Over the last couple months I’ve been doing a semi-regular series of posts where I answer people’s questions about the theology, practice and organizational structure of the thiasos of the Starry Bull which has been immensely fun and helped me to nuance my own expression of these things. Today’s question is a little different from the others in that this person did not e-mail me directly, leave a comment on my blog or contact another member of the thiasos and have them pass it on to me. Instead this was posted to a separate and unaffiliated group on Facebook, but I’m going to go ahead and take a shot at answering it.
Brandie Elaine writes:
My understanding of the earliest priests of Dionysus is that it was he, himself, who initiated them. I am capable of leading others towards experiences, but it is up to him to give the experiences. I have never depended upon anyone to hand me to a god and I don’t believe it is necessary to do so. They listen, they watch, and they show up. This is what is my own experience. This is why this path is rewarding. This is why the mysteries are not dead. I don’t need the endorsement of Sannion or anyone else to legitimatize my own experiences and I caution others who think they need that legitimacy. Hellenic Leadership? He writes a blog. It takes more than blog writing to call yourself a leader. That is my honest opinion. I have never met Sannion to give him a fair judgement, but I think it’s a bit vain to dub himself leader of Hellenismos just because he writes a blog. Then, who does he call to his ‘leadership’ meeting? Kyrene? A two faced, backstabbing, bitch. Edward? A fool with blatant disregard for the teachings of Orpheus. I hope there is better leadership in this community than that. If this is the best the community can offer, I’ll be happy in my own corner with the gods where I have been content to stay for nearly a decade.
I’m curious where your understanding of early Dionysian religion comes from since the first mention of Dionysos in Europe is the Linear B inscriptions which already list an assortment of ritual functionaries of the god, including leaders of processions, dancers, and sacrificial priests. Likewise Archilochos, Herakleitos and Herodotos all refer to various orders of civic priests and heads of private, voluntary religious associations showing that Bacchic cults were anything but egalitarian, anarchic affairs. In fact Euripides, whose play The Bakchai has probably done the most to shape this modern conception since it explores the tensions and intersections between freedom vs law, new vs old, state vs religion and other important polarities, contains the lines:
Dress yourselves in spotted fawn skins,
trimmed with white sheep’s wool.
As you wave your thyrsos,
revere the violence it contains.
All the earth will dance at once.
Whoever leads our dancing—
that one is Bromios!
And Dionysos goes among the Thebans disguised as his own votary for much of the play. In fact you can get a glimpse of how pervasive and diverse Dionysian priesthood was by clicking here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and numerous other places as well. Why, there are even whole books and academic articles devoted to the topic, though reading is hard so I’m not surprised that a lot of folks on the internet aren’t familiar with this information.
That said, I agree with your broad assertion that the most intense and intimate experience between an individual and their deity is initiated by that deity and requires no human intermediary – in fact I’ve argued as much numerous times before, most forcefully in my piece You do not need external validation! However the dichotomy you are setting up is a false one, based on a gross misunderstanding of authority, tradition and priestcraft. It is not the experience of communion that is imparted through such structures but context and lineage and additionally priests are there to offer guidance and support. Can a person go it alone? Absolutely. But why should they have to?
Because of fear? Fear of giving up control, fear of being taken advantage of, fear that you may be taken to a place further than you can go on your own. Perhaps you work with Dionysos in a way that is different from how I do, but my master commands that I be fearless or at least that I do not let fear and doubt and inhibition govern my life.
He also doesn’t want me to be stupid and it would indeed be stupid to put yourself in the hands of a person you do not know well or have some measure of trust in.
Which, by the way, is one of the reasons that the thiasos of the Starry Bull is structured in the manner that it is, so that a person has to put in six months as an akousmatikos before contacting me to begin the process of becoming a boukolos and one must serve in that capacity for some time before being considered for initiation into our mysteries. While this gives me the opportunity to get to know and evaluate members it also allows them to do the same with me. If your only awareness of me is as some guy with a blog who decided to declare himself an evil cult leader one day then yeah, you’re totally justified in being cautious. Frankly I’d be downright suspicious of a dude like that. I certainly wouldn’t give him money or entrust my spiritual well-being to him.
Trust is a two-way street and trust is absolutely essential when you are going through an experience like initiation. I can tell you that I’m trustworthy, point to my twenty plus years’ experience serving Dionysos, all the public rituals I’ve led, groups I’ve founded, books I’ve written, and the ridiculous amount of unpaid hours I’ve put in advising and interpreting religious matters for people. But that doesn’t mean shit. I could have done all of that and still be a predatory sociopath or, this being the internet, I could just be making it all up. Which is why I suggest that folks hang out and get to know me by observing me in action, talking to me, challenging me and collaborating with me. You shouldn’t make a snap decision about anyone or rush to judgment without considering all of the relevant facts first. No man is so good that there is not some evil in him or so evil that there cannot be found the tiniest shred of good. To discover the measure of a man you must weigh the totality of his thoughts and deeds. But remember that you can only hold him accountable for what is there.
