The Ivied Rod: Gender and the Phallus in Dionysian Religion

Delia Morgan

May 2000

I. Introduction

Perceptions of gender prevalent in ancient Greece reflect a society centered to a remarkable degree on the masculine. There was a constellation of values and customs which included patriarchy, pederasty and male homosexuality as a norm, glorification of war and male athleticism, public male nudity and public display of sculpted phalluses, along with the almost complete exclusion of women from the public sphere. One author refers to this society as a "phallocracy" - the reign of the phallus. (Keuls, 1-4) In the picture of Greek society that emerges, the phallus is seldom just a phallus, but rather a potent cosmogonic symbol - an axis mundi about which the entire culture revolves. The phallus as displayed image stands as an exclamation point punctuating the various facets of male dominion in Greek society. Maleness is the ideal, and to this core adhere the primary Greek values - self-control, order, clarity, rationality, civilization, struggle against nature, heroic glory, dominance in war. These were the values of manliness in ancient Greece, and other values and qualities, to the extent that they deviate from the idealized norm were pushed to the periphery, to the dark and spinning edge of the world. All that is foreign, all that is feminine, all that is wild and unrestrained; all these are coalesced into an idea of Otherness that forms a dark sea of chaos into which one must strive continually not to fall.

Yet without this dark periphery the center would not hold, and so the wild and the strange and the feminine are evoked again and again so that their defeat at the hands of cool, calm, masculine Greek glory may be relived and reaffirmed. The arts, sculpture and painting, express mythic narratives of conquest over the Other. Popular themes include the battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs, the defeat of the Amazons, the Olympian gods conquering the giants. (Rhodes, 92-93) Yet at least one major strand of mythic narrative and religious art diverges to tell another kind of story, one in which the power of the strange and chaotic gains the upper hand. This is the triumph of Dionysos: god of wine and theatre, raucous music and frenzied dance; god of the wild, weird and exotic; god of the ecstatic, sexual and fertile; god of mystery, madness and the irrational; god of passion, comedy and tragedy; god of bloody raw feasts and secret initiation rites; and, significantly, a deity also known as "the god of women."

Modern interpretations of Dionysos and his cult are widely divergent; attempts to encompass the extremes of this most enigmatic of deities within one coherent figure have yielded frequently contradictory interpretations. Indeed, Walter Otto characterized him as a god defined by dynamic polarity, by the duality of antithetical opposites that partake of the realm of utter mystery. "His duality has manifested itself to us in the antitheses of ecstasy and horror, infinite vitality and savage destruction...At the height of ecstasy all of these paradoxes suddenly unmask themselves and reveal their names to be Life and Death." (Otto, 121) Born of a mortal mother, Dionysos was fully divine and immortal, yet concealed his divinity in human form. Perhaps one of the most fruitful ways of casting Dionysos is as this god of paradox, a god who spans the gap between extreme opposites: human and divine, wildness and civilization, Greek and foreign, comedy and tragedy, rampant fertility and the realm of death and the underworld.

He also was considered to embody both feminine and masculine. This ability of the deity to contain multiple paradoxical qualities within himself presented a danger to the ordering of Greek society. The Greeks were inclined to consider most qualities as polar, faced off in binary opposition: male versus female, hot versus cold, active versus passive, civilized versus wild. They also amalgamated many of these qualities together: the male is bright, hot, active, civilized; the female is all that is opposite. With the male side of the opposition pegged as the center, all that was 'other' moved off to the side, leaving the masculine, rational, and heroic to be equated with the good and true. Into this static well-ordered social hierarchy, Dionysos comes dancing as a dangerous and subversive influence. The nature of his subversion is that he is fluidic, ambiguous and shape-shifting; he contains within one single potent figure many pairs of contrasting opposites held in dynamic tension. This is his paradox and his power.

