On the Kybernesia

This festival (which takes its name from κυβερνήτης, Greek for steersman or helmsman) honors Akoites who recognized the divinity in Dionysos and stood witness to the terrible miracles that followed the Stranger-God’s dramatic self-revelation.

As the story goes:

When the Tyrrhenians, later called Tuscans, were on a piratical expedition, Father Liber, then a youth, came on their ship and asked them to take him to Naxos. When they had taken him on and wished to debauch him because of his beauty, Acoetes, the pilot, restrained them, and suffered at their hands. Liber, seeing that their purpose remained the same, changed the oars to thyrsi, the sails to vine-leaves, the ropes to ivy; then lions and panthers leapt out. When they saw them, in fear they cast themselves into the sea, and even in the sea he changed them to a sort of beast. For whoever leaped overboard was changed into dolphin shape, and from this dolphins are called Tyrrhenians, and the sea Tyrrhenian. They were twelve in number with the following names: Aethalides, Medon, Lycabas, Libys, Opheltes, Melas, Alcimedon, Epopeus, Dictys, Simon, Acoetes. The last was the pilot, whom Liber saved out of kindness. (Hyginus, Fabulae 134)

According to Ovid this was just the beginning for the helmsman, whom he has become a mendicant prophet of Bacchus attempting to install the cult at Thebes and running up against the blind and stubborn will of the city’s king – and the God’s cousin – Pentheus:

‘We have only listened to this winding tale’, said Pentheus, ‘so that our anger might spend its strength in delay. You, attendants, remove this man, quickly, and let his body be tortured in greatest anguish, and send him down to Stygian night!’ Acoetes, the Tyrrhenian, was dragged out, straightaway, and shut in a deep dungeon. But while the instruments of cruelty, the irons and the fire, were being prepared to kill him as had been ordered, the doors flew open by themselves, the chains loosening without any effort, or so tradition holds. (Metamorphoses 3.700 ff)

In many respects Akoites and Pentheus are doubles – each is in a position to hear the call of the God Dionysos, but one sees through mad illusion and embraces what is offered him while the other resists and is torn apart by it.

Akoites is also the prototype of the itinerant Bacchic Orphic religious specialists who peddled cures, charms and initiations such as the anonymous figure credited with introducing the Bacchanalia to Rome:

A low-born Greek went into Etruria first of all, but did not bring with him any of the numerous arts which that most accomplished of all nations has introduced amongst us for the cultivation of mind and body. He was a hedge-priest and wizard, not one of those who imbue men’s minds with error by professing to teach their superstitions openly for money, but a hierophant of secret nocturnal mysteries. At first these were divulged to only a few; then they began to spread amongst both men and women, and the attractions of wine and feasting increased the number of his followers. When they were heated with wine and the nightly commingling of men and women, those of tender age with their seniors, had extinguished all sense of modesty, debaucheries of every kind commenced; each had pleasures at hand to satisfy the lust he was most prone to. Nor was the mischief confined to the promiscuous intercourse of men and women; false witness, the forging of seals and testaments, and false informations, all proceeded from the same source, as also poisonings and murders of families where the bodies could not even be found for burial. Many crimes were committed by treachery; most by violence, which was kept secret, because the cries of those who were being violated or murdered could not be heard owing to the noise of drums and cymbals. (Livy, History of Rome 39.8-12 )

It is significant that the “low-born Greek” comes to Rome from Etruria, and not just because of Akoites’ own Tuscan background – for Dionysos’ cult had flourished in Northern Italy for centuries by that point, being adopted by the Etruscans, Oscans, Samnites, and other Italiote tribes shortly after Greek colonization in the 8th through 6th centuries BCE. One of the most prosperous and populous groups in the area were called the Oinotrians “people of the land of wine.”

Indeed it’s possible that Dionysos had already been here before the arrival of the Greeks, either because he was indigenous to Italy or because the Korybantes or Kabeiroi had transplanted him back in mythic time:

If you wish to inspect the orgies of the Korybantes, then know that, having killed their third brother, they covered the head of the dead body with a purple cloth, crowned it, and carrying it on the point of a spear, buried it under the roots of Olympos. These mysteries are, in short, murders and funerals. And the priests of these rites, who are called kings of the sacred rites by those whose business it is to name them, give additional strangeness to the tragic occurrence, by forbidding parsley with the roots from being placed on the table, for they think that parsley grew from the Corybantic blood that flowed forth; just as the women, in celebrating the Thesmophoria, abstain from eating the seeds of the pomegranate which have fallen on the ground, from the idea that pomegranates sprang from the drops of the blood of Dionysos. Those Korybantes also they call Kabiric; and the ceremony itself they announce as the Kabiric mystery. For those two identical fratricides, having abstracted the box in which the phallos of Bacchus was deposited, took it to Etruria–dealers in honourable wares truly. They lived there as exiles, employing themselves in communicating the precious teaching of their superstition, and presenting phallic symbols and the box for the Tyrrhenians to worship. And some will have it, not improbably, that for this reason Dionysos was called Attis, because he was mutilated. And what is surprising at the Tyrrhenians, who were barbarians, being thus initiated into these foul indignities, when among the Athenians, and in the whole of Greece–I blush to say it–the shameful legend about Demeter holds its ground? (Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Greeks Book Two)

Which, curiously enough, leads back to Akoites and the Dolphins – a theme often explored in Italian and Etruscan art. After providing an exhaustive catalogue of vases and cups decorated with this motif – rare in other parts of the Greek world – Dimitris Paleothodoros hazards a guess as to what it all means:

It has been noted recently that the appearance of dolphins leaping into the sea on Etruscan wall-paintings and mirrors of the late archaic period does not have a decorative function, but betrays an eschatological message. Since the tomb is regarded as a place of mediation between the world of the living and the world of the dead, the idea of putting friezes of dolphins leaping into the sea in the lower part of the tomb may have served as a point of juncture between the two worlds. The act of leaping into the sea is regarded in funerary symbolism as an act of passage between the world of the living into the world of the dead. The equation of the banquet with the Dionysiac afterlife is a very well known feature in the funerary iconography in Etruria and Southern Italy, where most of the documents illustrating the myth of the Tyrrhenian pirates has been found. So it seems justified to assume that the myth was regarded as a metaphor for death and rebirth. (Dionysos and the Tyrrhenian Pirates)

Making the myth especially significant for those of us who work with the Toys, particularly Esoptron.


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