Search Results for: nebris

Hail Semachus and his Daughters!

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I was cleaning out my drafts in Gmail where I keep random links, quotations, snippets of peculiar phrases and title ideas for unwritten blog posts when I came across these passages on the obscure Bacchic hero Semachos:

Jerome, The Chronicle B1497
During the 10 years Moses was in charge of the Jewish nation in the desert Deucalion’s son Dionysus traveled abroad. When he arrived in Attica he was received as a guest by Semachus and gave his daughter the pelt of a goat.

Philochorus, fragment 206 (preserved in Stephanus Byzantinus)
Semachidae: a deme of Attica, named after Semachus, who with his daughters received Dionysus as a guest; the priestesses of Dionysus are descended from them. It belongs to the Antiochis tribe, and Philochorus says that the deme is in the district of Epacria.

Wanting to learn more about him and his daughters I hit the Google, turning up this:

Dionysus was welcomed by the women of Semachos’ oikos. His daughter received the gift of a deer skin (nebris), which Karl Kerenyi identified as the bestowal of the rite of maenads in rending limb from limb the animals they sacrificed to Dionysus: “nebrizein also means the rending of an animal.”

They go on to derive his name from a Northwest Semitic loanword represented by the Hebrew šimah, “made to rejoice.” Semachos, as a plural of simchah, “joyous occasion”, appears in the euphemistically titled Talmudic Tractate Semachos, which deals with customs of death and mourning.

Carl Kerenyi adds this fascinating detail:

On a sixth-century vase from Orvieto a man is leading Dionysos toward the host-hero, whose distinction is stressed by an eagle bearing a snake in its beak. Two women making dance movements and two ithyphallic sileni are also present. In all likelihood the scene represents the god’s arrival at the house of Semachos. (pg. 147)

Hmm. An eagle bearing a snake – where have I seen that before? Oh yeah, the coinage of Olbia and Shield of Dionysos.

Anyway, interesting timing that I should (re)discover this man and his daughters during the month of Νεβρίς, with Ἀγριώνια and Ἀλέτιδεια upon the horizon.  

Details

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I don’t know if you caught it when I initially posted about the Bacchic Fairies & Goblins but the Dwarf King who invites Herla to attend his wedding beneath the Earth in Walter Map’s De Nugis Curiallium is wearing a nebris – and King Herla, of course, is an early form of the Erlkönig, the Elf King who carries off the wife of Orpheus, King of the Britons in Sir Orfeo.

The symptoms she suffers after the snakebite are very much like what we find in certain types of Mainadism and Tarantism:

She slept until the sun had passed its height. And when she woke – God! She screamed and started doing some terrible things! She beat with her hands and her feet and scratched her face with her fingernails so badly that the blood ran down her cheeks. She tore at her frock, ripping the costly material into shreds, and behaving for all the world as though she had gone stark staring mad. Her two maidens were frightened out of their wits! They ran to the palace and urged everyone to go and restrain her. Knights made their way as quickly as they could to the orchard, and ladies and damsels also, more than sixty I think. They arrived at the orchard, took the Queen up in their arms and brought her into the palace and to her bed, where they kept a tight hold on her to prevent her from injuring herself further.

Which we commemorate during the Agrionia and Aletideia, festivals celebrated during the Gold Season.

Although Sir Orfeo gives Heurodis as the name of his wife, Vergil in Georgics IV names her Eurydice and makes the one responsible for her untimely katabasis Aristaeus, who was taught rustic arts by the Nymphs:

Now Apollon begat by Kyrene in that land a son Aristaios and gave him while yet a babe into the hands of the Nymphai to nurture, and the latter bestowed upon him three different names, calling him, that is, Nomios (the Shepherd), Aristaios, and Argeus (the Hunter). He learned from the Nymphai how to curdle milk [i.e. how to make cheese], to make bee-hives, and to cultivate olive-trees, and was the first to instruct men in these matters. And because of the advantage which came to them from these discoveries the men who had received his benefactions rendered to Aristaios honours equal to those offered to the Gods. (Diodoros Sikeliotes, Library of History 4.81.1)

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In retaliation, Orpheus curses the bees of Aristaeus and Vergil has the griefstruck demigod consult the Egyptian oracular God Proteus, who instructs him to carry out propitiatory sacrifices:

Choose four bulls of outstanding physique,
that graze on your summits of green Lycaeus,
and as many heifers, with necks free of the yoke.
Set up four altars for them by the high shrines of the goddesses,
and drain the sacred blood from their throats
leaving the bodies of the steers in the leafy grove.
Then when the ninth dawn shows her light
send funeral gifts of Lethean poppies to Orpheus,
and sacrifice a black ewe, and revisit the grove:
worship Eurydice, placate her with the death of a calf.’

