The Sorcerer Dionysus: Ancient Roots, a Foreign Image, Marginalized Followers, and the Divine Magician

The Sorcerer Dionysus: Ancient Roots, a Foreign Image, Marginalized Followers, and the Divine Magician[1]

Kaia Lind

1. Introduction

1§1 Modern times have remembered Dionysus primarily as a god of wine and revelry. But that was just a small aspect of Dionysus in the ancient world. For the ancient Greeks, he was the god of madness, of the darkness in the human heart, of youthful growing nature, and all hot things which flowed: wine, sap, blood. In classical mythology he was the youth that was always drinking and never drunk, perpetually calm as the world fell to madness around him. He crushed his enemies with ivy and drowned them in rivers of wine; he turned them into beasts, or like beasts made them rip each other apart. Everywhere he went he was a new god, spreading the first tendrils of his cult. But this new, youthful god was very old and by the classical era his cult was worshiped primarily by people on the fringes of Greek society. Dionysus’ unique blend of ancient origins, a foreign perception, and a basis of marginalized followers created an image of the god which more closely resembled a sorcerer’s magic than the religious manifestations of any other Olympian god.

1§2 Although I do not intend for the following paper to be a comprehensive discussion of Greek magic and religion but rather a comparison of Dionysus and Greek magical practitioners, it will be necessary to distinguish as clearly as possible what the ancient Greeks would have considered magical and what they would have considered religious. The differentiation between magic and religion is an inherently murky distinction. There are, however, a few key features which differentiated magic from religion in ancient Greece. These key features which distinguish magical power from religious power mirror those features which set Dionysus apart from the other Olympic gods: ancient roots, foreign ties, and marginalized practitioners.

1§3 It is important to remember that the perception of magic was much different in ancient Greece than it is in the modern era. Modern magic has no place in modern religion and to suggest it would be an insult to most modern people’s perception of religion. Magic, in the ancient world, on the other hand, was intimately tied to religion. The two can hardly be told apart when they are divorced from context. The distinction between magic and religion in the ancient world was dependent almost entirely upon Greek society’s acceptance of the source of the power. It must also be remembered that magic was common in the daily lives of the people whose concept of magic and religion was often inseparable.[2]

1§4 The distinction between magic and religion is difficult to make because such a large component of Greek religion appears, especially to a modern eye, to have been entirely built on magic and to have used magic in its rites and practices. Certainly, there were parts of Greek religion which seemed magical; priests employed divination, magical healing, and numerous other rites during religion’s everyday practices. For example, the divine son of Apollo, Asclepius, visited his healing shrines found across Greece and Italy, to impart healing through dreams.[3] Despite this, Asclepius was never considered a sorcerer or magician.

1§5 In Georg Luck’s text, Arcana Mundi: Magic and the Occult in the Greek and Roman Worlds, he gives a succinct list of connections between religion and magic. “That magic becomes religion…that religion and magic have common roots… [and] that magic is a degenerate form of religion.”[4] Luck’s interpretation of magic inseparably links it with religion in a cultural cycle wherein magic first transforms into religion and then degenerates back into magic. When magic and religion are considered to be in this cycle, rather than independent entities, it becomes more useful to focus on the religio-magic the Greeks considered dangerous. In ancient Greece, dangerous magic came from three sources: ancient religions, foreign religions, and power amongst the marginalized, the same as Dionysus’ three unique attributes.

2. Ancient Roots

2§1 Frequently, aspects of Greek religion that were considered dangerous or magical came from ancient, Bronze Age roots. Dionysus too, has his origins in Greece’s Bronze Age culture. The primary religious figure of the Bronze Age Minoan and Mycenaean cultures was an earth goddess known by a variety of names: Gaia, Ge, Demeter, Ceres, Terra Mater, and many others.[5] A.D. Nock says of her, “The nameless goddess, then, is mistress of the earth, of its fruits, of their rebirth in spring, mistress also no doubt of the underworld, in short, she is primarily chthonic…”[6] Dionysus too was a part of the Minoans’ religious tradition.

