“The Bacchus story also contained remarkable similarities to Mosaic attributes and legends. For, as Bochart pointed out, both Bacchus and Moses were born in Egypt, shut up in an ‘ark,’ and put on the waters. Both fled from Egypt toward the Red Sea and had serpents (in Moses’ case, a bronze serpent). For both, water flowed from a rock and milk and honey were provided. Both were called legislators, turned sticks into snakes, saw light in the darkness, and had unknown tombs...”
Dr. Gerald R. McDermott, Jonathan Edwards Confronts the Gods (91)
THIS CHAPTER analyzes in depth the characteristics that Dionysus/Bacchus shares with Moses, gathered together from ancient primary sources, as reiterated by many writers over the past several centuries. Because we are dealing with a god whose reverence is so archaic and widespread, there exist numerous traditions associated with his worship not strictly from Greek mythology but representing elements from other, older cultures as well. Like other mythical figures in antiquity, this multifaceted god was said to symbolize multiple characters, some of whom ancient writers and worshippers believed were historical.
As noted in the discussion of syncretism, the merger of gods with each other and with real people is quite common in the development of myth, as was understood in antiquity, in the analyses of various ancient writers concerning the different Dionysuses, for example. Here we will treat the composite figure as one myth for ease of reference, as, again, it is clear that such “confusion” or syncretism was recognized anciently as well.
The following list highlights some of the attributes of the Dionysian myth in common with that of Moses:
1. Like the Hebrew prophet, Dionysus was said to be born in or near Egypt, reflected in the epithet Nilus or “of the Nile.”
2. Dionysus was “saved from the waters” in a small box or chest.
3. Bacchus’s epithet was “Mises,” similar to “Moses.”
4. The Greek god was said to be “Bimater” or to have two mothers, like Moses with his birth and adoptive mothers.
5. Dionysus was “brought up near a mountain of Arabia called Nisa,” comparable to Mt. Sinai, where Moses spent many years.
6. Like Moses exiled to “Arabia,” Bacchus grew up in Arabia and battled Egypt.
7. Bacchus married Venus, one of the seven “planets,” while Moses’s wife, Zipporah, is one of seven sisters.
8. Like Moses (Exod 2:22), Dionysus fathered children.
9. Like Yahweh’s burning bush, Dionysus was “the fire,” appropriate for a solar hero.
10. Dionysus was instructed in the “secrets of the gods,” serving as a prophet.
11. Wherever Bacchus marched, the “land flowed with wine, milk, and honey.”
12. Bacchus carried a magical rod that he could change into a serpent and that was wrapped with snakes like a caduceus, similar to Moses’s staff and brazen serpent pole.
13. Like the biblical pestilences, Dionysus caused a “plague of insanity” to befall the women of Athens, who killed themselves, a curse ended by creating a new religious festival to propitiate the gods.
14. Disbelievers in Bacchus’s religion were “smote with disease in their private parts,” much like the hemorrhoids of Yahweh (1 Sam 5:9, 6:4–5).
15. Dionysus’s army included both men and women, as did the Israelites fleeing Egypt.
16. Like Yahweh’s pillar of fire leading the way, the solar “joy-inspiring” Bacchus himself was considered to be a “pillar to the Thebans.”
17. Again like the biblical fire column, Dionysus used fire to lead his army through India.
18. As Moses battled Pharaoh the “dragon,” Dionysus smote Pentheus the “serpent.”
19. Bacchus fled to the “ruddy sea,” escaping from a tyrant, who was killed.
20. The Greek god used his magic wand to divide the waters of the rivers Orontes and Hydaspes, in order to cross dryshod.
21. As did Moses, Dionysus drowned his enemies while crossing a river.
22. Both lawgivers introduced sacred music.
23. Dionysus had a “Maira,” comparable to Moses’s “Miriam” or “Maria.”
24. Both Bacchus and Moses’s female followers sang and danced with glee at the vanquishing of their enemies.
25. In order to refresh his army, Bacchus brought forth miraculously a spring of water (and “fountain of wine”) by striking the ground with his magic rod or thyrsus.
26. Dionysus slew a giant during a battle using his sacred wand/ thyrsus, comparable to Moses using his magical rod to slay the Amalekites.