II. The Androgynous Phallic God

Nowhere is the paradox of Dionysos more dramatic than in the stark contrast between the god of the phallus and the 'effeminate' god of women. Ancient sources make frequent reference to Dionysos as 'womanly' or 'not a real man' (Evans, 20-21; Jameson, 45); they sometimes dress him in women's clothing as well. And yet it was in honor of Dionysos that Greek villages organized Phallophoria festivals in spring (Danielou, 94-96), phalloi were carried in ritual procession, ithyphallic satyrs pranced with maenads in Greek vase art, actors strapped on huge artificial phalluses as part of their costume, and the revealing of a phallus in a basket figured as a central element of mystery cult initiation (Kerenyi, 273). In the presence of Dionysos even animals often sport erections, as in a frequently depicted myth where Dionysos leads Hephaistos back to Olympus mounted on an ithyphallic mule (Carpenter, 16-19). Yet Dionysos himself was never shown with an erection. This iconographic convention, along with the occasional reference to effeminacy or androgyny, has led to various theories seeking to drastically unman the god, as it were; some writers read into these details the idea that perhaps Dionysos himself was asexual (Jameson, 44), or even emasculated through castration (Kerenyi, 275-277, 285) . One occasionally even encounters a popular misconception that Dionysos was a hermaphrodite, although there seems to be no evidence for this conjecture. Another author has read into the combination of phallicism and effeminacy the idea that Dionysos was primarily a god of homosexuality (Evans, 33-34). These attempts at understanding the androgyny of Dionysos often ignore other, more compelling evidence pointing to his undeniable maleness; and in taking the idea of effeminacy so literally they may ignore more subtle clues, which point to a layered complexity in the ideas of gender in ancient Greece.

There is also a layered complexity to the figure of Dionysos himself, which resists simplification. The dynamic tension between polar opposites that is contained within the god often manifests itself in disguise, in people and things being the opposite of what they appear. In stories, the polar opposition often leads to abrupt reversals of circumstances, changes of fortune and upsets in the balance of power. This can be seen in the tragic play "The Bacchae," by Euripedes, a retelling of an older myth about Dionysos and his return to Thebes, the town of his birth. The god and his women followers have invaded the nearby territory; intoxicated with religious ecstasy, they are dancing with joy in the forests, and all of nature dances with them. The god disguises himself as a priest and confronts his cousin King Pentheus, who has banned the worship of Dionysos because he fears it will lead to social chaos. He leads Pentheus on, allowing the king’s troop to take him captive; the god even pleads with Pentheus, letting him believe that he is dealing with a helpless mortal.

However, once imprisoned, Dionysos abruptly releases his divine wrath in an earthquake that destroys the castle, and he drives all the women of the town insane, so that they flock to join the Bacchae -- his wild women devotees in the forest. He also drives Pentheus insane – slowly, insidiously, the god works the destruction of his cousin’s mind from the inside, turning him into everything which Pentheus has previously detested. Finally, he personally leads the king to the forest, to be torn apart into bloody pieces at the god’s command, by the hands of Pentheus’ very own mother, whom Dionysos has driven mad. In a triumphant epiphany at the finale, the god reveals himself in his divine glory and gloats over his victory, rebuking the hapless mortals for their impiety. The carefree joy and liberating ecstasy of the dancing wine-god has turned swiftly into mind-rending horror, as it generally does when he is spurned. In this and other myths, Dionysos tends to conceal his divine might behind a human disguise, until the critical moment when he releases it and turns the world of mere mortals upside down. This sudden reversal of identity and power is a factor to be kept in mind when considering the presumed effeminacy of Dionysos.

Jameson, for example, in examining some of the mythic fragments dealing with Dionysos, has arrived at the idea of the wine god as weak, cowardly and asexual – all aspects which would support the charge of effeminacy. (Jameson, 50, 59-63). He cites the myth of Lycurgus, who drove the young god into the ocean with an ox-goad. However, this temporary retreat was preparation for the god’s later terrible revenge, a point that Jameson seems to disregard, just as he generally ignores the features of paradox, disguise and reversal that mark the epiphanies of Dionysos. Against Jameson’s idea of the "weak" god, there is the more common view of the god as a fearsome power of nature: "Above all, Dionysus is bestial, sexual and ecstatic..." (Doniger, 104)

