There are many similarities between Jesus Christ and the Ancient Greek God, Dionysus. These striking similarities in their essences, as well as the stark differences in the way they lived, readied the world for the coming of God made flesh. Without the ideas, conceptions, and truths born through Dionysus, it is conceivable that the world would not have had the intellectual and philosophical tools to understand Christ and his Grace. Here we will go over the similarities and differences in hope of better understanding Christ and his characteristic predecessors.
Dionysus was the only God in the pantheon who, like Jesus, was born of a God and a mortal mother. This impact of this idea, of the divine birthed through the human, cannot be understated. Christ’s coming was only possible through the avenue of immaculate conception, via Godly presence in moral flesh(both in Mary’s pregnancy and Christ’s life). Without this idea of a divine mortal, the trinity would have been impossible. Jesus’ coming would have been boiled down to something called docetism, the idea that Christ on earth was not actually flesh, but only something like a phantasm or mirage, thus nullifying the meaning of his sacrifice and suffering. All of this, by the way, was preceded by Egyptian gods that looked like beasts as opposed to man. This bridge was gapped by Greco-Roman reason conceptualizing Gods as men. I say this to yet further illustrate the fact that old stories and beliefs make new stories and beliefs possible.
Perhaps the most amazing and little-known similarity between Dionysus and Christ relates to a venture down into hell. Dionysus’ journey down into the underworld was, like Christ’s, a mission of salvation; though he did not venture out to save the innumerable souls of fallen men and women, only the life of his beloved mother. Fascinatingly, Death actually yields to Dionysus and he is able to bring his mother back to the realm of the living. There are two gravely important distinctions between Dionysus’ encounter with Death and Jesus’. One being that Jesus came to face death and defeat death via his own temporal death. Jesus died so that we no longer have to. Dionysus, being a Greek God, could seemingly venture between realms on a whim. He didn’t have to die to descend into hell. Therefore Dionysus’ defeat over death was of a single instance, while Christ defeated death for all time. Simply put, Dionysus’ trip down to the underworld was self-serving and virtually risk free; Christ had to suffer greatly and his actions were the inverse of self-serving, they were sacrificial. Jesus saved all of mankind. If “death yielded” to Dionysus as Edith Hamilton points out, then one may well observe that Christ first yielded to death on earth so as to exterminate death for all time (yet another instantiation of divine inversion).
Edith Hamilton, author of “Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes” also writes of Dionysus, “The worship of Dionysus was centered in these two ideas so far apart — of freedom and ecstatic joy and of savage brutality. The God of Wine could give either to his worshipers. Throughout the story of his life he is sometimes man’s blessing, sometimes his ruin.”
To be clear, we cannot necessarily say, like of Dionysus, that the worship of Jesus is centered in freedom and savage brutality. What we can say instead is that the life of Christ indeed flows through these two channels of reality one after the other. Savage brutality was made manifest on the Cross so that Christ could bring to the faithful eternal freedom and joy. Christians praise his sacrifice born of the savage brutality that lives in their own hearts to, like Jesus, transcend it in hope of experiencing eternal joy someday. With Dionysus this was not the prevailing dichotomy. For his mortal followers, there was no choice. Fate was the ultimate decider. When they invited Dionysus into their own hearts, what they were partaking in was a sort of existential gamble. They did not know whether brutality or ecstasy awaited them.
In the Ancient Greek theater, the God Dionysus reigned supreme. He was the wearer of many masks and the actor of many roles. He was known to possess men and destroy them with his spirit of madness. The process of their destruction had a name: sparagmos; it was the fracturing, the dismemberment of a man not only physically, but dismemberment of his wholeness. His psyche, his soul, his very essence would shatter and splinter not be repaired. Here we must acknowledge that the sacrifice was not of the God himself, but of the mortal man. What would often follow in Dionysian worship was something akin to the Catholic Eucharist. The consumption of the sacrificial body was known as omophagia. After sacrifice came consumption.
Herein lies the foundational distinction between Dionysus and Christ. Christ did not sacrifice others, he did not kill, he did not drive men mad, nor, most importantly of all, did he fracture men. Jesus healed the broken and walked with the spiritually broken. Christ came to Earth in order to do the exact opposite of what Dionysus did: to reconfigure a broken world full of broken men. Jesus, unlike Dionysus, sacrificed his own body to do this. The ritual consumption of omophagia would be transformed by Jesus and extend into eternity as the Eucharist. The ritual consumption is not limited, nor are its healing powers. The Eucharist of Christ’s sacrificial body and blood are meant to bring us together within the body of the church as a promise of the eternal. There was nothing eternal about Dionysian sacrifice; it was all temporal. Here we may observe another instance of divine inversion. Dionysus promised nothing eternal but the fracturing of men, totally and completely. Christ promises nothing eternal but the undoing of Dionysian destruction. In this sense, Christ’s promise marks the end of Greek tragedy’s logical consistency. Man no longer needed to concern himself with blind fate for the revealed Truth had come .
William Storm writes, “Whether he is considered as an ancient god or as a representation of this core process in tragedy, Dionysus retains his statue as ‘the render of men,’ one whose work it is to sever a person from himself or herself, for deliverance or destruction or both.”
In another instance of profound similarity, Dionysus is seen as a God, or a tool of Greek Tragedy, whose duty it is to separate men from themselves in search of salvation or damnation. Some may first consider Jesus in the same light. But did Jesus have a duty? Or did he come bearing a gift? The distinction matters. A duty is something a man(or a God)has an obligation to carry out, usually at the behest of someone higher up. Now it is true Jesus had the father above him, but the entire story of Christ is contingent upon the Father sending his son and the son accepting the sacrificial role he’s been given. Though it is true Jesus came with a message of salvation or damnation, the choice is entirely up to every individual person. This was not the gift afforded to the victims of Dionysus. Dionysus was flawed and could be vengeful just like all the other Greek Gods. Christ’s gift, and reality henceforth, is one in which man’s free will is paramount. After the crucifixion, we sink or swim upon our own accord; thus, instead of Gods damning us according to their own will, we damn ourselves by embracing sin.
As the God of wine, Dionysus, once consumed, could serve as a healing source or a source of madness. Much like men and liquor, it is often unknown what the drink will bring out of man, angels or demons. Such is the consuming nature of liquor. The consuming nature of the Eucharist is not wholly different. While we consume the body and blood physically, it is the Church that brings us into its own body spiritually. Christ and Dionysus share an all too common nature: they both consume man by man first consuming them. Though, again, an important difference must be observed. In the Ancient Greek world, one could not consume Dionysus directly because he did not offer himself to be consumed by all of mankind. Thus Ancient Greeks knew that to consume wine was to dance with the devil, so to speak. Christ’s promise was made in blood, and was made eternal through transubstantiation. Man consumes Christ directly. Ancient Greeks consumed Dionysus indirectly via the earthly representation of him.
These vast differences, not only highlight the differences in virtue between Dionysus and Jesus, but of the entire pantheon of Greek Gods and the new Monotheistic world born of the revelation of the Trinity. The pantheon of Gods was wild and destructive, ruled by pathos and human-like vulnerability. Christ, while human, was wholly divine and perfect; he did not carry with him guilt of any kind, a thirst for vengeance, or any sort of sin.
And this, the emergence of the great dichotomy between all Gods before the Trinity and the only God after, would only have been possible through story, narrative, and the subsequent bridging of the gap between theory and praxis.