Dionysus the Thracian god - Greek mythology - The alter Dionysos: the Thracian god

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Dionysus by Caravaggio (1571-1610),
Uffizi Gallery, Florence (Italy)

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of Linda Torresin
PhD in Modern Languages, Cultures and Societies
Ca 'Foscari University (Venice), 825519
[email protected]

Argos, Lesbos, Eleutera, Olympia, Thasos and Delphi and Orchomenus, all the way to the island
mysterious of the Atlantic shores, there and more
still there, Dionysus rises, leaps, dances, seizes, rips, delights.
Intertwining the similar colors of blood in the rainbow of his apparitions
gushing and foaming wine. Dionysus brutally grabbing the
its prey by making it swing, dragging it into madness, into crime, into
filth; Dionysus of the vineyards that ripen in a day, of the fountains of wine,
of the drink that intoxicates and exalts. This double god will not be in the end
the same?
M. Detienne, Dionysus in the open air, trans. by M. Garin, Bari: Editori Laterza 19882, pp. 4-5.

Dionysus other

An extremely atypical god in the Greek pantheon, Dionysus remains one of the most elusive and problematic deities. The birth and spread of his cult are still the subject of discussion among scholars, just as the dual nature of the god continues to disturb and fascinate.

Son of Zeus and a mortal, Dionysus is the lord of symposia, the champion of irrationality and unbridled ecstasy. While embodying the life principle, Dionysus is associated with the afterlife. This "foreign" god, so different from the Olympians, is at the same time the most polyiad divinity of all.1 Sacrificed by the Titans while still a child and persecuted by the enemies of his religious messenger, Dionysus often manifests himself as a vengeful and bloody god, in turn a persecutor.

No gap, therefore, between the primeval Dionysus and the Hellenic one: the point of convergence is the ambiguity common to both, or rather, the otherness with which the nature of the god is impregnated.

Bacchus by Michelangelo (1475 - 1564),
Bargello National Museum, Florence (Italy)

The Thracian god

In the Greek literary tradition, Dionysus is presented as a god of vegetation originating from Thrace, a region that occupies the extreme southeastern tip of the Balcanic Peninsula, currently divided into Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria. Among the scholars who claim the Thracian provenance of Dionysus are K.O. Müller and E. Rohde2.

K.O. Müller notes the importance of invasion and the divine manía, which in his eyes constitute the most significant element of the myth of Dionysus, prevalent even on the invention of wine. Rohde, for his part, demonstrates the diffusion and centrality of the cult of Dionysus in Thrace4. We must not forget that the Homeric poems already testify to the consolidation of the phenomenon of menadism5; We find short references to the god in the lyrics.6 For Herodotus Dionysus falls, together with Artemis and Ares, in the triad of the principal Thracian divinities7.

In the monograph by A. Fol Thracian orphism (1986) 8 this alter Dionysus is a Uranus-chthonic deity with a sinister character but with an extremely complex interpretation. God of thunder associated - according to Indo-Iranian influences - to the dragon or snake, Dionysus-Zagreús9 is however also assimilated to the sun, with an iconic duplicity that seems to be the cipher of the Thracian religion10.

The Thracian cult of Dionysus

The Thracian cult of Dionysus was initially very different from the Greek one and rather approached the cult of the Great Mother of the Gods (Cybele) celebrated by the Phrygians, with an orgiastic character.

Originally the festivals paid to Dionysus consisted of a circular nocturnal dance in a sacred forest (usually on a mountain) in the light of torches. It was mainly women who took part in the ritual. They wore a particular costume made with fox skins (bassára) with added fawn skins, perhaps with horns affixed to the head. In their hands they held and waved snakes sacred to Sabatius, and thýrsoi, sticks surrounded by ivy and vine leaves with a pine cone on top.

In the grip of states of invasion, which were reached with the noisy and exciting music of flutes, cymbals, copper timpani - and not yet, in this stage of worship, through wine -, women tore and devoured live animals predisposed to sacrifice (diasparagmós)11.

But what is the profound meaning that the ceremonies dedicated to Dionysus seem to imply?

