The main clue to Dionysus’s mystic history is the spread of the vine cult over Europe, Asia, and North Africa. Wine was not invented by the Greeks: it seems to have been first imported in jars from Crete. Grapes grew wild on the southern coast of the Black Sea, whence their cultivation spread to Mount Nysa in Libya, by way of Palestine, and so to Crete; to India, by way of Persia; and to Bronze Age Britain, by way of the Amber Route. The wine orgies of Asia Minor and Palestine—the Canaanite Feast of Tabernacles was, originally, a Bacchanal orgy—were marked by much the same ecstasies as the beer orgies of Thrace and Phrygia. Dionysus’s triumph was that wine everywhere superseded other intoxicants. According to Pherecydes Nysa means ‘tree’.

He had once been subservient to the Moon-goddess Semele—also called Thyone, or Cotytto—and the destined victim of her orgies. His being reared as a girl, as Achilles also was, recalls the Cretan custom of keeping boys ‘in darkness’ (scotioi), that is to say, in the women’s quarters, until puberty. One of his titles was Dendrites, ‘tree-youth’, and the Spring Festival, when the trees suddenly burst into leaf and the whole world is intoxicated with desire, celebrated his emancipation. He is described as a horned child in order not to particularize the horns, which were goat’s, stag’s, bull’s, or ram’s according to the place of his worship. When Apollodorus says that he was disguised as a kid to save him from the wrath of Hera—‘Eriphus’ (‘kid’) was one of his rifles (Hesychius sub Eriphos)—this refers to the Cretan cult of Dionysus Zagreus, the wild goat with the enormous horns. Virgil (Georgics) wrongly explains that the goat was the animal most commonly sacrificed to Dionysus ‘because goats injure the vine by gnawing it.’ Dionysus as a stag is Learchus, whom Athamas killed when driven mad by Hera. In Thrace he was a white bull. But in Arcadia Hermes disguised him as a ram, because the Arcadians were shepherds, and the Sun was entering the Ram at their Spring Festival. The Hyades (‘rain-makers’), into whose charge he gave Dionysus, were renamed ‘the tall’, ‘the lame’, ‘the passionate’, ‘the roaring’, and ‘the raging’ ones, to describe his ceremonies. Hesiod (quoted by Theon: On Aratus) records the Hyades’ earlier names as Phaesyle (?‘filtered light’), Coronis (‘crow’), Cleia (‘famous’), Phaeo (‘dim’), and Eudore (‘generous’); and Hyginus’s list (Poetic Astronomy) is somewhat similar. Nysus means ‘lame’, and in these beer orgies on the mountain the sacred king seems to have hobbled like a partridge—as in the Canaanite Spring Festival called the Pesach (‘hobbling’). But that Macris fed Dionysus on honey, and that the Maenads used ivy-twined fir-branches as thyrsi, records an earlier form of intoxicant: spruce-beer, laced with ivy, and sweetened with mead. Mead was ‘nectar’, brewed from fermented honey, which the gods continued to drink in the Homeric Olympus.

J.E. Harrison, who first pointed out (Prolegomena) that Dionysus the Wine-god is a late superimposition on Dionysus the Beer-god, also called Sabazius, suggests that tragedy may be derived not from tragos, ‘a goat’, as Virgil suggests, but from tragos, ‘spelt’—a grain used in Athens for beer-brewing. She adds that, in early vase-paintings, horse-men, not goat-men, are pictured as Dionysus’s companions; and that his grape-basket is, at first, a winnowing fan. In fact, the Libyan or Cretan goat was associated with wine; the Helladic horse with beer and nectar. Thus Lycurgus, who opposes the later Dionysus, is torn to pieces by wild horses— priestesses of the Mare-headed goddess which was the fate of the earlier Dionysus. Lycurgus’s story has been confused by the irrelevant account of the curse that overtook his land after the murder of Dryas (‘oak’); Dryas was the oak-king, annually killed. The trimming of his extremities served to keep his ghost at bay, and the wanton felling of a sacred oak carried the death penalty. Cotytto was the name of the goddess in whose honour the Edonian Rites were performed.

Dionysus had epiphanies as Lion, Bull, and Serpent, because these were Calendar emblems of the tripartite year. He was born in winter as a serpent (hence his serpent crown); became a lion in the spring; and was killed and devoured as a bull, goat, or stag at midsummer. These were his transformations when the Titans set on him. Among the Orchomenans a panther seems to have taken the serpent’s place. His Mysteries resembled Osiris’s; hence his visit to Egypt.

Hera’s hatred of Dionysus and his wine-cup, like the hostility shown by Pentheus and Perseus, reflects conservative opposition to the ritual use of wine and to the extravagant Maenad fashion, which had spread from Thrace to Athens, Corinth, Sicyon, Delphi, and other civilized cities. Eventually, in the late seventh and early sixth centuries BC, Periander, tyrant of Corinth, Cleisthenes, tyrant of Sicyon, and Peisistratus, tyrant of Athens, deciding to approve the cult, founded official Dionysiac feasts. Thereupon Dionysus and his vine were held to have been accepted to Heaven—he ousted Hestia from her position as one of the Twelve Olympians at the close of the fifth century BC—though some gods continued to exact ‘sober sacrifices’. But, although one of the recently deciphered tablets from Nestor’s palace at Pylus shows that he had divine status even in the thirteenth century BC, Dionysus never really ceased to be a demi-god, and the tomb of his annual resurrection continued to be shown at Delphi (Plutarch: On Isis and Osiris), where the priests regarded Apollo as his immortal part. The story of his rebirth from Zeus’s thigh, as the Hittite god of the Winds had been born from Kumabi’s, repudiates his original matriarchal setting. Ritual rebirth from a man was a wellknown Jewish adoption ceremony (Ruth), a Hittite borrowing.

