The twelve Olympians were not very useful to the average human, and in fact they often caused more trouble than not. There were two important gods who lived on Earth and helped mankind, however: Demeter (Ceres), the Goddess of Corn, and Dionysus, also called Bacchus, the God of Wine.
These gods are important for daily life – like Hestia, or the Penates – but they also have tragic stories and interesting lives. Because of this they were more beloved than the other Olympians.
Demeter is the older of the two. She provides fruitful harvests, is a friend of women, and protects the threshing-floor. Demeter was celebrated at harvest time every five years with a nine-day festival. Her great temple was at Eleusis, and her worship was a central part of daily life. There were mysterious rites that took place in Demeter’s temple which we still do not know about, as they were protected by vows of silence.
With Demeter the divine and the human are very closely linked, as the miracle of the corn harvest each year was also a necessity for survival for the Greeks. The mysterious rites of her festival increased the sense of holiness surrounding the harvest.
Dionysus later came to be worshipped at Eleusis as well, which was fitting as both were gods that brought gifts of the earth, and were also yearly defeated by winter. Both Demeter and Dionysus were gods of sorrow as well as joy – unlike the blissful Olympian gods, they knew yearly grief. The early humans used stories about Demeter and Dionysus to explain winter, when everything died and the earth seemed sad.
Many of the myths explain natural phenomena like flowers and constellations, but the great mystery of these earth gods is the continual change of seasons – that each year the earth should seem to die, and then be reborn in the spring. Demeter and Dionysus put this in human terms.
Demeter had only one child, Persephone, who was kidnapped by Hades, lord of the dead, to be his queen. Demeter disguised herself as a mortal and wandered the earth in grief and despair. Eventually she came to Eleusis, and there she was taken in by a hospitable family. They accidentally offended her one night and then Demeter revealed herself, and she told Metaneira, the mother, to build her a temple nearby to win back her favor.
This is also the origin story of Persephone, who will become the beautiful, mysterious queen of the underworld. More myths will reveal that hospitality was sacred to the Greeks, partly because of myths like this – you should be kind to strangers, as they might by gods in disguise.
Once her temple was built Demeter lived there, but the earth began to die as her grief continued. Nothing would grow, and it seemed that mortals would starve to death. Finally Zeus sent Hermes to try and make amends. Hermes convinced Hades to let Persephone visit her mother, but first Hades made her eat a magic pomegranate seed that would make her return to him.
This is the first winter, and it associates the death of the fields with Demeter’s motherly grief. The pomegranate seed comes to symbolize the time Persephone must stay in the underworld. It was a sacred fruit in several ways to the ancient Greeks.
Persephone and Demeter greeted each other joyfully, but were saddened by their inevitable parting. Eventually Zeus sent his mother, Rhea, to make a compromise. Persephone would stay with Hades for a third of the year and with Demeter for the other two thirds. Demeter was sorrowful, but she agreed. When Persephone returns to Hades, Demeter grieves and makes the world barren with winter, but when she returns each spring Demeter makes the earth blossom with her joy.
Rhea, Zeus’s mother, is a mysterious figure associated with Earth itself. The origins of winter and spring are explained in the story’s conclusion. The joy of spring is always colored by the knowledge of future sadness, as Persephone and Demeter’s joyful reunion cannot escape the shadow of their inevitable parting.
Hamilton emphasizes the importance of sorrow in the story of Demeter and Persephone. They are both goddesses of life and beauty, but it is a fragile beauty that knows also the power of death. Mortals could find more comfort with Demeter and Persephone – goddesses who understood sadness and death – than with the Olympians, who knew neither.
Hamilton implies that in Demeter and Dionysus, the gods became more “human-like” than ever before, taking even the act of dying and making it divine. The special kind of beauty and heroism that exists within the knowledge of future death will recur many times.