27. Like Moses, Bacchus was ordered by a deity to “destroy an impious nation.”
28. Like the Hebrew prophet, Dionysus was the great civilizing force who created a government according to a “constitutional order.”
29. Bacchus was the legislator, bearing the title θεσμοφόρος thesmophoros or the “lawbearer,” who “engraved his laws on two tables of marble.”
30. One of Bacchus’s festivals was the Sabazia, while Moses instituted the Sabbath.
31. Bacchus had a sacred ark in which his image was placed, the sight of which drove its beholders insane.
32. As did the Hebrew lawgiver, Dionysus had two horns or rays on his head, associated with the bull.
33. Like Moses and his law, Bacchus learned the “rites of sacrifice,” which he taught to his people.
34. Like that of Moses, Dionysus’s religion had detailed instructions on how to sacrifice various animals, such as oxen, goats, sheep and bulls.
35. A principal Dionysian celebration was the “vintage Feast of Bowers,” following the autumnal equinox, while the Jewish fall festival of the Feast of the Tabernacles was said to have been instituted by Moses and to represent the time of the vintage.
36. Dionysus had a dog for a companion, while Moses had a companion named “Dog” in Hebrew (Caleb).
37. Like Moses’s Caleb, Bacchus’s dog leads to the “promised land” full of juicy grapes.
38. Dionysus’s major festival was held at the vernal equinox, the time of Israel’s mythical entrance into the Promised Land, establishing the Jewish New Year and annual Passover celebration, as well as the time of Christ’s passion.
39. Bacchus was associated with books and literacy, another appropriate attribute for a lawgiver said to have written books.
40. Like Moses, whose sepulcher is unknown “unto this day,” no one knew where Bacchus was buried.
41. As the Hebrew lawgiver was said to ascend to heaven, so too did Dionysus rise into heaven.
42. As Moses was the deliverer of Israel out of Egypt, called σωτήρ soter at Acts 7:35, one of Bacchus’s epithets is Soter or “savior, deliverer.”
43. Like Joshua, Moses’s successor, Dionysus used treachery and deceit to subdue a barbarous nation and sack its cities.
44. Also like Joshua, Dionysus made treaties with those through whose lands he and his followers passed.
45. As did Moses and Joshua, Bacchus commanded the sun to stand still.
46. Like that of the Bible, Dionysus’s religion was a proselytizing faith.
As concerns the priority of these attributes, whether associated first with Dionysus or Moses, we need to disentangle the various periods when these figures and characteristics emerge initially in the literary and archaeological record. Dionysus’s name appears first in the extant historical record, and the proto-Bacchic solar, fertility, mead and wine god predates Moses the prophet by millennia, as do numerous lawgivers and myths of law codes, exoduses, unusual births, sea-controlling and water-producing miracles, and so on.
Bacchus’s most archaic form may be the Thracian, Sumerian or Egyptian wine deity, reflected in the latter culture in the very ancient god Osiris, whose myth contains several relevant “Bacchic” motifs and began to be formulated over 5,000 years ago. Meanwhile, the evidence points to the Moses character as syncretized and his story written between the seventh and third centuries BCE, using some older germ myths and core texts.
In any event, in discussing Dionysus/Bacchus we can be assured that we are dealing with a myth, even if some person or persons contributed a detail or saying here and there. Hence, there is little reason to insist that these supernatural stories revolving around a mythical god are actually “historical,” taken from the “true” story of Moses and attached to the mythological tale of Dionysus. The more logical conclusion is that the attributes are mythical, regardless of whose “biography” they first padded out, although the evidence does suggest that parts of the Moses myth were based directly on the ancient and well-developed Greek myth. As myths with meaning, these tales likely originate in a remote age, possibly attached to the vine/wine deity several thousand years ago.
God of Nysa
Dionysus’s birthplace was said to have been in numerous places, as is fitting for a mythical character based on the spread of the vine and wine:
“Everywhere we seem to have discerned the birthplace of the god; yet everywhere we learn that he was no native…”
As noted, in his identification of Osiris with Dionysus, Diodorus (1.15.6) related an ancient etymology for the Greek god’s name:
Osiris was also a proponent of agriculture. A son of Zeus, he was raised at Nysa, in Arabia Felix not far from Egypt; in fact, the name Dionysus, which he bears among the Greeks, derives from both his father and the locale.