Dionysus voyaged in a new-moon boat, and the story of his conflict with the pirates seems to have been based on the same icon which gave rise to the legend of Noah and the beasts in the Ark: the lion, serpent, and other creatures are his seasonal epiphanies. Dionysus is, in fact, Deucalion. The Laconians of Brasiae preserved an uncanonical account of his birth: how Cadmus shut Semele and her child in an ark, which drifted to Brasiae, where Semele died and was buried, and how Ino reared Dionysus (Pausanias).

Pharos, a small island off the Nile Delta, on the shore of which Proteus went through the same transformations as Dionysus, had the greatest harbour of Bronze Age Europe. It was the depot for traders from Crete, Asia Minor, the Aegean Islands, Greece, and Palestine. From here the vine cult will have spread in every direction. The account of Dionysus’s campaign in Libya may record military aid sent to the Garamantians by their Greek allies; that of his Indian campaign has been taken for a fanciful history of Alexander’s drunken progress to the Indus, but is earlier in date and records the eastward spread of the vine. Dionysus’s visit to Phrygia, where Rhea initiated him, suggests that the Greek rites of Dionysus as Sabazius, or Bromius, were of Phrygian origin.

The Corona Borealis, Ariadne’s bridal chaplet, was also called ‘the Cretan Crown’. She was the Cretan Moon-goddess, and her vinous children by Dionysus—Oenopion, Thoas, Staphylus, Tauropolus, Latromis, and Euanthes—were the eponymous ancestors of Helladic tribes living in Chios, Lemnos, the Thracian Chersonese, and beyond. Because the vine cult reached Greece and the Aegean by way of Crete—oinos, ‘wine’, is a Cretan word—Dionysus has been confused with Cretan Zagreus, who was similarly torn to pieces at birth.

Agave, mother of Pentheus, is the Moon-goddess who ruled the beer revels. The tearing to pieces of Hippasus by the three sisters, who are the Triple-goddess as Nymph, is paralleled in the Welsh tale of Pwyll Prince of Dyfedd where, on May Eve, Rhiannon, a corruption of Rigantona (‘great queen’), devours a foal who is really her son Pryderi (‘anxiety’). Poseidon was also eaten in the form of a foal by his father Cronus; but probably in an earlier version by his mother Rhea. The meaning of the myth is that the ancient rite in which mare-headed Maenads tore the annual boy victim—Sabazius, Bromius, or whatever he was called—to pieces and ate him raw, was superseded by the more orderly Dionysian revels; the change being signalized by the killing of a foal instead of the usual boy. 10, The pomegranate which sprouted from Dionysus’s blood was also the tree of Tammuz-Adonis-Rimmon; its ripe fruit splits open like a wound and shows the red seeds inside. It symbolizes death and the promise of resurrection when held in the hand of the goddess Hera or Persephone.

Dionysus’s rescue of Semele, renamed Thyone (‘raging queen’), has been deduced from pictures of a ceremonial held at Athens on the dancing floor dedicated to the Wild Women. There to the sound of singing, piping, and dancing, and with the scattering of flower petals from baskets, a priest summoned Semele to emerge from an omphalos, or artificial mound, and come attended by ‘the spirit of Spring’, the young Dionysus (Pindar: Fragment). At Delphi a similar ascension ceremony conducted wholly by women was called the Herois, or ‘feast of the heroine’ (Plutarch: Greek Questions; Aristophanes: Frogs, with scholiast). Still another may be presumed in Artemis’s temple at Troezen. The Moon-goddess, it must be remembered, had three different aspects: in the words of John Skelton: Diana in the leaves green; Luna who so bright doth sheen; Persephone in Hell. Semele was, in fact, another name for Core, or Persephone, and the ascension scene is painted on many Greek vases, some of which show Satyrs assisting the heroine’s emergence with mattocks; their presence indicates that this was a Pelasgian rite. What they disinterred was probably a corn-doll buried after the harvest and now found to be sprouting green. Core, of course, did not ascend to Heaven; she wandered about on earth with Demeter until the time came for her to return to the Underworld. But soon after the award of Olympic status to Dionysus the Assumption of his virgin-mother became dogmatic and, once a goddess, she was differentiated from Core, who continued heroine-like to ascend and descend.

The vine was the tenth tree of the sacral tree-year and its month corresponded with September, when the vintage feast took place. Ivy, the eleventh tree, corresponded with October, when the Maenads revelled and intoxicated themselves by chewing ivy leaves; and was important also because, like four other sacred trees—El’s prickly oak on which the cochineal insects fed, Phoroneus’s alder, and Dionysus’s own vine and pomegranate—it provided a red dye. Theophilus, the Byzantine monk (Rugerus: On Handicrafts), says that ‘poets and artists loved ivy because of the secret powers it contained … one of which I will tell you. In March, when the sap rises, if you perforate the stems of ivy with an anger in a few places, a gummy liquid will exude which, when mixed with urine and boiled, turns a blood colour called ‘lake’, useful for painting and illumination.’ Red dye was used to colour the faces of male fertility images (Pausanias), and of sacred kings; at Rome this custom survived in the reddening of the triumphant general’s face. The general represented the god Mars, who was a Spring-Dionysus before he specialized as the Roman God of War, and who gave his name to the month of March. English kings still have their faces slightly rouged on State occasions to make them look healthy and prosperous. Moreover, Greek ivy, like the vine and plane-tree, has a five-pointed leaf, representing the creative hand of the Earth-goddess Rhea. The myrtle was a death tree.

(Robert Graves, The Greek Myths)

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