Euripides’ Bacchae, “Appear as a bull, or as a many-headed dragon, or as a lion breathing fire!” (1017) In Roman times, both the lynx and tiger were added to his train.
There aren’t many references linking Osiris to wild cats, though the Egyptians knew lion-Goddesses such as Sekhmet and Menhit. However, Osiris is depicted as having a lion-shaped sarcophagus at Dendera, and Plutarch linked him with this animal, “The Sun is consecrated to Osiris, and the lion is worshipped, and temples are ornamented with figures of this animal, because the Nile rises when the sun is in the constellation of the Lion.” (On Isis and Osiris, 38) And in the Contendings of Heru and Set, Osiris is hailed as the “lion who hunts for himself,” (1.14. 7)
Jan Bergman observed that, “The most decisive divine confrontation encountered in Egyptian religious thought is without doubt that between Ra and Osiris. As the princial representation of sky and earth, life and death, light and darkness, day and night, they constitute one another’s necessary compliment. Without some form of union between them, the Egyptian world view would have been hopelessly divided and the rhythm of life broken.”
In the Book of the Dead (clxxxi), we find the following lines, “Homage to thee, O Governor of Amentet, Un-Nefer, lord of Ta-tchesert, O thou who art diademed like Re, verily I come to see thee and rejoice at thy beauties. His disk is thy disk; his rays of light are thy rays of light; his Ureret crown is thy Ureret crown; his majesty is thy majesty, his risings are thy risings …” and continues in that vein for quite some time.
Osiris was considered to be the ba or soul of Ra, as we see from the inscription in the tomb of Nefertari, “Osiris who rests in Ra and Ra that rests in Osiris” and he was also connected with the Sun through its nightly journey in the Duat or Underworld. This was often depicted quite beautifully on coffins. For instance, we frequently find on the bottom of coffins and in the center of the lid pictures of Nut, Goddess of the sky and mother of Osiris. The images of Nut encircled the entire coffin, and the coffin probably represented the womb of the Goddess. Being buried in the womb of the Goddess implied being reborn in the underworld as Osiris. The sun myths also contain the idea that the Sun God’s journey through the underworld occurs through the body of Nut. Thus the deceased is identified with the Sun God because both are reborn through Nut. Osiris was also thought to be the mummy of the Sun God. In the same way that the soul of the dead had to return to the body every night to be revived for a new day, the Sun God had to be united with Osiris every night. Thus the deceased, Osiris, and the Sun God merged.
Didorus Siculus said that the sun was often identified with Osiris and the moon with Isis (1.11) and Plutarch observed, “Furthermore they everywhere show an anthropomorphic statue of Osiris with erect phallus because of his procreative and nourishing nature. They adorn his statues with flame-coloured clothes, regarding the sun as the body of the power of good and as the visible light of a substance which can only be spiritually felt.” (On Isis and Osiris, 201)
Dionysos has his solar associations as well. The most explicit statement of this comes from the Roman author Macrobius, who outright calls Dionysos-Liber the sun. (Saturnalia, I, 17-23) More subtly, you find Dionysos and his brother Apollon, who from the 5th century B.C.E. had been connected with the sun, linked, and even equated at times. Plutarch said that they had equal shares at Delphi, and Aischylos speaks of “Ivy-Apollo, Bakchios, the sooth-sayer” (Fragment 86) while Euripides in his Lykymnios speaks of “Lord, laurel-loving Bakhios, Paean Apollo, player on the lyre” (Fragment 480). Perhaps the earliest point of contact, however, comes from the Thracian prophet and musician, Orpheus.
The following, which I have always found terribly beautiful, was posted to the Thiasos Dionysos e-list by Lysiodorus, a Dionysian priest:
“The inspired scholar Peter Kingsley, who has traced the idea of the Chthonic Sun among the Greeks as far back as Parmenides, makes the profound suggestion (I scent the trace of a Dionysiac Muse in this inspiration) that when Orpheus, servant of Apollon and Dionysos and Helios– a triple dedication that has confused many from antiquity to the present day (but which doesn’t seem strange or conflicting if They can all be identified as Aspects of each other)– climbed to the peak of Mount Pangaion every morning to be the first to greet the Sun rising from the Eastern Gates of the Underworld, it was because the Solar shaman-priest wished to be illuminated by hearing His God whisper in the ecstatic beauty of dawn what mysteries He had learned on His nocturnal journey through the Underworld (Mysteries the Sun/ Dionysos/ Apollon could share with the Thracian mystic because it was a Chthonic initiatory journey, let us not forget, that Orpheus himself had made).”
Black is beautiful
For the ancient Egyptians, the colour black symbolized both death and the underworld on the one hand, and fertility, resurrection, and the fullness of life on the other. (April McDevitt Color in Ancient Egyptian Mythology) Likely, this association derived from the rich black, alluvial soil left after the flooding of the Nile. Herodotus (2.12) observed that the Egyptians drew a distinction between the habitable area of the Nile Valley, and the dry, barren wastes of the desert which surrounded them, calling the first Kemet “The Black Land”, and the latter Deshret or the “Red Land”, and Plutarch attests that this was the name that they used in referring to their land: “Egypt, moreover, which has the blackest of soils, they call by the same name as the black portion of the eye, Khemia.” (On Isis and Osiris33)
Because Osiris was connected with the flooding of the Nile and the rich black soil that it left behind, he was naturally depicted with a dark complexion (On Isis and Osiris 22) as we often see in funerary monuments, for instance that of Rameses IX or the basalt statue from the tomb of Psamtik. Further, he was called Kem “The Black One”, Kem Ho “He of the Black Face”, and Kem Wer “The Great Black One”. (E. A. Wallis Budge, An Egyptian Hieroglyphic Dictionary)
Dionysos could also be depicted in a similar manner. For instance, at Eleutherai, Dionysos was said to have appeared to the daughters of the King in the guise of a dark goat, after which he was called Melanaigis “He of the Black Goat Skin”. (Suida, Lexicon s.v. Melan). Additionally, Dionysos was known as Khthonios or “He Who is Beneath the Earth” as well as Nyktelios “The Nocturnal One”, and Nyktipolos “The Night-Stalker”. Additionally, Polemon speaks of a Dionysos Morychos or “Dark Dionysos” worshipped at Syracuse.
What Green skin you have
In the Book of the Dead, as translated by E. A. Wallis Budge, there are a number of references to Osiris’s green colour. He is described as “Golden of limbs, blue of head, emerald upon both of his sides…” (pg. 10) and said to be “encircled by an emerald light” (pg. 254) The earth is said to “Becometh green through thee … in triumph before the hand of Neberter,” (pg. 253) and “Thou hast come with thy splendours, and thou hast made heaven and earth bright with thy rays of pure emerald light.” (pg. 250)
Dionysos was called Anthios “The Blossoming One”, Kissokomes “Crowned with Ivy”, Perikionios “He Who is Entwined Around the Pillars”, and Korymbophoros “The Cluster-laden”. He made his appearance amid the ripening of fruit and the vibrant hues of spring, and was always depicted with a crown of ivy or laurel, and ivy dripping off of him.
Sex saturates the Dionysian world-view. The Samians worshipped Dionysos Enorkes “the Betesticled” or “In the Balls”. (Hesychius s.v. Enorkes) And at Sicyon the God’s lustiness was honored by the title Dionysos Khoiropsalas “Cunt-Plucker”. (Polemon Historicus, FHG 3.135.42) We see this side of the God manifest in the uncomplicated and unapologetic phallicism of his male companions, the satyrs. Hesiod calls the satyrs a “race of lazy, good-for-nothings,” (Catalogue of Women Fragment 123) and in Attic vase-paintings they are almost always depicted in a state sexual arousal, frollicking in phallic dances to the accompaniment of pipes and drums, chasing after nymphs, or attempting (unsuccessfully) to initiate romantic liasons with the female votaries of Dionysos. Their eroticism is exaggerated, comical, and rarely finds satisfaction. Nor does their sexuality necessarily need the presence of women for arousal – satyrs are depicted as resorting to masturbation, strange contrivances, bestiality, etc. for release – and sometimes they are simply there with their large, erect members (as opposed to traditional Greek aeshetics which seemed to prefer small, unerect penises) as if the act of sex was an afterthought. It is horniness for the sake of horniness, reveling in the presence and excitement of the phallus, in the thrill and chase and wild exuberance of sensuality, a celebration of the body, of pleasure, in and of itself, whether it ever reaches completion in the act of coitus.
The phallus is ubiquiotus in the worship of Dionysos. According to Plutarch, the things carried in the earliest rites of Dionysos were: “A wine jar, a vine, a basket of figs, and then the phallus,” (Moralia 527D) According to Aristophanes, Phales, the phallus personified, was the “friend and constant companion” of Dionysos, and accompanied him in processions and sacred dances. (Acharnians 263) Herodotus says that Melampos, who supposedly introduced Dionysos’ worship into Greece, instituted phallic processions in his honor. (2.49) At Methymna on Lesbos there was a cult of Dionysos Phallen in which a wooden trunk with a face on it was carried in procession. (Pasuanias 10.19.3) Each colony sent a phallus regularly to the Athenian Dionysia, and at Delos large wooden phalloi were carried in processions. And Herakleitos speaks of the phallic songs which would be shameful if they were not sung in honor of Dionysos. (Fragment 15) We even have a fragment of one of those songs from the Delian poet Semos, who sings of Dionysos, “Give way, make room for the God! For it is his will to stride exuberantly erect through the middle.”
Dionysos’s sexual rapaciousness is well attested in mythology. His most famous lover was the Cretan princess Ariadne, with whom he had numerous children – at one count, almost twelve of them. (Homer Iliad 18.590-92, Apollodorus 1.9.17) But she was by no means his only lover. By Aphrodite he was said to have sired Priapos (Pausanias 9.31.2), by Nikaia, Telete (Dionysiaca 16.392), by Aura, Iakkhos (Dionysiaca 48.887), by Koronis, the Younger Charities (Dionysiaca 15.87), by Althaia, Deianeira (Apollodorus 1.64), by Physkoa, Narkaios (Pausanias 5.16.6). Additionally, he was said to have wooed Beroe, after whom the city in Lebanon was named (Dionysiaca 42.1f) and Pallene, who had wrestled and slain all previous suitors. Nor were his amorous encounters limited only to women – Dionysos was also said to have loved the young satyr Ampelos (Ovid Fasti 3.407), the sentry to the underworld Prosymnos (Clement of Alexandria Protreceptic 2.34.5) and the poet Phanocles even wrote, “Bacchus on hills the fair Adonis saw, and ravished him, and reaped a wondrous joy.”
Orgiastic rites were frequently attributed to Dionysos. For instance, Livy recounts the allegations of the Roman Senate in their suppression of the Bacchanalia as follows, “When wine had inflamed their feelings, and night and the mingling of the sexes and of different ages had extinguished all power of moral judgement, all sorts of corruption began to be practiced, since each person had ready to hand the chance of gratifying the particular desire to which he was naturally inclined… [N]o sort of crime, no kind of immorality, was left unattempted. There were more obscenities practiced between men than between men and women.” (Roman History 39.8, 13) In the Akharnians, Aristophanes has Dikaiopolis jokingly refer to his daughter’s involvement in Dionysian revels, “Happy he who shall be your possessor and embrace you so firmly at dawn that you fart like a weasel.” The chorus of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King (1105-9) wonders if the King may have been conceived during a Dionysian orgy on mount Helicon, and Plutarch asserts that Alexander the Great was likely conceived during one of Queen Olympias’ Bacchic orgies, for which she had a great fondness, where the God appeared in the form of a giant snake. (Alexander 2-3) And Augustine speaks of a high degree of licentiousness carried on at Dionysos’ festivals. (The City of God 7.21) In Euripides’ Bacchae, Dionysos is said to “have the charm of Aphrodite in his eyes” (236), and Pentheus suspects that the maenads “prefer Aphrodite to Bacchus in their rites” (215), although the messenger who has come back from observing the rites of the maenads flatly denies any such allegation, saying that they worship “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.” (685-87)
Sexuality is just as important in the realm of Osiris. He is called, “the Lord of the Phallus and the ravisher of women” (The Book of the Dead, CLXVIII, 15) and “the mummy with a long member,” in which form he is frequently depicted in funerary art. The phallus was even carried in processions to honor Osiris, according to Plutarch. “Moreover, when they celebrate the festival of the Pamylia which, as has been said, is of a phallic nature, they expose and carry about a statue of which the male member is triple; for the God is the Source, and every source, by its fecundity, multiplies what proceeds from it.” (On Isis and Osiris, 36) In the Pyramid Texts, it is said, “Your sister Isis comes to you rejoicing for love of you. You have placed her on your phallus and your seed issues into her.” (Utt. 366, sect 632) Nor was it just Isis with whom Osiris was said to have erotic encounters. Plutarch recounts a secret liason that Osiris had with his sister Nephthys, “Isis found that Osiris had loved and been intimate with her sister while mistaking her for herself, and saw a proof of this in the garland of melilot which he had left with Nephthys.” (On Isis and Osiris) This scene is hinted at in the Great Magical Papyrus of Paris, where we find the following line, “I have discovered a secret: Yes, Nephthys is having intercourse with Osiris.” (PGM 4.100-02) It is often suggested that this myth was a later invention, perhaps inspired by Greek stories of infidelities among the Gods – however, in the 183rd Chapter of the Book of the Dead a quarrel between Nephthys and Isis is recorded, which clearly predates the Greek presence in Egypt, and for which there is no other mythological explanation.
