If you haven’t reserved your slot for the Toys of Dionysos class, you’d better act fast! I’ll be sending out invites over the weekend and we start on Monday, August 1st.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Marcus Antonius lately and how he fits into my weirdly evolving spiritual life. The fact that he still does is a big part of why he’s been on my mind.
It was only a couple years ago that I was deeply involved with the Ptolemaic Dynasty. And not just in the sense that I was extremely devoted to them, wrote and read constantly about them, observed many of their festivals throughout the year and set aside a day each month to honor and work with them. On multiple occasions I horsed members of the family, both individually and collectively. And there was a bunch of stuff beneath the surface that I never discussed openly that sort of shaped my relationship with them and made things like the horsing possible.
Then all that changed, practically overnight. I started doing the fool stuff and the Ptolemies faded completely from my awareness except for Philopator, who I’ve dealt with a couple times since then as part of the Dionysiac dead. I understand why this happened – it cost part of my soul to wear the mask of the fool, and that part was what enabled me to do the work I had been doing with the Ptolemies. And while that loss was extremely difficult to endure, it was absolutely necessary. In the end I am nothing but a Dionysian. All these masks I wear are transitory. I need to be able to put them on and take them off at will to do the real work I am meant to.
What surprised me, though, was that Marcus Antonius never left – if anything he has grown into a much stronger presence in my life. I suppose it makes sense since he was only a Ptolemy through marriage (a marriage which some scholars dispute ever occurred) and while he wielded the power of the crown he was never really a king the way even the worst of the Ptolemies were. It’s actually been a little strange to see how woven into this path I walk Antony is. I mean when I was doing that massive amount of research on commedia dell’arte I lost track of how many times his name would come up, how many plays directly or indirectly alluded to him. Guess it makes sense since in life he was a huge patron of the technitai Dionusou and also had quite a thing for jugglers, mimes and jesters plus his story has always been immensely popular. People may know nothing else about ancient Rome, but they know the tale of Antony and Kleopatra. But now that that mask is losing its dominant hold on me and I’m realizing that I have to wear multiple masks simultaneously while identifying with none of them, I’m starting to see that that’s exactly what he did too.
He was soldier, imperator, consort of the queen, womanizer, brawler, drunkard, ascetic, prowler of the streets, leader of Bacchic revels, avatar of the god and in one of my favorite quotes, he wore the tragic mask among the Romans but the comic mask with the Greeks. Is it any wonder that he has managed to remain a presence in my life when all others have drifted off? He is just as chameleon-hearted as I am. As Dionysos is.
And one of the things that I find really interesting about him is his relationship with Kleopatra. Really, you can’t mention one without the other being somewhere in the back of your mind. Many have described them as the greatest love story of the ancient world. Which is really kind of funny because in a lot of ways it wasn’t any kind of conventional love story at all.
I mean, how could it be? Kleopatra didn’t have room in her heart for romantic love; she just wasn’t made that way. Her heart belonged to the crown, her soul to the land and her affections to the people of Egypt and its gods. Her life’s mission was to preserve the kingdom of her fathers and restore it to its former glory. Everything she did, everything she was went into that. And when she tried to be a regular person with regular feelings it went very, very badly for her.
Consider her relationship with Julius Caesar. That started out as a pure political gambit. She hides herself in a carpet so that she can be smuggled past the palace guards and have a secret audience with the Roman general. She uses her considerable charms and even more considerable sex appeal to win him over. “My brother wants to do very bad things to me. Will you be my protector? Once my throne is secure I will be ever so grateful.” And it works, because even though Caesar was getting up there in years the man wasn’t blind. Plus, he could always use ruthless allies.
That’s how things started, but the more time they spent together the more those feelings developed into something romantic. (Taking pleasure cruises down the Nile has a tendency to do that to you.) Kleopatra let down her guard, let herself love him. They had a child together. He was going to marry her. And then he gets murdered. And while dealing with that emotional blow Kleopatra has to fight his and now her enemies at Rome, those who deny the legitimacy of his heir, those spreading scandalous rumors about them, those arguing that Rome should conquer Egypt. And she vows to never make herself vulnerable to love again, to never forget who she is and what her purpose in life is. Because of what she felt for this man, she nearly lost it all.
