The Queerness of Dionysos
Dionysos is a queer God. It’s certainly not all that there is to him – in fact, when I think about Dionysos it’s usually stuff like his wildness, his connection to the earth, the dead, animals, masks, dancing, drunkenness, madness, spiritual intoxication, liberation, transformation, fertility and sensuality that come to mind. But queerness is a big part of who he is, and it runs through all of the other stuff as well.
And by queer I don’t just mean that he’s got a thing for handsome young boys, of which there were certainly plenty:
“Beardless Ampelos, they say was the child of a nymph and a satyr and loved by Bacchus on Ismarian hills. He trusted him with a vine hanging from the leaves of an elm; it is now named for the boy. The reckless youth fell picking gaudy grapes on a branch. Liber lifted the lost boy to the stars.” – Ovid, Fasti 3.407ff
“Dionysos was loved by Chiron, from whom he learned chants and dances, the bacchic rites and initiations.” – Ptolemy Chennos, as quoted in Photius’ Bibliotheka 190
“Plato, in Adonis, says that an oracle was given to Cinyras concerning his son Adonis which read: ‘O Cinyras, king of the Cyprians, those men with hairy rumps, the son that is born to thee is fairest and most admirable of all men, yet two divinities shall destroy him, the Goddess driven with secret oars, the God driving.’ He means Aphrodite and Dionysos; for both were in love with Adonis.” – Athenaios, Deipnosophistai X.456a
“Others will have Adonis to be Bacchus’ paramour; and Phanocles an amorous love-poet writes thus, Bacchus on hills the fair Adonis saw, and ravished him, and reaped a wondrous joy.” – Plutarch, Symposiacs, 5
“Phalloi are consecrated to Dionysos, and this is the origin of those phalloi. Dionysos was anxious to descend into Haides, but did not know the way. Thereupon a certain man, Prosymnos by name, promises to tell him; though not without reward. The rewards was not a seemly one, though to Dionysos it was seemly enough. It was a favor of lust, this reward which Dionysos was asked for. The God is willing to grant the request; and so he promises, in the event of his return, to fulfill the wish of Prosymnos, confirming the promise with an oath. Having learnt the way he set out, and came back again. He does not find Prosymnos, for he was dead. In fulfillment of the vow to his lover Dionysos hastens to the tomb and indulges his unnatural lust. Cutting off a branch from a fig-tree which was at hand, he shaped it into the likeness of a phallos, and then made a show of fulfilling his promise to the dead man. As a mystic memorial of this passion phalloi are set up to Dionysos in cities. ‘For if it were not to Dionysos that they held solemn procession and sang the phallic hymn, they would be acting most shamefully,’ says Herakleitos.” – Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Greeks 2.30
“Appapai (Oh God!): An expression of affirmation. For when Herakles asks Dionysos ‘Were you physically loved by a man?’, this is his response.” – Suidas s.v. Appapai (quoting Aristophanes, Frogs 57)
To this list we might add Achilles, Akoites, Hermaphroditos, Hymenaios, and Laonis according to Cassell’s Encyclopedia of Queer Myth, Symbol, and Spirit. Unfortunately the editors didn’t see fit to provide proper references or citations for us to follow-up with, but it’s a fairly reliable work so I’m willing to leave it at that.
After all, Aesop credited Dionysos with the invention of homosexuality so it’s not surprising that he’d have a sizable “black book”:
“The answer lies once again with Prometheus, the original creator of our common clay. All day long, Prometheus had been separately shaping those natural members which modesty conceals beneath our clothes, and when he was about to apply these private parts to the appropriate bodies Liber unexpectedly invited him to dinner. Prometheus came home late, unsteady on his feet and with a good deal of heavenly nectar flowing through his veins. With his wits half asleep in a drunken haze he stuck the female genitalia on male bodies and male members on the ladies. This is why modern lust revels in perverted pleasures.” – Phaidros’ collection 4.16
But these “perverted pleasures” aren’t what makes Dionysos queer; plenty of other Greek Gods had their erômenoi, but I wouldn’t think to characterize them in such a fashion.
