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Dionysus and the island of Naxos

The following text is a revised and supplemented extract from my book “Zwei Türen hat das Leben” (=”The two doors of Life”).

The origin of the cult of Dionysus

The philhellenic historians of the last centuries were of the opinion that the god Dionysus did not belong to the original pantheon of the Greek gods, but was only brought to Greece later as a foreign, presumably oriental element by the Thracians. According to more recent findings, this view is no longer tenable: there is evidence that Dionysus was worshipped in Greece as early as the Mycenaean epoch, while most of the Olympian gods made their appearance later. According to ancient historians, the Pelasgians who inhabited Naxos during the Early Bronze Age, already worshipped the fertility god Dionysus.

Dionysus in myth

Descent and birth of Dionysus

Dionysus was born of a union between Zeus, the father of the gods, and a mortal woman named Semele. The jealous Hera instilled in the pregnant Semele the desire to see Zeus in his true form. But when Zeus gave in to her pleas and revealed his divine form to her, she burned to ashes from the all-too-firy sight, which only other gods were able to bear. Zeus rescued the foetus and sewed it into his thigh. After the “birth” on the mythical mountain of Nysa (hence the name “Dio-Nysos”: god (Dias = Zeus) of Nysa), he brought the baby (according to the Naxiotic version) to Naxos and gave it to the three nymphs of Naxos Philia, Kleis and Koronis. Their names supposedly still live on today in place names on the island, namely Filóti (the main town of Tragaía), Kleidhó (an area in south-eastern Naxos not far from Pánormos) and Kóronos or Koronídha (Komiakí).

The Kakó Spílaio cave near Kóronos

According to legend, the three nymphs raised Dionysus in the cave Kakó Spílaio on Mount Kóronos. They garlanded the god with ivy: The wreaths that later became so widespread and popular in Greece were first used in the cult of Dionysus ( – and anyone who has ever made a wreath of ivy knows how extremely decorative this plant is!). Dionysus gave the island of Naxos its excellent wine and special fertility as a token of gratitude for being his childhood home.

Near the Kakó Spílaio cave an ancient inscription was found: “DRIOS DIONYSOU”. This ancient name of Mount Kóronos is mentioned in several myths about the god Dionysus. It is very likely that this area was considered sacred and dedicated to the god of wine. Dionysus and Ariadne are said to have left the earth for good from Mount Drios to settle on Mount Olympus when the gods withdrew from their earthly adventures at the beginning of the historical age and settled on the seat of the gods beyond the direct reach of mortals.

In the cave, small clay statuettes were found of Pan, the buck-footed forest god associated with Dionysus, and of nymphs, who have probably been worshipped here since ancient times. Today, Mount Kóronos is no longer forested. However, a few centuries ago, as old travellers’ accounts testify, at least its lower slopes were covered in oak forests – the ideal place for Dionysus and his entourage to live. And the hiker who unexpectedly stumbles upon a small, sheltered valley with a spring on its slopes will be able to empathise with the reverence the ancients had for these places: It is still so easy to believe that these secret, green valleys with their murmuring streamlets, shaded by mighty plane trees are haunted by nymphs!

Kako Spilaio, die Höhle des Dionysos auf Naxos
the netrance of the cave of Dionysus on the northwestern slope of Mount Kóronos, the ancient Mount Drios.

Kako Spilaio, die Höhle des Dionysos auf Naxos
The cave has several chambers that are connected by low passages.

Quelle auf Naxos
The springs and rivers around Mount Kóronos seem to be home to nymphs even today!

