One and Many

Aidonian has been making a series of informative posts on the Dodekatheon and their kin, and in his entry on Dionysos wrote the following: 

A fellow polytheist states that according to him there isn’t 1 Dionysos but many. His various names and epithets. Considering that he is a Dionysian, I don’t agree with him but do find that take interesting. For me, they are aspects of the God, not different Gods altogether. I wonder how he came to that conclusion?

Since I’m not aware of other contemporary Dionysians who engage in this kind of theological exploration I’m going to assume that Aidonian was referring to me, and specifically this post in which I speculate that there could be an entire pantheon of Dionysoi, and so feel that I should respond. 

Of course, as I wrote there I’m in full agreement with the author of the Gurôb Papyrus — “εις Διόνυσος!” (Either “there is one Dionysos” or “Dionysos is One” depending on your translation and philosophical disposition.) In fact I take the most expansive view possible, tracing him back like a proper Bacchic Orphic to the Primordial Egg and the four-headed, winged, androgynous entity it once contained (and will again) named Erikipaios, Eros, Metis or simply Phanês the God of manifestation who in time and through a series of incarnations would come to be known as Dionysos. I not only accept the vast plurality of epithets (I’ve cataloged around 300 and am certain that’s nowhere near complete) as referring to different aspects of a single God, but also accept all of his syncretic associations (around 150 by last count; most of these I take to be Dionysos temporarily adopting the forms and attributes of these divinities rather than him being identified with them, except in the cases where that is what’s going on) as well as his numerous births (he’s got around 20 different mothers that we know of, including at least one male mother) not to mention the times he’s incarnated as a human being (an avatār in Hindu terms, though I prefer the Greek Νέος Διόνυσος, meaning a “New” or “Young” Dionysos) which is distinct from full and even long-term possession, something else that we frequently find in his cult. 

Since I was a teenager I’ve dedicated myself to hunting down everything that can be known about this God so that I can experience and understand him better through these things — which has had a profound impact on my religious practice and identity. I’ve followed Dionysos down some mighty strange culverts — going from a Wiccanate Neopaganism to a general (heavily Attic-tinged) Hellenismȏs, to Greco-Egyptian polytheism, to local-focus Pacific Northwest polytheism, to Orphism and Magna Graecian polytheism with some folk Catholic elements, to founding my own initiatory mystery cult — the Starry Bull tradition — which is a synthesis of all these strains, and now I’m following him into Heathenry and the lands and traditions of the Starry Bear. 

And yet the position of the Gurôb Papyrus author is not the only possible one. 

We are dealing with a God, and as Aidonian reminds us, a God who is unique among the other Gods. But what sets him apart from his fellow Theoi is not just his mortal origin, his humanity (though that certainly and significantly does!) it’s the fact that Dionysos is fucking insane. And not just the kind of quirky crazy you see so fondly and frequently depicted on your streaming service of choice — every madness imaginable (and plenty that are beyond human ken) is contained in the mind of Dionysos. What happens when a GOD is mentally ill? Suppose he creates a persona, a mask, another self to converse with in the immense loneliness of his dwelling at the heart of the labyrinth? Does it just cease to exist when he’s done? Might it not share in its creator’s power and consciousness, and perhaps come to think of itself as an entity in its own right? Might its independent experiences not change its thinking, thus making it a truly different person than its starting point? What then do we call and consider this replica of Dionysos to be — Dionysos? Something different? And if so, what is it and how exactly does it differ? 

I don’t know. Fuck, I don’t even know who I am half the time. How am I supposed to comprehend a God — and a God like Dionysos μαινόμενος, the mad and maddening one?

So, yeah. I was just speculating, spitballing, throwing a bunch of shit at the walls and seeing what sticks and what slides down. However, flattered as I am Aidonian, I did not come up with this idea all on my own; indeed, as I was saying before I so rudely interrupted myself the position of the Gurôb Papyrus author is far from the only one that proliferated in antiquity. 

Nonnos of Panopolis, the final flowering of Greek epic who produced a work as large as the Ἰλιάς and Ὀδύσσεια combined on the mythical exploits of Dionysos despite being a Christian whose other masterwork is a paraphrase of the Gospel of John in dactylic hexameters, closed his Dionysiaka by having Iakchos formally admitted into the civic pantheon of Athens — thus producing a Bacchic Trinity of Iakchos the Son (of Aura and Dionysos), Dionysos the Father (born of Zeus and Semele, and destined to be the next King of the Gods) plus Zagreus the Holy Ghost (product of Zeus and Persephone who was murdered by the Titans.)     

Then the Archeress stilled her anger. She went about the forest seeking for traces of Lyaios in his beloved mountains, while she held Aura’s newborn babe, carrying in her arms another’s burden, until finally she delivered his boy to Dionysos her brother … The Athenians honoured him as a God next after the son of Persephoneia, and after Semele’s son; they established sacrifices for Dionysos lateborn and Dionysos firstborn, and third they chanted a new hymn for Iakchos. In these three celebrations Athens held high revel; in the dance lately made, the Athenians beat the step in honour of Zagreus and Bromios and Iakchos all together.

Diodoros Sikeliotes, on the other hand, relates a tradition wherein we find two Dionysoses, an Elder and Younger, in Bibliotheca historica 4.4.1-5. At other places he relates traditions about Cretan, Indian, Egyptian and Libyan Dionysoi, all of whom he treats as distinct — except when he combines them. 

Some writers of myths, however, relate that there was a second Dionysos who was much earlier in time than the one we have just mentioned. For according to them there was born of Zeus and Persephonê a Dionysos who is called by some Sabazios and whose birth and sacrifices and honours are celebrated at night and in secret, because of the disgrace resulting from the intercourse of the sexes. They state also that he excelled in sagacity and was the first to attempt the yoking of oxen and by their aid to effect the sowing of the seed, this being the reason why they also represent him as wearing a horn.

