Although Delphi was predominantly the sanctuary of Apollo, he shared it with another deity. Appropriately for this place of opposites, it was a god as far removed from Apollo’s civilizing order as might be imagined: Dionysus. Every year in late October, when the Pleiades can first be seen and snow begins to shroud Parnassus, the dark crags become threatening and wild. Now Apollo was believed to depart from Delphi and spend the winter in the Land of the Hyperboreans (a northern land, identified by one Greek geographer as Britain). For three months at Delphi Dionysus ruled supreme.

Early Greeks envisaged Dionysus bearded, swathed in leopard skins and clutching his talismanic thyrsus, a fennel stalk wrapped in ivy (whose evergreen leaves were sacred to the god) and topped with a pine cone. Later, in the fifth century bc, they began to portray him as a beardless, effeminate youth, crowned in a garland of grapes and vine leaves. In truth, he could be anything, for he was above all the god of metamorphosis, who could alter men’s perceptions of reality, not least through wine or drama. Fittingly for Delphi, one of his most virtuosic transformations included turning men into dolphins.

Dionysus Photo Gallery

The Homeric Hymn to Dionysus tells how pirates captured the young god as he stood ‘on a headland which stretched into the barren sea’. Once he was aboard, however, they found that they had more than met their match:

Soon miracles began to happen. First wine, sweet-tasting and sweet-smelling, splashed through the black ship, a divine aroma drifted up, and the sailors were amazed. Then, on the highest yardarm, a vine began uncoiling – on both sides – heavy with grapes; and dark ivy twined around the mast, bursting with flowers and thick with berries. And at the ship’s prow the god transformed himself into a lion, terrifying, roaring like thunder. When the sailors saw it, to escape their evil fate, they all jumped overboard into the sparkling sea, and were transfigured into dolphins.

Having transformed its piratical crew into dolphins, Dionysus reclines in his black ship as vines, heavy with grapes, twine round its mast. (Sixth-century BC wine cup.)

Only the sympathetic helmsman, who had tried to prevent the pirates’ kidnap of the god, survived unscathed. To those who recognized him, Dionysus could be gentle – he was both Bromios (‘Thunderer’) and Eleutherios (‘Liberator’).

It was wise to treat Dionysus’ followers with kindness, too. Plutarch (himself a Delphic priest) records that, during the Sacred Wars of 356-346 bc (when neighbouring states fought for control of Delphi), a group of the god’s worshippers, maenads from Athens and Phocis, became lost on Mount Parnassus and stumbled in a trance into the market place of hostile Amphissa (7 km or 4 miles from Delphi). Here local women found them at dawn and in silence formed a protective circle round them until the maenads’ senses returned. Then they persuaded their husbands to escort the still disorientated worshippers in safety to their frontier.

Meanwhile, Plutarch’s contemporary, Pausanias, described how: ‘the summit of Parnassus is hard to reach – even for a man in good condition. Its peaks are above the clouds. Only the crazed Thyades [possibly a ‘college’ of maenads based in Athens] run here in honour of Dionysus and Apollo.’ That they honoured both might suggest that this was a special festival, perhaps held to mark one of the two annual transitions of Delphi’s ‘ownership’ from one god to the other.

The Delphians even claimed to possess Dionysus’ tomb. Sited near the Omphalos, it was the focus of a cult celebrating the god’s death and resurrection. Housed in the Temple of Apollo, on the site of an early temple believed to have been constructed by Apollo himself, it was the setting for several episodes from mythology.

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