While Dionysus was being brought up by the Curetes in Crete (where he was known as Zagreus), Hera commanded the Titans to distract Zeus’ love-child with toys and rattles, tear him limb from limb, boil him in a cauldron and eat him. Mercilessly they obeyed, but somehow the still-beating heart survived. While Zeus retaliated, destroying the Titans in a salvo of thunderbolts, Athene salvaged the heart and set it inside a gypsum doll, from which Dionysus was coaxed back to life, earning him the title ‘Twice-Born’. (Others said that Zagreus was an older god, similarly torn apart, whose surviving heart Zeus placed into the embryonic Dionysus shortly after Semele conceived him) Dionysus was then raised by nymphs on the craggy slopes of Nysa, an elusive mountain claimed by Africans and Asiatics alike and which together with the prefix Dios (meaning ‘of Zeus’) may have inspired his name.
Dionysus in Exile from Thebes Photo Gallery
Like Apollo, Dionysus was able to possess and prophesy, but his nature was darker and more earthy. His power lay in the untamed burgeoning of nature and, through wine, drugs or drama, he could skew perceptions, causing his devotees (and enemies) to behave in ways they otherwise would never have imagined. To him belonged the vine and wine; and early in his divine career (perhaps goaded to madness by Hera), Dionysus wandered east as far as India, planting vineyards and teaching mankind the art of viticulture. Almost always he was accompanied by his thiasos, a throng of revellers: satyrs (half-men, half-goat) and silenoi (half-men, half-horse), and nymphs and maenads, women, who, when he possessed them, were capable of acts of utmost savagery (mainesthai means ‘to be mad’). Frenzied, they performed the ritual of sparagmos, tearing creatures limb from limb.
Sometimes Dionysus’ victim was human. In Thrace he drove a hostile king, Lycurgus, insane. Mistaking his son for a vine, he hacked off his hands and feet. Horrified, the gods caused the harvest to fail and demanded Lycurgus’ death. He was torn apart on the mountainside by man-eating horses.
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