But the Dionysos who was born of Semelê in more recent times, they say, was a man who was effeminate in body and altogether delicate; in beauty, however, he far excelled all other men and was addicted to indulgence in the delights of love, and on his campaigns he led about with himself a multitude of women who were armed with lances which were shaped like thyrsi.​ They say also that when he went abroad he was accompanied by the Muses, who were maidens that had received an unusually excellent education, and that by their songs and dancing and other talents in which they had been instructed these maidens delighted the heart of the God. They also add that he was accompanied on his campaigns by a personal attendant and caretaker, Seilenos, who was his adviser and instructor in the most excellent pursuits and contributed greatly to the high achievements and fame of Dionysos. And in the battles which took place during his wars he arrayed himself in arms suitable for war and in the skins of panthers, but in assemblages and at festive gatherings in time of peace he wore garments which were bright-coloured and luxurious in their effeminacy.

He was also called Dimetor,​ they relate, because the two Dionysi were born of one father, but of two mothers. The younger one also inherited the deeds of the older, and so the men of later times, being unaware of the truth and being deceived because of the identity of their names thought there had been but one Dionysos.

While Cicero, who after being humiliated by Mark Antony and forced to retire from public affairs devoted himself to religious, antiquarian and philosophical studies in his ample spare time (at least until the chickens of vengeance came home to roost and Antony was able to pressure Octavian into having him executed) maintained that there were actually five Dionysoi, whom he carefully delineated in De Natura Deorum 3.21-23: 

We have a number of Dionysi. The first is the son of Jupiter and Proserpine; the second of Nile — he is the fabled slayer of Nysa. The father of the third is Cabirus; it is stated that he was king over Asia, and the Sabazia were instituted in his honour. The fourth is the son of Jupiter and Luna; the Orphic rites are believed to be celebrated in his honour. The fifth is the son of Nisus and Thyone, and is believed to have established the Trieterid festival.

Indeed these are not just empty hypostases but in cult we find one form of Dionysos invoked to counteract the influence of another Dionysos, both in Corinth:

The things worthy of mention in the city of Corinth include the extant remains of antiquity, but the greater number of them belong to the period of its second ascendancy. On the market-place, where most of the sanctuaries are, stand Artemis surnamed Ephesian and wooden images of Dionysos, which are covered with gold with the exception of their faces; these are ornamented with red paint. They are called Lysios and Bakcheios, and I too give the story told about them. They say that Pentheus treated Dionysos spitefully, his crowning outrage being that he went to Kithairon, to spy upon the women, and climbing up a tree beheld what was done. When the women detected Pentheus, they immediately dragged him down, and joined in tearing him, living as he was, limb from limb. Afterwards, as the Corinthians say, the Pythian priestess commanded them by an oracle to discover that tree and to worship it equally with the God. For this reason they have made these images from the tree. (Pausanias, Description of Greece 2.2.6-7)

And Naxos:

… whence Hipponax said (F 48 West), ‘the dark fig-tree, sister of the vine’; and they say that the fig is a discovery of Dionysos; wherefore Dionysos is Sykites among the Lakedaimonians. And in Naxos the mask of Dionysos Bakcheos was of vine-wood, but that of Meilichios of fig, and they called figs meilicha, and they say that figs are the most useful of all tree fruits to men. (Eustathios, Commentarii ad Homeri Odysseam on 24.341)

So while I have my own beliefs on the matter I endeavor to step out of that framework from time to time and try to see things from other people’s perspective, as Aidonian himself counsels, particularly when those others were devotees and initiates or contemporaries of such people at a time when the cult of this God was active and flourishing and part of an intact tradition within a healthy, creative and deeply pious society. Now I’m not saying that that automatically makes them right, but it is a mindset worth contemplating, especially since it may contain insights into the nature and activities of Dionysos which may elude even sincere devotees in this modern, progressive, secular abomination manufactured and marketed by corporations and governments (sorry, I repeat myself) alike, which we all pretend (or can’t tell the difference since we’re raised in and surrounded by it our entire lives) is a civilization though any sane person would recognize that most people are just mindlessly wandering around rifling through the garbage dump of history. But hey, different strokes for different folks, right? Dionysos is big enough to encompass every conception we have of him, and things we never dreamed existed too. He is the great Sol Niger, the coincidentia oppositorum who both unites and transcends all binaries, polarities, contradictions, paradoxes, and every other configuration we can come up with. 

Or as the Orphics of Olbia put it:

SEG 28.659:
βίος. θάνατος. βίος. ἀλήθεια. Ζαγρεύς. Διόνυσος
Life. Death. Life. Truth. Zagreus. Dionysos.

SEG 28.660:
εἰρήνη. πόλεμος. ἀλήθεια. ψεῦδος. Διόνυσος
Peace. War. Truth. Lie. Dionysos

SEG 28.661:
Διόνυσος. ἀλήθεια. σῶμα. ψυχή
Dionysos. Truth. Body. Soul.

7 thoughts on “One and Many

  1. I’ve always thought that each name of a God is a mystery in and of itself and a unique way of engaging with that God…and that…is a mystery in and of itself.

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  2. Each epithet is a world. Each epithet a God. Each one and all together THE god.


  3. I get a headache just from trying to puzzle out the Leiden Hymn:
    “All Gods are Three: Amun, Re, and Ptah, whom none equals. He who hides his name as Amun, he appears to the face as Re. His body is Ptah.”


    1. It’s kind of astounding how much literature there is on just Dionysian religion alone. (Not counting all the other threads that together wove the grand tapestry of the religions of antiquity.)

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