Paths to Dionysos

This is one of my older pieces; there are a few things in it I’d phrase differently today, or not at all. But in general it holds up fairly well, and addresses some things I’ve been discussing with folks over the last couple days so I wanted to share it here.

Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, one of the last defenders of Classical paganism remarked, “What matters the path by which one seeks the truth? One road alone does not suffice to attain so great a mystery!”

Although his wisdom could be applied to many things, it holds especially true when we are approaching the God Dionysos, who is the mystery of all mysteries. I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve received e-mails from people who have begun to feel a call from Dionysos but stop dead in their tracks because they are afraid of what heeding such a call might do to them, or feel that they could never be a true Dionysian, by which they usually mean either a drunken mystic sensualist or a wild woman who leaves behind her home and family to rave with the God on the mountain-top and consume the raw flesh of freshly killed animals. And these people are probably right: it isn’t within their nature to act in such a way, or to radically commit themselves to tearing down the walls of fear and inhibition that they have spent a life-time building up. But that doesn’t mean that there is no place for the God within their lives, or that they can’t benefit in even a small way from having a relationship with him.

In Euripides’ famous play the Bakchai, the headstrong young king Pentheus believed that there was only one way to worship Dionysos and that was through drunken debauchery and madness. The wise Tieresias, who was a blind seer dedicated to Apollo, advised him that there was more to the God than what one might at first surmise. In addition to being the lord of the vine he is a God of all vegetative life, a kindly benefactor to humankind, he brought joy and merriment to care-worn hearts, he is a strong God, and warlike, who was able to conquer large parts of the world, and while he enjoyed festive celebration and sensuality, that wasn’t the only way that he could be honored. In fact, he goes on to say:

“Dionysos does not, I admit, compel a woman to be chaste. Always and in every case it is her character and her nature that keeps a woman chaste. But even in the rites of Dionysos the chaste woman will not be corrupted.” (Bakchai 315)

That is an important line. It shows that what matters lies in the heart of each individual. Dionysos helps us find our authentic self, the part of us which too often becomes dulled and corrupted and hidden under layers of fear and social respectability. Dionysos is the God who awakens us, who brings us fully to life, and the means of accomplishing that, and the form that it will take when manifested, differs from person to person. For some, intoxication and revelry are the doors through which we pass into wholeness: others find a quieter, more contemplative approach works best for them. Dionysos doesn’t want us to pretend to be something we’re not, to offer him false worship because we think this, and only this will be pleasing to him. He wants us to unfold the truth within us, to strip away the lies and false exterior and revel in wholeness with him. And he won’t force us to do something we don’t want to or aren’t ready to: a chaste woman will remain chaste within his rites.

When we look at the mythology connected with Dionysos, we find this truth that there are many paths which lead to him amply reflected. The way of the Mainad and the way of the mystic may stand out most prominently, but there are others of equal importance.

For instance, we find the way of Tieresias himself, which I call the path of philia or friendship. For such a person, Dionysos must always remain on the periphery. They are devoted primarily to another God, whose demands on them are of central importance. To embrace Dionysos completely would be to forsake the relationship they already have with their God, to violate their principles, to go against their own innate psychology. Dionysos does not want this. He respects his family and their territorial claims, and he would not cross that boundary even if he could.

Instead what he offers to such people is temporary release. A time of license and celebration, which once completed reverts back to normal life. Such a person may have fond feelings for Dionysos, but nothing more. No intense devotion, no strong commitment. They may do a lot to contribute to the work of the God, for instance by helping to put on festivals for him, by writing poetry, by telling others about Dionysos, by helping those who are truly devoted to the God – but all their efforts are those of an outsider.

And Dionysos looks fondly upon this sort of work. They have much to contribute, for he is a social God, the God of the throng and crowd, the God whose mania spreads among large groups of people, the God who, according to Euripides, wishes to receive honors from all. If his worship was reserved for only the few who are intensely devoted to him, none of this would be possible. In fact, the really good rituals that he so enjoys would never come to be, for there are all sorts of details that need to be taken care of which the diehard mystics would probably overlook. Stuff such as organization, acquiring goods, setting up things, getting people together, etc. Other Gods inspire the sort of people that are good at handling these little details, but Dionysos benefits from their presence at his ceremonies.