God of Joy
Firmicus Maternus records the symbolon of Osiris’ Roman initiates (mystai) as “Be of good cheer, O mystai, for the God is saved, and we shall have salvation from our woes.” (The Error of the Pagan Religions, 2.21). According to Plutarch, Osiris is “laughter-loving,” (On Isis and Osiris, 18) and in The Great Hymn to Osiris, the following is proclaimed: “There is joy everywhere, all hearts are glad, every face is happy, and everyone adoreth his beauty.”
According to Nonnos, the God Aion complained to Zeus about the laborious, care-ridden life of mortals. Zeus declared that he would beget a son who was to dispell the cares of the human race, and bring them a message of joy. (Dionysiaca 7:7) This was Dionysos, who according to Euripides in the Bacchae, “ends our worries” (450), “keeps the household safe and whole though the other Gods dwell far off in the air of heaven” (466-67) and is a “lover of peace” (500). For, as Horace said, “Who prates of war or want after taking wine?” (Carmina 1) Wine is the tangible symbol and fluid vehicle of the God. When people wish to speak of his blessings, they use wine to symbolize it. Hence we have, “Wine is mighty to inspire new hopes and wash away bitter tears of care.” (Horace, Carmina 4) “Wine frees the soul of subservience, fear, and insincerity; it teaches men how to be truthful and candid with one another.” (Plutarch’s Symposia 7.10.2) And Aristophanes adds, “When men drink wine they are rich, they are busy, they push lawsuits, they are happy, they help their friends.” (The Knights) Dionysos’ blessing is for everyone – male and female, young and old. (Euripides’ Bacchae 205) And it is very important – for “where Dionysos is not, love perishes, and everything else that is pleasant to man.” (Bacchae 769)
Osiris “was the subject of what was known as the Abydos passion play, a yearly ritual performed during the period of the Old Kingdom and until about AD 400. The Abydos passion play depicts the slaying of Osiris and his followers by his brother Seth, the enactment of which apparently resulted in many real deaths. The figure of Osiris, symbolically represented in the play, is then torn to pieces by Seth, after which his remains are gathered by his wife Isis and son Horus, who subsequently restore him to life. The play thus follows the pattern of birth, death, and resurrection, and it also echoes the cycle of the seasons.” – Encyclopaedia Britannica
“The world’s earliest report of a dramatic production comes from the banks of the Nile. It is in the form of a stone tablet preserved in a German museum and contains the sketchy description of one, I-kher-nefert (or Ikhernofret), a representative of the Egyptian king, of the parts he played in a performance of the world’s first recorded “Passion” Play somewhere around the year 2000 B.C.E.” (Alice B. Fort & Herbert S. Kates, Minute History of the Drama, p. 4).
Similarly, drama in Greece was thought to have developed out of early rituals commemorating the death and dismemberment of Dionysos. Long after the plays enacted ceased to be about Dionysos directly, the theater was still considered sacred to him, new productions were debuted at the Dionysias, and his priests were always given the choicest of seats.
John M. Allegro notes, “At the beginning of the fifth century BC tragedy formed part of the Great Dionysia, the Spring festival of Dionysos Eluethereus. Three poets competed, each contributing three tragedies and one satyric play. The latter was performed by choruses of fifty singers in a circle, dressed as satyrs, part human, part bestial, and bearing before them huge replicas of the erect penis, as they sang dithyrambs.” (The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross)
Mysteries and Initiation
Both Gods had Mysteries associated with them, and mystai who sought initiation into a special relationship with the God.
Marvin W. Meyer describes the Hellenistic mysteries as follows, “[They] were secret religious groups composed of individuals who decided, through personal choice, to be initiated into the profound realities of one deity or another. Unlike the official religions, in which a person was expected to show outward, public allegiance to the local gods of the polis or state, the mysteries emphasized an inwardness and privacy of worship within closed groups. The person who chose to be initiated joined an association of people united in their quest for personal salvation.” (The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook, pg. 4)
The term “initiation” comes from the Latin word initiare, which is a late Hellenistic translation of the Greek verb myein, whence our word mystery comes from. The main Greek term for initiation, myesis, is also derived from the verb myein, which means “to close.” It refers to the closing of the eyes which was possibly symbolic of entering into darkness prior to reemerging and receiving light and to the closing the lips which was possibly a reference to the vow of silence taken by all initiates. Another Greek term for initiation was telete. In his Immortality of the Soul Plutarch writes that “the soul at the moment of death, goes through the same experiences as those who are initiated into the great mysteries. The word and the act are similar: we say telentai “to die” and telestai “to be initiated”.”
Cicero wrote, “For by means of mysteries we have been transformed from a rough and savage way of life to a state of humanity, and have been civilized. Just as they are called initiations, so in actual fact we have learned from them the fundamentals of life, and have grasped the basis not only for living with joy but also for dying with a better hope.” (On the Laws 2.14.36)
Dionysos was the Mystery-God par excellence in Greece. Not only did he have mysteries of his own, but he was a central figure in the Eleusinian Mysteries, as well as said to have been the founder and prophet of those belonging to the Magna Mater Kybele or Rhea.
Although it was previously thought that Dionysian mysteries only developed in the later Hellenistic and Roman Age, Walter Burkert informs us that, “We find evidence for Bacchic mysteries from the sixth to the fourth century with centers at Miletus and the Black Sea, in Thessaly and in Macedonia, Magna Graecia, and Crete; we find special rituals (teletai) performed as private initiations by itinerant charismatics to serve as “cures” for various afflictions, good both for this life and for the Beyond, combined with gatherings of private clubs (thiasoi) presenting themselves to the public in procession (pompe). The experience of ecstacy, mania, is crucial.” (Bacchic Teletai in Masks of Dionysos, pg. 260)
John M. Allegro in The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross, writes, “The female votaries of the phallus god Bacchus were known as the Bacchants…They were characterized by extreme forms of religious excitement interspersed with periods of intense depression. At one moment whirling in a frenzied dance, tossing their heads, driving one another on with screaming and the wild clamor of musical instruments, at another sunk into the deepest lethargy, and a silence so intense as to become proverbial. The Bacchants both possessed the god and were possessed by him; theirs was a religious enthusiasm in the proper sense of the term, that is, ‘god-filled’. Having eaten the Bacchus or Dionysos, they took on his power and character…”
John Ferguson adds, “In their ecstasy they would range through the mountains in dizzying dances, and tear some animal apart with their bare hands and ate it raw. There is no doubt that this was a communion in the god’s own body and blood; indeed at one center the god was worshipped under the cult-title Raw. The inspiration of the god was believed to confer miraculous power, and, as often, as belief in miracles leads to the performance of miracles. We hear of them caught in a snowstorm so that their clothes were frozen stiff, but rescued unharmed, or falling asleep from sheer exhaustion in an enemy village during wartime, and being protect for their holiness.” (An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Mysticism and the Mystery Religions)
Proclus wrote that, “The teletai cause sympathy of the souls with the ritual in a way that is unintelligible to us, and divine, so that some of the initiands are stricken with panic, being filled with divine awe; others assimilate themselves to the holy symbols, leave their own identity, become at home with the Gods, and experience divine possession.”
A Twelfth Dynasty inscription says, “Anubis sanctifies the hidden mystery of Osiris, in the sacred valley of the Lord of Life. The mysterious Initiation of the Lord of Abydos.” And the teachings of Merikare advise the priest to, “Visit the temple, observe the mysteries, enter the shrine, eat bread in God’s house.”
The great center for Osirian mysteries in Egypt was Abydos, which was said to hold the tomb of the God, and to which people made annual pilgrimages to take part in the great celebrations. Craig M. Lyons writes about the mysteries as they were celebrated at Abydos: “We know that at all the temples of Osiris his Passion was re-enacted at his annual festivals. On a stele at Abydos erected in the XIIth Dynasty by one I-KherNefert, a priest of Osiris during the reign of Usertsen III (Pharaoh Sesostris), about 1875 B.C.E., we find a description of the principal scenes in the Osiris mystery-drama. I-Kher-Nefert himself played the key role of Horus. In the first scene, Osiris is treacherously slain, and no one knows what has become of his body; thereupon all the onlookers weep, rend their hair, and beat their breasts. Isis and Nephthys recover the remnants, reconstitute the body, and return it to the temple. The next scene, in which Thoth, Horus, and Isis accomplish the revivification, undoubtedly occurs within the sacred precincts, and is therefore not witnessed by the populace. However, in due course the resurrected Osiris emerges at the head of his train; at this glorious consummation, the anguish and sorrow of the people are turned into uncontrollable rejoicing. Horus thereupon places his father in the solar boat so that he may, since he has already been born a second time, proceed as a living god into the eternal regions. This was the great “coming forth by day” of which we read so often in The Book of the Dead. The climax of the play was the great battle in which Horus defeated Set and which is described so vividly by Herodotus (History, II, 63).”
Although much of the Osirian mysteries was performed openly – in stark contrast to the Greek and Roman mysteries – secrecy attended the holiest portion of them. For instance, Herodotus wrote, “On this lake they enact by night the story of the god’s sufferings, a rite which the Egyptians call the Mysteries. I could say more about this, for I know the truth, but let me preserve a discreet silence.” (2.171.1) And Plutarch says that he must “leave undisturbed what may not be told” ( On Isis and Osiris, 35)
The mysteries of Isis and Osiris spread beyond the fertile Nile valley, and found great success in the Roman west. During the reign of Ptolomy Soter, Isis became so popular in Greece that a great temple was built for her at the foot of the Acropolis; and in the ensuing centuries, as we learn from Pausanias, almost every Greek city and village had its Isis-temple. Under the Emperor Caligula, Isis was admitted into Rome, and her worship became so popular that only Christianity and Mithraism rivaled her in number of adherants. Central to her worship was the celebration of the mysteries concerning the death and revivification of her husband, Osiris. The Christian author Firmicus Maternus, describes the Roman mysteries of Osiris as follows: “In the sanctuaries of Osiris, his murder and dismemberment are annually commemorated with great lamentations. His worshipers beat their breasts and gash their shoulders. When they pretend that the mutilated remains of the god have been found and rejoined they turn from mourning to rejoicing.” (Error of the Pagan Religions, 22.1)
The initiate found in the story of the God’s suffering, and his transformation by Isis, a hope that he, too, might be reborn and transformed.
Apuleius, an initiate in these mysteries, describes his experience as follows:
“I approached the confines of death. I trod the threshold of Proserpine; and borne through the elements I returned. At midnight I saw the Sun shining in all his glory. I approached the Gods below and the Gods above, and I stood beside them, and I worshipped them.” (Metamorphoses, 11.23)
In Ionia, Katagogia festivals were celebrated to honor the return of Dionysos, whose image was ceremoniously escorted by priests and priestesses. In Athens the image of Dionysos was driven to his sanctuary in a ship on wheels, most probably during the Anthesteria festival on the day of Khoes. Pausanias describes the procession of Dionysos Eleuthereus’ image from a little temple in the Academy to his sanctuary before the eve of the City Dionysia (1.29.2).
Carl Kerenyi observes, “The core of this ritual procession has its analogies in the religious and cultural history of Egypt, where Gods in their chapels were borne by barks which the gods’ servants carried on their backs. What in Greece was an anomaly, limited to the cult of Dionysos, was held to be the most natural thing in the world in Egypt, where the Nile was the main avenue of communication.” (Dionysos: Archetype of Indestructable Life, pg 167)
Additionally, processions in which representations of the phallus were carried about were quite common for Dionysos. According to Aristophanes, Phales, the phallus personified, was the “friend and constant companion” of Dionysos, and accompanied him in processions and sacred dances. (Acharnians 263) Herodotus says that Melampos, who supposedly introduced Dionysos’ worship into Greece, instituted phallic processions in his honor. (2.49) At Methymna on Lesbos there was a cult of Dionysos Phallen in which a wooden trunk with a face on it was carried in procession. (Pasuanias 10.19.3)
Both sorts of processions played an important role in the worship of Osiris, as Emily Teeter observed in Egypt and the Egyptians: “During festivals the statue of the god was removed from his sanctuary and placed in a portable shrine which was, in turn, placed on a boat. These ritual craft could be quite large; indeed, the texts from Tutankhamun claim that it was carried by eleven pairs of priests. The sacred boat processions might circumambulate the temple or make a pilgrimage from one temple to another, accompanied by temple personnel and local residents who sang, danced, and acclaimed the god.” (Chapter 6)
From a Middle Kingdom stela belonging to the high official Ikhernofret, we learn that the second day of the Osirian mysteries at Abydos consisted of a great procession, where a shrine inlaid with gold, lapis lazuli, silver, and bronze was carried on a bark called ‘neshmet‘ through the funerary complex and to a number of different localities. At Philae, the statue of Osiris was carried in procession from his temple to the neighboring temple of Isis, where a hieros gamos or sacred marriage was likely celebrated. Plutarch reports that pitchers carrying water from the Nile were borne at the head of Osiris’ processions (On Isis and Osiris, 36) and he says that at the Pamylia festivals, “a statue of the god with a triple phallus is carried about” (37). Herodotus attests to phallic processions in honor of Osiris as well (2.49) where women used to go about the villages singing songs in his praise and carrying obscene images of him which they set in motion by means of strings.
