Dionysus is a deservedly fascinating figure. And also a badly misunderstood one. As are many Greek deities, especially in their comparative Indo-European situation. I have written upon the linkages of Dionysus to various facings – dramatic masques, we may perhaps say – in other Indo-European pantheons in the past, and shall not seek to repeat the huge depth-dives of those works here. Instead, we’re just going to take an exceptionally brief run-through of some of the comparatives. And in the process demonstrate how Dionysus is Odin – and Shiva … and also, a lesser-acknowledged (in the post-Classical, Renaissance-Romantic infused perspective, at any rate) facing of the Indo-European Sky Father Himself!
Now, to start, the essentialized characteristics of Lord Dionysus are so well known as to hardly require explication. We have a Deity strongly correlated with the performing arts (that is to say, a particular kind of speech and expression – often involving masks, song, dancing); with altered states of consciousness (whether via mind-altering substance, or via the Fury, the Frenzy generated in other, more mystical-psych-o-logical ways); an association, indeed a lordship, over the Wild Beasts; something of a recurrent pattern of being regarded by ‘stablished authority figures as a rogue, an outlaw – and the lack of proper hospitality towards the masked God leading to their doom as a result when He inevitably is shown to be the Free. To this we may also add the iconographic elements such as the linkage with the Thyrsus [a curious sort of cone-tipped staff shaped like a spear, yet with its head actually iconographically being depicted as a pinecone – and also found prominently in Scythian nominative employ]; the accompaniment by various strange and frightening beings who may themselves be in state of ecstatic furor-ious frenzy; and the rather important underlying meaning of various of the God’s lesser-known theonyms, that are, ‘Roarer’ [‘Bromios’ – the Roar of the Thunder, the Howl of the Storm Wind] directly or else are otherwise functionally quite close thereto [‘Iacchus’, for instance, or ‘Euaster’]; and, of course, the penchant for Wandering, often in Disguise.
There is more, much more, we can and probably should say about the ‘essentialized’ characteristics of Dionysus – but I think that that may do for now. It should certainly help immediately to point the way for where we are heading here.
Dionysus As Shiva – The Ancient Greek Interpretatio of Alexander
Because straightaway, the correlates of such a Figure immediately begin to suggest Themselves to us. Most prominent, of course, being Lord Shiva of the Hindu understanding. And I should make a brief note here that the likes of Danielou et co were fundamentally egregiously wrong in labelling this a “Dravidian” rather than an Aryan, an Indo-European deity – as it is quite abundantly clear that Shiva-Rudra is strongly commensurate and outright directly coterminous with Eddic Odin, along with other such Indo-European occurrences. Although is, of course, also hugely important to the Hinduisms of the modern Indian South today.
Lord Shiva , too , has a strong interest in the Performing Arts – not only in His well-known form of Nataraja [‘Lord of the Dance’], but also in relation to Drama as well (Which, to be sure, in the Hindu understanding, just as in the Ancient Greek, also tends to involve dance and song) – indeed, there is an entire sphere of Hindu conceptry around Mahadeva and Devi having leading roles (as well as directorships) in the Universe as ‘Cosmic Play’. The ‘underlying sense’ also of not only the unfurling of the Cosmos according to Their Design , Their Script – but of the vital power of the Projected Voice, the Speech of Power and Resonancy, is further Shaivite in inclination. Shiva is Brihaspati, after all. And is also Pashupati – that is to say, the Lord of Wild Animals. As well as being the Lord of Fury – The Manyu – a power and a quality which is bestowed, in just the same manner as the Nordic concept of ‘Odr’ (which we shall briefly address later), Frenzied as Ugra (which, interestingly, is the same name utilized in the RigVeda for the power bestowed to a great Poet). This power of enhancement finding echo also in the close correlation of Shiva with the Soma – as Soumya, He is its Bringer and Bearer, in similar manner to how Bacchus is the bearer of the Brew for the Classical world.
He is the Adi Vratya – the Great Outlaw – Who Wanders the universe, and woe betide the ruler who does not let Him in, and treat Him as the Great Power Whom HE Truly is! Something which happens, as it does with Dionysus, with surprising frequency in the Hindu canon – other figures, whether they be kings or even Gods, seeking to dismiss and deride the Wild God as being something somehow ‘lesser’, because He bears the appearance (when He so chooses) of a crazy drug-addict [I am literally not kidding – that’s effectively a functional translation, including the “drug addict” bit]. Rudra, too, the Free, is the ‘Roarer’ (and Speaks with the Voice of Thunder) – and as we are by now hopefully well aware, Rudra-Shiva wields just such a Spear ; is also associated with the Tree.
