Sorry I haven’t been around much. I’ve been working on a book about Dionysos in the Northlands, which I’m nearly halfway through (155 pgs at last count.) I estimate about a third to a half of it will consist of material I’ve previously published (most of which can be found at the Bakcheion) while the rest will be entirely new.
Whilst proofing the older pieces I’ve noticed some interesting recurring themes I wasn’t previously aware of, which has been pretty cool. Can’t wait to see it all laid out together, and polished.
This is the first in a series, and while it’s fairly Dionysocentric (with some nods to Hermes, Apollon, and the Witch-Goddesses) the rest will expand to explore the intersection of Orphism with Germanic, Slavic and Baltic polytheisms, laying the foundation for the Starry Bear tradition.
After this I’m probably going to work on another poetry book (I’m three short of completing the cycle) which I’ll share significant selections from here. It’s good to be writing again, even if that means I don’t have much left over for the blog.
Anyway, figured I’d let y’all know what I’m up to and share this cover of The End by Nico. How are you doing, and give me a song in return?
Today I learned that the mullet is banned in Iran.
This makes me sad, since the “business in the front, party in the back” hairstyle was invented by none other than the Kouretes:
Archemachus the Euboean says that the Kouretes settled at Chalcis, but since they were continually at war for the Lelantine Plain and the enemy would catch them by the front hair and drag them down, he says, they let their hair grow long behind but cut short the part in front, and because of this they were called “Kouretes,” from the cut [koura] of their hair. (Strabo, Geography 10.3.6)
Harumph, I say. Let us honor the mailed Bakchoi with a hymn, even if the Iranians do not:
I summon to these prayers
the dancemad, hauberk-clad Lads
who slam their ashen spear butts to the ground
and scream ferociously
in time to the thunder-summoning kettledrums
and double-pipes trilling like pandaemonium
loosed upon the earth.
Everything quakes and throbs as they draw near,
these bringers of flowers and plump summer bees;
beasts and trees and everything else
are caught in the potent rapture
of their raw, unyoked masculinity which comes
crashing against the shore in foamy waves,
breaking through a well-ordered foreign phalanx,
crushing walls that would dare keep them out.
When they leap and prance upon the field
the cold winds are driven to cowardly flight by their heat,
snow trembles and pisses itself into nothingness,
ice is afraid as a child in a cage
and all rejoice for the beloved of the Nymphs,
the protectors of the grotto and defenders of the innocent,
the march-loving springtime Youths
are here to play.
Arrian, Indica 7.2-9
The Indians, Megasthenes says, were originally nomads, like the non-agricultural Skythians, who wander in their waggons and move from one part of Skythia to another, not dwelling in cities and not reverencing shrines of the Gods. Just so the Indians had no cities and built no temples, but were clothed with the skins of wild animals they would kill, and ate the bark of trees; these trees were called in the Indian tongue Tala, and what look like clews of wool grew on them, just as on the tops of palm trees. They also fed on what game they had captured, eating it raw, at least until Dionysos reached India. But when he arrived and became master of India, he founded cities, gave them laws, bestowed wine on the Indians as on the Greeks, and taught them to sow their land, giving them seed. (Either Triptolemos did not come this way when he was sent out by Demeter to sow the entire earth, or it was earlier than Triptolemos that this Dionysos, whoever he was, traversed India and gave the Indians seeds of domesticated plants.) Dionysos first yoked oxen to the plough and made most of the Indians agriculturalists instead of nomads, and equipped them also with the arms of warfare. He also taught them to reverence various Gods, but especially of course himself, with clashings of cymbals and beating of drums; he instructed them to dance in the Satyric fashion, the dance called among Greeks the ‘cordax’, and showed them how to wear long hair in honour of the God with the conical cap, and instructed them in the use of perfumed ointments, so that even against Alexander the Indians came to battle to the sound of cymbals and drums.
One of the greatest challenges to reconstructing an authentic Dionysian eschatology is that there wasn’t really one in antiquity.
