Drunkenly weaving, slow-moving donkeys are the number one cause of highway accidents. It’s a fact, look it up.

It struck me today that Dionysus is sort of like the Juan Valdez of booze. Clearly a huge hit at frat parties.

Dionysus, Greek God of wine, of wine making, and of ritual madness among other things was seen as an important figure amongst the Greeks and his rituals helped to inspire much of the work in the Greek Theater. In early art and literature, the Greeks depicted this (predominantly) fun-loving God as a bearded man, strong and jovial, always with a jug of wine to pour for his followers and friends. As time went on, Dionysus became a young man, beautiful and effeminate, but always with wine ready to flow. There were many stories about this important deity and plays about him were not uncommon. He had many symbols including ivy, asses (donkeys), panthers, the thyrsus (a kind of staff), grapes, vines, and wine, all of which factored into the imagery used to portray him on vessels and in sculpture and which went into the descriptions of him in plays and stories.

Dionysus was a cult classic amongst the Greek pantheon, so to speak. While his origins remain a little muddy (there is some speculation that he arrived amongst the Greeks from foreign parts) there is no doubting the strength of the more focused religions that sprang up around him. Like other deities worshiped by the people of Greece and the surrounding islands, Dionysus gathered many people that chose to focus on his particular mysteries. The resulting cults were some of the most long lasting among the Greek pantheon. Unsurprisingly, as the god of drunkenness and revelry, Dionysus maintained a substantial following well into the Christian ages until the crackdown on pagan religions forced it to dissolve or disappear from history in the 4th century CE.

Surprisingly enough to people that don’t study comparative religion/mythology or mythology in general, Dionysus is a somewhat controversial figure. Within Greek myth, he represents a controversial archetype known as the “Dying and Returning God”, ie- a deity that returns from the dead, a relatively unique position in the Greek pantheon (though Persephone’s situation is somewhat similar), but one that he shares with other notable religious figures like the Egyptian Osiris and the Christian Jesus. There have been debates amongst scholars about the validity of such an archetype, as it is reductionist and implies connections when there are none. I’m inclined to agree that it’s not very accurate.

This brings me to one of my pet-peeves in the world of comparative religion/mythology. There have been a number of conspiracy theories floated about the Christian religion (and others, though they are no longer relevant in today’s world) as a result of this archetype, the movie Zeitgeist, and several books that parrot similar ideas. I’ve read a lot of claims about how the Egyptian Horus was copied directly by the Christian religion or how Dionysus was the basis for Jesus and the wine thing and so on and so forth. Having studied greek myth and having read a substantial amount of E. A. Wallis Budge’s translations of Egyptian hieroglyphs, I can honestly say it’s pretty bunk and I can’t stand it. People are often grabbed by sensational nonsense, particularly about things they don’t know anything about, the more obscure the better, and it’s frustrating. Rather than thinking it out and realizing that yeah, there are similarities and that there are, very likely, borrowed elements within every religion, to say that Christianity is some vast conspiracy of plagiarized mythological material is ignorant at best and downright asinine at worst.

All of these religions are beautiful and interesting in their own ways, even if you don’t and never will believe in them yourself. They offer symbolism and stories that are poignant and powerful and that are deeply interesting to study from an outside perspective. Dionysus is just one figure amongst a vast group of mythological figures from the Jewish Moses to the Chinese god dragon Yinglong. It is important to respect each religion as unique even while noting similarities that crop up amongst them. To understand how religions influence one another and how they generate new symbolic concepts is to understand something very fundamental about humanity, and to reduce this to conspiracy theories is not doing any of it justice.

I guess there is one thing to be said for both Jesus and Dionysus, however. They both offered humanity loads of free booze. If you decide to partake of THAT particular mystery, please don’t drive, donkey or otherwise. Just sleep it off where you are.

I’m sure they’d both appreciate it.