Shiva and Dionysus

March 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

“Herodotus writes that India, the most remote, fantastical and climatically harsh place on Earth, is the nation that lies farthest to the east, and that beyond it lies desert, a wasteland of giant ants but abundant gold. While Roman writers would associate the Greek god Dionysus with the Hindu Shiva, Herodotus, though he writes nothing about Indian deities, establishes the possibility of an intermediary figure between Dionysus and Shiva: the Egyptian god of the dead, Osiris. He states that Dionysus is called Osiris in Egypt, is believed to rule the underworld, and is the only deity other than Isis who is worshiped throughout Egypt, and that his son, Horus, is Apollo.” (1)
“Several classical European authors even believed that such ‘Hindu’ ideas as metempsychosis [that the souls of animals travel into the bodies of other animals after death] had been brought back to Europe by the Greek gods themselves. Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and mystical ecstasy was purported to have journeyed to India, subdued the Aryan and Dravidian peoples, absorbed their philosophies, and returned to Europe with their chief ideas. Euripides describes Dionysus in Bacchae (406 B.C.) as a provider of knowledge and the conqueror of Arabia, Persia and Bactria”. (2)
“The triumphal march of Dionysus (or Bacchus, as he was generally known in Rome) through the lands of India was equated in Roman thought with the triumph of the deceased over death. His mythical victorious return from India on an elephant’s back, or in a chariot drawn by elephants, was shown in sculpted sarcophagi. Since Dionysiac processions symbolically reflected the joy of victory over death, the presence of elephants, which were believed to be favorites of the Sun-god gave further point to the triumph of light over darkness.” (3)

(1) Cowan R. The Indo-German Identification: Reconciling South Asian Origins and European Destinies, 1765-1885.
(2) Ibid.
(3) Scullard H.H. The Elephant in the Greek and Roman World.
Images:  Shiva, contemporary chromolithograph; Bacchus, Caravaggio, c.1595; Sarcophagus, Roman, c.190

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