the symbols of dionysos
by sannion

Communication is not always verbal or written. Indeed, for most of the long history of humanity, we were illiterate and had to make do with oral accounts, painting, and plastic representations of our thoughts. An intricate system of symbolic language arose, especially surrounding the divine forces which we call Gods. This rich, dynamic language conveys truth far better, in my opinion, than oral accounts, and especially written accounts. So much is lost in writing things down. The nuance and impression of a statue can never be captured in words, no matter how great the poet. It's a different language, a different world altogether. Even so, I am going to discuss some of the symbols associated with Dionysos, those things which we find repeatedly represented in art and myth and the cult of the God. The symbolic language is an important one - and it is also a specific one. Generally, the things associated with one God, will not be found among others. And if there is overlap in some areas, (for instance, both Athene and Zeus share the Aegis) they will not share all of their symbols. This is how we distinguish one God from another in artwork: Zeus carries the Lightning-bolt and has an eagle, while Poseidon has the Trident and a conch-shell; Athene wears a helmet and Aegis, Aphrodite has a mirror and doves. These are the things sacred to Dionysos.


Dionysos was often depicted wearing the cothurnus, or high-heeled buskin, which was adopted by the actors who performed on stage at his feast days. Robert Graves maintains that Dionysos was a "lame" God, and that this special boot was either meant to disguise or support his wounded heel or thigh. He says that the Priests of Dionysos were likewise maimed, and so wore the special boots as well. On the other hand, the Greeks themselves claimed that the actors wore them because the boots made them appear taller.


Of all of the animals that man has domesticated, few of them possess the strength, power, and virility of the bull. Despite its intimidating size, the bull moves with a startling agility. The lethal potential of its horns are difficult to forget if you have ever been witness to a goring. In ancient Crete a beautiful yet deadly sport arose as part of their religious festivals - "bull-vaulting", where athletic young men and women would run towards the charging creature, take hold of its horns, and lift themselves up and over the beast's hurtling frame. This sport is attested in stunning frescoes and statues that survive to this day. The bull was also offered in sacrifices, the hecatomb or sacrifice of 100 bulls being the Homeric ideal - though the standard sacrifice was probably much smaller. It is no wonder that Dionysos - God of masculine power and sudden violence - would be associated with this animal, and this connection is well attested. Dionysos was frequently called the Horned God, and specifically the Bull-horned God. In the Bacchae of Euripides, Pentheus comes to gloat over his captive, only to find the beautiful stranger vanished, and in his place a raging bull. The women of Elis asked him to come "rushing with thy bull-foot, come, noble Bull, noble Bull!" Plutarch recounts how the Argives called him the Bull-born, and roused him from the deep waters with trumpets hidden in their thyrsoi. In several vase decorations, Dionysos is depicted either standing beside a bull, or riding atop him. And the Maenads only confirm this connection through their ritual of omophagia - or the eating of raw flesh. In myth, the wild women would fall upon the bull, tearing it apart with their bare hands and teeth. They would bite into the bull while the creature still lived, and tear off chunks of its raw flesh, which they would then consume. This was viewed as a sacramental feast, consuming the God in his animal form, and integrating him into their own bodies. Although the ritual of omophagia is attested outside of myth as well - it is doubtful that women actually fell upon live bulls and consumed them in that manner. In the late Roman times, the ritual had been deluted almost to the point of losing it's visceral meaning. An Initiate - of either gender - would take a piece of raw flesh, put it in their mouth, and then spit it out.


Drama apparently originated with the annual rites of Dionysos; tragedy commemorating the terrible suffering and dismemberment of the God, comedy the joyous and riotous exuberance surrounding his triumph over death and return to the living world. At first the rites were simple affairs, consisting of small choruses who sang special songs such as the dithyramb. Eventually the choruses grew more complex and individual parts developed. Even after the plays ceased to be directly about the joys and sorrows of Dionysos, they were still performed at his festivals - the Rural and City Dionysias respectively. New dramatic presentations were debuted at the City Dionysia, and there were competitions held for the best plays. The Rural Dionysia would see repeat performances of the plays in areas outside of Athens. The Greeks loved their dramas - and people would travel from all over to witness these competitions. They lasted for almost six days, and included processions, songs, dances, and feasts. During the Hellenistic Age, after Alexander had brought Greek culture to the places he conquered, no city was complete without its Greek theater. Special seats of honor were reserved for Priests of Dionysos.


The flute or aulos was said to be invented by Athene, who promptly discarded it because it distorted the features of the player. Marsyas, a satyr companion of Dionysos, found the flute and became so skilled at playing it that he dared to challenge Apollon on his lyre. He lost, and was flayed for his arrogance. The flute was generally not favored by the Olympians, or used in their worship - but it became a central instrument in that of Dionysos and the Phrygian Magna Mater Kybele. There were a number of different kinds of flutes - single and double - made of a variety of materials, including reed, box, bay, ivory, or bone. The double flute consisted of two flutes connected by a band fastened around the head. Flute music stirs the passions, and was even thought to incite madness. Hence, it is the perfect music for Dionysos.


