Dionysus (Dionysos) was the god of wine, grape harvest and divine ecstasy in Greek mythology. He is also known as the god of fertility and theater. In most of the myths he was told to be the son of Zeus and Semele, daughter of Cadmus, the King of Thebes although there were some accounts indicating that Dionysus’ mother was Persephone or Demeter.
Dionysus’ Birth and Childhood
According to the myth, being suspicious about Zeus’ affairs as always, Hera found out that Zeus was about to have a baby from a mortal woman, Semele and she made a plan for this baby to never be born.
She concealed her real identity and befriended Semele by approaching her as a nurse (or as an old woman according to some versions). Thinking that she was her friend, Semele was easily convinced to tell Hera that Zeus, indeed, was the father of her unborn baby. Hera told her that she did not believe Semele’s words and she made Semele question whether Zeus was a god or not. Zeus loved Semele very much and he said he did not want to show himself to Semele in the true form of a god but Semele insisted. Since mortals cannot stand to the sight of a god in his/her plain from without any disguise, Semele died at the scene. Zeus took fetal Dionysus and sewed him to his thigh and waited until Dionysus became a fully grown baby. Months later, Dionysus was born in Mount Pramnos and since he was the one who carried him in his thigh for months before his second birth Zeus is called “the second mother”. Dionysus was also called “the one with two mothers” and “the one that was born twice” since he was kind of given birth twice by Semele and Zeus.
Being still jealous about Zeus’ child from another woman, Hera was furious and she sent Titans to kill Dionysus. Zeus struck and killed Titans with his thunderbolt but he was so late to rescue Dionysus since the Titans already dismembered and ate every part of him except his heart, which was told to be saved by Athena (although some other versions suggested that it was Demeter or Rhea who saved his heart). Zeus took Dionysus’ heart and recreated him in his thigh. In some other myths it was told that Zeus recreated him in Semele’s womb or even made Semele eat Dionysus’ heart to get her pregnant again.
During his infancy Hermes looked after Dionysus although it is told in some accounts that Zeus left his son for the care of mountain nymphs at Mount Nysa. Some versions of the story suggested that Zeus gave infant Dionysus to Persephone or Rhea to take him to the underworld and raise him safely away from Hera.
Dionysus learned how to make wine when he grew up but Hera was not finished with him and drove him mad and made him wander around the world for long years. It is told that Rhea (Cybele) cured him of madness in Phrygia and taught him some religious rites of hers. After that Dionysus set out on another journey starting from Asia to teach people how to make wine. India was the most important part of his journeys and it is believed that he stayed there for many years.
Dionysus’ Journey to the Underworld
Dionysus is also one of the few figures traveling to the underworld to bring someone back to life. He could never see and know his mother and he wanted to bring Semele back from the realm of the dead. He confronted Thanatos, personification of death in the underworld and brought his mother back to Mount Olympus.
Dionysus and Rebirth After Death
The most important reason why Dionysus was associated with rebirth after death is obviously his “second coming”, second birth from Zeus’ thigh after Titans dismembered him. Bringing her mother (and her wife, Ariadne, according to some versions of the story) back from the realm of the dead is another reason why rebirth after death is a part of Dionysus’ identity as a god.
Unlike the other gods, who had temples dedicated to them, Dionysus was worshiped in the woods and his followers were believed to enter a state of trance during their rituals and eat animals raw.
Dionysus’ counterpart in Roman mythology is Bacchus. His symbols were thyrsus (a fennel stick wrapped in vines sometimes with a pine cone on top), wine and the flute. He was mostly depicted in artworks as a young, handsome man with dark hair who wore a crown made of vines and held his thyrsus in his hand.