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, like Jesus, was son of the divine ruler of the world and a mortal mother, appeared in human form among mortals, was killed and restored to life. Early Christian writers, aware of the similarity between Christianity and mystery-cult, claim that the latter is a diabolical imitation of the former” (Dionysus, Richard Seaford, 126.)
“The correspondences between Christianity and the other mystery religions of antiquity are perhaps more startling than the differences. Orpheus and Christ share attributes in the early centuries of our era; and of all the major ancient deities, Dionysus has the most in common with the figure of Christ” (Classical Mythology 8th Edition, 385)
The Myth of Dionysus
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)
“Surely this is one of the most significant myths in terms of the philosophy and religious dogma that it provides. By it human beings are endowed with a dual nature-abody gross and evil (since we are sprung from the Titans) and a soul that is pure and divine (for after all the Titans had devoured the god). Thus basic religious concepts (which lie at the root of all mystery religions) are accounted for: sin, immortality, resurrection, life after death, reward, and punishment. It is no accident that Dionysus is linked with Orpheus an Demeter and the message that they preached. He is in his person a resurrection-god; the story is told that he went down into the realm of the dead and brought back his mother, who in this account is usually given the name Thyone” (Classical Mythology, 8th Edition, 313)
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:
“Dionysus can free us, wherefore we call him “liberator”, Dionysus the immortal, the resurrected, of whose nature there is yet a small part in each and every one of us. Knowing all this, what other aim can we have in life but to purge away as far as possible the Titanic element in us and exalt and cherish the Dionysiac?” (Guthrie, 83)
“As son and heir of the cosmic deity, Zeus, Dionysus is also a creative deity, but creative through thought, as it were. He produces the idea of the world, and his knowledge sustains it in all its reality. At the same time he is dismembered by the Titans, who are the direct creators of physical matter, and distributed into the human race, i.e. he is also the higher mind in each one of us.” (Mystery Religions in the Ancient World, Godwin, 133)
“In this way, the Orphic bible provided the divine authority for belief in an immortal soul; the necessity for keeping this soul pure despite the contamination and degradation of the body; the concept of a kind of original sin; the transmigration of the soul to an afterlife of reward or punishment; and finally, after various stages of purification, an apotheosis, a union with the divine spirit in the realms of the upper aether. The seeds of everything came from Phanes or Zeus; out of the One, all things come to be and into the One they are once again resolved.”(Classical Mythology, 8th Edition, 384)
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, notably The 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.
“Apparently powerless submission (in the Homeric Hymn to the pirates, in Bacchae to king Pentheus) is transformed into its opposite by epiphany, an emotive transformation that is in some respects comparable to the release of Paul and Silas in the Acts of the Apostles. Chased away or imprisoned by mere mortals, but comes back in triumph: associated with victory.” (Dionysus, Seaford, 44)
The Bacchae’s description of Dionysus submitting to his captors is eerily similar to the same motif in the Christian tradition. When the guard delivers him to Pentheus, he says:
“Pentheus, here we are, having hunted the quarry you sent us after, and our efforts have not been unsuccessful. But we found this wild beast tame -he did not attempt to flee, but gave me his hands willingly; he did not even turn pale, but kept the flush of wine in his cheeks. With a smile he bade me tie him up and lead him away and waited for me, thus making my task easy. I was taken aback and said: “O stranger, I do not arrest you of my own free will but at the orders of Pentheus who has sent me.” (Bacchae 434-442)
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:
“the missionaries of the new religion, Paul and Silas, are imprisoned, singing to their god in the darkness of midnight when there is a sudden earthquake, and (as at Bacchae 447-8) the doors open and the chains fall away from the prisoners. The gaoler seizes a sword, is reassured by Paul that the prisoners are still there, asks for light, rushes inside, falls trembling at the feet of Paul and Silas, and is converted to Christianity. So too Pentheus seizes a sword, rushes inside into the darkness, and finally collapses, while Dionysus remains clam throughout and reassure Pentheus that he will not escape…These similarities are too numerous to be coincidental. Howe are we to explain them? One possibility is that they derive from knowledge of the Bacchae. Bacchae was indeed well known at this period: for instance, we hear of it being recited in Corinth in the first century AD….the author of Acts has literary knowledge, because he includes a verse of Hellenistic poet Aratus in Paul’s sermon on the Areopagus (17.28). Moreover, in one version of the conversion of Saul the lord says to him “It is hard for you to kick against the goads’ (26.14). This expression occurs nowhere else in the New Testament, but it does occur in early Greek literature, notably when Dionysus says to his persecutor Pentheus ‘Do not kick against the goads, a mortal against a god’ (Bacchae 796). (124-25 Seaford)
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 is not only associated but often actually identified with animals that represent him, mostly the bull; just as he is associated and identified with wine. Dionysian cults at raw flesh; Dionysus himself could be called ‘eater of raw flesh’ (Seaford, 24). In the version cited by Frazer, Dionysus tried to evade the attacks of the Titans by changing forms: first a young man, then a lion, horse, and serpent. “Finally, in the form of a bull, he was cut into pieces by the murderous knives of his enemies.” (The Golden Bough, Frazer, 567). Thus, when we find that followers of Dionysus follow the cult ritual of dividing up a bull and eating its raw flesh, and drinking wine in thanksgiving and remembrance of their god, it is not a stretch to argue that they believed they were eating the body and blood of their savior in order to reach a spiritual communion.
