Der Maskengott

While doing research for the article I discovered that SMITE had released a new “Brynhildr” skin for their character Bacchus:


I-I’m … not sure if I should take that as confirmation of my theory? A hitherto unknown syncretism? The long-lost sequel to Kratinos’ Dionysalexandros? Incipient pop culture pagan impiety? Fodder for Wotanic fanfic I do not want to read? (But will probably work into my next poetic cycle.) 

Der fremde Gott


In honor of 4/20 I spent a large chunk of the day working on the Dionysos in the Northlands article and it’s nearly done. I just want to include a little something on Carl Michael Bellman, which will set the stage for the next installment, explaining why our beloved Wanderer keeps finding his way back there. (Now that’s gonna be a fun and controversial piece!)

However you celebrate, I hope you had a good one!

When a Scythian dies his nearest kin lay him upon a waggon and take him round to all his friends in succession: each receives them in turn and entertains them with a banquet, whereat the dead man is served with a portion of all that is set before the others; this is done for forty days, at the end of which time the burial takes place. After the burial, those engaged in it have to purify themselves, which they do in the following way. First they well soap and wash their heads; then, in order to cleanse their bodies, they act as follows: they make a booth by fixing in the ground three sticks inclined towards one another, and stretching around them woollen felts, which they arrange so as to fit as close as possible: inside the booth a dish is placed upon the ground, into which they put a number of red-hot stones, and then add some hemp-seed. Hemp grows in Scythia: it is very like flax; only that it is a much coarser and taller plant: some grows wild about the country, some is produced by cultivation: the Thracians make garments of it which closely resemble linen; so much so, indeed, that if a person has never seen hemp he is sure to think they are linen, and if he has, unless he is very experienced in such matters, he will not know of which material they are. The Scythians, as I said, take some of this hemp-seed, and, creeping under the felt coverings, throw it upon the red-hot stones; immediately it smokes, and gives out such a vapour as no Grecian vapour-bath can exceed; the Scyths, delighted, shout for joy, and this vapour serves them instead of a water-bath; for they never by any chance wash their bodies with water. Their women make a mixture of cypress, cedar, and frankincense wood, which they pound into a paste upon a rough piece of stone, adding a little water to it. With this substance, which is of a thick consistency, they plaster their faces all over, and indeed their whole bodies. A sweet odour is thereby imparted to them, and when they take off the plaster on the day following, their skin is clean and glossy. (Herodotos, The Histories 4.72ff)

In the words of Lennon, “You may say I’m a dreamer but I’m not.”


I included one of my favorite poems in the Dionysos in the Northlands article – Vyacheslav Ivanovich Ivanov’s The Vineyard Of Dionysus:

Dionysus walks his vineyard, his beloved;
Two women in dark clothing – two vintagers – follow him.
Dionysus tells the two mournful guards – The vintagers:
“Take your sharp knife, my vintners, Grief and Torment;
Harvest, Grief and Torment, my beloved grapes!
Gather the blood of scarlet bunches, the tears of my golden clusters –
Take the victim of bliss to the whetstone of grief,
The purple of suffering to the whetstone of bliss;
Pour the fervent liquid of scarlet delights into my ardent Grail!”

[Note to self: I will have to explain why this is one of my favorites another time, as this is gonna be long.]

So, the other night while doing further research for the article I discovered that Vyacheslav Ivanovich Ivanov was a whole lot more interesting than I ever guessed.

My first indication came from a foot note in Fiona Macintosh’s “Dancing Maenads in Early 20th-Century Britain” from the collection The Ancient Dancer in the Modern World: Responses to Greek and Roman Dance:

In Germany and Russia there were followers of Dionysus, who shunned the modern world altogether and lived in quasi-Bacchic settings and practiced Dionysian rituals.*

* Blom (2008), 200-2. In Russia, for example, Vyacheslav Ivanov (1866-1949), classical scholar and author of The Hellenic Religion of the Suffering God (1904), lived in ‘The Tower’ believing he was Dionysus from 1905 onwards. In Germany there were numerous bearded and naturist followers of Dionysus, including the young Herman Hesse.   

He was quite the interesting fellow, according to James H. Billington:

‘Viacheslav the Magnificent’ was the crown prince and chef de salon of the new society, which met in his seventh floor apartment ‘The Tower,’ overlooking the gardens of the Tauride Palace in St. Peterburg. Walls and partitions were torn down to accommodate the increasing numbers of talented and disputatious people who flocked to the Wednesday soirees, which were rarely in full swing until after supper had been served at 2 A.M.

Future Russian Orthodox nun Maria Skobtsova was then an acclaimed poet and frequent guest at the Ivanov flat. Decades later, while living in Paris as a White emigre, she recalled the atmosphere at the Tower:

We lived in the middle of a vast country as if on an unhabited island. Russia was illiterate, whereas in our milieu was concentrated all the culture of the world: the Greeks were quoted by heart, we welcomed the French symbolists, we thought of Scandinavian literature as our own, we were familiar with the philosophy, theology, poetry and history of the whole wide world, in this sense we were citizens of the universe, the keepers of mankind’s cultural museum. This was Rome in the time of its decline… We played out the last act of the tragedy concerned with the rift between the intelligentsia and the people. Beyond us stretched out the Russian Empire’s snowy desert, a country in fetters: it was as ignorant of our delights as of our anguish, while its own delights and anguish had no effect on us.