Dionysus and his entourage, ancient relief

The divine mania

Already in the Thracian variant of the myth Dionysus is the mainómenos Diónysos (“FolleDioniso”) 12. According to M. He detained the manía affecting the bacchae can be qualified as "a state that lies between disease and guilt" in which "there is something impure", "a sort of stain that claims another [...]: the impurity generated from the crime, the dirty hands of infanticide "13.

Generated by sin - which, more often than not, coincides with the failure to recognize the power of the god -, Bacchic madness demands a purification (katharmós) 14 that only the Liberator (Lýsios) is able to give to mystidés or women initiated during the execution of the Dionysian rites.

There divine mania, as a cathartic tool, allows the followers of Dionysus to redeem their sins and to enter into mystical communion with God (hieromanía)15.

Wine and blood

While it is true that Dionysus' bond with wine dates back to a later period, it must nevertheless be recognized that from the very beginning the god has symbolized the natural strength of life.

Dionysus Bryaktés (L'Esuberante) represents, as the inventor of wine, "the gushing out of humid and underground life, what is found at the top of the scale of vital humors, in the boiling blood and in the foaming wine" 16, that is what Greeks call it gános17.

C’est à son affinité avec le ganos que Dionysos doit le don d’éveiller la joie quiest un des traits les plus milieux divers. L'épithète qu'on se plaît, en Béotienotamment, à joindre au nom de Dionysos en le qualifiant comme here dispenses "la joie à profusion" (polygéthès), se rencontre notamment chez Hésiode et chezPindare18.

Medicine or poison, drug that elevates man or transforms him into a beast, pure wine (ákratos) is, according to the Greek physician Androcides, "the blood of the earth" 19, but its color also recalls that of human blood and is associated inevitably to the most terrible oaths and bloody sacrifices20.

Fountain of Dionysus
Boboli Gardens, Florence (Italy)

The sacrifice of Zagreo

Child Dionysus is attracted by the Titans, who, on the orders of the envious Hera, kill him and dismember his body into seven parts. The pieces are first boiled and then roasted.21 The cannibalistic meal is however prevented by Zeus, who appears, tickled by the perfume, and strikes the Titans.22 According to the myth, the mother of the gods, Rhea, reassembles the limbs of Dionysus23. Athena finds Zagreoe's still beating heart leads him to Zeus, who - according to different versions of the hierós lógos- he eats it or makes Semele eat it, thus bringing the god back to life24.

The diasparagmós, already present in the Thracian celebrations in honor of Dionysus, should therefore not be interpreted as gratuitous cruelty, but as an effort to assimilate the dead and resurrected god25.

Altéré du sang de victimes humaines ou animales, mais à son tour égorgé et livréà la dévoration, Dionysos semblaitoffer dans son rôle ambigu de victime et dedieu des mystères la synthèse d'une histoire qui commençait avec la sauvagerie des Peuples de la Nature et s' achevait dans la maturité spirituelle de la religion chrétienne, centrée sur un dieu personnel, immolé parce qu'il se sacrifie26.

As the divine mania and the states of trance caused by music (and, later, by wine), the consumption of animal or human flesh is a Dionysian ritual "of an ambiguous nature" 27 which allows followers to identify with the "raw meat eater" god (Ōmádios28,Ōmēstés29)30.


1. See C. Isler-Kerényj, Dionysos in Archaic Greece. The contribution of the images, Pisa-Rome: International Publishing and Printing Institutes 2001, p. 233.

2. However, many experts reject the hypothesis of the Thracian origin of Dionysus by claiming a more archaic agricultural characterization of the god and a possible Greek provenance or by tracing him back to a non-Thracian territorial area, for example Phrygian or Cretan (this is the case of K. Kerényi, Dionysus. Archetype of indestructible life, trad. by L. Del Corno, Milan: Adelphi Editions 19983, pp. 69-130). That Dionysus is among the most ancient Greek gods is confirmed by some tablets of Pylos and Chania dating back to the second millennium BC, as well as by the ceramic melia of the 7th century. B.C. (see Isler-Kerényj, op. cit., p. 28).

