Dionysian Mysteries

The Dionysian Mysteries largely remain just that, a mystery. The secrecy surrounding them has been even more successful than that around the Rites of Eleusis, with whom they probably had some similarities, at least in their Classical Greek manifestation, though they were it seems far older.

Fortunately we do have some clues to their nature, and historical snapshots of some of their rites, which will be outlined below. But first it will be useful to examine the likely evolution of the Cult of Dionysos from its primitive beginnings to its more "sophisticated" instantiations in Athens and Rome.


The Bacchae (Maenads) killing Pentheus after he banned the worship of Dionysus. Among these Bachae the mother of Pentheus. Casa dei Vettii, Pompeii.

A Brief History of the Dionysos Cult

The original Rite of Dionysos is almost universally held to have been a "wine cult", concerned with the cultivation of the grapevine, and a practical, understanding of its life cycle - embodying the living god - the creation and fermentation of wine - the dead god in the underworld - and the intoxicating and disinhibiting effects of the drink itself, believed to be a possession by the god’s spirit. In the first instance the cult was not only concerned with the lore of the vine alone, but equally with all the other components of wine. It should not be forgotten that wine once more commonly included many other ingredients, herbal, floral and resinous, adding to the quality, flavour and medicinal properties of the drink. The cultivation of all these also originally came under the lore of Dionysos, making it a general vegetation cult and herbal school. Honey and bees wax were also often added to early wine, bringing with them the associations of the even older mead lore and Neolythic bee cults (whose swarms were often associated with Dionysos as pure "life-force"). Later beer, plus grain/corn, cults were also incorporated into the domain of Dionysos, particularly via his partial assimilation of the Thracian deity Sabazius. Other plants believed to be viniculturally significant were also included in the cults retinue. Thus were added ivy, once thought to negate the effects of drunkenness, and to be the opposite of the grapevine, blooming in winter rather than summer, the vine of death as opposed to the vine of life; the fig, thought to be a purgative of toxins, and the pine, a wine preservative, taken from the evergreen. Similarly the bull, from whose hollowed horns wine was once drunk, and the goat, who provided wineskins and was the natural pruner of the vine, were also included as cult animals and manifestations of Dionysos. The predators or enemies of these were equally sacred, idealised as the panther and the poisonous snake (but see also Sabazius for serpents). Naturally the mythos already associated with these elements would also accrue to Dionysos, if not already there from the start. An understanding of both the practical realities of these processes, and their wider metaphorical significance, is crucial to any attempted understanding of the later primarily symbolic Mysteries of Dionysos, with their atavistic, life-death cycles.

The place of origin of the Hellenic Dionysian Mysteries is unknown, but they almost certainly first came to Greece with the importation of wine, which is widely believed to have originated, in the West, around 6000 BC in one of two places, either in the Zagros Mountains (the borderlands of Mesopotamia and Persia, both with their own rich wine culture since then) or from the ancient wild vines on the mountain slopes of Libya / North Africa (the source of early Egyptian wine from around 2500 BC, and home of many ecstatic rites), quite probably from both. Whatever the case it appears Minoan Crete was the next link in the chain, taking wine from both the Egyptians and Phoenicians and passing it on to the Greeks by 1600 BC, who would spread it throughout their colonies. Wine probably also entered Greece over land from Asia Minor. But it was most likely in Minoan Crete that the eclectic ‘wine cult’, that would become the Dionysian Mysteries, first emerged. Gradually evolving over the centuries, absorbing more mythic material wherever it was adopted. The Dionysos Mysteries would remain powerfully syncretic, absorbing the suppressed primeval cults of all the lands they touched. It would be the Greeks who were left with the task of making sense of the eclectic mix that reached them, and of integrating it into their own mythos with their inventive tales of the journeys and adventures of Dionysos.

