Sparta Flash Card #31: Myths and Legends: Lycurgus
LYCURGUS (8th c.?): [Founder of the Spartan ‘Constitution’]
-Being asked why he had not made any use of written
laws, he said, "Because those who are trained and
disciplined in the proper discipline can determine what
will best serve the occasion."
-"Lycurgus did not put his laws in writing: in fact, one of
the so-called rhetras is a prohibition to this effect. Instead
he reckoned that the guiding principles of most importance
for the happiness and excellence of a state would remain
securely fixed if they were embedded in the citizens'
character and training..." (Plutarch, Life of Lycurgus ch.
-In answer to a man who expressed surprise because
(Lycurgus) did not permit a husband to spend the night
with his wife, but ordained that he should be with his
comrades most of the day and pass the whole night in their
company, and visit his bride in secret and with great
circumspection, he said, "So that they may be strong in
body and never become sated, and that they may always
be fresh in affection, and that the children which they
bring into the world may be more sturdy."
-He banished perfume, on the ground that it spoiled and
ruined the olive oil; and also the dyer's art, on the ground
that it was a flattery to the senses."
-When someone inquired of him who were at the head of
Sparta, said, "The Laws, and the Magistrates in accordance
son of Zeuxidamus
with the Laws."
PAUSANIAS, on Sparta
Library, Vol. II
(tr. W.H.S. Jones
& H.A. Ormerod
Periegesis Hellados III
I. (1)...According to the tradition of the Lacedaemonians
themselves, Lelex, an aboriginal, was the first king in this
land, after whom his subjects were named Leleges. Lelex had
a son Myles, and a younger one, Polycaon.... On the death of
Myles, his son Eurotas succeeded to the throne... Having no
male issue he left the kingdom to Lacedaemon, whose mother
was Taygete, after whom the mountain was named, while
according to report his father was none other than Zeus.
Lacedaemon was wedded to Sparta, a daughter of Eurotas.
When he came to the throne, he first changed the names of
the land and its inhabitants, calling them after himself, and
next he founded and named after his wife a city, which even
down to our own day has been called Sparta. Amyclas, too,
son of Lacedaemon, wished to leave some memorial behind
him, and built a town in Laconia. Hyacinthus , the youngest
and most beautiful of his sons, died before his father, and his
tomb is in Amyclae below the image of Apollo....
(5)...On the return of the Heracleidai in the reign of
Tisamenus, son of Orestes, both districts, Messene and Argos,
had kings put over them; Argos had Temenos and Messene
had Cresphontes. In Lacedaemon, as the sons of Aristodemus
were twins, there arose two royal houses; for they say that the
Pythian Priestess approved. Tradition has it that Aristodemus
himself died at Delphi before the Dorians returned to the
Peloponnesus, but those who glorify his fate assert that he
was shot by Apollo for not going to the oracle, having learned
from Heracles, who met him before he arrived there, that the
Dorians would make this return to the Peloponnesus. But the
more correct account is that Aristodemus was murdered by
the sons of Pylades and Electra, who were cousins of
Tisamenus, son of Orestes. (7) The names given to the sons of
Aristodemus were Procles and Eurysthenes, and although
they were twins they were bitter enemies.
LYKOURGOS (or Lycurgus) was an impious king of the
Edonians of Thrake who attacked Dionysos when the god was
travelling through his land instructing men in the art of
winemaking or, in another version of the tale, while the god was
still a child in the care of the Nymphs of Mount Nysa. As the
troupe fled, Lykourgos struck down the god's nurse Ambrosia
with his axe The rest dived into the sea where they were given
refuge by the goddess Thetis.
As punishment for his crime, Lykourgos was inflicted with
madness and in this crazed state slew his wife and sons. His own
death followed quickly after:--some say that he chopped off his
own feet with an axe before killing himself; others that he was
struck blind and being scorned by all died in destitution; or that he
was torn apart by his own horses; or devoured by the panthers of
the god; or wrapped in strangling vines and despatched to Haides
for eternal torment.