Death and Dismemberment
E. A. Wallis Budge observed that “the story of Osiris is nowhere found in a connected form in Egyptian literature, but everywhere, and in texts of all periods, the life, sufferings, death, and resurrection of Osiris are accepted as facts universally admitted.” (The Book of the Opening of the Mouth pg 9)
Despite the seeming prohibition on discussing the death of the God – although the Greek traveler Herodotus had observed the annual mysteries commemorating Osiris’ death he felt that he must keep a “discreet silence” regarding their content (2.171.1) – we find many suggestive hints in material such as the Pyramid and Coffin Texts, and in the Book of the Dead. For instance, Utterance 532 from the Pyramid Texts mentions that Osiris was struck down by Set. Pyramid Text 819a reads, “This Great One had fallen on his side; he had been thrown down.” PT 1005a-b says, “Osiris had been placed on his side by his brother Set, but the one who is in Nedit will move because his head has been put back in place by Re.” PT 1255-56a-b reads, “Isis came. Nephthys came. The one of the West, the other of the East, the one as a tern, the other as a kite. They found Osiris as his brother had flung him on the ground in Nedit.” PT 1007e reads, “Horus struck the one who struck you, bound the one who bound you.” PT 1544-1545a-b reads, “O Osiris who is here! I hit for you the one who had hit you as an ox. I killed the one who had killed you as a breeding bull. I broke the one who had submitted you to the Red Bull of Upper Egypt. The one who had shot you with an arrow is now shot. The one who stunned you is now stunned.” The Coffin Texts speak of the drowning of Osiris by Set: “permit me to have water as Set had water when he committed a flight against Osiris on the night of the great storm.” (353) Coffin Text 4.396a-b speaks of a great cataclysmic storm and the brutal waters of Set which drowned Osiris. And CT 184 speaks of Osiris being “put in a box, in a chest, in a bag.” And in the Pyramid Text of Unas we find perhaps the most explicit mention of Set’s attack on Osiris in Egyptian literature, “Unas hath weighted his words with the hidden god who hath no name, on the day of hacking in pieces the firstborn.”
However, it was not until the Greek author Plutarch that these various traditions were brought together and given a cohesive form. His narrative on the death and dismemberment of Osiris by Set runs as follows:
“It is said that Osiris, when he was king, at once freed the Egyptians from their primitive and brutish manner of life; he showed them how to grow crops, established laws for them, and taught them to worship Gods. Later he civilized the whole world as he traversed through it, having very little need of arms, but winning over most of the peoples by beguiling them with persuasive speech together with all manner of song and poetry. That is why the Greeks thought he was the same as Dionysos.
“When he was away Typhon conspired in no way against him since Isis was well on guard and kept careful watch, but on his return he devised a plot against him, making seventy-two men his fellow-conspirators and having as helper a queen who had come from Ethiopia, whom they name Aso. Typhon secretly measured the body of Osiris and got made to the corresponding size a beautiful chest which was exquisitely decorated. This he brought to the banqueting-hall, and when the guests showed pleasure and admiration at the sight of it, Typhon promised playfully that whoever would lie down in it and show that he fitted it, should have the chest as a gift. They all tried one by one, and since no one fitted into it, Osiris went in and lay down. Then the conspirators ran and slammed the lid on, and after securing it with bolts from the outside and also with molten lead poured on, they took it out to the river and let it go to the sea by way of the Tanitic mouth, which the Egyptians still call, because of this, hateful and abominable. They say that all these events occurred on the seventeenth day of the month of Athyr, when the sun passes through the scorpion, in the twenty-eighth year of the reign of Osiris. But some state that this was the period of his life rather than of his reign.
“The first to hear of the misfortune and to spread the news of its occurrence were the Pans and Satyrs who live near Khemmis, and because of this, the sudden disturbance and excitement of a crowd is still referred to as ‘panic’. When Isis heard of it she cut off there and then one of her locks and put on a mourning garment; accordingly the city is called Coptos to this day. Others think that the name indicates deprivation; for they use koptein to mean ‘to deprive’, and they suggest that Isis, when she was wandering everywhere in a state of distress, passed by no one without accosting him, and even when she met children, she asked them about the chest. Some of these had happened to see it and they named the river-mouth through which Typhon’s friends had pushed the box to the sea. For this reason the Egyptians believe that children have the power of divination, and they take omens especially from children’s shouts as they play near the temples and say whatever occurs to them.
“When Isis found that Osiris had loved and been intimate with her sister while mistaking her for herself, and saw a proof of this in the garland of melilot which he had left with Nephthys, she searched for the child (for Nephthys had exposed it instantly upon giving birth to it, in fear of Typhon); and when Isis found it with the help of dogs which had led her on with difficulty and pain, it was reared and became her guard and attendant, being called Anubis. He is said to keep watch over the gods as dogs do over men. They say that she learned as a result of this that the chest had been cast up by the sea in the land of Byblos and that the surf had brought it gently to rest in a heath-tree. Having shot up in a short time into a most lovely and tall young tree, the heath enfolded the chest and grew around it, hiding it within itself. Admiring the size of the tree, the king cut off the part of the trunk which encompassed the coffin, which was not visible, and used it as a pillar to support the roof. They say that Isis heard of this through the divine breath of rumour and came to Byblos, where she sat down near a fountain, dejected and tearful. She spoke to no one except the queen’s maids, whom she greeted and welcomed, plaiting their hair and breathing upon their skin a wonderful fragrance which emanated from herself. when the queen saw her maids she was struck with longing for the stranger’s hair and for her skin, which breathed ambrosia; and so Isis was sent for and became friendly with the queen and was made nurse of her child. The king’s name, they say, was Malcathros; some say that the queen’s name was Astarte, others Saosis, and others Neinanous, whom the Greeks would call Athenais.
“They say that Isis nursed the child, putting her finger in its mouth instead of her breast, but that in the night she burned the mortal parts of its body, while she herself became a swallow, flying around the pillar and making lament until the queen, who had been watching her, gave a shriek when she saw her child on fire, and so deprived it of immortality. The goddess then revealed herself and demanded the pillar under the roof. She took it from beneath with the utmost ease and proceeded to cut away the heath-tree. This she then covered with linen and poured sweet oil on it, after which she gave it into the keeping of the king and queen; to this day the people of Byblos venerate the wood, which is in the temple of Isis. The goddess then fell upon the coffin and gave such a loud wail that the younger of the king’s sons died; the elder son she took with her, and placing the coffin in a boat, she set sail. When the river phaedrus produced a somewhat rough wind towards dawn, in a fit of anger she dried up the stream.
“As soon as she happened on a deserted spot, there in solitude she opened the chest and pressing her face to that of Osiris, she embraced him and began to cry. She then noticed that the boy had approached silently from behind and had observed her, whereupon she turned round and full of anger gave him a terrible look. The boy was unable to bear the fright, and dropped dead. Some say that it did not happen so, but, as we said before, that he fell into the sea and is honoured because of the goddess, being the same person as the Maneros of whom the Egyptians sing in their banquets. Some say the boy was called [Palaestinus or] Pelousius and that the city founded by the Goddess (Pelusium) was named after him; also that the Maneros of whom they sing was the discoverer of music and poetry. Others again say that it is not the name of a man at all, but an expression such as comes naturally to men as they drink and make merry: ‘The best of luck to this and that!’ For this sentiment, signified by the word Maneros, is expressed by the Egyptians on all festive occasions. For instance, there is the image of a dead man which is carried round in a chest and shown them: this is not, as some assume, a memorial of the suffering of Osiris, but they say that thus they exhort their inebriated companions to use the present and enjoy it, since everyone will very soon be like the image seen; this is why they bring it into the feast.
“Having journeyed to her son Horus who was being brought up in Buto, Isis put the box aside, and Typhon, when he was hunting by night in the moonlight, came upon it. He recognized the body, and having cut it into fourteen parts, he scattered them. When she heard of this, Isis searched for them in a papyrus boat, sailing through the marshes. That is why people who sail in papyrus skiffs are not harmed by crocodiles, which show either fear or veneration because of the goddess. From this circumstance arises the fact that many tombs of Osiris are said to exist in Egypt, for the goddess, as she came upon each part, held a burial ceremony. Some deny this, saying that she fashioned images and distributed them to each city as though she was giving the whole body, so that he (Osiris) might be honoured by more people and that Typhon, if he overcame Horus, when he sought for the true tomb, might be baffled in his search because many tombs would be mentioned and shown. The only part of Osiris which Isis did not find was his male member; for no sooner was it thrown into the river than the lepidotus, phagrus and oxyrhynchus ate of it, fish which they most of all abhor. In its place Isis fashioned a likeness of it and consecrated the phallus, in honour of which the Egyptians even today hold festival.” (On Isis and Osiris, 13-18)
The commemoration of these events formed the basis for the mysteries of Osiris at Abydos, which Plutarch described as “gloomy, solemn, and mournful sacrifices” (On Isis and Osiris, 69) and those of Isis and Osiris in the Roman West. Julius Firmicus Maternus, a Latin Christian writer of the fourth century, declared: “In the sanctuaries of Osiris, his murder and dismemberment are annually commemorated with great lamentations. His worshipers beat their breasts and gash their shoulders. When they pretend that the mutilated remains of the god have been found and rejoined they turn from mourning to rejoicing.” (Error of the Pagan Religions, 22.1)
Similar stories were told about the death and dismemberment of Dionysos.
Plutarch informs us that the “Phrygians believe that the god sleeps in winter and is awake in summer, and with Bacchic frenzy they celebrate in the one season the festival of his being lulled to sleep Kateunasmous and in the other his being aroused or awakened Anegerseis. The Paphlagonians declare that he is fettered and imprisoned during the winter, but that in the spring he moves and is freed again.” (On Isis and Osiris 69) More explicitly, an oracle which preceded the founding of the Dionysian colony of Perinthos said, “After Bakhos, who cried ‘euhoi’ is struck, blood and fire and dust will mix.” Himeros speaks of the death of the God in the following manner, “Dionysos lay there struck down, still moaning under the blow. The vine hung down, the wine was disconsolate, the grape as though bathed in tears.” (Orationes XLV 4)
Pausanias informs us of who the instigators of the God’s murder were, “From Homer the name of the Titans was taken by Onomacritos, who in the orgies he composed for Dionysos made the Titans the authors of the God’s sufferings.” (8.37.5)
Diodorus Siculus adds more detail to the story: “The Titans, who are the Sons of Gaia, tore to pieces Dionysos-Zagreus, the child of Zeus and Persephone, and boiled him, but his members were brought together again by Demeter and he experienced a new birth as if for the first time. And with these stories, the teachings agree which are set forth in the Orphic poems and are introduced into their rites, but it is not lawful to recount them in detail to the uninitiated.” (3.62)
From Hyginus we get an even more full account: “Liber, son of Jove and Proserpina, was dismembered by the Titans, and Jove gave his heart, torn to bits, to Semele in a drink. When she was made pregnant by this, Juno, changing herself to look like Semele’s nurse, Beroe, said to her: ‘Daughter, ask Jove to come to you as he comes to Juno, so you may know what pleasure it is to sleep with a God.’ At her suggestion Semele made this request of Jove, and was smitten by a thunderbolt.” (Fabulae 167)
But the fullest account of the story was preserved in Nonnos’ monumental treatment of the God’s myths, the Dionysiaca, as follows:
“[Demeter hid Persephone in a cave in Sicily to try to prevent her mating with any of the Gods] Ah, maiden Persephoneia! You could not find how to escape your mating! No, a drakon was your mate, when Zeus changed his face and came, rolling in many a loving coil through the dark to the corner of the maiden’s chamber, and shaking his hairy chaps: he lulled to sleep as he crept the eyes of those creatures of his own shape who guarded the door. He licked the girl’s form gently with wooing lips. By this marriage with the heavenly drakon, the womb of Persephone swelled with living fruit, and she bore Zagreus the horned baby, who by himself climbed upon the heavenly throne of Zeus and brandished lightning in his little hand, and newly born, lifted and carried thunderbolts in his tender fingers.