Dionysos’ queerness derives from his blurring of lines, his combining of disparate qualities within himself and his ability to throw everything into a state of utter confusion. It began even before he was born, when Zeus salvaged the fetus of Dionysos from the flames of his mother’s womb and sewed him into his thigh in order to carry the child to term. Imagine that – big old butch Zeus, the quintessence of manly vigor and patriarchal authority transformed into an expectant mother by baby Dionysos! And according to the Orphics that wasn’t even the first time that it happened. In the Derveni Papyrus (COL. 13) Zeus is said to gain his potency and kingship of the world by swallowing the phallos of Dionysos-Eros-Phanês. Nor would this be the last time that we encounter such a role-reversal in a Dionysian context.
After he was born Dionysos was carried off by Hermes, who placed him in the care of his aunt Ino who raised him in the gynaikon or women’s quarter of her home in an effort to avoid the wrath of Hera, the original “evil step-mother.” The ruse went much further than that, however, as the 5th century poet Nonnos of Panopolis (Dionysiaka 14.143) informs us:
“He would show himself like a young girl in saffron robes and take on the feigned shape of a woman; to mislead the mind of spiteful Hera, he molded his lips to speak in a girlish voice, tied a scented veil on his hair. He put on all a woman’s manycoloured garments: fastened a maiden’s vest about his chest and the firm circle of his bosom, and fitted a purple girdle over his hips like a band of maidenhood.”
This, perhaps, began his close association with women and all things feminine. Throughout his life Dionysos was always surrounded by women. They were his nurses, his lovers, his hunting companions and most passionate devotees. Nymphs, Goddesses and mainades formed his train, joined only by the pleasure-loving satyrs. It was Rheia or Kybele who cured him of madness (Apollodoros, Bibliotheka 2.29) and instructed him in the mystic rites that he would go on to teach the world, a God proselytizing for a Goddess. He raised his mortal mother and wife to divine status (Apollodoros 3.38; Hesiod, Theogony 947ff) demonstrating a devotion to them unique among other Gods. And he was above all else a woman’s God, freeing his female followers from the shackles of domestic drudgery and societal convention. All the most important sacred functions in the cult of Dionysos were carried out by women, whether it was the Basilinna who ritually married him at Anthesteria (Aristotle, Athenaion Politeia 28-9), the Gerarai who assisted her (Demosthenes, Against Neaira 74ff), the Lenai who broached the casks of new wine in the swamp (Scholion on Aristophanes’ Akharnians 202), the Elean women who invoked him in his bull form (Plutarch, Quaestiones Graecae 36), the Argive women who called him up out of the underworld through the lake (Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris 364f), the mountain-roving Thyiades who danced with him on Parnassos (Plutarch, Mulierum virtutes 249e-f) or the savage mainades who tore the God to pieces so that he could be reborn. Women and only women could do these things for him, however important the other roles of Dionysian men might be.
And so it’s not surprising that Dionysos often resembles those whom he was closest to. He could be depicted with long flowing hair, a slender, almost androgynous figure and a delicate, beardless youthful beauty. His luxurious robes were described either as those of a woman or an Eastern foreigner, which pretty much amounted to the same thing for the Greeks and Romans:
“But dainty Bacchus does not blush to sprinkle with perfume his flowing locks, nor in his soft hand to brandish the slender thrysus, when with mincing gait he trails his robe gay with barbaric gold.” – Seneca, Hercules Furens 472
Not content with a merely effeminate God, there were rumors of what lay concealed beneath all those flowing robes. Some said that he had been emasculated like one of the Great Mother’s gallae or that he possessed female breasts and a vagina, a detail discussed more thoroughly in Carl Kerenyi’s Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life. Aiskhylos called him gynnis “the womanly one,” (Fragment 61), Euripides called him the “womanly stranger,” (Bakchai 353) and Orphic Hymn 42 To Mise invokes him as the “ineffably pure and sacred queen, two-fold Iacchus seen as male and female alike.” All of this, of course, was in stark contrast to the other, hyper-masculine and ithyphallic representations of the God, but his fluid nature meant that he could embody either point on the spectrum – or both of them simultaneously. In fact that fluidity is key to understanding Dionysian sexuality, for he is constantly flowing between the gendered poles. One moment he could be effeminate and fearful, escaping the wrath of Lykourgos into the sea and the sheltering arms of Thetis only to return with savage frenzy to punish his enemy with unimaginable cruelty. He could be the peaceful lover, sipping wine and eating grapes in the lap of Ariadne or marching triumphantly at the head of a great army having subjugated all the lands of the East.