Lykourgos' fate was not unique--Pentheus, Orpheus, the Proitides
and the Minyades were also suffered severe punishment for
scorning the god.
[1.1] DRYAS (Homer Iliad 6.129, Apollodorus 3.34, Hyginus
[2.1] BOREAS (Diodorus Siculus 5.50.2)
[1.1] ARDYS, ASTAKIOS (by Kytis) (Greek Papyri III No.
LYCURGUS (Lykourgos), a son of Dryas, and king of the
Edones in Thrace. He is famous for his persecution of Dionysus
and his worship on the sacred mountain of Nyseion in Thrace.
The god himself leaped into the sea, where he was kindly
received by Thetis. Zeus thereupon blinded the impious king,
who died soon after, for he was hated by the immortal gods.
(Hom. Il. vi. 130, &c.) The punishment of Lycurgus was
represented in a painting in a temple at Athens. (Paus. i. 20. §
20.) The above Homeric story about Lycurgus has been much
varied by later poets and mythographers. Some say that
Lycurgus expelled Dionysus from his kingdom, and denied his
divine power; but being intoxicated with wine, he first
attempted to do violence to his own mother, and to destroy all
the vines of his country. Dionysus then visited him with
madness, in which he killed his wife and son, and cut off one
(some say both) of his legs; or, according to others, made away
with himself. (Hygin. Fab. 132, 242; Serv. ad Aen. iii. 14.)
According to Apollodorus (iii. 5. § 1), Dionysus, on his
expeditions, came to the kingdom of Lycurgus, but was
expelled; where-upon he punished the king with madness, so
that he killed his son Dryas, in the belief that he was cutting
down a vine. When this was done, Lycurgus recovered his
mind; but his country produced no fruit, and the oracle declared
that fertility should not be restored unless Lycurgus were killed.
The Edonians therefore tied him, and led him to mount
Pangaeum, where he was torn to pieces by horses. Diodorus (i.
20, iii. 65) gives a sort of rationalistic account of the whole
transaction. According to Sophocles (Antig. 955, &c.), Lycurgus
was entombed in a rock. (Comp. Ov. Trist. v. 3, 39.)
Source: Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and
Homer, Iliad 6. 129 ff (trans. Lattimore) (Greek epic C8th B.C.) :
"I will not fight against any god of the heaven, since even the son
of Dryas, Lykourgos the powerful, did not live long; he who tried
to fight with the gods of the bright sky, who once drove the
fosterers of rapturous (mainomenos) Dionysos headlong down the
sacred Nyseian hill, and all of them shed and scattered their
wands on the ground, stricken with an ox-goad by murderous
Lykourgos, while Dionysos in terror dived into the salt surf, and
Thetis took him to her bosom, frightened, with the strong shivers
upon him at the man’s blustering. But the gods who live at their
ease were angered with Lykourgos and the son of Kronos [Zeus]
struck him to blindness, nor did he live long afterwards, since he
was hated by all the immortals."
Stesichorus, Fragment 234 (from Scholiast on Homer's Iliad)
(trans. Campbell, Vol. Greek Lyric III) (Greek lyric C7th to C6th
"When he [Dionysos] was pursued by Lykourgos and took refuge
in the sea, Thetis gave him a kindly welcome, and he gave her the
amphora, Hephaistos' handiwork. She gave it to her son
[Akhilleus], so that when he died his bones might be put in it. The
story is told by Stesikhoros."
Aeschylus, Edonians (lost play) (Greek tragedy C5th B.C.) :
Aeschylus dramatized the story of Lykourgos in a lost trilogy of
plays, the first of which was entitled the Edonians.
Aeschylus, Fragment 28 Edonians (from Pseudo-Longinus, On the
Sublime 15. 6) (trans. Smyth) (Greek tragedy C5th B.C.) :
"Lo, the house [of Lykourgos] is frenzied with the god
[Dionsysos], the roof revels, Bakkhante-like."