The basic principle beneath the original initiations, other than the seasonal death-rebirth theme supposedly common to all vegetation cults (such as the Osirian, which closely parallels the Dionysian), was one of spirit possession and atavism. This in turn was closely associated with the effects of the wine. The spirit possession involved the invocation of spirits by means of the bull roarer, followed by communal dancing to drum and pipe, with characteristic movements (such as the backward head flick) found in all trance inducing cults (represented most famously today by African Voodoo and its relatives). As in Vodoun rites, certain drum rhythms were associated with the trance state, and these rhythms are allegedly found preserved in Greek prose, particularly the Bacchae of Euripides. One classical source describes what had become of these ancient rites in the Greek countryside, where they were held high in the mountains to which ritual processions were made on certain feast days:

"Following the torches as they dipped and swayed in the darkness, they climbed mountain paths with head thrown back and eyes glazed, dancing to the beat of the drum which stirred their blood…. In the state of ekstasis or enqousiasmos, they abandoned themselves, dancing wildly…. and calling 'Euoi!' At that moment of intense rapture they became identified with the god himself…. They became filled with his spirit and acquired divine powers". Peter Hoyle, Delphi (London: 1967), p. 76.

Unlike many trance cults however, the Dionysian rites were primarily atavistic, that is the participant was possessed by animal spirits and bestial entities, rather than intelligible divinities, and may even "transform into animals". A practise preserved by the rite of the "goat and panther men" of the "heretical" Aissaoua Sufi cult of North Africa, and remembered in the satyrs and sileni of the Dionysian procession, and perhaps even the "bull man", or Minotaur, of the chthonic Minoan labyrinth. But the most desired possession was that by Dionysos himself, or his consort Ariadne, though given the primal nature of these deities this is hardly discernable beyond the degree of power manifest. This practise is represented in Greek culture by the famous Bacchanals of the Maenads, Thyiades and Bacchoi. Dionysos in this bestial manifestation is believed to preserve the archaic archetype of the "Lord of the Animals" or the "Horned Hunter", and to a certain extent also the ambiguous "Trickster" archetype. In fact his ‘religion’ tended to absorb the remnants of these archetypes from the local culture wherever it was adopted (usually into Dionysos himself, or else, if still strongly established, as a mythic accomplice, such as his favoured companion the Arcadian Pan, or the ancient Silenus). Likewise the primeval and chthonic goddesses would become associated with Ariadne, or his mother Persephone / Semele. This ritualised atavism was also associated with a ‘descent into the underworld’ of which Dionysos was lord (‘Hades and Dionysos are one and the same’, declared Heraclitus).

The purpose of this atavism is controversial, some see it simply as a Greek saturnalian catharsis, a ritualised release of repressed elements of civilised psychology, and temporary inversion, in order to preserve it, others see it as a return to the "chaotic" sources of being and essentially a reaction against civilisation, while yet others regard it as a magical connection with chthonic powers. It is likely all of these applied in different manifestations of the cult. Like wine, Dionysos had a different flavour in different regions, reflecting their mythical and cultural soil, or "Terroir", and appeared under different names in neighbouring countries (or so claimed the Greeks).

The fact that these effects were attributed in part to Greek wines, that were barely 15% proof, has led many, including Robert Graves, to conclude some of its additives were of an hallucinogenic nature. This is certainly supported by suggestions of a "magic potion" associated with the Dionysos rites, said to include poison ivy, and by the known use of datura, henbane and belladona by shamans in this region, as well as the alleged use of "kykeon" (probably ergot ale), and possibly fly agaric mushrooms, within the Greek Eleusinian Mysteries. Dionysos was most probably regarded as the patron of all consciousness altering substances in Roman times, and potion making paraphenalia have been found in the ruins of Bacchic temples (with the potions, and "poisons", of the Bacchants also featuring in Roman smear campaigns against them). The sacraments used probably varied with the intentions of the Mysteries at any one time, but remained central to all but the most domesticated of the Bacchic sects, as did the associated shamanic idea of stepping outside of an ordered world into something more fundamental.

