A reader commented with regard to my Amazons post that these female warriors seemed so “nasty” and “violent” and so he couldn’t conceive of them being part of the Retinue since Dionysos’ conquest of the East was “peaceful” and “bloodless.”
Oh, have I got news for you buddy.
As it turns out, I’ve had this conversation several times before, most notably with a prominent Tumblrite to which I wrote the following reply. Their response was to delete their account. Hopefully you will not behave in such an histrionic fashion as I’ve enjoyed our exchanges, most especially when you’ve had critical feedback.
To begin with, let me just reiterate a point of supreme importance, which is why I flog it constantly: you cannot derive an accurate understanding of what the ancients did or believed from only a single source.
We have no idea how widely representative such a view may have been or often even what the author’s intent in making it was. What are our source’s biases? Is he describing something contemporary with him or something he thinks happened in the remote past? It’s also important to keep in mind that each community gave a local spin to the myths and were not really bothered when they encountered regional variations, even quite drastic ones. Context is everything when interpreting the ancients.
Now, to bring it back around to your objections — it is true that there are sources that claim Dionysos won a bloodless victory over the East either as a result of his powers of persuasion or when Pan came to his aid and frightened all of his opponents, but this was only ever a minority view.
Classical literature is filled with far more anecdotes such as these:
It is related, anyhow, that Herakles of Egypt and Dionysos after they had overrun the Indian people with their arms, constructed engines of war, and tried to take the place by assault; but the sages, instead of taking the field against them, lay quiet and passive, as it seemed to the enemy; but as soon as the latter approached they were driven off by rockets of fire and thunderbolts which were hurled obliquely from above and fell upon their armour. (Philostratos, Life of Apollonius of Tyana 2.33)
Inachos was witness to both, when the heavy bronze pikes of Mykenai resisted the ivy and deadly fennel, when Perseus sickle in hand gave way to Bakchos with his wand, and fled before the fury of Satyrs cyring Euoi; Perseus cast a raging spear, and hit frail Ariadne unarmed instead of Lyaios the warrior. I do not admire Perseus for killing one woman, in her bridal dress still breathing of love. (Nonnos, Dionysiaka 25.104)
On its rich stream has Lydian Pactolus borne thee, leading along its burning banks the golden waters; the Massgetan who mingles blood with milk in his goblets has unstrung his vanquished bow and given up his Getan arrows; the realms of axe-wielding Lycurgus have felt the dominion of Bacchus; the fierce lands of the Zalaces have felt it, and those wandering tribes whom neighbouring Boreas smites, and the nations which Maeotis’ cold water washes, and they on whom the Arcadian constellation looks down from the zenith and the wagons twain. He has subdued the scattered Gelonians; he has wrested their arms form the warrior maidens; with downcast face they fell to earth, those Thermodontian hordes, gave up at length their light arrows, and became maenads. Sacred Cithaeron has flowed with the blood of Ophionian slaughter; the Proetides fled to the woods, and Argos, in his stepdame’s very presence, paid homage to Bacchus. (Seneca, Oedipus 401 ff)
And then there’s the fragment from the Greco-Egyptian poet Dionysios’ Bassarika. The fragment begins with the discovery of a spy who has been sent into the camp of Dionysos by the Indian king Deriades. The God orders several of his soldiers to go out and hunt a stag. That’s when the fun starts.
They slew it and flayed it, and stripping off the skin, arrayed the wretched man from head and shoulders down. The new-flayed hide clave to his body, moulded to the flesh; above, the horns gleamed to be seen afar; to one that beheld him, he wanted nothing of the wild beast’s form. Thus had they transformed a man into a counterfeit animal … The Bacchanal God leapt into the midst of the enemy army, where most of all the Kethaians were rushing to the flame of battle. Standing there he cried aloud to Dereiades and the rest: ‘Slaves of women, Indians, consider now this way: to Deriades above all I speak this from knowledge. You shall not, in your present straits, withstand the onslaught of the gleaming wine and escape your evil fate, before in the swift night you tear apart the raw flesh of a living animal and eat it. Behold this tall stag straight of horn, the finest that followed us from holy Hellas, a marvel to behold! Come, hasten to rend it in good conflict for its flesh.’ So he spoke, and they of their own accord were fain to fall upon human flesh, and to appease their boundless desire, smitten by eager madness. And Deriades answered the son of Zeus, saying: ‘Would that I might cut your body limb from limb and swallow the flesh raw ….’