Aeschylus, The Youths (lost play) (Greek tragedy C5th B.C.) :
The Youths or Neaniskoi was the third play in Aeschylus'
Lykourgos trilogy. According to Smyth (L.C.L.) : "The Youths
apparently has its name form the Edonians who celebrated the
worship of Dionysus that had gained admission into the kingdom
of Lycurgus despite the opposition of that prince."
Aeschylus, Lycurgus (lost play) (Greek tragedy C5th B.C.) :
The satyric play of the Lycurgean trilogy.
Aeschylus, Fragment 56 Lycurgus (from Athenaeus,
Deipnosophists 10. 67. 447C) (trans. Smyth) (Greek tragedy C5th
"And after this he [Lykourgos] drank beer thinned by age, and
made thereof loud boast [against Dionysos] in the banquet-hall."
Aeschylus, Fragment 10 Bassarae (from Hephaestion, Handbook
of Metres 13. 43) :
"The bull [Dionysos] was like to butt the goat [Lykourgos] with
Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 3. 34 - 35 (trans. Aldrich)
(Greek mythographer C2nd A.D.) :
"[Dionysos] set out eagerly through Thrake. Now Lykourgos, son
of Dryas and king of the Edonians, who lived beside the Strymon
River, was the first to show his hybris to Dionysos by expelling
him. Dionysos fled to the sea and took shelter with Nereus’
daughter Thetis, but his Bakkhai were taken captive along with
the congregation of Satyroi that accompanied him. Later on, the
Bakkhai were suddenly set free, and Dionysos caused Lykourgos
to go mad. In this state, thinking he was cutting a vine-branch,
Lykourgos killed his son Dryas by cutting off his arms and legs
with an axe. Then he regained his senses. When his land remained
barren, the god [Apollon] made an oracular pronouncement to the
effect that, if Lykourgos were to die, there would again be fertile
crops. When the Edonians heard this, they took Lykourgos to
Mount Pangaion and bound him, and there in accordance with the
will of Dionysos, he was destroyed by his horses and died."
Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 4. 3. 4 (trans. Oldfather)
(Greek historian C1st B.C.) :
"He [Dionysos] also punished here and there throughout all the
inhabited world many men who were thought to be impious, the
most renowned among the number being Pentheus and
Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 5. 50. 1 - 6 :
"Naxos. This island was first called Strongylê and its first settlers
were men from Thrake, the reason for their coming being
somewhat as follows.
The myth relates that two sons, Boutes and Lykourgos, were born
to Boreas, but not by the same mother; and Boutes, who was the
younger, formed a plot against his brother, and on being
discovered he received no punishment from Lykourgos beyond
that he was ordered by Lykourgos to gather ships and, together
with his accomplices in the plot, to see out another land in which
to make his home.
Consequently Boutes, together with the Thrakians who were
implicated with him, set forth, and making his way through the
islands of Kyklades he seized the island of Strongylê, where he
made his home and proceeded to plunder many of those who
sailed past the island. And since they had no women they sailed
here and there and seized them from the land.
Now some of the islands of the Kyklades had no inhabitants
whatsoever and others were sparsely settled; consequently they
sailed further, and having been repulsed once from Euboia, they
sailed to Thessalia, where Boutes and his companions, upon
landing, came upon the female devotees of Dionysos as they were
celebrating the orgies of the god near Drios, as it is called, in
As Boutes and his companions rushed at the women, these threw
away the sacred objects, and some of them fled for safety to the
sea, and others to the mountain called Drios; but Koronis, the
myth continues, was seized by Boutes and forced to lie with him.
And she, in anger at the seizure and at the insolent treatment she
had received, called upon Dionysos to lend her his aid. And the
god struck Boutes with madness, because of which he lost his
mind and, throwing himself into a well, met his death.
But the rest of the Thrakians seized some of the other women, the
most renowned of whom were Iphimedeia, the wife of Aloios, and
Pankratis, her daughter, and taking these women along with them,
they sailed off to Strongylê. And in place of Boutes the Thrakians
made Agassamenos king of the island, and to him they united in
marriage, Pankratis, the daughter of Aloios, who was a woman of
Pausanias, Description of Greece 1. 20. 2 (trans. Jones) (Greek
travelogue C2nd A.D.) :
"[In the temple of Dionysos at Athens :] There are paintings here .