This primitive Dionysianism survived well into late classical times times on remote Greek islands, and in the wilds of Thrace and Macedonia, but elsewhere was soon adapted to a more "civilised" culture. A spectrum of such sects was to be found across the Greek world, but the height of domesticated kind was to be found at Athens, where atavistic possession became dramatic masked ritual within the Bacchic Thiasos (Greek coven or lodge), seeding the emergence of acting and theatre in the West (crafts also sacred to Dionysos, particularly at the great tragedy and comedy competitions in ancient Athens. From Tragedos, 'Goat Song', Death? And from Komos, 'Revelry'). The ethos of the rites also seems to have become slightly less atavistic and more liberative and sensual in Classical Greece, and a place where the repressions and inequalities of civilised culture could be evaded, albeit temporarily. Thus many of its initiates tended to be women or slaves, the most repressed classes in Greek society, from whom its "leadership" was often drawn, in a typical inversion of normal society. This inversion in fact became a theme of the Dionysian Mysteries, and the Thiasos a place where even kings and rulers could throw off the pressures of rule and convention, and live in carefree, natural equality with commoners for a while. Thus the Mysteries of Dionysos would be adopted by figures as diverse as Alexander the Great, popular monarchs such as Mark Anthony, and rebellious slaves such as Spartacus, all of whom were initiated, and all of whom considered themselves embodiments of Dionysos, interpreting his "liberation" in different ways. But perhaps the most famous of all initiates were the anonymous Maenads, or "wild women", who led the orgiastic rites of Dionysos and became possessed by his frenzy, or the more sensual Thyiades, who raved in the hills. While relatively tamed on the mainland by late Classical times, there still seem to have been outbreaks (or rumours of outbreaks) of primal Dionysianism in Greece, often associated with "foreign influences", the cult itself being seen as originating outside Greek civilisation. These outbreaks were both feared as potentially socially disruptive and envied with great fascination, one such incident inspiring the Euripides' play, the Bacchae.

The Hellenic world, after Alexander’s conquest, spread the cult of Dionysos internationally, to Egyptian Alexandria, where he was associated with Osiris (eventually merging with him as Serapis); to Palestine, where he was associated with the Baals, and even the Adonai of the Jews (who had Dionysos imposed on them by the Hellenes); and most far flung of all, to India, where he became associated with Shiva. These various connections all fed back to the Aegean, where the cult became increasingly complex and cosmopolitan. This would also led to a breakaway mystical form of Dionysianism that would become part of the more philosophical Orphic and Pythagorean Mysteries (where Dionysos was effectively seen as the creative Primal Chaos before creation, beyond all manifest duality, as well as the paradoxical, dynamic balancing force still active within it, the ‘King of the World’, whose final liberation included not only that from orderly civilisation but from the natural world itself!), a move in sharp contrast with the earthy and irrational primitive rite of Dionysos, that in some places still existed alongside it (reflecting a similar pattern to the evolution of Shivaic cults). A complex evolution still not fully understood.

The evolution of the Dionysian Cult continued in the Roman Empire, where the Bacchic Mysteries, as they were known here after their arrival in 200 BC, were banned for a time in Rome and forced underground, following rumours of their "corrupt" and "subversive" behaviour (In 186 B.C. the Roman senate had sought to ban the Dionysian rites throughout the Empire, and restricted their gatherings to no more than 13 people, but was never fully successful. They were revived under Julius Caesar around 50 BC, and remained in existence, along with the Bacchanalian street procession, at least until the time of Augustine (A.D. 354-430)) Those Bacchic cults that survived into late Roman times are often considered degenerate forms, tending to be either rites of empty public theatre, or private excuses for orgies and drunkenness, but it now appears a few low profile Thiasoi did remain, particularly in Southern Italy. It is not surprising that early Christians should thus equate Bacchus and his company with the Devil (despite adopting quite a few of his cult trappings themselves, most obviously the wine communion). The purest survival of the Bacchic cult is perhaps the Lent Carnival which survives in Latin countries even today.

Today people often claim the precursors of Christianity, Devil Worship and Witch Covens in the Rites of Dionysos, with probably both a little justification and much imagination.

The Mystery Rites

The Dionysian Mysteries are believed to have consisted of two sets of rites, the outer public rites, or Dionysia, and the secret rites of initiation, presumably into the Inner Mysteries, that occurred during these Dionysia. The public rites are generally held to be the most ancient, while the private initiations are of a typical Greek kind, though their origin is uncertain, with some, such as Carl Kerenyi, suggesting they were first devised in Minoan Crete.