3. K.O. Müller, Kleine Schriften, II, 1848, p. 28 ff.

4. E. Rohde, Psyche. Seelencult und Unsterblichkeitsglaube der Griechen, Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft 1991, II, pp. 1-37.

5. Homer, Iliad VI, 132 ff., XXII, 460 ff.

6. V. A. Privitera, Dionysus in Homer and in archaic Greek poetry, Rome: University Editions 1970.

7. Herodotus, Stories V, 7.

8. Fol, Trakijskijat orfizăm, Sofija: U. I. Sv. Kl. Ochridski 1986.The Bulgarian scholar explores the Thracian image of Dionysus also in Idem, Trakijskijat Dionis, kn.1: Zagrej, Sofija: U. Ochridski 1991. Fol,Antični ostatăci v običaja Kukerov den, in II meždunaroden kongres po bălgaristika.Dokladi. Folklor, t. 15, Sofija 1988, pp. 388-396.

9. The title Zagreús means "game hunter" (see K. Kerényi, op. cit., pp. 95-101) and alludes to homophagic rites.

10. The fides of Thracian scope would therefore seem to presuppose the coexistence of the Orphic (solar) mysteries with the Dionysian ones (Chthons).

11. This description of the Dionysian cult at the Thracian level is taken from Euripides,Bacchantes 699-711; Clemente Alessandrino, Protrept. 2, 12; Arnobio,Adv. nat. 5; E. Rohde, op. 8 ff.

12. The expression is by Homer in Iliad VI, 132.

13. M. Detienne, Dionysus in the open cit., p. 31. On the maniav. H. Jeanmaire, Dionysos. Histoire du culte de Bacchus, Paris: Payot 1970, pp. 105-156. The attacks of frenzy (lýssa, oïstros), reminiscent of modern neurotic symptoms and the state of possession in exorcisms (cf. Ibid, p. 106 ff.), Before the advent of the religion of Dionysus were interpreted as "la conséquenced'un état démoniaque, de Intervention d'une puissance divine, daïmôn”(Ibid, p. 109). Personification of the divine mania is the daughter of ZeusAte, who walks lightly on the heads of mortals and gods, inducing them to sin hýbris (cf. Ibid). The potted is identifiable with the gorgóneion, apotropaic horror pendant representing the head of a Gorgon, spread in Greek art from the eighth century BC: "De fait, le masque terrifiantet, par là même, marquants de sa personnalité et qui contribue à lui communiquerce dynamisme auquel il faut toujours revenir pour concevoir la puissance d'expansionde son culte et la popularité qu'il s'est acquise dans des apotropaïque du Gorgoneion, avec les yeux desorbités, les traits monstrueux, le ricanement de la bouche et laprojection de la langue, s’il est l'expression même des puissances infernales, replied au type du possédé démoniaque "(Ivi, p. 110).

14. The mania it is in fact "knowledge of impurity in the violence of a delusion that claims to be purified" (M. Detienne, Dionysus in the open cit., p. 37).

15. Theékstasis leads the maenads to identify themselves completely, until they merge, with Dionysus himself: "Aber die Ekstasis, die zeitweilige alienatio mentisim dionysischen Cult gilt nicht als ein flatterndes Umirren der Seele in Gebieteneines leeren Wahnes, sondern als eine Hieromanie, ein heiliger Wahnsinn, in demdie Seele, dem Leibe entflogen, sich mit der Gottheit vereinigt. Sie ist nun beiund in dem Gotte, im Zustand des „Enthusiasmos“; die von diesem Ergriffenen sindἔνϑεοι, sie leben und sind in dem Gotte; noch im endlichen Ich fühlen und geniessensie die Fülle unendlicher Lebenskraft ”(E. cit., pp. 19-20).

16. 91.

