Chthonic Dionysos and the Saints of the True Vine

Dionysos in Egypt was given the epiklesis Petempamenti meaning “He who is in the West,” with the West understood in its traditional sense as the abode of the deceased and the place where the Sun-God Prē conducted his nocturnal journey before being reborn each morning. Although this is usually interpreted as a way of emphasizing the similarities between the Greek God in his chthonic form with the indigenous Osiris who was regarded from the time of Herodotos on as the Egyptian Dionysos, I think that what we’re dealing with here is actually something else entirely – a method of differentiating the two. If Herodes, son of Demophon (the author of the text in which we find this epithet) was familiar enough with the Egyptian language to use it (and though a Greek who had distinguished himself at court and in the military he also claims several lofty religious offices including prophetes of Khnoubis and archistolistes of the temples in Elephantine and Abaton Island, among others) he would certainly have been aware of Osiris’ more standard sobriquet Khentimentiu which means “Foremost of the Westerners” in the sense of being the Chief or King of the Dead (and as such Osiris fulfills a role in his pantheon cognate to that of the Greek Haides, Lord of the Underworld). I feel that this would likely have been what he used if such was actually Herodes’ intent.

The Ephesian philosopher Herakleitos felt that Haides and Dionysos were one and the same and there are hints in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter that this may have been a more widespread belief in the ancient world than we might otherwise assume:

She was playing with the deep-bosomed daughters of Okeanos and gathering flowers over a soft meadow, roses and crocuses and beautiful violets, irises also and hyacinths and the narcissus, which Earth made to be a snare for the bloom-like Girl … The Girl was amazed and reached out with both hands to take the lovely toy; but the wide-pathed earth yawned there in the plain of Nysa and the Lord Who Receives Many with his immortal horses sprang out upon her … A long time Demeter sat upon the stool without speaking because of her sorrow, and greeted no one by word or by sign, but rested, never smiling, and tasting neither food nor drink, because she pined with longing for her deep–bosomed daughter, until careful Iambe – who pleased her moods in aftertime also – moved the Holy Lady with many a quip and jest to smile and laugh and cheer her heart. Then Metaneira filled a cup with sweet wine and offered it to Demeter; but  she refused it, for she said it was not lawful for her to drink red wine. [Italics added for emphasis.]

Such an interpretation, however, poses serious mythological difficulties beginning with the fact that Haides is the elder brother of Zeus, universally regarded as the father of Dionysos. More significantly, however, there is Dionysos’ descent and harrowing of the underworld to retrieve the soul of Semele:

Those who wrote the Argolica say that when Liber received permission from his father to bring back his mother Semele from the Lower World, and in seeking a place of descent had come to the land of the Argives, a certain Hypolipnus met him, a man worthy of that generation, who was to show the entrance to Liber in answer to his request. However, when Hypolipnus saw him, a mere boy in years, excelling all others in remarkable beauty of form, he asked from him the reward that could be given without loss. Liber, however, eager for his mother, swore that if he brought her back, he would do as he wished, on terms, though, that a God could swear to a shameless man. At this, Hypolipnus showed the entrance. So then, when Liber came to that place and was about to descend, he left the crown, which he had received as a gift from Venus, at that place which in consequence is called Stephanus, for he was unwilling to take it with him for fear the immortal gift of the Gods would be contaminated by contact with the dead. When he brought his mother back unharmed, he is said to have placed the crown in the stars as an everlasting memorial. (Hyginus, Astronomica 2.5)

The strains of Orphism which make Kore-Persephone his first, divine mother:

Ah, maiden Persephoneia! You could not find how to escape your mating! No, a serpent was your mate, when Zeus changed his face and came, rolling in many a loving coil through the dark to the corner of the maiden’s chamber, and shaking his hairy chaps he lulled to sleep as he crept the eyes of those creatures of his own shape who guarded the door. He licked the girl’s form gently with wooing lips. By this marriage with the heavenly serpent, the womb of Persephone swelled with living fruit, and she bore Zagreus the horned baby, who by himself climbed upon the heavenly throne of Zeus and brandished lightning in his little hand, and newly born, lifted and carried thunderbolts in his tender fingers. (Nonnos, Dionysiaka 6.155)

Not to mention the radical differences in the two Gods’ personalities (can you imagine Haides being amused by the drunken, phallic antics of the satyrs?) and their activities (Dionysos’ tendency to travel widely and interact intimately with his followers while Haides is reclusive and remains aloof from his subjects).