The Public Rites

In Athens and the Attica of the Classical period the main festivities were held in the month of Elaphebolion (around the time of the Spring Equinox) where the Greater, or City, Dionysia had evolved into a great drama festival (Dionysos having become the god of acting, music and poetic inspiration for the Athenians), as well as an urban carnival or Komos. Its older precursor had been demoted to the Lesser, or Rural, Dionysia, but preserved more ancient customs centred on the festival of the first wine. This festival was timed to coincide with the "clearing of the wine", a final stage in the fermentation process occurring in the first cold snap after the Winter Solstice, when it was declared Dionysos was reborn. This was later formalised to January 6th (now Epiphany), a day on which water turned to wine under Bacchic influence. The festivals of this time were much wilder too, as were the festivities of the grape harvest, and carnivalesque processions from the vineyards to the wine press, which had occurred earlier in the autumn. It was at these times that initiations into the Mysteries were usually held.

Dionysos was also revered at Delphi, where he presided over the oracle for three winter months, beginning in November, with the rising of the Pleiades, while Apollo was away "visiting the Hyperboreans". At this time a rite of known as the "Dance of the Fiery Stars" was performed, of which little is known, but appears to have been appropriation of the dead, which was continued in Christian countries as All Souls Day on November 2nd . In sharp contrast to the daytime festivities of the Athenian Dionysia were the biennial nocturnal rites of the Tristeria, held on Mount Parnassus in the Winter. These celebrated the ‘emergence of Dionysos from the underworld’ with wild orgies in the mountains. The first day of which was presided over by the Maenads in their state of Mainomenos, or ‘madness’, in which an extreme atavistic state was achieved, in which animals were hunted (and in some lurid tales, even human beings) and torn apart with bare hands and eaten raw (the famous Sparagmos, said to have originally been a goat sacrifice, marking the harvesting and trampling of the vine). The second day saw the ‘Bacchic Nymphs’ in their Thyiadic, or raving, state, a more sensual and benign Bacchanal assisted by ‘satyrs’, though equally orgiastic. The mythographers of Attica would explain this with claims that the Maenads, or ‘wild women’, were the resisters of the Bacchic call, sent mad, while the Thyiades, or ‘ravers’, had accepted the Dionysiac ecstasy more naturally and kept their sanity. This has some plausibility in terms of psychological repression, though some Modern commentators have suggested that this was in fact a transformative cathartic process, while the sceptics claim the Maenad stories may have been exaggerations to scare away the curious tourist! All these explanations may be partially true.

While the Athenians celebrated Dionysos at various festivals, including in the Eleusinian Mysteries, almost all year round, a far older tradition was the two year cycle, where for a whole year the death of Dionysos was mourned, as Dionysos Chthonios. Lord of the Underworld, followed by a second year in which his resurrection as Dionysos Bacchos, was celebrated at the Tristeria and other festivities (including one marked by the rising of Sirius). Why this unusual period was adopted is uncertain, though it may have reflected a long fermentation period. All the most ancient Dionysian rites reflected stages in the wine production process. It was only later that the Athenians and others synchronised the Bacchic festivities with the common agricultural seasons.

The first large scale cult worship of Dionysos in Greece seems to have begun in Thebes in around 1500 BC, around a thousand years before the development of the Athenian Mysteries. Here a cult worship of Dionysos and his mother Semele, a Moon goddess, was performed in the earliest Dionysian temples in Greece, usually located beyond the walls of the city in the swamps. Its rituals were probably similar to some of those ancient rites still held on Greek islands, like Keos and Tenedos, even in Classical time, but which dated to the Mycenaean period. Here the first wine was offered to Dionysos, and probably to the now regrowing vine, and a bull sacrificed to him with a Minoan double axe. There are indications that at one time the sacrificer of the bull was himself then stoned to death, though this became a mere symbolic act quite early on. Minoan figurines of bare breasted priestesses have also been found at these sites. The more economic practise of goat sacrifice seems to have been added to the Bacchic rites later, the goat like the bull being regarded as a manifestation of Dionysos, but also as the ‘killer of the vine’, due to its tendency to eat it (welcome in times of pruning, unwelcome in times of growth). The death of the goat thus combined the Dionysos sacrifice and the death of the sacrificer. It was usually torn apart, just as the vine had been at the harvest. Other archaic rites found on the Greek islands include festivals to his consort, Ariadne, which included the tree swinging game, said to date to a time when Ariadne hung herself from a tree.

