Dionysus was born in Thebes, the son of Zeus and the princess Semele, and the only god whose parents were not both divine. Unfortunately, Semele came to a tragic end. Zeus, who was madly in love with her, swore by the river Styx (a very heavy deal) that he would do anything she asked. She wanted to see him in his full Zeusness as the Head Honcho of Heaven and Lord of the Thunderbolt. Zeus knew that no mortal could survive this awesome sight, but he had to comply; and sure enough, Semele fell down dead from merely beholding him. Ever the enterprising god, he spirited the fetus out of her corpse, and hid it from his jealous wife Hera until it was ready to be born (neat trick, but gods can do that stuff).
In his early years, Dionysus was cared for by the nurturing little Nymphs of Nysa (wherever that is). When Dionysus became an adult, he wandered thither and yon, brightening the dull lives of mortals. As God of the Vine, he taught men how to grow grapes, and to use wine to be merry and feel positively divine and inspired.
One day a ship full of pirates was sailing near Greece. They saw a beautiful youth on a headland by the shore, so gorgeous they thought he was a prince whose parents could pay a great ransom. So the sailors seized Dionysus-who else?-and tried to tie him to the masthead in true pirate fashion, but the ropes fell apart and he grinned at them. The helmsman alone understood that he must be a god and should be set free at once. But the not-very-perspicacious captain ignored his entreaties and ordered his men to hoist the sail. But (surprise! surprise!) the ship stayed put while wine ran all over the deck, a vine spread across the sail, and an ivy plant with flowers and fruits twined around the mast (It was really quite decorative). The pirates finally got the hint, but it was too late. Dionysus transformed himself into a roaring, clawing lion, and they all leapt overboard in terror, except for the savvy helmsman, who was spared. They were instantly turned into dolphins (sounds more like a reward than a punishment).
In Thrace, the god was insulted by a king named Lycurgus, who opposed the worship of the vine (he was one of those Temperance types). Dionysus punished him a little by imprisoning him in a cave until he calmed down. But then Zeus stepped in and struck Lycurgus blind for good measure. What a guy.
Another time, he came upon Ariadne, princess of Crete, bruised and battered after having been abused by her dysfunctional lover Theseus. Dionysus comforted her, and of course, fell in love. But she soon died, and he took the crown he’d given her and made it into a star (the celestial kind).
Dionysus never forgot his mother Semele (the one who’d had the heart attack from gaping at Zeus). One day, he descended into Hades to look for her, and Pluto, that soft-hearted old substance abuser, allowed him to take her up to Olympus to dwell among the gods as a mortal. (Of course, she had to live in the servant’s quarters).
Dionysus was an early rock star-flashy, trashy, and seductive. He attracted groupies known as the Maenads. They called him Dion, and spent their delectably debauched days tripping through the woods, waving magic wands and gulping jug wine. They had a disconcerting habit of tearing to pieces any animals they ran into and eating the raw flesh. Kind of carnivorous flower children, they were into Nature, and worshipped Dionysus because he was the Good Time God (except when he was being mean and nasty).
When Dionysus and entourage showed up in Thebes, his home town, the straitlaced King Pentheus took umbrage at their wild dancing and singing and orgiastic behavior. Although he was warned by the local prophet that Dionysus was a god, he captured and imprisoned him. In retaliation, Dionysus made the Theban women, including the king’s mother, temporarily nuts, so that they thought Pentheus was a dangerous mountain lion, and they tore him apart. When their madness was removed, they saw what they’d done-too late. Poor Pentheus was now vulture pizza.
The tragic side of Dionysus was that because he symbolized the vine, which is pruned until only the bare stock is left, and looks dead through the winter-like Persephone-he died with the coming of the cold. But unlike Persephone’s death, his was pretty frightful: he was ripped to pieces by his enemies (probably Pentheus’ pals). Be that as it may, the good news was that he was always brought back to life, like the vine; he died and rose again for more Fun, Frolics, and Frivolity.