The Birth of Dionysos
Hello again everyone! Omicron here. Time for another Mythological Musing. After starting with the Birth of Athena, it was difficult to know where to go next, but eventually I decided to do the Birth of the god Dionysos.
These are the reasons why I picked this story! –
As god of wine and theatre, he is really important (and quite complicated, actually…) Plus…
I really like the story and there is just generally a lot of cool things about him! Plus…
Alexandra has just posted a little blog on our site which is all about the ancient Greek symposium, plus….
This evening, Elinor is taking me to see the Actors of Dionysos’ ‘Palamedes’, so it seemed like a good idea.
So, here goes!
Zeus fell in love with Semele, the daughter of King Cadmus of Thebes. Semele discovered that she was going to have Zeus’ baby (sounds a bit like last time’s story, doesn’t it!) which, as you can imagine, made Hera really angry…. AGAIN!
When Hera found out that Semele was pregnant, she disguised herself as an old woman, became Semele’s friend and earned her trust. Semele told her new friend that Zeus was the father of the baby, but ‘Hera’ told her she should ask Zeus for proof just to be really sure.
So Semele asked Zeus to appear to her in his most powerful form. Zeus begged her to change her request, knowing that it would be disastrous, but she insisted. Zeus appeared in the form of thunder and lightning….the thunderbolt killed Semele.
Zeus rescued the foetus Dionysos from Semele’s womb and stitched him into his own thigh for the rest of the pregnancy.
A few months later, Zeus ‘gave birth’ to baby Dionysos. (I wonder was that more, or less, painful than having his head cut open for Athena’s birth…?)
This is why Dionysos is sometimes called ‘twice-born’ because he was born from Semele’s womb and then again from Zeus’ thigh.
Zeus gave baby Dionysos to Hermes to look after him. This picture shows Zeus (sitting down on the left) with Hermes standing on the right. You can tell he’s Hermes because he always wears a traveller’s hat (because he’s always on the move), he has wings on his feet and he carries a wand with a figure-8 on the top, called a ‘kerykeion’.
Then, after a few months, he was taken to the nymphs of Mount Nysa who brought him up til he was a young man. Zeus, apparently, was so grateful to them for protecting Dionysos that he eventually made them into the constellation ‘Hyades’.
This is a famous marble statue which is in the museum in Olympia in the Peloponnese, if you’ve ever been there. Hermes is holding in his left hand the baby Dionysos. Apparently, because the sculptor Praxiteles had a bit of a sense of humour, Hermes is dangling a bunch of grapes in front of Dionysos….who, apparently, was trying to snatch them! It’s good, isn’t it, as Dionysos was going to become the god of wine!
Once Dionysos had grown up, he discovered all about the vine and how to cultivate it to make wine. He travelled all over the world, teaching people about it. This is a picture of Dionysos in a boat. It comes from a famous vase by Exekias. He had been accosted by pirates, so turned them all into dolphins and went on his merry way! Nice!
Interesting extra bits:
1. Dionysos was the only god to have a mortal mother
2. He was the youngest of the gods
3. Zeus had a habit of doing this ‘thank you, let me turn you into a constellation to prove it!’ thing – he did the same with the goat Amalthea who looked after him when he was little: she became the star sign Capricorn!
Below is a drawing from a relief which is in the museum in Naples, showing the birth of Dionysos. You can see Zeus sitting down, with Hermes taking form him the baby Dionysos. Behind Zeus stands the ‘big daddy satyr’ Papposilenos and then there are satyrs and maenads rejoicing all around! (More on them some other time).
Well, that’s it for now – I’d better get ready to go out in the rain to see the Actors of Dionysos! I’m really looking forward to meeting Tamsin and all the others!