DIONYSUS, CULT OF


DIONYSUS, CULT OF, the cult of the Greek god of wine and fertility. The non-Jews of Alexandria and Rome alleged that the cult of Dionysus was widespread among Jews. Plutarch tarch gives a Bacchanalian interpretation to the Feast of Tabernacles:

"After the festival called 'the fast' [the Day of Atonement], during the vintage, the Jews place tables laden with different fruits in booths of thickets woven from vines and ivy. Their first festival is called by them Sukkah (σκηνή). A few days later, the Jews celebrate another festival, which one may simply call a Bacchanalian festival. For this is a festival on which the Jews carry fig branches and sticks adorned with ivy and carry them into the Temple. One does not know" – adds Plutarch – "what they do in the Temple. It seems reasonable to suppose that they practice rites in honor of Bacchus. For they blow small horns as the people of Argos do during the festival of Dionysus, and call upon their god. Others, who are called Levites, walk in front, either in allusion to Lysios (λύσιος) – perhaps 'the god who attenuatescurses' – or because they call out 'Euius,' i.e., Bacchus."

According to Plutarch the subject of the connection between the Dionysian and Jewish cults was raised during a symposium held at Aidepsos in Euboea, with a certain Moiragenes linking the Jewish Sabbath with the cult of Bacchus, because "even now many people call the Bacchi 'Sabboi' and call out that word when they perform the orgies of Bacchus." Tacitus too thought that Jews served the god Liber, i.e., Bacchus-Dionysus, but "whereas the festival of Liber is joyful, the Jewish festival of Liber is sordid and absurd." According to Pliny, *Beth-Shean was founded by Dionysus after he had buried his wet nurse Nysa in its soil. His intention was to enlarge the area of the grave, which he surrounded with a city wall although there were as yet no inhabitants. Then the god chose the Scythians from among his companions, and in order to encourage them, honored them by calling the new city Scythopolis after them (Pliny, Natural History 5:18, 74). An inscription found at Beth-Shean dating from the time of Marcus Aurelius mentions that Dionysus was honored there as ktistes. Stephen of Byzantium reports a legend that connects the founding of the city of Rafa also with Dionysus (for the Dionysian foundation legends of cities in the region, see Lichtenberger's study). It is wrong to assume as some do that Plutarch took his account of the festival of Tabernacles from an antisemitic source, for despite all the woeful ignorance in his account it contains no accusation against, or abuse of, the Jews. It is more likely that Plutarch described the festival of Tabernacles from observation, interpreting it in accordance with his own philosophical outlook, which does not prevent him, however, from introducing into it features of the cult of the famous Temple of Jerusalem gleaned by him in his wide reading. The description as a whole, however, is of Tabernacles as it was celebrated in the Greek diaspora at the end of the first and the beginning of the second century C.E., and not as it was celebrated in the Temple, which had already been destroyed for more than a generation. The festival undoubtedly absorbed influences from the environment, so that Plutarch could indeed have witnessed what he recognized as customs of the Dionysian feast.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Reinach, Textes, 142–7 (= Plutarch, Moralia, Quaestiones Convivales 4:671D–672B), 309 (= Tacitus, Historiae, 5:5); Buechler, in: rej, 37 (1898), 181–202; Schuerer, Gesch, 3 (19094), 151. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: M. Stern (ed.), Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism, vol. 1 (1974), 545ff.; A. Lichtenberger, "City Foundation Legends in the Decapolis," in: Bulletin of the Anglo-Israel Archaeological Society 22 (2004), 23–34.

[Abraham Schalit /

Shimon Gibson (2nd ed.)]


Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.