. . there are represented Pentheus and Lykourgos paying the
penalty of their insolence to Dionysos."
Anonymous, Dionysus and Lycurgus Fragment (trans. Page, Vol.
Select Papyri III, No. 129) (Greek epic C3rd A.D.) :
[Fragment of a hymn to Dionysos. Where our fragment begins,
the countryside is by a sudden miracle rendered waste and desert.
Lykourgos is terrified. Dionysos appears and assails him with
thunder and lightning. Mainades and Satyroi assault his person,
and Dionysos distracts his soul with madness.]
". .(whence) the playful Saytroi were born. Neither flowed the
spring beside the elm, nor were there ways of watering, nor paths
nor fences nor trees, but all had vanished. Only the smooth plain
Where a meadow was before, close came Lykourgos, heartstricken with mighty fear and speechlessness. For irresistibly,
beyond mortal defence, all their works were upset and turned
about before their eyes. But when Lykourgos knew him for the
glorious son of Zeus, pale terror fell upon his spirit; the ox-goad,
wherewith he had been at labour smiting, fell from his hand
before his feet. He had no will to utter or to ask a word. Now
might that poor wretch have escaped his gloomy fate : but he
besought not then the divinity to abate his wrath. In his heart he
foresaw that doom was nigh to him, when he saw Dionysos come
to assail him amid lightnings that flashed manifold with repeated
thunderclaps, while Zeus did great honour to his son’s destructive
So Dionysos urged his ministers, and they together sped against
Lykourgos and scourged him with rods of foliage. Unflinching he
stood, like a rock that juts into the marble sea and groans when a
wind arises and blows, and abides the smiting of the seas : even so
abode Lykourgos steadfast, and recked not of their smiting. But
ever more unceasing wrath went deep into the heart of Thyone’s
son : he was minded not at all to take his victim with a sudden
death, but rather to break him under a lengthy doom, that still
alive he might repay a grievous penalty. He sent madness upon
him, and spread about the phantom shapes of serpents, that he
might spend the time fending them away, till baneful Rumour
(phêmê) of his madness should arrive at Thebes on wings and
summon Ardys and Astakios, his two sons, and Kytis who
married him and was subdued to his embrace.
They, when led by Rumour’s (phêmê) many tongues they came,
found Lykourgos just now released from suffering, worn out by
madness. They cast their arms around him as he lay in the dust-fools! they were destined to perish at their father’s hand before
their mother’s eyes! For not long after, madness, at the command
of Dionysos, aroused Lykourgos yet again with real frenzy. He
thought that he was smiting serpents; but they were his children
form whom he stole the spirit forth. And now would Kytis have
fallen about them : but in compassion Dionysos snatched her forth
and set her beyond the reach of doom, because she had warned
her lord constantly in his storms of evil passion. Yet she could not
persuade her master, too stubborn; he, when his sudden madness
was undone, recognized the god through experience of suffering.
Still Dionysos abated not his wrath : as Lykourgos stood
unflinching, yet frenzied by distress, the god spread vines about
him and fettered all his limbs. His neck and both ankles
imprisoned, he suffered the most pitiable doom of all men on
earth : and now in the land of sinners his phantom endures that
endless labour--drawing water into a broken pitcher : the stream is
poured forth into Haides.
Such is the penalty which the loud-thundering son of Kronos
ordained for men that fight against the gods; that retribution may
pursue them both living and again in death . . "
Quintus Smyrnaeus, Fall of Troy 2. 433 ff (trans. Way) (Greek
epic C4th A.D.) :
"In her [Thetis'] bowers she sheltered Dionysos, chased by might
of murderous Lykourgos from the earth."
Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 132 (trans. Grant) (Roman
mythographer C2nd A.D.) :
"Lycurgus, son of Dryas, drove Liber [Dionysos] from his
kingdom. When he denied that Liber [Dionysos] was a god, and
had drunk wine, and in drunkenness tried to violate his mother, he
then tried to cut down the vines, because he said wine was a bad
medicine in that it affected the mind. Under madness sent by
Liber [Dionysos] he killed his wife and son. Liber threw Lycurgus
himself to his panthers on Rhodope, a mountain of Thrace, over
which he ruled. He is said to have cut off one foot thinking it was
Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 192 :
"There are those who think they [i.e. the five Hyades] are among
the stars because they were the nurses of Father Liber [Dionysos]
whom Lycurgus drove out from the island of Naxos."
Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 242 :
"Men who committed suicide . . . Lycurgus, son of Dryas, killed
himself in madness sent by Liber [Dionysos]."
Pseudo-Hyginus, Astronomica 2. 21 :
"The Hyades. These, Pherecydes the Athenian [mythographer
C5th B.C.] says, are the nurses of Liber [Dionysos], seven in
number, who earlier were nymphae called Dodonidae. Their
names are as follows: Ambrosia, Eudora, Pedile, Coronis, Polyxo,
Phyto, and Thyone. They are said to have been put to flight by
Lycurgus and all except Ambrosia took refuge with Thetis, as
Asclepiades [poet C3rd B.C.] says."
[N.B. In Greek mosaics, Ambrosia falls beneath the axe of
Ovid, Metamorphoses 4. 22 ff (trans. Melville) (Roman epic C1st
B.C. to C1st A.D.) :
"You, most worshipful [Dionysos], sent to their doom Lycurgus
with his two-edged battleaxe, and Pentheus, both blasphemers."
Ovid, Fasti 3. 720 ff (trans.Boyle) (Roman poetry C1st B.C. to
C1st A.D.) :
"It were long to relate the triumphs won by the god [Dionysos]
over the Sithonians and the Scythians, and how he subdued the
peoples of India, that incense-bearing land. I will say naught of
him [Pentheus] who fell a mournful prey to his own Theban
mother,68 nor of Lycurgus, whom frenzy drove to hack at his own
Ovid, Heroides 2. 111 ff (trans. Showerman) (Roman poetry C1st
B.C. to C1st A.D.) :
"The broad, broad realms of Lycurgus . . . where stretches icy
Rhodope to Haemus with its shades, and sacred Hebrus drives his
headlong waters forth."
Virgil, Aeneid 3. 13 (trans. Fairclough) (Roman epic C1st B.C.) :
"At a distance lies the war god’s land, of widespread plains, tilled
by Thracians, and once ruled by fierce Lycurgus."
Seneca, Hercules Furens 93 ff (trans. Miller) (Roman tragedy
C1st A.D.) :
"[Dionysos] the tamer of Lycurgus and the ruddy sea [i.e. the
Tyrrhenian pirates], who bears a spear-point hidden beneath his
Seneca, Oedipus 469 ff :
"The Massgetan [a Thrakian tribe] who mingles blood with milk
in his goblets has unstrung his vanquished bow and given up his
Getan arrows; the realms of axe-wielding Lycurgus have felt the
dominion of Bacchus [Dionysos]; the fierce lands of the Zalaces
have felt it, and those wandering tribes whom neighbouring
Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica 1. 729 ff (trans. Mozley) (Roman
epic C1st A.D.) :
"Thyoneus [i.e. Dionysos] has turned his savage horns against the
guilty Thracians, and now the mountains of unhappy Haemus
filled with madness a thousandfold, now the tall forests of
Rhodope groan--such was Lycurgus before whom wife and sons
in flight speed down the long colonnades."
Statius, Thebaid 4. 54 ff (trans. Mozley) (Roman epic C1st A.D.) :
"The Stygian Eumenides[Erinyes] . . . dip their faces and the
horned snakes that gasp from drinking Phlegethon, whether they
[the Erinyes] have ruined Thracian homes [i.e. the house of
Lykourgos] or Mycenae’s impious palace or Cadmus’ dwelling."
[N.B. An Erinys appears in Athenian vase-paintings depicting the
madness of Lykourgos.]