Accompanied in His War Processional by not only the expected Royal Retainers (including a certain rather prominent Bull , Nandi Ji – one of Lord Shiva’s Royal Ensigns, and indeed an iconographic form of Rudra also being a Bull , just as Dionysus is said repeatedly to be ‘Bull-Faced’) , but also the ‘wild men’ of the Mountains and forests – the Sadhus, the Vratyas – who are themselves wreathed in clouds of the intoxicating Cannabis smoke, as they dance and shout and clamour; and even stranger beings still – the BhutaGana, the Ghost Division, the Court of Fiends , including the oft-tiger-faced Rakshasas (themselves, also closely associated with the Dramatic Arts in India), and upon some occasions, groups of adoring women.
The Ghost Division and the customary environs of Shiva also speak towards the same cosmological conceptry encountered with Dionysus and His Katabatic Journeys to the Underworld. Shiva is often found amidst the Cremation Grounds – the place where people depart from in order to journey to the realm beyond; and presides over a place where the Souls of the Dead congregate in His Mountainous realm. This recalls not only Dionysus’ venturing down to Hades’ sepulchral demesne – but also the Classical co-identification of Dionysus as Hades, and therefore Hades’ realm as actually (also) that of Dionysus. Entirely uncoincidentally, we find Dionysus and Hades coterminous in the Greek iconography upon the point of Their “Kyanokhaitis” [interestingly also hailed as a characteristic of Poseidon] – the ‘Dark’ (Blue-Black) ‘Flowing/Wild’ Hair, often depicted in long locks; and fundamentally resonant with an identifying characteristic of both Rudra-Shiva and also various of His Holy Men: The Jatta-Hair of the Ascetic; or, as applies Rudra Himself, the ‘Braided Hair’ spoken of in the Vedas. This is depicted in quite the ‘wild’ fashion – whirling around with the motion of His Dance, billowing up with crackling power, and with the strands thereof seeming to rear and twist like serpents. Dionysus with Serpent Hair or Garlanded with Serpents is most definitely a Classical visualization of the God – occuring prominently in a number of sources.
Importantly for the comparative theology – we also find a role cognate to Dionysus’ ‘triumph over death’ in Shiva (which is, perhaps, rather resonant in some ways – given the interpretation of Dionysis in India in later Classical accounts as meaning exactly this – the ‘victory over death’ in the far realm at the edge of the world); where Shiva not only manages upon various occasions to come back from what either is or should be His Demise (including, at one point, due to a crazed female engaged in frenzied dancing … His Wife), but is also prayed to quite directly to bestow for the Devotee the potency of ‘Mrityunjaya’ (‘Victory over Death’ – Mrit being closely cognate with ‘Mort’ etc.), referencing both the occurrence of this within the mythology itself – as well as the RigVedic ‘Mrityunjaya Mantra’ , which phrases the request to the God in vegetation-laden terms.
In a sense, this is also bound up with Shiva’s close and irreducible association with the Vedic ’empowering elixir’ – the Soma, of which He (as Soumya / Soma) is the Presiding and the Providing God. However, there is good reason to hold this at arms length from the alcoholic imbibings of the Bacchic observances – for reasons we shall examine in due course, and which chiefly result from the difference in ‘active ingredient’ and consequent resulting psychoemotive state. There is a conceptual coterminity here, but it is one wherein one side has ‘diverged’ with their practice from the original milieu. The Cannabis-smoking ways of both Shiva and many Shaivite holy-men (as well as the liquid offerings featuring this substance which are also made and ingested even by ordinary people around His Holy Festivals) may be a further instance of a functional cognate or co-expression of the archaic principle … yet which is unquestionably quite different in important ways from wine and alcohol intoxication.
But to return to the iconography, I also think it relevant to mention the comparative element for Dionysus’ favoured leopard-skin – the tiger-skin worn by Shiva. Indeed, we find a few instances of animal-skins worn by the God(s) in question and Devotees thereof – with the deerskin, in particular, forming a potential cognate between the Dionysians and Shiva’s Vratyas [‘Outlaws’ would be a somewhat imperfect translation]. Part of the saliency for these is, of course, the ‘barbarian’ image, and not unrelated to this, the recollection via the pelt of a ferocious beast (both ‘triumphed over’, hence why it’s now sans skin; but also for the barbarian follower – ‘drawn from’ in terms of its power and potency for the wearer) as emblematic for the bearer. Interestingly, there may be some degree of comparative expression for the broad concept amongst the Norse not only with the more stereotypical Ulfhednar and their direct association to the Wolf, but also the ‘Gothic Dance’ performed by mask and animal-skin clad Varangians in Byzantium. In the case of both Dionysus and Shiva, the Pelts also help to convey that this is the Lord of Beasts and coming to us also from the Wilds where these Beasts are also King.
