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Dionysus: Myth and Cult – Book Review


Written by: Walter F. Otto
Translated by: Robert B. Palmer
Published by: Indiana University Press

Dionysus may not have been one of the Olympians and is therefore often left out of basic books on Greek religion. However, as Otto’s book proves, this does not in any case prove that Dionysus’ worship was not both vital and widespread. Forget what some people might tell you about Bacchus, the frat boy god–his cults were definitely more than wine, women, and song, even if that was, at times, part of them.

First, a note on the use of the word “cult” by both the author and myself. As Palmer states in his translator’s note, the word is not intended to carry any judgement or placement within a religion’s hierarchy. Instead, it merely means the acts of worshippers, sometimes as distinct from concrete, formalized liturgy. Cults are, essentially, a particular expression of a given religion, along with the attendant rites and ceremonies. Nothing negative is meant by the term.

[ad#longpost]Part One of Dionysus presents the general context of ancient Greek religion and the general characteristics of Dionysus’ worship. These practices are used to interpret the myths found in Part Two. Part Two reproduces the mythos of Dionysus and brings life to the first part. Images provide relief from the text and give a face to the god and his worshippers.

Otto’s book is admirably complete. Anything you wanted to know about Dionysus and his worship but were justly afraid to ask is here: maenads, tragedies, wine, madness, and silence. Particularly well-done is Otto’s treatment of Ariadne, the god’s human wife. He does an excellent job of presenting not only the details of Dionysus’ worship, but in recounting what we can know of the heart of the worship also, the poetry and the awe. Repeatedly, Otto and Palmer work together to create a prose that makes the god and his worshippers come alive for the modern reader and to understand what gave Dionysus’ cults power.

Otto’s prose is at heart academic, but is so poetically translated, that it is a joy to read. The book is an example of how academic prose does not have to be dry and stuffy to be clear and concise. The work should be accessible to even a novice in mythology. The only exception would be the scattered Greek phrases, usually taken from tragedies, that Otto does not translate intertextually. However, if the reader does not know Attic Greek, the meanings of these phrases can be gleaned through context or by using a good Greek dictionary and grammar primer.

In short, Dionysus is of use to anyone interested in Greek religion or classical culture, or students of comparative theology and myth in general. Students of tragedy and drama will also enjoy this work, especially those interested in the Nietzschian Apollo/Dionysus dichotomy.

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