Barry’s Blog # 85: Male Initiation and the Mother in Greek Myth, Part Seven of Eight

Dionysus and Hephaestus


Dionysus, like Heracles, was born of Zeus and a mortal woman. Initiation motifs occur throughout his life: in his suffering, his dismemberment by the Titans, his double birth and the wound in Zeus’s thigh from which he was re-born. Like Heracles, he was persecuted and driven mad by Hera. Unlike Heracles, Dionysus was saved and protected by a series of nymphs and goddesses who became his surrogate mothers.

His human mother Semele had died and descended to Hades, and Zeus, after birthing him, disappeared as usual. Thus many of Dionysus’ tales, especially those in which he invaded foreign lands so as to establish his religion and prove his divine birth, may indicate his search to find his father and be accepted among the gods.

He accomplished the task by descending to Hades, resurrecting his mother and bringing her to Olympus. The story of how he did this, however, is typical neither of the omnipotent gods nor of the classic heroes. Not knowing the path to the underworld, he asked directions of a human, Prosymnos, who first made Dionysus promise that he would submit to intercourse after he returned.

Prosymnos then guided him to the swamp of Lerna and a bottomless pool, the entrance to Hades. There he found Semele and bribed Persephone to attain her freedom. What was the bribe? What did he leave in the underworld? His old, uninitiated self, perhaps.

Returning, he brought Semele to Olympus, renamed her Thyone (“Ecstatically raging”) and confirmed his own divine status. But when he returned to find Prosymnos, he discovered that the man had died in the meantime. In memory of him, Dionysus carved a phallus out of wood, sat on it, and completed the agreement in effigy.

In this tale he mediates between the active and the passive. He discovers that losing one’s everyday identity to something greater can be a blessing and not only a curse. This is the mysterious source of creativity, what Plato called “poetic madness” – passively opening to the inspiration that is prior to the active act of creativity itself. To do so, writes Hillman, means, “allowing the other to enter and occupy whole areas of your soul, to submit, to be penetrated, but not possessed.”

Passive knowing – inspiration – precedes active creativity. Dionysus had learned this from his female teachers. Having already been disconnected from her in his infancy, he resurrected the mother to her former status. Both were now divine.


Dionysus reconciled with Hera by doing her a big favor. Moving from men and demi-gods, let’s consider the initiation story of a fully immortal being: how Dionysus got Hephaestus drunk and released Hera from the golden chair.

Hephaestus was born in anger. According to some stories he had no father at all. Zeus had given birth without a woman to Athena. In response, Hera gave birth without a male to Ares and Hephaestus. But disgusted by this lame, ugly son, she hurled Hephaestus out of Olympus. Others said that it was Zeus who cast him out and caused the crippling wound, as a result of Hephaestus’ attempt to intervene in a family fight and protect his mother.

In either story, though he was an immortal, he was an abused, unloved child. Which wound was deeper – his physical lameness or the rejection of his parents?

He was saved and – like Dionysus – nursed by Thetis and the nymphs of the sea and ultimately accepted in Heaven. But Hephaestus was filled with resentment at his early abuse and abandonment. In addition to being the god of the forge and of the creation of beauty – his divine gift to the world – he was also the god (Vulcan in Latin) of the volcano, the essence of suppressed rage.

He disguised his attitude by playing the buffoon among the gods and providing comic relief. His craftsmanship reflected glory on his mother, who reluctantly accepted him, but he remained detached and resentful.

Eventually Hephaestus took his vengeance. He constructed a beautiful, golden chair for Hera. But when she sat on it, she couldn’t get up, and he hoisted her up in the air, where she remained captive.

Murray Stein interprets this as an initiation story that begs to be played out literally in many contemporary marriages where the husband has withdrawn emotionally from a needy wife. Behind the rejection of the son is the rejection of the mother in the world of Patriarchy. The result is a cycle of mutual ambivalence and hostility, an impasse between countless husbands and wives that mirrors the relationship of Zeus and Hera.

In Jungian terms, a man’s repressed feminine “marries” his shadow complex of repressed masculinity, giving the feminine an evil tone.  Projected onto actual women, this “evil” feminine justifies his vigilant opposition to psychological intimacy – the terrain that women are most comfortable in. I suggest that this repressed masculinity is the terrain of Dionysus; and such painful human marriages are “toxic mimics” of his own sacred marriage to Ariadne, the hieros gamos.

But this story entertains the possibility of an integrated masculine identity. First the gods asked Ares to force Hephaestus to relent, but he easily repulsed Ares with a blast from his furnace. Only then did the gods ask Dionysus to intervene. He calmly got Hephaestus drunk and led him home straddling a mule. When he woke from his stupor, Hephaestus saw the beautiful Aphrodite and fell in love.

The gods worked out a deal: Hephaestus received Aphrodite – the most connecting of the deities, the very essence of interrelatedness – as his wife; Hera was released and peace was restored; all because of Dionysus.

Dionysus leading Hephaestus back to Olympus

He, a son of a loving but distant father, had led Hephaestus, a wounded son who had no father, to a proper relationship with his inner feminine, or anima. Hephaestus and Aphrodite lived happily ever after – or, as Michael Meade often adds at the end of a story – at least until their first argument.

Read Part Eight here.

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