Later Orphic versions of the Dionysos myth and ritual were more complex, involving the dismemberment of the young Dionysos by Titans and his reintegration and resurrection as a second Dionysos, with the assistance of Athena and Apollo. The myths and rites involved clearly reflecting the Osiris Mysteries, and the unifying cultural syncretism that characterised Orphism.

In Rome the Bacchanalia, essentially a milder form of the Tristeria, were held in secret and originally attended by women only, on three days in the year in the grove of Simila near the Aventine Hill, on March 16 and 17. Subsequently, admission to the rites were re-opened to men and celebrations took place five times a month. Initiation could take place at any of these times.

Within these public rituals were secret rites of initiation, the public festivals largely setting the ambience for these private rite, as A E Waite evocatively puts it:

"Whatsoever may have remained to represent the original intent of the rites, regarded as Rites of Initiation, the externalities and practice of the Festivals were orgies of wine and sex: there was every kind of drunkenness and every aberration of sex, the one leading up to the other. Over all reigned the Phallus, which -- in its symbolism a rebours -- represented post ejaculation the death-state of Bacchus, the god of pleasure, and his resurrection when it was in forma errecta. Of such was the sorrow and of such the joy of these Mysteries". (A E Waite, New Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry)

Whatever we make of Waite’s interesting interpretation, the phallus does appear to have been a connecting link between the outer and inner rites, not only was it prominent in the Bacchic carnival, in Rome carried by the Phallophoroi at the head of the procession, it also appears to have been the ‘secret object’ in the Liknon (the sacred basket) revealed only to initiates after their final initiation. Other possible contents being sacred fruit or leaves, or alternatively loafs, possibly of entheogenic qualities, with some scholars speculatively combining these possibilities in imaginative ways. Some sources suggest that the phallus used was made from pliable fig wood, while even older sources indicate it may have once been the phallus of the sacrificed goat. Indeed the contents probably changed over the centuries. The general idea is that the final stage of the initiation involves the revelation of the god either as a sacred plant or phallus or both.

The Initiation Rites

So what do we know of these secret rites and the initiations themselves? There were probably many forms of these, in different places and eras, certainly the mythos and public rituals of Dionysos varied in this way, as we have seen. Most of these were highly secret. But we can outline common themes that seem to have been important in urban areas in classical times.

Not surprisingly, we know more about the Roman Bacchic Mysteries than we do the early Dionysian Rites, but we can lean something of the later from the former. The simplest statement of the Roman Bacchic Mysteries is perhaps that made by Ovid in his Metamorphosis written around 1 AD:

"In the initiation, of the Bacchic Mysteries, the role of Bacchus is played by the candidate who, set upon by priests in the guise of the Titans, is slain and finally restored to life amidst great rejoicing. The Bacchic Mysteries were given every three years, and like the Eleusinian Mysteries, were divided into two degrees. The initiates were crowned with myrtle and ivy, plants which were sacred to Bacchus."

This quote reveals how just how influenced the Roman Bacchoi were by the Dionysos myths of Orphic Mysteries, with their Osirian dismemberment theme, but more generally reveal the basic pattern of the candidates taking on the role of Bacchus and enacting his life story. This probably reflected the original possession by the god, which was probably the basic initiation, and this may have still played a role at some stage even in the Bacchic Rites.

In all the depictions of the Dionysian Mysteries there seems first to have been a preparation of Liknon and other paraphernalia, followed by the dressing up of the candidate, usually in a purple robe and a crown of myrtle or ivy. The initiate then begins a journey.

Some Roman sources, related by G R S Mead, tell of a theatrical descent into Hades and a terrifying ‘Night Journey’ through its regions. This appears to have been a ritualised form the original chthonic descent, or katabasis, and atavistic experience, apparently carried out in actual caverns or catacombs. This process always seems to have been a part of the rites, and one form of it may be preserved in Aristophanes play, the Frogs (405 BC), which features the descent of Dionysos into Hades, with the assistance of it’s surreal chorus of amphibian guardians, and the advice of his ‘half-brother’ Hercules (who also appears in the iconography of the Mysteries). In these basic narratives someone or something is sought after and brought back (with varying degrees of success). This seems to have been a central feature of the Bacchic initiations, though some scholars think this aspect is overemphasised in Roman culture for dramatic effect. It may have originally also have been part of the presumed hallucinogenic aspects of the initiations.

