Happy Asian Heritage month

The Hudson Valley Bakcheion wishes y’all a happy Asian Heritage month!

Dionysos loves Asians.

In the Bakchai by Euripides the titular chorus have followed the vagabond God from the Asian steppe into Hellas, and they are held up as models of piety, wisdom and healthy expressions of ekstasis and enthousiasmos in contrast to the Theban Women who are turned into Mainades — or more accurately Dysmaniai (those who suffer harmful madness) as punishment for their impiety and the disrespect they showed not only towards Dionysos but to his mother.

Asians also played important roles in the cult of Dionysos, as these two inscriptions should suffice to show.

At Nikopolis on the Istros we find a Bakcheion of the Asians, AGRW 78:

Pautalos son of Cornutus, priest of the Bakcheion of the Asians, set up this column from his own resources.

Παυταλος Κορνούτου, ἱερεὺς Βακχίου Ἀσιανῶν, τὸν κίοναν ἐκ τῶν ἰδίων ἀνέστησεν.

And here is a dedication from a company (speira) of Asians from Montana in the former Roman province of Moesia, IGBulg II 480:

The sweet offspring of Zeus and Semele, Lenaios, bestower of lavish gifts. The priest Saturninus with his dear wife Magne set up this most excellent gift of his own production for the company of Asians during the time of his priesthood.

τὸν Ζηνὸς Σεμέλης τε γλυκὺν γ̣[ό]νον ἀγλαόδωρον Λήναιον τέχνης ἰδίης ἱερεὺς Σατορνεῖνος σὺν φιλίῃ ἀλόχῳ Μά̣γνῃ δῶρον πανάριστον Ἀσιανῶν σπείρῃ ἱερατεύοντες ἔθηκαν.

Oops. So that’s not the kind of Asian included in this celebration of cultural heritage? Well, have no fear — Dionysos loves those Asians too! 

And they loved him in return. 

Although Euripides places Dionysos on the eastern periphery of the Hellenic world:

I have left the rich lands of the Lydians and Phrygians, the sunny plains of the Persians, and the walls of Bactria, passing over the harsh land of the Medes, and fertile Arabia, and all of Asia which lies along the coast of the sea, its beautifully-towered cities replete with a mixture of Hellenes and Barbarians. (14-19)

After the conquests of Alexander the Great the God was carried to lands the playwright could scarcely have dreamed of — such as Ταπροβανᾶ (Sri Lanka) and Σηρικά (China), where Greeks even established a kingdom called Dàyuān (from 大宛 meaning “great Ionians”) which was famed for two things: its horses, which were said to be swift as the wind, and its excellent wines and grapevines by which viticulture was introduced into China. And here are a couple links if you would like to read a little something on Dàyuān and ancient Sino-Hellenic relations more broadly. 

And if you’d like to learn a lot more about the subject, I cannot recommend highly enough P. L. W. Arts’ Violets Between Cherry Blossoms: The Diffusion of Classical Motifs to the East which in discussing how Greco-Roman art and religion influenced and was absorbed and transformed by the Japanese, also touches on similar processes within Indian, Chinese, Korean and other Asian populations. Best of all, it has an entire chapter devoted to Dionysian motifs!

I particularly found this bit about Buddhism being one of the vectors of transmission interesting since I got my start in Chan or Zen Buddhism, and many of the teachings and techniques I picked up there have been directly applicable to later Bacchic stuff I’ve done.

The same can be said about many themes in the Buddhist art of Gandhāra of that period. One of the earliest examples, perhaps, is the stair riser with a Dionysian scene of musicians and dancers of about the 1st century A.D. Drinking wine, dancing and music making were apparently popular subjects for the embellishment of early Buddhist religious centres. There seems to be a correlation between altered states of consciousness associated with the loss of control brought on by wine and dance and the concept of heaven in which one could be reborn. It is therefore not impossible that the later Buddhist concept of rebirth in a paradise or in a heaven has its roots in pre-Buddhist Dionysian traditions. […] Buddhism, therefore, has most probably been a carrier of these Dionysian motifs to China in this period. A large silver plate has been found in the Gansu province, China that shows Dionysos in a central medallion surrounded by a grapevine pattern. It is ascribed to the 3rd or 4th century A.D. 

As I said, Dionysos loves Asians.

2 thoughts on “Happy Asian Heritage month

  1. You know, that’s funny. I was wondering about Dionysos’ relationship with Buddhism the other day. I’ve heard that some people venerate Him in that context


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