“But he did not hold the throne of Zeus for long. By the fierce resentment of implacable Hera, the Titans cunningly smeared their round faces with disguising chalk, and while he contemplated his changeling countenance reflected in a mirror they destroyed him with an infernal knife. There where his limbs had been cut piecemeal by the Titan steel, the end of his life was the beginning of a new life as Dionysos. He appeared in another shape, and changed into many forms: now young like crafty Kronides shaking the aegis-cape, now as ancient Kronos heavy-kneed, pouring rain. Sometimes he was a curiously formed baby, sometimes like a mad youth with the flower of the first down marking his rounded chin with black. Again, a mimic lion he uttered a horrible roar in furious rage from a wild snarling throat, as he lifted a neck shadowed by a thick mane, marking his body on both sides with the self-striking whip of a tail which flickered about over his hairy back. Next, he left the shape of a lion’s looks and let out a ringing neigh, now like an unbroken horse that lifts his neck on high to shake out the imperious tooth of the bit, and rubbing, whitened his cheek with hoary foam. Sometimes he poured out a whistling hiss from his mouth, a curling horned serpent covered with scales, darting out his tongue from his gaping throat, and leaping upon the grim head of some Titan encircled his neck in snaky spiral coils. Then he left the shape of the restless crawler and became a tiger with gay stripes on his body; or again like a bull emitting a counterfeit roar from his mouth he butted the Titans with sharp horn. So he fought for his life, until Hera with jealous throat bellowed harshly through the air – that heavy-resentful step-mother! And the gates of Olympos rattled in echo to her jealous throat from high heaven. Then the bold bull collapsed: the murderers each eager for his turn with the knife chopt piecemeal the bull-shaped Dionysos.
“After the first Dionysos had been slaughtered, Father Zeus learnt the trick of the mirror with its reflected image. He attacked the mother of the Titans with avenging brand, and shut up the murderers of horned Dionysos within the gate of Tartaros: the trees blazed, the hair of suffering Gaia was scorched with heat. He kindled the East: the dawnlands of Baktria blazed under blazing bolts, the Assyrian waves est afirethe neighbouring Kaspion Sea and the Indian mountains, the Red Sea rolled billows of flame and warmed Arabian Nereus. The opposite West also fiery Zeus blasted with the thunderbolt in love for his child; and under the foot of Zephyros the western brine half-burn spat out a shining stream; the Northern ridges – even the surface of the frozen Northern Sea bubbled and burned: under the clime of snowy Aigokeros the Southern corner boiled with hotter sparks.
“Now Okeanos poured rivers of tears from his watery eyes, a libation of suppliant prayer. Then Zeus clamed his wrath at the sight of the scorched earth; he pitied her, and wished to wash with water the ashes of ruin and the fiery wounds of the land.
“Then Rainy Zeus covered the whole sky with clouds and flooded all the earth.” (6.155)
According to Philodemos, after Dionysos was torn apart by the Titans, Rhea the mother of the Gods, sought for the dismembered pieces, and then put them back together again. (De pietate 44) Diodorus Siculus wrote that Demeter (who was often equated with Rhea and Isis) gathered together the pieces, drawing a parallel to the vine which after it has been heavily pruned during the wine harvest, must be restored by the earth in order for it to bear fruit once again in due season. (3.62.7-8)
The dismemberment and reconstitution of Dionysos was given deep, eschatological signifigance in the Bacchic and Orphic mysteries.
The Neoplatonic philosopher Olympiodoros wrote that when Zeus burned up the Titans with his lightning-bolts a vapor arose, soot formed, and from the soot, a stuff. Of this stuff men were made. “Our body is Dionysian, we are a part of him, since we sprang from the soot of the Titans who ate his flesh.” (Olympiodors In Platonis Phaedonem comentarii 61C)
Plato wrote that during Dionysian initiation, the initiates “search eagerly within themselves to find the nature of their God, they are successful, because they have been compelled to keep their eyes fixed upon the God … they are inspired and receive from him character and habits, so far as it is possible for a man to have part in God.”
Macrobius in the Saturnalia observed that, “In their Mystery-tradition Dionysos is represented as being torn limb from limb by the fury of the Titans, and after the pieces have been buried, as coming together again and whole and one. By offering itself for division from its undivided state, and by returning to the undivided from the divided, this Dionysian process both fulfills the duties of the cosmos and also performs the mysteries of its own nature.”
Plutarch, in On the E at Delphi 23, wrote, “As for his passage and distribution into waves and water, and earth, and stars, and nascent plants and animals, they hint at the actual change undergone as a rending and dismemberment, but name the God himself Dionysos or Zagreus or Nyctelios or Isodaites. Deaths too and vanishings do they construct, passages out of life and new births, all riddles and tales to match the changes mentioned. So they sing to Dionysos dithyrambic strains, charged with sufferings and a change wherein are wanderings and dismemberment. For Aeschylus says, ‘In mingled cries the dithyramb should ring, With Dionysos revelling, its King.’ (Fr. 392) But Apollo has the Pæan, a set and sober music. Apollo is ever ageless and young; Dionysos has many forms and many shapes as represented in paintings and sculpture, which attribute to Apollo smoothness and order and a gravity with no admixture, to Dionysos a blend of sport and sauciness with seriousness and frenzy: ‘God that sett’st maiden’s blood. Dancing in frenzied mood, Blooming with pageantry! Evoe! we cry,’ So do they summon him, rightly catching the character of either change. But since the periods of change are not equal, that called “satiety” being longer, that of “stint” shorter, they here preserve a proportion, and use the Pæan with their sacrifice for the rest of the year, but at the beginning of winter revive the dithyramb, and stop the Pæan, and invoke this God instead of the other, supposing that this ratio of three to one is that of the ‘Arrangement’ to the ‘Conflagration’.”
Put into a chest to be drowned
According to the earliest traditions about the death of Osiris, he was placed in a chest and drowned. (The dismemberment into 14 pieces is quietly passed over.) Plutarch tells the story in the following manner:
“When he was away Typhon conspired in no way against him since Isis was well on guard and kept careful watch, but on his return he devised a plot against him, making seventy-two men his fellow-conspirators and having as helper a queen who had come from Ethiopia, whom they name Aso. Typhon secretly measured the body of Osiris and got made to the corresponding size a beautiful chest which was exquisitely decorated. This he brought to the banqueting-hall, and when the guests showed pleasure and admiration at the sight of it, Typhon promised playfully that whoever would lie down in it and show that he fitted it, should have the chest as a gift. They all tried one by one, and since no one fitted into it, Osiris went in and lay down. Then the conspirators ran and slammed the lid on, and after securing it with bolts from the outside and also with molten lead poured on, they took it out to the river and let it go to the sea by way of the Tanitic mouth, which the Egyptians still call, because of this, hateful and abominable.” (On Isis and Osiris, 13)
A similar story is recounted by the Greek traveler Pausanias of Dionysos:
“The inhabitants of Brasiae have a story, found nowhere else in Greece, that Semele, after giving birth to her son by Zeus, was discovered by Kadmos and put with Dionysos into a chest, which was washed up by the waves in their country. Semele, who was no longer alive when found, received a splendid funeral, but they brought up Dionysos. For this reason the name of their city, hitherto called Oreiatae, was changed to Brasiai after the washing up of the chest to land; so too in our time the common word used of the waves casting things ashore is ekbrazein. The people of Brasiae add that Ino in the course of her wanderings came to the country, and agreed to become the nurse of Dionysos. They show the cave where Ino nursed him, and call the plain the garden of Dionysos” (3.24.3-4)
Various Localities for their Tombs
“Regarding the shrines of Osiris, whose body is said to have been laid in many different places. For they say that Diochites is the name given to a small town, on the ground that it alone contains the true tomb; and that the prosperous and influential men among the Egyptians are mostly buried in Abydos, since it is the object of their ambition to be buried in the same ground with the body of Osiris. In Memphis, however, they say, the Apis is kept, being the image of the soul of Osiris, whose body also lies there. The name of this city some interpret as ‘the haven of the good’ and others as meaning properly the ‘tomb of Osiris.’ They also say that the sacred island by Philae at all other times is untrodden by man and quite unapproachable, and even birds do not alight on it nor fishes approach it; yet, at one special time, the priests cross over to it, and perform the sacrificial rites for the dead, and lay wreaths upon the tomb, which lies in the encompassing shade of a persea-tree, which surpasses in height any olive. Eudoxus says that, while many tombs of Osiris are spoken of in Egypt, his body lies in Busiris; for this was the place of his birth; moreover, Taphosiris requires no comment, for the name itself means ‘the tomb of Osiris.'” – Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris 20-21
Likewise, Dionysos was said to have his tomb in various locations. Philochorus says that his grave was “in Delphi near Golden Apollo”. (Fragment 22) Plutarch informs us that at Delphi the remains of Dionysos rested near the place where the oracle was, and that the Hosioi made a secret sacrifice in the temple of Apollo at the very same time as the Thyiads were awakening Liknites, the infant Dionysos in the cradle. (On Isis and Osiris 35) Clement of Alexandria was informed that there was a grave of Dionysos at Thebes (Recognitions 10.24) while others believed that he had been buried along with Ariadne at Argos (Pausanias 2.23.8), and at Lerna, it was believed that Dionysos had been cast into the lake and drowned
In the Roman mysteries of Isis and Osiris, the initiates (mystai) shared the grief and the joy of Isis, who sought for the body of Osiris and finally found and embalmed him. (Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris 27) According to Firmicus Maternus, the cry of the devotees at the culimnation of these mysteries, the Inventio Osiridis or “Finding of Osiris”, which took place during November in Rome, was heureamen synchairomen, “We have found! We rejoice together!” (The Error of the Pagan Religions, 2.9)
Over a millenia before that, one finds evidence of this central feature of Osiris’s mysteries in the Pyramid texts. For instance, Utterances such as 478, 482, 532, and 535, for example tell of Isis searching for the body of Osiris, while utterance 364 describes the gathering together of the body parts by Nephthys leading to his resurrection. The exclamation of the Roman mystai is even echoed in one of these ancient verses:
“… says Isis. “I have found!” says Nephthys when they had found Osiris on his side on the river bank (Pyramid Texts Utterance 2144a-b)
According to Plutarch (Quaest. Rom. 102), during the Agrionia festival, the women searched for the lost Dionysos, and at last called out to one another that he had escaped to the Muses, and had concealed himself with them. Philodemos informs us that after Dionysos was torn apart by the Titans, Rhea the mother of the Gods, sought for the dismembered pieces, and then put them back together again. (De pietate 44) While Diodorus Siculus wrote that Demeter (who was often equated with Rhea and Isis) gathered together the pieces, drawing a parallel to the vine which after it has been heavily pruned during the wine harvest, must be restored by the earth in order for it to bear fruit once again in due season. (3.62.7-8)
Something Bad Happens to their Penis
“The Aigyptians in their myths say that in ancient times the Titans formed a conspiracy against Osiris and slew him, and then, taking his body and dividing it into equal parts among themselves, the slipped them secretly out of the house, but this organ alone they threw into the river, since no one of them was willing to take it with him. But Isis tracked down the murder of her husband, and after slaying the Titanes and fashioning the several pieces of his body into the shape of a human figure, she gave them to the priests with orders that they pay Osiris the honours of a god, but since the only member she was unable to recover was the organ of sex she commanded them to pay to it the honours of a god and set it up in their temples in an erect position.” -Diodorus Siculus 4.6.1
Carl Kerenyi suggests that Dionysos, like Osiris, was a castrated God. He begins his discussion by suggesting that Dionysos’ birth from the thigh of Zeus metaphorically referred to this. “The logic of the Greek version of the myth is marred only by the substitution of the thigh birth for the God’s self-emasculation, a terrible but not meaningless act. The invention of a birth from the thigh of Zeus had its function in Greece: to cover over the God’s lavish gift at the expense of his own body. The myth cruelly emphasized the eternally necessary self-sacrifice of male virility to the feminine sex, and hence to the human race as a whole. One account of the concrete mission of the Dionysian religion – in its more masculine form, the mysteries of the Kabeiroi – tells us that the murderers of the God brought his male organ in a basket ffrom northern Greece to Italy. ‘For this reason,’ Clement of Alexandria, our Christian source concludes, ‘certain persons, not inapropriately, equate Dionysos with Attis, because he too was separated from his reproductive organ.’ (Protrepticus 2.19.4) Eunuchism was as characterisitic of Dionysos as Attis. It was one of the secret components of the Dionysian religion, but to the conoisseurs of the Dionysos cult cited by Clement it was an open secret.” (Dionysos: Archetype of Indestructable Life, pg 276-77)
Lord of the Underworld
The The Lamentations of Isis and Nephthys hail Osiris as “Thou Lord of the Underworld,” and Plutarch wrote, “There is a doctrine which modern priests hint at, but only in veiled terms and with caution: namely that this god (Osiris) rules and reigns over the dead, being none other than he whom the Greeks call Hades and Pluto.” (On Isis and Osiris, 78)
Vincent Bridges observed that “As early as 3,000 B.C.E, Osirian funeral artifacts appeared at Abydos. Within a few hundred years, the 1st Dynasty kings of a unified Egypt built tombs and cenotaphs at Abydos in order to be near the tomb of Osiris and the gateway to the Land of the Dead. From then on, Abydos was the center of the Osirian mysteries. (Abydos, the Osireion and Egyptian Sacred Science)
Jaromir Malek observed, “The dead king is…in the Pyramid Texts also identified with the God Osiris. Osiris was originally a chthonic deity. At first, he perhaps assimilated the God Anedjti, and became connected with the town of Djedu (Busiris) in the central Delta, and very early on also Iunu (Heliopolis). His importance grew rapidly, and he may have, as early as the Fourth Dynasty, influenced the changes in the royal pyramid-complexes. In private tombs Osiris began to be mentioned in the Fifth Dynasty, which is also the earliest date at which he was represented in human form. He quickly acquired the status of the universal God of the nether-world, with Djedu (Busiris) and Abdju (Abydos) as his main cult centers. In Abdju, he assimilated the original God Khentiamentiu.” (In the Shadow of the Pyramids)
Osiris as Lord of the Underworld is so well-known, that it hardly bears delving into here. (Especially when this is dealt with more extensively under the God’s demise and the individual’s identification with him in the afterlife.) However, what is not so commonly known is Dionysos’ associations with the Underworld, despite the extensive material on the subject.