Regarding Vyacheslav’s theories of theater, the distinguished Wikipedia (where I got the above) has this to say:

It was at this time that Ivanov wrote the first of his two plays, Tantalus (1905). Like his second, Prometheus (1919), it imitated the dramatic structure and mythological subject-matter of Aeschylean tragedy and was written in obscure and archaic language. It was his unrealised, utopian ideas about theatre, however, that proved far more influential. Ivanov regarded it as having the potential to be the most powerful of the arts and capable of taking over the function of the Church and restoring religious belief in a society that had lost its faith. 

Ivanov’s theories were part of a shift in the second phase of Russian Symbolism away from the influence of French decadence and the ideas of Valery Bryusov, with its abstract evocations of inner states, towards the German philosophical tradition, and the ideas of Richard Wagner and Friedrich Nietzsche in particular, and the promotion of an ecstatic (in both the religious and philosophical senses) theatre of mass participation. The ideas of Aleksei Remizov (who was the literary manager of Vsevolod Meyerhold’s New Drama Association at this time), Fyodor Sologub, and the Mystical Anarchism of Georgy Chulkov were all part of this second phase of the movement.

Ivanov proposed the creation of a new type of mass theatre, which he called a “collective action,” that would be modelled on ancient religious rituals, Athenian tragedy, and the medieval mystery play. Writing in an essay on the mask (“Poèt i Čern”) that was published in the magazine Vesy (Libra or The Scales) in 1904, Ivanov argued for a revival of the ancient relationship between the poet and the masses. Inspired by The Birth of Tragedy and Wagner’s theories of theatre, Ivanov sought to provide a philosophical foundation for his proposals by linking Nietzsche’s analysis with Leo Tolstoy’s Christian moralising, and ancient cultic performance with later Christian mysteries. The idea that the Dionysian could be associated with a concept of universal brotherhood would have been completely alien to Nietzsche, who had stressed the fundamental differences between the two traditions. Ivanov, however, understood Dionysus as an avatar for Christ. By means of the mask, he argued, the tragic hero appears not as an individual character but rather as the embodiment of a fundamental Dionysian reality, “the one all-human I.” By means of hero’s example, therefore, staged myth would give the people access to its sense of the “total unity of suffering.”

Rejecting theatrical illusion, Ivanov’s modern liturgical theatre would offer not the representation of action (mimesis), but action itself (praxis). This would be achieved by overcoming the separation between stage and auditorium, adopting an open space similar to the classical Greek orchêstra, and abolishing the division between actor and audience, such that all become co-creating participants in a sacred rite. Ivanov imagined staging such a performance in a hall in which furniture is distributed “by whim and inspiration.” Actors would mingle with the audience, handing out masks and costumes, before, singing and dancing as a chorus, collective improvisation would merge all participants into a communal unity.

Thus, he hoped, the theatre would facilitate a genuine revolution in culture and society. Writing in Po zvezdam in 1908, Ivanov argued:

The theatres of the chorus tragedies, the comedies and the mysteries must become the breeding-ground for the creative, or prophetic, self-determination of the people; only then will be resolved the problem of fusing actors and spectators in a single orgiastic body. […] And only, we may add, when the choral voice of such communities becomes a genuine referendum of the true will of the people will political freedom become a reality.

While some, such as the director Meyerhold, enthusiastically embraced Ivanov’s ideas (at least insofar as they proposed overcoming the division between actor and audience in a collective improvisation), others were more skeptical. The poet Andrei Bely argued that the realities of a modern, class-divided society could not be abolished by means of masks and costumes, however earnestly adopted:

Let’s suppose we go into the temple-theatre, robe ourselves in white clothes, crown ourselves with bunches of roses, perform a mystery play (its theme is always the same—God-like man wrestles with fate) and then at the appropriate moment we join hands and begin to dance. Imagine yourself, reader, if only for just one minute, in this role. We are the ones who will be spinning round the sacrificial altar—all of us: the fashionable lady, the up-and-coming stockbroker, the worker and the member of the State Council. It is too much to expect that our steps and our gestures will coincide. While the class struggle still exists, these appeals for an aesthetic democratization are strange.

Sounds a bit like Antonin Artaud’s Théâtre de la Cruauté to me – what do you think, dear readers?

Father of Fairies and Goblins

Something stood out for me in the quote by Sanja Pilipović I cited in my Dionysos in the Northlands draft:

Bacchus was worshipped in various contexts in Upper Moesia. The surviving inscriptions and depictions suggest that he was worshipped primarily as patron god of agrarian fertility and vegetation, or of wine and vine-growing. This is most explicitly shown by Liber’s epithet laetus in an inscription from Pusto Šilovo near Leskovac and by Libera’s appellation Hilara in an inscription from Naissus. It has been suggested that Liber was the patron god of mines and ores and that he was also worshipped in iatrical contexts. Liber’s chthonic aspect has been attested both by funerary monuments and by many cult objects recovered from burials. (The Triad Zeus, Herakles and Dionysos. A Contribution to the Study of Ancient Cults in Upper Moesia)

Bolded for emphasis. 

