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Dionysiac Mysteries

The Dionysiac mysteries were the only new mysteries of Greek origin that spread widely in Hellenistic.Roman times. They were practiced in general by private associations but under the control of the state. Their celebration was not confined to any one locality: they were very widespread in Asia Minor and the Greek islands but also are attested in Egypt and Italy.


Dionysus was the son of Zeus and Semele, a mortal. Hera, in her jealousy, craftily persuaded Semele to ask her lover to prove his deity by appearing in all his power and glory. Semele induced Zeus to give her what.ever she asked for, and so he was tricked into granting a request that he knew would kill her. Zeus' lightning bolts destroyed Semele but made her unborn child immortal. Zeus placed the unborn child (Dionysus) in his thigh, from whence he was born at full term. Hermes then carried the child to a wise old silenus to rear him. After maturing, Dionysus descended to Hades and brought his mother up from the underworld. He gave people the gift of the vine and planted his worship everywhere.

General Features.

The orgiastic and ecstatic celebrations of Dionysus (Lat., Bacchus) in classical times are known from Euripides' play The Bac.chae. A period of fasting preceded the winter festival. Weakened by the fasting, the devotees in wild ecstatic dance to the accompaniment of the aulos worked themselves into a delirium. In this frenzy, according to the prevalent interpretation, they ate the raw flesh with the blood in it of animals that were seized. Mainly women were affected. Known as maenads, they are depicted in art carrying a torch or a thyrsus (a staff with a pine cone on the end and entwined with vine or ivy leaves) and swirling in dance in the presence of sileni. Since Dionysus was believed to appear in animal form and to be present in the wine, eating the flesh from a living animal and drinking wine could be understood as incorporating the god and his power within. The orgia in the milder form continued into later times and are distinct from the mysteries, which were added in Hellenistic times.

The ecstasy associated with Dionysiac worship evoked resistance from conservatives. The plot of The Bacchae revolves around the efforts of a Greek king to resist the introduction of the Dionysiac ecstasy into his realm and the impossibility of resisting the divine will. Rome too at first opposed the spread of Dionysiac worship. An important landmark in the history of the cult and of our knowledge about it is Livy's report of the events sur.rounding the senatus consultum of 186 B.C. suppressing the Bacchanalia. On the basis of charges of immorality and threat to the state the senate sought to confine the mysteries to a few persons acting under state supervision. An accommodation, however, was reached, and by the first century the new mysteries flourished among the wealthy in southern Italy, as inscriptions, wall paintings in villas, reliefs, and decorations on sarcophagi show. The decree itself continued to exert a negative influence on Roman attitudes toward foreign religions that did not have official acceptance.

Dionysiac worship had wider aspects than the mystery initiations. Traveling guilds of actors that presented plays throughout the empire were organized as a religious association dedicated to Dionysus. They were considered "sacred" and granted immunity and special protection by the rulers. Dionysiacs used the term mysteries loosely for their dances and for dramatic contests (both of which were public). The dances, masquerades, banquets and accompanying revelry, and singing were the main attraction for many.


Elements of the initiation may very well have differed from place to place, since the mysteries were added late and there was no central agency dictating uniformity. The frescoes from the Villa Item ("House of the Mysteries") outside Pompeii are quite famous but their interpretation is much disputed, even as to their connection with a Dionysiac ceremony. One reads the pictures from left to right along the north, east, and south walls upon entering the room through the door in the west wall. The first scene shows a woman and a naked boy who is reading from a scroll. This perhaps represents certain instructions about the ritual or its meaning. The next group shows a seated woman, seen from the back, whose left hand uncovers a dish brought by a girl and whose right hand touches another dish in which a girl pours some.thing from a small jug. This is usually interpreted as an offering: the first girl presenting a food offering and the second pouring a libation (or it may be a lustration). There follows a large silenus playing a lyre. A boy or young Pan plays a pipe while a girl (a Panisca) offers her breast to a kid. Next is a terrified woman running away. On the east wall a seated silenus (satyr) holds a bowl into which a boy is peering. Another boy holds a grotesque mask over the head of the silenus. Is the mask reflected from the bowl? Does it indicate that some participants in the initiation wore masks to impersonate sileni? The next group is the central scene, located opposite the entrance. Dionysus and Ariadne preside over the scene. Before them is a kneeling, veiled woman who is removing a covering from the sacred basket (a liknon, discussed below). Close to the basket stands a demonic female figure who wears a short cloth around her loins and high boots. She has powerful dark wings and holds in her right hand a staff with which she is ready to strike blows. Some suggest that she represents Diki (goddess of justice) or a personification of punishments in the underworld. The blows are aimed at a woman on the south wall whose back is bared and who kneels with her head in the lap of a seated woman who makes a protecting gesture toward the demon of punishment. After the terror of punishment comes the joyous abandon of celebration. Almost completely naked, the woman swirls in a dance and clashes cymbals above her head. She is the same woman who was whipped, for the scarf that waves around as she dances is the same scarf under her arms in the flagellation scene. She represents now the joyful aspect of the afterlife. In the background is another woman (priestess?) in a dark dress holding a thyrsus.

There are several recurrent features of Dionysiac art, many of which occur in the Villa Item frescoes. Most important is the liknon (Lat., vannus), the sacred wicker basket (cista mystica). Originally an agricultural implement, it was adopted in the new Dionysiac mysteries. Looking into the sacred basket apparently was a central part of the initiation ceremony, but some of the representations show the basket placed on the head of the initiate. The liknon, covered with a cloth, was filled with fruit and a phallus. The latter was carried in Dionysiac processions and was a frequent Dionysiac symbol. In an agricultural setting it had been a symbol of fertility, but in the mysteries apparently was a symbol of power. Other frequently recurring symbols of the Dionysiac cult were dancing maenads, the thyrsus, masks, and satyrs.all from the old orgiastic background.

The Dionysiac mysteries, it may be inferred, promised a happy afterlife. The ceremonies reminded one of the terror of punishment (Origen, Against Celsus IV.10) but presumably offered a life of bliss in the other world. Neither Dionysus nor the initiates were thought of as rising from the dead. Rather, the mysteries removed anxiety about death by depicting life in the other world as a Dionysiac revel. Such seems to be the significance of the many Dionysiac scenes on sarcophagi of the empire.

Sources utilized in these pages may include:
  • Everett Ferguson's: Backgrounds of Early Christianity
  • Walker's: History of Christianity (out of print)

    (These links will take you to book detail pages at

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