These incredibly strong resonances were recognized by the Greeks themselves – and there is a justly famed episode from the conquests of Alexander the Great wherein a certain city, identified by the Greeks as ‘Nysa’, was spared from the sword due to its proclaimed association with (indeed, its founding by) Dionysus. This ‘Nysa’ was situated in what was, in those days, still Hindu country in modern Afghanistan. Interestingly for our purposes, part of the ‘identification’ made by the Greeks was that the “Meru” that Nysa was supposed to be near to, was broadly commensurate with the ‘Meron’ which in Greek meant ‘Thigh’. Thus making for a perhaps unexpected linkage of the Indo-Aryan Axis-Mundi with the more standard Classical origin-story for Dionysus, featuring His emanation from a Great God’s thigh. The latter of which was said by the Greeks to have taken place in a locale called ‘Nysa’, connected in the folk-understanding of the time with the concept of the Tree [perhaps even the World Tree – another well-known Axis Mundi expression of the Indo-Europeans which would correlate with ‘Meru’]. It is often said by academics looking backwards upon the account with benefit of hindsight and comparative analysis that the city in question was most likely a Shaivite one – perhaps the ‘Nysa’ may have been ‘Naishada’ [‘Hunter’ – a well-known quality of Rudra; ‘Zagreus’, a prominent epithet of Dionysus, is similar in its ambit of meaning].
Of further interest for our purposes is an intriguing set of references in both Pseudo-Apollodorus’ Bibliotheca and Strabo’s Geography to Dionysus in India in relation to ‘Pillars’. In the former case, wandering India personally setting up these structures; in the latter, said ‘pillars’ only being found where the “Dionysus” as the Macedonians knew Him was venerated (or, to be sure, where Herakles was hailed, also).
And there is an obvious explanation for this – to be found in the form of the ‘Pillars’ made active use of even today in Shaivite worship: the ShivLings and other assorted Lingams, some of which are of truly tremendous proportion. So, of course, ‘Pillars’ either set up by the God in question, or by those who worship this God, is exactly what we should expect. Both in the Classical commentary, and of course in the actual Indian Hindu lived practice of the time. And subsequent. For it can be fairly said, I think, that Dionysus – as with the rest of the Indo-European Pantheon – still Lives There Loudly.
Dionysus As Odin – The Nysian Hangs Upon The Nordic World-Tree
The Nordic parallels are, again, so direct as to almost escape the need for explication. Odin is the Bringer of the Fury, the Frenzy – this is right there inherent in His Name, descending as it does from the same root as ‘Odr’, PIE ‘Weht’. Odin, too, is a Wandering God, Who often presents in Masks and Disguises, delighting in crafty performances, songs, riddles, wordplay; and bringing ruin to those rulers who would cast Him out, seek to imprison Him (c.f the fate of Geirroth), or otherwise deride Him as some mere mortal vagrant. Odin is Roarer – Hrjóðr, Yeller – Göllnir , Screamer – Hjarrandi ;and many other such names besides (including the immensely powerful performances of the formulas of Galdr – the Songs, the Shaped Speech – as He is Galdrfodr). Odin, too, goes forth accompanied by a Wild retinue – indeed, ‘Wild Hunt’ is one way to refer to These, and it would seem fair to state that Wild Animals – or, at least, animals Who are not ‘tame’ to any other than He – are a part of this throng, likewise. Two Wolves and Two Ravens, at least, for starters.
Further, in the case of the Intoxicating/Empowering Elixir – that is exactly what Odin is said to Bring (in the mythology around Kvasir – the direct and strong parallel to Vedic Soma, as I have repeatedly demonstrated) in the case of the latter, as well as what Odin is said to effectively solely subsist upon in the case of the former [to quote the Gylfaginning upon the matter: “But on wine alone / the weapon-glorious / Odin aye liveth.”]. And said Meath of Poetry, the Kvasir, is that which is capable of granting the Divine Inspiration to the Poet – the Furor Poeticus; a co-expression of the same energy as the Furor Teutonicus (‘Battle Rage’ / ‘Berserk Fury’), just as we saw with the utilization of ‘Ugra’ in the Vedic context; and both ultimately ’empowered’ by the quality of Odr, the Deity Odin.
What needs adding? Only the prominence of His Spear [which we might also perhaps think of as a ‘hunting spear’ – ‘hunting men’, more specifically] – and also the further association with the Tree (in this particular case, also an Irminsul – just as the Sthambha, the Vedic Sacrificial Post associated with Shiva and which finds its latter-day co-expression as the ShivLing housed in most every modern Hindu temple of size, is Itself correlated with the Tree in the relevant Vedic conceptry upon same].
The Many Masques Of Dionysus Amongst The Greeks
But now let us move to the Greek sphere – and that is where things get … interesting.
Because the Ancient Greek conceptry around Dionysus really does help to blow wide open the pop-culture mythinterpretation of Greek myth that we so often have, and helps us to explore what’s really going on therein just beneath the surface, if we only care to look.
Now what I mean by this – is that we often think of Greek mythology in the terms set forth for us both by media and by many centuries of once-over-lightly ‘symbolic’ presentations of the subject-matter. We see a list of deities, and we think that each and every one is a discrete, separate individual. Rather than, say, a smaller number of deities, various of Whom are wearing convenient masques, or are actually Aspects or Forms of Gods instead of Gods in Their own rite. I have detailed this previously with our theory of the ‘Three-Three Split’ – wherein the Indo-European Sky Father deific [Dyaus Pitar], is ‘split’ into three ‘generations’ [Ouranos , Kronos , and finally Zeus Pater et co], and the last generation is then itself split into three Brothers [Zeus , Hades , Poseidon].