Statius, Thebaid 7. 180 ff :
"To Thrace and the forests of Lycurgus."
Homer, The Iliad - Greek Epic C8th B.C.
Greek Lyric III, Stesichorus Fragments - Greek Lyric
Aeschylus, Fragments - Greek Tragedy C5th B.C.
Apollodorus, The Library - Greek Mythography C2nd
Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History - Greek History
Pausanias, Description of Greece - Greek Travelogue
Greek Papyri III Anonymous, Fragments - Greek Epic
Quintus Smyrnaeus, Fall of Troy - Greek Epic C4th A.D.
Ovid, Metamorphoses - Latin Epic C1st B.C. - C1st A.D.
Ovid, Fasti - Latin Poetry C1st B.C. - C1st A.D.
Ovid, Heroides - Latin Poetry C1st B.C. - C1st A.D.
Virgil, Aeneid - Latin Epic C1st B.C.
Seneca, Hercules Furens - Latin Tragedy C1st A.D.
Seneca, Oedipus - Latin Tragedy C1st A.D.
Valerius Flaccus, The Argonautica - Latin Epic C1st A.D.
Statius, Thebaid - Latin Epic C1st A.D.
Other references not currently quoted here : Diodorus Siculus
1.20, 3.65; Nonnus Dionysiaca Bks 20 & 21; Scholiast on
Homer's Iliad 6.129; Sophocles Antigone 955; Tzetzes on
Lycophron 273; Servius on Virgil's Aeneid 3.14; First Vatican
Dionysos is the son of Zeus, chief of the Olympians, and
Semele, a woman of Thebes, according to the most used
geneology. Dionysos is the god of wine and madness,
vegetation, and the theatre, and was the focus of various
mystery cults (which were not, perhaps, exactly cults, but
let's not get into that).
Oh, Thebes, nurse of Semele, crown your hair with ivy!
Grow green with bryony! Redden with berries! O city,
with boughs of oak and fir, come dance the dance of god!
Fringe your skins of dappled fawn with tufts of twisted
wool! Handle with holy care the violent wand of god! And
let the dance begin! He is Bromius who runs to the
mountain! To the mountain! Where the throng of women
waits, driven from shuttle and loom, possessed by
Euripidies, The Bacchae, trans. Richmond Lattimore
Dionysos is a strange god. Although he is best known as
the god of wine, he is also a vegetation deity, a god of the
liquid element, a death god, a god who comes into and
changes, often irrevocably, the normal community life,
and lastly the god of the theatre. His role as vegetation
deity is obvious; he introduced the grapevine and taught
the secrets of its cultivation and of fermenting wine. He is
also associated with the fir tree and with ivy-- his symbol
the thrysus, which his worshippers carry, is a branch or
stalk of fennel tipped with ivy leaves or sometimes a pine
cone. He is often paired with Demeter, goddess of grain.
Water is also a part of Dionysos's domain. The myth of
Lycurgus, related in the Iliad, tells how a young Dionysos
and his foster mothers were attacked and chased by the
impious Lycurgus. Dionysos fled into the sea and was
sheltered by Thetis. The god is also a sailor; there is a
myth which tells how he was once kidnapped by pirates
and taken aboard a boat. The god then turned the pirates
into dolphins. The sea is a refuge for Dionysos. Water,
according to W. F. Otto, is the element in which Dionysos
feels at home, as like him it betrays a dual nature: being
bright, joyous, and vital for life, while also having a side
that is dark, mysterious and deadly.
Dionysos is the wine-god, and thus should be a pleasant
fellow, a benefactor. But wine has both positive and
negative aspects. It makes people drunk, causes them to
behave in strange ways. The Greeks were well aware of
the dual natures of wine, mirrored by the dual nature of its
The story goes that Dionysos paid a visit to the house of a
horticulturist, Ikarios. He left with this man a vine-plant,
telling him that by following the instructions he would be
able to extract from the plant an unusual drink. Ikarios
planted the vine, harvested the grapes, fermented the
liquid exactly as he had been told to. He then invited his
neighbours over to taste the new wine. The fragrance of
the drink amazed them, and before long they were singing
its praises. Then suddenly the drinkers began to collapse,
falling over in drunken stupor. Those left standing accused
Ikarios of poisoning them, and they beat him to death and
threw his mutilated body into a well. His daughter hanged
herself. This, according to myth, was the first
manifestation of Dionysos, benefactor of mankind, giver
of good things.