Tradition says that goats are lazy, ugly, stubborn, and the very image of lustfulness. For Christians, the goat is dark, sinful, and earthy - as opposed to the pure lambs of Jesus' parable - and were early associated with Satan and his followers. The Jews used to symbolically place all of the sins of the tribe upon the goat and send him off into the desert wilderness - the origin of the term "scape-goat". All of this makes him uniquely associated with Dionysos, who represents all of those things, and was himself called Eriphos or "the Kid", as well as Melanaigis, "the Black-skinned Goat", when he was honored in the feast of Apaturia. Goats frequently appear in iconography or on amphorae with Dionysos, and tragedy, which means the "goat-song", has it's name either because of this connection, or because a goat was given as the prize for the best presentation. But their relationship is not entirely a pleasant one. Dionysos was known as Aigobolos or "Slayer of goats", and goats were commonly sacrificed on his altars. The reason for their enmity seems to be the fondness the goat has for eating wild vine, a plant sacred to Dionysos. For eating the vine, he punished the goat, and thereafter the goat was killed to make amends to the God.


The grape is the fruit par excellence of the God. It is his special gift to Gods and men, and he was felt mystically to be present within them. Bunches of grapes were a common symbol of the God, and were often depicted in his hair, hanging from his thyrsos, or being held up as an offering. One of his children was even called Staphylos, the Grape.


Dionysos was called Kissos, "the Ivy", and with the vine, it is his most common symbol. Ivy is a plant that, like Dionysos, has two births. The first birth is when it sends out its shade-seeking shoots, with their distinctive leaves. But after the dormant months of winter, when the God himself is reborn, it sends out another shoot, one that grows upright and towards the light, thus honoring the return of the vibrant God. When the fire of Zeus' lightning consumed Semele - with Dionysos still in her womb - it was the cool ivy that surrounded and protected him. Perhaps this was why ivy was allowed within the sanctuary of Dionysos - though it was forbidden everywhere else. When the satyrs were first given wine, they were driven mad by its effects. Dionysos placed ivy around them, and the plant extinguished the heat of the wine, allowing them to regain their senses - though ivy itself produces a strong poison which has intoxicating properties. The ivy leaf was tattooed on the hand of Initiates of Dionysos.

ivy crown

Dionysos and his Maenads are always pictured wearing the ivy crown. Sometimes it is a simple crown, with only a few leaves to let you know that it's not just a fillet of some kind - and other times Dionysos has a full foliate head, with flowering leaves and bunches of grapes hanging down.


The kantharos was a special drinking cup, said to be invented by the God himself. Unlike the skyphos, which was round, with small handles, the kantharos had a high base and projecting handles that stretched from the rim to the foot of the cup. Dionysos' own kantharos was always full, and could never be drained - even by the great and lusty Herakles himself. The wine that it produced was unrivaled in all the world. One drop from it would make a man drunk - though without any of the negative effects of alcohol.


Dionysos was called Liknites meaning "He of the Liknon". Odysseus was told to travel until he met a people who would mistake the oar he carried for a liknon, which is a winnowing fan used to sift the chaff from the weat. It has an open end in which things can be stored, and it was to this use that it was employed in the Mysteries of Dionysos and of the Two Goddesses at Eleusis. Fruit, grain, and a phallos were stored within the liknon, and then covered over, to be displayed at the height of the ceremony. The liknon was said to be the cradle of Dionysos, and he was thought to be truly present within the fruits and grain and phallos, symbol of the masculine force of creation. The liknon itself was used for purification. The person seeking to be purified would be veiled, and the liknon would be passed over their heads. The purifier would speak certain words and then gently touch the liknon to their heads, thus making them pure.


Masks were used in the rituals of Dionysos, both those that led to the creation of drama, and after. Sometimes individuals would don masks of the God or of his satyr companions, and would either act out parts, or become possessed by the God or spirit. Another way that they were used was by affixing the mask of Dionysos to a pillar or herm, and then dressing it up, and draping it with vines and ivy. This statue was very crude, without arms or legs, and just the human features of the mask. Libations were offered, and dances were performed around it. The mask suggests something profound and inhuman about the God. Even when we experience communion with the God, and are filled completely with him - he is still not us. He is within us. We are a part of him. But he is still the Other. He will always remain the Other, no matter how hard we try to understand him. That is his nature. Tersteegen said, "A God who is understood is no God." And it is only when we accept this that the God lifts his mask and allows us a glimpse of himself. That we are viewing yet another mask when he does this is incidental - it is true revelation nonetheless.


