Friday, May 20, 2011
Similarities between Jesus and Dionysus
When first introduced to the mythological character of Dionysus, I could see how the god could easily be compared to the character of Jesus within modern Christianity. The basic knowledge that I had gained about Dionysus seemed to complete my ideas that Christianity was based on prior mythological stories and religions. Whether or not this is accurate, I am not going to discuss the truthfulness of each, but simply the similarities and differences between the two. Though I found many relations between Dionysian beliefs and Christianity, the more I learned the less I found them to be alike. My goal is to compare and contrast the two religions in depth by using Walter F. Otto’s book titled Dionysus: Myth and Cult and the King James Version of the Bible. I want to show that both religions have similar qualities and aren’t as different as some people may think.
Beginning with birth, Dionysus was the “child of Zeus and a mortal woman”. This could be related to Christianity in the sense that Jesus was considered the son of God and born of the Virgin Mary. However, this does not mean that the birth of both deities were similar at all. Otto discusses how Zeus “took up the fruit of the womb” and placed Dionysus “in his divine body (65).” To shorten the long complicated story, Zeus had to protect his unborn son because Semele (mortal mother of Zeus) was struck with lightning. The Bible never speaks of Jesus being consumed within the Father for any period of time, but Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit inside of Mary (KJV, Mat. 1:18).
Otto’s book also mentions that upon birth Dionysus “the bringer of joy, was predestined for suffering and death (65).” The book continues by saying “he brought not only blessedness but suffering, persecution, and destruction,” which could also describe the destiny that Christ was facing (66). In the New Testament of the Bible, Peter writes how it was “testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ,” and the predestined death that must take place for the redemption of mankind (KJV, 1 Peter 1:11). Though both Jesus and Dionysus were at times full of sorrow and suffering, they also brought a fullness of life. When discussing the ecstasy of Dionysian madness, Otto makes it clear that life and death are close and nearly the same. He states, “Man’s experience tells him that wherever there are signs of life, death is in the offing (137).”
The Bible states numerous times the idea that Jesus brings life through his death, for instance, the New Testament states that Christ “abolished death and hath brought life, and immortality (KJV, 2 Tim. 1:10).” The main focus of Otto’s book about Dionysus is often the relationship between both life and death, and he calls Dionysus the “twice-born one.” Christ and Dionysus endure a death and rebirth, but in two totally different scenarios. Dionysus was “torn to pieces by the Titans” and later brought back to life. He was also hurled “into the bottom-less lake of Lerna” and later reappeared as a new-born (77). However, Jesus was crucified and resurrected from the dead after three days. This was meant to serve as proof that Jesus was the true son of God. Dionysus had overcome death to portray his own power and not so much to reflect the power of his father, Zeus.
There is a passage in the book of Romans that offers immortality to followers claiming that “the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ (KJV, Rom. 6:23).” We have the ability to obtain this “eternal life” because of the sacrifice Jesus made. The eternal life spoken of in the Bible is not far from the immortality involved in the story of Dionysus. Semele, the mortal woman who bore Dionysus, later became immortal and received the name Thyone, which refers to “the new position of the mother freed from the realm of death by her son and crowned with immortality (71).” Later in Dionysus: Myth and Cult, there is another example of eternal life being given to the mortal wife of Dionysus. Ariadne was said to be the only one “worthy to stand at the side of Dionysus” and to be “raised by him into immortality (182).” The display of immortality being offered to mortal women in the myth of Dionysus could have influenced the idea of “eternal life” within Christianity.
Another popular topic used in comparing Dionysus with Jesus is the fact that Dionysus is considered “the wine god” and one of Christ’s miracles was that of changing the water into wine. The King James Version of the Bible tells us about Jesus and his disciples attending a wedding in Galilee where there was no wine. The wedding was where Jesus performed the miracle of turning water into wine (KJV, John 2). There is a similar incident mentioned in Otto’s book about Dionysus stating that “a miracle caused the wine to flow or vines to bloom and bear fruit in a few hours” at a significant festival (146). There are many instances where wine is mentioned in relation to Dionysus and there is an “ancient belief that a god reveals himself in wine (145).” This can be said of Jesus’ miracle because God performed miracles through Jesus as proof of who he is. Wine was more important to Dionysian beliefs. Followers of Dionysus believed that wine could “raise up the spirit’ and they also believed that it “brings joy.”
Ancient Dionysian religion and modern Christianity share another similarity when it comes to the subject of wine. I could not help but notice that both religions mention that wine can have negative effects. Though Dionysian’s believed that wine had the ability to “comfort, and to bring bliss” they also believed it could lead to “deeds of violence” and “the madness of horror (150).” With Dionysus being the “god of wine,” the idea of opposite effects that wine caused showed the “duality” of the god. Also, the Bible condemns drunkenness throughout many passages and lists the drunkard along with fornicators, idolaters, and extortionists in 1 Corinthians 5:11 of the King James Version.
Much of what is mentioned in Otto’s book is about the “duality” of Dionysus. He is “the god of two forms (110).” Dionysus is life and death, joy and sorrow; he is both the ass and the lion, according to ancient belief. Everything about Dionysus is dual, as with the wine mentioned earlier. With much searching, I found that Christ could even be termed as being “dual.” Though Jesus granted many people “peace be unto you,” he also made statements like that of Matthew 10:34 of the Bible where he said “I came not to send peace, but a sword (KJV).” The term sword meant destruction and division. Jesus came to set man against one another and even man against his own family and blood. The destruction and division that Jesus “sent” is still prevalent in modern Christianity. We find that both gods are dual bringing both life and destruction.
Dionysus may be a more creative and artistic god, whereas Jesus had qualities that were more earthly like that of the natural man. However, Dionysian beliefs and Christianity share many similarities. I would go as far to say that the two are probably more alike than many people imagine. We have found that even Jesus had destructive qualities and a sense of “duality.” We also discovered that stories of sex, drunkenness, life and death are not completely unfamiliar to the Bible. All these things are attributes to “Dionysian madness.” This does not necessarily mean that the two are related, but it could show that some ideas of Christianity were derived from ancient myths.