Dionysos certainly roves more than the other gods; the
traditional picture of him is not one of him sitting sedately
on Olympus sipping nectar and listening to the Muses
sing. Rather it is one of him roaming through the
wilderness, thrysus in hand, followed by bands of ecstatic
women, his Bacchants, and spreading the art of cultivation
of vines and of wine-making. Other gods may leave
Olympus, but it is not habitual with them as it is with
Dionysos. Dionysos often seems to stand somewhere
between male and female, between god and man, between
death and life. He is a male god, but he is always
surrounded by women, his chief worshippers. His worship
involved transvestism and the blurring of sex roles. Men
and women both dressed in long robes covered by
fawnskins, and women, as bacchants, left their normal
sphere of activity, the home, and danced madly on
mountainsides. Dionysos even looks somewhat ambiguous
sexually; Pentheus in the Bacchae comments on the god's
effeminacy: his long curls, his pale complexion. Dionysos
is also, unlike most of the other gods, the son of a mortal
woman, Semele. This means that by birth he is a native
son of two realms, the mortal and the divine. This theme
also shows in Dionysos' marriage to a mortal woman,
According to the myth, as a young child, Dionysos was
kidnapped by the Titans, who lured him with marvellous
toys. While he is gazing at his own image in a mirror, the
Titans slice his throat with a sacrificial knife. The childDionysos is then cut up into pieces and first boiled, then
roasted. Zeus is attracted by the smell of cooking, and
when he realises what is being cooked, he kills the Titans
with a thunderbolt and resurrects Dionysos. According to
some variants of the story, man then first appeared, born
from the ashes of the burned Titans. So Dionysos is the
god who dies and is reborn, and from his death... his
sacrifice, for the titans follow correct sacrificial procedure
when killing him, humanity comes into being.
But those at whose hands Persephone accepts atonement
for her ancient grief, their souls in the ninth year she
sends up again to the sun of this world … and for all time
to come they are called of men holy heroes.
Pindar, fragment quoted by Plato.
In Orphic theology, Dionysos is the son of Persephone,
Queen of the underworld, rather than Semele. Zeus
remains his father; he is said to have impregnated his
daughter Persephone in the form of a snake. The Orphics
both identified the soul as separate from the body, and
gave a reason for it being present in the body: it is being
punished. The reason for the punishment is alluded to in
the passage above. The ancient grief of Persephone,
according to one arguement, is sorrow for the death of her
son Dionysos at the hands of the Titans. Humans pay the
punishment because they were formed from the Titan’s
ashes and have a Titanic nature. By living an Orphic life
and avoiding the bloodshedding which is the legacy of the
Titans, humans may pay the penalty and achieve freedom.
Death forms a major part of the worship of Dionysos. In
general, most of the Olympian gods seem to disapprove of
murder and cannibalism. They reserve one of their
harshest punishments in the underworld for Tantalus, who
killed his son and served him to the gods at a banquet.
Dionysos, by contrast, seems to revel in human sacrifice.
There are a number of myths which involve women who
he has driven mad as punishment who tear apart their
children with their bare hands and later, occasionally, eat
them. The best known example is that of Agave in the
Bacchants. Agave, is running wild on the mountain with
the rest of the women of Thebes, having been driven mad
by the god, who is fighting to establish his worship in this
city. Her son Pentheus, who opposes Dionysos, is lured by
the god into going to spy on the women. Agave and her
sisters rush upon Pentheus and tear him apart with their
bare hands, scattering the pieces of his body over the
mountainside. Dionysos's worship is thus established by
the simple means of killing the opposition. But the story
has deeper connotations as well. Pentheus in this case has
been dressed up in the same bacchic costume of fawnskin
and thrysus that the god himself wears. It is possible that
he is serving as a stand-in for the god, dying the death of
Dionysos at the hands of his mother rather than the Titans.