Like shamans the world over, the ecstatic female worshippers of Dionysos had a special animal skin cloak that they put on when reveling in his honor. It was made out of fawnskin and was called a nebrix. With the ivy crown and thyrsos it comprised the "outfit" of the Maenad. Saffron robes were also worn by celebrants.


All wild animals are connected to Dionysos, but none more so than the lion or panther. The supple, feline elegance of its body, the ferocious and easily provoked temper, the boundless appetite, and uncanny intelligence of the creature make it uniquely and inevitably linked to the Dionysiac sphere - and indeed, the wild cat is frequently depicted in the company of the wild God. Like the Magna Mater, Dionysos' cart was drawn by lions and panthers. The cats freely accompanied him at other times, sitting tamely at his feet like puppies, or dancing enraptured with the rest of creation during the Bacchic revel. When Dionysos sought to punish someone - for instance Lycurgos - the wild cat was often the agent of the God's awful chastisement.


According to Alain Danielou, the phallos represents the source of life, and is a symbol of virility, courage, and power. The Shiva Purana says that the phallos is the "sole means of obtaining earthly pleasure and salvation. By looking at it, touching it, and meditating on it, living beings are capable of freeing themselves from the cycle of future lives." (1.9.20) According to Greek tradition, it was Dionysos who carved the first phallos, out of fig-wood, to commemorate Prosymnos, who had rendered a great service to the God. After that, the phallos was ubiquitous in connection with Dionysos - it was carried in processions, herms and other phallic monuments were erected in his honor, and a phallos was concealed inside the liknon. With Aphrodite, Dionysos had a son, Priapus, a hideous being whose penis was so large that he had to support it by means of a pulley and strings. Representations of Priapus were installed in gardens, both to encourage fertility and the growth of their fruit, but also to protect the garden from thieves. Those who were caught trespassing were punished by being placed on the Garden God's erect member. Priapus warned, "si fur veneris, impudicus exis" ("In a thief and out a faggot.")


In Homeric Hymn 7, Dionysos is abducted by pirates who - thinking him a young, beautiful prince - intend to ransom him off to his father. They soon discover that he is actually a God, when the ship begins to flow with wine, vines cover the mast, and wild animals appear, tearing the captain apart. The rest of the pirates jump overboard - only to be turned into dolphins - except for the helmsman Akoetes, who had tried to warn them about their captive. This became a popular theme, and was repeated by poets and vase-painters many times over - most exceptionally in the Exekias vase.


The thyrsos is the staff of Dionysos and his Maenads, a fennel stalk wrapped with ivy-leaves and vines, and topped by a pine-cone. In the Bacchae of Euripides, the Maenads are able to bring up wine, water, milk, and honey by touching the thyrsos to the ground, or tapping it against a rock, and when they make an expedition against the people who live near Cithaeron, they use their thyrsi as deadly weapons, casting them like spears, which puncture the armor of their enemies. In Homer, Lycurgos boasts of having made the Maenads drop their thyrsi as they ran from him.

toga virilis

On March 17, during the Roman festival of Liberalia, held in honor of Liber (Dionysos), Libera (Ariadne or Persephone), and Ceres (Demeter) the toga virilis or toga libera was donned. This was a white toga symbolizing that the boy (usually around 14) had passed from childhood and was now iuvenis, a young man. The purple-edged toga praetexta of childhood was put away and sacrifices were offered to Juventas, Goddess of childhood, in the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus. This was an important step in the ritual life of the individual, comparable to our rites of handing over the car keys to teen-agers. Ovid says that Dionysos is associated with the toga virilis either because he is depicted as a young man, midway between childhood and adulthood, or because he is a father, and it is into his care that fathers place their sons.


According to the Orphic poets, Dionysos-Zagreus, while still a child, was torn apart by the jealous Titans. To distract the powerful child, they offered him a series of toys - knucklebones, a little ball, a lump of wool, a jointed doll that bent at the knee, a bull-roarer, a multi-colored spinning top, fair golden apples from the clear-voiced Hesperides, some pomegranates in honey, and finally a mirror, which succeeded in capturing the child's attention. While he was distracted, they fell upon him and tore him apart with their murderous knives. They boiled his flesh and ate it, but were interrupted during their feast by Zeus, who burned them up with his lightning bolts. From the steam that rose from the ash, mankind was made, so that we possess a half-divine and half-titanic nature, which we must strive to purify. The Orphic mysteries sought to accomplish this, and according to Clement of Alexandria, these toys were kept in the home as tokens or symbolic reminders of the mysteries. The "toys" probably had some esoteric meaning to the Initiates - for instance, Dionysos being mesmerized by the mirror suggests the unrepentant soul caught up in itself - though some have suggested that they were just common, everyday toys that any child would play with.


