1. Hero’s mother is a royal virgin;2. His father is a king, and3. Often a near relative of his mother, but4. The circumstances of his conception are unusual, and5. He is also reputed to be the son of a god.6. At birth an attempt is made, usually by his father or his maternal grand father to kill him, but7. He is spirited away, and8. Reared by foster -parents in a far country.9. We are told nothing of his childhood, but10. On reaching manhood he returns or goes to his future Kingdom.11. After a victory over the king and/or a giant, dragon, or wild beast,12. He marries a princess, often the daughter of his predecessor and13. And becomes king.14. For a time he reigns uneventfully and15. Prescribes laws, but16. Later he loses favor with the gods and/or his subjects, and17. Is driven from the throne and city, after which18. He meets with a mysterious death,19. Often at the top of a hill,20. His children, if any do not succeed him.21. His body is not buried, but nevertheless22. He has one or more holy sepulchres.
At the same time, if we should discover that there is a direct correlation between two figures, or two literary works, then that would be extremely interesting. Take for example the story of Moses and Superman. These two figures, although entirely different, arising in different cultures and different time periods, share some surprising yet undeniable correlations.
In fact, I firmly believe that like the above Moses and Superman example, that the myth of Dionysus, specifically Euripides’ epic The Bacchae, in all likelihood has had a large influence of the Gospel narrative of Jesus Christ.
1. In the opening lines of The Bacchae it states Dionysus changes in shape from God to man. Christians believe Jesus is God incarnate, an idea they get from the NT written by Greek authors who were, in all likelihood, well verse in the Greek epics.
2. Both Dionysus and Jesus’ followers consisted of distinct male and female groups. The procession of followers of Dionysus were comprised of the thiasus (i.e., an ecstatic retinue), the bearded styrs and the loyal women the maenads. In the case of Jesus, his followers consist of the twelve Apostles (also an ecstatic retinue, and most of whom had beards) and the loyal women, namely the three Marys (and most likely other women as well).
3. Both Dionysus and Jesus are linked to wine symbolism, and the harvest, and fit the pattern of dying and rising gods, or Corn Kings, a term C.S. Lewis used and derived from Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, in which Frazer refers to the archetypal “sacrificial-scapegoat,” such as the dying and rising gods Osiris, Lityerses, Adonis, and Bacchae as the “Korn King.” Additionally, Peter Wick has shown how Jesus turning water into wine at the Marriage of Cana (cf. John 2:1-11; and John 2:3-5 with The Bacchae lines 254-56; 493-96; and 834-35) was intended to show that Jesus was superior to his pagan counterpart Dionysus.
4. In The Bacchae, Dionysus frequently refers to himself as the “Son of God” or “Child of God” whereas Jesus is frequently referred to as the Son of God in the Gospels. Later on, both are referred to as “God’s true Son” (cf. 1 John 5:20 with The Bacchae line 1050).
5. Both Dionysus and Jesus are raised by foster parents with royal ties. King Athamas and his wife Ino raise Dionysus and Joseph and Mary of the royal bloodline of King David raise Jesus.
6. In both cases the foster parents are instructed by angelic figures (the winged Hermes in for Dionysus and the winged Gabriel for Jesus) to raise the child in a specific way or manner.
7. Both infants are birthed in secrecy while fleeing from the powers that would seek to have them killed; the ever jealous queen of the gods Hera in the case of Dionysus and King Herod the Great in the case of Jesus.
8. Comparing the Gospel stories of Jesus’ trial with the trial of Dionysus in The Bacchae, we discover that both Jesus and Dionysus get arrested and, subsequently are interrogated by the appointed ruler of the land; Pontius Pilate and King Pentheus respectively.
9. After they are questioned about their intentions, both give vague responses in much the same way, the most notable being that they both claim to “bare witness to the truth.”
10. Dionysus, when facing the charge of treason for claiming divinity (which, we shall not forget, Jesus faces similar, if not the very same, charges against himself), he refers to himself as a lion walking into a net (The Bacchae, line 1036) thus predicting his own demise. This mirrors Jesus’ prediction of his own death as well. Although it could be claimed a rather loose parallel, Jesus too is likened to the Lion of Judah in Revelation 5:5. It is simply interesting to note that both figures were likened to lions by those who authored their stories.
11. Jesus, like Dionysus, was also accused of drinking too much wine and with known drunkards, and that he himself was a known glutton and a drunkard (Mat. 11:19), an accusation he never denied.
12. Both are sacrificed on a hill (cf. Mark 15:22 with The Bacchae line 1047), and both rise into the heavens upon the clouds (cf. Matt. 26:64 and Mark 14:62 with The Bacchae lines 1685-86).
13. Regarding Jesus and Dionysus, both of their sacrifices guarantees the salvation from sin for their followers (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:9 with The Bacchae line 1037).
14. During their final hours before death, both are surrounded by their most loyal female followers (in the case of Jesus the book of John mentions it’s the three Marys – his mother Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Mary, the wife of Cleopas – and for Dionysus it’s Agave and her women attendants) and upon rising from death it is specifically these loyal female followers who discover them risen.
15. Both overcome death and then rise upon clouds of glory.
16. After being reborn and then spirited away, it is said each will be “exalted on high.”
Unlike many who are quick to dismiss such literary similarities as unrelated coincidence, I feel that the connection between Dionysus and Jesus Christ may be greater than some tend to think, not only because it is well understood that the story of Jesus turning water to wine seems to have been specifically designed to compete with the popular Dionysian mystery cult at the time, but also because, knowing this, we might come to find the rest of Jesus narrative was designed to compete as a more contemporary, popular version of Dionysus as well, perhaps as a means to win over pagan converts. I find this gives us reason enough to think maybe, just maybe, these parallels are more profound than just simple mythemes and random similarities. There may be a genuine influence of one narrative upon the other, and vice verse, and that’s something worth thinking about.
[Update: Since publishing this article, I’ve received two emails by concerned Christians expressing how offensive they found the content. Of course, my intention was not to offend, merely enlighten. My only goal here was to raise some interesting points, ones I personally feel are worth pondering, and which others may or may not have been aware of. I also made sure to mention that being offended by the mere suggestion that there might be some parallels between Jesus and Dionysus would be a lot like getting offended over the obvious parallels between Moses and Superman. It’s all rather silly, if you stop to think about it.]