An Apulian volute crater of the Darius Painter depicts Dionysos at the head of his thiasos, joining hands with Hades who is enthroned in his aedicula opposite a standing Persephone. This could be interpreted a number of different ways – a visual representation of the mystery that Herakleitos revealed in his oft-quoted but little understood line “Hades and Dionysos, for whom they go mad and rage, are one and the same,” (Fragment 115) or, as Fritz Graf writes in Dionysian and Orphic Eschatology, “Dionysos interceding with the powers beyond on behalf of his initiates.” (pg. 256 in Masks of Dionysos)
As Walter Otto observed, tradition has much to say about Dionysos the God who visits or even lives in the world of the dead. Horace described how the fearsome Kerberos, guardian of the Underworld quietly watched as Dionysos entered with his golden horn, and even licked his feet as he left. (Carmine 2.19) Numerous authors tell the story of how Dionysos descended into the underworld to bring his mother Semele back to the world of the living. In Aristophanes’ The Frogs, Dionysos goes down to the Underworld and joins the Eleusinian mystai in their sacred songs and dances. According to Orphic Hymn 46, he himself grew up in Persephone’s home, and Hymn 53 says that he sleeps in the house of Persephone during the long intervals before his reappearances. Clement of Alexandria (Protreptikos 2.16) cites the ancient myth whereby Persephone is the mother of the first Dionysos, the Horned Child Zagreus, and there are hints in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter that the God who ravishes Kore and steals her away to his underworld realm is actually Dionysos. (The abduction occurs at Nysa, and later when Demeter in her wandering is offered a drink of wine she angrily refuses.) Both Hades and Dionysos share a number of epithets. Dionysos is called Khthonios or “Underworld” as well as Nyktelios “The Nocturnal One”, Melanaigis “Of the Black Goat Skin”, and Polygethes “Giver of Riches” – all titles traditionally belonging to Hades. Euripides speaks of “Bacchantes of Hades” (Hecuba 1077) and Aeschylus calls the Erinyes “Maenads” (Eumenides, 500). Euripides compared the maenads to ghosts, calling them both nyktipoloi “night-stalkers”, since both became active only after sunset. (Ion 717, 10458-49) And when we turn to actual cult and funerary practices, we see that this connection remains just as strong.
The Neoplatonic Olympiodoros preserves a hexametrical fragment of Orpheus concerning Dionysos’ power over the dead, “Men send perfect hecatombs in all hours during the year, and they perform rites, striving after deliverence from unlawful ancestors. But thou having power over them, you will deliver whomever you wish from difficult suffering and limitless frenzy.” (OF 232)
Additionally, the Orphics sought Dionysos’ intercessary power over Persephone, the Queen and Judge of the Dead. They believed that by undergoing initiation and learning certain secret phrases, they could pass unscathed through the Underworld and find a better existence there. “And then, you will go a long way, a holy one, where also the others – the mytai and bakkhoi – walk in fame.” (Hipponium lamella, 15-16) Numerous texts such as this, inscribed on gold leaves, were buried with the dead to help them find their way through the Underworld. Others believed that in becoming a Bakkhos or Bakkhes, they would not have to face the pangs of death, but live on eternally in a Bacchic state. According to Plato, the Orphics believed that in death they would partake in an eternal symposia with ever-flowing wine. “Still grander are the gifts of heaven which Mousaios and his son vouchsafe to the just; they take them down into the world below, where they have the saints lying on couches at a feast, everlastingly drunk, crowned with garlands; their idea seems to be that an immortality of drunkeness is the highest meed of virtue.” (Republic 2.6) And others still found solace in the face of death through Dionysian imagery, whether they held to the eschatological beliefs of the Orphics and similar groups or not. At any rate, Dionysos played an important role in death and funerary practices for the Greeks and Romans.
Susan Guettel Cole informs us that his symbolism connected with death and life is found everywhere: “in vase paintings, wall and floor decoration, reliefs carved on sarcophagi, and ornamentation on tombs and graves.” (Dionysos and the Dead, pg. 278 in Masks of Dionysos) She goes on to inform us that “There are about seventy-five sepulchral inscriptions that refer to Dionysos, Dionysiac activities, Bacchic organizations, or Bacchic mysteries.” (pg. 278) And those are simply the ones that have come to light thus far! She also mentions that “Bacchic organizations took responsibility for the burial of members. They tended the graves of their leaders and officilas, but members without rank were also provided with tombstones and rites at the grave.” (pg. 285)
We have an inscription from one of these groups, the Iobacchoi of Athens, dating from the second century of our era. It states:
“And if any Iobacchus die, a wreath shall be provided in his honor not exceeding five denarii in value, and a single jar of wine shall be set before those who have attended the funeral; but anyone who has not attended may not partake of the wine.”
A group of devotees of Dionysos (bebakkheumenoi) at Cumae had their own seperate burial ground (LSS no. 120) and a Campnian bakkhe even had her sarcophagus made in the shape of a meanad. (Hern 1972, 82) An initiate from Southern Italy appears entwined with vines on her sarcophagus, presumably symbolising the intoxicating bliss of the hereafter
Some of the Dionysian funerary inscriptions are truly beautiful, for instance: At Hermopolis Magna in the second century a father found such comfort in the ripening of the grape and the change of seasons that he decided not to weep for his daughter taken by the nymphs in death. (Susan Guettel Cole, Dionysos and the Dead, pg. 282 in Masks of Dionysos) In Egypt, the vines of Bacchus were said to mourn for a barkeeper who had poured “honey-sweet wine for all mortals, the drops that stop pain.” (Susan Guettel Cole, Dionysos and the Dead, pg. 282 in Masks of Dionysos) And at Phillipi we find a Latin funerary inscription that suggests that the dead youth will be restored or refreshed (repartus) in the Elysian Fields, dancing as a satyr with the tattooed mystai of Bromios. (CIL 3, no. 686)
Although both Dionysos and Osiris were said to have been murdered, they both were able to regain their power and life.
An inscription from Thasos describes Dionysos as a God who renews himself and returns each year rejuvenated. (Susan Guettel Cole, Dionysos and the Dead, pg. 280 in Masks of Dionysos) The Christian author Justin Martyr, in his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew grudgingly observed that, “Bacchus, son of Jupiter, being torn in pieces, and having died, rose again.” Plutarch informs us that the “Phrygians believe that the God sleeps in winter and is awake in summer, and with Bacchic frenzy they celebrate in the one season the festival of his being lulled to sleep Kateunasmous and in the other his being aroused or awakened Anegerseis. The Paphlagonians declare that he is fettered and imprisoned during the winter, but that in the spring he moves and is freed again.” (On Isis and Osiris 69) Diodorus Siculus says that after being torn apart by the Titans, Dionysos was pieced back together again by Demeter, and “he experienced a new birth as if for the first time.” (3.62) Macrobius in the Saturnalia observed that, “In their Mystery-tradition Dionysos is represented as being torn limb from limb by the fury of the Titans, and after the pieces have been buried, as coming together again and whole and one. By offering itself for division from its undivided state, and by returning to the undivided from the divided, this Dionysian process both fulfills the duties of the cosmos and also performs the mysteries of its own nature.”
Dirk Obbink observes, “Dionysos is poured out, expended in ritual, yet returns, and is present to be poured again in each new year’s vintage. In Dionysos’ sanctuaries, fountains flow with wine, vine bloom and produce overnight. In this very domesticated view Dionysos represents the perpetualy full cup, from which, when mixed with water in a civilized fashion, humans can drink as much as they like.” (Dionysos Poured Out, pg. 86, in Masks of Dionysos) At Phillipi we find a Latin funerary inscription that suggests that the dead youth will be restored or refreshed (repartus) in the Elysian Fields, dancing as a satyr with the tattooed mystai of Bromios. (CIL 3, no. 686) Another indication of this are the Orphic bone tablets found at Olbia with the words bios – thanatos – bios inscribed on them – meaning that death (thanatos) is a passage between two phases of life bios.
And on the revivification of Dionysos, Walter Otto poetically wrote, “And when he opens his eyes, when he rouses himself, when he grows into glorious maturity, he will fill their hearts with a heavenly terror, their limbs with a maddening desire to dance.” (Dionysos: Myth and Cult, pg. 81)
While it is true that Osiris, unlike Dionysos, did not return bodily to the earth, but remained a powerful being in the Underworld, he regained his power, strength, and vitality through the ministrations of his sisters Isis and Nephthys, as we see in Coffin Text 74:
“Ah Helpless One! Ah Helpless One Asleep! Ah Helpless One in this place which you know not-yet I know it! Behold, I have found you [lying] on your side the great Listless One. ‘Ah, Sister!’ says Isis to Nephthys, ‘This is our brother, Come, let us lift up his head, Come, let us [rejoin] his bones, Come, let us reassemble his limbs, Come, let us put an end to all his woe, that, as far as we can help, he will weary no more. May the moisture begin to mount for this spirit! May the canals be filled through you! May the names of the rivers be created through you! Osiris, live! Osiris, let the great Listless One arise! I am Isis.’ ‘I am Nephthys. It shall be that Horus will avenge you, It shall be that Thoth will protect you -your two sons of the Great White Crown- It shall be that you will act against him who acted against you, It shall be that Geb will see, It shall be that the Company will hear. Then will your power be visible in the sky. And you will cause havoc among the [hostile] Gods, for Horus, your son, has seized the Great White Crown, seizing it from him who acted against you. Then will your father Atum call ‘Come!’ Osiris, live! Osiris, let the great Listless One arise!’
R. T. Rundle Clark writes, “Osiris, however, is immanent. He is the sufferer with all mortality but at the same time he is all the power of revival and fertility in the world. He is the power of growth in plants and of reproduction in animals and human beings. He is both dead and the source of all living. Hence to become Osiris is to become one with the cosmic cycles of death and rebirth” (Myth and Symbol of Ancient Egypt, pg. 97)
Of Osiris it was written, “O you four Gods who stand at the supports of the sky, my father Osiris the King has not died in death, for my father Osiris the King possesses a spirit in the Horizon!” (Pyramid Text 556) And in the Coffin Texts we find the deceased identified with Osiris proclaiming, “I enter in and reappear through you, I decay in you, I grow in you … I am not destroyed.” (330) and, “Homage to thee, O my divine father Osiris, thou hast thy being with thy members. Thou didst not decay, thou didst not become worms, thou didst not diminish, thou didst not become corruption, thou didst not putrefy, and thou didst not turn into worms…. I shall not decay, and I shall not rot, I shall not putrefy, I shall not turn into worms, and I shall not see corruption before the eye of the god Shu. I shall have my being, I shall have my being; I shall live, I shall live; I shall germinate, I shall germinate, I shad germinate; I shall wake up in peace; I shall not putrefy, my intestines shall not perish; I shall not suffer injury; mine eye shall not decay; the form of my visage shall not disappear. My body shall be established, and it shall neither Lad into ruin nor be destroyed on this earth.” The King, again identified with Osiris, is hailed, “O! King, come, you also, tell of this going of yours that you may become a spirit thereby, that you may be great thereby, that you may be strong thereby, that you may be a soul thereby, that you may have power thereby.” (Pyramid Text 666)
Worshippers become Identified with the God
As Dirk Obbink writes in Dionysos Poured Out, “In the worship of Dionysos by private groups the eschatological message of Dionysian ritual (including sacrifice) was the imaginative acquisition of a lasting Dionysiac identity, either as a member of the God’s eternal entourage or through identification with one of the God’s mythical roles.” (Masks of Dionysos, pg. 69)
According to Euripides, “He who leads the throng becomes Bacchus,” (Bacchae 115) and Plato wrote that during the Dionysian initiations, the initiates “search eagerly within themselves to find the nature of their God, they are successful, because they have been compelled to keep their eyes fixed upon the God … they are inspired and receive from him character and habits, so far as it is possible for a man to have part in God.” Uniting with God was also an idea shared by the Stoics of that era. Seneca wrote, “God is near you, he is with you, he is within you.” We know from the Inscriptions of the Iobacchoi that certain members held the title of Bakkhos, and we find a female devottee who was addressed as a Bakkhes. The Neoplatonic philosopher Olympiodoros wrote, “Our body is Dionysian, we are a part of him, since we sprang from the soot of the Titans who ate his flesh.” (In Platonis Phaedonem comentarii 61C)
Often, the deceased were depicted in the form of Dionysos. For instance, the statue of M. Marius Trophimus, hierophant at Melos, was shown wearing a panther skin, holding a thyrsos, and wreathed with a crown of grape leaves. Two statues of Archelaus in this form have come to light at Lerna – one dedicated by his friends and placed in the sanctuary of Deo, the other by his wife was placed in a temple of Luaios. In Dascylium the thiasoi of mystai dedicated a relief “with the figure of Bromius”, showing one of their members as Dionysos, carrying a thyrsos and standing by a tree. In Rome a mother and father showed the image of Dionysos on the sarcophagus of their child with the inscription, “I am called Saturninus; my mother and father set me up from a child to the representation of Dionysos.” (IGUR no. 1324) Apuleius describes a widow who had a picture of her dead husband represented in the costume of Dionysos. (Metamorphoses 8.7) And the Emperor Caligula was even said to have had his likeness made in the guise of Dionysos. (Athenaios 4.148b-c)
E. A. Wallis Budge in The Legend of Osiris writes, “Osiris was the God through whose sufferings and death the Egyptian hoped that his body might rise again in some transformed or glorified shape, and to him who had conquered death and had become the king of the other world the Egyptian appealed in prayer for eternal life through his victory and power. In every funeral inscription known to us, from the Pyramid Texts down to the roughly written prayers upon coffins of the Roman period, what is done for Osiris is done also for the deceased, the state and condition of Osiris are the state and condition of the deceased; in a word, the deceased is identified with Osiris. If Osiris lives forever, the deceased will live for ever; if Osiris dies, then will the deceased perish.”