2§2 Once believed to be a foreign import to the Greek Pantheon from Asia Minor, scholars now recognize Dionysus to have been a part of the archaic earth goddess religion. The recent and arguably the most prominent of scholars who believed Dionysus had been imported is E. R. Dodds, a professor of Greek at the University of Birmingham who wrote and studied during the first half of the twentieth century. Professor Dodds interpreted Dionysus’ weak representation in Homeric epics and poor integration into the Olympian pantheon as a marker of Dionysus being a relatively recent addition to the Greek pantheon, not yet fully integrated during Homer’s time. [7] Dodds, and other scholars like him, understandably read Dionysus’ absence in much early literature as proof of his absence in early Greek culture. These scholars also misinterpreted Dionysus’ behavior in literature as historical proof of his rituals. Literature, in ancient times, as well as modern, did not represent how things historically were but rather religious and cultural perceptions of the time mixed with artistic license and mythological tradition. On this matter Dodds wrote, “Unlike most Greek tragedies the Bacchae is a play about an historical event – the introduction into Hellas of a new religion.[8] Dionysus appeared in towns throughout comedy, drama, and mythology heralded as a ‘new god.’[9] This image as a new god is an important aspect of Dionysus’ persona but does not mean he was historically new during the Classical Era. Scholars of Dodd’s discipline believed him to be a true new comer to the Greek pantheon until well into the twentieth century when unquestionable evidence to the contrary was discovered.

2§3 In the mid-twentieth century, archaeologists discovered tablets bearing Dionysus’ name in Linear B script. There are three tablets in question, two called the Pylos tablets for their place of discovery, and the other, the Knossos tablet.[10] The location of these three tablets is key. Pylos, on mainland Greece was part of the Mycenaean culture, while Knossos, on Crete was the center of the Minoan culture.

2§4 The discovery of Dionysus’ name on the Linear B tablets proves that he was embedded in Mycenaean culture as early as the thirteenth century BCE,[11] 800 years before Euripides casts him as a new god. Dionysus’ establishment in Minoan Age Greece entirely rewrote his history. It was no longer possible that Dionysus was a new addition to the pantheon; in fact, the discovery made him one of the oldest members.

2§5 After the discovery of the tablets, scholars found that more than just his name appeared in Minoan Age Greece. Dionysus was also intimately tied to the mysterious Zagreus.[12] Zagreus was a most ancient god of the Minoans and male counterpart to the Earth Goddess Gaia. According to the Classical Era Orphic Cult, Dionysus was simply the second iteration of the god Zagreus, born of Zeus and Persephone, killed by a jealous Hera and reborn of the mortal Semele as Dionysus.[13] Archaeological evidence also ties Dionysus to an earth goddess, particularly Persson’s rings 25 and 26 which show a goddess being led by a male consort. Classical Age Greeks would interpret this imagery as Dionysus and Ariadne’s marriage procession[14] and from that we can infer that Dionysus could have been the Minoan goddess’s consort. Thus, Dionysus is intimately connected, not only to the Minoan society, but to their earth goddess.

2§6 Between the fall of the Minoan Era Greeks and the rise of the Classical Era Greeks, much of the earth goddess religion of the Bronze Age was lost with the incoming Olympian pantheon. But the Minoan and Mycenaean ancient chthonic gods, who drew their power from the earth, were not entirely diminished. Some of them remained firmly established in the Greek religion. Dionysus, in particular, lived on. Much of what remained of these chthonic gods was often thought of as dangerous and evil by the Classical Era Greeks.

2§7 Although Greece’s religion had evolved to the Olympian gods, there remained vestiges of the old gods, but the Classical Era Greeks’ understanding of the bedrock of their religion was often incomplete. Many figures from early literature that spanned Classical Greece contained elements of the Bronze Age religions of the Minoans. Gods such as Demeter and Hera, present as some of the most powerful goddesses of the old tradition. They came into the Olympian pantheon as demoted shadows of their previous power. But more than being demoted, often the remnants of the old religion took on a mysterious and dark aspect during the course of their survival into the Classical Age, for example, the mystery cults of Demeter and Dionysus which required initiation.

2§8 Literary characters, such as Circe out of Homer, and Medea from Euripides, befell the same demotion, perhaps to an even greater degree. These mortal witches have been interpreted as either a misrepresentation of a Bronze Age priestess or even the earth goddess herself.[15] These two witches have a number of similar characteristics which bear looking into. Both Circe and Medea display a highly developed ability to harness the magic of herbs. Homer said of Circe, “…and round about it were mountain wolves and lions, whom Circe herself had bewitched; for she gave them evil drugs.”[16] And Euripides said concerning Medea, “The seed shall be, I swear it, sown. Such magic herbs I know.”[17] The knowledge of herbs was seen in many earth goddess religions as a gift from the goddess when used by priestesses, or simply her divine power when used by her. It is possible, then, to imagine that some mythological characters, such as Medea and Circe, were historically priestesses to these old earth goddesses or the goddesses themselves. In this occurrence, what was perceived as divine power and would have been ascribed to gods in the Bronze Age, became, in the Classical Age, a power perceived as magic.[18]

2§9 Dionysus followed nearly the same route as Circe and Medea in his transition from the Bronze to the Classical Age. However, unlike Circe and Medea, Dionysus retained his rank as a deity. This is an important distinction that greatly affected how his powers manifested themselves in the Classical Age as well as how his powers were received.