At 4.2.4, Diodorus explains further the commonly held etymology for the name “Dionysus”: “Dio- (from Dios, the genitive form of the nominative Zeus) and -nysus (Nysa).” The pronunciation of the name “Dionysos” to an ancient Greek sounded like “the god of Nysa,” which is why in antiquity we find that very etymology being posited. As Classics professor Dr. Carl A.P. Ruck states:
The name of Dionysus himself contains the Indo-Europeans’ word for their chief god, Zeus/Dios, and testifies to an attempt to incorporate the alien deity into Indo-European mythology as a son of Zeus, the so-called “Nysian Zeus.”
Whether or not this etymology is accepted by modern scholars, many ancients perceived it to be so, and sacred sites called Nysa sprang up in a variety of places. Regarding the location of Nysa, Apollodorus editor Sir James G. Frazer (1854–1941) relates:
According to Diodorus Siculus [3.59.2; 3.64.5; 3.65.7; 3.66.3], Nysa, the place where the nymphs reared Dionysus, was in Arabia, which is certainly not a rainy country; but he admits [3.66.4; 3.67.5] that others placed Nysa in Africa, or as he calls it, Libya away in the west beside the great ocean. Herodotus speaks of Nysa as “in Ethiopia above Egypt” [2.146], and he mentions “the Ethiopians who dwell about sacred Nysa and hold the festivals in honour of Dionysus” [3.97] But in fact Nysa was sought by the ancients in many different and distant lands and was probably mythical, perhaps invented to explain the name of Dionysus.
In addition to Herodotus’s “Ethiopian” Nysa, Diodorus (1.15; 3.63) and Arrian (Ind. 100.v.; Q. Curt. 8.10) cite various locales by that name in Arabia and India. Greek grammarian Hesychius of Alexandria (c. 4th–5th cents. AD/CE) mentions numerous Nysas and Nysaean mountains in Arabia, Babylon, Cilicia, Egypt, Erythea, Ethiopia, India, Libya, Lydia, Macedonia, Naxus, Syria, Thessaly and Thrace.
It is important to note that ancient writers called lands east of the Mediterranean “India,” as exemplified by Ovid (Ars Amatoria 1.53) when he conflates Joppa with “India.” The terms “India” and “Arabia” often refer to a similar region. The Nysa in “India” could refer also to the Bactrian kingdom.
The confusion of Nysas stems from the facts that the story is mythical, that these areas are in the same general location, and that in antiquity borders were frequently blurred.
Thus, the 20 or more Nysas or Nisas in Africa, Arabia and India evidently were named for a location in ancient myth, as they surely do not represent sites where the Greek god actually was born or lived. The naming of locations after places in myths is common and should be kept in mind when looking for Exodus sites as well, including the original Mt. Sinai.
Alexander the Great
It has been suggested that the tale of Dionysus in India reflects the Indian incursions of Alexander the Great, which might have been so, if the latter actually had made it into India and spread the Dionysian cultus there. However, the Bacchic tale echoes a possibly much earlier time, during which the grapevine and wine god initially made their way to India. Naturally, it is possible that wherever Alexander did journey, and there was no grapevine or wine already present, he indeed introduced it.
Moreover, Euripides already had told the story of Dionysus in India during the century prior to Alexander’s birth. If there were an influence, it would be likely that the Greek general and Bacchus devotee was attempting to emulate his favored god by making the excursion in the first place. In consideration of his devotion to the wine god, it is also possible that Alexander was inspired to make his journey at least in part by the accounts of Dionysus in India, not the other way around.
Drawn from the Nile
As noted, in Of the Nature of the Gods (3.58), Cicero speaks of Dionysus as “Nilo,” in the ablative, designating origin; hence, the god is “of the Nile.” The epithet “Nilus” was also used, as by Plutarch (De Iside 363d), to describe Osiris, the Egyptian “Lord of the Vine,” so to speak, serving as the Nile itself and viewed as “drawn from the waters” in the daily Egyptian behavior (Diod. 1.97.2). Hence, Osiris was “drawn from the Nile,” and, as Dionysus was equated with Osiris, the ancient writers told the same tale of Bacchus, both also said to be born on January 5th or 6th.