What you find instead are a loose collection of rituals, myths, rough concepts and such that each group then fashioned into its own unique mysteries. They interpreted things differently, emphasized certain elements more than others, took on local influences and generally evolved over time if given the chance.
And yet for all of that bewildering, chaotic complexity I imagine that a Dionysian from Southern Italy in the second century could enter a dining-hall full of fellow-initiates from North Africa, the Balkans, England and the Ukraine and once they’d settled the language issue — Greek or Latin — could probably have a meaningful conversation about death and what came after, for they were all part of a seamless tapestry of tradition.
This group concerned themselves with the banquet table piled high for the feast while for that group it was the krater overflowing with wine, reflecting torchlight like dancing stars. These ones thought only of Dionysos and his bride twined in amorous congress while those ones had eyes only for the crowd of elegant dancers, faces whitened like masks. Some the bull’s horns on the altar, some the ivy winding around the column, some the maenads in the distance hunting in the woods, some the floor littered with leaves and broken cups and the bones of beautiful beasts. Others saw the maiden hesitating at her door, glancing back at the life she’s leaving behind while Eros or a boy who looks very much like him beckons to her with a ball of string in his golden hand.
Take a step back.
Do you see the picture that all of these scenes together make?
You will when you’re dead, if you’re one of us.
And that’s why I’m not opposed to modern innovations — as long as they hit all the right notes.
You see, folks, it’s all about the rhythm.
The clapping of hands.
The thunder of drums.
You hit the right notes, that’s when the screams begin.
Go outside. Go for a long, rambling walk, letting your legs take you wherever they want to go. Let your mind wander, but don’t focus too much on your thoughts. Be open. Try to really see and feel and smell and taste what’s around you. Be present in your body to the point where you can feel the heart in your chest swell and throb as it circulates the blood through you, the “slow, wet mechanism of muscle and bone” that allows you to stride aimlessly through the city streets. Breathe. Breathe. Empty your mind of all thoughts but thoughts of him. Remember how you’ve experienced him in the past through all of your senses: the heat of the flame kissing your fingers, the tartness of good warm wine drunk in front of his shrine, air thick with clouds of incense smoke, earthy and sweet with a musky undertone, grass brushing against your cheek as you roll in a fit of laughter, black soil caught underneath your jagged and broken nails from pounding your fist into the ground as the tears cut fiery swaths down your cheek, that warm, sexy excitement that enfolds you whenever he’s near. Breathe. Call to mind whatever reminds you of him. And then open your eyes and look for him and signs of him in the world around you.
I have been doing this ritual stuff since my early teens, which means that I’ve had a lot of practice and gotten pretty good at it. I have all of the necessary steps memorized and an innate sense of flow and rhythm. I know what works, and what doesn’t, and why.
I have not imposed an official ritual style for the Starry Bull tradition; instead I’ve given folks the broad parameters of what to do and let them fill in the rest with their own unique style and if they don’t know what to do I’ve encouraged them to experiment so that they can figure out what the best method for them and for our Gods and Spirits happens to be.
Which is fine if you already have experience and some aptitude for ritual, but if you’re coming to this with a blank slate it can be really easy to get lost, overwhelmed and frustrated. Sometimes I forget how daunting all of this can be for beginners.
While some folks have expressed a desire for ritual scripts I will not be providing them. I think that builds up bad habits and can be distracting and limiting, especially when you’re in ritual space. What I will do is walk you through an example of the sort of rituals that I perform.
For me ritual begins well before it actually starts. In fact I’ve been known to spend a couple hours in prep with the ritual itself done in under thirty minutes. That slow, focused build up helps blur the boundary between ordinary and sacred time as well as enables me get into a proper headspace. I don’t know about you, but my life can be downright stressful with a ridiculous amount of distractions and it’s important to put all of that aside when you come before the Gods and Spirits.