Why this stands out is the Kobaloi:

The kobalos (pl. kobaloi) (Greek: Κόβαλος, plural: Κόβαλοι) was a sprite from Greek mythology, a mischievous creature fond of tricking and frightening mortals. The kobaloi were companions of Dionysus and could shapeshift as Dionysus in the guise of Choroimanes-Aiolomorphos. Parents used tales of the kobaloi to frighten children into behaving. Greek myths depict the kobaloi as “impudent, thieving, droll, idle, mischievous, gnome-dwarfs”, and as “funny, little triksy elves” of a phallic nature. The term also means “impudent knave, arrant rogue” in ancient Greek, and such individuals were thought to invoke kobaloi spirits. Depictions of kobaloi are common in ancient Greek art. The kobalos is related to two other Greek sprites: the kabeiroi (pygmies with large phalluses) and the kerkopes. The kobalos and kabeiroi came to be equated. Nineteenth Century classicists proposed that other European sprites may derive from belief in kobaloi. This includes spirits such as the Northern English boggart, Scottish bogle, French goblin, Medieval gobelinus, German kobold, and English Puck. Likewise, the names of many European spirits may derive from the word kobalos. The word entered Latin as cobalus, then possibly French as gobelin. From this, the English goblin and Welsh coblyn may derive.


Hunting the European Sky Bears

From Roslyn M. Frank’s Origins of ‘Western’ constellations:

More specifically the evidence reflects what appears to be a pre-Indo-European, Pan-European belief that humans descended from bears,a folk belief retained by the Basque people into the twentieth century (Frank 2008,2009). This belief appears to be linked, in turn, to a set of folktales, known collectively as the Bear’s Son which represent one of the most widespread motifs in European folklore. The narratives tell the story of the adventures of a hero, an imposing figure whose superhuman physical strength is often emphasized. He is half human, half bear, a sort of shaman apprentice whose mother is human, while his father is a bear. In other words, the hero is a kind of intermediary being, functioning in a certain sense like the figure of Christ but clearly bringing together and fusing two very different conceptual frames of personal identity (Frank in press). In addition to the narratives themselves, throughout Europe and most especially in the Franco-Cantabrian region (Frank 2008), we find village-wide performances in which a bear actor is symbolically hunted, killed, and resurrected. (Moreover, it should be noted that several of the hero’s animal helpers are also found taking part in European performances known as “Good Luck Visits” which incorporate a mini-drama where a bear actor is hunted, dies, and is resurrected (Frank 2008).) At times,the performances include a reenactment of the first chapter of the Bear’s Son Tale itself. Finally, there is evidence that the narratives and performances – which have survived to the present day – are modern-day versions of much earlier cultural practices and that earlier the storytelling might have had a stellar component: that in the process of recounting the tales, at some point, scenes and characters from the story came to be projected upon groups of stars and integrated into subsequent acts of storytelling. In this way the actions of the characters would have been writ large on the heavens above, on that huge canvas seen by all participants. There they would have functioned to impress the listeners and at the same time convey and reinforce the meanings encoded into the tales themselves. However, it is still unclear exactly which constellations might have played such a role. Keeping in mind the tenets of this older hunter-gatherer ursine cosmology, among the most likely candidates are the following:

• Ursa Major, specifically, the more visible seven stars of this constellation, eternally turning in the sky above, could have been a template upon which aspects of the tales were projected, whether as a bear hunt or as representing the celestial bear ancestor itself. Greek tales told about the origins of this constellation, for example, those related to Callisto and Artemis found in the Catasterismi, the oldest collection of Greek star myths, the Astronomica of Hygenius, and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, could be viewed as modern overlays on this much older template (Frank in press; Krupp 1991, pp. 232–234).

• Boötes is viewed as a male figure that follows Ursa Major in the sky and has always been associated with it, as a hunter of the bear or a guardian of the bears.This conceptualization could suggest that it had its origins in a deeper cognitive layer more hunter-gatherer in nature, far older than the associations of Boötes with a herdsman of oxen, a driver of the wagon, or a ploughman with the plough,

Beware rousing the sleeping bear

And also Bödvar Bjarki:

The famous poem Bjarkamál (of which only a few stanzas are preserved but which Saxo Grammaticus presents in the form of a florid Latin paraphrase) is understood as a dialogue between Bödvar Bjarki and his younger companion Hjalti which begins by Hjalti again and again urging Bödvar to awake from his sleep and fight for King Hrólf in this last battle in which they are doomed to be defeated. As explained in the prose, this rousing was ill-done, as Bjarki was in a trance and his spirit in the form of a monstrous bear was already aiding Hrólf far more than Bjarki could do with only his mannish strength: as Bjarki puts it on awakening, “You have not been so helpful to the king by this action as you think.”