2§10 Like Circe and Medea, Dionysus also manipulates the power of the natural world. There is some degree of difference in how he manipulates that power. While Circe and Medea draw magic out of nature, usually by employing plants and herbs, Dionysus is the power of nature itself.  Often the outcome of his power and the witches’ magic is the same, plants growing from nothing or men being changed into beasts. The only difference in their power is the degree and the means. While the two witches lure magic out of the gifts of the earth, Dionysus needs no such medium to have a much greater effect. The power Circe and Medea draw out of herbs, Dionysus contains within himself. Dionysus’ intimate connection to nature is unavoidable and uncontestable. In the Bacchae, he literally clothes himself in nature. Dionysus says of himself, “In this land of Hellas, I have first excited Thebes to my cry, fitting a fawn-skin to my body and taking a thyrsus in my hand, weapon of ivy.”[19] And when Dionysus attacks, it is with the hand of nature. In the seventh Homeric Hymn, Dionysus, having been captured by pirates, releases himself from their bondage through a display of potent nature driven power:

First of all sweet, fragrant wine ran streaming throughout all the black ship and a heavenly smell arose, so that all the seamen were seized with amazement when they saw it. And all at once a vine spread out both ways along the top of the sail with many clusters hanging down from it, [40] and a dark ivy-plant twined about the mast, blossoming with flowers, and with rich berries growing on it; and all the thole-pins were covered with garlands. When the pirates saw all this, then at last they bade the helmsman to put the ship to land. But the god changed into a dreadful lion there on the ship, [45] in the bows, and roared loudly: amidships also he showed his wonders and created a shaggy bear which stood up ravening, while on the forepeak was the lion glaring fiercely with scowling brows. And so the sailors fled into the stern and crowded bemused about the right-minded helmsman, until suddenly the lion sprang upon the master.

Homeric Hymn to Dionysus. 7.35–55

In his most vulnerable moment (though of course, Dionysus is never really vulnerable) he uses power that manifests itself in exclusively natural forms. The way he uses his power makes him appear to be quite like the natural magicians, Circe and Medea.

3. Foreign Image

3§1 By its nature, ancient magic could only manifest itself in literature. However, the Classical Age had real life wizards and sorcerers practicing their magic amidst the Greeks in their daily lives. Almost always, those wizards and sorcerers were either non-Greek foreigners or worshipers of foreign gods. Frequently, these magicians were not only foreign but travelers who changed and adopted all forms of magic and religion to their own purposes.[20] It is in the comparison with this facet of Greek magic that Dionysus begins to truly look like a magician. There is a reason that scholars thought he was an imported god for so many years, and that it took such conclusive evidence to prove he was not. Dionysus acts like a foreign god.

3§2 Ancient Greeks had a mistrusting and uncomprehending attitude toward foreign religions. Their attitude towards Egyptian religion is illustrative of their attitude toward imported religion more generally. Egypt’s strongly established political and economic power during the Classical Age led to a vast number of their gods and traditions migrating into Greece through trade and travel. Most Greeks of the Classical Era were aware, at least, of the general features of Egyptian religion. This did not mean they held it in the same esteem as their native Greek religion.

3§3 Although most Greeks were aware of Egyptian religion, they often dismissed it as a religion less viable than theirs and thought of its practitioners as magicians over priests. Egypt’s reputation for magic amongst the Greeks led them to attribute anyone connected to Egypt as a magician, including the Biblical Moses, who the Greeks thought to be a sorcerer of some renown. Having been trained in Egypt in the house of the pharaoh, it was assumed that he had been taught Egypt’s magic and inducted into the sects of the pharaoh’s magicians.[21] There was an amulet from Acrae on Sicily which describes Moses as a magician (physikos) and describes how he became one,[22] and in the Greek Magical Papyri ascribe magical books to him.[23] In antiquity, a number of magical handbooks are attributed to Moses and his name was often invoked during Greek spells to be used as an occult power.[24]

3§4 The Greeks’ tendency to poorly understand and to ill revere foreign people and ideas affected their interpretation and reaction to foreign religions. According to Georg Luck, “The truly outlandish elements in a foreign religion seem to have been rejected and despised by the conquerors and classified as witchcraft.”[25] But it was not only truly foreign lands which got this treatment.