This notion is often received a bit quizzically when presented, and understandably so. Yet if we actually examine the other Indo-European mythologies – it’s not entirely uncommon. I can produce direct Vedic citation for Rudra being Dyaus Pitar , I can produce similar for Agni being Rudra , I can produce the material to show that Vayu is Shiva, too. These are often thought of as different Gods, even by various Hindus today, but the theology is there, and often quite direct and explicit upon the matter. So, too, do we find in the Greek mythology – wherein we have Hades hailed as “Zeus of the Underworld” (“Zeus Khthonios” – Chthonian Zeus) ; and where we also find a reasonable raft of Classical-era primary source and secondary inferential materials for Dionysus as Hades.
Now lest I be misinterpreted upon this – I am not attempting to proffer the position that “All Gods are really the One God”, or anything like that. I am simply saying that for the Ancient Greeks, various figures we in the modern age often think of as separate Deities were, in fact, more aptly viewed as ‘Aspects’ or ‘Forms’ of a more limited number of Gods. And that what is preserved in these underlying patterns of association, is something much closer to the archaic Indo-European mythic view. Wherein, as we can see here, the Sky Father deity has a role as the Lord of the Glorious/Ancestral Dead (think Odin in Valhalla , or Hades performing similar role to RigVedic Varuna in PitrLoka / Paramevyoman), and also has a role as a Wild Wanderer Who is closely interlinked with the mind-altering capacity (whether via the ‘pressed’ brew, or via ‘madness’ in other forms) and the ‘performative’ elements of song and dance.
The Problem Of The Paternity
I am also aware that there are elements of Greek mythology which can be cited in somewhat clashing contrast to this perspective. If you were to take, say, the mythology of Dionysus’ familial relations at face value … then the notion of Dionysus being Dyaus Pitar would seem absurd. Zeus is Dionysus’ Divine Father, after all [Indeed, there is actually some suggestion that Dionysus is set up as the Successor Son to Zeus, in Platonic and potentially Orphic sources; and Nonnus’ Dionysiaca also has the God granted the ‘Throne and Scepter of Olympus’ as well as the Lightning by His Father). So how can Zeus and Dionysus, in effect, be one and the same?
Except we also have material to state that Hades is Dionysus’ Divine Father (… as well as material both Classical and Modern to state Hades is Dionysus). And, to take things even further, there are an array of accounts for Dionysus’ Mother other than the mortal Semele – including Persephone (either Zeus or Hades being the Father … but, then, I repeat myself; and the fact that Zeus and Hades are so interchangeable in relation to Persephonne must surely further substantiate the significant equivalency of both), or the wide-shining Dione (etymologically, the female form of the Greek iteration of ‘Dyaus’, ‘Dyu’ – and interestingly enough, related to Latin “Diana”. I shall return to this in a subsequent installment of our ‘The Radiant Queen of the Heavens’ series). A familial situation further complicated by the occasional presence of at least two River Deities.
Indeed, if we are including the Thracian/Phrygian figure of Sabazios (and more upon Him later), then the situation becomes even further confusing – as there is Greek material attesting Sabazios as Dionysus’ Father … but also as Dionysus’ Son. Given Sabazios is the Sky Father expression known to these adjacent Indo-European Peoples, I hardly need to spell out how intractable all of this makes a strict ‘scriptural literalist’ reading of Dionysus’ familial situation to be. A situation, to be sure, not entirely uncommon in Classical mythology – due to the incredible diversity of contributions and codifications thereto, across more than a thousand years and many thousands of kilometers from one end of the texts which have come down to us to the other.
Although it must be said that the attempt to ‘rationalize’ at least some of these glaring contradictions by claiming that there were multiple Dionysuses, as Diodorus Siculus (inter alia) postulated … is a rather drastic stab at a (non-)solution. Especially given the fact that Diodorus still found himself having to concede that the later-born Dionysus (i.e. the Dionysus Mothered by Semele rather than Persephone) “inherited the deeds of the older” – thus Dionysus making the two identically named Son(s) of Zeus effectively functionally equivalent, and rendering the entire exercise somewhat pointless in the extreme.
So, having established that the primary-source accounts of Dionysus’ origins and associations are best treated in symbolic fashion due to their repeated and manifest incompatibility … what does that actually mean?
The Nyssian Zeus
About the only thing we can definitively state here is that there is an incredibly strong degree of linkage between Dionysus and the Greek refractions of the Indo-European Sky Father. Whether as the Son of the Sky Father, the Father of the Sky Father, or the Sky Father Himself.