And yet Dionysos is unquestionably a chthonic deity and a lord of souls. He offers deliverance to the dead, intervening on their behalf with Persephone and the underworld judges:

Now you have died and now you have been born, thrice blessed one, on this very day. Say to Persephone that Bakchios himself freed you. A bull you rushed to milk. Quickly, you rushed to milk. A ram you fell into milk. You have wine as your fortunate honor. And rites await you beneath the earth, just as the other blessed ones. (Gold tablet from Pelinna)

Dionysos is the cause of release, whence the God is also called Lusios. And Orpheus says: “Men performing rituals will send hekatombs in every season throughout the year and celebrate festivals, seeking release from lawless ancestors. You, having power over them, whomever you wish you will release from harsh toil and the unending goad.” (Damascius, Commentary on the Phaedo 1.11)

He gathers his initiates about him in an eternal symposion:

Still more heroic are the blessings which Musaeus and his son bestow upon the righteous from the Gods. They conduct them into Haides, and lay them on couches, and establish a kind of symposium of saints, and set garlands on their heads, and make them live for ever in a state of intoxication, esteeming the fairest reward of virtue to be an eternity of drunkenness. […] But the most astounding of all these arguments concerns what they have to say about the Gods and virtue. They say that the Gods, too, assign misfortune and a bad life to many good people, and the opposite fate to their opposites. Begging priests and prophets frequent the doors of the rich and persuade them that they possess a God–given power founded on sacrifices and incantations. If the rich person or any of his ancestors has committed an injustice, they can fix it with pleasant things and feasts. Moreover, if he wishes to injure some enemy, then, at little expense, he’ll be able to harm just and unjust alike, for by means of spells and enchantments they can persuade the Gods to serve them. And they present a hubbub of books by Musaeus and Orpheus, offspring as they say of Selene and the Muses, according to which they arrange their rites, convincing not only individuals but also cities that liberation and purification from injustice is possible, both during life and after death, by means of sacrifices and enjoyable games to the deceased which free us from the evils of the beyond, whereas something horrible awaits those who have not celebrated sacrifices. (Plato, Republic 363c; 364a–365b)

The dead walk the earth and revel with the living during Dionysos’ Anthesteria festival:

On the day of the festival of Dionysos during the month of Anthesterion the souls of the departed come up. (Photios s.v. polluted days)

Those who had survived the great deluge of Deukalion boiled pots of every kind of seed, and from this the festival gets its name. It is their custom to sacrifice to Hermes Khthonios. No one tastes the pot. The survivors did this in propitiation to Hermes on behalf of those who had died. (Theopompos, in the Scholia to Aristophanes’ Acharnians 1076)

But some have the proverb as follows: ‘to the door, Keres; Anthesteria is not inside,’ since the souls were going throughout the city in the Anthesteria. (Photios s.v. To the door Kares, it’s no longer Anthesteria)

Further, Dionysian motifs are prominent in the funerary art of the Hellenistic and Roman periods; he himself experienced multiple deaths and rebirths; he is closely associated with caves, darkness, depths, violence and the uncanny in all of its forms; and lastly Dionysos presides over the fertility of the vegetable world whose seeds must be buried and nourished deep within the earth like the dead before sending up their wealth of fruit.

Thus while we may regard Dionysos as chthonic and even a Lord or Prince of the underworld, it is clear that he is not the supreme ruler of those below, the position held by Haides or Osiris. And this I suspect is why he was hailed as Petempamenti not Khentimentiu. He dwells down below, but it is not his permanent residence. A portion of the dead belong to him – those who have undergone his mysteries or who like Semele and Ariadne he has ransomed – but not all of them, nor is he overly concerned with the mechanics and politics of how the underworld operates on a regular basis. He so clearly resembles the tenebrous sovereign that it is easy to mistake the one for the other – but he also possesses abundant qualities that clearly differentiate them. And what’s more, Dionysos embodies the totality of life, oversees all of its manifold manifestations while death is conventionally understood as the antithesis of life. Of course everything common is wrong, and this limited view is no different. Perceived from one side of the divide death and life seem polar opposites – but shift your perspective and you’ll see that they have the same ultimate source and are constantly flowing into each other until they are impossible to separate. This is nowhere more apparent than in the food chain where all life exists through the consumption of other life that it, in turn, may feed still more forms of life. As the embodiment of life Dionysos necessarily must also be the embodiment of death, with no part of the process alien to him. The West where Dionysos dwells is both the End and the Beginning of Life – or as the Orphics of Olbia expressed it βίος – θανατος – βίος – Διονυσος.