And then she meets Antony. He summons her to Asia to explain her role in the civil war that Caesar’s assassination unleashed. She’s met him before, as a child and later during her affair with Caesar, so she knows how to win him over. She stages this elaborate, theatrical Dionysian ritual to wow him and then invites him to an extravagant feast. He is duly impressed, but also recognizes it as the challenge it is. So he throws an even more sumptuous banquet in her honor and then asks her to top that, which she does. And thus their life together begins.
They see in each other a reflection of something wild, decadent and driven that exists within their own private soul, which neither has glimpsed elsewhere before. Neither are ordinary people after all; both are living out a myth, walking in the footsteps of the gods. (Dionysos in the case of Antony and Isis for Kleopatra.) And in that and so many other ways they are perfectly complimentary for each other. There is always this element of catalyst in their relationship, each pushing the other to become better, to reach their full potential without it becoming about dominance and molding the person to preconceived expectations. Much of what Antony has to do leads him far away from Alexandria. Sometimes his ambition is at cross purposes with Kleopatra’s own, for instance when he rashly presses the campaign against the Parthians which is what ultimately leads to his downfall. But he still had the freedom to do that, and I think that says volumes about their relationship. Octavian did his best to represent Antony as pussy-whipped and completely under the thumb of Kleopatra, but I just don’t see it. Sure, she was always pushing to better the fortunes of Egypt and she clearly used Antony for that. (And if the hostile sources are to be trusted, was willing to sacrifice him in the end for it. Considering what I know of Kleopatra, I think this is one of the few things they got right.) But I also get the sense that she respected him as an equal. And they were good for each other. Not only does Kleopatra help Antony become a stronger, smarter, more capable general and leader (curbing some of his excesses and bitching him out when his courage flags) but he provides some necessary levity for her. Helps her loosen up more, enjoy life, realize that it can’t all be about duty and the burden of her office, not if she’s going to properly perform the work of that office. He drags her out on his nighttime escapades through the streets disguised as commoners so they can blow off a little steam through random violence and pranks. They throw kick-ass parties that people were still talking about generations later and sponsor religious festivals and processions on a scale that Alexandria hadn’t seen since the days of Philadelphos. And he stood by her no matter what. Even when it was clear that everything was going down the tubes. He could have come to terms with Octavian and maybe still had a long and successful career simply by throwing Kleopatra under the bus. But he didn’t.
Those are the things that stand out in their relationship. It’s not love the way we’ve been taught in this society to think about it. There’s precious little romance there. We have far more anecdotes where one is humorously but seriously reminding the other that they know the tricks of the assassin’s trade should that person get out of line than we do of lovers’ trysts between them. And as is so often the case with men like Antony sexual fidelity just wasn’t part of his nature. Not only did he keep a wife back in Rome for most of the time he was with Kleopatra, but he quite possibly had another in the East not to mention all of his long-time mistresses and the numerous casual flings he had with assorted men and women. But I think it’s a more powerful and meaningful love for that, because it was their love. The love of two people from vastly different worlds, with vastly different priorities and ambitions. They didn’t lose themselves in that love, didn’t merge into this hybrid being. They were always Antony and Kleopatra. Their love was that kai, simultaneously binding and separating them.
Now as much as this part of the story strongly appeals to me because I share these values and have always tried to maintain this ideal in my relationships, with lovers and everyone else — as Jim Morrison once said, “A true friend is someone who lets you have total freedom to be yourself – and especially to feel. Or, not feel. Whatever you happen to be feeling at the moment is fine with them. That’s what real love amounts to – letting a person be what he really is.” — that’s actually not what’s speaking to me about him at the moment.
Weirdly, it’s his ties to Herakles. See, although Antony was clearly an earthly vessel for the spirit of Dionysos his family was actually descended from Anton, the son of Herakles and that was a huge component of his personality. Plutarch talks a lot about that in the opening chapters of his Life of M. Antonius though about midway through he starts really emphasizing the man’s Dionysian traits, as do most other ancient authors. Consequently this has largely shaped how I’ve seen and dealt with him up to now.