The god is invoked by his devotees as a raging bull and a panther, both creatures of ferocious strength and aggressiveness. In hymns Dionysos is addressed as 'the thunderer' and 'the roaring one.' The bull is one of the most frequently mentioned epiphanies of Dionysos; he was considered to be a bull-god, as were Zeus and Poseidon (Harrison, 431-436). The bull is a widespread and unequivocal symbol of male strength, potency and virility, particularly in the cultures of India, the near east, and the Mediterranean. He was also invoked as a 'thousand-headed serpent' in the Bacchae, and was often shown with snakes; an esoteric connection between the snake and the phallus is an ancient religious idea (Scott, 62-73). The kinds of animal imagery which are most often associated with Dionysos would, therefore, seem to emphasize his maleness.

Dionysos is also considered to be a god of fertility, especially the lush growth of grapevines, ivy and other green plants. The potency of the phallus and the fertility of the plant kingdom are connected, and their conjunction can be seen in a common Dionysian symbol. The thyrsus which the god carries is a fennel stalk topped by a pine cone and wrapped in ivy, and it has been interpreted as a phallic symbol. The maenads, followers of Dionysos, pound the ground with the thyrsus, which drips honey and causes milk and wine to gush up from the earth; a phenomenon into which it is not difficult to read sexual symbolism. (Euripedes, lines 700-715) The thyrsus was also the weapon of choice for the god and his followers, and was endowed with deadly, flesh-rending force. Given the casting of the penetrating phallus as a weapon, an idea common in the ancient world, the thyrsus as both weapon and fertility symbol makes some sense. Dionysos is a god of both life-giving potency and death-dealing violence, and the thyrsus/phallus embodies both of these qualities. The thyrsus in art can also stand in for the unseen phallus of the god, such as in the fresco at the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii; Dionysos is reclining with his bride Ariadne and the thyrsus is strategically located in the vicinity of his loins, tilted at an appropriate angle. (Bianchi, plate 91)

Given this sort of symbolism, the dismissal of Dionysos' sexuality on the basis of iconography is questionable. Francois Lissarrague states: "Dionysos as depicted is scarcely sexed; he is never seen in an erect state or manipulating his phallus." However, Zeus was never shown thus either, but no one has yet used this as grounds for asserting the asexuality of the father of the gods. The lack of ithyphallic imagery of Dionysos would seem to be a moot point with regard to his sexuality. The more likely explanation is that it would have been considered undignified, impious or taboo to show a major Olympian god with an erection, and thus his sexuality was instead suggested by symbolism and by his influence on surrounding figures. Of the popular Greek gods, only two were depicted as ithyphallic: Pan, the wild and woolly goat-god of rural Arcadia, and Priapus, the son of Dionysos. (Herms, square columns topped with a head of Hermes, also were ithyphallic; but statues and paintings of the god Hermes as a whole did not share this feature.)

Dealing with Dionysos is always risky business, and some subtlety is in order. Dionysos is not obviously ithyphallic, but then nothing about Dionysos is obvious; or rather, that which appears obvious is misleading. Dionysos is the god behind the mask, the god who regularly conceals both his identity and his power, and it is easy to be misled, as Pentheus was, by his appearance. One must look instead to his influence, for he is a liquid god whose potency is infused into his companions and followers. The common art motif of Dionysos surrounded by thyrsoi, snakes and ithyphallic satyrs seems to point to the god as the still center of sexual energy in the scene, as if he were exuding an invisible radiation which enlivened everything in his presence. This radiating force-field effect may be the result of a taboo that mandates that phallicism be removed at a distance from the god; it fits with the paradoxical and concealed nature of the god, and it also succeeds in implying a dynamic injection of his sexual power into the surrounding figures and landscape. Like the 'wet drapery' look of classical sculpture, it seems to reveal what is hidden, and does so with more emphasis and dramatic flair than would be effected by a straightforward depiction.

