Dionysos and the Jews

I’d comment on the increasing tide of Black-on-Jew violence but I don’t really discuss other acts of terrorism when they occur so it’d be kind of weird, ya know? Almost as weird as the silence of certain segments of the community who do frequently pipe up – at least when such villainy can be traced back to Trump and white supremacists. Guess these daily atrocities don’t fit their narrative.

Personally, I think antisemitism is wrong regardless of the skin color and religion of the perpetrator.

And I suspect Dionysos feels similarly.

His people and the Jews suffered together under the Christians until Emperor Valens was raised to the purple:

At Antioch Valens spent considerable time, and gave complete license to all who under cover of the Christian name, Pagans, Jews, and the rest preached doctrines contrary to those of the Gospel. The slaves of this error even went so far as to perform Pagan rites, and thus the deceitful fire which after Julian had been quenched by Jovian, was now rekindled by permission of Valens. The rites of the Jews, of Dionysos and Demeter were no longer performed in a corner as they would have been in a pious reign, but by revellers running wild in the forum. Valens was a foe to none but to them that held the apostolic doctrine. Against the champions of the apostolic decrees alone he persisted in waging war. Accordingly, during the whole period of his reign the altar fire was lit, libations and sacrifices were offered to idols, public feasts were celebrated in the forum, and votaries initiated in the orgies of Dionysos ran about in goatskins, mangling dogs in Bacchic frenzy. (Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History 4.21; 5.20)

Plutarch of Chaeronea actually argued that the Jews were Dionysos’ people:

First the time and character of the greatest, most sacred holiday of the Jews clearly befit Dionysos. When they celebrate their so-called Fast, at the height of the vintage, they set out tables of all sorts of fruit under tents and huts plaited for the most part of vines and ivy. They call the first of the two days Tabernacles. A few days later they celebrate another festival, this time identified with Bacchos not through obscure hints but plainly called by his name, a festival that is a sort of ‘Procession of Branches’ or ‘Thyrsos Procession’ in which they enter the Temple each carrying a thyrsos. What they do after entering we do not know, but it is probable that the rite is a Bacchic revelry, for in fact they use little trumpets to invoke their God as do the Argives at their Dionysia. Others of them advance playing harps; these players are called in their language Levites, either from ‘Lysios’ or better, from ‘Euois.’

I believe that even the feast of the Sabbath is not completely unrelated to Dionysos. Many even now call the Bacchantes ‘Saboi’ and utter the cry when celebrating the God. Testimony of this can be found in Demosthenes and Menander. The Jews themselves testify to a connection with Dionysos when they keep the Sabbath by inviting each other to drink and enjoy wine; when more important business interferes with this custom, they regularly take at least a sip of neat wine. Now thus far one might call the argument only probable; but the oppposition is quite demolished, in the first place by the High Priest, who leads the procession at their festival wearing a miter and clad in a gold-embroidered fawnskin, a robe reaching to the ankles, and buskins, with many bells attached to his clothes and ringing below him as he walks. All this corresponds to our custom. In the second place, they also have noise as an element in their nocturnal festivals, and call the nurses of the God ‘bronze rattlers.’ The carved thyrsos in the relief on the pediment of the Temple and the drums provide other parallels. All this surely befits no divinity but Dionysos.” (Quaestiones Convivales 4.6.1-2)

Macrobius cites the authority of no less than Orpheus and the Oracle of Klarian Apollon when syncretizing Dionysos with Iao (among other Gods) in Saturnalia 1.18-23:

Orpheus manifestly declares that Liber is the sun, and the meaning here is certainly quite clear; but the following line from the same poet is more difficult:

One Zeus, one Hades, one Sun, one Dionysus.

[19] The warrant for this last line rests on an oracle of Apollo of Claros, wherein yet another name is given to the sun; which is called, within the space of the same sacred verses by several names, including that of Iao. For when Apollo of Claros was asked who ‘among the gods was to be regarded as the god called Iao, he replied:

[20] Those who have learned the mysteries should hide the unsearchable secrets, but, if the understanding is small and the mind weak, then ponder this: that lao is the supreme god of all gods; in winter, Hades; at spring’s beginning, Zeus; the Sun in summer; and in autumn, the splendid Iao.

[21] For the meaning of this oracle and for the explanation, of the deity and his name, which identifies Iao with Liber Pater and the sun, our authority is Cornelius Labeo in his book entitled On the Oracle of Apollo of Claros.

