Dionysos was frequently associated with wild animals, and had the ability to take on their appearance, often in dramatic circumstances.
Compared to Demeter, the goddess of growth and the grain harvest, who is associated with domesticated animals, Dionysos acts as mediator between the wild and destructive forces of nature and the order of Greek civilisation. Dionysos’ ability to transform himself, and others, was a key part of his power.
Leopards and other large cats had a special affinity with Dionysos, whose chariot was pulled by the mythical panther. He was also known to take the form of a bull, lion or serpent. In each case, the epiphany of the god in animal form is associated with a terrifying experience.
In one myth, Dionysos transforms himself into a lion to escape marauding pirates, causing them to leap overboard where they are transformed into dolphins. In another, Dionysos in the guise of a young girl, visits the daughter of Minyas who had refused to join the women of the city in mountain-side revels. In a rage, Dionysos turns into a bull, then a lion, then a leopard, and makes honey and milk flow from the women’s looms.
Show yourself as a bull in appearance, or a many-headed serpent, or a lion blazing like fire! Go, O Bacchus!
- Euripides, Bacchae, 1017-20
Dionysos’ followers, the maenads and satyrs, also possessed animal characteristics. The maenads are not associated with a specific animal, but in poetry and vase painting they tear apart animals to eat their raw flesh and clothe themselves in their skins.
Conversely, satyrs embodied their wild qualities by being not quite human. Originally they had the characteristics of horses or donkeys, but later also took on the characteristics of goats. Both maenads and satyrs represent the unconstrained power of nature.