The ‘Otherness’ of Dionysus

The ever-present quality of Dionysus was his ‘otherness’. His consistent differentness, alienation and separation are fundamentally important to his nature.

Dionysus is a god of contradiction and contrariety.

He is Greek (with a Greek mother, Semele, and Greek father, Zeus) and foreign at the same time (Euripides Bacchae 13-24). Indeed, as Greek civilisation spread further eastwards, Dionysus foreign origin stories pushed further east too. He is a god and thus immortal, but his tomb could still be visited at Delphi (Plutarch Isis and Osiris 365a). He is a god and thus should have perfect anatomy, but can still have diarrhoea (Aristrophanes Frogs 479-488). He is male, but able to take the form of a girl when he wishes (Antoninus Liberalis Metamorphoses 10).

In depictions all over the Graeco-Roman world, he maintains a consistent quality of androgyny. Sometimes he is shown as a bearded masculine god with female dress, sometimes he is shown with Dionysus with a feminine body but masculine dress (masculine standards dictating that usual dress means nudity).

Otherness

In the blurring of these boundaries and others, Dionysus typifies his most fundamental characteristic: his self-regressing otherness.

As a god of wine and intoxication, Dionysus symbolises the unthinking violation of seemingly rigid boundaries (gender, identity, mortality, divinity), which, by the power of thoughtless intoxication, become flexible. In a song in the Bacchae concerning the benefits of accepting Dionysus, the Chorus sings the powerful phrase “To sophon dou sophia” (395), meaning “Cleverness is not wisdom”. This highlights the realm in which Dionysus is king: the unthinking, subconscious side of the human character. It highlights Dionysus as the personification of that natural, base underside of humanity which no amount of rationality or reason can significantly dissuade or destroy.

As intellectual Greek culture founded itself so much upon the practice of logic and the use of considered argument, it is no surprise that this personification of Dionysus is a strong symbol of otherness in terms of what the Greeks held to be dear. Dionysus distorts and disrupts the mind, as he distorts and disrupts the system of order in Pentheus Thebes, intoxicating the women into unusual behaviour (Bacchae 30-34).

Wildness

In Euripides Bacchae (66), Dionysus is referred to as the “Roaring One”, emphasising this bestial nature. Similarly, the Homeric Hymn to Dionysus (40-54) connects him to wild and beastly creatures. In a literal sense, these aggressively primitive associations serve to demonstrate Dionysus characterisation as an unsettling personality of otherness, naturally inclined towards non-civic and (by definition) non-human things.

This is one of the qualities which must have pushed his worshippers out of the city to the natural world, evidential in the inscriptions which mention his maenadic followers meeting on mountain tops. The Francois Vase, a mixing vessel dating to about 570BC, depicts Dionysus at the wedding of Thetis and Peleus looking face-on, unlike the other characters. Not only does this mark Dionysus out as different than anybody else: the powerful image of this god of intoxication actually looking at the ancient mixer of wine was not unintentional. Perhaps it was to remind viewers that Dionysus and his intoxicating otherness had the power to look deep within, and entrance, any one of us, with or without alcohol.

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