And you know, even the komos of Alexander the Great which helped solidify this legend in the Hellenistic mind, was not without violence and drunken mayhem:
Alexander held games in honor of his victories. He performed costly sacrifices to the Gods and entertained his friends bountifully. While they were feasting and the drinking was far advanced, as they began to be drunken a madness took possession of the minds of the intoxicated guests. At this point one of the women present, Thais by name and Attic by origin, said that for Alexander it would be the finest of all his feats in Asia if he joined them in a triumphal procession, set fire to the palaces, and permitted women’s hands in a minute to extinguish the famed accomplishments of the Persians. This was said to men who were still young and giddy with wine, and so, as would be expected, someone shouted out to form the komos and to light torches, and urged all to take vengeance for the destruction of the Greek temples. Others took up the cry and said that this was a deed worthy of Alexander alone. When the king had caught fire at their words, all leaped up from their couches and passed the word along to form a victory procession in honor of Dionysos. Promptly many torches were gathered. Female musicians were present at the banquet, so the king led them all out for the komos to the sound of voices and flutes and pipes, Thais the courtesan leading the whole performance. She was the first, after the king, to hurl her blazing torch into the palace. As the others all did the same, immediately the entire palace area was consumed, so great was the conflagration. It was most remarkable that the impious act of Xerxes, king of the Persians, against the acropolis at Athens should have been repaid in kind after many years by one woman, a citizen of the land which had suffered it, and in sport.” (Diodoros Sikeliotes, Library of History 17.72.1-6)
This should surprise no one. After all the God was hailed by the names Savage, Man-Killer, He Who Tears Apart, He Who Devours Raw Flesh. The ancients understood this about him even if many today have forgotten or would prefer not to contemplate the implications of it.
And of course to do so they must consciously ignore about two-thirds of his mythology.
Lykourgos. Pentheus. Perseus. The daughters of Kadmos. The daughters of Proitos. The daughters of Minyas.
Need I go on?
If these names do not fill you with fear, you should probably crack open a book. Might I suggest you begin with Euripides’ Bakchai? By the end you will see why the playwright refers to him as most tender and most terrible of Gods.
Dionysos is a God of extremes, the paradox personified. He blurs all boundaries and enjoys crossing no line more than the arbitrary one of sexuality. To put it in the modern parlance, Dionysos is the God of genderfuck. He turns brash kings into simpering queens and bored housewives into frenzied soldiers driving back the settled folk of the valley with their deadly ivy-twined spears. Dionysos is soft, sensual, womanly — and also hirsute and hungry, virile as a hundred bulls. He spans everything in between, a whirlwind of form, a clever shape-shifter.
Now hold on to your seat, because this shit’s going to blow your mind.
Dionysos is a God.
Even the smallest God is beyond man’s full comprehension — and Dionysos is immense.
You know what that means? Dionysos is more than just some handsome bearded dude with a crown of ivy, come hither eyes and lips wet with wine.
He may show himself to you like that but he’s not limited to just that one mask, that one form. When you can see a dozen such masks, a hundred simultaneously then you’ll get at something of the truth of what Dionysos is.
But you still won’t know him completely. No mortal possibly can. For Dionysos exists beyond what is known. He is a God of mystery, as all true Gods are.
And art is man’s imperfect means of expressing the ineffable. Art points the way, it alludes and suggests. It can do no more.
When that is understood about art, art is a profound ally to religion. We are sensual creatures — there is nothing wrong with engaging the senses in worship. This makes for the most powerful kind of worship in fact.
But the object is not the subject.
The Gods are more than our conceptions of them.
When you mistake the image for what inspired it, when you accept only the surface reading of a text and go no further — you do a grave disservice to art and to religion.
Yes, the myths are true and what art depicts is real — but don’t stop there. He is more than that, always more than we can imagine. And if you try to box him in you’ll miss the really special stuff about him, the stuff you can only learn by opening yourself up to him completely. And you’ll piss him off. He doesn’t do well in cramped spaces — unless those spaces happen to be bottles.