And that, primarily, is what we are doing in ritual. Oh, there’s different types of ritual for different needs and occasions but what I’m talking about here is religious and devotional ritual. So as you’re getting ready try to focus your mind on what you’re about to do, which is celebrate and engage with one or more members of our pantheon.
Who are they?
Which of their forms are you trying to engage with?
What prior experience do you have with them?
What do you know about them and how do you know that?
What stories are told about them within our tradition?
What experiences have others described?
What are their preferences and dislikes?
Why are you doing this and what do you hope to get out of it?
These are the sorts of things you should be thinking about as you get ready. Any time that you feel yourself getting distracted or bogged down by other stuff, go over these questions and they will help you get back on track.
Music is central to a lot of what I do, both in and outside of ritual, so I like to have something appropriate playing while getting ready. Choose the music carefully so that it’s reflective of the mood you’re trying to strike and consistent with the nature of the beings you are honoring. Just because I happen to like a certain song doesn’t mean that my Gods or Spirits will and if I’m doing something somber and serious listening to theme songs from 80s cartoon shows probably isn’t a very appropriate choice. Probably.
As I’m getting ready I like to go over what I intend to do a final time, read over any prayers or hymns so that they are fresh in my brain even if I intend to read them during ritual as opposed to just reciting extemporaneously, make sure that I have all of the necessary supplies on hand and prepare the shrine if I’m doing stuff indoors. That means clearing away any offerings that may still be there from the last ritual, making sure everything like dishes and shrine cloths are clean and arranged nicely, that there’s enough room to do what I’ll need to and that fresh candles and incense are ready to go. Some people might want to purify the shrine at this stage with chernips, Florida water, sand, barley, a smudge stick, incense or whatever their preferred method happens to be – I generally don’t if it’s a permanent shrine and only do so for occasional shrines when I get a strong push that it’s necessary. I figure that the shrine becomes imbued with the power and presence of the divinity being honored and if permanent they have altered its structure to be more conducive for them and I don’t really want to fuck with that. However other people tend to be more concerned with purity than I am so it’s an entirely appropriate step to take at this time. I do generally “prime” the shrine by burning some incense and lightning candles, even though I’m not yet actively engaged in ritual. I feel that this is like switching on an “open for business” sign and is also a signal to myself that we’re getting closer to serious ritual time so nothing extraneous should be allowed to creep into my consciousness from this point forward. Likewise I may change the music I’m listening to to help hasten the transition into ritual mode.
At this point I finish preparing myself. I run through what I plan to do during the ritual a final time and I make sure that my head is screwed on appropriately i.e. I’m not distracted, in a bad place mentally or emotionally, properly open and receptive to the Gods and Spirits and so forth. If there’s something I need to do in order to get that way (such as smoke a bowl, drink some wine, read something or listen to a particular song) I do so. Then I make sure that I am physically ready, which generally consists of taking a pre-ritual bath or shower during which I recite a benediction I came up with back when I was serving as an oracular priest and spend some time meditating and setting my intent. Then I dress in clean and appropriate clothing (I am restricted to blacks, reds, whites and greys generally but also have special attire I wear for my more formal rites) and if I feel it’s necessary I may do some added purifications. Lastly I put on some of my ritual jewelry and depending on the nature and formality of the rite may wear a stephanos or garland-crown.
And now I’m ready to ritual. Though I rarely do a full pompe or procession, as I approach the shrine I am conscious of coming into the presence of the holy. I light any remaining candles and incense and then formally greet the divinity, using a variety of simple stock phrases I’ve come up with over the years. I then pour out the libations and place all of the offerings I’ve brought for them on or before the shrine, depending on how crowded it is and how much I’m giving to them. Then I either praise them with my own words or read off a hymn (either something I or another community member has written or one of the Orphic or Homeric Hymns) and then do some on the spot praying or petitioning, as seems appropriate.
