BMCR 2014.07.44

Redefining Dionysos. MythosEikonPoiesis, Bd 5

, , , , Redefining Dionysos. MythosEikonPoiesis, Bd 5. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2013. ix, 649; 37 p. of plates. ISBN 9783110300918. $182.00.

Table of Contents

Scholars interested in matters Dionysiac have considerable cause to be grateful to de Gruyter. No sooner had they put out the fine collection of essays edited by Renate Schlesier, A Different God? Dionysos and Ancient Polytheism (2012: see the review by Radcliffe Edmonds, BMCR 2013.07.38) than they have capped it with this outstanding collection, originating as a 2010 conference held at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, devoted to “redefining Dionysus.” Both volumes are indispensable. My review of this second volume will offer a brief précis of each of the thirty essays contained in the volume, followed by a brief afterword.

Except for a preliminary article by Jan Bremmer on Walter Otto and a concluding evaluative summation by Albert Henrichs, the rest of the articles follow a basically chronological format, ranging from the Mycenaeans to the Romans and Late Antiquity, and finishing with Dionysian iconography. Bremmer’s article offers a timely re-evaluation of Otto’s Meisterwerk, Dionysos. Mythos und Kultus (1933). While he hesitates to subscribe to all of Otto’s arguments, he acknowledges that Otto’s work was prescient, and that “his ideas on myth and ritual as well as his conceptualisation of Dionysus were really adventurous in the early 1930s”(19).

Alberto Bernabé contributes an overview of Dionysus in the Mycenaean world, and demonstrates how Rohde’s influential view about Dionysus being a latecomer to the Greek pantheon has been systematically eroded by recent scholarship.

Marco Antonio Santamaría undertakes a detailed examination of the terms Bacchos and Dionysus Bacchios in archaic and classical texts. He argues against the supposition that the followers of Dionysus had taken on the name Bacchos to identify with the deity, concluding instead that the converse is the case: the term, meaning “insane” or “frantic,” originally referred to the worshippers of Dionysus and only latterly came to be applied to the god himself.

Emilio Suárez de la Torre sets out to investigate the interconnections between Apollo and Dionysus. In a wide-ranging discussion, he isolates four key forces that he deems relatively constant even if their interactions vary depending on the time and place, namely: Athenian Dionysism, Delphic Apollonism, Orphism, and other Apollonian/Dionysiac forces.

Claude Calame investigates the dithyramb and its relation to Dionysus. After an analysis of the dithyramb’s genre and a discussion of examples drawn from Pindar and Bacchylides, he suggests that it is the poem’s discourse and its modes that ultimately distinguish the dithyramb from other types of poetry such as the paean. Apollo is the god of song and Dionysus is the god of dramatic poetic narrative, but there are frequent overlaps and interactions between the two.

Miriam Valdés Guía examines the Lenaia in Athens and its associations with women. Though the evidence is fragmentary, she surmises on the analogy of the Thyiads’ celebration in Delphi that during the Lenaia Athenian women would have celebrated the sparagmos and rebirth of Dionysus with singing and dancing.

Christopher Faraone argues that the mythic account of the attack on Dionysus and his nurses furnishes the etiology for initiation into the Dionysiac mysteries in Thrace and Thessaly, with Dionysus serving as the model for male initiates and his nurses for females. The plunge into the sea did not simply signify the normal rite of passage to adulthood, but the more fundamental transition from mortality to immortality.

Marisa Tortorelli Ghidini addresses an “imbalance” in the relation between Orphism and Dionysiac mystery religion. Though the two display considerable overlap, some texts, such as Aeschylus’ Bassarides, document a clash between Dionysus and Orpheus. She therefore stresses the need to consider those theological and ethical features of Orphism that show an indebtedness to the cult of Apollo, and also to Pythagoreanism.

Two articles usefully ask whether maenadic ecstasy was fact or fiction: were the maenads real or mythical women, and were they truly inspired? The first article, by Silvia Porres Caballero focuses on Greece, the second, by Zoa Alonso Fernández, on Rome. Caballero argues persuasively that historical maenads modeled themselves on mythical maenads, particularly those represented in Euripides’ Bacchae. Fernández argues that a similar form of historical maenadism also occurred in Rome, but gradually became theatricalized, culminating in Bacchic pantomime where, ironically, the performance may have occasioned real ecstasy on the part of the performer.

Andrea Debiasi examines the Actaeon myth as it is represented a papyrus fragment from Oxyrhynchus ( P.Oxy. XXX 2509). This fragment seems to associate Actaeon’s crime with an attempt to woo Semele, and it has been repeatedly conjectured that this fragment might have belonged to Hesiod’s Catalogue of Women. Debiasi, however, makes a detailed case for attributing the fragment instead to Eumelos of Corinth.

The three Homeric Hymns to Dionysus are the subject of Miguel Herrero de Jáuregui’s contribution. He stresses the complementarity of the three hymns in their representation and theology of the god, and emphasizes that prior to dramatic portrayals of Dionysus they furnished the most authoritative image of the deity. The image they present is that of a majestic deity worthy of Olympos.

Herodotus is the focus of two of the essays. Raquel Martín Hernández examines Herodotus’ “Egyptian Dionysus”, i.e. Osiris, and in particular why Herodotus is so reticent to speak of the death of Osiris. She attributes it to his reluctance to pronounce the god’s name in a funerary context, and to the similarities he perceived between Osiris’ rites and Greek mysteries. Paola Corrente examines the Nabatean deities Orotalt (= Dushara) and Allilat (Hdt. 3.8.3) and substantiates Herodotus’ inference that the pair should be regarded as oriental counterparts of Dionysus and Aphrodite Urania.

