Dionysus cult

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Dionysus riding the panther with Thyrsus , mosaic from Pella

The Dionysus cult is the cult of Dionysus , Greek god of wine and fertility, and one of the numerous mystery gods of the ancient world, whose cults influence each other and whose essence cannot be precisely defined.

A god of Diwonusos comes as early as 1250 BC. BC in Mycenaean Greece, it was already closely associated with wine back then. Relations between the cult of Dionysus and the religion of the Thracians and Phrygians are indisputable, but can be explained by exports instead of imports. Martin P. Nilsson considers the Dionysus cult to be purely Greek. It seems that originally independent gods were found in different places in Greece, e.g. B. in Thebes, Athens and Crete, were able to take the name of Dionysus in the course of time because they were compatible with the nature of the god of fertility .

Ideas about Dionysus

The ancient god Dionysus - from the Greeks and Bacchus by the Romans Bacchus called - has an exoteric and esoteric appearance. The exoteric Dionysus is a funny, harmless god of wine, while the esoteric Dionysus is a god of fundamentally serious dimension. He is the counterpart to the god of the underworld : because if it weren't for Dionysus, to whom they make the move and sing the song of the Phallos , otherwise it is completely shameless goings-on. But one and the same are Hades and Dionysus, to whom they romp and celebrate , says Heraclitus . Apparently, because Dionysus is a god of the underworld, the Greeks also equated him with the Egyptian Osiris . However, like the underworld goddess Persephone , Dionysus seems to periodically ascend and descend (see below), and so Dionysus is ultimately a typical dying and resurrecting god at the side of a great mother , as he is at the center of other mystery cults .

Since there were different local forms of the Dionysus cult, the partner of Dionysus also has different names and is sometimes called Semele, sometimes Europa, sometimes Demeter , sometimes Rhea , etc. That is why there are different, more or less contradicting holy stories, each only fragmentarily handed down . The unity in the diversity of the cults was clear to everyone.

The Attic cult of Dionysus

Temple of Dionysus
Stoibadeion on Delos .

Main article: Dionysia

In Athens in particular, the Dionysia played a major role in the center of the Dionysian cult, which also had an impact on the other Hellenic cultures through Hellenism and the Attic League . There were the small and the great Dionysia, as well as other cult acts handed down in the Attic festival calendar.

In his drama Die Bakchen - today the most important document for understanding the Dionysus cult - Euripides depicts the usual goings-on of the bakchantes in the Kithairon Mountains near Thebes. They sing:

O pleasure for those who run furiously in the mountain forest / rush to the bottom, / wrapped in the holy deer calf skin, thirsting for / blood of the slain baby boy, for raw enjoyment

But not only small roebucks are torn up here, the bacchantes also tear up Pentheus , the king of Thebes. It is even the mother who, together with her two sisters, tears up her own son as a bakchant. Pentheus exclaims in vain:

Have mercy, mother, kill ... not your child! / But she, foaming at her mouth, rolling her eyes wildly back and forth ... didn't listen to him. / And grabbing his left arm with his hands, / kicking the wretched man against the ribs, / tore her shoulder out ... Ino was active on the other side

When the mother finally awakens from her Dionysian frenzy, she is already holding the torn off head of her son in her hand.

In this drama Pentheus suffers the same fate as Dionysus. This fate is strangely inflicted on him by Dionysus, but either Pentheus is considered the prototype of the novice , who always has to endure the sufferings of his god, or he is an older god who merged with Dionysus because both suffered the same fate. In any case, the tearing up of Pentheus, like the tearing up of Orpheus, was understood as a dramatized form of tearing up Dionysus himself - perhaps also veiled because of the requirement of secrecy.

Dionysus and Cybele

Bronze bust of the Cybele with wall crown and horns of plenty

In the drama Die Bakchen , Euripides regards not only the Theban and the Cretan Dionysos cults, but also the Dionysos cults as a whole and the Phrygian Cybele and Attis cults as completely identical. The Great Mother Cybele seems to him to be the actual partner of Dionysus, because the choir sings in its entry song right at the beginning of the drama:

Blessed is he who is in high happiness / knows consecration to the gods ... / who adheres to the great / mother Cybele high custom, / with wild swinging of the Thyrsos / himself - the head crowned with eppich - consecrates / entirely to the service of Dionysus

The most important manifestation of the Great Mother in the Dionysus cult is her manifestation in three forms than the three Erinyes , Eumenids, Muses , Moiren , Mothers , etc.