There’s an almost campy quality to Dionysos’ myths. He’s never just masculine – he’s the baddest, toughest, biggest-dicked guy around. And he’s never just a little effeminate – it’s all limp-wristed flounce, girly-girly drag. Everything is exaggerated to the point of absurdity to show how artificial and limiting our cultural constructs of gender are. He likes to play with us, to tweak our expectations. So, for instance, he takes the misogynistic Pentheus who’s convinced that women are sex-craved irrational creatures up to no good in the forest, and he turns him into one by giving him a wig and make-up, a veil and the full feminine attire as Euripides so humorously put it:
PENTHEUS: How do I look? Am I holding myself
just like Ino or my mother, Agave?
DIONYSUS: When I look at you, I think I see them.
But here, this strand of hair is out of place.
It’s not under the headband where I fixed it.
PENTHEUS: [demonstrating his dancing steps]
I must have worked it loose inside the house,
shaking my head when I moved here and there,
practicing my Bacchanalian dance.
DIONYSUS: I’ll rearrange it for you. It’s only right
that I should serve you. Straighten up your head.
[Dionysus begins adjusting Pentheus’ hair and clothing]
PENTHEUS: All right then. You can be my dresser,
now that I’ve transformed myself for you.
DIONYSUS: Your girdle’s loose. And these pleats in your dress
are crooked, too, down at your ankle here.
PENTHEUS: [examining the back of his legs]
Yes, that seems to be true for my right leg,
but on this side the dress hangs perfectly,
down the full length of my limb.
DIONYSUS: Once you see
those Bacchic women acting modestly,
once you confront something you don’t expect,
you’ll consider me your dearest friend.
Once everything is properly in place Dionysos leads the poor unfortunate into the woods, delirious and hallucinating, to witness a bunch of women that the God has transformed into men. Women who brandish their thyrsoi like weapons, hunt wild beasts, repel armed forces from neighboring cities and perform martial dances around the bonfire while drunk. Here is how a previous witness described the mainades to Pentheus:
So we set up
an ambush, hiding in the bushes,
lying down there. At the appointed time,
the women started their Bacchic ritual,
brandishing the thyrsos and calling out
to the God they cry to, Bromius, Zeus’ son.
The entire mountain and its wild animals
were, like them, in one Bacchic ecstasy.
As these women moved, they made all things dance.
Agave, by chance, was dancing close to me.
Leaving the ambush where I’d been concealed,
I jumped out, hoping to grab hold of her.
But she screamed out, “Oh, my quick hounds,
men are hunting us. Come, follow me.
Come on, armed with that thyrsos in your hand.”
We ran off, and so escaped being torn apart.
But then those Bacchic women, all unarmed,
went at the heifers browsing on the turf,
using their bare hands. You should have seen one
ripping a fat, young, lowing calf apart—
others tearing cows in pieces with their hands.
You could’ve seen ribs and cloven hooves
tossed everywhere—some hung up in branches
dripping blood and gore. And bulls, proud beasts till then,
with angry horns, collapsed there on the ground,
dragged down by the hands of a thousand girls.
Hides covering their bodies were stripped off
faster than you could wink your royal eye.