The myth of Akoites

In mythology, Dionysus is associated with Naxos in a special way. One of the oldest names of the island is “Dionysiáda”. Ancient historiography reports that the god of wine considered Naxos his home. Many of the myths associated with Dionysus centre around the island. In the Odyssey, a former sailor named Akoites tells the king of Thebes about his encounter with the god of wine, which converted him to the cult of Bacchus: He was travelling on a Thyrrenian pirate ship in the Chios region when they found a beautiful young man sleeping on a shore, whom they wanted to sell as a slave. Only to Akoites did the youth’s beauty appear to be of divine origin and he protested, albeit unsuccessfully, against his comrades’ plans. The young man asked to be taken to his homeland, Naxos, but the sailors steered in a different direction. The ship then underwent a miraculous transformation: it paused in its journey, ivy grew up the oars and masts, a fragrant stream of wine sprang up on the deck, panthers and leopards appeared, and the god showed himself in his radiant divine form, wreathed in vine leaves and wielding the staff of Thyrsus. The wicked skippers – with the exception of Akoites – threw themselves into the sea in their fear and were transformed into dolphins as they jumped. The ship then sailed to Naxos, where Akoites was ordained a priest by Dionysus.

wine cup from the 6th century BC

The myth of Theseus and Ariadne

Dionysus and Naxos also play a major role in the myth of Theseus and Ariadne, one of the best-known and most popular myths ever. Returning from the island of Crete, where Theseus had freed the Athenian youths and maidens from the labyrinth of the Minotaur with Ariadne’s help, the fugitives spent the night on Naxos. That night, Theseus (according to the Attic version of the myth, see below) saw the god of wine Dionysus in a dream, who demanded the beautiful Ariadne from him. The god-fearing youth then left her behind on the island. Dionysus revealed himself to her and carried her off to Mount Drios, where the wedding soon took place. Ariadne’s silver bridal wreath, which had been made by Hephaestus and given to her by Aphrodite, shone so brightly that it was placed as stars in the sky. The unfinished temple near the capital Chora is still referred to as Ariadne’s palace by the island’s inhabitants, and a nearby fountain as Ariadne’s fountain. In other versions of the myth, Ariadne was disgracefully abandoned by Theseus, contrary to his promise to marry her, and then committed suicide, but was rescued by Dionysus. Another version tells us that Ariadne had promised herself to Dionysus in Crete, but later eloped with Theseus, whereupon Dionysus commissioned Artemis to kill her, which happened on Naxos.

King Minos followed the fugitives to Naxos to get his daughter back, but Dionysus hid with his bride on the small neighbouring island of Dionysia (today Donoússa). Ariadne (originally probably a Cretan nymph, i.e. goddess of fertility) bore Dionysus the son Stáphylos (stafýli = grape) or, according to other versions, Oinopíon (= “wine drinker”). Ariadne was particularly revered by the Naxians, who celebrated two festivities in her honour: an autumn funeral service in which her death or suicide was commemorated, and a spring festival in which the marriage of Ariadne and Dionysus was celebrated. After the wedding, Dionysus and Ariadne visited Mount Olympus, where the god of wine wanted to introduce his bride to the other gods. They brought Naxian wine as a gift, and after drinking it, the gods had to recognise that it was even better than the Olympian nectar. Naxian wine was also highly praised among the people, and the poet Propertius even tells us: “In your honour, Bacchus, a spring flows on Naxos, from which the Naxians drink your wine in droves.”

The sanctuary of Dionysus at Íria

The Mycenaean settlers, who arrived on the islands from 1500 BC, adopted the worship of the fertility god Dionysus and erected a sanctuary for him at Íria in the alluvial plain near the Chora, whose existence, later as an important temple, can be traced back over 2000 years to the Roman era.

the archaic temple of Dionysos in Íria

The importance of Dionysus during the archaic period

The cult of Dionysus was at its most important during the Archaic period. For a time, the highest priest of Dionysus was also the head of the island. The oldest Naxian coins (from the 6th century BC) depict Dionysus or one of his symbols: the vine with its grapes, the ivy vine, the thyrsos staff with the pine cone at its tip and the kántharos, the elegantly shaped and finely decorated two-handled drinking bowl.

the god of wine Dionysus with wreath of ivy and wine cup, from Wikipedia

The cult of Dionysus (Bacchus)

