Dionysus (or Bacchus) is the ancient Greek and Roman god of wine, winemaking, grapes, intoxication, orchards, fertility, madness, partying, and theatre.
His origins are obscure, with some sources claiming he’s the son of Persephone, others claiming he’s a reincarnation of Zeus, and still others claiming that he’s born of Zeus and a human woman.
Despite his uncertain origins, Dionysus and his domains have held power over humans for millennia.
Dionysus’ origins are unclear. He may have been a son of Zeus and Persephone, a son of Zeus and Demeter, an aspect of Zeus himself, or the son of Zeus and Semele.
The story of Zeus and Semele is particularly poignant. Semele was once a priestess at a temple of Zeus. He saw her there and became smitten, and chose to visit her secretly in the guise of an eagle.
He seduced her, she became pregnant, and Hera, Zeus’ wife, was enraged. She met Semele in the guide of an old crone and began to plant doubt in the woman’s mind. After all, how could she be certain that her lover was the real Zeus?
Filled with nagging doubts, Semele asked Zeus for a favor. He swore on the River Styx that he would grant her anything she desired, so she asked him to prove his identity by appearing to her in all of his deific glory.
Zeus knew that this would mean the death of her, so he begged her to change her mind. She refused and, bound by his promise, Zeus complied.
Though he chose his smallest thunderbolt and thinnest thundercloud, Semele still perished the moment she laid eyes upon him.
Heartbroken, Zeus retrieved the unborn Dionysus from Semele’s charred body. Hoping to save the fetus, he sewed him up under the skin of his thigh. From there, Dionysus was born.
According to the Orphics, Dionysus was a son of Zeus and Persephone. He was sometimes called Zagreus or Sabazius. This Dionysus was born with horns, linking him to oxen.
As a baby, he was able to ascend to the throne of Zeus and seize one of his lightning bolts. Hera saw this and was infuriated, so she told the Titans.
They ambushed the child and attacked him. Though he changed shape many times during the battle in order to fight back, they cut him apart. From these pieces, he was reborn as Dionysus.
Another story holds that he was the son of Zeus and Demeter, and, following his death, his mother gathered and boiled his remains to allow him to be reborn.
This mirrors the winemaking and grape planting process — Dionysus was born of the earth and rain, cut apart, gathered, and boiled.
These two stories are reconciled in one telling of the tale of Zeus and Semele. In that one, Dionysus is the son of Zeus and Persephone.
He’s torn apart by Titans, and Zeus gathers the pieces of his son’s heart and places them in wine that he gives to Semele. This causes Semele to become pregnant.
As a young man, Dionysus discovered winemaking. Hera, still angry, caused him to go mad and wander the world for a long time. For this reason, there are several cities from antiquity that claim to have been founded by Dionysus.
At one point, Dionysus was captured by a band of sailors who mistook him for a prince. Expecting to get a heavy ransom for him, they dragged him onto their ship.
One version tells how he couldn’t be subdued and turned into a lion. Another describes him turning the oars to snakes, filling the ship with vines, and driving the sailors mad. They leapt into the sea where they became the first dolphins.
Dionysus was also said to be responsible for King Midas’ curse. As repayment for taking care of his old school master, Dionysus offered Midas whatever he wished. Midas asked for everything he touched to turn to gold.
Dionysus is also responsible for turning multiple people into plants. In one story, he falls in love with Ariadne, a princess of Crete.
He asks the nymph Psalacantha for help, but she refuses to unless Dionysus sleeps with her. Dionysus wouldn’t, so Psalacantha went to Ariadne to warn her about him. In revenge, Dionysus turned the nymph into the psalakanthos plant.
Dionysus also fell in love with a satyr named Ampelos. When Ampelos was killed by Selene, Dionysus turned him into a grape vine.
Interestingly, ancient Rome already had a deity very similar to Dionysus called Liber. By about 200 BCE, this deity had become formally syncretized with Dionysus.
They may actually have been the same deity long before that, however, in the form of the Mycenaean deity Eleutheros. Eleutheros had the same associations and symbols as Dionysus, but his name carried the same meaning as Liber (“Free”).
Dionysus’ best-known festival was the Bacchanalia. This involved intoxication, sexual inhibition, and the tearing apart and consumption of raw animal flesh.
Symbols & Associations
Dionysus is associated with grapes, vines, fertility, rebirth, and winemaking. He’s also tied to madness, intoxication, oxen, theatre, and wild animals.
Some of his symbols include:
- A thyrsus, a fennel stem entwined with vines that dripped honey.
- Leopards and other big cats.
Like pretty much all Greek and Roman deities Dionysus had the powers of shapeshifting and transformation.
He could also make wine, which was particularly significant in ancient Greece and Rome. This wine not only brought on drunkenness, but could also instill a euphoric divine madness in the drinker.
Offerings for Dionysus include:
- Alcohol, especially wine.
- Spices, like cinnamon.
- Blood, or liquids resembling blood.
Signs Dionysus is Calling You
Dionysus may be calling you if you want to release your inhibitions. If you normally live a pretty restricted lifestyle, he may call you to free yourself and enjoy more of what life has to offer.
This doesn’t have to be in the form of a drunken bender — you can take up singing, dancing, acting, or other arts that help you loosen up and express your innermost self.
You may also experience his call as an interest in gardening or fermentation. If you’d like to take up winemaking, making vinegar, or other arts that require fruit and fermentation, that may be a nudge from Dionysus.
His animals, particularly oxen, can also appear to you in dreams or visions.
You might also experience Dionysus’ call as a draw to wild places or a connection to wild animals, particularly leopards or tigers.
Crystals Associated with Dionysus
Dionysus is connected to the following crystals:
- Amethyst, which was believed to prevent drunkenness.
- Grape agate, a special form of agate that grows in rounded clusters. Also called botryoidal agate.
- Garnet, ruby, or other deep red stones.
Herbs Associated with Dionysus
As a deity of fertility and fruits, Dionysus is associated with several plants. These include:
- Grapes and their vines.
- Bay laurel.
Working with Dionysus
The best way to work with Dionysus is to read his legends and history. He’s a god of wine and winemaking, and many of his stories parallel the discovery and creation of fermented beverages.
You can also create an altar to him. You may do this indoors and out. For outdoor altars, consider planting grapes or other fruits nearby and decorating with weather-safe statues of him.
Indoors, choose a surface (perhaps in your kitchen or dining room), cover it with a white, purple, or green cloth, and set it with candles, incense burners, a water vessel, and an offering bowl.
Keep the altar well maintained — clean away incense ash and old offerings, keep the water fresh, and trim the candle wicks. Make offerings regularly.
You may want to make offerings to Dionysus in the form of actions. Volunteer with or donate to charities that help preserve wild places or protect wild animals. Learn how to make fermented products. Take up ecstatic dance, compose songs, or write poetry.
Lastly, take stock of how you view things like alcohol and sex. While Dionysus’ feasts were marked by a lack of inhibition, these things were still viewed as sacred.
Wine was imbibed for the divine madness it inspired, not just to get drunk. Learn more about sacred sex, shamanic journeying, responsible entheogen use, and alcohol as a sacrament, and see how you can incorporate these concepts into your spiritual practice.
Not much is known about Dionysus’ true origins. Though he’s usually thought of as a Greek god, his roots go back much further. Like a vine, he has grown and entangled himself in places, legends, and religions from Europe to Asia.
He’s sometimes thought of as a human who attained deific status, and sometimes as a twice-born god of resurrection.
When he calls to you, he calls you to understand the sacredness and wonder of freeing yourself.