Ancient Egyptian literature furnishes us with many examples of this identification:
“This King is Osiris, this Pyramid of the King is Osiris, this construction of his is Osiris…” – Pyramid Texts, Utterance 600.
“BECOMING THE COUNTERPART OF OSIRIS. I indeed am Osiris, I indeed am the Lord of All, I am the Radiant One, the brother of the Radiant Lady; I am Osiris, the brother of Isis.” – Coffin Texts, Spell 227
Being an Osiris, Ani expects a resurrection like that of the God, and therefore addresses himself as follows: “O thou . . . whose limbs cannot move, like unto those of Osiris! Let not thy limbs be without movement; let them not suffer corruption; let them not pass away; let them not decay; and let them be fashioned for me as if I were myself Osiris” (Ibid., XLV). The same aspirant continues: “The mighty Khu taketh possession of me . . . Behold, I am the God who is Lord of the Duat” (Ibid., X). And again: “I am the Great One, son of the Great One…. The head of Osiris was not taken from him, let not the head of Osiris Ani be taken from him. I have knit myself together; I have made myself whole and complete; I have renewed my youth; I am Osiris, the lord of eternity” (Ibid., XLIII).
But perhaps the most beautiful expression of this idea is to be found in Coffin Text 330, where we find:
“Whether I live or die I am Osiris, I enter in and reappear through you, I decay in you, I grow in you, I fall down in you, I fall upon my side. The Gods are living in me for I live and grow in the corn that sustains the Honoured Ones. I cover the earth, whether I live or die I am Barley.”
Beware of the Lake
In the Pyramid Texts, Unas is advised of a challenging situation he will encounter near a lake in the Underworld:
“O Unas, beware of the Lake ! To say four times : “The messengers of your ka have come to you, the messengers of your father have come to you, the messengers of Re have come to you. Go after your sun ! … Forget those who shall speak evil against the name of Unas, for when you go up, they are predestined by Geb to be a despised one of his city, he shall flee and falter. You are to purify yourself with the cool water of the stars, and you will climb down upon ropes of brass, on the arms of Horus, in his name He-of-the-Henu-barge.” (Utterance 214. 136-38)
A parallel to this is found in the Orphic lamella found at Petelia in Southern Italy:
“You will find a spring on the left of the halls of Hades, and beside it a white cypress growing. Do not even go near this spring. And you will find another, from the Lake of Memory, flowing forth with cold water. In front of it are guards. You must say, ‘I am the child of Ge and starry Ouranos; this you yourselves also know. I am dry with thirst and am perishing. Come, give me at once cold water flowing forth from the Lake of Memory.’ And they themselves will give you to drink from the divine spring, and then thereafter you will reign with the other heroes.”
Judgement in the Afterlife
Chapter 125 of the Book of the Dead is entitled, “What is to be said when one reaches this Hall of Truth.” This spell was intended to prepare the deceased for his trial in the Hall of Judgement in the Underworld. In the vignette that accompanies the spell, the deceased stands at the far right facing Ma`at, the goddess embodying Truth and Order, as his heart is weighed against the feather of Ma`at by Horus and Anubis. Sitting above the scene are the 42 Gods who judge the dead. Thoth, the ibis-headed scribe of the Gods, records the verdict as Osiris, seated on the throne at left, watches on. The creature Amamet, facing the King of the Dead, would devour the deceased if he were found to be unworthy.
Pindar wrote, “From whom Persephone will accept atonement for ancient grief, their souls she will send forth again into the upper sun in the ninth year.” (Frag. 133) This “ancient grief” felt by Persephone likely refers to the death and dismemberment of her child, the first Dionysos who was called by the ancient Orphic poets Zagreus. An Orphic lamella from Thurii reads:
“Pure I come from the pure, Queen of those below the earth, and Eukles and Eubouleus and the other gods and daimons; For I boast that I am of your blessed race. I have paid the penalty on account of deeds not just; Either Fate mastered me or the Thunderer, striking with his lightning. Now I come, a suppliant, to holy Phersephoneia, that she, gracious, may send me to the seats of the blessed.”
Times of their festivals
Rural Dionysia : last half of Poseideon (around December):
Beginning December – 18th Tybi – Going forth of the Netjeru of Abydos
Lenaia : Gamelion 12-15 (around January):
Beginning January – 17th Mechir – Day of keeping the things of Osiris in the hands of Anpu
End January – 6th Pamenot – Festival of Jubilation for Osiris in Busiris
Anthesteria : Anthesterion 11-13 (around February):
Middle February – 28th Pamenot – Feast of Osiris in Abydos
Middle February – 30th Pamenot – Feast of Osiris in Busiris; The Doorways of the Horizon are opened
Greater (or City) Dionysia : Elaphebolion 9-13 (around March):
Middle March – 30th Parmutit – Offerings to Ra, Osiris, Heru, Ptah, Sokar and Atum
Oschophoria : Pyanepsion 7 (around October):
End October – 11th Koiak – Feast of Osiris in Abydos
One of the most disturbing rites associated with Dionysos was that of sporagmos “tearing apart” and omophagia “eating the raw flesh” of a sacrificial victim. Porphyry reproduced the following from Euripides’ Cretans, now lost: “Pure has my life been since that day when I became an initiate of Idaean Zeus and herdsman of night-wandering Zagreus; and having accomplished the raw feasts and held the torches aloft to the Mountain-Mother, yea torches of the Kuretes, I was raised to the holy estate and called a Bacchus.” Plutarch wrote of “the mysteries . . . in which the eating of raw flesh, and the tearing in pieces of victims . . . are in use . . . and the human sacrifices offered of old” (On The Cessation of the Oracles, 14). Clement of Alexanderia declares that “the Bacchanals hold their orgies in honor of the frenzied Dionysos . . . by the eating of raw flesh” (Exhortation, 2). And Arnobius describes the feasts of the “wild Bacchanalians, which are named in the Greek omophagia . . . in which with seeming frenzy and the loss of your senses, you twine snakes about you; and to show yourselves full of the divinity and majesty of the god, tear in pieces the flesh with gory mouths” (Against the Gentiles 5.19).
In Euripides’ Bacchae the maenads know “the joy of the red quick fountain, the blood of the hill-goat torn.” And they “Quaff the goat’s delicious blood, a strange, a rich, a savage food.” At other times the sacrificial animal was not a goat as Demosthenes tells us: “spotted fawns were torn in pieces for a certain mystic or mysterious reason.” (Fragment preserved in Photius’ Lexicon). The maenads wore a cloak made from the skin of the fawn, and Dionysos himself is depicted as tearing a fawn apart in several Attic vases. More commonly, however, the Dionysian victim was a bull. This was particularly the case in Crete where, to quote Firmicus Maternus, “the Cretans rend a living bull with their teeth, and they simulate madness of soul as they shriek through the secret places of the forest with discordant clamors.”
The devotees tore asunder the slain beast and devoured the dripping flesh in order to assimilate the life of the god resident in it. Raw flesh was living flesh, and haste had to be made lest the divine life within the animal should escape. So the feast became a wild, barbaric, frenzied affair. It could even find expression in cannibalism. Porphyry knew a tradition that in Chios a man was torn to pieces in the worship of Dionysos Omadios, the “Raw One.” At Potniae, according to Pausanias, a priest of Dionysos was once slain by the inhabitants and a plague was sent upon them in punishment. They sought relief, and the Delphian oracle told them that a beautiful boy must be sacrificed to the deity. Immediately afterward, Dionysos let it be known that he would accept a goat as a substitute. This story records the ancient transition in cult practice from the cannibal to the animal feast. Also in the fearful fate that met Pentheus at the hands of his own mother, as recorded by Euripides, there is a late literary echo of the primitive cannibalistic ritual.
As Harold Willoughby writes in Pagan Regeneration, “To focus attention on these savage features, however, is to miss entirely the significance of the crude ceremonial. The real meaning of the orgy was that it enabled the devotee to partake of a divine substance and so to enter into direct and realistic communion with his god. The warm blood of the slain goat was “sacred blood,” according to Lactantius Placidus. The god Dionysos was believed to be resident temporarily in the animal victim. One of the most remarkable illustrations of this ritual incarnation of the god was described by Aelian. Of the people of Tenedos, he said: “In ancient days they used to keep a cow with calf, the best they had, for Dionysos, and when she calved, they tended her like a woman in childbirth. But they sacrificed the newborn calf, having put cothurni on its feet.” The use of the tragic buskins symbolized the conviction that the god was temporarily incarnate in the calf–pious opinion did not doubt that. Primitive logic easily persuaded men that the easiest way to charge oneself with divine power was to eat the quivering flesh and drink the warm blood of the sacred animal. Some went farther and sought to assimilate themselves to deity by wearing the skin of the animal. The central meaning of the celebration was that it enabled the devotee to enter into direct and realistic communion with his God.” (Chapter 3)
We find a similar practice connected with Osiris in the afterlife. In one of the oldest of the Pyramid Texts, that belonging to Unas from the 5th Dynasty (cir. 2500 B.C.E.e.) we find the famous Cannibal Hymn:
“Unas hath weighted his words with the hidden God who hath no name, on the day of hacking in pieces the firstborn. Unas is the lord of offerings, the untier of the knot, and he himself maketh abundant the offerings of meat and drink. Unas devoureth men and liveth upon the Gods, he is the lord of envoys, whom he sendeth forth on his missions. He who cuteth off hairy scalp, who dwelleth in the fields, tieth the Gods with ropes… The Akeru Gods tremble, the Kenemu whirl, when they see Unas a risen Soul, in the form of a God who lives upon his fathers and feeds upon his mothers…. He eats men, he feeds on the Gods . . . he cooks them in his fiery cauldrons. He eats their words of power, he swallows their spirits. . . What he finds on his path, he eats eagerly.”
As E. A. Wallis Budge wrote in his translation of the Book of the Dead, “Here all creation is represented as being in terror when they see the deceased king rise up as a soul in the form of a God who devours ‘his fathers and mothers’; he feeds upon men and also upon Gods. He hunts the Gods in the fields and snares them; and when they are tied up for slaughter he cuts their throats and disembowels them. He roasts and eats the best of them, but the old Gods and Goddesses are used for fuel. By eating them he imbibes both their magical powers, and their Spirit-souls. He becomes the ‘Great Power, the Power of Powers, and the God of all the great Gods who exist in Spirit-bodies in heaven. He carries off the hearts of the Gods, and devours the wisdom of every God; therefore the duration of his life is everlasting and he lives to all eternity, for the Heart-souls of the Gods and their Spirit-souls are in him.”
Having partaken of this dynamic sacrament, Unas becomes an Osiris and is admitted to the company of the Gods. A parallel passage is found in the Pyramid Text of Pepi II, who, it is said, “seizeth those who are in the following of Set . . . he breaketh their heads, he cutteth off their haunches, he teareth out their intestines, he diggeth out their hearts, he drinketh copiously of their blood!’ (Line, 531 ff.).
Additionally, in the CLXXXI Chapter of the Book of the Dead we find the bloody sacrifice of captives and the sacramental rending and eating of the sacred bovine, which symbolized Osiris.
Linked with Isis
Ignoring the equation of Osiris and Dionysos for the moment, there is some interesting evidence linking Dionysos and Isis.
