Step through to the other side

Etruscan myth provides us a glimpse into another world, one that is a distorted reflection of our own. Case in point, the Icarius Mirror:

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Click to enlarge and around the edge you’ll find an inscription which reads:

Ikra the king from Mount Ossa of Ixion,
three things on this side he went to see,
I long for the brother also to go,
I cut the grapes abundant of the wine-stock to owe,
to the wine press! Young boy,
three on the side bedewed.

Context is provided by Mel Copeland and the Schøyen Collection

MS in Etruscan on bronze, Etruria, Italy, 6th c. BC. Illustration of Icarius standing, with a club over his shoulder, with a Phrygian style cap, in a chariot pulled by two bearded centaurs, one carries a bunch of grapes, the other a long cutting knife and a wine bag, above Icarius is a cherub sprinkling water, below is Icarius’ dog Maera running. So far this seems to be the only contemporary example of Etruscan literature recorded, and where the text is illustrated in addition. This records a part of Greek mythology that is not yet fully known, adding some new information. Icarius was the hero of the Attic town of Icaria who had a daughter, Erigone. He had been taught by Dionysos to make wine and the Bacchalian rites, and he loaded a wagon with wine skins, called his faithful dog Maera, and set off to spread the word about wine. He gave wine to some sheperds who got drunk, and who believed Icarius had tried to poison them. They beat him to death with clubs and buried him under a tree.

This suggests oh so very much to me. For instance, as Ikarios received the bakcheia from Dionysos, the God was instructed in them by the centaur Cheiron, at least according to Ptolemy Hephaistion’s New History (as preserved in Photius, Myriobiblon 190):

Dionysos was loved by Cheiron, from whom he learned chants and dances, the so-called Bacchic rites and initiations.

Euphorion, however, believed that Dionysos was older than the centaurs and inadvertently responsible for their creation:

Wroth with Hyes, the bull-horned Dionysos,
Rheione cast mind-destroying drugs upon the Pheres;
all those drugs in which Polydamna or Cytaean Mede were skilled.

The Etymologicum Genuinum states that Ῥείωνη is a name for Hera, while Nonnos (Dionysiaka 14.143–185) provides the rest of the story our fragment can only allude to: angry that the Pheres (a primitive race who lived in the mountains) had nursed the infant Dionysos, the Goddess Hera gave them poisonous drugs, transforming them into centaurs “who had the horns of bulls.”

Euphorion, who lived during the Hellenistic era, is one of our earliest testimonies to the Titanic sparagmos of Dionysos:

Dionysos, too, was honoured in Delphi together with Apollon, in the following way. The Titans tore asunder Dionysos’ limbs, threw them into a cauldron, and set it before his brother Apollon. Apollon stowed it away beside his tripod, as we learn from Kallimachos and Euphorion, who says:

Into the fire those arrogant beings cast divine Bacchus

(Tzetzes’s commentary on Lykophron’s Alexandra 207.98.5)

Which parallels Ikarios getting mauled by the mad throng of drugged peasants. However there’s an even more direct parallel with Ikarios in the story of Pholos’ reception of the ambivalent gift of Dionysos:

Pholos was a centaur who received Herakles with the courtesies due to a guest and opened for him a jar of wine which had been buried in the earth. This jar, the writers of myths relate, had of old been left with a certain centaur by Dionysos, who had given him orders only to open it when Herakles should come to that place. And so, four generations after that time, when Herakles was being entertained as a guest, Pholos recalled the orders of Dionysos. Now when the jar had been opened the sweet odour of the wine, because of its great age and strength, came to the centaurs dwelling near there, it came to pass that they were driven mad; consequently they rushed in a body to the dwelling of Pholos and set about plundering him of the wine in a terrifying manner. (Diodoros Sikeliotes, Library of History 4.12.3)

Though I was familiar with this legend I never noticed until now how it’s basically a condensed version of the Aiora and Anthesteria but with Herakles taking the place of Orestes, the way the Keres are swapped out for the Sirens in the South Italian version of the festival. There’s even a jar of wine buried in the earth.

Say: wine, centaurs, Ixion – where have I seen that combination before?

Oh yes, that trusted authority Robert Graves:

Since revising The Greek Myths in 1958, I have had second thoughts about the drunken god Dionysus, about the Centaurs with their contradictory reputation for wisdom and misdemeanour, and about the nature of divine ambrosia and nectar. These subjects are closely related, because the Centaurs worshipped Dionysus, whose wild autumnal feast was called `the Ambrosia’. I no longer believe that when his Maenads ran raging around the countryside, tearing animals or children in pieces and boasted afterwards of travelling to India and back, they had intoxicated themselves solely on wine or ivy-ale. The evidence, summarized in my What Food the Centaurs Ate (Steps: Cassell & Co., 1958, pp.319-343) suggests that Satyrs (goat-totem tribesemen), Centaurs (horse-totem tribesmen), and their Maenad womenfolk, used these brews to wash down mouthfuls of a far stronger drug: namely a raw mushroom,amanita muscaria, which induces hallucinations, senseless rioting, prophetic sight, erotic energy, and remarkable muscular strength. Some hours of this ecstasy are followed by complete inertia; a phenomenon that would account for the story of how Lycurgus, armed only with an ox-goad, routed Dionysus’s drunken army of Maenads and Satyrs after its victorious return from India.

On an Etruscan mirror the amanita muscaria is engraved at Ixion’s feet; he was a Thessalian hero who feasted on ambrosia among the gods. Several myths are consistent with my theory that his descendents, the Centaurs, ate this mushroom; and, according to some historians, it was later employed by the Norse `berserks’ to give them reckless power in battle. I now believe that `ambrosia’ and `nectar’ were intoxicant mushrooms: certainly the amanita muscaria; but perhaps others, too, especially a small, slender dung-mushroom named panaeolus papilionaceus, which induces harmless and most enjoyable hallucinations. A mushroom not unlike it appears on an Attic vase between the hooves of Nessus the Centaur. The `gods’ for whom, in the myths, ambrosia and nectar were reserved, will have been sacred queens and kings of the pre-Classical era. King Tantalus’s crime was that he broke the taboo by inviting commoners to share his ambrosia.

I have myself eaten the hallucigenic mushroom, psilocybe, a divine ambrosia in immemorial use among the Masatec Indians of Oaxaca Province, Mexico; heard the priestess invoke Tlaloc, the Mushroom-god, and seen transcendental visions. Thus I wholeheartedly agree with R. Gordon Wasson, the American discoverer of this ancient rite, that European ideas of heaven and hell may well have derived from similar mysteries. Tlaloc was engendered by lightning; so was Dionysus; and in Greek folklore, as in Masatec, so are all mushrooms — proverbially called `food of the gods’ in both languages. Tlaloc wore a serpent-crown; so did Dionysus. Tlaloc had an underwater retreat; so had Dionysus. The Maenads’ savage custom of tearing off their victims’ heads may refer allegorically to tearing off the sacred mushroom’s head — since in Mexico its stalk is never eaten. We read that Perseus, a sacred King of Argos, converted to Dionysus worship, named Mycenae after a toadstool which he found growing on the site, and which gave forth a stream of water. Tlaloc’s emblem was a toad, so was that of Argos; and from the mouth of Tlaloc’s toad in the Tepentitla fresco issues a stream of water.

Dig deep enough, maaaan, and everything’s a mushroom.


2 comments

  1. Over this last year I definitely have fallen in love with the gods of my ancestors..including adopted ones from Greece obviously lol. I have a number of mirrors published in a book that I often look at. I always love hearing more about them!

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