It has been suggested that every tragic hero who suffers
and dies on stage at the Dionysia, the great dramatic
festival at Athens, is in fact Dionysos himself, being
killed. In conjunction with this, it has also been proposed
that the sacrifice plot was the original plot of tragedy, and
the festival of the Dionysia honoured Dionysos by reenacting his death. It is interesting to note that a surprising
number of children are killed in tragedy, as the child-god
himself was killed. The most obvious parallel is with
Atreus, who killed the children of Thyestes, cooked them,
and then fed them to their father. This story is told in lost
plays and is mentioned in Aeschylus's Agamemnon.
Medea kills her children to revenge herself on Jason in the
Medea of Euripides, Heracles kills his wife and children in
a fit of madness in his play, also by Euripides, and
Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigeneia to Artemis,
as is told in Aeschylus's Agamemnon, among other places.
And there takes place every other year during the Agriona
a flight and pursuit of these women by a priest of Dionysos
holding a sword. And he is permitted to kill anyone he
catches, and in our own time Zolius the priest did so.
Plutarch, Quaest. Graec.
According to legend, the daughters of Minyas refused to
take a part in the dances in Dionysos' honour. In revenge,
the god drove them mad. They developed a craving for
human flesh, and drew lots to determine whose child they
would devour. Leukippe drew the unlucky lot, and the
Minyades tore her son Hippasus to pieces and ate him,
raw. The women were later driven away, and the god
Hermes transformed them into owls and bats.
The women were given the name Oleiai, or "Destructive
Ones". The supposed descendants of this family retained
the name, and Plutarch records that their banishment was
re-enacted in a perverse, bloody ritual in which they were
chased and occasionally, killed.
The duality of Dionysos is related to another of his
attributes, which is that of loss of identity. The actors in
the plays performed for Dionysos were masked; the mask
symbolized the submersion of their identity into that of
another. Wine also has the effect of submerging the
normal personality of the person who drinks it. Dionysos
made a habit of stealing the identities of his worshippers;
the bacchants dancing on the mountainside have no
separate personalities; they are mad, crazed, they have
been taken over by the god; and they are all alike. Agave
is certainly not herself when she tears her son to pieces,
acting in unison with her sisters. In this respect they are
behaving in the same way crowds often do, in which the
individual is subliminated by the mob. Dionysos induces
mass hysteria, he is the god of mob fury. This loss of
individuality is demonstrated in the theatre not only by the
masks which the actors wear, but also by the chorus. They
dance and sing in unison, all chanting the same words. The
members of the chorus have no identity, each is merely an
insignificant part of the whole, with no separate will. All
individuality and willpower must be given up to Dionysos,
when the god choses to take it.
Sources and Resources
Further information on the ancient mystery cults and their
relation to Dionysos may be found on my new site
Alderink, Larry. Creation and Salvation in Ancient
Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion.
Burkert, Walter. Ancient Mystery Cults.
Detienne, Marcel, Mireille and Leonard Muellener, trans.
Detienne, Marcel, Arthur Goldhammer, trans. Dionysos at
Dodds, E. R. The Greeks and the Irrational.
Hughes, Dennis. Human Sacrifice in Ancient Greece.
Jeanmaire, Henri. Dionysos; histoire du culte de Bacchus.
Otto, Walter F. Dionysus, myth and cult.
The Bacchants of Euripides. Text translation at MIT.
The Orphic Hymns. Some of the longer hymns in a verse
translation, most of the short ones are missing.
The Homeric Hymn to Dionysos. A verse translation at the
University of Saskatchewan.
Homeric Hymns. This site has the above hymn and two
other hymns to Dionysos in prose translation.
Dionysos images. Ancient coins, vase paintings etc, and a
few more modern pictures.