For instance, in Naples, Italy there is a Temple to Isis, which was reconstructed by Numerius Popidius Ampliatus, who also set up a statue of Dionysos there, and had frescoes of Bacchic revelry depicted alongside the more traditional Egyptian motifs. In the late period, when syncreticism and the multiplicity of faiths in the Roman Empire had reached a high point, we find a Mithraic Pater who was also an Initiate of Isis and an Archibukolos of Dionysos and at Rome a bilingual hexameter text praises a woman who was priestess of Dionysos and attendant of Isis. (ICUR no. 1150). More to the point, these two deities had been linked by ancients in numerous ways. For instance, Ariston in his The Foreign Settlements of the Athenians, tells us that Dionysos is said to be the son of Zeus and Isis and “to be called not Osiris but Arsaphes, the name denoting manliness.” Anticleides said that Isis was the daughter of Prometheus and cohabited with Dionysos. And in the Orphic Hymn XLI, Dionysos-Iacchos is said to be “exulting in the fertile plains with thy dark mother Isis, where she reigns, with nurses pure attended, near the flood of sacred Egypt, thy divine abode.” And of course, lest we forget, the two were brought together through the tumultuous affairs of Cleopatra VII and Antony – for as Cicero wrote: “Oh yes, he is no longer a worshipper of Dionysos, he is Dionysos! And in the East Dionysos is god, not merely of intoxication, but counterpart to their Aphrodite, the wellspring of life itself, in short, Antony is become Bacchus to Cleopatra’s Isis!”
Alan Gardiner suggests that the Djed pillar represents “a column imitating a bundle of stalks tied together,” (Egyptian Grammar, p. 502) but also suggests that the hieroglyph shows “vertebrae conventionally depicted”. It is used in the word pesed, meaning “back” or “spine”. (Alan Gardiner, Egyptian Grammar, p. 566, also Faulkner, A Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian, p. 95.)
According to E. A. Wallis Budge, the Djed is the oldest symbol of Osiris, and symbolizes his backbone and his body in general. He states that originally Osiris was probably represented by the Djed alone, and that he had no other form. He regards the Djed hieroglyph as a conventional representation of a part of his spinal column and gives its meaning as “to be stable, to be permanent, abiding, established firmly, enduring.” (Egyptian Hieroglyphic Dictionary, vol. 2, p. 913)
Walter Otto describes a similar item connected with Dionysos and the wine-mixing festival that took part on Khoes during the Anthesteria. “The large mask of the God hung on a wooden column, and the wine was not just mixed and ladeled up in front of it, but it was also presented with the first draught. A long robe (or a double robe) extends down from beneath the bearded head, and this gives one the impression of a full-figured idol. Ivy sprigs are brushed up over the mask much like the crown of a tree; and ivy twines around the unobstructed parts of the wooden column or grows up from its base, at times even growing out, like tree branches, from the robe of the god himself.” (Dionysos: Myth and Cult, pg. 86)
Bob Brier observed that “While in temple service, priests purified themselves before they came in contact with the deity. To be pure, or clean in a religious sense, even the most common order of priest, the wab priest, had to shave off all the hair on his body. On temple reliefs and tomb paintings, priests are always depicted as shaven-headed.” (Ancient Egyptian Magic, pg. 37)
Plutarch explained the custom as follows, “Most people have failed to notice this very common and small point, why it is that the priests cut off their hair … some say that they shave their heads as a mark of sorrow, but the real reason is as Plato says, ‘It is not right for the impure to touch the pure’ (Phaedo, 67B); no surplus matter from food and no dung is holy or pure, and it is from surplus matter that wool, fur, hair and claws arise and grow.” (On Isis and Osiris 4)
According to Herodotus, some priests of Dionysos also practiced ritual shaving. “And they say that they wear their hair as Dionysos does his, cutting it round the head and shaving the temples.” (3.8)
Connection with Royalty
According to Diodorus Siculus, Osiris ruled Egypt as an earthly King and gave to them “the greater part of their laws.” (3.2) Egyptian tradition offers much in support of this view: a Middle Kingdom Coffin Text reads, “You are crowned Lord of the West after having governed Egypt and the inhabitants of the earth.” (CT I 189f-g) and an inscription at the temple of Dendera praises Osiris as the “Lord of Egypt, who governed the inhabitants of the desert, who governed the foreign regions as King, who stopped the massacre of the Two Lands.” (X. 240, 2-3) The Pharoah believed that he had received his crown from Osiris – “Ho! King Neferkere! How beautiful is this! How beautiful is this, which thy father Osiris has done for thee ! He has given thee his throne, thou rulest those of the hidden places (the dead), thou leadest their august ones, all the glorious ones follow thee (Pyr. 2022-3). Wherepon the King was depicted carrying the crook and flail of Osiris as symbols of his apropriateness to rule.
Nebet Mirjam has summarized the Ancient Egyptian views on Kingship as follows:
“The mediator between humans and gods was the king. At his crowning, a new king became transformed into a living god, a concept which of course went through changes in the more than 3000 year long history of ancient Egypt, but nevertheless was the basis for the prevailing religious, economic and social structure. The theory which this based itself on was that when the king, called the Living Heru, died, he passed over to the Kingdom of Osiris (Osiris) and left the kingship in the hands of his son, just as the myth of Osiris (Osiris), Isis (Isis) and Heru (Horus) describe. The newly ascended king becomes the Living Heru (Horus) at the moment of his coronation, and is thereby transformed into a divine status. So the Divine Kingship rests on mythical precedence and on two generations – a transmission of status from father to son as laid out by the gods in the beginning of time. One important distinction should be made; it is the office of the king which is sacred, the office is eternal but the person holding it is human and of course he changes through time.”
Dionysos plays a similar role with Kingship in Greece and Asia Minor. He was, himself, descended from Kadmos, the King of Thebes (Euripides Bacchae, 3) and his sons by Ariadne, a Cretan Princess (Homer Iliad 18.590-92, Apollodorus 1.9.17), were considered Kings and founders of cities in their own right. (Oenopion ruled Chios, Agrius ruled Calydon, Thoas and Staphylos founded cities after sailing with the Argonauts, etc.) In Sophocles’ Oedipus the King (1105-9), it is suggested that Oedipus may have been a child of Dionysos and one of the Nymphs of Mount Helicon (though clearly this was not the case). Dionysos took the place of the Calydonian King Oeneus, and bore Deaneira by Althaea (Apollodorus 1.7.10-1.8.2) much the same way that he was annually married to the wife of the Arkhon Basileus (“King Ruler”) during the Anthesteria festival (Aristotle Constitution of the Athenians 3.5). During his travels, Dionysos is said to have visited a number of Kings and their households – Amphiktyon in Athens (Pausanias 1.2.5), the daughters of King Minyas in Orchomenus (Pausanias 9.26.4-5), Lykourgos in Thrace (Homer’s Iliad 6.130-140), Proteus of Argos (Apollodorus 3.5.1), Pentheus (Euripides’ Bacchae) and Polydorus (Pausanias 9.5.3-4) of Thebes, and Perseus of Mycenae (Pausanias 2.23.7) to name only the most famous. (It is worth noting, however, that many of these encounters were hardly felicitous.) And according to Herodotus, the Scythian King Skyles sought to be initiated into the mysteries of Dionysos Bakkhios after which his countrymen saw him “playing the Bakkhos” (4.72).
According to Plutarch (Alexander 2-3) the Macedonian Queen Olympias was “addicted” to Orphic-Bacchic mysteries, and was seen handling winnowing baskets and snakes, hence the story that she was impregnated by a God in the form of a snake to give birth to Alexander the Great. Walter Burkert informs us that “the prominence of Bacchic cults in Macedonia and its surroundings at that time is made clear by archaeological evidence, by remarkable “Bacchic” monuments that have come to light in funerary contexts, such as the gilded krater of Derveni, used as an urn, or tombs painted with Dionysiac scenes, such as the one recently discovered at Potidaea.” (Bacchic Teletai in Masks of Dionysos, pg. 262) According to Herodotus, the Dionysian connection with the Macedonian royal line goes back much further, to the house of the Argeade, who set out in conquest from the Gardens of Midas, where Silenus dwells, to conquer Macedonia. (8.137-38) When Alexander the Great set out to conquer the world, he was, according to Plutarch, simply following in the footsteps of his mythical ancestor, Dionysos. In On the Fortune of Alexander Plutarch puts the following words in Alexander’s own mouth, “I imitate Herakles, and emulate Perseus, and follow in the footsteps of Dionysos, the divine author and progenitor of my family, and desire that victorious Greeks should dance again in India and revive the memory of the Bacchic revels among the savage mountain tribes beyond the Caucasus.” Alexander’s mother made sure that during his foreign travels and contact with their religious traditions he did not forget his family cults, “both the Argadistika and the Bakkhika” (Athenaeus 15.659-60) It would seem that he did not, for under Alexander’s successors, the Ptolemies, Seleukids, and Attalids, Dionysos’ worship rose ro great prominence in Egypt, Syria, and Pergamon and was intimately linked with their claims to Kingship.
The Ptolemaic Kings in Egypt claimed descent from Dionysos through Arsinoe, whose ancestry branched off from the Macedonian royal house (Satyrus F. H. G. iii p165). The Macedonians were descdents of Herakles and his wife Dianaira, who was a daughter of Dionysos (Diodorus Sicculus 7.15), thus Dionysos came to be their divine ancestor and the tutelar deity of their Dynasty. As early as Ptolemy II this theme was proclaimed in his great procession, where the glory of Dionysos is said to radiate upon the Kings of Egypt. (Kallixenus FGrH 627) Ptolemy IV made the most of this connection. I have already discussed how he gave royal patronage to the mysteries of Dionysos, attempting to codify and standardize them, but it was also said that he had himself branded with the ivy-leaf, and played the tympanon in Dionysos’ honor at the royal residence (Plutarch Kleomenes 33), and even had himself called “Neos Dionysos” and renamed several demes in Alexandria after the God – most notably Bacchias (modern-day Umm-el’ Atl) and Dionysias (Kasr Kurun). His work on behalf of the God did not go unnoticed outside of Egypt – Bakkhistai from Thera passed a decree, about 150 B.C.E.E, by which the envoy of the Egyptian King together with his wife and descendants were given divine honors by their thiasos. (OCG no.735)
The Attalid Kings of Pergamon claimed a similar descent. Pausanias (10.15.3) refers to an oracle of a prophetess called Phaennis, which referred to Attalos as “son of the bull fostered by Zeus” that is Dionysos, and the Delphic oracle made the link even more explicit, referring to the Pergamene King as Taurokeron, or “bull-horned”. The Attalids issued official coins minted at Pergamon with the kiste or mystic basket of the Dionysian mysteries, from which a snake can be seen to emerge. The worship of Dionysos Kathegemon or “The Leader” was installed by the Kings, with the priesthood drawn directly from the royal family. (IPergamon no. 248) At Teos, near Pergamon, there was a cult of Dionysos Setaneios (also meaning “Leader”) with its mystai and oregeones, and in 230-200 B.C.E.E the city tried to gain international recognition for its right to sanctuary on behalf of its ancient cult to Dionysos the Leader, claiming that “the city and its land were sacred to the God”. It was from Teos that the Dionysian tekhnitai or “actors” spread, those crafters of ritual processions which were so intimately linked with the rule of Hellenistic Kings in the East.
Prohibition on Wool
Bob Brier observed, “Priests were not permitted to wear wool, since wool came from animals, and animals obviously were unclean. They wore only fine linen, stored in special rooms of the temples and cared for by other priests whose function it was to assure their cleanliness.” (Ancient Egyptian Magic, pg. 38)
Plutarch explained the custom as follows, “Most people have failed to notice this very common and small point, why it is that the priests cut off their hair and wear linen clothes; some do not bother at all to understand these practices, while others say that the priests abstain from the use of wool, as from mutton, because they hold the sheep in reverence; that they shave their heads as a mark of sorrow and that they wear linen because of the colour produced by the flax in blossom, which is like the sky-blue of the upper air that surrounds the earth. There is only one true reason for all this. ‘It is not right’, as Plato says (Phaedo, 67B), ‘for the impure to touch the pure’; no surplus matter from food and no dung is holy or pure, and it is from surplus matter that wool, fur, hair and claws arise and grow. It would therefore be absurd for the priests, while removing their own hair by shaving and making the whole body evenly smooth, to put on and wear the hair of animals.” (On Isis and Osiris 4)
Herodotus points out a similar tradition connected with Dionysos: “But nothing woolen is brought into temples, or buried with them: that is impious. They agree in this with practices called Orphic and Bacchic, but in fact Egyptian and Pythagorean: for it is impious, too, for one partaking of these rites to be buried in woolen wrappings. There is a sacred legend about this” (2.81.1)
Abstention from Meat
The Orphics, a reactionary movement which attempted to modifiy the ‘primitive’ forms of Dionysian worship, abstained from all animal flesh, as we see in the following lines from Euripides’ play The Cretans, which form the ‘confession’ of one who had been initiated in the mysteries of Orpheus and became a Bacchos: “Robed in pure white, I have borne me clean from man’s vile birth and coffined clay, and exiled from my lips alway touch of all meat where life hath been.”