And Dionysos, in turn, can help these people strengthen their relationship to their own Gods. Many times people have described Dionysos as a gateway God. He may be the first one that catches their interest, that starts them along the path of Hellenismos, that helps them deal with certain issues and tears down mental blockages, but after that they don’t feel any deep connection to him. Instead, another God rises up in prominence for them, someone who more properly fills their spiritual needs, someone who inspires that deep, committed devotion on their part. They often become confused and saddened: where did Dionysos go? Did I do something wrong and that’s why he disappeared? Since he was the first, why do I feel so much more for ____?

Although these thoughts are natural, and may be important steps on the introspective path, it is also important to remember that Dionysos is a fluid God who comes and goes as he will, and who has a very strong working relationship with the other Gods. They will often do things for each other when one of them is better suited to the task than the others. So it’s quite possible that that’s what lies behind this: you were never meant to be a Dionysian, but rather a friend of Dionysos.

Related to this path, but different from it is the way of the Satyr. For these people, Dionysos is first, foremost, and in the end, a God of exuberance, joy, celebration, sex, drunkenness, and reveling. Although they may be aware that there’s more to the God, it doesn’t really matter. They need to unwind and let go, and he’s there to help them. This is the face of the God that is seen most prominently in our wider culture. In fact, most people know Dionysos only as the drunken frat-boy party God.

At first this bothered me because I was aware of the deeper complexity of the God – saw him, in fact, primarily as a dark, dangerous, mysterious force of liberation and spiritual ecstasy. I thought they were ignorant and had only the shallowest of relationships with him. But maybe that is exactly what they most need and therefore it’s what the God provides them with.

We live in a society that thrives on control and repression. From birth we are bombarded with messages that tell us our bodies are bad and that everything we do with them is sinful, that we can’t trust our instincts, that to let go is weak and disgusting, that we will never be good enough, thin enough, pretty enough, and that the only value lies in transcendence, in controlling our every thought and action, in lifting ourselves out of the muck and looking up to heaven for our redemption.

The Satyr stands in direct and radical opposition to this. In the face of seriousness he bellows with laughter. To those who would hold up an idealized impossible image of beauty, he flaunts his grotesque obesity and says this flesh, too, is beautiful. He affirms that there is nothing wrong with enjoying yourself, in experiencing the pleasures of life to their fullness, that man is an animal and he shouldn’t try to hide that or pretend otherwise. That sex, food, and drink are good things in and of themselves, that they don’t need to be given a polite spiritualizing coat of whitewash to be tolerated.

True, such a path may not be fulfilling to all, but it has its value and its place within the Dionysian realm. Sometimes it can lead into a deeper understanding of the God, but plenty of times it doesn’t. And I don’t think Dionysos is bothered by that. He comes to people where they are, as they are, and he gives them as much of his blessings as they are ready and able to accept. Maybe these people will never feel sublime spiritual union or behold the mysteries of death and rebirth which are his provenance, but at his hands they have felt joy and release, and who can say what good this will end up doing for them in the long run?

The polar opposite of this path would have to be the way of Orpheus. To some this may seem paradoxical. What has asceticism and restraint to do with Dionysos? Isn’t he the wild, sensual God of liberation? He is. But his ecstasy can also be felt in other ways. It can lead to an awareness that there is something more to us than just our bodies, and that this intangible principle is the most important part of us. He is a God of liberation, and sometimes we need to be freed from a gross, dense materialism, to let our souls fly free, to elevate our minds, to transcend our limitations.

Dionysos has nothing to do with addiction. Addiction is bondage, and Dionysos is about freedom. Indulgence taken too far is slavery. And so Dionysos is there to help those who are battling against the invisible chains that keep them from living authentic and self-governingly. Dionysos is the one who invented the custom of watering wine and who taught the ancients to drink temperately. As the God says in the comedy by the playwright Eubulus:

“Three kraters only do I propose for sensible men, one for health, the second for love and pleasure and the third for sleep; when this has been drunk up, wise guests depart for home. The fourth krater is mine no longer, but belongs to hubris; the fifth to shouting; the sixth to revel; the seventh to black eyes; the eighth to summonses; the ninth to bile; and the tenth to madness and people tossing furniture about.”

