Here’s a surprisingly good interview on the Villa dei Misteri and the cult of Dionysos in Southern Italy by Gordon of Rune Soup and author and researcher Peter Mark Adams, who just released Mystai: Dancing out the Mysteries of Dionysos through Scarlet Imprint. There are a number of things I’d quibble with, but a lot fewer than normal. Might have to pick this book up after all.
A couple hours back 42 years ago I came screaming and blood-drenched into this world, and Gods willing that’s how I’ll depart it too.
This has been a fun – and important! – trip down memory lane, but now it’s time to celebrate. Empty a glass or three for Dionysos this day, if you would.
The boule and demos have resolved that the ephebes and the priest of the paides are to sing hymns every day at the opening of the temple of Dionysos, the leading God of our city. And at the closing of the temple of the God the priest of Tiberius Caesar is to make libations, burn incense, and light lamps; expenses are to be paid from the sacred revenues of Dionysos. And the archons of the city are to always sacrifice at the beginning of each month and on the seventh day pray for the success of the city. But if any person offends any of these requirements, that person is asebes. And this decree is to be engraved in the sanctuary of Dionysos and it is to have the status of law. (SEG XV.718)
I’ve had a number of ecstatic and mystical experiences while drunk (anywhere from lightly buzzed to stumbling around puking on myself) or on weed, ‘shrooms and other variously legal substances.
I’ve had a number of ecstatic and mystical experiences brought about by physical exhaustion, fasting, pain and other ordeals as well as meditation, visualization and sex.
I’ve even had a number of ecstatic and mystical experiences where I was completely stone sober and not really doing anything.
And you know what? The differences between them are minimal.
They exist and in their way can be quite profound. For instance, I feel a gradual opening up while on pot and the visions tend to be rather heady – ethereal and intellectual and associative. I find that it strongly heightens my intuition and ability to make astounding logical leaps and it helps my writing to be more free-flowing. Mushrooms (especially amanita muscaria) give the experience a more pronounced physical focus, and not just because you tend to start off by riding waves of nausea. I become very conscious of my body and its processes (at the level of blood, muscle and bone) and this tends to take me deep down, through the corridors of flesh into the psychological and from there to other worlds, both in and outside myself. At the same time it tends to draw stuff up to the surface, especially illness, pollution and unresolved psychological shit which I am then able to purify and release. Salvia is something else entirely – it helps one to see the light and life that flow through all things and opens doors to strange topsy-turvy wonderlands.
But none of the experiences brought about by these plant and fungal allies are any more or less real than what I’ve experienced without them. That’s not to say that everything you experience on drugs is real – believing that will land you in the loony bin or prey to malevolent spirits or worse. Discernment is one of the first faculties you must cultivate if you’re going to be doing any kind of spiritual work – not just being able to tell the difference between real and fake, but to be able to understand the symbolic language of the drug and how to tell what is its influence, what is the influence of your mind, what is the influence of the God or spirit you’re interacting with and all of the other tangled threads. And you don’t just have to do that while on drugs – in fact some of the craziest shit I’ve been through was triggered by chanting and controlled breathing back in my Chan Buddhist days.
I’m not surprised that a lot of folks have got hang-ups about using entheogens – for the last twenty-six centuries Western culture has been waging a war against ecstasy. And note that I put the start of that before the birth of Christ – they’ve just waged it more effectively and ruthlessly than any of their predecessors. In fact one of the things that Christians, and especially the Protestant branch, have done is make people deeply suspicious of spiritual experience that comes mediated through anything external – including the body since they’ve also convinced us to view ourselves as ghosts trapped in fleshy machines. So someone who can think their way to henosis is more advanced than someone who loses themselves in dance and music which is still better than the poor benighted primitive who has to drink a potion to see his God. That kind of thing may be tolerated when brown people do it but whites ought to know better.
The Bacchic Orphic, on the other hand, is an animist who understands that all things possess life, intelligence and power – different from one’s own, to be sure, but no less meaningful. If not, how could the stones and trees and beasts have been charmed by the masterful lyre of the Thracian? How could the thunder have birthed their God, the mountain nursed him, the wild things attend him, the grape contain him? Reject this principle and you close yourself off to the world – it’s just you alone with the God of your imagination. For the Bacchic Orphic the world is one of expansive relationships, ever changing and increasingly complex since the splitting of the egg. Why do you think he drives the mad-women from their homes? To see what’s out there and discover who they are in connection with it.
That’s why when I smoke a bowl I’m not just inhaling the fumes of a weed – that weed has a spirit which I draw into myself so that she will help open my eyes and loosen my mind, a spirit I have long history with. Just as there’s a spirit in the drum and a spirit in these words I’m typing. The experience is going to be different depending on the spirits involved and how certain elements are configured – but even that’s no guarantee since repeating everything from rite to rite may still end in differing results because of something unrelated going on with you or the God you’re worshiping.
In fact, everyone’s experience of the Gods is unique. You can have half a dozen participants and get twenty different accounts of what happened during a rite. Not only may the same God engage with people differently he may want different things of them. That’s why when the animal sacrifice issue came up I spoke only to its central place within the Starry Bull tradition; Dionysos has not asked that of others, therefore their devotions are not lacking for its absence.
