Dionysus and the Origin of Wine

Drinking BacchusPhoto: Guido ReniBaby Bacchus, the Roman equivalent of Dionysus, drinking his own creation.

The significance of wine, as a religious symbol, existed long before the days of Jesus. Wine was the beverage of choice for the ancient Greeks, and although they used fairly different ingredients than what know today, the symbolic implications remain the same. As an active substance that would enliven the body, wine was the typical “party drink” of the time. However, due to its intoxicating effects, it contained a darker appeal associated with strange mystical followings. Cults such as the Dionysian Mysteries, as well as the more observable religious festivals and community carnivals, were in honor of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine.

Dionysus was worshiped on many levels, and because of this he was known as a god of extremes: From the giver of sensual pleasures, to more chaotic, destructive passions. As a late arrival to the twelve Olympians, Dionysus was perhaps the most mysterious god in the entire Greek pantheon. Many scholars suggest that Dionysus was a foreign god, developing as early as the Minoan dynasty. Regardless of his placement in history, he parallels some of the most familiar gods we still praise today.

Taurus the BullPhoto: UnknownOrion the hunter targets the Bull’s Eye of Taurus for slaughter.

First and foremost, Dionysus was a fertility god that was “twice born,” once by his mother Semele, and the other by his father, Zeus, who sewed him to his loins as a fetus, before Semele died. Although not all dying gods were associated with vegetation, the death and rebirth of Dionysus was based on fertility rites, marking the seasonal changes of the year. In fact, Dionysus’ association with the grapevine, and the wetness of juice, stimulated much dryer aspects of the harvesting process, namely grain and agriculture. Additionally, given that the bull was a symbol of generative power, and a desired animal to plow the fields when castrated, Dionysus could very well have been related to Taurus, the Bull.

The constellation Taurus is composed of two main star clusters: Pleiades and Hyades. Both these star clusters were known as the “bringers of rain,” since they would disappear in the sky during the rainy season. The appearance of Pleiades resembled a bunch of grapes, and was appropriately given that title, not only because its stars were clustered together, but also because, in myth, those stars were the nymphs who nursed baby Dionysus after his mother passed away. In other words, Dionysus’ relation to wine was also analogous to the life-giving element of rainwater.

The Triumph of BacchusPhoto: Frans II FranckenDrunken Spring Festivals in honor of the return of Dionysus

Since Dionysus was a fertility god, he eventually became associated with the dramatic structure of theatre. Comedies and Tragedies were put on in ancient Athens to commemorate his death, and rebirth. Tragedy is a Greek term, which literally meant “Song to do with goats,” and Dionysus was often depicted wearing the horns of a goat, or bull, looking rather effeminate when he was seen without them. During the ritual rites of these contests, animal sacrifices would take place, reflecting the death of this tragic hero, or god-man. The death of this figure raised the issue of despair, corresponding to the solemn aspects of the winter months.

Comedy, on the other hand, meant “Song to do with a group revel.” While tragedy only raised the issue of despair, comedy was designed to accept it. The purpose of Comedy then was not the lamenting of one specific life, but the celebration of all life, and the realization that life itself is eternal.

This entire process marked the triumph of spring over winter. As a result, when Dionysus returned in the springtime a new social integration emerged, out of which processional dances, feasts and sexual partying took place. This gathering was like a marriage of riches among society, which is symbolic of any wedding ceremony today, where rice is thrown to honor the fruitful acts of fertility. Even the word ceremony relates to Ceres, the Roman god of grain, and is where the word “cereal” derives from. Dionysus was therefore symbolic of a true scapegoat, since he literally expelled the sin and suffering of the old year, and subsequently restored life in the new one.

SatyrsPhoto: *T*Satyrs stare devilishly at passers-by.

It is hard to dismiss the similarities between Dionysus and Jesus. Scholars argue that the story of Dionysus was simply an earlier rendition of what became the transubstantiation of Jesus’ body into bread and wine. Even the theme of death, resurrection, and salvation, as stated earlier, are dramatic archetypes of mythology, which was also the reason Dante titled his epic poem “The Divine Comedy.” But there also exists a more sinister likeness between these two stories, relating to Jesus’ evil adversary, Satan.

Dionysus eventually spawned creatures known as Satyrs, a group of goat-like companions, usually in a state of sexual arousal and drunkenness. Often depicted wearing horns, Satyrs were the “horniest” of all animals. As tricksters, they would often compel society to partake in the delights of the material world, symbolizing the temptation of sin. Satyrs were most likely a much earlier representation of the pagan goat of Mendes, the Hebrew goat-god Azazel, and the Christian representation of Satan.

WorshipPhoto: UnknownEvangelists heal through the use of enthusiasm, the essence of being drunk on God’s spirit.

With all this said, Dionysus can be described as a god of bodily sensation, as well as a god of the irrational mind. In one extreme he holds society in their basic primitive instincts, corrupting them through their own selfish drives, which like tragedy itself, ends in a finite life. The other extreme uplifts society in a state of ecstasy, forcing them to step out of their own identity, and become one with nature as a whole, which like comedy, is infinite, and ultimately divine. When the Greeks drank wine they were symbolically getting drunk on the spirit, or enthusiasm, of Dionysus, being possessed by his godly presence.

The origin of the word enthusiasm actually means having the spirit of god within your body, and is it not a coincidence that the word spirit can also refer to alcoholic spirits (for example, whiskey, brandy, tequila)? Today, we see the same spirit in clubs, raves, and even church gospels, where music and dance liberates the ego, casting out all forms of inhibition. The symbolism behind this, however, is shameful when present in faith healing ministries. Watching evangelists “touch” believers in need, and the drunken reactions that follow—either through sporadic fits of jubilation, or simply passing out on stage—you cannot help but draw on the Dionysian aspects being acted out. A performance, whether intentional or not, that can be rather comedic indeed.