3§5 An ancient Greek’s view of what was Greek had a limited scope. Even some people who considered themselves to be Greeks were thought of as barbaric non-Greeks by people in other parts of Greece. Thessaly, for instance, a province in northern Greece, was considered by many Greeks of the Classical Era to be barbaric, uncivilized, and foreign. Thessaly was also, by no coincidence, considered to be the land of witches and magic. Luck states that, “Greek witches came from Thessaly or the Black Sea, that is, from countries at the end of the world.”[26] Lucan, a first century CE Roman poet who spent his youth studying in Athens, wrote of Thessaly in The Pharsalia, “Moreover, the earth of Thessaly produces poisonous herbs in the mountains, and the rocks feel it when magicians sing their deadly spells. Many plants grow there that may compel the gods…”[27]

3§6 It is clear from the Greeks’ attitude toward the witches of Thessaly that a religion didn’t have to be truly foreign for the Greeks to treat it with the same irreverence they showed foreign religions. Their attitudes remained suspicious if a religion merely had the appearance of being foreign. As with Thessalian witchcraft, to be considered magic something had only to be unfamiliar to Greeks from more urban areas.

3§7 Dionysus was actually an ancient Greek native, but he appeared to the Greeks as a traveling foreigner, often even being depicted in eastern clothing. Dionysus’ actual history mattered to the Greeks much less than his perpetual travel and behavior as a god who appears among men and comports himself much more like a magician than an Olympian god.

3§8 Dionysus, the archaic earth lord, was never characterized as an entrenched Greek god by his classical Greek followers. He was perpetually new, incoming, and exotic. The Greeks built incredible, massive temples for many of their other gods. The Parthenon in Athens, the belle of the city, was a great, majestic temple for the goddess Athena. Olympia had a temple to Zeus which held such a large statue of the King of the Gods it was regarded as one of the wonders of the world. And, although Dionysus had a few, scattered temples, they were never the center of his worship. Unlike other gods, Dionysus did not appear in gilded temples at specified times of the year to whisper in the ears of priests whose station had been determined by bloodlines and social hierarchy. Dionysus was always unknown, unexpected, and freshly arriving.

3§9 Dionysus represented something foreign, incoming and not understood; in every one of his myths he is perpetually arriving, an unestablished god just gaining ground and recognition. Ritual also preserves this concept of him as an incoming force. During one of Dionysus’ most significant festivals, the Anthesteria, celebrated in Athens, Dionysus is taken into the city in a cart constructed to resemble a ship.[28] The Anthesteria contained a number of dark aspects that were unsettling even to the Greeks celebrating it. During the festival, the city was crowded with what was remembered alternately as foreign visitors or evil spirits.[29] There was also a drinking contest wherein the contestants sit alone at their own tables and are forbidden to speak.[30] Chillingly, this mimics a drinking contest put on for Orestes in Athens after he had killed his mother, symbolically treating the Anthesteria participants like those guilty of murder.[31] Equally strange, the festival calls to mind Dionysus’ capture by and subsequent murder of pirates in the Homeric hymn. These unsettling aspects of his primary festival make a rather strange image for Dionysus. Unlike other gods, he was too dangerous to keep inside the city. The Greeks’ concept of Dionysus was his existing outside of the city and having to be brought in, rather than residing permanently within it.

3§10 But Dionysus’ odd double image and complex persona does not end there. Simultaneous to being an unsettlingly foreign-seeming god, Dionysus was very Greek. After all, he was to be brought inside the city and welcomed with a city-wide festival. This was a crucial part of Dionysus’ cult. While he was a foreigner, a magician, a bringer of dark things, he was also a Greek god, recognized by Greek authority. Dionysus embodied the balance between magic and religion and he was acceptable forbidden magic. Marcel Detienne, a researcher at the Center for Comparative Research on Ancient Roots in Paris, interprets Dionysus’ balance between the truly foreign and the truly Greek as the root behind his individual, magical nature.[32]

3§11 Dionysus is the personification of the Greek concept xenos in both of its meanings. He was xenos: a guest-friend, a traveler to be welcomed and cared for. According to Detienne, Dionysus, as the Greeks interpreted him, was indeed considered foreign, but never barbaric.[33] Dionysus was never at home and was always traveling, he was treated as a Greek, and, after all, he was given Greek origins as the son of Zeus and the Greek woman Semele. If this was Dionysus’ only characteristic, he would be nothing but a magician. But Dionysus also embodies the second meaning of the term xenos: strange.

3§12 Dionysus, although considered to be a genuine Greek god by the Greeks, and whose worship fell into the confines of religion over magic, was fundamentally not quite the same as other Greek gods. This trait pervaded his mythology, his religion, and his character. Pausanias, a second century Greek traveler and geographer, made note of a story from the island of Lesbos which encapsulates Dionysus’ exotic mystique.

Certain fishermen of Methymna found that their nets dragged up to the surface of the sea a face made of olive-wood. Its appearance suggested a touch of divinity, but it was outlandish, and unlike the normal features of Greek gods. So the people of Methymna asked the Pythian priestess of what god or hero the figure was a likeness, and she bade them worship Dionysus Phallen.