As related by early Church father Epiphanius (Pan. 29.7–30.3), the Egyptians celebrated an annual festival of drawing out Nile water, on the 11th day of the month of Tybi (January 5/6th), believing that “the water was magically transformed into wine, or that special healing power, magical virtue, was to be attributed to it.” As Hungarian anthropologist Dr. Geza Roheim (1891–1954) states:
It is the birth of Osiris, who like Moses (The Child) comes from the water. The Greek equivalent of Osiris is Dionysus. The water miracle is equally performed by Dionysus, and what is more, exactly at the same date (5/6th of January = 11th Tybi) as in Egypt.
Like these Egyptian and Greek gods, Christ too was said to have been born on January 5th or 6th, a celebration marked in the Armenian Orthodox and Coptic Churches to this day.1139 All three of these gods’ births have been placed also at the winter solstice, appropriate for solar deities. Osiris’s birth has been celebrated traditionally at the summer solstice as well.
As noted, Pliny (2.103) recounted that a Bacchus temple on Andros had a fountain where the water tasted like wine during the Nones of January (5th), another important source of this water-to-wine miracle associated also with both Osiris and Dionysus, a fitting attribute for a sun and vine god. In the Bible (Jn 2:1–11), the later Jewish version, Jesus, was said to do this same miracle, at the wedding feast of Cana, an absurd tale if taken literally, depicting Christ’s miraculous production of 130 to 190 gallons of wine for an already besotted gathering.
We have seen the assertion that the name “Moses” means “drawn out” in Hebrew and “born of” in Egyptian. Indeed, the Egyptian term for “birth” is basically ms or mes, while in Coptic it is mise. Moreover, the epithet “Mises” or Μίσης, a Bacchic title found in Orphic Hymn 42, is similar to the Greek Μωυσῆς or “Moyses” of the Septuagint.
Since Bacchus was deemed an Egyptian god in ancient times, it is understandable he would share a title such as “Mises,” also said to connote “saved from the waters” in Egyptian. In the “Hymn to Mises” (O.H. 42), Dionysus is said to be the offspring of the “Good Counselor of a hundred names, and the pure and holy Mise...” Using the same basic Greek term, the biblical Yahweh too is the “Wonderful Counselor” (Isa 9:6), of whom Moses was claimed to be a holy prophet.
Mentioned additionally by the Greek poet Herodas in the third century BCE, Mises is androgynous or “two-natured,” associated with the goddess Kore or Persephone. In this regard, we also find reference to “the Mises or Bacchus Diphues,” this latter term meaning “twice-grown” or “two-natured.” In another translation of the same Orphic hymn, Dionysus/Iacchus is addressed as “Mises, ineffable, pure…” My very literal translation of the original Greek is as follows:
Orphic Hymn 42 Mises,
incense from a storax tree
Thesmophoros, I call thyrsus-bearer Dionysus,
Seed much-courted, many-named Good Counselor,
Pure and good-holy Mises, ineffable queen,
Male female, two-formed, delivering Iakkhos.
Either in Eleusis delighting in the temple incense,
Or also in Phrygia with Mother mysteries-turning,
In Cyprus delighting with well-crowned Kytherea,
And in pure, wheat-bearing fields exult
With your Mother Goddess, dark-bearer Isis majestic,
Of Egypt, beside a stream with attending nurses. Goodwill from coming noble-finish labors.
The epithet θεσμοφόρος thesmophoros or “lawbearing” is a title likewise applied to the Greek goddess Demeter (Herodotus, Hist. 6.91), who also shares the moniker “Thesmophorae” with her daughter, Persephone/Kore, as in Aristophanes’s book Women at the Thesmophoria (283–285). As we can see from the Orphic poem, Mises/Dionysus/Iacchus is bigendered, both male and female, equated with Persephone/Kore, who is also the god’s virgin mother. All three figures of Demeter, Kore and Dionysus served as lawgivers, associated with the mysteries of Eleusis, as well as those of Isis, as this hymn demonstrates.
We have seen the story of Dionysus being “bimater” or having two mothers. Diodorus (3.62) explains the “twice-born” epithet as having to do with grapevines, which are first born as they sprout from the ground and born again as they put forth leaves and ripe fruit. This “two-mothered” attribute is expressed in myths of Bacchus being born of one woman and set adrift in either the Nile or the Aegean, as well as the tale of the babe sewn up in Zeus’s thigh, when his mother, Semele, is immolated by the sky god’s lightning bolt.