Then, like birds carried up by their own speed,
they rushed along the lower level ground,
beside Asopus’ streams, that fertile land
which yields its crops to Thebes. Like fighting troops,
they raided Hysiae and Erythrae,
below rocky Cithaeron, smashing
everything, snatching children from their homes.
Whatever they carried their shoulders,
even bronze or iron, never tumbled off
onto the dark earth, though nothing was tied down.
They carried fire in their hair, but those flames
never singed them. Some of the villagers,
enraged at being plundered by the Bacchae,
seized weapons. The sight of what happened next,
my lord, was dreadful. For their pointed spears
did not draw blood. But when those women
threw the thrysoi in their hands, they wounded them
and drove them back in flight. The women did this
to men, but not without some God’s assistance.
Though Pentheus didn’t live long enough to appreciate the irony, we certainly can. Of course the irony is even greater when you remember that all of the parts in ancient Greek drama were performed by men, regardless if it was a male or female character. So there is something appropriately Dionysian to have an actor playing Pentheus dressing up as a woman to go out and see women that are acting like men while being played by male actors. Of course, it’d be just as appropriate to see a show in which all those parts were performed by women. Because in the realm of Dionysos gender isn’t real. It’s a grand, theatrical illusion: something that is fluid and playful, something that you can put on or take off as the situation demands or hell, just because you feel like it. We aren’t our genitals or the roles that society assigns us based on them. We are something more, something deeper. Do you know the face you wore before you were born, before you had a body? Dionysos does, and he’ll show it to you if you truly wish to see. But don’t be surprised if it ends up being something strange, something you never could have imagined – for everything in the realm of Dionysos is a little bit queer.
Sex is such a pervasive part of the Dionysian spirit that many have falsely assumed that it is always to be found in his rites. In Euripides’ Bakchai, for instance, Pentheus was so convinced that the Theban women had fled to the hills to get drunk and have illicit sex that he ignored the testimony of his own spies who returned and told him that they had found no wrong-doing. In fact, to their complete surprise, the women weren’t even drunk but were sleeping, or weaving ivy onto their thyrsoi, or nursing the wild animals of the forest. Pentheus, preferring to believe his own perverse fantasies, snuck into their camp dressed as a woman, saw what he should not, and got torn apart by his own mother and aunts in punishment for his transgression. This should serve as a warning to all who would see Dionysian worship simply as an excuse to get drunk and have orgies!
Additionally, there are numerous depictions on vases and drinking vessels of Dionysian women fending off the unwanted advances of the God’s lusty satyr companions, accounts of festivals that were open to women only, and depictions of Dionysos which are sexually ambivalent. In Athenian representations of Dionysos the God is frequently at the center of a flurry of wild erotic and religious ecstasy, but remains himself entirely untouched by it. He is never depicted chasing after nymphs or Goddesses or participating in the rapes so prevalent among his family, and there are even some hints that he was thought of as castrated or emasculated. Note, however, that all of these representations come from Attica and date to only a couple hundred years. In other places – especially in Southern Italy and Asia Minor – a totally different aspect of the God comes to the fore, one where his followers experience erotic union with him, and where death is seen as a marriage to the God. And even at Athens a sacred marriage between Dionysos and the wife of the Archon Basileos was celebrated during Anthesteria – so one should avoid simplistic theories whenever Dionysos is involved. He is the most complex and paradoxical of all the Gods, simultaneously embracing all opposites. The sagest advice that one can offer in regards to this aspect of his worship are the words that Euripides puts into the mouth of the wise seer Teiresias:
“On women, where Aphrodite is concerned, Dionysos will not enforce restraint – such modesty you must seek in nature, where it already dwells. But for any woman whose character is chaste she won’t be defiled by Bacchic revelry. ” (Bakchai 314-317)
Or, in other words, whether there is an erotic element to your worship of him or not is really up to you. The best – and only – worship that he finds pleasing is what lies in our hearts. Doing something you don’t feel like, and which goes against your nature is wrong, especially if someone else is pressuring you to do it. On the other hand, if this is something you feel comfortable doing it can prove a powerful element in your worship and relationship with him.