Pausanias. Description of Greece. 10.19.3

The mask found by the fisherman, a mask of Dionysus, resembled nothing the fisherman had ever seen before, a god that did not fit into the concept of a Greek god. But this story does more than juxtapose Dionysus against the other gods but shows a blur between his divinity and his mortality. No other god in the Greek pantheon has their deification questioned, unless they are deliberately disguising themselves, no other god is ever even mistaken for a human. But when looking at an image of Dionysus, Pausanias’ fisherman cannot even tell if the mask is supposed to be a god or a hero.

3§13 Foreign magicians were also, of course, human. In this, Dionysus’ uniquely ungodly and incredibly mortal pedigree gives him the appearance of a sorcerer. Dionysus was never quite as much a god as any of the other Olympians. During the transition from the old chthonic gods to the new Olympians, Dionysus was adopted into the Olympian family. But Dionysus’ blood ties to the Olympian gods were never enough to integrate him fully to be among the twelve Olympians. Dionysus was the son of Zeus and one of two women. In the Orphic tradition his mother was first Persephone,[34] queen of the Underworld and daughter of the chthonic Demeter then reborn to the mortal Semele. More commonly, Semele[35] daughter of Cadmus, was his only mother. This lineage in and of itself creates a Dionysus more magician the god. A mortal mother made him a demigod, a genealogy that, according to the common tropes of Greek myth would make him a hero rather than a god. Neither of his half brothers, Herakles, son of the mortal Alcmene, nor Perseus, son of the mortal Danaë, were ever considered anything more than heroes. Unlike his half brothers, Dionysus did not remain a mere hero although he never truly became an Olympian god.

3§14 More frequently than any other god, Dionysus spent his time walking the earth amongst mortals and looking indistinguishably mortal himself. Dionysus often appeared as a mortal, especially in literature,[36] mistaken by his unfortunate victims as a noble brat, a nefarious scoundrel, or an exotic magician. Herodotus too, although he doesn’t directly question Dionysus’ godliness, brings up a stark difference between Dionysus and his fellow Olympians. He writes of Dionysus’ inception, “Now the Dionysus who was called the son of Semele, daughter of Cadmus, was about sixteen hundred years before my time…”[37] There is no other god in the Olympian pantheon whose birth is given a date, or is even thought to be within recordable history. That aspect of Dionysus’ character, his propensity to be mistaken for a mortal man and thought about with the characteristics of a mortal man, is an essential element in classifying the powers he exhibits. As a god who appears as a man, travels instead of builds, and collects outsiders before kings, he uses power like any other god but his power looks much more like a sorcerer using magic.

3§15 Dionysus’ dichotomy of deification and mortality is the crux which divides his religious power from his magic.  This question, while not addressed during his religious ceremony was clearly alive enough in the minds of the Greeks to weave its way into virtual every myth Dionysus is involved in. Mythologically, Dionysus’ obsession was proving his divinity. When captured by pirates in the Homeric Hymn, he is confused by all but one to be a rich youth. Pentheus, in The Bacchae, sees him as nothing more than an uppity magician wreaking havoc. At the end of each, Dionysus unequivocally proves his divinity. In the Homeric Hymn, he floods the ship with wine, wraps the mast in ivy and as the terrified pirates leap into the water, turned them into dolphins. Only the helmsman who believed he was a god is left unharmed.[38] The Bacchae’s Pentheus is duped by the “sorcerer” Dionysus into dressing up as a woman to ambush the dancing maenads. Upon discovering him, the maenads which include Pentheus’ mother, tear him limb from limb, just as Dionysus had planned for the man who questioned his divine power.[39]

3§16 The distinction between human and god is important because a magician is a mortal human and a god is immortal.  No other god in the Greek pantheon is accidentally mistaken for a mortal, while they may occasionally disguise themselves as a mortal, they are capable of revealing themselves at any moment, their divinity is never really in question. In the Homeric Hymns, Demeter, grieving the loss of her daughter Persephone, banishes herself from the gods and hides among the Eleusinians in the guise of an old woman, a disguise which is unquestioned until she effortlessly reveals herself. [40] Dionysus, however, is perpetually caught in between mortal and divine. He heads a cult, is imbued with a clearly godlike power, but cannot be easily distinguished as a god, a trait not shared by any other Olympian. In this aspect, as a god so much stranger than other gods, he is a god appearing as a magician. Dionysus’ foreign appearance creates a façade surrounding him that does not surround any other god. He is simultaneously foreign and Greek, strange and familiar, god and magician.

