Dionysos as God of Sacrifice

by Jennifer

The worship of Dionysos came late to Greece, perhaps sometime after the Dorian invasion in 1100 BCE from Thrace and Phrygia. Dionysos Dithyrambus, (the Twice Born) actually had a number of different birth stories. The most common of them was that he was the son of Zeus and Semele, the daughter of Cadmus (king of Thebes). When Semele asked Zeus to appear to her in all his glory, she burned in his radiance. In despair, Zeus took up the fetus from her womb and sewed him into his own thigh until his second birth.

In Orphic theology, Dionysos is the son of Persephone, Queen of the underworld, rather than Semele. Zeus remains his father and he is said to have impregnated his daughter Persephone, in the form of a serpent. According to the myth, as a young child, Dionysos (or Zagreus) was kidnapped by the Titans, who lured him with marvelous toys. While Dionysos was gazing at his own image in a mirror, the Titans sliced his throat with a sacrificial knife. The child-Dionysos was then cut up into pieces and first boiled, then roasted. Zeus, in despair and attracted by the smell of cooking flesh, realizes what is being cooked and kills the Titans with a thunderbolt and resurrects Dionysos.

The Orphics identified the soul as separate from the body, but believed the soul resided within the shell as punishment for past grievances. Some say that the ancient grief of Persephone is sorrow for the death of her son Dionysos at the hands of the Titans. Humans pay the price because the Titans consumed the God, and were then burned by Zeus. Out of their ashes, man was made, thus we contain both. By living an Orphic life and avoiding the bloodshedding mortals may be purified and achieve liberation.

Dionysos symbolized primal Greek religion. For the main function of Dionysos' attention was to reveal to every individual the stranger within. The earliest forms of Dionysos worship were shamanic. They used rhythm, trance and dancing, drama and the early concept of gender bending, sexual abandon and inebriation to transcend normal consciousness. This practice was believed to bring Dionysos and his followers into divine communion through spiritual release before death.

Dionysos' most vivid connection is with the vine and the alcoholic beverage produced from it; wine. As Dionysos represented the sap, juice, or lifeblood element of nature. With no doubt as to why with this quote from Horace; "Wine brings to light the hidden secrets of the soul, gives being to our hopes, bids the coward fight, drives dull care away, and teaches new means for the accomplishment of our wishes." Dionysos is even said to be the mystic vine itself. A simplified version of a sacrificial rite was practiced in the vineyards throughout Greek antiquity. The ritual sacrifice of a goat to the vines was enforced by the law that for when goats were permitted to enter the vineyard, they sinned against the vines. "So it came about," says Marcus Terentius Varro, "that the he-goats were sacrificed to Dionysos, discoverer of the vine, as though to make atonement, a head for a head."

It is said that during the festival of the Haloa, named on the account of the fruits of Dionysos, (The aloai are the vineyards) Demeter and Dionysos once shared the offerings of the first new harvest of both wine and grain. During the feast all kind of fruits are consumed except those not appropriate during the Eleusian mysteries. (pomegranates, apples, eggs, fowls, and certain types of fish) This festival was probably intended to lighten the depressed hearts of those people who were in need of some revelry during the gloomiest part of the year.

During the festival of the Anthesteria, probably the most famous of all Dionysian festivals, a "bloody sacrifice" takes the form of sacramental drinking of the newly opened wine, and restitution takes the form of a sacred marriage, in which the victim, none other then the king of wine himself, is appeased by being given a woman (a symbolic Ariadne) and is resurrected, with the rest of nature, by her embrace. During the festival it was said the shadows of the dead were walking the earth, and is the cause for the ritual drinking contest to be held in silence. The collective experience that life and nourishment result from terror, the encounter with death, sacrifice, destruction, and restoration, binds Dionysos' followers together and adds a new dimension to their lives


Ancient Mystery Cults - Walter Burkert
Greek Religion - Walter Burkert
Dionysos: Myth and Cult - Walter Otto
Old Stones, New Temples - Drew Campbell
Dionysos: Archetypal image of indestructible life -Karl Kerenyi
Thiasos Dionysos - www.winterscapes.com/thiasos

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