These linkages – indeed, more than linkages … outright co-occurrences inherent in the mythology – go further than simply pertaining to familial relationships; and also include the aforementioned citation for Dionysus seated upon Zeus’ Throne, wielding the Scepter of Olympus and the Thunder (a situation rendered further remarkable given Zeus’ extreme lengths elsewhere in the mythology to avoid the prophecized fate of having a Son that might seek to overthrow Him and claim the Throne as He had done to Kronos … almost as if this weren’t a ‘Son’ at all … and therefore not a prophetic-risk) ; as well as the direct one-for-one co-occurrence of the Crete version of Dionysus’ birth with that of the Infant Zeus [which, interestingly, also leads to Dionysus being castrated – something occasionally argued to be ‘Osiris’ style influence, yet which we must instead regard as recollecting the similar fate of another Greek Sky Father expression, Ouranos]. And the array of salient theonyms shared between Dionysus and Zeus, as well.
Something supported via the straightforward etymology of Dionysus’ Name – the Nyssian Dio, The Nyssian Zeus. What does ‘Nyssian’ mean in this context? Well, as ever there are a few potential interpretations. Folk-etymology from the late Classical era sought to connect it to the concept of a ‘limp’ or ‘lame’ impairment to the leg – reflecting the situation of Dionysus’ gestation within Zeus’ thigh per the mythology.
This attempt to find a ‘mythological’ source for the ‘Nysa’ within the realms of Dionysus’ noteworthy birth also saw the promulgation of a mythic mountain, Mount Nysa, where the infant Dionysus was supposed to have been nourished and began to exercise regal domain. It is possible that there may have been a historical-geographic mountain identified with Nysa in Classical times that provided a seed for the myth – but what is more likely is the other way around: namely, that a mythic mountain, indeed the Mythic Mountain, the World-Mount, was what was intended. And thence, as is so often the case in the Indo-European mythological development, said Mythic Mountain was projected out onto the mortal topography as needed. Hence finding its cartographic expression in a frankly bewildering array of locales running around the Mediterranean and further afield.
Particular attention should perhaps be paid to the aforementioned Alexandrian encounter with the ‘Slopes of Mt Meru’ – as this would link Dionysus’ origin to the grandest of World-Mountain situations known to the Indo-Europeans, amidst the high peaks of Central Asia (not at all coincidentally, the same space supposedly inhabited by the Gryphons, the Keen-Mouthed Unbarking Hounds of Zeus per Aeschylus). Although it is also worth mentioning the occasional speculation that the “Nysa” of Dionysus may have something to do with the Nesa which formed the ancient heartland of the Hittite Empire (whence the ‘Nesi’ ethnonym they made frequent use of in reference to themselves).
The best support for the ‘World-Mountain’ conception is, of course, found via the aid of modern linguistics – wherein there is tentative linkage of the ‘Nysa’ in question to the notion of ‘Tree’. This is supported via the prominent role of Tree in Dionysus’ mythology, cult practice, and theonymy (with it also argued that the name may connote ‘Of the Woodlands’, ‘The Wilds’ – something also seen with Shiva’s preferred environs); although the manner in which it links to the World Mountain may require some degree of further explication.
There is a well-known coterminity of the concepts of World Mountain and World Tee in the Indo-European comparative cosmology. They are both expressions of the Axis Mundi, with the same mythology occasionally even referencing this Axis as both (and there are particular coterminities between the concepts and expressions for ‘Tree’ and ‘Mountain’ more generally). I have analyzed this at greater length in my previous works – “On The World-Spear of the Sky Father – Trishula, Gungnir, Pinaka”, “On The Indo-European Symbolism Of The Ash Tree – And The Ensuing Origins Of The Spear-Race Of Man”, and of course “BHARAT MATA AND THE INDO-EUROPEAN DEIFIC OF NATIONAL IDENTITY”.
There is also a vitally important coterminity of conceptual association between the Axis Mundi and the Sky Father in evidence in the various Indo-European mythologies as well.
In the Vedic, we find direct mention of the Sky Father as Axis Mundi – as the Tree, or the chariot-axle with the multiple spokes which looks veer-y much like that; and this is maintained in later Puranic accounts for Shiva as Lingodbhava – the unending Pillar of Flame or Starlight. And, of course, the Dancing Lord (Nataraja) at the Center of Creation – causing the entire universe to spin in time with His Rhythm via the repetitive beats of His Drum as spun about the World-Spear, the Trishula-Gungnir-Pinaka.
In the Nordic, we find instances such as Odin ‘hanging around’ from Yggdrasil, married to a Goddess hailed in terms strongly coterminous with the World-Tree (and this, also, is a broad (or should we say ‘Jord’ ) Indo-European concept, found also in the Hindu situation).
And in the Greek, we not only find Zeus hailed in relation to various Mountains as core components of His Theonymy – Olympios, for instance – but Dionysus’ mother Semele appearing as a Tree in her prophetic dream of His Birth. [Oddly, Cicero appears to have Zeus referred to as Nisus directly – albeit in the context of fathering the ‘Theban’ version of the God]
In each case, we also tend to find the utilization of ‘poles’ that recall the archaic Tree-Axis symbology for active worship amongst the local Indo-Europeans. We Hindus have our Sthambha [‘Sacrificial Post’] and its latter-day commonly encountered form of the Shaivite ShivLing. The Germanic peoples had the Irminsul, particularly linked to Irmin – Odin Aryaman. The Greeks had their Hermas and also the Poles made use of in the rites of Dionysus.
