I’ve been thinking about the final line of Theodoret’s anecdote about the reign of Emperor Valens:

and votaries initiated in the orgies of Dionysos ran about in goatskins, mangling dogs in Bacchic frenzy. (Ecclesiastical History 5.20)

Let us assume that this is not a slur invented by our good Christian historian whole-cloth — and there are solid reasons for doing so since we find isolated pockets of Bacchic worship surviving into the 7th century, and then a couple hundred years after that spontaneous revivals start breaking out all over the place, culminating in the Renaissance whose guiding lights were obsessed with all things Dionysian (especially the more Neoplatonic take on them) and Regency England which coined the term “Bacchomania” to describe the prevalence of Dionysian motifs in the arts, architecture and popular culture of the period; this is also when you start seeing secret societies devoted to Dionysos (and usually Aphrodite or Pan) such as the Hellfire Club, which no less than Benjamin Franklin was a member of. 

What can we infer about this group of Dionysos-worshipers during the twilight of Classical Paganism? If they were a survival it is likely because they were a θίασος (“private association”) unattached to a particular temple or locale such as a sacred mountain, cave, grove or even artificial grotto which would allow them to survive independent of the fluctuating degree of state support which the civic cults were dependent on. They either met in the homes of the cult-leaders, had a private club-house, or met in different locales depending on the occasion.

They may have possessed a lineage stretching back before the family of Constantine rose to power (and established Christianity as Rome’s state religion) or they could have started up during the brief interlude of Julian’s reign when many cults or traditions underwent a process of revival and reconstruction; since Theodoret mentions initiations we are probably looking at an intergenerational and closed group rather than an expression of civic religion, though it’s also possible that there’s an inner court of initiates, and a wider community (which may even have included professing Christians) who took part in the drunken revels. It’s possible that we’re dealing with some degree of survival of Antioch’s civic cultus since Dionysos was immensely popular there well up through late antiquity, but in all probability the core was a closed group of initiates.

What’s particularly interesting is that they have revived the sacrament of σπαραγμός (“rending, tearing to pieces”) and most likely ὠμοφαγία (“the eating of raw flesh”) too, which had largely been phased out during the Hellenistic period. Different, however, is their choice of victim — during the Archaic and Classical periods, and even with the tamer versions of the Hellenistic the animal is most often αγριος (“wild”) i.e. deer, hare, foxes, wolves, etc. as opposed to domestic. The two most notable exceptions to this are goats and cattle, though other domesticated animals such as sheep, swine, fish and fowl were not generally sparagmósed even when they are sacrificial animals offered to Dionysos as part of civic cultus. And we see that here with this group which rent goats and dogs as part of their rites.

Two things can be inferred from this: the group probably conducted its rites within the confines of Antioch rather than venturing out into the χώρα (“surrounding land”) as most (though certainly not all) previous Dionysian thiasoi had done, and they were also unconventional in their choice of dogs. While the dog is certainly a Dionysian animal, it is almost never a sacrificial animal. Indeed, only very non-mainstream deities like Hekate and Ares (both originating on the Hellenic periphery) or mainstream Gods during unusual occasions (such as Pan at the Lupercalia; but also note that he’s Arcadian) ever received dog-sacrifices in Greek and Roman religion. Very interesting indeed.