Far more important in the Greek Mysteries appears to have been the assumption of the form of Dionysos and the experience of his death. This is undertaken by the initiate as the ‘Heros’, who takes on the role of the god in a masked play (or rehearsal) involving his death and resurrection. The death experience often involved being buried alive in a tomb (or later sometimes figurative dismemberment as we have seen), after enduring the ‘Night Journey’ into the deepest levels of the Underworld. The only known descriptions come from the more domesticated forms of the ritual and seem to involve little more than play acting. However though it is unknown what other older versions of the rite consisted of we can easily surmise the process.

The final stage seems the be the resurrection of Dionysos, which was attended with the entranced, orgiastic and joyous celebrations normally associated with the cult. It was at this stage that the ecstatic states of consciousness were reached, and the initiate was said to ‘stand outside of themselves’. Various methods seem to have been applied to reach this state of consciousness, all of which are familiar to students of shamanism.

The whole process here appears to have been one of a terrifying experience of death and horror, suddenly replaced by its opposite, magnified in contrast. Some descriptions seem to indicate a continual oscillation between these chthonic and elated states, in an accelerating cycle building up to a climax, a powerful psychological technique well known to the crafts of music and theatre. This pattern was also found in the Greek theatre, where tragic dramas always preceded comedies, to the same effect.

Other techniques included the raising of ‘energy’ through spiral or whirling dances, and other methods for manipulating human consciousness and what some today call ‘life force’. This area being where much of the secrecy seems to lie.

At the end of this process the initiate is usually said to have become a Bacchus, or Dionysos, and shown the contents of the Liknon and presented with the thyrsos wand, thus joining the ranks of the initiated Bacchoi. Subjectively the desired experience at the end of this process is suggested to be a consciousness of a ‘Dionysian reality’ both within and without. A feeling of oneness with nature, experiencing it fully in all its intensity, both light and dark, along with a total egoless union with the other initiates present, all within a collective entity identified as Dionysos, along with a parallel feeling of total liberation, the removal of all ‘masks’, and the realisation of one’s own inner divinity, also identified as Dionysos. The observant may see some parallels with Christianity here, particularly as a shared meal and wine communion is often described as being part of the rite, however the ethos involved is quite different, and the state of mind achieved would probably shock the most liberal of Christians, being at one as much with the ferocity and wildness of nature as its joyous aspects. Much practise and ritual is usually said to be involved before the full effects are experienced however, and the initiate go through this process many times before truly enlightened, if ever. ‘The thyrsos bearers are many, but the Bacchoi are few’, they say. Just as it is claimed that only a few Thiasoi practise the true Mysteries. The whole process is sometimes regarded as a ‘fermentation’, in a way that prefigures Hermetic alchemy.

Beyond this the Dionysian rites held in public, as perhaps the origins of the initiations, probably had their private version which the initiate experienced.

The above description applies principally to male initiates, but as we have seen many, if not most, of the celebrants of the classical Dionysian Mysteries were actually women. Their initiation rites are just as mysterious, but no doubt had the same goal and much of the same form as above. The primary difference appears to have been their identification with Ariadne and ritual marriage to Dionysos, though a direct possession by him is also ultimately achieved, whether real or theatrical. Fortunately we do have more insight into this process through the preserved murals on the Bacchic ‘Villa of the Mysteries’ in Pompeii.

Here a series of murals painted on the walls of an initiation chamber have been almost perfectly preserved, though there remains controversy as to whether the entire process is shown.

The first mural shows a noble Roman woman approaching a ‘priestess’ seated on a throne, by which stands a small boy reading a scroll. This is presumably the declaration of the initiation. On the other side of the throne the initiate is shown again, in a purple robe and myrtle crown, holding a sprig of laurel, and a tray of cakes. She appears to have been transformed into a serving girl.

