Dionysus goes through a trial of sorts, where he refuses to answer Pentheus questions directly, and instead antagonizes the ruler – then he is put in prison. The following episode, although of course very different from that of Jesus, who is crucified, is remarkably similar to Acts of the Apostles 16:25-9:
Despite obvious similarities between Dionysus and Jesus Christ, like wedding wine miracles and Jesus’ statements about being “The one true vine”, these two figures may seem completely opposite: Jesus the meek and humble savior, and Dionysus the ecstatic, sexually active founder of wild, drunken parties. However on closer examination, there are themes that run between the literary traditions of both figures that are closely tied. This article will not, of course, argue that Jesus is nothing more than a Pagan god of wine – but it will draw attention to parallels that do exist, and that would have been well known and easily identified by both believers and critics of the early Christian movement.
Dionysus was born from a mortal woman, Semele, Daughter of the King of Thebes, and Zeus, the ‘Father of the Gods’. Hera, Zeus’s jealous wife, planted seeds of doubt in the young mother’s mind, and Semele demanded that Zeus come down and take responsibility. However, as no mortal can stand the sight of Zeus without dying, she was burnt up by his firebolts. Zeus rescued the child and sewed him up in his thigh until he was ready to be born.
In another version of the story, which ties Dionysus even more closely to the sacred mysteries, Dionysus was son of Zeus and Persephone, queen of the underworld. The jealous Hera this time sent the Titans to rip the child to pieces, by distracting it with toys and mirrors. After they’d dismembered him, the Titans ate all the pieces – except the heart, which was saved. Zeus destroyed the Titans with lightning, and it was out of their ashes that humanity was created. The heart was to impregnate Semele, who gave birth to Dionysus again. (In either version of the story, Dionysus was ‘twice born’ – a title that would later be used frequently in conjunction with his role in the sacred mysteries, initiates of which were said to be ‘born again.’)
This story has been interpreted as the founding myth for ancient spiritual traditions, in particular Orphism: it explains why ‘sin’ or evil came into the world, and how humans are special in creation. “Our nature therefore is twofold, born of Titans, wicked sons of earth, but there is in us something of a heavenly nature too, since there went to our making fragments of the body of Dionysus, son of Olympian Zeus, on whom the Titans had made their impious feast (Orpheus and Greek Religion, Guthrie, 83)On a deeper level, Dionysus was identified as a powerful force that governed and controlled the universe. He is not only the ‘divine spark’ inside of us, he is also the beacon for ethical and moral action, as well as the gateway to eternal salvation:
Despite his divinity, Dionysus lived among humans “not as a god but in disguise as a man” (Classical Mythology 8th Edition, 294); and was somehow closer to humanity than any other deity. Stories of his life on earth, notablyThe Bacchae by Euripides, (which premiered at the Theatre of Dionysus in 405 BCE), make it clear that Dionysus’ true power is only recognized by his closest followers. Importantly, Dionysus freely allows himself to be captured and persecuted, before finally revealing himself in his glory.
There are other similarities between the life of Dionysus and the life of Jesus. Dionysus was a wanderer; his cult emphasized mobility. He does not give instructions for building a temple (as does Demeter in the Homeric hymns to Demeter, or Yahweh in the Old Testament). Worship of Dionysus was roofless – outdoors, in a temple under open sky; just like the early Christian practice, which was originally against the setting up of churches or worshiping from indoors. Jesus is an outdoor guy. (Converts of Christianity were instructed to hit the road carrying a bowl and a staff, and preach the gospel).
Dionysus was considered a great social leveler: in his festivals and ceremonies, there was no distinction given to class or rank. Dionysus “gave the pain-removing delight of wine equally to the wealthy man and to the lesser man” (Bacchae 421-3). He was also credited with freedom from prison, releasing slaves, as a liberator, and “in general resolved conflicts between peoples and cities, and created concord and much peace in place of civil conflicts and wars’ (3.64.7) (Seaford, 29). He was worshiped by everybody equally, all mixed up in a mob. A feature which “may not have appealed to some aristocrats was his inclusiveness, his association with the celebrations of a whole community” Seaford (27).
And then there are the wine miracles. It was Dionysus who brought wine to aristocratic wedding of Peleus and Thetis, and during a festival at Elis, 3 pots were put inside the Dionysus temple behind closed doors and ‘miraculously’ filled with wine; feats which are reproduced later by Jesus at Cana. This act of Jesus, as well as his claim of being the “True Vine”, were probably direct attempts to usurp the powers and influence of Dionysus.
Another story highlights the theological similarities. Dionysus wanted to sleep with the wife of King Oeneus (of Calydon in Aetolia). Oeneus, whose name means ‘wine man’, tactfully withdrew; for this he was rewarded with gift of vine, which benefited the whole community. Stories of Gods fertilizing the wife of the king and producing a divine prince who becomes a savior/redeemer are not uncommon. When applied to the Christian birth story, this theme highlights the fact Joseph ‘made way’ for God/the Holy Spirit to impregnate Mary, who produces Jesus – the True Vine.
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