4. Marginalized Followers

4§1 Characteristics of Dionysus’ cult and rituals also add to his image as a sorcerer. When Dionysus travels, he brings with him a cadre of followers, foreigners who have traveled with him from their homelands, and the maenads, the wild women. And when he first enters a town, and begins to spread his wild ecstasies. His first worshipers are women, abandoning their looms in favor of revelry, and slaves dancing through the streets. To a Greek mentality sharply focused on the highest echelons of society wherein gods speak to wealthy priests and give commands to hero princes, this not at all the actions a god ought to be taking.

4§2 A particularly potent aspect of Greek magic was its presence in the fringes of society, which were most drastically divided from official state religion. This was, in fact, one of the most important distinctions between what was considered magic and religion. One of the most defining features dividing magic and religion in Classical Greece was the social class from which the practitioner came. [41]

4§3 P. G. Maxwell-Stuart, a research fellow in the University of Aberdeen’s History Department, argues that one should be cautioned against interpreting the social class division between magic and religion as the cause of the marginalization of magicians and their craft.[42] In making his distinction, it is not to say that curses and spells weren’t used by the upper echelons of society, they were. But rather that his harnessing of power amongst the lower classes had a negative connotation. Maxwell-Stuart argues that the social class and marginalization of the practitioners of magic caused their craft to be perceived as magic rather than religion.[43] He states that those who were practitioners of the predominant religion, not considered magic, were generally also the cultural elite.[44] In different hands the same ritual may have been viewed differently, but because it was being practiced by the elite, it was viewed as religion, and not deemed dangerous.

4§4 What the Greeks classified as magic was almost exclusively performed by those on the outskirts of society: the poor, foreigners, and women. Magic and religion could be nearly identical; the perceived division between safe religion and dangerous magic came from the social class of the practitioner.[45]

4§5 The trial of Apuleius in Sabratha for a harmful use of magic, illustrates the Greeks’ heavy reliance on social order in their perception. The information from the trial comes to us through Apologia or De Magia, a record of the defense Apuleius wrote for himself upon being charged of being a magician by Aemelianus.[46] In the case, a primary piece of evidence given to support the charge is Apuleius’ recent marriage to the much older and much wealthier Pudentialla, whose decision to marry the philosopher was could only be explained by magic and trickery by Aemelianus.[47] It is clear that, although some may have legitimately believed that Apuleius had performed erotic magic, the real crime at hand was the defiance of the social hierarchy. It was impossible for the elite of the city to tolerate that they had been bested by a poor scholar. This was very commonly the distinguishing feature of magic; it was simply a source of supernatural power not appreciated by the highest social order. These are lines that Dionysus flirts with, crosses, and repairs in equal measure.

4§6 The Greeks’ mistrust of their own fringes of society added mystique to Dionysus’ powers. Dionysus is unique amongst the Olympian gods in both the makeup of his followers and the structure of his worship. Most of the Greek gods had a worship led by official priests and funded by high ranking nobility. Those religions are founded upon a strict adherence to a rigid social order, maintaining social hierarchy often being the most important aspect of their worship. Dionysus defies these conventions. His primary worshipers were women, travelers, foreigners, the weak, and the outcast. But when he calls for worship he enlists everyone. When he slips into Thebes in The Bacchae, old King Cadmus joins the women in riotous dance.[48] Slaves revel beside lords, women alongside men.

4§7 Dionysus was a god of outsiders. Although he was worshiped by every level of society, a particularly important part of his cult, he was always adopted first and most ardently by those on the bottom of the Greek social hierarchy. This factor, more than any other element of Dionysus’ character, cult, or ritual helped to create an aura of the magical.

4§8 In fact, the Greek upperclassmen of literature see him directly as a sorcerer. Pentheus, king of Thebes and Dionysus’ own cousin says of him, “And they say that some stranger has come, a sorcerer, a conjuror from the Lydian land…”[49] In this line from The Bacchae, Dionysus so resembles a magician that he was even mistaken for one. It is not a strange assumption either. He traveled with foreigners and his primary followers were women, two groups with very little social power in Greek society.

4§9 An important part of Dionysus’ rituals was the enactment of the maenads’ frenzy which, while much tamer than that of myth, represented the breaking of hierarchical bonds. Mythologically and in literature, the maenads were crazed women who, like Pentheus’ mother in The Bacchae, danced ravenously and furiously ripped animals apart with their bare hands.[50] Historical women, on the other hand, journeyed to the hills in organized groups for their dances, which never included wearing snakes on their heads or accidentally ripping their sons apart. In Dionysus’ cult, this enactment was kept alive as a part of his mysteries. The Dionysian Mysteries was a sect of religious adherents whose celebrations were kept fiercely secret. Joining them required a long and arduous rite of initiation, which, by its very nature, was exclusive.[51]

4§10 Dionysus’ cult also included the spreading of his worship to all levels of the Greek populous. While, especially in literature, this always started with the lowest social castes, his revelry would eventually include everyone in the polis. This was also an integral part of the historical rituals. The Dionysia, Athens’ great festival to Dionysus, was a celebration for all of Athens. It was a celebration where all citizens would participate. Dionysus’ rituals united the people of the polis into a single, indefinable group, breaking down the hierarchy separating Greek social classes. At the same time, his cult clearly separated the group of initiates who knew the mysteries. And while his mysteries and cult were largely accepted by the Greek nobility, there were other such cults who did not meet with such a welcome.

