Dionysus – Just the God of Wine?
by Meghan Sullivan
Many people are aware that Dionysus (also Bacchus) was the Greek god of wine. But I think fewer people are familiar with the many similarities between the mythic figure Dionysus and the historical figure Jesus Christ. Like Jesus, Dionysus was born of a god (Zeus, the king of the Greek gods) and a virgin (Semele, the princess of Thebes). Just as the infant Jesus narrowly escaped death at the hands of King Herod, Dionysus narrowly survived Hera’s attempt to murder him as an infant. Both Jesus and Dionysus performed to illustrate their divinity. Both figures endured rejection by friends and family in their hometowns. Both suffered grotesque deaths – Dionysus died at the hands of the Titans, who cut up his body and ate it. And both Jesus and Dionysus ascended into heaven where they joined their Fathers.
Long before Jesus presided over a meal of bread and wine at the Last Supper, Dionysus had established a link between wine and divinity. The Athenian Euripides, a playwright living between approximately 485-406 B.C.E., wrote of Dionysus:
His blood, the blood of the grape,
lightens the burden of our mortal misery.
When, after their daily toils, men drink their fill,
sleep comes to them, bringing
release from all their troubles. There is no other cure for sorrow.
Though himself a God, it is his blood we pour out
to offer thanks to the Gods. And through him, we are blessed.1
The parallels between this passage and the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox interpretation of the Eucharist, Christ’s body and blood, are striking. Just as, in the Catholic Mass, Christians sacrifice Christ’s body and blood as an offering before God, the ancient Greeks poured out Dionysus’ blood (wine – “the blood of the grape”) as an offering of thanks before their gods.
Furthermore, ancient Greeks who consumed Dionysus’ blood in the form of wine received a blessing from their gods. In some instances, consumption even enabled the Greeks to take on Dionysus’ immortal nature. This parallels Jesus’ words in John’s Gospel: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal
life, and I will raise them up on the last day” (Jn. 6:54 NRSV).
What are the implications of these similarities? It would be dangerous to attempt to establish a causal relationship between the figure of Dionysus and Jesus Christ. Perhaps all we can say is that both traditions reflect common thematic truths. Dionysus was certainly more than a god of wine, just as Jesus Christ was more than a miracle-worker who turned water into wine. By establishing wine as a central ritualistic component, both figures left mortals with the hope of immortality.
1 Stephen L. Harris, The New Testament, 6th ed. (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2009), 76.[Euripides’ play trans. by Michael Cacoyannis.]