The masculinity of Dionysos also was expressed in his role as the supreme hunter of animals; he is often shown ripping fawns apart with his bare hands. The maenads, his female followers, copy him in this activity, but only because the power of the male god is being expressed through them in their state of divine possession. Another typically masculine side to Dionysos was that of warrior. He fought with the other Olympian gods in the gigantomachy, the battle against the giants. In Greek art of the fifth century and later, he is the single divine figure most often shown fighting in gigantomachy battle scenes. (Carpenter, FCA, p16) Many myths of Dionysos also involve the god waging war on recalcitrant kings who refuse his worship, and who are destroyed by his wrath. While in some of these myths the god initially hides his power and works his violence indirectly by inducing insanity, there are other instances in which he does battle directly, such as his attack upon the pirates who attempted to kidnap him (the Homeric hymn to Dionysos), or later descriptions (in the Dionysiaca of Nonnos) of the god waging war in India.

The sexuality of Dionysos is clearly implicit in one of the most popular mythic themes: that of his marriage to Ariadne. The Cretan princess helped rescue Theseus from the minotaur and was later deserted by the hero, only to be claimed by the wine god as his bride. Dionysos and Ariadne were depicted as a wedded couple on vase art, especially that used for weddings and funerals. Dionysos also fathered children by his bride, his sons Oinopion and Staphylos (Carpenter, AGA, 24). Dionysos was also frequently shown together with Aphrodite, and the phallic god Priapus was said to be their offspring. As regards the idea of the homosexuality of Dionysos, there seems to be only one rather late reference, in the Dionysiaca of Nonnos, to his tragic love affair with a youth named Ampelos, who was gored to death by a wild bull and whom the god later transformed into a vine. Since bisexuality was common among Greek men and their gods, this should hardly be considered evidence for Dionysos as uniquely the patron god of homoerotic love, as Arthur Evans posits. In any case, taking the active role in a pederastic relationship was considered evidence of masculinity rather than effeminacy in ancient Greece; only the passive or subordinate partner was thought to be feminized by male homosexual relationships.

In addition to Dionysos' mythical loves, there was also a curious cult practice involving the sacred marriage, or hieros gamos, of a mortal woman to the god. In Athens during the Anthestheria festival in the spring, the wife of the royal archon spent the night in the god's sanctuary, awaiting a visit from the god who was to come and consummate relations with her. (Jameson 54-56) While it is unknown precisely what transpired and how, the occasion of a kingly figure surrendering his own wife to the god would seem to testify to the perceived power and sexuality of Dionysos; it signifies the yielding of mundane authority to divine potency through the establishment of a sexual pecking order.

Another factor frequently cited as support for the effeminacy of Dionysos is his feminine appearance. Early iconography of Dionysos shows him as a youthful adult with long hair and a beard, exotically dressed in a long chiton and himation. This has been described as women's dress, but at the time the long himation could be worn by either sex, and it is now better established that his garb was meant to reflect the foreign nature of his character (Frontisi-Ducroux & Lissarrague, 216-217); he was seen as coming into Greece from Thrace or other parts of Asia Minor, and his 'barbarian' mode of dress fit in with his image as an exotic, imported deity.

By the fifth century it was common for Dionysos to be portrayed as a beardless youth with long hair, naked except for a leopard skin cloak. In Euripedes’ play "The Bacchae," his youthful beauty, long hair and pale skin cause King Pentheus, who appears to feel an erotic attraction for the god, to mock his effeminacy (Euripedes, lines 445-460). But Dionysos was hardly the only male Greek figure to be depicted as beautiful, long-haired and beardless. In a culture which worshipped male beauty, Apollo was also frequently depicted this way, as were 'kouros' figures - sculptures of youthful, standing male nudes. The only circumstance in which Dionysos was depicted in specifically women's clothing was in comedy, where he frequently wore a saffron-colored robe. (Carpenter, FCA, 105-107) One of the major devices of comedy, however, is precisely that of reversal -- a world turned upside-down, out of the ordinary, where chaos and absurdity reign, and women frequently gain the upper hand over men. To cite the god's feminine garb in this context is evidence of missing the joke, rather than proof of transvestitism as a regular feature of his character.