What does all of this mean with reference to the mythology of Dionysus? There are a number of potential interpretations, and at some future point I may indeed seek to answer this question more definitively (there is a particular Shatapatha Brahmana element which springs to mind surrounding the Roarer coming out of the Axis in question). But for now, it is enough for us to know that there is such an incredibly strong and repeated conceptual linkage of Sky Father and Axis-Mundi-as-World-Tree – and thence add it to the quiver of ammunition via which Dionysus, the Nysian Zeus, may be held to align with what we should expect for the Sky Father. Whatever it may happen to mean in practice.
Yet having considered the curious situation of Dionysus within the realms of the Greeks Themselves Proper – we should now turn to their citation for His occurrence in various ways amidst the peoples who formed an exotic periphery to the core Greek cultural zone.
Dionysus Upon The Fringes – A Wild God For Wild Men
A frequent occurrence within the Indo-European mythology is the conceptual overlay of mythic groupings with more tangible, human equivalents. We see this in Hinduism, wherein various formidable forces Who march as the retinue of particular Deities bear the same names and some of the same associations as certain Mountainous tribes of fearsome (wo)men. It is an open question, often, as to which influenced whom – whether the mythological conceptry came first, and therefore the tribes in question were given Sanskritized designations mirroring the mythological creatures they were thought to resemble … or whether the tribes were encountered first, and thence did the mythology pick up or refine its depictions of the warrior-bands Who form the processionals of the Gods in question.
As applies Dionysus, we see somewhat similar occurrences – albeit with a rather more distinct separation between the ‘mortal’ and the ‘mythological’ groupings in question. The latter are furnished by the Maenads and other such wild forces from the fringes of the known sphere – the woodlands, the wilds. As applies the human associates of the God, we find somewhat of a functional equivalent in the constant Greek association of Him with the ‘peoples of the periphery’. The Scythians, the Thracians and Phrygians, and the Indians. In each case, these associations are doing ‘double duty’ of a sort – not only representing (an) understanding(s) of the Indo-European Sky Father actively venerated by each of these peoples, but also serving to reinforce the underlying connotations of the Fringes. That Wild Men, Barbarians, figures with strange – yet demonstrably powerful for their strangeness – were amongst the prominent, indeed foremost devotees of the God.
However, we are not here to discuss such phenomena. Except as applies our core thesis – the Sky Father as Dionysus. And in these far-flung realms, there is ample material to be drawn from in service of such contention.
Bromios Avec Cybele – Attis in Anatolia
First and foremost, there is the aforementioned close identification of Dionysus with the Thracian and/or Phrygian Sabazios. A situation which is somewhat ‘double-buttressed’ by the corresponding Greek identification within the realms of their own tradition of Dionysus going to Cybele of the Phrygians – in a manner that would place Their rituals as functionally coterminous. And which also quite directly and explicitly place Dionysus, once again, in the position of Zeus – viz. being raised by Rhea (identified here with Cybele) just as Zeus was. As Nonnus puts it (although it is evident that the tradition long predates him): “So Hermes passed over the mountain tract with quicker step than hers, carrying the horned child folded in his arms, and gave it to Rheia, nurse of lions, mother of Father Zeus, and said these few words to the goddess mother of the greatest : ‘Receive, goddess, a new son of your Zeus! […] Let the mother of Zeus be nanny to Dionysos–mother of Zeus and nurse of her grandson!”
There is a complication introduced here due to the nature of the relationship of Sabazios to Cybele – albeit it is the similar one to that encountered elsewhere within the Greek mythology ; wherein the Earth Mother deific is represented here as being, well, ‘mother’ to Zeus (and, in a surrogate sense, to Dionysus also); but is a partner to Sabazios (and, in the sense of co-occurrence of rites, also Dionysus). The somewhat Graecified perspective upon the whole matter effectively casts Attis as both Son to and Youthful Consort of Cybele. And, furthermore, has occasional reference to the same pattern occurring within the Greeks’ own mythology: Ouranos is both Son of and Consort to Gaia, Zeus is occasionally regarded in similar terms relative to Rhea. There are other examples, especially if we countenance the probability of Demeter and Rhea as both being, fundamentally, the same underlying Indo-European Goddess … but I have made my point.
The likely explanation for this unsavory pattern is twofold – first, as some sort of mytho-metaphore of symbolic value that does not and cannot map out onto ordinary human relations, and which has been dimly recalled in a fashion which has sadly lead to it being taken rather too literally in various cases. And second, as the entire thing resulting from the Greeks’ own ‘fracturing’ of their mythology into multi-generational ‘refractions’ of the same Gods, yet still somehow managing to keep various of the ‘original’ linkages intact here and there – and producing otherwise pernicious interpretations as a fairly direct result.
