Dionysus: the Greco-Roman God of wine and in wine

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Dionysus was not part of the Homeric panetheon of Mount Olympus and in fact Dionysian worship did not become widespread in Greece until the 6th century BCE, which was precisely the same period in which wine emerged as a common beverage, something that was no longer reserved for society’s elite. It was also the same period in which trade in wine functioned as a significant economic force. Dionysus, as the wine god was seen as not only in the wine that the inhabitants of Greece drank, but also from the vine, from nature. This nature was not the cultivated nature of the vintner or merchant, but more the untamed nature of the vine itself.

There are a number of different myths and legends about how Dionysus came to Greece. The best known story is that by Euripides, who tells us that Dionysus is the reborn son of Zeus and Semele, the daughter of the king of Thebes. One version has it that Hera, out of jealously, conspired to have the pregnant Semele killed, but Zeus rescued the seemingly dead fetus and nurtures it in his thigh until the infant is ready to be born. Another version has Dionysus as the aborted offspring of Zeus and Persephone, saved by Zeus and implanted in Semele’s womb. Both versions emphasize his double birth – initial life followed by apparent death, followed by new life – corresponding neatly with the life cycle of the grapevine. In both versions of the story, Zeus takes the infant Dionysus to the eastern mountains of Nysa, where he is raised by nymphs, satyrs and other fabled creatures of nature, learning the lessons about wine, which in this travels he will teach to human beings.

The Greek wine bowl above, has a painting of Dionysus on the inside, which is visible only after the wine is drunk. It shows the god sailing in a ship with a massive grape wine climbing up its mast, thus arguably representing his travels during which his knowledge of wine will be shared.

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