III. Dionysos and Masculinity

Given that there are numerous and significant ways in which Dionysos is portrayed as undeniably male and potent, how can his reputation for effeminacy be understood? In other words -- if he's so male, why isn't he also masculine? This question bears on the definition of masculinity, which is largely culturally-dependent, and so it is to the gender ideas of Greek culture to which we must turn in seeking an answer. For the Greeks there was an entire constellation of qualities arrayed about the opposing poles of masculine and feminine. Maleness and femaleness may be taken as biological, primary sexual characteristics, and masculinity and femininity as behavioral, secondary gender characteristics. The attribution of certain gender-linked traits is common in all cultures, but the specifics vary with culture. Certain ideas of masculinity and femininity are widespread, common to many cultures: men as physically strong, aggressive and dominating, inclined to warfare and competition; women as weaker, gentle and nurturing, inclined to avoid confrontation or emphasize cooperation. Regardless of whether these secondary traits are inherently natural or cultural, we can treat them as given, standard ideas of the masculine and feminine; they are not the main issue here. As we have seen, Dionysos was depicted not only as male, but also possessed of many common masculine traits such as strength and aggressiveness. The source of his presumed effeminacy must lie elsewhere.

What is at issue is that the ancient Greeks, in addition to these fairly common gender ideas, added another heavy layer of supposedly gendered characteristics on top of these; we could refer to these as 'tertiary' gender characteristics. This third layer included such gender attributes as: the masculine is hot, dry, rational, controlled, dispassionate, civilized, fixed and stable; the feminine is cool, wet, irrational, uncontrolled, emotional, uncivilized, unstable and shifting. (Carson, 135-145) Women were held to possess an unstable, fluidic nature and lack of fixed boundaries; these ideas were partly inspired by female anatomy, and were reflected in such ideas as hysteria being caused by a wandering womb.(Carson, 137-9)

These qualities caused women to be seen as potentially dangerous and polluting; uncontrolled by nature, their permeability threatened the established order of things. (Carson, 158-160) Significantly, the Greeks also placed the exotic, as embodied by foreigners ('barbarians') and the bestial, as expressed by such figures as satyrs and centaurs, on the same end of the spectrum as the feminine. Thus, men were equated with Greekness, civilization and control, and women with wildness, nature, and the exotic. Greek masculinity at the center of all things pushed the foreign, the bestial and the exotic to the periphery.

This seems to be the real ground for the charge of effeminacy directed at Dionysos by various ancient writers. Dionysos had to be feminine, for the same reason that he had to be foreign and bestial: he was Other, opposed by nature to the dearest values of Greek society. He was wet and wild, emotional and disorderly, a god of madness and shape-shifting. He could not be a 'real man' in the eyes of the Greeks because a real man could not be allowed to possess these attributes. He was a strange god, and a god of the periphery - edging on the dark and unknown. The periphery, the uncivilized, was the realm of women and beasts; hence his companions were maenads and satyrs.

His dangerous influence further exacerbated the problem with women: possessed by Dionysos, they became even more irrational, passionate and wild. Liberated by the god, they abandoned their chaste behavior and wifely duties and danced madly through the forests, defying all social restraints. By enhancing those qualities that were seen as the dark side of femininity, Dionysos himself could be seen as partaking of a female extreme; his nature was in some threatening ways even more feminine than that of an ordinary woman.

The charge of effeminacy was not taken lightly in ancient Greece or Rome; there were social stigmas and sometimes civil penalties attached to the label. In Greece, a man earned a reputation as a 'kinaidos,' an effeminate man, through a penchant for taking a passive role in sexuality or through excessive unrestrained lust; he was not to be allowed to take leadership roles or any active public role in government. (Winkler, 176-178, 188-190) Given the seriousness of the accusation when directed against a man, what religious import could be read into the charge of effeminacy when directed against a god? Dionysos was the only major god to be spoken of in this way; he was thought by many to be a dangerous foreign import, although evidence points to his presence in the pantheon from the Mycenean era. He was seen as a subversive influence, who in his myths faced opposition by kings and led entire cities into chaos and revolt. His religion was always regarded with some fear and ambivalence, almost as a necessary evil.