17. The deadline gános, used to indicate pure wine, is attested in Aeschylus, Persians 614-615 and Philoxenus of Lefkada, fragm. 836C ed. Page (PoetaeMelici Graeci). Here is how H. Jeanmaire illustrates its meaning: "[...] levin, sang de la vigne, dans lequel on pensit que le feu s'unissait au principehumide, qui exerçait sur l'âme des effets tour à tour exaltants et terrifiants , if prêtait marvelously à symboliser l'élément divin dont les Anciens croyaientreconnaître la manifestation dans l'épanouissement de la vie végétale. A mot quise rencontre chez les poètes tragiques et qui n'a point de correspondant dans notrelangue, ganos, témoigne de l'association qu'on établissait entre les idéesd'éclat et de scintillement, d’humidité vivifiante, d’aliment succulent et de joie.La pluie, les eaux courantes, les prairies arrosées, les fleurs ont du ganos, et aussi le miel que les abeilles en extraient, le lait que donnent les troupeaux. ganos de la vigne ou le ganos deDionysos ”(H. Jeanmaire, op. 27).

18. Ibid.

19. Pliny, Nat. hist. XIV, 58.

20. 52.

21. “In the preparation of the meal of the Titans, not only the dismemberment and the boiling were important, but also the fact that the pieces were roasted after being boiled; and the order in which the two operations took place was also important. Precisely in relation to this order it is explicitly testified that the entire procedure constituted a mystery rite "(K. Kerényi, op. 232). The meal of the Titans is condemned by the Orphic mysteries as a fatal and unholy sacrifice, as an execrable murder (phónos): "En effet, en adoptant le schème 'bouilli suivi de rôti', les Orphiques entendent bien nier le procès qui fait du sacrifice, au niveau dela cuisine, un acte positif, une pratique à connotation 'progressive'. Aller dubouilli au rôti, ou rôtir le bouilli, c’est, tout en respectant l’apparence formelledu sacrifice, l’inverser du dedans, le détruire de l’intérieur après l’avoir condamnédu dehors. Le sacrifice est un mal; rien ne peut infléchir son orientation fateste "(M. Detienne, Dionysos mis à mort, Paris: Gallimard 19982, p. 188).

22. Meal preparation is described in Orphicorum Fragmenta 34; 35; 210; 214 Kern. The Titans, from whose ashes men are born, can be interpreted as the mythical prefiguration of the human species making sacrifices (M. Detienne,Dionysos mis à mort cit., p. 186). If the sacrifice of Prometheus reconciled the tasks of men and gods, the Titans do not have the function of mediators but represent the misery and guilt of men (cf. Ibid, pp. 171, 185-188).

23. Philodemus, De pietate 44, p. 16 (edition by Gomperz); Euphorion, fr. 36 in J. U. Powell, Collectanea Alexandrina, Oxford 1925; Orphicorum Fragmenta36 Kern. "The reason for the search for the limbs to be reassembled was not allowed to fall even in the broader scope of the Dionysian myth. [...]. Autonoe [sister of Semele, mother of Dionysus] had to go in search of the pieces to be put together by Atteone [hunter, son of Autonoe], mauled by his own dogs who had chased him like a deer "(K. Kerényi, op. cit., p. 233).

24. The beating heart of Dionysus (see Detienne, Dionysus in the open cit., pp. 83-94) symbolizes, together with the phallós, the krátos the disruptive vital power of the god, capable of conquering even death.

25. It is no coincidence that the sacrificial meat was not intended to be eaten (cf. cit., pp. 233-235).

26. Detienne, Dionysos mis à mort cit., p. 9. A reading of the myth of Dionysus in a Christian key is that offered by V. Macchioro, Zagreus.Studies on orphism, Florence: Vallecchi Editore 1930.

27. Detienne, Dionysos mis à mort cit., p. 151. Let us not forget that homophagy and allelophagy are considered forms of barbarism in the Greek world (v. Ibid, pp. 133-160).

28. Porphyry, De abstinentia II, 55; Alceo, fr. 129 Lobel-Page; OrpheiHymni XXX, 5; LII, 7.

29. Plutarch, Themistocles XIII; De cohibenda ira XIII.

30. "Goûter à la chair humaine et s'adonner à allélophagie font partie des comportementsqui visent à ensauvager l'homme et perment d'établir, par la possession, un contactplus direct avec le surnaturel, en l'occurrence avec le Dionysos mangeur d'hommes "(M. Detienne, Dionysos mis à mort cit., p. 9). Homophagy, as a way out of the human condition and antithetical system to the city, is the equivalent of Orphic vegetarianism (see 197-198).

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