4§11 Dionysus’ cult and followers very closely resemble other cults which were persecuted across Greece. Dionysus has, of course, a well established cult which even those at the very peak of the Greek hierarchy worshiped. But Dionysus’ cult, like many of his other characteristics, does not quite resemble the worship of the other Greek gods. That doesn’t mean that Dionysus’ cult was entirely unique; in fact, it very closely resembled the cults of a number of other gods, they just weren’t Greek.

4§12 About the time when The Bacchae was performed in the early fifth century BCE, Athens also played host to a number of other cults similar to Dionysus’.[52] The cults of the foreign Cybele, Sabazios, and Adonis had much in common with those of Dionysus. All of them centered on a secret cult inhabited primarily of women and the marginalized and all of them purported equality and the destruction of social divisions.[53]

4§13 In the fourth century BCE, a woman, the courtesan Phryne, was prosecuted for forming a secret group of both men and women for the worship of a new god called Isodaites, [54] or “Equal Divider in the Feast.”[55]  When Phyrene was put on trial, it quickly became evident that she would be found guilty. Knowing she would be executed if found guilty, her lawyer and possibly lover, stripped her of her robe before the court, revealing to the Athenian judges her naked body. They were so awed and mystified by her beauty; they declared her a priestess of Aphrodite and found her innocent.[56]

4§14 This arrest is particularly important in the division between magic and religion. Often the only thing that really separated the two in the mind of a Greek was its social acceptance. It would therefore not be a stretch for a Greek to call the worship of this new god magic. Unlike the publicly accepted religion, whatever Phryne and her cohorts were doing was clearly interpreted as less than religion, although they were worshiping a god. Phryne’s god was a deity whose worship was considered magic. Like Dionysus, Isodaites destroyed social order and, for spreading a religion found dangerous to the established hierarchy, she was committing a capital offence. Only her recognition as a member of the social order, a priestess of an established Greek goddess, saved her life.

4§15 Dionysus was not so different, according to Richard Seaford, a professor of Classics and Ancient History at England’s University of Exeter. The key difference Dionysus espoused was his acceptance by the upper echelons of Greek society.[57] According to Seaford, their acceptance relied entirely on their perception that Dionysus’ inversion of social order was a temporary state. The nobility feared any god who gave power to the powerless; they believed this would upend the state. Dionysus, although dangerous and magical because he gave the marginalized that power, was accepted by the official hierarchy because he would just as soon take that power away. Thus, although Dionysus was accepted by the Greeks and seen as a god, which makes his powers technically religious, the prominence of his cult among the marginalized adds to his similarity to a magician.

5. Conclusion

5§1 Dionysus falls in line with three aspects of Greek culture which, to the Greeks themselves, would have appeared to be the most magical. Dionysus’ relics were a part of the ancient Minoan religion, he had a persona as an apparently foreign god who never stopped traveling, and a strong portion of his most devoted followers came from the margins of Greek society. Greek magic, as it was perceived by the Greeks, also came from a combination of these three characteristics: ancient origins, foreign ties, and marginalized practitioners. These three major aspects of Greek magic, that so well overlap with three of Dionysus’ most important traits, create for Dionysus the appearance of being more magician than god.

5§2 As may be the case for Circe and Medea of literature, Dionysus was passed down to the Greeks of the Classical Age from the much more ancient Minoan Age. Although it is not possible to say with certainty that this was the path taken by Circe and Medea, there is substantial evidence for Dionysus. The discovery of tablets written in the Mycenaean script, Linear B, show him to not only be originally a Greek god, but a god even older than the Olympian pantheon.

5§3 Ancient religions were, as is common even today, misunderstood and poorly remembered in great detail. Often their nuances were lost to history and what remained was a shallow husk of a once complicated religion. This was often taken to be magic and invoked as such. Dionysus frequently exhibits power which looks quite like what was overtly called magic in other people. Like the witches Medea and Circe, Dionysus’ magic comes from the earth. Theirs comes in the form of herbs and spells, while his comes from creeping vines and animal transformations.