The connection here to nature is important, as Dionysus’s alter ego Osiris in significant part represents the Nile River overflowing its banks, fertilizing the soil of Isis and bringing forth the sprouted plants upon which all Egypt depended. In this regard, Osiris is often painted green, in imitation of foliage and photosynthesis, as noted.
Marriage to Zipporah
At Exodus 2:21, Moses was said to have married one of the Midianite priest Jethro’s seven daughters, named Zipporah or צפרה Tsipporah. It is claimed that “Zipporah” is an epithet of Venus, Bacchus’s wife and one of the seven “planets” known to the ancients, who included the sun and moon among the five planets visible with the naked eye.
Fig. 71. Venus (?), dubbed the "Mona Lisa of Galilee," c. 4th cent. AD/CE. Mosaic from Sepphoris, Israel
In Strong’s (H6855), צפרה Tsipporah is defined as a “little bird.” In the Septuagint, the Greek equivalent, Σεπφώρα Sepphora, is used also to translate שפרה Shiphrah, a name of one of the Hebrew midwives at Exodus 1:15 (KJV). As we can see, only the initial letters differ between Zipporah and Shiphrah in the Hebrew, both of which connote a sibilant sound, “ts,” “z,” “s” or “sh.” In this regard, Massey asserts that “Zipporah and Shiphrah are identical,” and that Zipporah is “Venus above the horizon.”
As would be appropriate for the planet or “star” Venus—as well as for Aphrodite, goddess of love—Shiphrah also means “brightness, beauty,” and, possibly, “to adorn with stars and constellations” (Gesenius) as in Job 26:13: “By his spirit he hath garnished the heavens; his hand hath formed the crooked serpent” (KJV).
In this regard, it is intriguing that in the famous Jewish city of Tzippori or Sepphoris appears an ancient mosaic from the third century AD/CE believed to be a depiction of Venus and styled the “Mona Lisa of the Galilee.” The correspondence between Sepphora and Sepphoris ranks as noteworthy as well.
In the biblical tale, after removing her son’s foreskin with a sharp rock (Exod 4:25), Zipporah throws the organ at Moses’s feet and says, “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me!” This bizarre episode resembles stories of castration in the name of the Goddess, such as the Syrian Cybele cult, with the theme of her son-consort castrating himself. Additionally, it should be recalled that the bride of Bacchus, Aphrodite or Venus, is created out of the bloody foam after Ouranos’s testicles are severed and thrown into the sea.
Regarding Zipporah, Judaic studies professor Dr. Marc A. Krell comments that “in Counter-traditions in the Bible, Ilana Pardes has uncovered Ugaritic, Sumerian and Egyptian Goddess-centered texts that parallels biblical myths of Eve, Zipporah, Miriam, Yocheved, Shifra, Puah and Pharaoh’s daughter.”
Concerning this marriage motif, Israeli professor Dr. Ilana Pardes relates:
What most biblical scholars have overlooked is that the representation of Zipporah comes strikingly close to representations of guardian goddesses in polytheistic texts. Such goddesses are frequently the primary caretakers of striving young heroes. Thus Babylonian rulers are designated as the protected “bridegrooms” of Ishtar; ...in Sumerian mythology the goddess Inanna ensures the prosperity of King Dumuzi; and even in the Odyssey and the Aeneid, it is Athena and Venus who are the primary guardians and instructors of their respective protégés, Odysseus and Aeneas.
In Zipporah and Moses, we evidently have another example of the mother-protector and consort-son sacred marriage, such as Inanna/Inana and Dumuzi or Aphrodite/Venus and Aeneas.
The discussion of the Bacchae/maenads in Euripides (Ba. 757–758) with their burning locks resembles Yahweh’s burning bush,1162 and, indeed, “the Fire” is a central feature in one Dionysian myth lends credence to this notion. In this regard, we have seen several instances in which Dionysus is associated with fire, such as “the fire in the Bacchic reveal” by Philostratus of Lemnos. This solar motif represents Porphyry’s “celestial fire of the sun” ripening the grapes, among other functions.