Depending on the nature of the rite I may then just spend some time being open to them and basking in their presence or go into an assortment of devotional activities such as dancing, sacred movement, talking with them, listening to music, singing, a variety of ecstatic techniques, magic, divination, consuming drugs or drinking, bloodletting, reading appropriate material, doing something creative such as crafts or writing, or specific activities determined by the nature of the rite. Often I go through several of these and like to keep things open, loose, free-flowing and spontaneous. When I am finished with that I spend some more time just being in their presence and when I feel like the ritual is done I thank them for everything and begin gradually transitioning back into ordinary awareness, one of the first steps being the removal of my stephanos. I usually leave the candles and incense going until this point, and if I will be around afterwards may let them burn until they are done.
I do not have elaborate closing procedures as I generally find that rude with this sort of devotional rite – I wouldn’t make a feast for a friend and then tell them to get the fuck out once we were done eating, so why would I treat my Gods and Spirits with that level of disrespect? A simple but effective though non-offensive way to close the rite is to ring a bell (something that can be done to open it as well.)
And, with some variation depending on the nature of the rite and why I’m doing it, that’s what my style of worship consists of, at least when I’m in front of my home shrine. I have a slightly different approach when I’m doing things outdoors or with other people. I tend to be a little more formal in a group setting, for instance.
First I’d like to start by sharing one of my favorite quotes on the subject:
We work in the dark – we do what we can – we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art. (Henry James, The Middle Years)
Of course I’ve gone through what you describe, and I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. I think if you never experience any doubt you’re in a very dangerous place. That leads to a mindless fundamentalism and also a sort of hollow, useless faith. Because I feel the trials and skepticism I’ve experienced have actually made my faith much stronger than when I started out.
However, as with all things, you can take it too far, and end up talking yourself out of some really good experiences.
So, the question: how do you know? How do you really know?
Fuck, you can’t even really prove that anything outside of yourself actually exists and isn’t just a figment of your imagination. I mean, for all you know, I might not exist. This e-mail could just be magically appearing to you out of nowhere, or perhaps you’ve got multiple personality disorder and one of your other selves is writing this to you.
I know that that’s not the case, because I’m sitting here typing it myself, but really, how do you know that? You don’t, but the alternatives seem rather improbable, don’t they? As Klaudios Ptolemaios once said a thousand and some years before William of Ockham was born, “We consider it a good principle to explain phenomena by the simplest hypothesis possible.”
And that’s really something that I’ve noticed. It’s much simpler to take things at face value. It requires less effort, less mental juggling, less trying to explain away all these coincidences. Because once you start down the skeptics’ path, and really start questioning everything, it all unravels, and your questions never end.
Now I’m not saying that believe everything is the best approach – as I said above a proper dose of skepticism is a good thing – but there has to be a balance. And that’s really one of the fundamentals of Hellenismos. At Delphi were inscribed a series of maxims or wise sayings and one of the foremost of these was “Everything in moderation” or “Nothing to Excess”.
Now, I could give you a bunch of theological and philosophical proofs for the existence of the Gods – the Greeks loved this shit – but really, do those work? They don’t for Christians, as you and I both know all too well, and they don’t for any other religious. People like to think that you can reduce it down to a mathematical proof, but you can’t. That’s just not how spiritual things work. They have their own laws, their own type of existence, and therefore the laws that govern our meat bodies don’t apply to them. What I’ve always found to be a much surer proof than pretty sounding words – and paradoxically, less certain – is one’s experience.
When you begin to experience the Gods, have genuine encounters with them, feel them as an intimate part of your life, the junkyard dog of doubt that lives in your heart begins to curl up and go to sleep. Not at first, of course. Especially when you’ve had to break away from your cradle faith – which can be an incredibly painful process – you get into such a habit of doubting everything that it’s natural, reflexive. But eventually, over time, you’ll begin to see that you don’t need that armor, that all these weird and wonderful things are happening, things that you can’t explain in any other way but than to assert the existence of the Gods.