He is also a very sensual God, and when a behavior becomes conditioned, automatic, addictive so that you have to keep doing it in order to function, how are you truly enjoying it? When you drink to the point of oblivion every night, you don’t get the positive benefits of alcohol. When you have to have a cigarette every twenty minutes or you go insane, you’re a slave, and all those harmful chemicals in your body, choking on phlegm when you wake in the morning, and emphysema or cancer, stop you from feeling the goodness and pleasure of life and enjoying other activities besides.

Dionysos can help us pare down these things, open us to a more expansive vision of life, feel all that it has in store for us. Also, by restraining ourselves, and indulging in an act infrequently, the pleasures become magnified many times when we actually do allow ourselves to enjoy them. Take sex, for instance. If you copulate every single night, several times a night, over a prolonged period, it becomes dull, boring, and eventually you may start to lose sensation. But go for a period without it and see what a difference there is. Your desire will grow stronger, and start to bleed through into other aspects of your life. You may start to become so sensitive that the slightest touch drives you wild. And when you do finally have sex, the intensity of your orgasm after the build up will be mind-blowing.

Dionysian asceticism isn’t about denying our pleasures or the world – it’s about reshaping them, intensifying them, redirecting them into other avenues. There are of course other ways to do this, but the path of discipline and denial can be a powerful tool towards that end.

A path which benefits from Orphic discipline and asceticism, but which differs widely from it in aims and methodology is that of the Mainad. The Mainades were the wild-women who followed Dionysos. They were his companions, his hunting-pack, his nurses and protectors. The path of the Mainad is one that is only open to women (or those who possess the souls of women). And not every woman who is a devoted follower of Dionysos is actually a Mainad. There is something special about this role and what it actually signifies.

To begin with, the Mainad is a mad-woman. She is one who is filled with the spirit of the God, who has given complete control of her mind and body over to him to use as he will. Her consciousness recedes before the divine presence, and he guides her every step. Through him she is able to perform miraculous physical feats like touching fire without being burned, enduring other types of pain, lifting impossible weights, running for great lengths, possessing an elasticity in her movement which is not normally possible, consuming harmful substances without any negative effects, and other related activities. Many stories said that the Mainades could draw milk, oil and wine from the ground, and while I haven’t actually seen this myself I’ve seen enough not to discount it outright.

But a Mainad is more than just a ‘horse’ for the God, to borrow the terminology of Afro-Caribbean religions which have a very similar phenomenon in their entranced priestesses. A Mainad is also the one who rouses the God, who calls him up from the depths, awakens him from sleep and death, and brings him forth into this world. She is the mortal double of the nymphs and Goddesses who performed this function in the myths: she is at once his mother, his lover, his protector and hunting-companion. And that is why I say that only a woman can be a Mainad, because there is something that happens when the masculine spirit of the God comes into contact with the receptive feminine vessel. It is very different from when the God’s spirit fills a masculine vessel, as we shall discuss later.

A Mainad is also a woman apart. She doesn’t truly come into her own until she is in the wilds, be that the dark forests of her mind or the physical mountain far from her home and her ordinary life as mother, wife, daughter, etc. To do so, she must forsake her normal obligations, must challenge the assumptions of what a good woman is and does, must strip away her inhibitions, her doubts and fears, must purify herself in the God’s madness so that she may emerge whole and wild and fierce.

And she must do the same for the God. She first coaxes his spirit up and nurtures it, as we see in accounts of the Mainades taking young beasts to the breast or performing their secret rites to awaken Liknites, the infant God in the basket. Then she arouses him through her songs and dances, which are performed before the masked idol. She draws him out of it and excites him to dance, to come into his fullness as the wild and raving God of ecstasy. Sometimes this has an overtly sensual nature, as in the case of the Bridal Mysticism that we will soon be discussing, but other times it doesn’t and can be simply the intoxication of life, the liberation of the dance, the pulse and thrum of all creation. When the God is ready, they rush down the mountain together, howling, mad, until they come upon their victim and tear it apart. They are hunters. Fierce. Terrible. Hungry for flesh, aching to feel the warm spray of blood across their lips. And if the God should grow weak and tired in the revels, it is the duty of the Mainad to hunt him, to slay her lord and tear him to pieces, so that he may emerge reborn and whole at another time.