Some of Dionysos' other names are: Anthios "God of all Blossoming Things", Kissos "the Ivy", Phytalmios "God of Growth", Setenaios "God of the New Crops", Staphylos "the Grape", Syskites "God of fig-trees", Euanthes "the Blossomer", Dendrites "Tree-God". Dionysos is intimately connected with the vegetable world, and is actually felt in the growth of green things, in the ripening of fruit on the vine, and in the shade of the oak tree on a heated day. Jane Ellen Harrison said that he is present in "every tree and plant and natural product." An important aspect of Dionysos is as the bridger of gaps, the uniter. He brings together the animal, divine, human, and vegetable worlds - and shows their essential unity. Nietzsche describes it this way: under the inspiration of Dionysos, "alienated, hostile or subjugated nature, too, celebrates her reconciliation with her lost son, man. The earth gladly offers up her gifts, and the ferocious creatures of the cliffs and deserts peacefully draw near. The chariot of Dionysos is piled high with flowers and garlands, and the earth yields up milk and honey."


The tympanon was a hand-drum used especially in the rites of Dionysos and the Magna Mater Kybele. The monotonous rhythm of the drumming - along with the sound of the flute, singing, dancing, the fire and darkness, and wine - contributed to an overpowering situation that we would call an altered state of consciousness, but which the Greeks themselves called ekstasis or "stepping out of one's self" and enthusiasmos or "a God is within me". While in these states, people would experience visions, prophecy, and undergo communion with or possession by the Gods. This is further suggested by the symbolon of the Mysteries of Kybele mentioned by Eusebia of Caesarea (wrongly attributed to the Elusinian Mysteries) which goes, "I have eaten from the drum, I have drunk from the cymbal, I have learned the secrets of religion, I have entered the inner chamber." (This "inner chamber" was pastos, a wedding chamber, suggesting some kind of hieros gamos.) The Maenads are almost always shown rapturously playing the tympanon.


Homer in the Iliad says that Semele bore Dionysos as a "joy to mankind," and Hesiod agreed, calling him "filled with joy". Euripides says that he is, with Demeter, the greatest of Gods, and the most beneficial to mankind. The reason that Dionysos is so well-loved is that he has brought to us wearisome mortals an "end to all sorrows" which is "life-giving, healing every ill." Horace, in addressing the God, says, "You move with soft compulsion the mind that is often so dull, you restore hope to hearts distressed, give strength and horns to the poor man. Filled with you he trembles not as the truculence of kings or the soldiers' weapons." This gift to men and Gods that Dionysos has brought is the fruit of the vine, care-stealing wine. Wine brings with it convivial happiness, it makes our speech flow eloquently, it allows us to be open and sharing, and spurs the timid youth to approach the beautiful matron he would never dare talk to were he sober. It makes us forget our sorry lot, and shows us a world that is softer, brighter, just a little more beautiful than the world we usually inhabit. And it brings gentle sleep to us, and wonderful dreams. But nothing in the world is ever simply black or white - and the Greeks, being keen-minded and perceptive were well aware of the darker, and troubling aspects of wine. Too much wine made a man quarrelsome, rough, and headstrong. It unleashed terrible passions which could find expression in violence, madness, or death. The Greeks called wine a terrible conqueror, and said that even other Gods and the kentaurs fell victim to its baneful effects. Hence, moderation was suggested, even by the Wine-God himself, who time and again taught people to mix his gift with water to dilute its power. Only the headstrong or barbarians such as the Thracians and the Celts drank wine unmixed.

In 777, Aleister Crowley's book of Kabballastic correspondences, the following are associated with Dionysos:

Tarot: the Devil; gem; black diamond, plants; Indian hemp, orchis root, thistle; perfumes; musk, civet; magical weapons: Secret Force, Lamp.

Scott Cunningham, in his Wicca, a Guide for the Solitary Practitioner adds the following: fig, apple, ivy, grape, pine, corn, pomegranate, toadstools, mushrooms, fennel, beech, tamarisk and all wild or cultivate trees.


  • 777 Aleister Crowley - Castle 1990
  • The Ancient Mysteries; a Sourcebook, Marvin W. Meyer - Harpercollins 1987
  • The Dictionary of Classical Mythology, Oskar - Seyffert Portland House 1995
  • Dionysus, Walter Otto - Indiana 1964
  • Fasti, Ovid - Penguin 2000
  • The Gods of the Greeks, Carl Kerenyi - Thames and Hudson 1998
  • The Phallus, Alain Danielou - Inner Traditions 1995
  • Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, Jane Ellen Harrison - Princeton 1991
  • Wicca; a Guide for the Solitary Practitioner, Scott Cunningham - Llewellyn 1993
  • The White Goddess, Robert Graves - Noonday press 1997

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