The story of Dionysos's three births is well-known amongst both followers of the Olympians and students of ancient Greece. It remains one of those enigmatic tales of cannibalism, fatherly love, and rebirth. For the sake of those readers who may not know the myth I will make a brief recounting of the tale herein.
The infant was thrown into a cooking pot in several pieces after his initial birth to Semele by Zeus who thunders. Lured in by a clever conspiracy of the deposed Titans, Dionysos was captured. These vicious and bitter primordial beings then cannibalized the small boy. Upon hearing this Zueus's grief knew no bounds at the loss of his beloved, wild son. In a thundering rage befitting a Lord of clouds he descended into Tartarus.
His retribution was swift and cruel as lightning. Tearing into the giant ones he threw them into the depths of Abyss to be there chained. As one by one they flew into darkness unending, Mighty Father snatched the pieces of his dear son. After his thirst for revenge was slaked the Lord of Heaven tended to his mutilated son.
Betraying his tenderness as a father the Thunderer cried. Piecing together his infant child he drew needle and golden thread. Beginning his gruesome stitch work Zeus spoke in a booming voice broken with torment:
"Oh Dionysos, beloved scion of liberation and ecstasy, your loss is a gaping wound tinged with poison! Thy killers shall spend eternity in the dark depths of Hell for their transgressions dripping with impiety and hubris! Yea your death shall be bittersweet for I, your loving Father, shall sew you into my own thigh with this thread that holds you together! You will live again to further spurn those who conspire against us rulers of Olympus!"
Having made his decree known to all the world the great one collapsed with sadness. Exhausted with his efforts he still continued to tear his leg open and sew his poor son inside. There the child would grow until strong enough to be born again. Thus did Heaven again triumph over the crooked Titans that came before.
Many who read the tale are immediately struck by its poignancy. Few, however, proceed to examine it much deeper than its face value. An example they make it, of fatherly affection and self-sacrifice but often move no further. I on the other hand, as a sort of philosopher, enjoy looking deeper into the symbolism and motivations behind the players in the myth.
Symbolism takes an important part in all myths and especially so in those of Greek or proto-Greek origin. The symbolism in the above story, to me, lies in the birth, regurgitation, and rebirth of Dionysos the liberator. Though young, the God immediately gains status because he was born thrice rather than once. Even his sister Athene the wise was only born twice. Obviously his original biological birth is the first coming. Next came his rescuing from the Titan's by Zeus. Finally is his third birth from his Father's own thigh. Now, this is extraordinary enough in itself but it brooks further notice because of the number involved.
Three is a special number in many cultures and religions. Those of Greece were no exception in noticing its significance as a number. Most people notice the importance in Hekate the three-fold (sometimes) Goddess of mystery. A few do notice the fact that Dionysos was born, freed if you will, a total of three times. Three tends to be seen as a number of completion and also of mystery. This gives Dionysos his multi-dimensional character and his lust for freedom. It also leads him in at least some manner to the chaos he usually exhibits.
Beyond the symbolism of his multiple births I like to go even deeper into the ancient story. To go deeper one must know even more of psychology (if Gods can be seen to have psychology). The myths of Greece are intended to be taken in human terms. If they were not they would ultimately be no purpose for them in ancient times nor modern. Far from describing the true actions and thoughts of the Gods they teach us important lessons with the authority of the Gods behind them.
I will delve first into the motivations of the Titans in their devouring of the new-born Olympian. Looking past the obvious reason of revenge I can think of at least two other purposes for their macabre attack. Remembering that the Titans had just suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of their own children it is easy to see the avenging for that loss. That, to me, is not really the motivation though. It is an outward desire, yes, but the internal needs of the Titans are not so shallow.
After such a defeat the Titans were desperate to assert some form of control again. They were not used to subservience and hated that they were now second to their sons and daughters. In this vein they decided to mount a counter attack against the new Lords of Olympus. What better divisive tactic than to capture a new-born and viciously slaughter him? It not only established yet again their cunning, but also appalled the sensory of the "haughty" younger Gods. Once again, it seems, the Titans underestimated Zeus and the power of his anger. In their zeal for domination they sealed their fate with their own cruelty.
The next reason for the Titan's attack was for a different, but related, reason. Along with displaying their own power they also wanted to control that of the new Olympians. It was a necessity for their plans to include the sublimation of new growth amongst the Olympians. If they were ever to return to power the ancient giant ones needed to keep the power of Zeus and his siblings to a minimum. As much as possible the Titans had to stop the clock while they recovered from their defeat. So, the birth of a new son of the Heavens was highly distressing to the debased primordial gargantuan Gods. The mission to destroy Dionysos gained paramount importance in their eyes.
Moving away from the Titans I wish to now look into Zeus's reasoning behind his reactions. Doubtless you will all shout that it was fatherly love. It was natural for him to save and take revenge for his son's murder. I agree with this as well, but feel more needs to be said about the very nature of Zeus.
You see, this action of rescuing his child does establish the Father as a loving King, though it does not fully explain his own self-sacrifice. Most parents upon finding their baby cooked and eaten would give up after revenging the grievous loss. Zeus, however, has further reasons beyond his fatherhood for doing more.
It says a lot about Zeus that he was willing to rip open his own immortal thigh and carry the infant to rebirth. More than simply feeling the pain of the loss of his son he felt pain at the loss of a part of himself. This part of himself was even more dear and precious to the Sky King than his own offspring. You see, when the young son of Kronos took over rulership of the world at the behest of his traitorous mother Rhea he was not simply gaining power for himself and his family. I do not see it as a simple acceptance with which Zeus consented to the deed of tricking his father. For him it was also a choice to sacrifice a vital piece of his own heart, soul, and mind. That portion was so desirable to Zeus that he was willing to cause himself physical pain to revive his son. What he had given up and, in a way, regained in the saving of Dionysos was his freedom.
When one takes up the staff of a King he also lays down his own hopes and yearnings for himself. As exemplified in Zeus's actions regarding his amorous relations he was and had always been a free spirit. His unpredictable, fiery, and masculine nature pushed him to dream of being a wildly free God. This, as we can plainly see, was not possible. The timing was just too perfect (or disastrous depending on whether you take Zeus or Rhea's side in the matter) for such to be. It was with great humility and family loyalty that Zeus accepted the mantle that his mother laid upon him.
The King of all kings never lost his thirst for reckless abandon. It might be seen as his quest to always seek autonomy and feral pleasures. It was this ever-pressing urge that truly inspired Zeus's sacrifice to Dionysos. This more than anything motivated his actions that day. In saving his young son, the God also rescued his own liberty personified as a deity. One might even say that as Dionysos grew up Zeus lived vicariously through his exploits.
These energies of his father also played a heavy role in the God of Ecstasy's future. He has been described many times as a God of sacrifice. This can be partly attributed to the fact that he was cooked and eaten as a sort of sacrifice to the Titans. Looking deeper we see that Zeus's own personal risk also embodied in the young God a sense of the importance of such selflessness.
It is this tale of tragedy, love, and redemption that allows us to see into ourselves. Even more than what we learn about the Gods we can glimpse in our own hearts and souls. What father would not, if he could, resurrect his son from his own blood and flesh? Just as Demeter's wrath rescued, for a time, the lost Kore so to does Zeus's do the same for Dionysos. Without Dionysos we would be a stagnant race, a stale race. Praise be to Zeus and Zagreus for their life and journey!