Dionysus was the last god to enter Olympus, and the only god who had a mortal parent. Zeus was his father, but his mother was a Theban princess called Semele. Zeus loved Semele passionately and promised to grant her any wish. The angry, jealous Hera made Semele wish to see Zeus’s full glory. Zeus was forced to show himself (as he had sworn by the river Styx), and his glory killed Semele, but Zeus saved her unborn child and hid it in his own side to protect it from Hera.
Semele will reappear much later in the book as Hamilton untangles the complicated web of character relationships in the myths. This is the first example of the jealous, spiteful Hera punishing Zeus’s relatively innocent lover with death. The Styx, one of the rivers of Hades, is often mentioned as something that can make an oath unbreakable.
When the baby, Dionysus, was born, Hermes carried him away to be raised by the nymphs of the magical valley of Nysa. Dionysus then wandered the earth, teaching mortals about the secrets of wine and his worship. He was usually accepted as a god, but once a group of pirates kidnapped him and would not let him go despite his obvious divinity. Eventually he transformed into a lion and changed the pirates into dolphins.
Dionysus seems even more familiar, as he is born of a human mother. Dionysus is often compared to Jesus Christ (who came later) as a god who walks the earth, proclaiming his own divinity and being scorned (and then killed) by mortals. Hamilton later implies this connection with her language about resurrection, but she never explicitly says it.
Dionysus also punished a Thracian king, Lycurgus, who insulted him. In Crete, Dionysus saved and fell in love with Ariadne, who had been cruelly abandoned by the Athenian hero Theseus. Dionysus always longed for Semele, his mother, and eventually he defied Hades himself to save her from death and bring her up to Olympus, where she became an immortal.
Dionysus moves through myths that Hamilton will later describe in detail, like Semele’s family, Theseus, and Ariadne. Several mythological figures will go down to Hades to seek a dead loved one, but Dionysus is one of the few successful ones.
Dionysus was one of the gods most contradictory in his nature, as was fitting for the lord of wine. He could be kind and generous, but he was also the god of madness and insane violence. His followers were the Maenads, women driven mad by wine who tore apart and devoured wild animals. They worshipped in the wilderness rather than in a temple. Dionysian worship was made of these two components: freedom and wild joy, and uncontrollable brutality.
The mysteries of wine were surely perplexing to the early Greeks, and so they explained it with this dual-natured god. In Dionysus, the contradictions of many of the gods are heightened and used to explain how alcohol can make people happy and friendly, but also wild and dangerous.
Dionysus’ cruelest deed took place in Thebes, where Pentheus, the king (and Semele’s nephew), refused to worship him and even imprisoned Dionysus. As punishment Dionysus drove Pentheus’ mother and sisters mad, so that they thought Pentheus was a mountain lion and tore him apart with their bare hands.
Dionysus, like many of the gods, shares this capricious temper when it comes to being insulted by mortals. In this case the punishment is far worse than the crime. The idea of justice is shaky when it comes to the God of Wine.
Dionysus’ double nature came naturally, as the Greeks knew that wine could make men friendly and happy but also angry and violent. Dionysus eventually became one of the most important gods, representing not just drunken joy but also holy inspiration. The first theater was performed at the festival in his honor. The greatest poetry in Greece was written for Dionysus, and in this way he became an unrivaled deity.
He was beloved for his stories and the wine he represented, but Dionysus is most important historically as the father of the theater. The philosopher Nietzsche would later discuss the primal, undifferentiated “Dionysian” aspect of human nature, which combined with the more structured “Apollonian” to create the great art of the Greeks.
Like Demeter, Dionysus was also a god that understood suffering and death. Every winter he died like Persephone, but his death was more brutal – he was torn to pieces. Then he rose again every spring, and it was his resurrection that the theater celebrated. He was the “tragic god,” and so the god of the great Greek tragedies. He became a symbol of hope for the immortality of the soul, and for life beyond death.
Dionysus is the “tragic god” because his wild, primal life exists in the shadow of his inevitable death every winter. He lives fully and gloriously despite his fate to be torn apart. Life in the face of a brutal fate becomes the subject of many of the later Greek tragedies, which were originally inspired by Dionysus himself.