Without delay he immediately does as his mother ordered:
he comes to the shrines, raises the altars as required,
and leads four chosen bulls there of outstanding physique,
and as many heifers with necks free of the yoke.
Then when the ninth dawn brings her light,
he sends funeral gifts to Orpheus, and revisits the grove.

Here a sudden wonder appears, marvellous to tell,
bees buzzing and swarming from the broken flanks
among the liquefied flesh of the cattle,
and trailing along in vast clouds, and flowing together
on a tree top, and hanging in a cluster from the bowed branches.

The rebirth of the gold-rich bees from the carcass of cattle reminds one of the Liberalia. Note also that Vergil has Orpheus leave Greece to wander through the Ukraine and Russia:

He wandered the Northern ice, and snowy Tanais,
and the fields that are never free of Rhipaean frost,
mourning his lost Eurydice, and Dis’s vain gift:
the Ciconian women, spurned by his devotion,
tore the youth apart, in their divine rites and midnight
Bacchic revels, and scattered him over the fields.

Although most sources mention that Thracian women were responsible for the martyrdom of Orpheus, Vergil’s making them Kikones is a nice touch considering this people’s connection with Dionysos and the Winds.

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Winds also feature in another myth involving Aristaeus – who by the way, is the father of Aktaion mentioned in the nebris post above.

Diodoros’ narrative continues from where we left off:

After this, they say, Aristaios went to Boiotia, where he married one of the daughters of Kadmos, Autonoë to whom was born Aktaion, who, as the myths relate, was torn to pieces by his own dogs . . . After the death of Aktaion Aristaios went to the oracle of his father Apollon, who prophesied to him that he was to change his home to the island of Keos.

To this island he sailed, but since a plague prevailed throughout Greece the sacrifice he offered there was on behalf of all the Greeks. And since the sacrifice was made at the time of the rising of the star Seirios, which is the period when the Etesian winds customarily blow, the pestilential diseases, we are told, came to an end.

Now the man who ponders upon this event may reasonably marvel at the strange turn which fortune took; for the same man who saw his son done to death by the dogs likewise put an end to the influence of the star which, of all the stars of heaven, bears the same name and is thought to bring destruction upon mankind, and by so doing was responsible for saving the lives of the rest.

Which has added resonance this year because of the coronavirus. Maybe President Trump needs to sacrifice some bulls to the Winds and Dog Star if he wants to rejuvenate the economy on Easter – or things could get beary serious.

Anyway, just some of the feta crumbs folks may have missed. I’m a little in awe of how deep and rich the symbolism of our Bakcheion calendar is, and how rewarding a serious study of this material is proving. Seriously, I hope you’re enjoying this as much as I am. 

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Deerly beloved

While I dig the cosmic connotations the Orphics gave the nebris, it can mean many different things to different people.

For instance, it can be a symbol of personal liberation:

Edith and I are Maenads now with a “longing for the hills & ecstasy.” Let Frances expect to see me at the midland station with cone-pointed thyrsos & fawn-skin. Tell him I shall walk to Lindelhurst in this array. He need not think of hiding my originality in a fly! (Katherine Harris Bradley to the family of Frances Brooks in a letter dated 1882)

Of jubilant procession:

That Osiris is identical with Dionysos who could more fittingly know than yourself, Klea? For you lead the Thyiadic dances at Delphi and have been consecrated by your father and mother in the holy rites of Osiris. If, however, for the benefit of others it is needful to adduce proofs of this identity, let us leave undisturbed what may not be told, but the public ceremonies which the priests perform in the burial of the Apis, when they convey his body on an improvised bier, do not in any way come short of a Bacchic procession; for they fasten skins of fawns about themselves, and carry Bacchic wands and indulge in shoutings and movements exactly as do those who are under the spell of the Dionysiac ecstasies. (Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris 35)

Or of destructive transformation:

On the road from Megara there is a spring on the right, and a little farther on a rock. It is called the bed of Aktaion, for it is said that he slept thereon when weary with hunting, and that into this spring he looked while Artemis was bathing with her nymphs. Stesichoros of Himera says that the Goddess cast a deer-skin round Aktaion to make sure that his hounds would kill him, so as to prevent his taking Semele to wife. (Pausanias, Description Greece 9.2.3)

The bit from Stesichoros is interesting, and not just for the crime he ascribes to Pentheus’ cousin Aktaion. (I’ll let that one settle in for a moment.) 

