An Informal Biography of Dionysus.
Humans are driven by a primeval desire for travel, adventure and a raunchy party. This urge resides among our deepest instincts. Since time immemorial we have felt compelled to gather in groups, to form a band and to migrate. Sometimes to find food, sometimes to find a mate, sometimes for war. On these sorties there is a communal sort of understanding that there will be a lot of partying along the way. Each night the band pitches camp and everyone joins together to celebrate a day of survival. Inevitably, if possible, there is something inebriating to drink.
The Raw Material of The Gods.
When you think about it, the multi-trillion dollar global holiday business is all about those human instincts. People will travel a long way for a party. The whole trip is a quest to socialize and talk and dance deep into the night. The journey is energized by the risk and danger that comes from being in a different place. Our ancestors felt the same adrenaline during their sorties. That’s why adventure travel draws us. The language and the culture is foreign. There could be clashes with other migrating groups or with the locals themselves. We draw together to protect our companions and our belongings. These risks and our responses to them are part of what touches our primeval soul. Our instincts motivate us to move out of our comfort zone and to find a distinctly different party elsewhere on the planet. And then to come back and tell the tale of the conquests, the revelry, the exhaustion and the brushes with disaster.
That essential instinctual thirst for a road trip traces a clear line from the oldest recorded human history until today. Travel and debauchery have been integral to our culture going back millenia. There is an origin story that helps explain our mad wandering adventures. It’s the story of Dionysus. Here is my brief biography of Dionysus and how his careening, raucus wine road trip shaped the whole world. More qualified Greek scholars will, without doubt, pull me up on most of this.
Why A Demi-God Lands This Role in History
There is a person – half man and half God – who is not only credited with having invented the entire culture of boozy socializing but also with inventing the wine road trip. One of the astonishing things about this story is that it was his father who launched him on the expedition. His mission was to spread the benefits of wine to the ends of the known world. That is really what his sacred mission was about – to bring the comforts, joys and craziness of alcohol to as many human beings as possible. To travel, to party, to act like a maniac and to discover the finest wine. This individual, hand-picked by Zeus, was Dionysus.
Before telling the story, what I want to get across more than anything is that Dionysus was not an underachiever. Based on the myths, the art and the sculptures it’s easy to stereotype him as a waster. In fact that’s what his fellow Gods on Mount Olympus often assumed. Ancient writers like Homer and Euripedes wanted readers to fall into that trap. If you are a lesser God and all you do is drink with your friends and act obscenely no-one is going to take you seriously. But there is a great twist and epiphany in the tale. Dionysus is not your average drunkard. And the other Gods of Mount Olympus are not as superior to him as they like to think. Everything is much more nuanced among the Pantheon of the Olympian Gods! Even the greatest Gods are flawed, jealous, tortured by their insecurities and prone to bouts of humility.
The Backstory and The Personality
Dionysus’ backstory goes something like this. Note that all similarities to your own family are completely intentional on the part of the Greek writers:
- Zeus, the king of the Gods, has a deep debauched streak and sleeps around a fair amount
- Hera, Zeus’ wife, is a fairly stereotypical woman. She is smarter than her husband, more capable of multi-tasking and gets frighteningly angry when the husband does something stupid
- Dionysus is born after Zeus has an affair with a young human
- Dionysus comes to this world with two strikes against him – he is only half God (since his mom was human) and Hera is extremely intent on killing him
- Zeus realizes the danger to Dionysus and uses some pretty unconventional means to protect him (although if you read up on it you will find that some of the greatest Olympian Gods were at one time lumps growing out of a part of Zeus)
- As he raises his son, Zeus recognizes that Dionysus has a real knack for partying and bringing joy to humans and he decides to send Dionysus on a quest.
Part 1: Zeus Sends His Son On A Wine Road Trip
At this point we have to admit the Greeks get a bit freaky with their creation tales. But the wine road trip starts here. What Dionysus does and what he manages to achieve as the black sheep of the Olympian Pantheon is astounding. Dionysus is a true man of action. He can usually be found whipping the party into a half-dressed, whirling frenzy. This causes outrage among the Gods and the leaders of human society alike. But Dionysus’ counter-culture lustfulness and his youthful energy won’t be stopped. He is, after all, wine incarnate. Eventually the party is completely bubbling over and getting out of hand. Dionysus rises up to be a dominant figure in religion all over Greece. For the everyday Greek peasant he provides solace from the drudgery of life. Grudgingly, Hera has to admit him to the top echelon of the Greek Gods, the only half-human to sit in the 12-member Pantheon. Even so, he’s never comfortable on Mount Olympus and, anyway, Greece has become too small for him.