As an example you seem to be under the impression that I have dubbed myself the leader of Hellenismos. I have not. In fact for a while now I have been very adamant that I am not even a member of the Hellenic community, to the point that I organized a strategy session at the Polytheist Leadership Conference (bringing together members of Hellenion, Elaion, Neokoroi, Neos Alexandria, thiasos of the Starry Bull and YSEE as well as several solitaries because I thought they needed to meet and talk face to face in order to get the ball rolling) which I myself did not attend. When asked, I identify as a Magna Graecian polytheist, a Bacchic Orphic and a member of the thiasos of the Starry Bull and I speak authoritatively only with regard to the last of these. I have very pointedly stated that:
I do not speak for all Dionysians.
I do not speak for all Orphics.
I do not speak for all Hellenics, Romans, Thracians or syncretic Egyptians.
And I sure as hell do not speak for all polytheists and even less so for all neopagans.
For that matter I do not speak for any god, spirit or human but myself.
Does that sound like someone who believes himself to be the leader of Hellenismos to you? And what enables me to speak authoritatively with regard to the thiasos of the Starry Bull is that I am the one who founded this group. The wonderful thing about the world we live in is that if you want to be the Grand Poobah of your own tradition and lay down all the rules you absolutely can! No one is going to stop you unless you break the rules of the state or commit such impieties that you provoke the wrath of the gods.
Of course the real challenge is getting other people to play along.
Want to know what the secret of my success is?
I listen to what the gods and spirits tell me they want their tradition to be about.
I listen to the ancestors, whether they are speaking directly to me or their wisdom comes through the texts they left behind, so that I can learn how they accomplished the things I desire to.
And I listen to what people are saying – and almost as importantly what they are not saying – when they convey a longing for community, for identity, for structure and for engaged and shared religious experience.
And that tells me what to do.
Do I have infallible hearing? Absolutely not! Do I let too much of myself get in the way, or wrongly prioritize what I am hearing, or clumsily execute things from time to time? Sadly, it is so. But this tradition is a work in progress and together all of us are creating something pretty amazing. My job at this point is to keep it going until the tradition has the strength and momentum to sustain itself, until there are enough knowledgeable, experienced, dedicated and passionate individuals to carry it forward into the future. This necessitates a much more direct involvement on my part than I am frankly comfortable with. I have spent a large part of the last two decades running from positions of authority because even though I am skilled at motivating and directing people I find responsibility weighs heavily on my shoulders and I have a strong anarchic and antinomian streak. Consequently I have disappointed people who were relying on me in the past and destroyed groups by making them egalitarian and democratic before their time. If there is one thing that may truthfully be said of me it is that I learn from my mistakes.
If you do not find the structures and requirements that I have put in place for the thiasos to your liking, there is nothing obligating you to participate. At the akousmatikos stage people are free to believe and do as they like provided they don’t cause trouble for the group. The path of boukolos is one of personal service to Dionysos and his retinue tailor-made for the individual. All prescriptions and prohibitions are determined through divination. I assist and offer advise where I can, but it is very self-directed which is why the first test consists of the person contacting me to express interest in pursuing the role. I take a firmer hand with those who wish to be mystai but only because I need to confirm to my own satisfaction that they will come through the experience of initiation in more or less one piece because as the one guiding them in this I am taking a large share of responsibility for their personal well-being both during and afterwards.
Now the only reason to do this is because you believe that there is something to the specific mysteries of this tradition and you will benefit from having undergone them. Dionysos is infinitely complex. Not only does he preside over many mysteries but there are plenty of intense and powerful ways to relate to him that are not mysteries – mainadism being a perfect example of that.
If you are satisfied with what you have access to outside the confines of the Starry Bull tradition then you have no need to accept my authority. That is the price only if you want what I am offering. And that’s not about ego-gratification. It’s about respect for the office and trust that I am capable of transmitting certain blessings and powers during the process of initiation. This is very different from getting hazed into a fraternity.
Hopefully we understand ourselves better now.
In closing I would like to make a personal request to you, Brandie Elaine, and to all of my other detractors. If you have a problem with me or my methodologies please either contact me directly to work it out (my e-mail address is plastered all over the place so I’m fairly easy to get ahold of) or if you absolutely must excoriate me online I would request that you limit your attacks to me and me alone. As inappropriate as it is to vent your spleen on members of my group it’s even more so to target folks who are completely unaffiliated with the thiasos and haven’t even exchanged e-mails with me in years. I will happily answer for the sins I may have committed but no one else should be held accountable or damned by association for something I have said or done. Not only is it unjust but it’s a fucking cheap shot to take that only results in you looking like an ignorant, belligerent bully.