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Myths and Legends: Dionysus and the Bacchae

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By Jernice Kelley
Web Content Contributor

Ancient Greek mythology is the gift that keeps on giving. These stories explore both the natural and supernatural aspects of the world: The life of gods, heroes and mythological creatures. Of the 12 deities (gods or goddesses), one interests me the most, Dionysus and his followers. 

Dionysus is known as the Greek god of wine and the grape harvest. However, Dionysus is credited as the god of many topics, including fertility, ritual madness, theater and religious ecstasy. There are several interpretations of Dionysus and his origins, reigning from Mycenaean Greece to Classical Hellenic Greece. He is known to be the son of Zeus and the mortal Semele. 

Mythology & Fiction Explained’s YouTube video on the god, Dionysus.

What separates Dionysus from the other immortal gods is his benevolence toward mankind. He wanders across the earth, teaching mortals the secrets of winemaking. He is known to be the liberator because his wine, music and dance free his followers from society’s restraints.

A more exciting facet of Dionysus’ mythology is his female followers. These women are known as Maenads or the Bacchae, as Dionysus’ Roman counterpart is Bacchus. The women are described as “demented” because they are able to access a state of frenzied, divine madness and ecstasy.

See U in History / Mythology’s YouTube video on the Bacchae, Dionysus’ female followers.

In a cult-like fashion, the women perform rites that included tearing a bull (the symbol of Dionysus) apart with their bare hands and eating its flesh raw. They believe that by symbolically eating its flesh and blood, the women would become possessed by Dionysus. Unsurprisingly, both Dionysus and his followers received hostility from Hera and from the inhabitants of the places he visited.

While it may sound like a bit much, the women who wish to become possessed by Dionysus hope to gain prophetic vision, superhuman strength and a connection to divine forces. It was a religious experience for the Maenads, as they saw Dionysus as both the representation of chaos and the protector of misfits.

The women have been referenced numerous times in modern culture. Books and comics such as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Sailor Moon,” HBO’s “True Blood” and Charlaine Harris’ “The Southern Vampire Mysteries” novels reference and depict the Maenads. They are truly fascinating women of ancient times, inspiring multiple renditions of their tales. 

Overly Sarcastic Production’s YouTube video that does an amazing job covering different aspects of Dionysus’ story and goes into more depth about his cult. 

In Dionysus’ legends, there are themes of death, rebirth and an association with madness. While he was an interesting god, there were no true “lessons” or “morals” associated with them. Even so, I like the myth of Dionysus and the women who followed him for their extreme, odd and yet entertaining religious practices.

Featured image by Jernice Kelley via Canva

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