Zeus isn’t surprised by any of this of course. He knows more than anyone how life is a crazy balance of lust, civil discipline, careless murder and moral values. In human society and among the Gods there is playfulness, tender love and family togetherness and then there is drunkeness, cunning exploitation, raging battle and merciless killing. That is just the way it is and Zeus has to abide all of these contradictions just like everybody else. But maybe to get a bit of peace and quiet, or maybe to trigger the most important part of his plan for Dionysus, he finally gives Dionysus his instructions. To leave Greece and spread the life-enhancing benefits of wine to the wider world.
Part 2: Dionysus Returns With An Improved Gift From The Gods
In the more simple version of the myth, Dionysus travels to Egypt, to the Italian peninsula, to Persia and Mesopotamia and ultimately to India, spreading vineyards and winemaking as he goes. In so doing he brings the enjoyment of wine to the common people. He changes how wine is understood and consumed so that it is no longer solely the realm of the royal and religious elites. This is a great story because in many ways it tracks the expansion of modern winemaking and wine commerce as it spread outward from ancient Greece. There is a really fascinating correlation with wine history here.
But Dionysus does something much more transcendental. The myth is more complex and meaningful because Dionysus doesn’t just spread his own knowledge. He also studies and learns from others how to make really great wine as he travels. In other words, Dionysus starts off with his unique knack for fuelling a party with wine and easing the suffering of human beings through communal outbursts of fun. Then he builds on this and finds the way to convert winemaking to both an art form and a commercially viable business. This is his true stroke of genius, the part that really changes the course of human history. Dionysus learns the winemaking techniques of other cultures, particularly those from what is now the country of Georgia. And when he comes home to Greece, he brings the ability to make wine of a whole new quality level.
Wine Technology’s Great Leap
Not to take anything away from the early Greeks but the simple ability to ferment grape juice, drink it, get high and have animated conversations is not the the most unique discovery of all time. It’s just not that complicated. The reality is that grapes have a singular and almost mystical propensity to ferment spontaneously and convert themselves into an inebriating drink. From China to India to Persia and to Egypt, any number of cultures have been amazed at receiving this gift from the Gods. And they all tried to harness it in one way or another. What the Greek culture is credited with doing, however, is bringing technology to bear – technologies for making, packaging, shipping and distributing wine. The Greeks synthesized all of these elements into modern winemaking and this made wine much more plentiful and accessible. In so doing Dionysus ensured that humans at basically every level of society, no matter how modest, could drink wine.
This is the point where the wine origin story of Dionysus ties up all the different loose strands. Let’s recap what Dionysus has done to date: (1) as a baby his father Zeus sheltered him from murder at the hands of Zeus’ wife; (2) he grew up spoiled and reckless, always at the head of a party; (3) as the God of wine, parties and orgies he grew in reputation until the whole Greek society, rich and poor, fell under his spell; (4) Zeus eventually suggests that maybe Dionysus should go and spread this party culture to other parts of the world; (5) Dionysus jumps into the task of spreading wine growing and winemaking with reckless passion but also with a scientist’s instinct for finding out how to make a good thing even better; and (6) now, after long travel, Dionysus returns to Greece – bringing with him the know-how for making, preserving and transporting great wine.
Dionysus’ Legacy: The Great Wine Expansion
Zeus must have been very proud. Although Dionysus will remain a controversial figure in the Pantheon of Greek Gods, his reputation is now magnified. He is no longer just a young instigator but rather is the patron of a burgeoning and sophisticated wine industry. He has carefully assembled the best wine knowledge of the world – better amphorae, precision stone presses, knowledge of fermentation and how to protect wine from spoilage. Dionysus passes all this along to his beloved Greeks and they adopt and synthesize these technologies. The Greeks will go on to merge the collective wine knowledge of Georgia, Armenia, northern Iran and a bunch of other cultures. They will build the biggest and most sophisticated viticulture and wine exporting capability the world had ever seen before today. And this wine exporting power will profoundly influence the course of human history.
The great wine road trip is over. Back at Mount Olympus things will never be the same.