So often the root of skepticism lies in fear. Fear of being hurt, fear of being taken advantage of, fear of putting your faith in something that’s going to let you down, fear of looking foolish. So, in order to combat this fear, one actively wars against faith, asserting their independence, insisting that this can’t and won’t touch their life, and thus they won’t be hurt anymore.
But what do you get when you base your life on fear?
Nothing comes out of nothing, and fear only begets fear, emptiness, and loneliness.
It takes real courage to put aside that fear and embrace life to its fullest. And to really be living, you have to take risks, you have to be willing to get your knees bruised and your heart broken.
And Hellenismos is, above all things, a religion of life. Each of our Gods presides over a particular part of it, and in experiencing that part of life to its fullest, you draw closer to them.
And really, a lot of the worries that lead to rampant skepticism don’t apply in Hellenismos. There’s no authority, no one who stands between you and the Gods. No one who’s going to take advantage of you, steal your money, tell you what to do with your life. At most, our priests lead rituals and offer advice – but even then, there’s nothing that says you have to accept what they say as the gospel truth. You are allowed – nay ENCOURAGED to argue with them, and think things out for yourself.
You’re even allowed to disagree with the Gods.
And yeah, maybe there’s still the fear of looking foolish, because from some perspectives, what we do can look a little silly. Standing in front of a table with pretty bowls and statues and pouring wine to them and scattering barley and reciting poetry – yeah, that can seem a little silly.
But really, is that the worse thing in the world?
Think about it – how foolish do you look when you dance, or when you have sex? There is nothing more absurd than two people making love – and yet, nothing more intense, more beautiful, more mindblowingly amazing than good sex. Hell, even bad sex is still sex.
So really, sometimes you’ve just got to let go and let yourself be in the moment, and accept that yup, you’re going to look silly afterwards, but that doesn’t matter, because right now it feels incredible.
And believe me, worship, real worship where you can actually feel the Gods present there with you – is the most amazing thing in the world. Yeah, it’s even better than sex – though I don’t know if I’d want to have to choose between the two of them.
So that’s really my advice – start slow and work your way up. Read about the Gods, try to get an understanding from those readings about them. Then go out into the world and see if you can find them there. Because our Gods don’t just inhabit some fairytale otherworld; they also exist right here, with us, in this world. They live in the sky and the earth, in trees and mountains, in old buildings and city streets. You can find them anywhere and everywhere. The mass of people experience them, but no longer have the vocabulary, the worldview in which to place those experiences. They have also come to doubt their senses. They think only the intellectual matters, and that what you feel with the flesh, what you smell and taste and hear is deeply suspect. Only the mind is to be trusted. Well, mind is nice, but we’re more than mind. We’re all of our senses together, and a little something else, a something that exists beyond the physical. And so is everything else in the world.
So, remember that, and remember that there are many ways to experience things. You aren’t always going to encounter the Gods as seven foot tall humanoid beings who come up and have a heart to heart with you. In fact that’s pretty rare. Sometimes it’s just a feeling of PRESENCE, perhaps accompanied by a smell or taste or some odd random occurrence. Sometimes you’ll experience them in animal form – a deer that uncharacteristically stops, looks at you, and you see in its eyes a greater than animal intelligence. Sometimes its as simple as a sudden breeze rustling the leaves to get your attention, or a phrase on a billboard that exactly matches the contents of your thoughts at that moment. Sometimes you’ll have a dream or a vision, and yes, occasionally you’ll get a burning bush, but not very often. That’s not usually how the Gods choose to act. But the thing is, they do choose to act, and they can choose to act in any number of ways. So that’s part of the religion too – mindfulness. Paying attention to the world around you, instead of contemplating your navel or dreaming of a distant heaven. It’s being here, now, and acting in the world. Which is why stuff like prayer and sacrifice is so important. Because the Gods aren’t just good feelings inside us – they have an independent existence outside of us. And in gratitude for the real things that they do for us, we offer real actions to them. And that’s something else that’ll help with doubt – finding a regular routine of worship, and doing it, no matter what.