The first possibility, we can somewhat sanitize via recourse to the Hindu perspective – wherein it is possible that the underlying idea being expressed by these Greek conceptions, was that of the (Earth) Mother Deific as First-Existing, and thence emanating out Her Other Half. Thus making this male deity not a ‘Son’ in a literal and direct sense – but rather, a being ‘brought forth’ by/from Her in another way that does not imply genetic ‘descent’. This is effectively what is presented to us in one of my favourite Hymnals of the RigVeda , wherein Goddess Vak tells us Herself that She ‘brought forth’ the Sky Father ‘upon the world’s summit’. An act of ‘generation’ that is more ‘calling into being’ than it is ‘gestational’.
That Sky Father brought forth by Vak is, of course, Brihaspati – Shiva – Rudra. Exactly the cognate figure to the Greek Dionysus. And that ‘World’s Summit’, could certainly be thought of in cognate terms to the World-Mountain, the World-Tree, which forms the likely underpinning to the “Nysa” of “Dionysus”.
However, I must stress that this is my own attempt to read the various Greek mythological accounts through the lense of Hindu theology both older and contemporaneous therewith in a bid to produce a more rational/reasonable rendering of events than taking the Greeks at their own literal word in such dimensions. The reader may or may not agree with this approach.
The Scythian Spear-Lord – Ash And New Growth
But we should move from here and on to the Scythians. Which is a rather expansive area (in multiple senses) from which we shall only draw but briefly. For there is much – an entire article in fact – that can and should be said upon the complex relationship of the Scythians with Dionysus … but this is not the place to do it. For now, it is enough to note that despite Herodotus’ presentation of some Scythians as forcefully rejecting Dionysus … there are good reasons to be more than a little circumspect towards this view. Indeed, even Herodotus’ own words at other points in his narrative undermine this conception. So while I do not (necessarily) disagree that the famously religiously and culturally conservative Scythians may have had a problem with one of their Kings becoming a heavily drunk Bacchic initiate of the Greek expression of this religion … I do NOT think it credible to attempt to suggest that the Indo-European God underlying both the Greek Dionysus, as well as various of the other expressions of Him Whom we’ve met earlier in this article, and the Furor for which He stands, had no place amidst the Scythians. I shall cover this in greater detail in a follow-up, I suspect.
The major point of relevancy for us at this stage in the piece for the Scythians in connexion with Dionysus, is admirably supplied via the nomenclature of two of the Scythians’ great kings – Idanthyrsus (the same name applies to both). The elder Idanthyrsus was he who lead the Scythians all the way to Egypt in the first half of the 1st millennium B.C. The younger, the king who defied Darius and repulsed the Persian invasion of Scythia whilst dispensing some truly excellent multi-lingual boasts, brags, and intricate puns.
The reason for our interest in these names … is the “Thyrsus” – more usually known to us as the cone-tipped staff (that is to say, a ‘spear’ with added ‘living’ characteristics) usually wielded by the God Dionysus and His warrior-retinue of furious followers. It is interesting to note the ‘double meaning’ inherent in the ‘honey’ said to be associated with this Spear – as it connotes the wood to be Ash [‘Meli’ and ‘Melia’, respectively – related also to the ‘Meliae’ – the Ash Nymphs]. This matters as, of course, the best spears of Greek warriors were made from the wood of the Ash [something these may have in common with the Spear of the Sky Father, as we explored in my earlier ‘World-Spear’]; and the Meliae form a rather prominent spear-wielding component of Dionysus’ conquesting army. We might, perhaps, speculate that the notion of formidable female spear/shooter soldiery in association with the Sky Father has something of an archaic Indo-European underpinning to it – as we also find instances of Dionysus having Amazon warriors in His service, and can potentially relate this to other instances of the Sky Father deific in other Indo-European pantheonic expressions being somewhat similarly accompanied.
The Thyrsus itself is connoted with the Furor quality – the Divine Spark of Madness – albeit, in common with the Greek approaches to the subject, with this having the less-than-entirely-positive conception of leading a man to self-destruction and/or enlightenment, contingent upon his disposition and his fate. It also symbolizes the ‘growth’ and ‘life’ association of the God in question, via both the pine-cone and other such vegetation elements attached to the shaft and head. These conceal a fearsome and sharp point with which death and pain can be inflicted – a hidden ‘duality’, and one ever-ready to brutally enlighten the blockhead or the dullard who may so happen to confuse youthful or effete appearances with some purported lack of ‘substance’.
