published 4.13.2016

Dionysos

The centerpiece of the "Gods and Mortals at Olympus" exhibition is the 2nd to 3rd century CE "Mosaic of the Epiphany of Dionysus." Discovered in 1987, and only recently restored, the piece is being exhibited for the first time anywhere at the Onassis Cultural Center in New York. It portrays the god Dionysus, son of Zeus and the mortal Semele, bursting triumphantly from the sea in his chariot.

Watch a short video about its restoration.

Dionysos in Euripides' The Bacchae

The ties between Dion and Dionysus, god of wine and theater, go back to at least the 5th century BCE, when King Archelaus of Macedonia, great-grandfather of Alexander the Great, welcomed a number of prominent intellectuals to his court. Among them were the tragic poet Agathon, whose works have been lost, and Euripides, who spent his final years under Archelaus' patronage. It was in this context that he wrote his masterpiece, The Bacchae, about Dionysus and his frenzied followers.

This short documentary is an excellent introduction to The Bacchae. In it, an impressive roster of speakers describe their fascination Euripides' play. They include Nobel-Prize winner Wole Soyinka, theater directors Brad Mays and Richard Schechner, actor Allen Cumming, and Professors David Damrosch, Helene Foley, Daniel Mendelsohn, and Froma Zeitlin.

Of the many adaptations of The Bacchae, the most controversial is perhaps Richard Schechner's Dionysus in 69. It re-imagined Euripides' play through the lens of the 1960s counter-culture, and was filmed by Brian de Palma in 1970:


For more on Euripides' portrayal of Dionysus, read Daniel Mendelsohn's essay in The New York Review of Books. The Bacchae, he writes, "oscillates disturbingly between black humor and deepest horror, between the city and the untamed wilds beyond."  (NYRB subscription required to read full text)

Other portrayals of Dionysus

Hymn 7 to Dionysus, (6th century BCE) 

In this Homeric Hymn, a gang of pirates attack Dionysus, and are turned into dolphins:

Apollodorus (1st or 2nd century CE)

Dionysus' story, as told in the Library of Apollodorus:

Caravaggio, Bacchus, 1597

Dionysus as portrayed by Caravaggio.

Francis Bacon, The Wisdom of the Ancients, 1609

"Under the person of Bacchus is described the nature of desire and passion and perturbation. For the mother of all desire, even the most noxious, is nothing else than the appetite and aspiration for apparent good: and the conception of it is always in some unlawful wish, rashly granted before it has been understood and weighed. But as the passion warms, its mother (that is the nature of good) not able to endure the heat of it, is destroyed and perishes in the flame. Ivy was rightly consecrated to Bacchus, for the master passion spreads itself like ivy about all human actions and resolutions, forcing itself in and mixing itself up with them."  Read more here.

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, 1872

English philosopher Bernard Williams summarized the argument of Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy as follows: "According to Nietzsche, two contrasting spirits stand over Greek, and over all genuine, art – Apollo and Dionysus. Apollo represents order, civilisation and the determinate image; Dionysus represents nature, fertility, rapture, and the dissolution of individuation into collective expression. Greek tragedy was a highly stylised and formal art which arose nevertheless from the cult of Dionysus, and at its highest, in Nietzsche’s view, it represents a peculiar moment at which the forces of Apollo and Dionysus were balanced – a balance which expresses a heroic understanding and acceptance of the destructive horror of things, a ‘pessimism of strength’."

Read Nietzsche's full text here.

Walter Pater, "A Study of Dionysus: The Spiritual Form of Fire and Dew," 1876

 "Dionysus, as we see him in art and poetry, is the projected expression of the ways and dreams of this primitive people, brooded over and harmonised by the energetic Greek imagination; the religious imagination of the Greeks being, precisely, a unifying or identifying power, bringing together things naturally asunder, making, as it were, for the human body a soul of waters, for the human soul a body of flowers; welding into something like the identity of a human personality the whole range of man's experiences of a given object, or series of objects--all their outward qualities, and the visible facts regarding them--all the hidden ordinances by which those facts and qualities hold of unseen forces, and have their roots in purely visionary places." https://archive.org/stream/workswalterpate00pategoog#page/n20/mode/2up

Gustave Moreau, Jupiter et Sémélé, 1895
Dionysus' conception, as imagined by Gustave Moreau.
Sven Birkerts, "Fabled Powers," 2013

In this wide-ranging essay, Sven Birkerts asks: "Have our gigantic global systems, and the market-driven rationalization of publishing--the apotheosis of 'product'--at last neutered Dionysus?"