This is powerful stuff. And as I said, not every woman is capable of it, however devoted to her God she may be, however strongly she has felt his ecstasy before. Only in the meeting of this constellation of practices does the actual Mainad emerge. Without it, she is simply a devotee, possibly his priestess, possibly his lover, but not a Mainad.

What of the lover? The best image of this is Ariadne, the bride of Dionysos, or her mortal counterpart in the Anthesteria, the wife of the Arkhon Basileios. But it would be mistaken to assume that only a woman can be the lover of the God, for we also have accounts of Ampelios, of Prosymnos, of countless men who over the centuries have met the God in lust and found that transformed into the sublimest of spiritual unions with Dionysos.

The story of Ariadne is worth recounting, for it serves as the model of this type of relationship. She was a mortal princess of Crete who had fallen in love with Theseus, and for that love had turned her back on her family and her land, betraying them so that her beloved could live. Escaping, they stopped on Naxos, where Theseus abandoned her because he didn’t really love her. She ran after his departing ship, but collapsed on the rocks at the shore. Overcome with grief at what she had done, and agony at being spurned, she fell asleep wishing that she would die. It was at that point that Dionysos came to her, awakening her with his kiss and claiming her as his bride.

In a way, this serves as an allegory of the human soul. So many of us are caught in misery, guilt and pain. We feel trapped and abandoned, rejected by the world and infinitely far from our homes. And so we go to sleep. We let our souls die, overcome by the hardship of existence. And it takes the hand of a lover to draw us back to the waking world. We respond to his touch with a deep longing that rouses our souls until we are fully awake, fully alive, and free of all the impurities that caused us to go to sleep. We embrace him, join with him in a union that is at once spiritual and sensual, and from that we experience the deepest, profoundest joy of our lives, which burns as brightly as the stars at night.

Others may not have such an intensely redemptive experience, but they respond to the God as a lover. They seek him out in the darkness, through the labyrinth they follow his laughing voice, and as they draw nearer their hearts leap with ecstasy, their steps are sprightly with dance, they burn and ache and love and create. He visits them in dreams and visions, teasingly revealing himself, reveling with them, seducing and making love to them. He fills them with joy and pleasure and his full abundance. And when he is not near they ache for him with an intensity undreamed of, and only that union can make them whole. They belong to him, body and soul, like a wife to her husband and a husband to his wife.

For such people the language of love, of sexuality, of Bridal Mysticism which can be found running through Judaism, Christianity, Islam and numerous pagan paths, is their preferred vocabulary to describe their religious experience. Often such people will not readily admit to this. They are embarrassed, uncomfortable, fearful of what others might say. And so they will only hesitantly reveal the depths of their feelings for the God to others who have undergone the same sort of thing. But I have come across a number of people for whom this is a reality, whatever others might think of it.

Another path which lies open for some is that of the vessel or avatar, which is perhaps best represented by Akoites. Akoites was the helmsman on the ship of Tyrrhenian pirates that captured Dionysos who was disguised as a young prince and sought to ransom him off. Unlike the others, Akoites saw through the disguise and recognized the God for what he was. He pleaded with his fellows to let the God go, but they refused and were punished for their acts. Akoites, however, was saved, and he spent the rest of his life serving the God and carrying his message to distant lands. According to Ovid it was Akoites, serving as mortal vessel for the God, who came to Thebes and confronted Pentheus.

This sort of thing was common in the Dionysian mysteries. A male priest – and in the accounts it is almost always a man who fills this role of Bakchos, at once God and the priest of the God, like the women who alone are Mainades – would become filled with the spirit of the God, a process called enthousiasmos which meant literally “he has a God in him”, and then throughout the ritual would represent the God in all his actions, speak with the God’s voice, work wonders at his behest, and in short, allow him to be manifest in the physical world.

Nor was this sort of thing limited simply to a religious setting. There were a number of people from antiquity who came to deeply identify with the God, so much so that this shaped their behavior and how people perceived them. Their whole being became suffused with his presence, so that it was as if the God peered out of their eyes and acted through their body. Their lives were a mortal reflection of the God, and whether consciously or unconsciously, they came to act out and manifest his mythology through their existence. Alexander the Great, Ptolemy IV and Marcus Antonius are prime examples of this from the ancient world, but many have seen this same pattern reflected in the lives of Friedrich Nietzsche, Arthur Rimbaud, Elvis Presley, and perhaps most famous of all Jim Morrison.

