Dionysus (dĪənĪˈsəs) [key], in Greek religion and mythology, god of fertility and wine. Legends concerning him are profuse and contradictory. However, he was one of the most important gods of the Greeks and was associated with various religious cults. He was probably in origin a Thracian deity. According to the Orphic legend, he was Dionysus Zagreus, the son of Zeus and Persephone (see Orphic Mysteries); in other legends he was the son of Zeus and Semele and was reared by the nymphs on Mt. Nysa, where he invented the art of wine making. Having grown to manhood, Dionysus wandered through many lands, teaching men the culture of the vine and the mysteries of his cult. He was followed by an entourage of satyrs, sileni, maenads, and nymphs. Many festivals were held in honor of Dionysus; most famous were the Lesser or Rural Dionysia (in late December), the Greater or City Dionysia (in late spring), the Anthesteria (in early spring), and the Lenaea (in winter). His characteristic worship was ecstatic and women were prominently involved. Votaries, through music, dancing, and drinking, and through eating flesh and blood of sacrificial animals, attempted to merge their identities with nature. Later, however, the worship of Dionysus became more formalized and calm. It was believed that not only could he liberate and inspire man through wine and ecstatic frenzy, but he could endow him directly with divine creativity. Dionysus thus came to be considered a patron of the arts. He was variously represented as a full-grown bearded man, as a beast, and as a delicate, effeminate youth. The Romans identified him with Liber and with Bacchus, who was more properly the god of wine. From the music, singing, and dancing at the festivals of Dionysus developed the dithyramb and ultimately Greek drama.
See M. Nilsson, The Dionysiac Mysteries of the Hellenistic and Roman Age (1975).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.