Because you aren’t always going to feel up to doing it, sometimes you’ll downright kick and scream against it. But those are the times when you need to do something like that the most. And don’t always expect that there’ll be fireworks kind of experiences when you do that routine – sometimes it’s pretty boring, but you should still do it, because it’s a way of showing respect to the Gods.
When it comes down to it Hellenismos is about gratitude, about deepening your relationship with the Gods. It’s not about dogma, it’s not about fear, it’s not about demeaning and humiliating yourself in order to exult God – it’s about simple thankfulness. About honoring the Gods as the bestowers of all of life’s blessings, and worshipping them by sharing our food, our drink, by reciting pretty words, by making art, by dancing or racing or perfecting our bodies, by simply acknowledging that they’re there, that you recognize all that they’ve done for you, and that you deeply appreciate them.
It’s as simple – and as incredibly profound – as that.
Xanthias: I have it, master: ’tis those blessed mystics, souls of those who were initiated into the mysteries in life, which we were told would be sporting in the area. They are singing the Iakchos hymn that Diagoras made. (316)
This passage from Aristophanes’ The Frogs reminds us that the deceased perform the same rituals and keep the same festivals that the living do. The point was even more forcefully driven home by Herodotos:
Moreover Dikaios the son of Theokydes, an Athenian exile who had gained great repute at the court of the Medes, reported that when he was near the city, which had been deserted when the Attic land was ravaged by Xerxes’ army, he and Demaratos the Lacedemonian saw a cloud of dust going up from Eleusis, as if made by a company of about thirty thousand men, and they wondered at the cloud of dust, by what men it was caused. Then forthwith they heard a sound of voices, and Dikaios perceived that the sound was the mystic cry Iakchos; but Demaratos, having no knowledge of the sacred rites which are done at Eleusis, asked him what this was that uttered the sound, and he said: “Demaratos, it cannot be but that some great destruction is about to come to the army of the king: for as to this, it is very manifest, seeing that Attica is deserted, that this which utters the sound is of the Gods, and that it is going from Eleusis to help the Athenians and their allies: if then it shall come down in the Peloponnese, there is danger for the king himself and for the army which is upon the mainland, but if it shall direct its course towards the ships which are at Salamis, the king will be in danger of losing his fleet. This feast the Athenians celebrate every year to the Mother and the Daughter; and he that desires it, both of them and of the other Hellenes, is initiated in the mysteries; and the sound of voices which thou hearest is the cry Iakchos which they utter at this feast.” (The Histories 8.65)
That is why tradition is so important. It binds us to all who came before through the same repetitive sacred acts. When our feet follow theirs in the dance, when we repeat the words they once said it creates an echo across the ages, a powerful reverb that amplifies the dromenon and legomenon.
One may freely step out of the stream of tradition at any time. If one is knowledgeable and masterful enough in the craft of ceremony one may even devise new modes of effective worship. If practiced diligently and with an earnest desire to please the divine, such innovations may in time accrue the depth and flow of tradition, even if it is a trickle compared to the rush of the Nile or Euphrates.
But they rarely do.
How could they with so few dead behind them?
