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Chapter 13: Dionysus, Pan, and Narcissus
last edited 3-26-04

Terms/Names/Tales to know:


Roman name: BACCHUS.

Birth Tale, as related in Euripides' play, The Bacchae: Zeus, in the guise of a mortal, loved Semele, daughter of the King of Thebes, Cadmus. Zeus had told Semele he was a god, but protected her from his true magnificence, which no human could bear. Hera convinced Semele to demand that Zeus prove his godhood and appear in all his divine glory. He does and Semele is incerinerated on the spot. Zeus plucks the fetus from her womb, implants it in his thigh, and bears forth the child months later. His epithet is "twice-born" because of this double birth. Dionysus is a latecomer to the Olympian pantheon, and he came there from Thrace.

There are various tales concerning Dionysus. Almost all of them show what happens when people reject him (you don't want to reject him - he considers this an act of hubris - "a wanton act of violence" - and will retaliate with terrible effect. If you do accept him and his worship, you are initiated into his mysteries and he brings you happiness and peace and fulfillment. This is the ritual part. But the myth part is much more interesting!

Maenads (Bacchantes) are human or nymph female followers.
Satyrs are creatures part human, part animal (horse tail, goat horns and beard). Drunk, disorderly, constantly erect and looking for sex.
are older satyrs, most just drunks (their prototype, named Silenus, was known to be wise).

Attributes of Dionysian worship: animal skins, vines, the thyrsus. The thyrsus is a sexual symbol, and one of power - a staff topped with a pine cone (in myth, this staff has magic properties).


In this play, Dionysus comes to Thebes to avenge the wrongs he feels he has suffered - his mother's own sisters have spread the tale that Semele lied about being impregnated by a god. This means that they also reject Dionysus' godhood. During the course of the play, Dionysus punishes those he feels have contributed to the slander of both his mother and himself. He forces his worship onto the unbelievers (the entire female population of Thebes, who slandered his mother) and drives them mad. He also targets the young King Pentheus, son of Semele's sister Agave, grandson of the former king Cadmus. Pentheus refuses to accept Dionysus as a god. Dionysus arranges for Agave, maddened beyond reason, to rip her own son to shreds, thereby killing two birds with one stone.

The scene of Pentheus' murder, which takes place off-stage (as do all violent scenes in Greek tragedy), is chillingly related by a witness. Agave then arrives with his head impaled on her thyrsus (a special staff used by Bacchantes, or maenads - worshippers of Dionysus). At the end, everyone (who is left alive) acknowledges his fault. Pentheus is dead, Agave and Cadmus are exiled, and the population of Thebes can only be cleansed by instituting and keeping the rites of Dionysus. Dionysus leaves Thebes, having meted out his divine justice.


Dionysus is in some ways the counterpart to Demeter. While she is the goddess of dry nature (wheat, cereals, grain, the earth), he is the god of liquid nature:  wine and semen in particular. Drinking, intoxication, and the release of rampant sexual activity drinking can bring are all associated with Dionysus.

Dionysus is also the counterpart to Apollo, who is the god of reason and temperance. Dionysus offers a release from strict behavior and thought - he is the wild, crazy side of our make-up (all human beings have these two sides, Apollonian and Dionysian - much of life is a struggle between these two forces). But this ecstasy (ek-stasy, "standing outside of ourselves") can also have a spiritual side - the release that maenads feel is associated with dancing and music, the spiritual exaltation that has nothing to do with violence or physical intoxication. Even the tone of the music associated with each god shows the contrast between them (Apollo's melodious lyre versus the trumpets, cymbals and various percussion instruments of the maenads).

The three elements of Bacchic ritual are "orebasia" (mountain dancing), "sparagmos" (the ripping apart of a sacrificial animal), and "omophagia" (the eating of the sacrificial animal raw). This communal meal allowed the initiates to ingest the spirit of the god. This ritual is said to be derived from another version of the a birth myth of Dionysus, where he is known as Zagreus, the child of Zeus and Persephone. Again, Hera has a role in his death. She gets the Titans to kill the child, cut him up into seven pieces, cook him, and eat him. He is regenerated from his heart (or phallus) which was put on the side. Zeus incinerates the Titans with a thunderbolt and from their ahses the human race is born (and since they ate Dionysus beforehand, their ashes contain a bit of the divine, and thus, so do we). This double nature of man - base and divine at the same time - will be the basis of another mystery cult in antiquity, Orphic Dionysianism.



