Dionysus is a strange god – one whose powers we recall in that moment when we realize that we have drank exactly too much, and who we recollect again the next day when we think in horror about what happened the night before. Dionysus is best known as the god of wine, but in the exact same respect, he is the god of humility and wisdom.
His very birth sounds like something you might have imagined in a drunken haze. His mortal mother, Semele, attracts the attention of Zeus. Once pregnant, she demands to see Zeus as he truly is, in all of his divine glory. On the one hand, not an unreasonable request given that they might have to share parenting duties. On the other, however, it is pure hubris or pride. Semele wants to demonstrate that she is beloved of a god. At the same time, she wants the sight and wisdom that is proper only to the divine. Semele’s hubris destroys her. Zeus grants her wish, and her mere mortal faculties are unable to withstand what she then see and what she knows.
Zeus, however, saves the unborn child, sewing the fetus into his thigh until he is ready to be born. Dionysus is thereby both mortal and immortal; both human and god. Like a loving son, he wants to restore Semele’s honour. Like a loving son, he seeks to restore Semele to life. His very nature, as both human and divine, mediates between the two, providing a way for humanity to have the sight and wisdom of the gods. The power of Dionysus is such that no one needs to be destroyed for the sake of such knowledge.
Yet, as Euripides play, The Bacchae, shows, it is not sufficient to want, expect or hope for this knowledge as though it is somehow our right. After all, when Pentheus, King of Thebes, denies Dionysus’s divinity, and, nonetheless, insists on knowing about his mysteries, Dionyosus at first resists. However, at Pentheus’s insistence, he relents. Pentheus then discovers that his mortal frame is not sufficient to withstand unmediated knowledge of the divine. Like Semele, Pentheus is destroyed by his hubris.
One might say that Pentheus was just doing his job. After all, followers of Dionysus seem to go out of their minds, leaving the city and engaging in wild acts. Indeed, when the Bacchic revellers realize that Pentheus is in their midst, Agave, his mother, rends him limb from limb, and triumphantly carries his head on a stick before she realizes what she had done. The presence of Dionysus overturns all distinctions – that between mothers and sons, humans and animals, young and old, women and men. The very order of the city is overturned.
It is precisely this kind of order, however, that one must be willing to give up to be initiated into the Bacchus rites. Like the old, blind prophet, Tiresias, one must be willing to put aside the dignity of one’s age and position, and dance with wild abandon with the women in the forest. For whatever the value of one’s dignity, power, reason, or laws it is less than nothing in the light of divine wisdom and power. Having rejected Dionysus, Pentheus’s power is shown as illusory, and he is killed by aging women using only their bare hands.
Dionysus demands our humility. He insists that we give up the distinctions that grant some of us status over and against others – that we recognize that all we have built and amassed is worth next to nothing – that we give it all up and dance with wild abandon in the forest. And then, at the moment that we have gone “out of our minds,” we will be granted what Semele and Pentheus desired. We will be let into the minds of the gods. But unlike Semele and Pentheus, we will eventually be restored, returned to our homes and cities. But now, filled with a wondrous vision of what truly is, we will know, by comparison, how flawed, how illusory, the former divisions that kept us apart from each other truly are.