Apolitical Dionysianism

Responding to my call for writing prompts, Sarenth posed the following:

  • Would you tackle the intersection of politics and Dionysian and/or Starry Bear work/cultus?

Dionysos is a radically inclusive God. One of the first and most powerful expressions of this in the literary record comes from Euripides’ Bakchai, in the famous speech of Tieresias the prophet:

Those old traditions from our ancestors,
the ones we’ve had as long as time itself,
no argument will ever overthrow,
in spite of subtleties sharp minds invent.
Will someone say I disrespect old age,
if I intend to dance with ivy on my head?
Not so, for the God makes no distinctions—
whether the dancing is for young or old.
He wants to gather honours from us all,
to be praised communally, without division.

Much further back, a thousand years and more, the archaeological record confirms this. In the handful of references to the God in Linear B we already find him associated with women, with tenant-farmers, and with kings. Every class, every category, every permutation of humanity is welcome in his rites.

While it’s true that his worship could give expression to revolutionary tendencies:

Dionysus was left to the powerless of Italy and they embraced him. In 185-184, the slave shepherds of Apulia – the heel of the Italian “boot” – revolted and sources hint they claimed Dionysus as their patron. Between 135 and 101 B.C., two slave revolts in Sicily and one slave revolt in western Anatolia all invoked Dionysus. The god appeared again in the rebellion of Rome’s Italian allies known as the Social War (91-88 B.C.): rebel coins showed Bacchus as a symbol of liberation. (Barry Strauss, The Spartacus War pgs 34-35)

It held equal appeal for the wealthy and powerful:

Antony himself, when he was staying at Athens, a short time after this, prepared a very superb scaffold to spread over the theatre, covered with green wood such as is seen in the caves sacred to Bacchus; and from this scaffold he suspended drums and fawn-skins, and all the other toys which one names in connection with Bacchus, and then sat there with his friends, getting drunk from daybreak, a band of musicians, whom he had sent for from Italy, playing to him all the time, and all the Greeks around being collected to see the sight. And presently, he crossed over to the Acropolis, the whole city of Athens being illuminated with lamps suspended from the roof; and after that lie ordered himself to be proclaimed as Bacchus throughout all the cities in that district. (History of the Civil War Book 3 quoted in Athenaios 4.29)

Indeed, one of the most interesting things about reading epigraphic testimonies of the God’s cults is how frequently we find the different classes mingling in his worship, as you can see for yourself in Philip Harland’s exhaustive, though by no means complete, collection of them.

This was such a strong component of Dionysiac worship that it completely scandalized Philo the Jew:

In the city there are thiasoi with a large membership, whose fellowship is founded on no sound principle but on strong liquor, drunkenness, intoxicated violence, and their offspring, wantonness. (In Flaccum 136)

Which is what ultimately led to the suppression of the Bacchanalia in Rome. Had this just been a cult of slaves, women and foreigners the Senate wouldn’t have freaked out as they did:

Then Hispala gave an account of the origin of these rites. At first they were confined to women; no male was admitted, and they had three stated days in the year on which persons were initiated during the daytime, and matrons were chosen to act as priestesses. Paculla Annia, a Campanian, when she was priestess, made a complete change, as though by divine monition, for she was the first to admit men, and she initiated her own sons, Minius Cerinnius and Herennius Cerinnius. At the same time she made the rite a nocturnal one, and instead of three days in the year celebrated it five times a month. When once the mysteries had assumed this promiscuous character, and men were mingled with women with all the licence of nocturnal orgies, there was no crime, no deed of shame, wanting. More uncleanness was wrought by men with men than with women. […] They formed an immense multitude, almost equal to the population of Rome; amongst them were members of noble families both men and women. (Livy, History of Rome 39.13-16)

Once upperclass folk started getting involved that’s when the hammer fell, with disastrous consequences:

But so great were the numbers that fled from the city, that because the lawsuits and property of many persons were going to ruin, the praetors, Titus Maenius and Marcus Licinius, were obliged, under the direction of the senate, to adjourn their courts for thirty days, until the inquiries should be finished by the consuls. The same deserted state of the law-courts, since the persons, against whom charges were brought, did not appear to answer, nor could be found in Rome, necessitated the consuls to make a circuit of the country towns, and there to make their inquisitions and hold the trials. […] A greater number were executed than thrown into prison; indeed, the multitude of men and women who suffered in both ways, was very considerable. A charge was then given to demolish all the places where the Bacchanalians had held their meetings; first in Rome, and then throughout all Italy. (Livy, History of Rome 34.18)

Which is why I am concerned by efforts to politicize our religious communities. By insisting that paganism and polytheism are not religious but revolutionary, dictating what positions a person must take on contemporary socioeconomic issues and furthermore insisting that they have the backing of the Gods in all that they are doing I cannot in good conscience stand with such folk. It is not right when the Christian dominionists push for the blurring of the separation of the sacred and secular, and it’s not right when “we” do it either.

For one, it diminishes our intellectual and moral capacities to believe that a God must tell us right from wrong. I can get upset all on my own about the militarization of the police force or corporations blowing up mountains and dumping toxic sludge into our waterways.

And for another, outside of those and a handful of other serious issues a lot of this stuff doesn’t have simple answers. Decent, sincere, caring people can come to diametrically opposed conclusions on these matters and I’m not going to shun someone because they happen to think differently than I do.

In point of fact I am not permitted to exclude another Dionysian from fellowship unless their actions violate the xenia of the God, for instance by taking advantage of someone who is too inebriated to give proper consent. Tolerance is one of the cardinal virtues of Dionysos and sometimes that means putting up with people I don’t particularly like.