According to Porphyry, “The Egyptian priests abstained from eating fish, one-hoofed quadrupeds or such as had more than two divisions in their hoofs and no horns, and all carnivorous birds.” (De Abstinentia 4.7)
In many places, the prohibition against eating fish – which truly applied only to the priesthood, since fish has always been a staple in the diet of the poor – arose because the fish was said to have eaten the penis of Osiris. Plutarch, in On Isis and Osiris testifies to this, “And this is not the least of their reasons for the great dislike which they have for fish, and they even make the fish a symbol of ‘hatred,’.” (32)
Crook and Flail
Charles York Miller informs us, “The crook (heqa) was carried by Kings, Gods and high officials. It derived from a shepherd’s staff, and in this form, it was carried by Anedijti, the shepherd God. Later, it was depicted as a smaller sceptre, and it came to denote the carrier as a ‘ruler’. The crook is often depicted being held with the flail across the chest. Opinions differ regarding the origin of this symbol, it possibly representing a shepherd’s whip or a fly-whisk. It was associated with the Gods Osiris and Min, but when carried by kings it symbolised authority, hence the combination with the crook denoting the ‘authority and power of the ruler’.”
Both of these symbols are part of the repertory of Dionysian imagery. The cowherd’s crook (kalaurops) was carried by Dionysian priests or boukoloi during processions, and were probably used during initiation ceremonies as well. It was even depicted on a funerary plaque for a Dionysian initiate named Herophilus, alongside a switch or flail. (Susan Guettel Cole, Dionysos and the Dead) The flail is also depicted in the context of an initiation at the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii, where the initiate is being flogged by a winged spirit in preparation for receiving the vision of the unveiled liknon.
Although Dionysos is not associated with any birds, the Amyklaians invoked him as Psilax, from the Doric word psila meaning “winged”. (Pausanias 3.19.6)
Similarly, Osiris usually appears as a mumiform being or a bull – but occassionally will be represented with wings, as a hawk, or as the winged solar disc through his syncreticism with Re. (E. A. Budge, Gods of the Egyptians)
Appears in Dreams
Dreaming was very important in ancient Egypt. Their word for dream rswt, is etymologically connected to the root meaning “to be awake”. It was written with a symbol representing an open eye, not unlike the hieroglyph for Osiris’s name. It was felt that the dreamer could travel beyond his body and communicate with the Gods and spirits in this state. During Hellenistic times, dream schools flourished in the temples of Serapis. And from the 2nd century BCE we have papyri recording the dream diaries of Ptolemaios, who lived for many years in katoche, or sacred retreat, in the temple of Serapis at Memphis. Osiris visited his initiate Lucian in a dream, commanding that he undergo further rites of initiation, and persue a career as a lawyer in Rome. (Apuleius, Metamorphoses27-30) Additionally, according to Robert Moss in Dreaming Like an Egyptian, “A rightful king must be able to travel between the worlds. In the heb sed festival, conducted in pharaoh’s thirtieth year, the king was required to journey beyond the body, and beyond death, to prove his worthiness to continue on the throne. Led by Anubis, pharaoah descended to the Underworld. He was directed to enter death, “touch the four sides of the land”, become Osiris, and return in new garments – the robe and the spiritual body of transformation.”
Additionally, Dionysos was said to appear in dreams.
“There is a legend that after the death of Sophocles the Lacedaemonians invaded Attica, and their commander saw in a vision Dionysos, who bade him honor, with all the customary honors of the dead, the new Siren. He interpreted the dream as referring to Sophocles and his poetry, and down to the present day men are wont to liken to a Siren whatever is charming in both poetry and prose.
“The likeness of Aeschylus is, I think, much later than his death and than the painting which depicts the action at Marathon Aeschylus himself said that when a youth he slept while watching grapes in a field, and that Dionysos appeared and bade him write tragedy. When day came, in obedience to the vision, he made an attempt and hereafter found composing quite easy.” (Pausanias 1.21.1-2)
And he was even able to heal people through dream incubation:
“They celebrate orgies, well worth seeing, in honor of Dionysos, but there is no entrance to the shrine, nor have they any image that can be seen. The people of Amphikleia say that this god is their prophet and their helper in disease. The diseases of the Amphikleans themselves and of their neighbors are cured by means of dreams. The oracles of the god are given by the priest, who utters them when under the divine inspiration.” -Pausanias 10.33.11
Worshipped from time immemorial
“Up to the present no evidence has been deduced from the hieroglyphic texts which enables us to say specifically when Osiris began to be worshipped, or in what town or city his cult was first established, but the general information which we possess on this subject indicates that this god was adored as the great god of the dead by dynastic Egyptians from first to last.” (E. A. Wallis Budge, The Gods of the Egyptians pg. 116.)
Dionysos was not a late-comer to Greece, as so many seem to believe. He was clearly known in all of his particulars to the Minoans and Mykeneans, as is attested by the appearance of his name on a clay tablet at Pylos: di-wo-nu-so-jo. Another tablet speaks of “Eleuther, son of Zeus” to whom two oxen were sacrificed jo-i-je-si me-za-na e-re-u-te-re di-wi-je-we qu-o and even of wo-no-wa-ti-si or oinoatisi “Women of Oinoa, Place of Wine” showing that already the wine-god had his female attendants in the thirteenth century BCE. Further, as Thucydides said, the “Old Dionysia” or Anthesteria was common to all the Ionians – hence it must have preceded the migration of the Ionian tribes. The oldest sanctuaries in Athens were to Dionysos of the Swamps. And Dionysos is found even in Homer, where it “speaks of him in the same manner in which it speaks of the deities who have been worshipped since time immemorial, however the poet himself and his audience may feel about him.” (Walter Otto, Dionysos pg 54)
Shared Epithets and Invocations
Referring to Osiris, Richard W. Wilkinson says, “Both the meaning of the God’s name and his exact origins are enigmatic.” (The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt, 118)
Similarly, there is no agreement about the meaning and origin of the name of Dionysos. It seems not to be a personal name at all, but rather a title – and the ancients offered numerous speculative interpretations. Some suggested that it meant ‘The God from Nysa’, (Diodorus Siculus I.15) or ‘The Limp of Zeus’ (from an obscure Thracian word and on account of the fact that the child had been sewn into Zeus’ thigh) or even ‘The Divine Intelligence’ (from Dios nous Macrobius, Saturnalia 1:18) – and almost 2,000 years later, we are no closer to understanding the meaning of this most enigmatic of God’s names.
Etymologically, Osiris’s name may be derived from the Egyptian word useru meaning “Mighty One” (Wilkinson, 118) which suggests a connection to Dionysos’ Eleusinian epithet Brimos also meaning “Strong or Mighty One”. As we shall see, this was not the only epithet or cult-title that the two seemed to share.
“Hail to you Osiris of many names,” – The Great Hymn to Osiris
“Come, blessed Dionysos, many-named master of all.” – Orphic Hymn 45
“… of holy forms, of secret rites in temples.” – The Great Hymn to Osiris
“… ineffable, secretive, and two-formed … Lord of triennial feasts.” – Orphic Hymn 30
“O thou great one of two-fold strength,” – The Great Hymn to Osiris
“Mighty and many-shaped God,” – Orphic Hymn 50
“The two lands with one consent cry out unto thee with cries of joy.” – The Great Hymn to Osiris
“You are honored by all the Gods and by all the men who dwell upon the earth. Come, blessed and leaping God, and bring much joy to all.” – Orphic Hymn 45
“First-born son” – The Book of the Dead Chap. Cxxviii
“O firstborn, thrice begotten,” – Orphic Hymn 30
“Lord of the two horns” – The Book of the Dead Chap. Clxxxi
“Bacchic lord, two-horned and two-shaped.” – Orphic Hymn 30
“Thou art gentler than the Gods.” – The Lamentations of Isis and Nephthys
Euripides calls Dionysos the “most gentle” of Gods (Bacchae, 860) and at Naxos he was invoked as Meilichios, “the Gentle”.
“Thou who art of terrible majesty,” – The Lamentations of Isis and Nephthys Additionially, in the Middle Kingdom, there exist in the Coffin Texts descriptions of Osiris that conjure up a picture of a threatening demon. He glories in slaughter, utters malignant spells against a dead person, and runs a ‘mafia’ consisting of executioners called ‘Osiris’s butcherers painful of fingers’ or ‘Osiris’s fishermen'” (George Hart, A Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses, pg. 155).
Euripides calls Dionysos “most terrible” (Bacchae, 860) and he had numerous horrific and frightening epithets, including Agrios “The Wild One”, Anthroporraistes “The Render of Humans”, Nyktipolos “The Night-Stalker”, Omadios “He of the Raw Feast”, and Omestes “Eater of Raw Flesh”.
“Thou Babe of beautiful appearance, come thou to us in peace.” – The Lamentations of Isis and Nephthys
Dionysos was the Divine Child of Eleusis, the beautiful child in the Liknon who was cared for, and later Awakened, by his Nurses.
“O lover of women,” – Lamentations of Isis and Nephthys
Dionysos is often described as a woman’s God. He is contantly surrounded by women – Goddesses, Nymphs, Muses, Mainades, Thyiades, etc. Two of his most important myths revolve around his love for women and their love for him – his marriage to Ariadne and the raising of his mother from the land of the dead to the realm of the Gods. He was a missionary in the cult of Meter Kybele, and even had many feminine epithets, including Gynis “The Womanly” and Arsenothelys “The Bisexual”. In Southern Italy, women saw death as an erotic adventure, in which they would be united forever in loving embrace with their God.
Osiris was called Neb Ankh, “Lord of Life”, while Dionysos was understood to be Zoe “Indestructable Life” itself.
Osiris was called Lord of Wholeness, while Dionysos is sought to “come in wholeness to noble Tmolus”. ( 48) Further, the rites of Dionysos have wholeness as their mission – to restore balance to the world, to bring out the hidden, repressed parts of ourselves, and purge unhealthy madness through katharsis that we might live lives of wholeness and happiness.
Osiris was the “Lord of All” while Dionysos’ worship was open to everyone, from all ranks of society (Euripides’ Bacchae 205) and he was called Aisumnetes “impartial power over all” (Pausanias 7.19.21).
Osiris was called “The Begetter”, while Dionysos was called Auxites, “Giver of Increase”.
Osiris was hailed as “Osiris in Battle” while Dionysos was called Areion “War-like” and said to “delight in bloody swords”. (Orphic Hymn 45)
Osiris was called Neb “Lord”, and Ser, Prince, while Dionysos was called Anax “Lord”, and was the earthly child of princess Semele, the daughter of the Theban King Kadmos.
Osiris was called “The One in the Tree” just as Dionysos was called Endendrites “He in the Tree”.
Osiris is called p3wty n t3wy tm df3 k3w “Primeval god of the two lands, perfect of nourishment and sustenance”, while Dionysos is called, “Primeval … wrapt in foliage, decked with grape-clusters.” – Orphic Hymn 30
Osiris is hailed as Neb Neheh djet “Lord of Eternity” while Dionysos is said to “stride the earth forever” (Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonnus)
Osiris is the Nisut Netjeru or King of the Gods, just as Dionysos, briefly, sat upon the throne of Zeus and ruled over all the Gods and men. (Nonnos’ Dionysiaca, 6.155)
Osiris is called Neb-er-tcher “Lord of the Outermost Limit”, just as Arrian speaks of Dionysos having traveled to the “furthest reaches of the earth,” (Anabasis 5.1.1)
Osiris was called Sa Nut “Child of Heaven” and Sa Geb “Child of Earth”, just as the Bacchic initiate was to instruct the Guardians in the underworld that after having become identified with Dionysos he was to be known as a “child of Earth and of starry Heaven”.
Osiris is called Hr st=f m t3 dsr “Who is upon his throne in the sacred land” just as the Orphics celebrated Thronismoi Bakchika, the “Rite of the Enthronement of Bacchus”.
Many of Osiris’s epithets link him to various cities. For instance, he is called Khenti Abdju “Foremost of Abydos”, Khenti Djedu “Foremost of Busiris”, “He Who Dwells in Iunu”, and so forth. Similarly, many of Dionysos’ epithets were linked to various cult centers belonging to him: Eleuthereus “Of Eleutherai”, Kalydonion, “Of Calydon”, Kresios “The Cretan”, and so forth. And of course, both Osiris and Dionysos were connected with Thebes – the one in Boiotia, the other in Egypt.
Utterance 419 speaks of, “the Imperishable Stars, the followers of Osiris,” while Sophocles hails Dionysos as, “thou leader of the choral dance of the fire-breathing stars.” (Antigone 1146)
There is an interesting parallel in the following paradoxical lines. Clement of Alexandria gives the symbolon of Dionysos thusly: tauros drakontos kai pater taurou drakon, “The bull is father of the serpent, and the serpent father of the bull.” In the Pyramid texts we find, “To say the words : “The bull falls because of the sDH-snake, the sDH-snake falls because of the bull. Fall, roll together” (Utt. 289 430)
And that concludes the evidence I’ve gathered linking these two Gods. It is certainly a considerable amount of material, and suggests more than a casual similarity between them. However, as you will see in a forthcoming article, there are also a number of areas where these two Gods diverge – and at times quite profoundly.