[22] Again, Orpheus, pointing out that Liber and the sun are one and the same god, writes as follows of the ornaments and vestments worn by Liber at the ceremonies performed in his honor:

Let the worshiper first throw around him a crimson robe,
like flowing rays resembling fire.
Moreover from above the broad all-variegated skin of a wild fawn
thickly spotted should hang down from the right shoulder,
a representation of the wondrously-wrought stars and of the vault of heaven.
And then over the fawn-skin a golden belt should be thrown,
all-gleaming to wear around the breast a mighty sign
that immediately from the end of the earth the Beaming-one springing up
darts his golden rays on the flowing of ocean.

Tacitus, however, said that Liber had been the principle God of Jerusalem in former times, but the Jews had swapped him out for a different God, much to their detriment. (Annals 660)

Assuming he was correct, many Jews remained faithful to Dionysos. We find them participating in the theatrical arts and other Dionysiac contests (2 Maccabbees 6:7), receiving initiation into his mysteries complete with the ivy-leaf tattoo to show for it (3 Maccabbees 2:29) and even Philo the Jew, who is usually quite disdainful when it comes to Hellenic and Egyptian polytheism speaks favorably of the Bacchic devotees, and employs technical language drawn from the mysteries in numerous places. Jews even wrote Orphic pseudoepigraphica, and Bacchic imagery shows up in domestic settings of observant Jews, as well as in synagogues and bath-houses, particularly in Judaean cities like Sepphoris and Beth-She’an, the latter of which was said to have actually been founded by Dionysos.  

The respect was mutual, for the Dionysian king Ptolemy Soter appointed his Jewish subjects to important military and governmental positions and even gave them a whole quarter of the city of Alexandria (right next to the Royal District) so that they could live according to their own customs, including the extraordinary prerogative of having their own legal system and law courts. His son Ptolemy II Philadelphos (who excelled his father in Dionysian devotion and pageantry) continued these policies, going so far as to have the books of Moses translated into Greek where they could be included in the Great Library of the Mouseion along with other Jewish and Samaritan works where they were often studied and debated. A later member of the Dynasty even converted an abandoned House of Bast into a temple of Yahweh which came to rival the prestige of the Solomonic temple in Jerusalem. 

I could go on – and have in my book The Balance of the Two Lands: Writings on Greco-Egyptian Polytheism – but hopefully you get the point: Jew-hatred is wrong and un-Dionysian and I denounce anyone who engages in it, regardless of what identity-group they belong to.  

17 thoughts on “Dionysos and the Jews

  1. Oddly enough….before I started my path towards Polytheism, I was studying Judaism with the intent on Conversion. I had failed to impress the local Reform Jewish Rabbi (I was a nervous wreck the whole time and couldn’t form a convincing argument for “why” I wanted to convert) and was about to contact an organization called “Aleph” which is an organization for a branch of Judaism called “Jewish Renewal”. When I made the decision to contact the Rabbi, my mind kept quoting the following “Even a Pagan has a place in the world to come.” This always popped into my mind everytime I thought to email Aleph. So I gave up and shifted my focus elsewhere until I came upon your writings in Neos Alexandria, Sannion.

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    1. They turned down your conversion because they wanted a better reason from you for converting? Huh. That’s refreshingly responsible and non-manipulative.

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      1. And that’s one reason I respect the Jews a hell of a lot more than I do their Christian and Moslem contemporaries. Minus a couple periods of expansionist conquest, they’ve mostly wanted to be left alone to carry on their traditions unmolested. I may not agree with some of those traditions, but it’s no concern of mine what they do or believe as long as they’re not trying to impose it on others.

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      2. Well, it surprised me a bit with the Reform rabbi. But I do know that in the Orthodox branch of Judaism, the tradition is to turn away a potential convert up to three times. It’s to test the convert’s willingness and honesty. It requires the deepest commitment.

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  2. Very interesting post. It reminds me of a book called Aphrodite and the Rabbis: How the Jews Adapted Roman Culture to Create Judaism As We Know It by Burton L. Visotzky. I haven’t read it but I really want to. Here’s the Amazon link to it:

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  3. Though Yahweh being equated to Dionysus sounds like a stretch at first, I think the archaic Hebrew religion did include many Dionysian elements that were retained up to the second Temple. Probably because Yahweh was one of many Semitic gods of fertility and storms, a young warrior deity like Hadad or Melqart. The exact deity in Jerusalem may not have been exactly Liber Pater or Dionysus, but I do believe the cult was similar. I think Tacitus was more or less right. The Jews did abandon their gods, Yahweh among them, and replaced them with something else, and it was to their detriment. And it was not a peaceful conversion, judging by what history we have of the Maccabees. The reason why many Jews were participating in the Dionysian festivals under the Seleucids is probably because their own religion was similar at that time. The Maccabees, when they took over, violently enforced their form of Judaism. The Edomites were brought into Judaism by conquest and the old “convert or die”. Jews that did not follow the official religion were punished, in one case hundreds were crucified by the high priest.