The idea of a binary opposition between Apollo and Dionysos may be relevant here - with Apollo as embodying the rational, civilized values of Greek society, and Dionysos the raw, wild power of passion. The idea of Apollonian/Dionysian opposition seems to be a modern one, influenced largely by Friedrich Nietzsche; but also seems to echo Greek ideas in classical times. (Some have read an ancient origin for this idea in the alternating reign the two gods held at the sanctuary at Delphi, which belonged to Apollo in summer and Dionysos in winter.)

The values of masculinity were not only a philosophical ideal for the Greeks; the qualities of courage and self-restraint were seen as the practical foundation for the life of the polis and essential to its defense. Such a world view could not afford to see Dionysos as anything less than bizarre in the extreme, a deity best suited for women and bestial followers. That he was admitted to the Olympian pantheon, and that his religion became ultimately so popular and influential, is a remarkable fact which must surely indicate the hidden yearning of the Greek soul to be free from its self-imposed and constricting restraints.

IV. Conclusion

The paradox of phallicism and femininity coexisting within the divine figure of Dionysos need not be explained away by eliminating his maleness. Paradox is inherent in the nature of the god, as are themes of concealment and a fluidic, shape-shifting ambivalence. In the wet and wild, polymorphous passions of the wine god the Greeks encountered qualities that were anathema to all the values they held dear to a well-ordered civilization. In the organic, ecstatic, and often bloody effusion that characterized the Dionysian, the Greeks found a clear indication of the feminine, as they understood it within their own cultural context. Dionysos was of the periphery, foreign and animalistic, and to this periphery also adhered all that was feminine. The possibility of a different kind of masculinity, one which could dance to the pulse of wild nature, embrace dark mysteries and thrum with passion, does not seem to have occurred to the Greeks. Dionysos was a god for women, and if he had masculine followers, they too must be exotic and bestial, satyrs all.

How does the phallic nature of Dionysos relate to Greece as a male-dominated culture? Other than the fertilizing influence of Priapic sculpture placed in gardens, phallic imagery in Greece primarily occurred in two religious contexts: the Dionysian and the Hermetic. Hermes was a god of boundaries, and a deity who could pass easily between the realms of earth, sky and underworld. His symbol was the caduceus wrapped with serpents, a tool not so dissimilar to the phallic, ivy-wrapped thyrsus. His image, placed atop square-cut herms with prominent phalloi, often served as a boundary marker, warding off unwanted intrusions. This symbolism has been interpreted as a primal territorial gesture of exhibitionism; male monkeys in the wild have been observed to group together and display their genitalia to ward off threats from invaders. (Burkert, SHGMR, 40)

Thus, if the phallus served as a kind of axis mundi, a locus for the ideals of Greek civilization, it also served, in a Hermetic context, to mark the periphery, that edge beyond which one dare not go. Yet going beyond all edges is precisely what Dionysos does, in myth and in cult; he is a god of extremes and a breaker of boundaries. The phallic in a Dionysian context, far from guarding a boundary, marks the dramatic penetration of barriers, a forceful intrusion of the wild, chaotic and mysterious god into the rational, restrained confines of the Greek psyche. The Dionysian phallus is therefore a threat to, rather than a reinforcement of, the established social order. Dionysos is a god who liberates his followers through an act of possession, thereby enabling access to realms of sacred ecstasy. Crashing through the tightly drawn lines that divide the human from the animal and the divine, his is the thyrsus that shatters the rock, and draws from it sweet milk and honey.



Where there are multiple works by the same author, title abbreviations are in parentheses.

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3. Burkert, Walter. Structure and History in Greek Mythology and Ritual. ('SHGMR') University of California Press, Berkeley, 1979.

4. Carpenter, Thomas H. Dionysian Imagery in Archaic Greek Art. ('AGA') Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1986.

5. Carpenter, Thomas H. Dionysian Imagery in Fifth-Century Athens. (‘FCA’) Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1997.

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