But I’m beginning to see the other Antony, the man who was a hunter and a warrior. The strong, courageous, disciplined man who ran headlong into danger and constantly pushed himself and made his body a work of art. Who was good-natured and good-humored, liked by all he met, respected by the men under him because he demanded nothing of them he wasn’t willing to do himself and often ate in the mess side by side with them instead of only associating with the other generals. Who was indifferent to power, prestige, stature, wealth and luxury (though he possessed these all in abundance) and gave freely of everything he had. The man who never backed down, never gave up, never failed to rise to the challenge even when that challenge proved greater than him. Marcus Antonius was such an exceptional man because his flesh was that of Herakles and his blood that of Dionysos. I’m finally beginning to understand what that truly means and I find that incredibly inspirational.
So thank you, Antony, for always being there and always guiding me along the path. One day I hope to drain many a cup of wine with you in that place with the ivy-covered walls, on the other side where the feast never ends!
Athenaios, Deipnosophistai 647a
In Sicily, there was the myllos in the shape of the female genitals; it was offered to Demeter and Persephone. Heraklides of Syracuse in his The customs of Syracuse says that at the Panteleia, which is a part of the celebration of the Thesmophoria, cakes in the shape of the female genitalia were made with sesame seeds and honey, and were called mylloi throughout Sicily, and were carried in procession in honour of the Two Goddesses.
Herodotos, The Histories 2.49
Melampos was the one who taught the Greeks the name of Dionysos and the way of sacrificing to him and the phallic procession; he did not exactly unveil the subject taking all its details into consideration, for the teachers who came after him made a fuller revelation; but it was from him that the Greeks learned to bear the phallus along in honor of Dionysos
The ship landed in Scios,
men wanting spring-water,
And by the rock-pool a young boy loggy with vine-must,
“To Naxos? Yes, we’ll take you to Naxos,
Cum’ along lad.” “Not that way!”
“Aye, that way is Naxos.”
And I said: “It’s a straight ship.”
And an ex-convict out of Italy
knocked me into the fore-stays,
(He was wanted for manslaughter in Tuscany)
And the whole twenty against me,
Mad for a little slave money.
And they took her out of Scios
And off her course…
And the boy came to, again, with the racket,
And looked out over the bows,
and to eastward, and to the Naxos passage.
God-sleight then, god-sleight:
Ship stock fast in sea-swirl,
Ivy upon the oars, King Pentheus,
grapes with no seed but sea-foam,
Ivy in scupper-hole.
Aye, I, Acœtes, stood there,
and the god stood by me,
Water cutting under the keel,
Sea-break from stern forrards,
wake running off from the bow,
And where was gunwale, there now was vine-trunk,
And tenthril where cordage had been,
grape-leaves on the rowlocks,
Heavy vine on the oarshafts,
And, out of nothing, a breathing,
hot breath on my ankles,
Beasts like shadows in glass,
a furred tail upon nothingness.
Lynx-purr, and heathery smell of beasts,
where tar smell had been,
Sniff and pad-foot of beasts,
eye-glitter out of black air.
The sky overshot, dry, with no tempest,
Sniff and pad-foot of beasts,
fur brushing my knee-skin,
Rustle of airy sheaths,
dry forms in the æther.
And the ship like a keel in ship-yard,
slung like an ox in smith’s sling,
Ribs stuck fast in the ways,
grape-cluster over pin-rack,
void air taking pelt.
Lifeless air become sinewed,
feline leisure of panthers,
Leopards sniffing the grape shoots by scupper-hole,
Crouched panthers by fore-hatch,
And the sea blue-deep about us,
green-ruddy in shadows,
And Lyæus: “From now, Acœtes, my altars,
Fearing no bondage,
fearing no cat of the wood,
Safe with my lynxes,
feeding grapes to my leopards,
Olibanum is my incense,
the vines grow in my homage.”
The back-swell now smooth in the rudder-chains,
Black snout of a porpoise
where Lycabs had been,
Fish-scales on the oarsmen.
And I worship.
I have seen what I have seen.