The dead exist in the shadowy realm between men and the Gods; no longer the one nor yet the other. Because of this liminal condition they are conduits to other worlds and through them blessings flow into this world of ours. That is why during the season of the emergence of flowers when we taste the new wine for the first time, the dead roam freely about. Death and life are inseparably united, as the Orphics of Olbia recognized:
βίος. θάνατος. βίος. ἀλήθεια. Ζαγρεύς. Διόνυσος (SEG 28.659)
If an individual or a community is to prosper they must be in right relationship with their dead, and if one was not there were religious specialists such as the Orpheotelestai to facilitate that:
They adduce a hubbub of books by Musaeus and Orpheus, descendants, as they say, of the Moon and of the Muses, according to which they arrange their rites, convincing not only individuals but also cities that liberation and purification from injustice is possible, both during life and after death, by means of sacrifices and enjoyable games to the deceased which free us from the evils of the beyond, whereas something horrible awaits those who have not celebrated sacrifices. (Plato, The Republic 364e)
People often ask why Christianity succeeded in supplanting ancient Paganism. I suspect the answer is a combination of a number of complex factors, but one of the most important was definitely that Christianity from the beginning was a cult of the dead, and as Theodoret of Kyrrhos explained, their dead were very good to them:
Those who are well ask the martyrs to protect their good health, while those who are worn down by illness request release from their sufferings. The childless ask for children, infertile women call out to become mothers, and those who have received this gift request that it be kept perfectly safe for them … They do not approach them like Gods – rather they entreat them as men of God and call on them to act as ambassadors on their behalf. Those who ask with confidence gain what they request – their votive offerings clearly testify to their healing. For some offer representations of eyes, some of feet, others of hands; some are made of gold, others of wood. Their master accepts these little items of little worth, valuing the gift according to the merit of the one offering it. The display of these objects advertises deliverance from suffering – they have been left as commemorations by those who have regained their health. They proclaim the power of the martyrs laid to rest there – whose power proves the greatness of their God. (The Healing of Pagan Diseases 8.63-4)
In contrast, a generation before Theodoret’s time the emperor Julian found only one man in the city of Alexandria Troas who was still carrying out the rites of the heroes, and he was a Christian bishop of decidedly heterodox beliefs:
After rising at early dawn I came from Troas to Ilios about the middle of the morning. Bishop Pegasios came to meet me, as I wished to explore the city,—-this was my excuse for visiting the temples,—and he was my guide and showed me all the sights. So now let me tell you what he did and said, and from it one may guess that he was not lacking in right sentiments towards the Gods. Hector has a hero’s shrine there and his bronze statue stands in a tiny little temple. Opposite this they have set up a figure of the great Achilles in the unroofed court. If you have seen the spot you will certainly recognise my description of it. You can learn from the guides the story that accounts for the fact that great Achilles was set up opposite to him and takes up the whole of the unroofed court. Now I found that the altars were still alight, I might almost say still blazing, and that the statue of Hector had been anointed till it shone. So I looked at Pegasios and said: “What does this mean? Do the people of Ilios offer sacrifices?” This was to test him cautiously to find out his own views. He replied: “Is it not natural that they should worship a brave man who was their own citizen, just as we worship the martyrs?” Now the analogy was far from sound; but his point of view and intentions were those of a man of culture, if you consider the times in which we then lived. Observe what followed. “Let us go,” said he, “to the shrine of Athene of Ilios.” Thereupon with the greatest eagerness he led me there and opened the temple, and as though he were producing evidence he showed me all the statues in perfect preservation, nor did he behave at all as those impious men do usually, I mean when they make the sign on their impious foreheads, nor did he hiss to himself as they do. For these two things are the quintessence of their theology, to hiss at demons and make the sign of the cross on their foreheads. These are the two things that I promised to tell you. But a third occurs to me which I think I must not fail to mention. This same Pegasios went with me to the temple of Achilles as well and showed me the tomb in good repair; yet I had been informed that this also had been pulled to pieces by him. But he approached it with great reverence; I saw this with my own eyes. (Letter to a Priest)
Meanwhile, Julian found the piety of his fellow Pagans lacking:
Hellenismos does not yet prosper as I desire, and it is the fault of those who profess it; we have made some small progress — indeed, by Adrasteia far more than any of us could ever have hoped for a short while ago, but we should not be satisfied with this. Don’t you see that it is their benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done most to increase atheism? I believe that we ought really and truly to practice every one of these virtues. And it is not enough for you alone to practice them, but so must all the priests in Galatia, without exception. Either shame or persuade them into righteousness or else remove them from their priestly office, if they do not, together with their wives, children and servants, attend the worship of the Gods and the dead they should not be considered priests. Do not allow even your servants or sons or wives to show impiety towards the Gods and honour atheism more than piety. (To Arsacius, High-priest of Galatia)
The Reformation seriously damaged the cult of the saints and martyrs and as a result the influence of Christianity has diminished throughout the world. Where it remains strongest you will usually find a proper emphasis placed on honoring the dead, something that even certain Protestant sects have learned to do.
