Want to understand how the ancient Greeks imagined Dionysus? Look no further than Harry Styles.
Yes, that’s a real sentence you just read, and I’m sticking with it.
Look, I promise I’m not a ‘directioner’ (any more!!), or whatever Harry Styles fans are known as (Stylists?? Harry poppers?? Harry-ettes?), this is an actual real academic theory that’s been slowly growing on me throughout my thesis research. You know what, I don’t think I can actually defend this without explaining, so this is it for an intro, I’M DIVING IN.
Okay so firstly lets get the basics laid out. Who was Dionysus? Dionysus is a Greek god that emerges onto the divine scene a bit later than the classic Zeus, but he’s definitely being worshipped around 1000 BCE, and probably earlier. Known as the god of wine, fertility, fruit, ecstasy and theatre, he’s basically just a pretty cool dude to have around. But the way the Greeks imagined Dionysus was pretty different to all their other gods – he was known as a ‘foreign’ deity, so the same rules didn’t apply to him as his divine mates. In fact, Dionysus didn’t even look like a lot of them – far from the bearded burly figures of Zeus and Poseidon, he was depicted as an androgynous, beautiful young man (you seeing the Harry Styles reference yet?).
Because of this, sometimes people find it hard to reconcile the idea of this, at times overtly effeminate, god, whose female followers and unusual mythology don’t seem to match up with more ‘typical’ divine figures. Hence my argument – if you want to understand Dionysus, just look at Harry Styles.
And here we goooo ! So one of our main sources for written deets about Dionysus is a play called the Bacchae (a word for the followers of Dionysus), which was written by a guy called Euripides. Now when we first meet Dionysus in the Bacchae, he’s just described as ‘The Stranger’ (mysterious I know), but one thing that everyone immediately comments on is wow! This guy looks feminine? That’s actually not an uncommon response to Dionysus, in fact, pretty much everyone says it. A guy called Aeschylus (another playwright) calls Dionysus “effeminate”, specifically talking about the fact that he’s wearing a woman’s dress. You see, in his day to day life, Dionysus didn’t seem to care about what gender different clothing was intended for – he even decked himself out in what’s called a mitra – a type of headdress that young women ready for marriage normally wore. Sound familiar? It’s pretty well known that Harry Styles enjoys doing exactly that, throwing out the archaic rules of gendered clothing, and just wearing beautiful things that he thinks looks neat (and trust me, he's right). In fact, Harry was actually chatting to a journalist called Tom Lamont when he explained this further, saying that:
“If I see a nice shirt and get told, ‘But it’s for ladies.’ I think: ‘Okaaaay?’ Doesn’t make me want to wear it less though.”
An icon? Undoubtedly. In fact, since the 1D split that caused the world’s teens unspeakable pain (look it was a rosier time okay?), Harry has increasingly stepped out in what could be described as effeminate clothing - whether it’s a sheer blouse, a flower print suit, or even a dress. Harry seems intent on destroying the old-fashioned gendered rules around clothing, allowing him to fully embrace and display his femininity, which easily coexists with and compliments his male identity.
But Dionysus’ relationship with gender goes far beyond just what he wears. Like most of the Greek gods, the mythology about Dionysus tells us that he was bisexual. But what makes Dionysus stand out is how he went about all his sexy fun times with good looking Greek men. You see, there was this big old tradition in ancient Greece, where a man could have sex with another man, but still not be considered gay, as long as he was the top. Kind of like an extreme no-homo, or the old, it’s not gay if there’s no eye contact trope. But Dionysus didn’t give a heck about these weird sexuality rules. In fact, in one of my fave myths ever, which I will definitely cover in another post, Dionysus honours a promise to have sex with this dude by sitting on his grave, carving a dick out of wood, and then using it…. well you can imagine how. Let's just say this is the only example of Dionysus having a real stick up his ass. The fact that Dionysus basically bottomed for this guy though is pretty much unheard of at the time, but it just goes to show how little he cared about traditional male gender and sexuality norms. Dionysus wasn’t one for labels, or for binaries, and that’s something that is constantly brought up in pretty much every story about him. You know who else doesn’t like labels, and putting people into boxes?? Harry Styles. People often speculate about Harry’s sexuality, but as he’s said multiple times, he doesn’t see the need for a label. According to Harry, it doesn’t matter – or to quote him literally:
“It’s: who cares? Does that make sense? It’s just: who cares?”.
In fact, Harry seems pretty content just to sit back and let rumour pass him by – what’s the point of labelling himself, we’re all just humans having human experiences. Seems pretty Dionysian to me.
Now let's get to my favourite aspect of the Harry/Dionysus parallels. Looking at Harry’s latest music video, Watermelon Sugar, it seems like it could be a literal modern-day Bacchanalia, or worship of Dionysus. Styles emerges wearing jewellery and painted nails, suggestively stroking the fruit in front of him as he serenades the camera. Soon beautiful women enter the scene, their faces contorted in ecstasy as he sings. Suddenly they’re on the floor, in a beautiful mess of bodies and touch that’s straight out of Euripides’ Bacchae, an orgy of women imagined by the character Pentheus. The, predominantly female, crowd indulges in watermelon, red juice spilling from their mouths like the ritual omophagia, or consuming of raw flesh, that Dionysus’ female worshippers supposedly carried out in his honour. The video is an unapologetic celebration of beauty and sexuality, and is even dedicated ‘to touching’ (although whether that has more to do with Corona virus than Dionysus is arguable!). It’s a shoot that appears full of sexual energy, passion, music, decadence, and dance, exactly how I envisage the female led celebrations of Dionysus.
Behind the camera, the actresses have talked about how respectful Harry was, always asking consent before any of the scenes, and making sure the women were comfortable – something that we also witness in Dionysus (I know, unheard of for a Greek god!). But seriously, scholars have actually written articles about the supposed ‘asexuality’ of Dionysus, which basically stems from the fact that despite being around drunk women the whole time, he never took advantage of them. Now, we’d call that just not being a predator, but in terms of ancient Greek gods? It’s unheard of!!
Look, I understand this whole thing sounds like a shitpost, and maybe it partly is (fuck knows Classics needs to start taking itself less seriously!!), but also I do genuinely believe this. The Harry Styles is a Modern Dionysus hill is a strange one, but it’s also the one I’ve decided to die on. The ancient Greeks imagined a god of music and drama (I haven’t seen Harry in Dunkirk, but I’m guessing he did a fab job), who loved breaking binaries, and celebrating life - a god of fluidity, sexuality, music, drama, fruit, and passion. If anyone sums that up for me, it’s Harry Styles. Just like the ancient Greeks celebrated Dionysus and the gender and sexuality subversion he allowed, so we should celebrate Harry Styles for his refusal to abide by traditional gender norms. By embracing his femininity, he expresses a new way to be a man in the 21st century, a mix of the feminine and the masculine, androgynous and beautiful. Look I’m not saying Harry Styles is definitely Dionysus reborn, I’m just saying if it turns out the Greek gods were alive this whole time, I wouldn’t be surprised if Harry was Dionysus. Alright, maybe just a little.