These people serve as a lightning-rod for which the forces of liberation, inspiration, madness, sensuality, joyousness and destruction may collect. They represent everything about the God: his fluidness, his sexual ambiguity, his love of pleasure, his rebelliousness, his desire to tear down walls and destroy the old social order in order to create something new – but also his self-destructive excesses, his inconsistency, his uncontrollable emotion. Unless they learn moderate self-control they are prone to burning out fast and furiously, to grand self-absorbed dysfunctional displays that ruin both their own lives and those of everyone around them. But before that happens they are beautiful and prophetic, they show the way to liberation, to connection with wild nature and our truest selves, they transform everything they touch and make it shine just as brightly as their own souls which are lit with the fire of the God himself. And that is why people draw near them, unconsciously desiring contact with the divine source of that light and power.

Such a person’s life need not end in tragedy. Nor is it always the case that they will become a famous, charismatic artist or political figure. Many more people simply act out the myths of the God in their own lives, undergoing powerful, painful transformations, traveling widely, blurring the lines and challenging social conventions and common assumptions, inspiring creativity, connection, and liberation in those they encounter, and sometimes serving as a vehicle for which the God can touch lives and awaken people to his presence. They are following, then, in the footsteps of Akoites just as surely as Alexander or Jim Morrison.

The last path that we will consider (though there are certainly others) is one that a lot of people might not actually consider under the heading of ‘ways to Dionysos’, and that is the path of theomachia, or the one who fights against the God.

There are numerous examples of this from mythology – Pentheus is of course the most famous, but there is also Lykourgos, the Minyades, the Proitides, and Desderides the Indian king. Although the details of their stories differ in many regards, it often follows a similar pattern. The God calls to them, and they resist. He makes other attempts to get their attention, and they either ignore him, spurn him, or actively try to suppress the activities of his followers. Finally, he confronts them. He inflicts madness on them, and draws out their failings and self-destructive tendencies, exploiting these to teach them a lesson. Finally they are forced to confront themselves and the God, and either relent and accept him, or are punished in a most cruel and creative manner.

Now, obviously this is not a very desirable path, but it is one that exists. And it is one in which the God is most intimately felt. When one capitulates at the first attempt at Dionysos to reach them, and immediately rushes off to follow him, there is no need for pain and unpleasantness, for tearing down the barriers and the destruction of their personality. Such people have it easy, and the God needn’t spend much time working on them. They experience him solely as a force for good and joy, and that’s it. But the more we resist him, the more he has to push his way into our lives. He will bring up our anxieties and inhibitions, he will push against our walls and masks until they crumble and break altogether. He will force us to confront what we fear the most, and he won’t let up until we finally succumb to his greater power. This is a path of pain and suffering, a path in which we have to fight hard, with everything we have, to resist him. In so doing, however, we often come to a much greater understanding of ourselves than those who never resist, because the God holds us down and forces that introspection upon us. When we finally do give into his call – it means something. It has completely changed our lives, and we have a level of intimacy with him which others will never experience. We also get to see depths of the God concealed to others. His dark and terribleness, his awesome power, his true divinity. And once one finally embraces the Dionysian life, they will never let go of it, they will hold it as the dearest thing because he has ensured that they have nothing left, and they will be steadfast and vigilant, lest they slip back into his disfavor. So for that reason I have no problem with counting this among the ways to Dionysos, though it’s certainly not one that I would recommend to others!

Now, in considering these different paths it has been necessary to discuss them in isolation and emphasize their differences. But the truth is, nothing is ever so simple or clear-cut with the God. And while there are those who follow one path and one only, the vast majority of people blur the line and step foot equally on many of them. There are also paths which I have not felt it necessary to discuss, since these are either too general or too specific. And anyway, the point isn’t to blindly follow what another has set down for you, but to find the path that leads you best into the heart of Dionysos. For that, you are the final and sole arbiter, and the only person who can determine whether you are a true Dionysian or not is the God himself.

5 thoughts on “Paths to Dionysos

  1. I felt like this blog post was talking to me directly (I hope its not too egotistical to say it this way). It answered so many questions I have had since Dionysos started showing up in my life. Thank you.


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