The traditional view of Dionysos’ worship as an import from Thrace or Phrygia was called into question with the discovery of the name Dionysos on Linear B tablets from Pylos, which show that the name, and probably the god, was known to Bronze Age Greeks. While Dionysiac myths present this most exotic of the Olympians as a literal stranger, an emigrant from foreign lands, they also maintain that he was born in Greece. At the same time, his worship shares features with the cults of Phrygian Kybele, who was likewise celebrated with ecstatic dancing to percussive music, and Egyptian Osiris, a chthonian vegetation god who experienced dismemberment and resurrection. The ecstatic nature of some Dionysiac rites, together with their special appeal to women, set the worship of Dionysos apart from that of any other Olympian deity. Though clearly a god of the vine and its product, Dionysos’ identity cannot be so easily delimited. He is also a deity of intoxication and madness, whose followers experience both profound surrender and glad liberation; this element of enthousiasmos, having the god within, is anomalous in Olympian worship. From the Archaic period, he offers hope for afterlife salvation through private initiatory rites. He is not a major civic or federal god, though his festivals can become essential to civic identity (as they do in Athens). The archaeological remains of his sanctuaries and temples are not impressive, but their modesty belies his great popularity. With respect to ritual, the most commonly recurring concept is the epiphany or advent of Dionysos and his reception. The dithurambos, often on the theme of Dionysos’ birth, was his characteristic hymn. Though the details of the process are unknown, it is clear that Greek tragedy and comedy arose in a ritual context from choral songs performed for Dionysos.
Dionysos has attracted a great deal of critical attention because a profound theology, analogous to certain Christian doctrines, can be extracted from his myths and cults in a way that is not true of the other Olympian gods. A suffering god, an ecstatic religious experience in which worshipers are united with the deity, the consumption of wine as part of the ritual, and the belief in the god’s ability to offer salvation from death: all these elements have contributed to theories that Dionysiac religion was co-opted by Christianity, on the one hand, and attempts to recast the pagan Greeks as Christian precursors, on the other. More recently, the psychosocial dimensions of Dionysiac religion have been extensively studied to reveal how the god offered temporary escape from normal modes of being into alternate states such as trance, masquerade, madness, and of course, intoxication, and how he subverted gender roles and other societal norms. These analyses are largely based on the portraits of Dionysiac worship in Greek poetry and myth, above all the Bacchae of Euripides. While they provide a valuable description of the god’s symbolic significance and cultural meaning, a study of Dionysos’ cults and the historically attested behaviors associated with them yields a picture rather different from what myth and poetry lead us to expect. In practice, the worship of Dionysos was not truly subversive; instead, it offered outlets for physical and emotional self-expression within socially acceptable contexts. Furthermore, Dionysiac cult was smoothly integrated into Greek civic systems of worship, with ecstatic and private components balanced by statesponsored festivals and conventional sacrifices.