This Dionysos is dark and still and somber, the quiet amid the storm, the masked pillar around which those filled with his frenzy dance and shout in ecstatic celebration. He is not completely immobile – his movements are just slow like the shoots of a plant triumphantly rising up through the soil, like the gradual formation of stalactites in a cave, like the procession of the stars through the heavens. The face of this Dionysos is always concealed in shadows, except for his eyes which are bright with the flames of madness and gaze into the depths of your soul and beyond. His voice echoes across a vast chasm even when he is nearer to you than your next heartbeat. There is an impenetrable denseness to his spirit, a gloom so black and so full of painful memories that even he has difficulty bearing its weight. He is ancient beyond all reckoning and yet remains unwearied by all that he has witnessed and experienced. His heart is fierce with love for the fragile and ephemeral things of this world, rejoicing and suffering along with them. He cannot turn his face away from them – he must witness it all, even if it makes him mad.

And though part of him remains forever down in the caverns deep beneath the earth, another part extends upwards into our world, surrounded by an innumerable host. The lusty satyrs, the madwomen, the nymphs who nurse him and the dead who belong to him, an invisible troop of wild spirits that march unseen but clearly heard in his processions, who race through the fields and forests and city streets on certain especially dark nights in pursuit of the victims of the hunt.

Depictions of a solitary Dionysos are rare unless he’s disguised himself so that he can walk unnoticed among men on one of his grand adventures, like when the Pirates found him on the beach. Otherwise Dionysos is surrounded by a frenzied throng. In early Greek art this thiasos could be depicted “realistically” as a group of mainades, masked men and priests reveling around the God or some kind of cultic representation of him such as a pillar draped with vegetation or else more “fantastically” with Dionysos surrounded by other Gods and Goddesses as well as nymphs, silens, satyrs, centaurs and other creatures of myth. Interestingly, these two versions of the thiasos were originally kept separate. You could find satyrs mingling with mortal mainades as long as Dionysos was out of the picture but when he’s there you get one or the other. This convention is found only in the earliest depictions of the scene – later artists tended to follow the example of the workshops in Sicily and Magna Graecia who were all about blurring boundaries. It’s also here that we find a new element introduced into the thiasos – the dead and initiates in the mysteries who may represent either living or deceased persons. The location of the revelry is also changed. Previously the scenes were set in sacred precincts or on mountains, usually Olympos, Nysa or Kithairon depending on who’s accompanying him. But the Italian artists brought the proceedings down into the otherworld. This may explain why they had no trouble representing mortals alongside the dead and divinities for when you’ve gone underground such distinctions no longer seem as important as they once did.

Around the seventh century before the common era this motif begins to find literary expression through the likes of Herakleitos, Pindar, the Orphic and Homeric poets, Sophokles, Euripides and Aristophanes – sometimes the appearance of this phantom troop was reported as actual fact, as we find in Herodotos, Diodoros, Plutarch and Pausanias. During the Hellenistic period the thiasos becomes wed to the custom of the triumphant procession thanks in no small part to the political theatrics of Alexander the Great who consciously sought to emulate his divine progenitor. The Ptolemies, the Attalids, Caesar and Mark Antony all followed in his footsteps and exploited Dionysian associations and pageantry to full effect.

In the dwindling days of the Roman Empire we discover another permutation of this motif – the mortal revelers and the dead are left out of visual and literary representations of the thiasos. It’s just Gods and nymphs and mythical creatures once more – often with the addition of erotes or putti, those obnoxious chubby little winged brats that are all over the place in Late Antique, Medieval and Renaissance art. For a few hundred years the theme remains fairly constant then you start seeing mortal mainades again. Then all of a sudden it merges with depictions of the Wild Hunt and you also start finding fairies and goblins and similar beings mixed into the thiasos. Although most of this was taking place in the visual arts – and Dionysos may well be the most popular Classical figure in Christian art after Herakles and the Sibyls – you can trace the same evolving currents in literature.

And for me Dionysos Petempamenti or Chthonios is intimately connected with this retinue. Even when I’m directly interacting with him I can sense the others in the background – this strange, mad company of many kinds of spirits. On several occasions they have come through him and taken possession of me and I’ve worked closely with small pockets of them in the past, though for the most part they remain this sort of shadowy collective.

Lastly, I think when a devout Dionysian dies they are given the choice of joining this crazy, intoxicated band of misfit spirits. You can always go elsewhere – Haides is a very large place, and it borders other underworld kingdoms – but I, for one, look forward to painting my face white, putting on an ivy crown and leaping into the midst of those who dance and fuck and hunt and drink forever, the Saints of the True Vine.