So while moderate indulgence may be the most sensible and sustainable way to approach Dionysos, I’m not prepared to take excess (even to the point of self-destructive addiction) off the table. Let’s be perfectly clear – not all the ways that lead to closeness and understanding of Dionysos are pleasant ways. Pentheus and Lykourgos have seen things in Dionysos that the pious will never glimpse and insanity contains more than just manic pixie dream girls. Sometimes it’s filth and fear and not leaving your bed for a week. If your goal isn’t just to make friends with Dionysos but to experience him in his entirety you’re going to go to the extremes and you’re going to get broken. Probably a lot.
Now, you can become too broken. You can stop experiencing anything but the broken parts of Dionysos – or worse, stop experiencing him at all. It can be really difficult to find your way back from that – and plenty never do. The failure rate for Dionysians is extraordinary – some of our best are also our worst, and I would caution against imitating them. But I would caution even more strenuously against assuming that Dionysos wasn’t with them in that moment, no matter how wretched, destructive and out of control they were. He’s an odd God after all.
Also, while I happen to like that passage from Euboulos a couple things need to be kept in mind. To begin with he has Dionysos claim that only the first three kraters belong to him. A krater is a mixing-bowl, not a cup. A decently sized one, such as the Euphronios krater, could hold around 45 liters of wine. I have a superhumanly high tolerance for alcohol and yet even I would find 36 gallons of wine a little hard to swallow, especially if I was using the recommended mixing rates – 3 parts water to 1 wine if you want a convivial symposion; 1:1 for orgies and waterless if you’re a barbaric Thracian. If you exceed the limit imposed by Dionysos intoxication’s the least of your worries – you’re going to be pissing for a week straight!
Secondly, Euboulos isn’t writing as a priest or mantis or from a similar position of authority – that tag was lifted by Athenaios from the play Semele which, judging by its remaining fragments, was a pretty obscene farce. Scholars are divided on whether it represented his fiery premature birth or his descent into the otherworld – I’m inclined to think the latter since at one point Dionysos acts as symposiarch, laying down all the rules to a chorus of rowdy, drunken initiates or satyrs, which means that it could have been a burlesque on the Orphic belief of the eternal banquet of the pious which Plato also mocks. Plus another fragment contains a phallic joke at the expense of Hermes and while he could have been escorting baby Dionysos off to Nysa I think it likelier that he was acting in his psychopomp role. Another notch in favor of this theory is that earlier Aristophanes had presented Dionysos on stage trying to get to the underworld in The Frogs, so clearly this was a scenario that the comic poets exploited. Most people who read The Frogs have a difficult time reconciling Aristophanes’ portrayal with the Dionysos they have encountered. He’s a boorish, lying, cheating coward – at one point he even pisses his chiton.
Now, I’m not suggesting that a jokester is incapable of providing accurate insight into the nature of this God or at least how he was viewed by certain segments of ancient Athenian society – heaven forfend! – but we need to consider our sources before relying too heavily on them. Diodoros didn’t write the same things or for the same reasons that Homer and Orpheus did, something I’ve discussed more fully here. Not every portrayal of the God is meant to carry equal weight.
The gold tablet from Pelinna reads:
Now you have died and now you have been born, thrice blessed one, on this very day. Say to Persephone that Bakchios himself freed you. A bull you rushed to milk. Quickly, you rushed to milk. A ram you fell into milk. You have wine as your fortunate honor. And rites await you beneath the earth, just as the other blessed ones.
The gold tablet from Thurii reads:
Rejoice at the experience! This you have never before experienced. You have become divine instead of mortal. You have fallen as a kid into milk. Hail, hail, as you travel on the right, through the Holy Meadow and Groves of Persephone.
Edward Butler offers a brilliant interpretation of this recurring motif:
The Orphic slogan, “A kid, I fell into milk”: I believe this to be equivalent in a certain respect to part of Crowley’s Oath of the Abyss; namely, the part about “interpreting every phenomenon as a particular dealing of God with my soul.” To say “A kid, I fell into milk” is to say that I was thrown into a world not of my making, but found it was made of meaning. […] It is not just a question, then, of interpreting one’s own life, but that one becomes a “phenomenon” to be interpreted by others. This is what a hero is, I think, a mortal having become such a site of meaning.
Because I’m strange that way, his post reminded me of something Lana Del Rey once said:
I was a singer, not a very popular one, who once had dreams of becoming a beautiful poet- but upon an unfortunate series of events saw those dreams dashed and divided like a million stars in the night sky that I wished on over and over again- sparkling and broken. But I really didn’t mind because I knew that it takes getting everything you ever wanted and then losing it to know what true freedom is. When the people I used to know found out what I had been doing, how I had been living- they asked me why. But there’s no use in talking to people who have a home, they have no idea what its like to seek safety in other people, for home to be wherever you lay your head. I was always an unusual girl, my mother told me that I had a chameleon soul. No moral compass pointing me due north, no fixed personality. Just an inner indecisiveness that was as wide as wavering as the ocean. And if I said that I didn’t plan for it to turn out this way I’d be lying- because I was born to be the other woman. I belonged to no one- who belonged to everyone, who had nothing- who wanted everything with a fire for every experience and an obsession for freedom that terrified me to the point that I couldn’t even talk about- and pushed me to a nomadic point of madness that both dazzled and dizzied me. Every night I used to pray that I’d find my people- and finally I did- on the open road. We have nothing to lose, nothing to gain, nothing we desired anymore- except to make our lives into a work of art.