“when we consider the practice of portraying the god as a bull or with some of the features of the animal, the belief that he appeared in bull form to his worshipers at the sacred rites, and the legend that in bull form he had been torn to pieces, we cannot doubt that in rending and devouring a live bull at this festival the worshipers of Dionysus believed themselves to be killing the god, eating his flesh, and drinking his blood.” (The Golden Bough, Frazer, 470)
Although Dionysus was not crucified, certain aspects of his worship have early Christian parallels. When Dionysus was torn apart by the Titans, a pomegranate tree sprouted from his blood. Perhaps this is the root of the tradition of worshiping Dionysus in the form of a tree. Maximus of Tyre writes that ‘the peasants honour Dionysus by planting in the field an uncultivated tree-trunk, a rustic statue’ (2.1), and according to Plutarch (Moralia 675) all Greeks sacrifice to Dionysus as tree god (Dendrites). Pausanias reports that two images of Dionysus at Corinth were made from this very tree: the Delphic oracle had ordered the Corinthians to find the tree and ‘worship it equally with god’ (2.2.7) (23) (Dionysus, Seaford, 23).
Likewise, Jesus is celebrated as “Tree of Life” – a redemptive symbol counteracting the original Tree of Knowledge that lead to the fall into sin. Countless churches in Christendom have worshiped relics or magical pendants made of wood from the original cross (which was discovered by Emperor Constantine’s mother over 300 years after the event). Within early Christian communities, Jesus was even considered to have been ‘hung on a tree’ rather than crucified.
“The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom ye slew and hanged on a tree.” (Acts 5.30.)
“Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness” (Peter 2.24.)
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.
Dionysus was important to the Eleusinian and other mysteries, as savior, liberator and ruler of the underworld. His name was a magical password of freedom; initiates who underwent mysteries were promised eternal life, and given special gold leaves that acted as passports into the next life. One of these, for example, reads “Tell Persephone that Bakchios himself freed you” (Bakchios/Bacchus is the Roman name for Dionysus) (Seaford, 55). Interestingly, it is probably Dionysus’ role as ruler of the underworld and keeper of the dead that has been transfigured into the modern conception of Satan: (Dionysus = bacchus = bull = horned one = ruler of underworld = Satan).
According to the doctrine of these mysteries, (which was later used as the foundation for Platonic philosophy), the soul is ‘imprisoned’ in the body for an ancient crime or guilt, symbolized by the Titans’ murder of Dionysus (Cratylus 400c; Phaedo 62b) (Seaford, 117). Humans, by being made from the remains of the Titans, have inherited this guilt; but also been given the gift of the Dionysian element, which, if cultivated, can result in eternal life.
“The 5th century neoplatonist philosopher Proclus regarded Plato as following Orphic myths and interpreting mystic doctrine. In this interpretation, according to Proclus, the dismemberment of Dionysus means that body and soul are divided into many bodies and souls, whereas the undivided heart of Dionysos, from which Athena recomposed his body, is cosmic mind of intellect (nous). In neoplatonist philosophy nous is undivided; it comprehends in one act of intelligence all intelligible things; and it is merged with but superior to the soul” (Seaford, 115).
This is hardly different from the tradition of Jesus as Logos, “Head of the body of the Church”, given in Pauline theology and the gospel of John. Paul’s usage of mirror imagery, in particular, make it likely he is familiar with mystery cult teachings stemming from the Dionysus myth.
There is no doubt that Dionysus, even more robust ideas about him, came before Jesus. His name first appears on clay tablet from Greek bronze age 3000 years ago (Seaford, 3). Poetry from the 6th century BC claims that Dionysus gave wine as ‘joy and burden’ (Seaford, 21) and The Bacchae, published in 405 BC, was an increasingly popular and well known piece of literature. Although Jesus is certainly much more than any of these similarities, it is impossible to make the case that early Christians were unaware of Dionysius; whose public processions were large, loud and involved the entire community. In fact, according to 2 Maccabees 6.7, the Jews themselves were compelled under Seleucid King Antiochus IV(175-164BC) to wear ivy wreaths and walk in procession in honour of Dionysus, an act which may have had lasting consequences: “Tacitus writes that various features of Jewish cult – the music of pipes and drums, ivy crowns, and the golden vine at the temple – give rise to the view that the Jews worship Liber Pater (Dionysus), the conqueror of the East (Seaford, 122).
“When Christianity was establishing itself in the ancient Mediterranean world, the cult of Dionysus was its most geographically widespread and deeply rooted rival. And so the Christian church, while enclosing the revolutionary ethics of its gospels within the necessity of social control, was influenced by Dionysaic cult as well as opposing it” (Seaford, 4).
The question becomes: Did Jesus, aware of Dionysus, set himself up purposely to steal his rival’s spotlight? Or did early Christian writers include these stories and motifs into the gospel story to elevate Jesus into a more powerful deity?