The Delphic Dionysus Cult

In the song of the choir in the Antigone of Sophocles the favorite places of Dionysus are mentioned: Thebes , Eleusis (i.e. practically Athens ), Delphi , Euboia and Italy (i.e. Greater Greece in southern Italy). After Thebes and Athens, Delphi is considered to be one of the most important sites of the Dionysus cult, and this is surprising because Delphi was not an ordinary Greek city-state, but essentially a sanctuary for all of Greece. The temple in Delphi with its famous oracle , the Omphalos and the eternal fire of Hestia was considered a temple of Apollo , but on closer inspection it turns out to be a temple of both Dionysus and Apollo. Both gods were considered different aspects of the god (without proper names) of Delphi. In any case, there was a tomb of Dionysus in the temple; it was probably located under the omphalos, as the early Christian writer Tatian reports. It was believed that the temple was inhabited by Dionysus in winter and Apollo in summer. A picture of a vase shows how Dionysus and Apollo shake hands over the Omphalos. One could think that Dionysus and Apollo behaved in Delphi like Osiris and Horus in Egypt - the two pairs of gods were actually equated - that one was regarded as the lord of the underworld and the other as the lord of the upper world ( cf.Isis - and Osiris cult ).

One of the most important festivals in Delphi was the Trieteris , held every two years at the time of the winter solstice , at which the Thyiads of Athens and Delphis united for a common nightly celebration in the mountain forests of Parnassus. This (festival) began with dances and with the oribasy , the exuberant run through the mountains, at night by torchlight ... Then the Thyiads incorporated their god (Dionysus) through ... the omophagy , by taking the raw flesh of a live, quartered sacrifice - usually a young goat - devoured . At the same time, the priests in the temple made a secret sacrifice to Dionysus, which is probably related to the god's rise from the underworld.

The Trieteris was called the Awakening of the Liknites , i.e. H. referred to as the awakening of the Dionysus child in the grain wing, as Plutarch reports. The 53rd Orphic Hymn shows that this awakening was preceded by Dionysus' two-year sleep in the underworld. It says here: I'll call you, Bacchus, which you appear every second year, the chthonic Dionysus ... that you in the Holy House of Persephone sleep a sacred bakchische period of two years ... . So Dionysus ascends and descends periodically. Strangely enough, he rises from the underworld every two years, only to be torn and devoured alive by the Thyiads, his wet nurses .

A remark by Plutarch indicates an ancient connection between the temple in Delphi and puberty and tribal initiation. Plutarch reports from Theseus: Since it was still the custom at that time for boys to go to Delphoi when they converted into manhood and to offer their hair to the god [!], Theseus also went to Delphoi (cf. Isis and Osiris cults on the phenomenon of the lock of hair Boys). Accordingly, the temple in Delphi seems to have been something like the center of the Greek puberty and tribal initiation in archaic times.

The theater in Delphi

The theater in Delphi

The origin of tragedy - of tragos, buck and ode, song - in the cult of Dionysus with its satyrs is undisputed. The only question is what role the cult of Dionysus played in the fully developed drama of Aeschylus , Sophocles and Euripides in the 5th century BC. Plays. A number of authors see a close connection, others deny it. Friedrich Nietzsche also belongs to the former : It is an incontestable tradition that the Greek tragedy in its oldest form only dealt with the sufferings of Dionysus, and that the stage hero, who was the only stage hero for a long time, was Dionysus ... All the famous characters of the Greek stage - Prometheus , Oedipus , etc. - (are) only masks of that original hero Dionysus . In any case, it is reasonable to assume that the national competition of Greek poets held every four years in Delphi (see Pythian Games ) is related to the local cult of Dionysus.

The Theban Dionysus Cult

The breaking up of Pentheus

The myths and rites of the Theban Dionysus cult are best known. Then Zeus seduced the king's daughter Semele in the form of a bull . At the moment of conception of Dionysus Semele burned to ashes in the lightning bolts of Zeus, but Zeus saved the embryo from the ashes and sewed it into his own thigh, so that Dionysus was finally born from the thigh of Zeus (see thigh birth ). He grew up on Mount Olympus , where he sometimes climbed onto the throne of Zeus and waved his father's lightning bolt in a childlike fist, as Nonnos tells us. But when Dionysus was busy with his toys and not paying attention, he was torn and devoured by the titans . Zeus then burned the titans to ashes with his lightning, and from their ashes, which also contained the ashes of Dionysus, the human race arose.

A slightly modified variant of this sacred story was cultivated in Crete . In Crete, too, Zeus seduced a virgin in the form of a bull, but here the virgin is not called Semele, but Europe . The original king Minos emerged from this connection .


The myth of the tearing of Dionysus - like the dismemberment of Osiris and the death of the mystery god in general - has been interpreted very plausibly by ancient philosophy. Plutarch, Plotin , Proklos , Damascius and others explain the process as the tearing and dismemberment of the world soul through its connection with matter in space and time during the creation of the ensouled universe. The world soul is related to the world body like the male sperm is to the female egg. Proclus is most clearly:

Dionysus emerges from the hip of Zeus and enters (the goddess Hipta from Asia Minor), becomes a part of her ...

