Wine and the Gods – The Story of Dionysus of Olympus

The gods of Olympus may no longer be worshipped. However, their legends live on through the mythological tales that we tell of the beliefs of those who came centuries, or even millennia before us.

For those who don’t know, Mount Olympus was the mythical home of the 12 Ancient Greek Gods. What may surprise you is that the mountain itself is actually really and is the highest peak of the Olympus Range in Greece.

The Gods were meant to live on the summit, with their decisions affecting all of the mortals who lived below.

You likely already know the heavy hitters from this pantheon of legend. 

Of course, we have Zeus, who was the king of all of the Greek gods. His wife Hera, who is also rather disturbingly his sister, is a little less-known. However, she still holds a prominent place in the group of 12.

Others you may have heard of include Hermes, Apollo, and Athena.

But the God that most wine lovers will identify with is Dionysus.

So, who was this ancient God and why are we talking about him on the xtraWine blog?

Who Was Dionysus?

He was the Olympian God of vegetation, festivity, pleasure, and most importantly, wine.

Interestingly, he was also the god of wild frenzy and madness. Perhaps this was a warning to those who overindulged in the pleasure that he presided over. After all, most of us already know what can happen if we overindulge in our favourite beverage.

One of the many interesting things about Dionysus is that he’s portrayed in a variety of ways. Some ancient Greek artists depict him as a young, and almost effeminate, man. It’s easy to see how such a God could tempt people towards the pleasures that were a part of his dominion.

Others depict him as an older and bearded God. This seems somewhat at odds with the aspects of life that he rules over. Maybe all of those years of festivities ended up taking a toll on him.

Regardless of which depiction you see, you’ll usually see Dionysus with a several artefacts.

These include his drinking cup, which is the least that you’d expect from the Greek God of Wine. He’s also commonly depicted with his thyrsos, which is a staff topped with a pine cone. This is a hint towards the fact that he is also the God of Vegetation. A crown of ivy completes that depiction, with the crowds of wild female adorers who surround him suggest that temptation lies underneath his nature-loving persona.

To say he’s wine of the more complex Gods is an understatement. And while we don’t want to get into a nature vs. nurture argument, we can’t help but wonder if they fact that Zeus tore him from his mother’s womb had an effect on him.

His mother wasn’t Hera, by the way. It was the Thebes princess Semele. And Zeus had his reasons for tearing Dionysus away from her. Once he’d committed the act, he stitched the unborn God to his own thigh, from where he eventually birthed him. We’ll get into the full story in a little while.

Like we said…complicated family history.

Interestingly, Dionysus was sometimes referred to as Bacchus in Greek mythology. This name would become much more prominent in the centuries that followed those of the Ancient Greek Empire. Those who know the about the Roman Gods will have already recognised the moniker.

Sacred Plants and Animals

Like all Greek Gods, Dionysus had several sacred animals and plants.

We’ll get to the plants in a moment. But first, we can’t help but mention the fact that Dionysus was often depicted as being on a chariot drawn by a pair of panthers.

That’s definitely a way to make an entrance!

Other sacred animals for this god include the bull – which would surely make more sense in terms of the chariot -, the serpent and the tiger.

As for plants, we’ve already mentioned pine and the ivy, the latter of which the God’s followers would often wear around their heads

Of course, the most obvious sacred plant for Dionysus was the grapevine. After all, it is from the grape that the drink that he ruled over was made.

Some of the God’s Myths

We promised that we’d come back to that story of Zeus and Semele.

You see, the King of the Greek Gods had a penchant for having his way with human women. Hera, the rightfully jealous wife of Zeus, would often enact her revenge for these acts of infidelity.

In the case of Semele, Hera tricked the young princess into asking Zeus to reveal himself to her in his full splendour. Bound to do so, the God appeared in a huge cloud of thunder and lightning that incinerated his poor mistress.

Zeus then took Dionysus from the charred remains and stitched the unborn God to his leg.

Tragedy seemed to follow Dionysus wherever he went. His chosen hero was Icarius, to whom he taught the then-unknown art of winemaking. Unfortunately, the first people who tasted Icarius’ beverage believed that he’d poisoned them, possibly due to the intoxicating effects of the wine.

They proceeded to murder the first man to whom Dionysus taught the art of winemaking. In his grief, the God made Icarius into the Bootes constellation.

At least the Semele story had a happy ending. Dionysus eventually chose to travel to the underworld to retrieve her. Upon bringing her to Olympus, Zeus transformed her into the Goddess Thyone. While not one of the 12 main Gods of Olympus, Thyone at least wasn’t doomed to spend the rest of eternity with Hades.

The Final Word

There’s so much we could delve into when it comes to Dionysus, but we feel that happy ending is a good place to leave it.

After all, we wouldn’t want to get into all of the times that he drove people mad to the point of murderous frenzy, would we?

The Greek God of Wine is certainly a complex character. We’re just happy that he gifted us with his knowledge of the greatest drink we’ve ever known!



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