    Aside from the Old Testament, Jewish folklore, the other religious texts(like the Talmud, archaeology, Papyrus Amherst 63 and the Elephantine texts provide information about the old Hebrew religion. It was polytheistic, Yahweh had a consort(Anat or Asherah) and he may have also been called Bethel, among titles like Adonai and Mar. In these texts, famous Biblical names(like Moses and Abraham) don’t show up. Those only start to show up in texts and inscriptions in the Hellenistic period. No law of Moses was known of, and there was no rule that there can only be the one temple in Jerusalem. These were later inventions.

    A relevant passage from Leviticus 17:
    “2 Speak to Aaron and his sons and to all the people of Israel and say to them: This is what the Lord has commanded. 3 If anyone of the house of Israel slaughters an ox or a lamb or a goat in the camp, or slaughters it outside the camp, 4 and does not bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting, to present it as an offering to the Lord before the tabernacle of the Lord, he shall be held guilty of bloodshed; he has shed blood, and he shall be cut off from the people. 5 This is in order that the people of Israel may bring their sacrifices that they offer in the open field, that they may bring them to the Lord, to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting, and offer them as sacrifices of well-being to the Lord. 6 The priest shall dash the blood against the altar of the Lord at the entrance of the tent of meeting, and turn the fat into smoke as a pleasing odor to the Lord, 7 so that they may no longer offer their sacrifices for goat-demons, to whom they prostitute themselves. This shall be a statute forever to them throughout their generations.”

    The “goat demons” are often translated as “satyrs”. In Hebrew they are called שע‬י‬רי‬‬ם (seirim, meaning goats). Notice how the priesthood’s greater control over offerings is meant to keep the Hebrews from their former way of offering, which was often in places where the priests couldn’t supervise. These seirim are otherwise mysterious creatures mentioned in only a few places, and what history the Hebrews had with making offerings to them is not detailed. I suspect that the writer revealed more here than intended, an aspect of the real Hebrew religion. My thoughts came to the kobolds and satyrs associated with Dionysus.

    Another quote:

    2 Samuel 6:
    “14 David danced before the Lord with all his might; David was girded with a linen ephod. 15 So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet.16 As the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart.
    17 They brought in the ark of the Lord, and set it in its place, inside the tent that David had pitched for it; and David offered burnt offerings and offerings of well-being before the Lord. 18 When David had finished offering the burnt offerings and the offerings of well-being, he blessed the people in the name of the Lord of hosts, 19 and distributed food among all the people, the whole multitude of Israel, both men and women, to each a cake of bread, a portion of meat, and a cake of raisins. Then all the people went back to their homes.

    20 David returned to bless his household. But Michal the daughter of Saul came out to meet David, and said, “How the king of Israel honored himself today, uncovering himself today before the eyes of his servants’ maids, as any vulgar fellow might shamelessly uncover himself!” 21 David said to Michal, “It was before the Lord, who chose me in place of your father and all his household, to appoint me as prince over Israel, the people of the Lord, that I have danced before the Lord. 22 I will make myself yet more contemptible than this, and I will be abased in my own eyes; but by the maids of whom you have spoken, by them I shall be held in honor.”

    Doesn’t sound anything like a sober round of Latin chanting or an even more bland Protestant image of worship, does it?

    Josephus wrote that Herod’s temple had a very prominent grapevine motif over the front gate. The descriptions of Solomon’s temple in the Old Testament include graven images that were supposed to be forbidden(this idea did not exist until late). There were 12 bull statues(3 for each cardinal direction) holding up a large wash basin, rows of pomegranate designs all around, and also the bronze serpent on a pole. The stands had wreath, lion, cherub(sphinx like creature), palm tree, and bull motifs. There is a controversial artifact, a small bone pomegranate with an inscription(that may be forged). That is a lot of imagery that is also associated with Dionysus, but also with a general idea of fertility and power.

    Genesis 28:
    18 So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. 19 He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first. 20 Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, 21 so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, 22 and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one-tenth to you.”

    Worship was conducted in front of stone pillars or in sacred groves(or both) among the archaic Hebrews. Here is an example of Jacob setting up a pillar. After an excavation at Tel Arad, a sanctuary of Yahweh and some artifacts were found there, including a standing stone in the center of the sanctuary. Much like the phalloi of Dionysus. Setting up stone pillars is forbidden in Deuteronomy, but we see characters do it with no issue. The Bible is full of contradictions like that. The Jerusalem priests that changed the Hebrew religion by force proscribed actions that had previously been part of worship. That is why they rail against high places, groves, and pillars in the text. Hezekiah and Josiah(especially the latter) both destroyed local shrines and attempted to centralize religion, according to the Old Testament.