Himera is not far from Syracuse and Tyndaris, which held interesting celebrations for the Huntress, according to the Anonymous Life of Theokritos 1b:

Others says that bucolic poetry was first performed at Tyndaris in Sicily. When Orestes took the image of Artemis away from Tauris in Scythia, he received an oracle, that he should wash himself in seven rivers flowing from one source. Therefore Orestes went to Rhegium in Italy, and washed away the curse in the so-called “separated” rivers. Then he crossed over to Tyndaris in Sicily, where the inhabitants sang their local songs in honour of the Goddess, and this was the origin of the tradition. They say that when the men sang, they prepared a loaf with many images of wild animals on it, a pouch full of all kinds of seeds, and wine in a goatskin, to pour out as an offering for those they met. They wore a garland, with the antlers of a deer on their head, and a staff in their hands. The victor in the contest received the loaf of the man he had vanquished; and the victor remained in the city of Syracuse, while the losers went out to the surrounding villages to collect food for themselves. They sang songs full of fun and laughter, and added the following propitious words:

Receive good fortune,
Receive good health,
Which we bring from the Goddess,
Which she has commanded.

 

Moonlight reverie

Last night I went out for a cigarette and there was a deer in our front yard. Its beautiful, stupid eyes met mine for a moment and then it blithely resumed munching leaves until I said, “My, you’d make a lovely nebris.” Then it trotted off, feigning indifference. The street was empty and misty and otherworldly as I watched it head down towards the old oak near the school, site of so many past rituals. I gazed heavenward until I spotted the barest sliver of the Moon, surrounded by a flickering chorus of stars dancing in the dark.

Now I’m listening to Kamienie by Modlitwa and wondering what the month holds in store for us. 

Happy Noumenia folks!

According to the Bakcheion calendar today is the Noumenia of the month Νεβρίς (Nebris) which is named after the sacred cape or sash of fur worn by Dionysos and his frenzied devotees. Most often this came from young deer who were hunted during savage nocturnal rites:

He’s welcome in the mountains,
when he sinks down to the ground,
after the running dance,
wrapped in holy deerskin,
hunting the blood of the slain beast,
devouring its raw flesh with joy,
rushing off into the mountains,
in Phrygia, in Lydia,
leading the dance—
Bromios—Evoë!
(Euripides, The Bakchai 172-180)

But we also find them wearing the pelts of goats, leopards, foxes and other animals belonging to the God’s menagerie. The last of these is called a bassaris rather than nebris and it tended to include the head as well as just the skin; those who wore it were called Bassarai, a particular expression of Mainadism originating in Makedonia and Thrake though during the Hellenistic period it spread to Egypt and Asia Minor too.

To put on the nebris is to enter the domain of Dionysos, marking one off as belonging to his Retinue at least for the duration of the revels. Thus we find even divinities like Pan, Kybele, Herakles, Artemis and various Nymphs and River-Gods depicted wearing it when their more Bacchic aspects are being emphasized.

Perhaps the most dramatic representation of how this simple change of clothing can affect an alteration of consciousness is to be found in Euripides’ The Bakchai, where the adversarial Pentheus finally succumbs to the seductive force of Dionysos and allows the God to dress him up in his regalia.

This regalia was given added significance by the Orphics, as Macrobius notes in  Saturnalia 1.18:

In the line, “The sun, which men also call by name Dionysos,” Orpheus manifestly declares that Liber is the Sun. And in riddling verse he also says, “One Zeus, one Hades, one Helios, one Dionysos.” And concerning the ornaments and vestments worn by Liber at the ceremonies performed in his honor, Orpheus says:

Let the worshiper first throw around him a crimson robe,
like flowing rays resembling fire.
Moreover from above the broad all-variegated skin of a wild fawn
thickly spotted should hang down from the right shoulder,
a representation of the wondrously-wrought stars
and of the vault of heaven.
And then over the fawn-skin a golden belt should be thrown,
all-gleaming to wear around the breast a mighty sign
that immediately from the end of the earth
the Beaming-one springing up
darts his golden rays on the flowing of ocean.

Which is appropriate as we shall be entering the Gold Season on April 1st.