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Dionysus Was the Greek God With a Dual Personality

Dionysus
Dionysus enthroned between a bacchant and a faun in a 1924 fresco by Antonio Maria Morera in the Great Hall of the Enological School, Conegliano, Veneto, Italy. DEA/V. GIANNELLA/De Agostini/Getty Images

If a Google search for "Dionysus" brought you here rather than to information on the hit song from South Korean K-Pop megastars BTS, first of all, apologies. Second of all, welcome — let's find out why the god of fertility and wine has inspired artists (including the most famous current boy band in the world) to sing his praises.

"Dionysus is a complex god," Richard P. Martin, Antony and Isabelle Raubitschek professor in classics at Stanford University, says via email. "He has the power to transport his worshippers into ecstasy, and to drive his opponents mad. He seems to come from outside and to invade the consciousness. Of course, that's probably primarily due to his connection with wine and its effects, from the very first mild and pleasant buzz it gives you to the wretched morning-afters when you have too much."

Here are some more facts about the grape-loving Greek god:

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1. He Symbolizes Wine and All Things Wine-related

Dionysus was originally considered the god of fertility and wine, later tied to being the patron god of the arts. But mostly, he's all about the vino.

"Dionysus is credited with introducing viticulture to Greece," Martin says. "Ancient Greeks knew about, wrote about, and did innumerable vase paintings of all of those situations. In fact, we still have pots of the sort used in drinking parties ('symposia') that show wild dancing, energetic celebration, and even young guys vomiting as someone holds their head. The Greeks were keenly conscious of how you should keep control and what can happen when you don't in wine-drinking occasions (which were frequent). They had a number of myths relating to wild creatures like satyrs and centaurs who crave wine but can't always handle it. These semi-human creatures go nuts and try to steal brides at weddings or start huge fights and so forth. The message in these myths is: Be human, not semi-human, when it comes to drinking (a good message still)."

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2. He Has Two Sides. On One Hand, He's a Ton of Fun ...

Dionysus is known for having something of a dual personality: He brings joy, ecstasy and merriment, but also delivers "brutal and blinding rage." So, in a sense, he represents all the possible side effects of overindulgence.

"He's more than a symbol, which implies a kind of bloodless or over-intellectual pigeonholing; instead, he was a deeply-felt personal and social reality for the ancient Greeks," Martin says. "He's associated with joy and terror, at once, which is why he always appeals to artists, philosophers and poets who are interested in the boundaries of consciousness and how emotions work. Friedrich Nietzsche in his final months of madness would occasionally sign letters 'Dionysos'."

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3. ... On the Other Hand, He's Totally Terrifying

There's also the "terror side" of Dionysus. "The scariest stories are about what happens to people who resist Dionysus and his ecstatic bands of worshippers — usually female, called Bacchae or Bacchants, after one of his many names, Bacchus — when they come to town spreading the god's special ritual practices. The Athenian dramatist Euripides wrote the most compelling depiction, a tragic play produced in the late 5th century B.C.E. In the drama, the young king of Thebes (named Pentheus) in Greece feels threatened by a mysterious visitor — Dionysus in disguise — who has come back to his own birthplace. He thinks the stranger is up to no good, seducing women. But at the same time he's fascinated by the new worship and spies on the ecstatic women as they celebrate the god, dancing and drinking up on the mountain. All of a sudden, he is caught — the women are driven to a frenzy, and they turn from tearing apart small animals to actually hunting Pentheus. They tear him limb from limb and his mother in a Dionysus-induced madness carries his head off, thinking she has slain a lion. So Pentheus and the Theban are punished for having resisted the idea that the local boy was really a powerful god."

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4. He Was Born Twice

Dionysus was the son of Zeus and Semele, a daughter of Cadmus, the king of Thebes. Just one problem: Zeus was married to someone else besides Semele, and her name was Hera. "Hera, always jealous of his many affairs, visited Semele in disguise and convinced her to put Zeus to the test (implying that her lover was really just an ordinary man in disguise — the same motif as later crops up in this story)," Martin says. "So Semele begged Zeus to come to her showing himself as he really was — and he did, in the form of a lightning bolt. Semele was incinerated on the spot. However, Zeus not wanting to lose his semi-divine son, snatched Dionysus from her womb — he was a real 'preemie' — and completed the growth process by sewing the baby Dionysus into his own thigh.

"When the baby was fully formed he was 'born' again — taken from his father's thigh — thus, 'twice-born,'" Martin says. "There are all sorts of theories as to how this odd detail fits with the whole concept of the god. It may have to do with half-forgotten initiation rites, in which young men on the verge of puberty are represented as being 'born again' after they formally leave a mother's protection and join a tribe's menfolk."

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5. He Was Also the God of Theater

"The most important to my mind is that he was the god of theater," Martin says. "You can still walk through the ancient Theater of Dionysus, built right next to an old shrine of his, on the southern slopes of the Acropolis in Athens. How are drama (which the Greeks after all invented — both comedy and tragedy) related to the god of wine? It seems to have to do with masking and disguise, and of going out of your own self — whether by drinking or dressing up — into a fictional otherworld. It is not an accident that 'ecstasy' comes from Greek ekstasis 'standing outside' — and that the ultimate and wild 'outsider' god can cause it in those who worship him."

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