10 Mysterious Facts About the Dionysian Cults
Dionysus, also called Bacchus, had at one point a huge impact on Greek and Roman life. There was a huge following that was specifically dedicated to Dionysus. They were inspired to live free from the confines of society and do pretty much anything they wanted. The early Dionysian Cults celebrated the growing and harvesting seasons of wine making. The rites and practices in honor of Dionysus was centered around the production and consumption of wine and other intoxicants.
01. Intoxication & Madness
Dionysus was a God of liberation and intoxication. The cults would bring on a feeling of frenzy and madness by consuming intoxicants including, but not limited to, wine and hallucinogens. The earliest dated Dionysian cults were centered around wine and consuming it. The goal was to liberate themselves from the confines of society so that they could return to their true selves. The belief was that their true selves were inhibited and free to do as they please. (LINK 1)
During its consumption they believed they were consuming the spirit of Dionysus and that is what lead them to their actions; not intoxication from the beverage. Dionysian cult members were said to have participated in many different sexual acts including orgies to fulfill their inner desires. The Dionysian Cults were extremely open minded to all sorts of behavior.
02. Rebirth & Possession
The rites they performed every year were based on a seasonal rebirth which were supposed to inspire transcendence. They believed that the spirit of Dionysus could enter them and guide them away from the restraints of society. They were totally against whatever was considered normal or typical. They wanted to push the ideas the average person had outside of its comfort zones. The majority of the devotees were people who were not part of high society including women, slaves and rebels.
The rites included a great deal of drums and dancing. During the dancing and intoxication, they believed that they were being possessed by spirits; not just Dionysus but other mythical creatures like minotaur’s and faeries. It was common for them to believe that there were more spiritual beings inhabiting the earth than commonly accepted. The earth wasn’t just a place of humans and animals, it was also a place full of mythical creatures that wanted to participate in our lives if only we would accept them. (LINK 2)
There was a variety of initiation rites that lead its followers into joining the cult. The initiation was typically done after reaching puberty. The goal of the Dionysian Rites was to liberate its members and the long term goal was to help integrate its ways and beliefs into common society. They imagined a world with less restrictions and more freedom to live as freely as they desired, no matter what the individual desire was.
During initiation they would act out the scenes of Dionysus’ birth, death and rebirth. They would wear masks while performing the rites in caves and underground. After exiting the cave the mask would be removed which imitated the ability to leave the face that civilization created and be born with their true face that was given to them by the Gods. (LINK 3)
04. Male Initiation
The men joining the Dionysian Cult had to identify themselves with Dionysus himself. They would dress up as Dionysus and imitate his life, death and rebirth. They would imitate Dionysus time underground by entering caves and catacombs.
When the entire initiation was completed they would gift the initiate with a thyrsos wand and were shown the secrets of the liknon. The liknon was a “sacred basket” which held the secrets to the God within it. When the initiate successfully made it through it’s believed that the basket typically held a phallic symbol or some sorts of hallucinogens. (LINK 4) No one really knows was the sacred basket had within it.
05. Female Initiation
The women who joined the cult had to go through a similar process as the men except they got to imitate Dionysus’ love, Ariadne. The stories say she was united with Dionysus in the underworld. This scene was also typically performed in a cave or a catacomb.
The liknon was sometimes filled with the penis of a goat or a wooden phallic symbol. According to some artwork it suggests that when women went through initiation they sometimes practiced flagellation and possibly ritualized hangings. It rumors that sometimes men were hanged and possibly animals as well which was supposed to be an offering to Dionysus. The phallic symbols were typically carved out of fig wood. The fig was a common fruit representation of fertility and virility. (LINK 4)
06. Sexual Abuse & Murder
Dionysus was also known by the name of Bacchus. During the Roman Empire the Dionysian Cults became known as the Bacchic Mysteries. During this time period the group was known for stressing sexuality and committing acts of sexual abuse in some cases. They participated in all sorts of sexual acts including homosexual practices, bestiality, orgies and more. They performed their sexual acts in front of one another to increase Dionysus’ desire to participate in the rites and bless them.
The Roman authorities banned the Bacchic Mysteries because of possible sexual abuse. Some people claimed they were raped and tortured by the Bacchic Mysteries. They also claimed the Bacchic Mysteries were involved in murders which the dead were given as offerings to Dionysus. There is a theory though that the Roman authorities exaggerated these claims because they believed the Bacchic Mysteries were a threat to the state. The Bacchic Mysteries and Dionysian Cults were growing in number because participants were excited about the ability to truly free themselves of all societal restraints. People were free to act on their desires and fantasies. (LINK 5)
07. Spring Equinox
The yearly festival dedicated to Dionysus happened every year around the Spring Equinox. It was scheduled perfectly to align with the final stages of the fermentation process when making wine. This is also the time of year when people believed Dionysus was reborn. They would celebrate all day with wine, great food and parties around the city.
They would have public rites around the city celebrating the return of Bacchus from the underworld. The city would become a large carnival also called a Komos. There was acting, music and poetry. There is a belief that the birth of theatres and acting was thanks to the practices of ritualizing Dionysus. There have been theaters found in circular shape open to the sky which was believed to be the original design of the theatrical stage. These original theatres would have been the finishing phase of the Dionysian rites where they theatrically performed out the survival of Dionysus. In the rural parts of town, they would practice Dionysia which honored the harvesting of the first wine. The focus was more on the production of wine and thankfulness for a great crop instead of the sexual theatrical acts of the Komos. (LINK 6)
08. Nocturnal Rites & Orgies
Besides the daytime festivities there were also rites that happened during the nighttime. During these evening celebrations they would welcome Dionysus coming out of the caves by having large orgies on the mountaintops. The first day was celebrated by Maenads hunting animals and eating them raw. The maenads would drive themselves into frenzy with intoxicants and hallucinogens. They were known to rip the animals open while alive and eat the animal’s meat raw with craziness in their eyes.
On the second day of the festivities the Nymphs would gather to participate in sexual orgies and celebrate the return of Dionysus. The goat and the bull was believed to be manifestations of Bacchus or Dionysus and so they would sacrifice one of these animals in his honor. It is believed that at one point in time, a human being would be sacrificed and stoned to death in honor of Dionysus. (LINK 7)
09. Women Ran Things
Men were not allowed to be priests in the Dionysian Cults. All priests were women. The purpose of the Dionysian Mysteries was to liberate anyone and everyone that felt left behind or trampled on. During this time period women were not equal to men and were given very little power.
Women controlled the first two days of the Nocturnal Rites and were the ones to typically initiate group orgies. They were known to be under a great deal of intoxication and hallucinogenic items. These women were highly attached to their honor to the God Dionysus and his wife Ariadne. (LINK 8)
10. The Decline and Death of Dionysian Cults
The Dionysian Rites are no longer practiced and a great deal of what happened during their festivities died with them. This information barely scratches the surface. The majority of what we know about the Dionysian Cults is based on our interpretation of art pieces and a few written words. What information was truly exchanged during these gatherings was rarely recorded and it will be extremely unlikely we will find out more in the future.
In 186 BC the Roman government reformed Bacchanalia making it practically impossible to practice anymore. They did everything in their power to control its numbers, when they can meet, how they can meet and what activities they can participate in. If you still want to honor Dionysus, each year around the spring equinox inspire yourself to liberate yourself in all ways it desires. Dionysus’ wish for humankind was that we would simply be free from the chains of civilization. (LINK 9)
LINK 4: http://press.princeton.edu/titles/9114.html Hugh Bowden, Mystery Cults of the Ancient World (Princeton, Princeton UP, 2010)