When they brought the boy I said:
“He has a god in him,
though I do not know which god.”
And they kicked me into the fore-stays.
I have seen what I have seen:
Medon’s face like the face of a dory,
Arms shrunk into fins. And you, Pentheus,
Had as well listen to Tiresias, and to Cadmus,
or your luck will go out of you.
Fish-scales over groin muscles,
lynx-purr amid sea…
And of a later year,
pale in the wine-red algæ,
If you will lean over the rock,
the coral face under wave-tinge,
Rose-paleness under water-shift,
Ileuthyeria, fair Dafne of sea-bords,
The swimmer’s arms turned to branches,
Who will say in what year,
fleeing what band of tritons,
The smooth brows, seen, and half seen,
now ivory stillness.
– Ezra Pound, Canto II
I am Kleia, the daughter of Apollonia. My people are settlers from Chios and have lived here in Ptolemais for two generations now.
We are Greeks, of a good family. My father is a tax-farmer, and my mother an assistant to the kanephore at the festival of the Great Goddess. But you probably knew that already, didn’t you? You have been good to our family, helping my mother birth six children, four of whom survived.
I have come before you, Artemis, because I am to wed Demetrios, the merchant’s son. I am told that he is very wealthy and frequently goes on important business up to the city for his father. My father says that he is a kind man, fond of books, and that he will provide well for me. I hope to give him many fine sons and to make him a happy man.
Before I am to wed him, though, I must put aside my childish things. And so I place here on your altar my ball and rattle, my comb and my favorite dress (the pretty one with the red stripe across the middle), and lastly this jointed doll, with the yarn hair that my mother made for me.
I call her Senni, because she reminds me of my Egyptian friend who had a big smile like my doll and would always laugh so hard when we played down by the river. The nymphs took her and I miss her. It is fitting, I suppose, that you should have this Senni too. I don’t need her any more. She is a child’s plaything and I am a woman now. I bleed and my breasts have started to come in. I should have given these things up long ago, but now I have no choice for I am to be Demetrios’ wife.
It still sounds strange in my ears to say that. What do I know of keeping a house and raising babies? I never had an interest in such things, though all my girlfriends liked to pretend. It’s all they talked about, in fact. I was much more interested in exploring down by the river, watching the crocodiles and the ibises feed on the fishes, and listening to the slave teach my brothers their Homer. I would sit beside them and daydream that I was one of your nymph companions, joining you in the hunt. Oh, to be so free and wild – how I loved those dreams! But all that is behind me now, isn’t it?
These trinkets on your altar are the last ties to my childhood.
Care for them, would you?
They are important to me. Especially Senni. I loved her most of all.
I know I’ve already placed them there … but may I touch her, one last time?
And Goddess? I know I shouldn’t pray this. I am supposed to ask only for strong, handsome, brave sons, sons to make my husband proud. Give me those, please.
But could you also send me a daughter like Senni? The real Senni, not my doll. With a gentle soul, a big smile, and always laughing.
I think I would like that. I would brush her hair, and give her her own tutor to teach her Homer so that she didn’t have to sneak her lessons, and I wouldn’t force her to marry a boy she didn’t know before she was ready.
That is my prayer, Artemis.
Thank you for listening to me.
I have to go now. The priest is waiting impatiently outside. I can hear his sandals on the flagstones as he restlessly paces back and forth.
Thank you again, from Kleia, who is going to be a good wife, you just wait and see.
Thud thud thud
The deer’s heart pumps in its chest as it darts through the thick brush to escape the hunter close behind.
Thud thud thud
The little girls’ feet slap against the floor as they leap and spin in the intricate movements of the dance.
Thud thud thud
The punching bag swings as the athlete trains her body, reshaping it so that what she sees in the mirror better fits the image in her mind.
Thud thud thud
His thoughts pound in his skull as he works up the courage to end the relationship that’s smothering his soul, no longer willing to let the fear of being alone control his life.
Thud thud thud
Beads of sweat spill onto the bed as the mother-to-be fights to bring new life into the world.
A simple sound, this thud thud thud, but Artemis moves through it, transforming everything she touches.