Not surprisingly, a significant portion of the volume is given over to Dionysus’ associations with drama. Ana Isabel Jiménez San Cristóbal opens with a substantive discussion of the “Sophoclean” Dionysus. She determines that despite the absence of an explicit focus on Dionysus, the plays nevertheless reveal a rich variety of the god’s mythic and cultic aspects. Euripides’ Bacchae also receives extensive treatment. Nina Schwartz starts with a consideration of the “ xenos attributes” in the play. She concludes that, “the persona of the stranger, both that of the xenos god coming from afar and that of the estranged ruler of the city is a fundamental theme for the understanding of the play, which carries meta-tragic significance” (324). In a related study, Sara Macías Otero discusses the epiphanies of the god, arguing that the revelation of Dionysus as a god is the main subject of the play. This revelation achieves its climax in the death of Pentheus and in Dionysus’ appearance as the deus ex machina. M. Carmen Encinas Reguero analyses the different nuances underlying the names of Dionysus in the Bacchae. Bromios relates to the god’s positive side, including his birth and epiphany. Bacchos, by contrast, refers to the destructive side of the god, while Dionysus is the neutral name of the deity. Finally, Anton Bierl addresses the Dionysus of Old Comedy, both of which he sees as embodying the carnivalesque and involving the interpenetration of Dionysian festivals with comedy. He demonstrates that, far from “having nothing to do with Dionysus,” Old Comedy has a great deal to do with him.

Dionysian Enthusiasm in Plato is addressed by Francesc Casadesús Bordoy. Like other scholars, he regards Plato’s references to the “titanic nature of humans” as of central importance to his theology. Dionysus is able to restore the souls of humans to their former divine status through his divine enthusiasm, but only if humans receive this enthusiasm appropriately, not by means of enthusiastic drunkenness but through philosophical initiation.

Kerasia A. Stratiki investigates Pausanias’ descriptions of the Dionysiac myths and cults associated with Patras. While Pausanias suggests that the associations of Dionysus with the region were a relatively recent innovation, Stratiki argues instead that these myths and cults were in fact foundational for Patras.

The Epaphian Dionysus of the Orphic Hymns is the subject of Radcliffe Edmonds’ contribution. He notes that the identification of Dionysus with Epaphos is perplexing, but can be resolved when one dispenses with doctrinal conceptions in favor of parallels in ritual: “To invoke Dionysus as Epaphian, then, is to evoke the kind of rituals for Dionysus which Greek thinkers for centuries had connected with rites of Osiris and Apis in Egypt” (431). For her part, Giulia Sfameni Gasparro approaches the Orphic Hymns from the perspective of polyonomia and henotheism. She observes that the Orphic Dionysus is “agglutinative,” in that he takes on the qualities or identities of other figures in the divine pantheon. This process naturally raises the question of the extent to which Dionysus constitutes one god or one god among many.

Mercedes López Salvá examines the dionysism of Ptolemy IV Philopator as portrayed by the apocryphal Third Book of Maccabees. Even if the book’s direct references to the god are minimal, Dionysus is still viewed as a major contender with Yahweh, and the two are cast as rivals, each of whom can offer salvation and deliverance to his followers. David Hernández de la Fuente extends the discussion of salvation to Nonnus’ Dionysiaca. Here, under the influence of late antique syncretism, Dionysus leaves off much of his pagan character and takes on characteristics of Christ, becoming a deity who shows compassion and pity for the sufferings of humans, and dedicates himself to allaying these sufferings.

Dionysian iconography is also well served in this volume. Paloma Cabrera focuses on the afterlife imagery found on many Apulian vases illustrating the blessed fate awaiting the initiates of Dionysus’ mysteries. Fátima Díez-Platas examines those images of Dionysus as symposiast frequently found on archaic black-figure pottery. She concludes that this image is a result of the domestication of Dionysus, where he comes to be represented as if he were a human symposiast. Dionysus’ feline entourage in Roman iconography is discussed by Patricia Melián Jácome, with special focus on their species and their sex. She argues that images of tigers predominate over those of lions and panthers because of that cat’s exoticism, while the female sex of the cats predominates both because it is grammatical — tigris and pardos are feminine — and metaphorical in that the cats are associated with the maenads. Finally, Stéphanie Wyler looks at the painted frieze of the ‘Auditorium of Maecenas’ in relation to other Augustan friezes. Despite the frieze’s poor state of preservation, she concludes that the Dionysiac motifs there and elsewhere are not explicitly religious but contribute to a solemn ambience characteristic of the Augustan agenda.

Albert Henrichs closes the volume by asking, “Dionysus: One or Many?” He concludes that, “any attempt to define or redefine the god, must be tempered by an awareness of the complexity and elusiveness of this multiple figure, who is at any moment both one and many” (554). His caution is salutary, but while it is true that many facets of the Dionysus figure remain undefined, these essays go some considerable distance in further defining this most elusive of gods. If the volume (inevitably) stops short of a detailed picture, it nevertheless does much to limn the god’s familiar — and unfamiliar — features.

As for the book’s production, there are more than a few solecisms in spelling and grammar — not unexpectedly in a volume where few of the contributors write in their native language — but they rarely affect meanings.1 The book’s only surprising omission is that, despite a detailed “Analytic Index” and an index of Greek and Roman Texts, there is no index of modern authors. Since there is also no comprehensive bibliography, it is difficult to know if and when a scholar’s work has been cited. Apart from that omission, the book itself is beautifully produced, with high-quality plates and sturdy binding.


1. One exception is in Wyler’s essay, where there seems to be a clause missing on page 547: “an entirely draped character save his naked shoulder and crowned head, is putting her feet on a stone” (my italics). In addition, Wyler’s Figure 30.2 does not seem to match what she describes in her text (547).