Exekias, ca 540 BC, Dionysos on a ship
Tyrrhenian pirates attempt to capture Dionysos. The ship sprouts grape vines and ivy. The pirates are transformed into dolphins. They lose their identity forever and dance in the waves.
As most people are aware, western theater developed into its formal form in ancient Greece. The patron deity of theater in Greek culture was Dionysos.
The god of wine and ecstatic worship, Dionysos was closely allied with the instinctive, irrational and emotional side of life. He was not traditionally a part of the Greek pantheon of gods, which tended to represent rational and "heroic" virtues favored by society. Dionysos, in contrast, seemed to represent everything that was wild, dangerous, intrusive and unpredictable. He was associated with wild animals, wilderness places and natural disasters such as earthquakes. Not surprisingly, Dionysos was perpetually seen as an outsider and outlaw, as a foreign god who didn't "fit in" and as the unofficial representative of whatever was oppressed, repressed and marginalized in society. He was also a god who evaded capture and was known for his indestructibility - he returns from the dead, symbolizing resurrection and eternal life.
As J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and other Christian writers observed, numerous myths contained themes and symbols of Christianity long before the arrival of Jesus Christ. Tolkien and Lewis shared a love and reverence for myth, story and fairy tale, and believed them to be "a real though unfocused gleam of divine truth falling on human imagination." "Dying God" myths abounded in many cultures and they believed that Jesus Christ was the historic and literal fulfillment of these myths. While the pagan rites and myths of Dionysos and the religion of Christianity vary tremendously, Dionysos was such a "Dying God" myth and these common themes and motifs appear:
- Dionysos, whose father was Zeus (the head god, so in a sense God in Greek religion), was the only Greek god born of a mortal woman. He appeared completely human, yet was considered fully divine.
- He was heralded as a peace maker, but was unrecognized as the incarnate of God and suffered at the hands of mortals.
- He was associated with wine and the transformation of springs into wine. Wine was seen as a symbol of his blood, and the drinking of his "blood" was a sacred act.
- He was associated with grape vines, ivy and evergreen (Dionysos carried a thyrsus which is a staff wrapped in ivy with a pine cone on top.) Grape vines and especially ivy are noted for their seemingly miraculous powers of growth and prolific regeneration, symbolizing the indestructibility of life. Evergreen is known for its appearance of life and greenness even in harsh, winter months (and continues to be used to this day as a Christmas symbol of everlasting life.)
- He was also associated with stables, shepherds and livestock.
- Dionysos was a god who dies (he descends into the underworld in one myth) and returns from the dead.
- Participating in the ecstatic worship of Dionysos involved the loss of one's societal identity and seemed to obliterate social roles based on status and worldly values.
The ancient Greeks, in spite of their mythology, favored secular rationalism, so it is not surprising that Dionysos was the god they felt the most frightened and ambivalent about. The elite of Greek society would have preferred that Dionysos and his worship be done away with (hence the exclusion from the pantheon), but Dionysos failed to die, so to speak, and remained a fixture in Greek culture until the advent of Christianity. His positive influence continues to remain today in the form of theater, storytelling, comedy and other dramatic arts.