    The Assyrian envoy to Hezekiah actually mocked the Judean king for his destruction of local shrines, asking him why Yahweh would help a ruler that destroyed his shrines. Josiah defiled the sacred site of Bethel(mentioned in the Jacob story) and killed its priests on the altar there. And Bethel was not even in his territory, but in Samarian territory, meaning that it was a raid or invasion. He is also said to have destroyed the grove or Asherah pole, and he melted down the image of the serpent in the temple. This blasphemy apparently did anger people. Jews in Egypt are recorded in the Book of Jeremiah, and they blamed these actions by Josiah(and others) for the disasters that struck them. Famine, drought, and the Babylonian invasions, finally the destruction of the temple itself. They especially blamed the burning and defiling of the cult objects of Asherah for this. Josiah, despite how he was talked up in the text, died an ignominious failure in a battle with Egyptians, not victorious and powerful as he was promised. The authors of the accounts(they vary in the Old Testament) were embarrassed by this and had to come up with a reason.

    Judges 21:
    “So they said, “Look, the yearly festival of the Lord is taking place at Shiloh, which is north of Bethel, on the east of the highway that goes up from Bethel to Shechem, and south of Lebonah.” 20 And they instructed the Benjaminites, saying, “Go and lie in wait in the vineyards, 21 and watch; when the young women of Shiloh come out to dance in the dances, then come out of the vineyards and each of you carry off a wife for himself from the young women of Shiloh, and go to the land of Benjamin.”

    The story is one often criticized. My focus here is on the festival. It is a festival for Yahweh that involves women dancing in the vineyards. This is otherwise unknown, because in the “canonized” list of holidays (after the adoption of the Babylonian calendar by the Jews) no festival like this is mentioned. But at one point there were festivals like this.

    Yahweh is associated with poetry and divine madness. Characters spout verses or go into a berserk rage when Yahweh’s spirit(ruach, breath) enters them. They display great strength, or go out of their minds babbling, or strip off their clothes, depending on the case. A prophet required musical instruments and dance, among other things, to induce the right state. Even some of the prophetic books mention calling for musical instruments for the process of prophesying. People don’t often pay attention nowadays to the many times this is indicated. They tend to think of prophets as something more akin to a rabbi or maybe an imam, thundering out threats and commands and making sure that people are following the long list of rules. They did not just have quiet prayer meetings.

    Judges 15:
    14 When he came to Lehi, the Philistines came shouting to meet him; and the spirit of the Lord rushed on him, and the ropes that were on his arms became like flax that has caught fire, and his bonds melted off his hands. 15 Then he found a fresh jawbone of a donkey, reached down and took it, and with it he killed a thousand men. 16 And Samson said,
    “With the jawbone of a donkey,
    heaps upon heaps,
    with the jawbone of a donkey
    I have slain a thousand men.”

    1 Samuel 20:
    When they saw the company of the prophets in a frenzy, with Samuel standing in charge of them, the spirit of God came upon the messengers of Saul, and they also fell into a prophetic frenzy. 21 When Saul was told, he sent other messengers, and they also fell into a frenzy. Saul sent messengers again the third time, and they also fell into a frenzy. 22 Then he himself went to Ramah. He came to the great well that is in Secu; he asked, “Where are Samuel and David?” And someone said, “They are at Naioth in Ramah.” 23 He went there, toward Naioth in Ramah; and the spirit of God came upon him. As he was going, he fell into a prophetic frenzy, until he came to Naioth in Ramah. 24 He too stripped off his clothes, and he too fell into a frenzy before Samuel. He lay naked all that day and all that night. Therefore it is said, “Is Saul also among the prophets?”

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    1. Impressive! There’s some quotes in here I may need to tease out.

      But yeah, the most archaic parts of the Hebrew scriptures really make Yahweh out to be a God of Storms, Master of Beasts, King of his Mountain, and Lord of War, with dance, ecstasy, prophecy and sacrifice as his primary sacraments. That’s why when I ran Neos Alexandria I included him in our Greco-Egyptian pantheon. (Well, one of the reasons.)

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    1. I meant the ancient Hebrews. Before they replaced their god with a book and abandoned their goddess.. Judaism contains fragments of the older system, but it is mainly opposed to it. Look at what can be known of their history after Judaism as we know it came along, it was just a chain of disasters. New Jewish sects turned on each other and killed each other, and they also killed many of the Samaritans. It never united them like it says should have happened in the prophets. All those promises turned out to be false. I think the Jews in Egypt cited in Jeremiah were right about the situation. If anyone brought on the disasters, it was the priesthood of Jerusalem and the later kings there(especially Josiah).

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