The second mural depicts another ‘priestess’ and her assistants preparing the Liknon basket, at her feet are mysterious mushroom shaped objects, which some find suggestive. To one side a sileni (man-horse) is creating a musical ambience on a lyre.

The third mural shows a satyr playing the panpipes and a nymph suckling a goat in an Arcadian scene. To their right the initiate is shown in a state of panic. This is the last time we see her when she appears again she has undergone a change that is not shown. Some scholars think a katabasis occurs now, others disagree.

In the direction in which she stares in horror another mural shows a satyr being offered a bowl of something (perhaps wine) by a Silenus, while behind him another satyr holds up a bestial mask, which the drinking satyr seems to see reflected in the bowl. Next to them sits an enthroned goddess with Bacchus lying across her.

The next mural sees the initiate returning, perhaps from a successful ordeal, she now carries a staff and wears a cap. She kneels before the priestess and then appears to be whipped by a winged female figure. Flagellation being one of the many trance inducing techniques used in the Bacchic rites. Next to her is a dancing figure, a Maenad or Thyiade.

In her penultimate appearance we see her being prepared with new clothes, while an eros holds up a mirror to her.

Finally she is shown enthroned and in a wedding costume. The last mural after this is merely an image of Eros.

The usual interpretation given to this is of an initiation which strips away the old self of the initiate, reveals a deeper nature within her, and then prepares her for a ritual marriage, and perhaps congress, with Dionysos Bacchus. In this last phase she appears to be entranced and so perhaps experiences a Dionysiac possession at the climax of the rite, as appears to occur in the male mysteries.

This is all we know of the Dionysian rites of initiation.

The Temple and its Priests

The sacred loci of the Dionysian Mysteries have varied over time and place, just like the rites themselves. The earliest rites took place in the wilderness - in the forests or woods, the marshes, or high in the mountains. Later ‘priests’ would simply cast their stave into the ground, at any rural location, and hang a mask, and perhaps an animal skin, from it, then the circle drawn around this centre became the sacred precinct for however long the stave remained. This practise soon became archaic, but was revived by the nomadic healers of the Orphic Mysteries. In Classical time dedicated temples were built for Dionysos, the earliest being circular buildings open to the sky (the origin of Greek theatres and forums). The Lenos, or the building that contained the wine press, also became a temple to Bacchus, and was often solely used as such. Underground chambers were often used for initiations, which may have originally taken place in natural caves, particularly those by the shoreline (boundary zones being sacred to Dionysos). In the final days of the cult any temple could be dedicated to Dionysos.

Most Mystery Religions had a hierarchy of priests maintaining them, but it is uncertain if this was the case with the Dionysian Mysteries. The Orphic texts of the late period record a boukolos, or ‘cowherd’, as an offerer of sacrifice, sayer of prayers and a hymn singer, who was the nearest thing they had to a priest. Other inscriptions record an archiboukolos, or ‘chief cowherd’ presiding over these boukoloi, and in some records there is also mention of boukoloi hieroi, ‘holy cowherders’ and hymnodidaskaloi, ‘hymn teachers’. While according to Athenian sources, where the Dionysos cult was State controlled, over all of these was a high priest, or Hierophant, as well as a high priestess, later refered to in Rome as the Matrona, who had two assistant priestesses. One late text even describes a complex hierarchy of three archiboukoloi, seven boukoloi hieroi and eleven boukoloi. The personal names of many of the senior priests and priestesses reveal them to be aristocrats, though the high priest in at least one text has the name of a slave (perhaps indicating the supposed equality within the cult, where slaves and masters were encouraged to exchange roles). Curiously there is no evidence of such a complex hierarchy in the Bacchic Mysteries of Rome, which seem to have been simply presided over by a Domina and Dominus, serving as a high priestess and priest, and so it is possible that only the Athenian form of the Mysteries had this fixed structure. The original Mysteries of Dionysos seem to have had no real hierarchy at all, as only ritual functionaries, such as the phallophoroi, are mentioned, the rest being participant bacchoi and thyiades or maenads. However a key role was always reserved for the Heros, and his ’bride’, who were possessed by the god, and initiates may have played hierophantic roles in this process. But the Heros himself was not the fixed role of any single member of the Thiasos, but rather was a role taken by a candidate undergoing initiation, ritual conductors, perhaps the original boukoloi, would have probably existed to coordinate the proceedings leading up to this.

