Recently I was asked a question about Dionysus and what weaknesses this god had. In this post I will create a short profile of Dionysus and address fatal flaws or “Achilles’ heel” for this god.
While pregnant, Semele, the mother of Dionysus, falls to her death when she gazes upon the unprotected vision of the father of her child, Zeus. To allow the unborn child to continue to grow, Zeus places the child in his thigh secured with a golden clamp. When it was time for the child to be born, Zeus opens the clamp and gives birth to the infant Dionysus, the “twice-born.”
To protect him from the wrath of Hera, the wife of Zeus, Dionysus is raised by nymphs and dressed as a girl. In adolescence, Dionysus discovers wine, rejects his feminine disguise and is found by Hera. At this point, Dionysus goes mad. The myth is rather vague whether his madness is from Hera’s vengeance, the onset of adolescence, or the wine. But, whatever the cause, he wanders across Greece, Egypt, and Syria in his madness.
In Phrygia, Cybele, the Great Mother goddess, cures Dionysus of his madness. This cure is also referred to in vague terms, but, because his sanity is restored, he begins a long voyage of conquest. And, it is this voyage of conquest that ultimately results in his being raised to the status of an Olympian god. Most beings who have one divine parent and one mortal parent belong to the category of “hero.” However, Dionysus rises above this denotation to be fully accepted as a member of the gods of Mt Olympus.
Most of the travails of Dionysus are in his quest to become recognized as a god. When this recognition is refused, the punishment Dionysus metes outs is madness and dismemberment. It is exactly these qualities and the substance wine that are closely associated with this god.
Whether it is the Great Goddess, Cybele, the nymphs who raise him, or his fan club the maenads, women are attracted to him. In Greek society, Dionysus is a favorite god of peasants, women, and slaves as opposed to the gods favored by the aristocracy such as Zeus and Apollo.
From a psychological perspective, Dionysian consciousness tends to be emotional and experiential as opposed to Apollonian consciousness which tends to be abstract and formal.
In another myth, Dionysus marries Ariadne after Theseus abandons her on a beach on his return to Athens from Crete where he has destroyed the Minotaur with Ariadne’s help. It is possible that this myth is telling us that in the world of Dionysus (a maze of intensity in emotions and sensations) an Ariadne is needed to provide the thread to emerge from the maze.
The word “orgy” meant a religious event recognized by the authorities. We, today, equate orgy with ecstasy. A Dionysian-orgy was a form of worship of the god, Dionysus. It was sacred. We have come to make it profane.
The opinion of Hofmann, the scientist who discovered LSD, might also be of interest:
In common parlance, among the many who have not experienced ecstasy, ecstasy is fun, and I am frequently asked why I do not reach for mushrooms every night. But ecstasy is not fun. Your very soul is seized and shaken until it tingles. . . .The unknowing vulgar abuse the word, and we must recapture its full and terrifying sense. (quoted in Pagan Grace)
I could not detect a fatal flaw in Dionysus such as the unprotected heel of Achilles. However, he is a dangerous god. He is bi-valent. He is both the Liberator and the Tyrant. The initiate into the Mysteries where Dionysus was prominent, spent a year in preparation with a great deal of support from the lay and religious community.
If we do not recapture the “full and terrifying sense” of ecstasy; if we bolt into the maze of sensation and emotion without an Ariadne; if we cannot revere the sacred; we may experience the punishment of the Tyrant instead of the Liberator from the mundane.