Dionysus rescues and marries Araidne after the hero Theseus abadonons her ont eh island of Naxos (she had helped Theseus defeat the Minotaur on Crete).


Dionysus rewards Midas for saving Silenus after he was captured and Silenus. As we know, sileni are older satyrs, often leacherous drunkards but not always; some were wise. When one of them, SILENUS [seye-lee'nus], or SILENOS, was captured and brought before King MIDAS [meye'das], king of Phrygia, he said that the best fate for human beings was not to be born at all, and the next best thing was to die as soon as possible--a pessimistic philosophy reminiscent of that of Solon in Herodotus (see M/L, Chapter 6). Midas recognized Silenus as a follower of Dionysus and returned him to the god.

Midas and His Golden Touch. Dionysus was so grateful to Midas for the release of Silenus that he promised to give the king any gift that he wished. Midas, driven by greed, asked for the gift of "turning things to gold". He soon learned that this was a curse, not a blessing. Please note that the part about Midas' daughter being turned to gold is NOT from classical literature. Hawthorne created this. Dionysus responded to his plea for mercy and told him how to rid himself of the curse (by bathing in a nearby river). Later, Midas Gets the Ears of an Ass as punishment for choosing the music of the pan pipe to the music of Apollo's lyre.


Read this tale in The Homeric Hymn to Dionysus. .


Pan looks like a satyr (see above). Like his father Hermes (perhaps), he is a god of shepherds and of music. His mother may have been some nymph. He hangs out in the rocky pasturing areas on mountain sides and plays his pipe as his revelers dance. He is known for being horny, too.

Pan and Syrinx. Tells the tale of how the pan-pipe was invented. I also read as an aetiological explanation for cunnilingus.

Pan and Echo. The nymph ran from him. Pan instilled "panic" in local chepherds and they killed her, destroying her body. Only her voice remains. Another tale of the nymph Echo has her punished by Hera for abetting Zeus' affair with a nymph. Hera truncates her voice so that she can only repeat the final words spoken by an interlocutre (someone she is speaking with). She is therefore stymied in her attempt to reveal her love for Narcissus, who is so self-absorbed anyway that he suffers his own peculiar fate.


More famous is Echo's love for NARCISSUS [nar-sis'sus], or NARKISSOS. In this story she is still a lovely nymph, but garrulous. She once detained Juno (according to Ovid) in a lengthy conversation so that the goddess would not be able to catch her husband Jupiter lying with the nymphs. Juno was furious and caused Echo to have a limited use of her tongue, by which Juno had been tricked. Thereafter Echo could only repeat the final words spoken by others.


Bacchus (Rubens, 1638)

Bacchus and Ceres with Nymphs and Satyrs (Bourdon, 1640)

The Lycurgus Cup (4th century AD)

Pan and Syrinx (Poussin, 1637)

Bacchanal before a Statue of Pan (Poussin, 1631)

Satyr outside the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology

Display of Votives in the Delos Museum

Mosaics of panther (1) and panther (2) from the House of Dionysus on Delos

Stobaeideion, of Temple of Dionysus on Delos

Dionysus (?) on the East Pediment of the Parthenon:
from the front, from the back, close-up of face

Echo and Narcissus, 1628-30
POUSSIN, Nicolas

French painter (b. 1594, Les Andelys, d. 1665, Roma)

Oil on canvas, 74 x 100 cm
Musée du Louvre, Paris

Midas and Bacchus, 1629-30
POUSSIN, Nicolas

French painter (b. 1594, Les Andelys, d. 1665, Roma)

Oil on canvas, 98 x 130 cm
Alte Pinakothek, Munich

Midas and Bacchus (detail), 1629-30
POUSSIN, Nicolas

French painter (b. 1594, Les Andelys, d. 1665, Roma)

Oil on canvas
Alte Pinakothek, Munich