Water F. Otto's Dionysus: Myth and Cult is a difficult but extremely rewarding study not only of the god Dionysus but of myth and cult as well. The book is divided into two parts. The first looks at the meaning of myth and cult and their relationship, the second attempts to arrive at the essential characteristic of Dionysus. By no means should you skip the first part. In it Otto lays the groundwork for his penetrating analysis of the god. It is a scintillatingly brilliant and illuminatingly original exposition of the meaning and origins of myth and cult. Anyone interested in Greek religion or for that matter liturgy alone, should read it. Although written over forty years ago it will still challenge and startle. Otto is gifted with a poetic depth of perception and gnomic expressiveness worthy almost of Heraclitus. For example at one point he states: "The more alive this life becomes, the nearer death draws, until the supreme moment-the enchanted moment when something new is created-when death and life meet in an embrace of mad ecstasy."
Otto holds that "The true visage of every true god is the visage of a world." In the second part he sets about discovering the form or visage of Dionysus. This he brilliantly lays out in chapters dealing with every aspect of the god. Chapters include: The Vine, The Somber Madness, Dionysus and the Element of Moisture, Dionysus and the Women, and Dionysus and Apollo. I will not attempt to recount his conclusions. Get the book and read them in Otto's lapidary language. Don't be put off from reading this book if you don't know Greek. While there are a fair number of untransliterated words, you can understand the meaning of the sentences from the context. However, be aware that this is not "lite" reading but a serious study that requires and will repay thought. The book itself is a handsome, sturdy paperback with glued signatures.
The author brings the immediate experience of Dionysus to the reader. In the first part, a general context is laid out. In the second, the stories of Dionysus are told, of a living presence. This immediacy makes the essay both powerful and compelling.