The cosmic meaning of the sufferings of the Mystery God is particularly evident in the works of Mithraism . When Dionysus, rising from the underworld after two years of sleep, is torn and devoured by his beloved nurses as soon as he arrives , this is only an illustration of the thought of Heraclitus : immortals mortal, mortals immortal - living their deaths for one another, their lives dying for one another . In death the spirit returns to itself to a certain extent, but at birth it becomes entangled with matter in space and time.

With the tearing of the Dionysus child, the world egg sung about by the Orphic hymn on Protogonos comes into being . In this cosmic egg, its composition of heaven and earth and at the same time the masculine and feminine play a role, as is also known from the Chinese worldview with its dualism of yin and yang and from Indian tantrism . It is possible that this dualistic worldview has a common root in West and East. The existence of the system in the cult of Dionysus and in the ancient cult of the mysteries in general is shown in the radical identification of the dying and rising God with the bull, the goat, the phallus.

Role in literature and cultural studies

With his famous distinction between the Dionysian and the Apollonian principle in The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music, Friedrich Nietzsche made an important contribution to the interpretation of the Dionysian cult and theater, which was in harmony with ancient thinkers and was also very controversial in his time done. By the Apollonian principle he understands the principle of individuation; the opposite Dionysian principle is therefore not the merging of the one in the many, but, conversely, the merging of the many in the one. So if z. B. Heraclitus says:

Everything is one , that's Dionysian . Consequently, Nietzsche comes to the conclusion: Under the magic of the Dionysian, not only is the bond between the people reunited, the alienated and hostile nature also celebrates its festival of reconciliation again… .

This dichotomy , which also played a role in Schelling , Hölderlin and Winckelmann , was also used by modern writers such as Robert A. Heinlein , Ruth Benedict , Thomas Mann , Hermann Hesse and was taken up by the cultural critic Camille Paglia . Paglia founds a whole cultural theory in her main work Masks of Sexuality from 1990 with the opposite. The Dionysian describes them as dark and chthonic .

See also


  • Friedrich Matz : ΔΙΟΝΥΣΙΑΚΗ · ΤΕΛΕΤΗ. Archaeological research on the Dionysus cult in Hellenistic and Roman times (= treatises of the humanities and social sciences class of the Academy of Sciences and Literature in Mainz. 1963, no. 14).

Individual evidence

  1. Hans Kloft: Mysteries Cults of Antiquity , Munich 2003, p. 26.
  2. Martin P. Nilsson: Dionysiac Mysteries of the Hellenistic and Roman Age , Lund 1957, p. 143, similar to Walter F. Otto: Dionysos, Mythos und Kultus , Frankfurt am Main 1933, p. 51.
  3. Heraclitus : Fragments , 15.
  4. z. B. Herodotus : Historien , II, 42, 48, 61, 132, 144, 170.
  5. Euripides : The Bacchae , 135.
  6. Euripides : The Bacchae , 77
  7. Sophocles, Antigone 11115 ff.
  8. Georges Roux : Delphi, Orakel und Kultstätten , Munich 1972, fig. 52.
  9. Georges Roux: Delphi, Orakel und Kultstätten , Munich 1972, p. 163.
  10. Plutarch : About Isis and Osiris , 35.
  11. ^ Martin P. Nilsson: Dionysiac Mysteries of the Hellenistic and Roman Age , Lund 1957, p. 40.
  12. Plutarch : Great Greeks and Romans , Theseus 6
  13. ^ Pauly-Wissowa : Realencyclopadie der classischen antiquity , tragedy
  14. Friedrich Nietzsche : The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music , (1870/71), Leipzig 1906, p. 104.
  15. Nonnos: Dionysiaka , trans. v. Thassilo von Scheffer, Munich 1929, VI, 167.
  16. ^ KC Guthrie: Orpheus and the Greek Religion , London 1952, p. 162.
  17. ^ Walter Burkert : Ancient Mysteries, Function and Salary , Munich 1990, p. 73
  18. ^ Martin P. Nilsson: Dionysiac Mysteries of the Hellenistic and Roman Age , Lund 1957, p. 43.
  19. Heraklit : Fragments , 62.
  20. Heraclitus : Fragments , 50
  21. ^ Friedrich Nietzsche: The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music , (1870/71), Leipzig 1906, p. 56.
  22. Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson , 1990 (German edition: Die Masken der Sexualität , Berlin: Byblos Verlag, ISBN 3-929029-06-5 ).