Ritual Miscellanies

Dionysian Paraphernalia:

The Kantharos, a drinking cup with large handles, originally the Rhyton, a drinking horn (from a bull), and later a Kylix, or wine goblet; the Thyrsos, a long wand with a pine cone on top, carried by initiates, and those possessed by the god; the Stave, once cast into ground to mark ritual space; the Krater, or mixing bowl, the Flagellum, or scourge; the Minoan Double Axe, once used for sacrificial rites, later replaced by the Greek Kopis, or curved dagger; the Retis, the hunter’s net; the Laurel Crown and Cloak (purple robe, or leopard or fawn skin nebix); the Hunting Boots; the Persona or Masks; the Bull Roarer; the Salpinx, a long straight trumpet, the Pan Pipes, Tympanon, Bells and Drums; the Liknon, the sacred basket; with the Fig Wood Phallus; and the Arc, the vessel of the Arcana.

Traditional Offerings to Dionysos:

Musk, civet, frankincense, storax, ivy, grapes, pine, fig, wine, honey, apples, Indian hemp, orchis root, thistle, all wild and domestic trees, black diamonds

Animals Sacred to Dionysos:

The Bull and Goat, and their 'enemies' the Panther (or any big cat, after the Greeks colonised part of India Shiva's Tiger sometimes replaced traditional Panthers or Leopards) and the Serpent (probably largely from Sabazius, but also found in North African cults). Also the Fawn / Deer, the Fox, the Wolf, the Bear, the Dolphin, Bees and all Dragons.

An Invocation of Dionysos, from the Orphic Hymns

"I call upon loud-roaring and revelling Dionysos, primeval, double-natured, thrice-born, Bacchic lord, wild, ineffable, secretive, two-horned and two-shaped. Ivy-covered, bull-faced, warlike, howling, pure, You take raw flesh, you have feasts, wrapt in foliage, decked with grape clusters. Resourceful Eubouleus, immortal god sired by Zeus When he mated with Persephone in unspeakable union. Hearken to my voice, O blessed one, and with your fair-girdled nymphs breathe on me in a spirit of perfect agape."

"In intoxication, physical or spiritual, the initiate recovers an intensity of feeling which prudence had destroyed; he finds the world full of delight and beauty, and his imagination is suddenly liberated from the prison of everyday preoccupations. The Bacchic ritual produced what was called 'enthusiasm', which means etymologically having the god enter the worshipper, who believed that he became one with the god." (Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy)

Some primary texts on Dionysianism

  • Herodotus' The Histories 1.151; 2.29; 2.42; 2.47-50; 2.123; 3.8; 4.72; 4.78-80; 8.65
  • Homeric Hymn to Dionysos 1, 7, 26
  • Heraclitus' Logos 124; 127
  • Ovid's Metamorphoses 3.259-315; 3.513-4.41; 4.389-419; 5.329; 7.294-296; 8.176-182; 11.67-84; 11.89-145; 13.650-674
  • Plato's Laws 672b
  • Plato's The Republic 2.6-7
  • Sophocles' Erigone
  • Sophocles' Thyestes 234

Secondary texts

  • Carl Kerenyi, Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life , Bollingen; Reprint edition (September 16, 1996) ISBN: 0691029156
  • W F Otto, Dionysos, Myth and Cult, London 1965
  • Alain Danielou, Shiva and Dionysos, Paris 1979
  • Martin P. Nilsson, "The Bacchic Mysteries of the Roman Age", Harvard Theological Review 46 (October 1953): 175—85.
  • Andrew Dalby, "Bacchus, A Biography", The British Museum Press, London 2003


  • - Dionysian Notes
  • - An insightful take on Dionysos
  • - Greek Wine
  • - History of Wine
  • - Dionysian Mysteries and Entheogens
  • - Villa of Mysteries
  • - Names of Dionysos
  • - The Christian Perspepective
  • - An Elizabethan Revival?
  • - Traditionalist Neo-Dionysian Revivalism
  • - Counter Cultural Neo-Dionysian Revivalism

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