Drunkenness and ecstasy

According to recent discoveries, the cult of Bacchus with its ecstatic celebrations, drunkenness and frenzy probably has its roots on the Aegean islands, especially on Naxos. It most likely developed from the ancient worship of the nymphs. These were local nature deities of forests, rivers and springs and were worshipped as fertility goddesses. In ancient mythology, they often appear in connection with Dionysus. In addition to the nymphs and to Pan, who led their dance, Dionysus’ entourage also included the goat-footed satyrs, the Bacchae, Silen (half-man, half-horse), Eros and other beings associated with fertility and vegetation. In keeping with this “feminine” aspect of the cult of Bacchus, women in particular were followers of this cult and, freed from their otherwise rather passive and secondary role, marched through the woods in wild, drunken processions.

Roman depiction of a procession of followers of Bacchus, from Wikipedia

The most common attribute of the god Dionysus, apart from the vine leaves, was the ivy, which is common along the rivers of Naxos and also has a slightly intoxicating effect, as well as the aforementioned thyrsus, which is still used today at the carnival celebrations in Apiranthos and was made from the thick, hollow flower stalk of the giant fennel. Followers of the cult of Bacchus were using the thyrsus as a staff, because it is strong enough to support the drunken, but not so heavy that the frenzied people could injure each other with it.

From the Aegean islands, the cult of Dionysus spread throughout Greece. According to mythology, Dionysus travelled all over the world in his youth and spread his religion in all countries. He was received with enthusiasm by the people. Everywhere he spread joy and peace and the bliss of intoxication. He also brought freedom to the peoples: According to legend, he liberated them from oppression, foreign rule and slavery. As already mentioned, the cult of Dionysus played a particularly important role among the peasant lower classes, while the ruling upper classes, who had little interest in the new religion and in overthrowing the existing order, were reluctant to accept it.

Fertility rite and symbolisation of recurring life

Dionysus’ wife Ariadne was originally a Cretan fertility goddess (nymph). Her name is derived from “ari-ágni”, which means “the all-pure”. She was incorporated into the cult of Dionysus as a mythical figure when the latter replaced her worship. The two celebrations held on Naxos in honour of Ariadne originally symbolised the seasonal changes in nature: the withering and dying of nature in autumn and its rebirth in spring (as in the cult of Demeter, the goddess of fertility).

The origin of carnival

The festivity held in the archaic epoch at the beginning of spring in honour of the fertility god Dionysus, was celebrated with much effort and pomp in a festival lasting several days, the Dionysades. Today’s carnival developed out of these celebrations. During the corresponding celebrations held in Athens in later antiquity, the god entered the city in a large procession on a ship travelling on wheels. The culmination of the Athenian celebrations was the marriage of the god to the “Vassilínna”, the Athenian version of the Naxian/Cretan Ariadne. This custom was in turn adopted by the Romans, who referred to the chariot of Dionysus as the “carrus navalis”: Carnival. All the important aspects of today’s carnival can already be found in the cult of Dionysus: the exuberant partying, the getting drunk, the hiding one’s identity with a mask, the mocking of the powerful and influential.

depiction of a Dionysian mask in a floor mosaic on the island of Delos

Liberation as the essence of the cult of Dionysus

The core and essence of the Dionysian cult is the act of liberation: liberation through getting drunk, through ecstatic dancing, through mockery, through the mask that covers the outward appearance of the wearer and thus liberates the inner, sacred self; liberation from everyday worries, liberation through victory over death in the roaring festival of spring. In witnessing the annual reawakening of nature, man was led to overcome his fear of death and to come into harmony with himself and with nature, to feel part of the community and of the great divine whole. Dionysus was the only god in ancient Greece with whom people came into direct contact in the rites: Enthousiasm (the word is made up of en = in and theós = god) means “having the god within oneself, being possessed by god”. This union of man with God led to liberation from spiritual and social constraints and to the awakening of the divine life force inherent in every human being.

In the article on the temple of Apollo in the Chora you can read about the difference and relationship between the gods Dionysus and Apollo.

back: The Archaic epoch

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