However, whilst it might bear coterminity of form with the World-Spear, I suspect that the figurative connotation of the Thyrsus is actually drawing from another ‘side’ to the Sky Father’s portfolio and facings. That of the fosterer of Growth. We see this also in the citations for Dionysus as being born with ‘horns’ of the bull – both recalling the Bull symbolism so prevalent for the Indo-European Sky Father, yet also the ‘horns’ or ‘shoots’ of new vegetation. This may have some relevancy to the occasional speculation about an Indo-European ‘Horned God’ – with both the ‘Ker’ and ‘Gerh’ roots of Proto-Indo-European [the former meaning ‘to grow’/’to nourish’ and also turning into ‘Horn’; the latter referring to ‘growth’ to maturity and also turning into ‘Grain’, ‘Corn’] being quite relevant here. A potential comparative figure in this regard would be the Bull-symbolized figure of Parjanya – the Sky Father presiding over the ‘germ of new life’ for the Earth as expressed through rainfall and the consequent springing up of vegetation in its wake.
To bring it back to the matter of namings – ‘Idanthyrsus’ is a complex one. There have been a few attempts to puzzle out an etymology for it via torturing it into some various forms of Iranic language; and to be sure, there is some basis for attempting to do this – we do know that the Ancient Greeks occasionally calqued names and other such terms from non-Greek languages in a manner that lent to ‘rephrasing’ these as more familiar Greek points of reference. However, that misses the fact that Herodotus, in giving us this name of ‘Idanthyrsus’, saw no issue with presenting a name which would deliberately summon up within the mind of his reader the ‘Thyrsus’ with which an Athenian Greek was already rather well acquainted.
A Thyrsus wielded, in the case of the figure of myth, by a (Son of the) Sky Father – and which stood for the ‘Wild’ and its unconstrainable potency to madden, terrify, and thence eventually bring low and conquer outright the pretensions of faux ‘Civilized’ men with all their pride and disdain. If we look to the situation of Idanthyrsus in the course of the Persian Wars – we see that that is exactly the characterization of note. This is a King, after all, who proudly states in reply to Darius’ demand that he kneel and allow him and his people to be ‘civilized’ in the Persian manner … that he kneels to no being other than his Divine Forebears, the Sky Father and Tabiti [‘Radiant Queen of the Heavens’] ; and who proceeds to not only ‘resist’ the ‘civilizing’ impetus of the Persian empire – but to drive Darius and his men back across Scythia to where they had come from. Inflicting quite some psychological discomfort upon Darius et co in the process – in a manner that differs from Dionysus’ revenge against various mortal rulers who had wronged Him only in that the Woman who eventually tears Darius to shreds is not immediately present, but rather another broadly ‘Scythian’ or indeed ‘Amazon’ figure some time later – the Massagetae Queen Tomyris.
As is so often the case with Herodotus – we have what is not merely a dry recounting of reconstructed ‘facts’ … but actual literature capable of interweaving these with the ‘sense’, the ’emotive resonance’, the ‘theme’ of the thing, in ways that tell us not only about what or whom Herodotus was explicitly writing upon: but about the Greeks themselves who formed his audience and much of his own world-view. Something quite relevant, I’m sure you’d agree, when we are looking ourselves at a Greek God.
Concluding Remarks – The Dance Goes Ever On
So there you have it. A wandering tour through the ‘Interpretatio’ cognates of Dionysus. Not merely the ones identified by the Greeks themselves – but also those which our more modern and broad-ranging perspective is capable of identifying. Including within the realms of the Greek mythology itself in manners either stated or heavily implied via the voices of antiquity.
Once we take a step back and make use of the broader vantage-point offered to us via our situation here in the modern age – we find ourselves making almost exactly the same inductions as the Greeks themselves did all those manifold centuries ago: that Dionysus is not merely a Greek deity, but has been found under other names and guises in the other Indo-European pantheonic expressions as well. All we are doing as applies the ‘Interpretatio’, then, is following in Their dancing footsteps – and showing that there has indeed been some method to the madness when the Greeks saw Dionysus in Shiva , in Sabazios, and the explicitly and directly Zeus-like and Hades-like characteristics in Him as well.
For there He must surely stand. Of Thunderous Voice, Spear-Armed, Fearsome and Furor-bestowing. A Wild God for Wild Men, yet also and entirely consistently, a figure of the most sublime sophistication and master of the high cultural expression of His People.
Not a ‘God of Chaos’, as some irreverently and inaccurately would label Him – but rather, a God running on a far deeper and more complex conception of Order than appears immediately apparent to many.
We can safely conclude that Dionysus represents a form and a facing of the Indo-European Sky Father , not only upon the basis that He is so readily and directly identified and identifiable with other Faces of the Sky Father occupying a similar role within Their respective (non-Greek) Indo-European pantheonic understandings – but also upon the basis of the repeated and quite literally dramatic linkages to be found with the major Greek form of the Sky Father Himself, as well as with the underlying archaic Indo-European typology in question. Although I have chosen to expound more upon that last element in its own separate, subsequent article for reasons of space.
It is eminently appropriate, I feel for the God of Masks to go wandering so broadly in such disguises. Just as it is also appropriate – albeit perhaps perilous – for us to endeavour to follow in His Path.
As Aristophanes puts it in his masterwork play “The Frogs” –
“Iacchus, Iacchus, Dance on and We’ll Follow !”