5§4 Almost counterintuitive to his archaic roots, Dionysus’ foreign, imported appearance also helped to create the aura of magic that did not exist in other Olympian gods. It was a common practice of the Greeks to take misunderstood pieces of foreign religions, strip them of their complexity, and use them as magic. The Greeks gave this treatment to a number of other religions which, if you look at them as practiced by their original culture, they are without doubt truly religion above magic. Having the nuances of his religion being lost in transition from one culture to the next is not, of course, what historically happened to Dionysus, being of Greek origin.  However, Dionysus was perceived as having a foreign, or at least, strange, persona. This foreign persona would lend an air of magic to his godly powers in the eyes of a Greek.

5§5 Throughout literature and mythology, Dionysus is perpetually a traveling god. Having spent his youth coming to age in a foreign land, he spends his adult life walking amongst the Greek mortals, spreading his new religion. During this time he is consistently mistaken for a mortal himself, even being called a magician outright.[58]

5§6 Finally adding to his magical mystique, Dionysus was worshiped by those on the fringes of Greek society, another quality of Dionysus which, to an ancient Greek, would lend itself to magic over religion. An important quality used to separate Greek religion from Greek magic is to look at the social status of the user. In the highly hierarchical Greek society, it was possible for two people of different social standing to do nearly the same things and yet have them regarded as very different.

5§7 What was official religion in Greek society, and therefore given the most acceptance amongst the populous, was the religion practiced by those of high social standing. As seen in witch trials until the seventeenth century, what was determined to be magic was often the perception that a person or group on the fringe of a society had gained a measure of power, usually supernatural. For the Greeks, this was foreigners and non-citizens, women, and slaves. And these were the demographics who most quickly adopted Dionysus.

5§8 Dionysus, appearing very much like a magician, used his power to destroy the Greek social order. Unlike other gods, particularly Apollo, who sought to use their power to strengthen and enforce Greece’s fierce hierarchy, the entire point of Dionysus’ literary and historic festivals were to, albeit temporarily, reverse social order.

5§9 Dionysus was an ancient god who looked foreign and attracted Greece’s marginalized. Magic too, operated with these characteristics. Dionysus’ incredible overlap with the very things that made magic magic, created a god who, although his divinity is never questioned, looks far more like a magician than a god.


[1] All translations are provided by the Loeb Classical Library, unless otherwise noted

[2] Dieter Betz 1992:xli.

[3] Pearcy 1988:377–391.

[4] Luck 1985:5.

[5] Luck 1985:5.

[6] Nock 1925:174.

[7] Dodds 1986:xx–xxi.

[8] Dodds 1986:xi.

[9] Euripides Bacchae 220.

[10] Eisner 1972:127.

[11] Seaford 2006:15.

[12] Diodorus Siculus 4.4.1.

[13] Diodorus Siculus 4.4.1.

[14] Eisner 1972:126.

[15] Luck 1985:5.

[16] Homer Odyssey 10.208.

[17] Murray 1906:42.

[18] Luck 1985:5.

[19] Buckley 1850:23–25.

[20] Dieter Betz 1992:xlvi.

[21] Luck 1991:115.

[22] Luck 1991:115.

[23] Betz 1992.

[24] Luck 1985:26–27.

[25] Luck 1985:6.

[26] Luck 1985:6.

[27] Sir Ridley 1905:6.447–451.

[28] Seaford 2006:18.

[29] Burkert 1985:238.

[30] Burkert 1985:238.

[31] Burkert 1985:238.

[32] Detienne 1989:9.

[33] Detienne 1989:9.

[34] Taylor 2000:45.

[35] Homeric Hymn Hymn to Dionysus 1.1.

[36] Buckley 1850:7.

[37] Herodotus The Histories 2.145.

[38] Homeric Hymn Hymn to Dionysus 7.35–55.

[39] Buckley 1850:1045-1150.

[40] Homeric Hymn Hymn to Demeter 2.90–115, 275–280.

[41] Maxwell-Stuart 2004:14.

[42] Maxwell-Stuart 2004:14.

[43] Maxwell-Stuart 2004:14.

[44] Maxwell-Stuart 2004:14.

[45] Maxwell-Stuart 2004:14.

[46] Butler 1909:2.2.

[47] Butler 1909:27.9–12.

[48] Buckley 1850:187–188.

[49] Buckley 1850:234.

[50] Buckley 1850:1045–1150.

[51] Burkert 1985:260–264.

[52] Seaford 2006:35.

[53] Seaford 2006:36.

[54] Seaford 2006:36.

[55] Seaford 2006:36.

[56] Gulick 1927:590-591.

[57] Seaford 2006:36.

[58] Buckley 1850:234.


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