So if we want to see Paganism and our respective polytheist communities flourish we must lay our foundation upon the dead and let them guide us in the worship of our Gods.
For when the Gods are near to us, so too are our dead, at least if your God is anything like mine:
Silenus, whom the merry maids had raised upon an ass, rode along, holding a golden goblet, which was constantly filled for him. Slowly he advanced, while behind whirled in mad eddies the reckless troop of vine-clad revelers. You, reader, who are well educated and familiar with descriptions of Bacchanalian orgies or festivals of Dionysos, would not have been astonished by this. At the utmost, you would only feel a slightly licentious thrill at seeing this assembly of delightful phantoms rise from their sarcophagi to again renew their ancient and festive rites, all rioting, reveling, hurrahing Evöe Bacche! (Heinrich Heine, Die Götter im Exil)
Even if you are inventing new rites include the dead in what you do and it will go better for you.
And also, when you’re dead — and we’re all gonna die, dearies; don’t you have any illusions about that — work to assist those who will follow.
Nice poetry, Sannion, but I’m not an ecstatic — what can I do?
Simple. Follow the advice that Vishnu gives Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gītā:
By sacrifice will you procreate! … Foster the Gods with this, and may They foster you; by enriching one another you will achieve a higher good. Enriched by sacrifice, the Gods will give you the delights you desire; he is a thief who enjoys Their gifts without giving to Them in return. Good men eating the remnants of sacrifices are free of guilt, but evil men who cook for themselves alone eat the food of sin. Creatures depend on food, food comes from rain, rain depends on sacrifice, and sacrifice comes from action … the ever pervading infinite spirit is present in rites of sacrifice.
The thing you’ve got to realize
is that the polytheist and the atheist live in the same world
and are witness to the same events.
It’s just that the polytheist is sensitive enough to discern the pattern of the divine.
It has a feel, a scent. Everything goes a bit slanty when it’s near.
But you know, you recognize it.
How does the musician hear the tune?
How does the artist see what isn’t there yet?
How does the dancer move so?
Intimacy with Gods and Spirits is a grace
– it does not happen unless they will it.
We are in darkness until initiation opens our eyes.
And once that happens, there’s no going back.
It’s fine to find religion from a book.
But there comes a time when you need to start doing religion
and not just being religious.
Tove, our housemate and ritual partner, reflects on what’s happening in her homeland.
The rivers and the forests of Ukraine flow through me, what happens to it happens to me. I shall lie on its soil as it will embrace and engulf me. I shall rest there as one would in their home. I am Ukraine and Ukraine is me. But even as Ukraine cries and struggles, the land is mighty and it knows itself. Its Spirits and Deities are ancient and large, and lie deep in the soil below the surface. The things that happen on the surface may wake up the anger of its Gods, but they cannot harm them. We carry Ukraine in our hearts, it is not contained in buildings of wood and stone.
Not only were there the Greek Eye Cups, but also things like this:
Heard joke once: Man goes to doctor. Says he’s depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in a threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. Doctor says, “Treatment is simple. Great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up.” Man bursts into tears. Says, “But doctor…I am Pagliacci.”
― Alan Moore, Watchmen
One thing that’s going to be different going forward is that I want to broaden my scope, since there’s a lot more to the Starry Bear proto-tradition than just Dionysos’ identification as Óðr and his interactions with assorted Scandinavian and Slavic deities, or the history of the Ukraine (and the city of Olbia in particular), important as these things are. And of course I will write about them as discoveries and insights warrant, or if folks have questions I can answer, but otherwise I really want to branch out and focus on underrepresented or neglected portions of the proto-tradition, and the Gods and Spirits who oversee it – Norse, Hellenic and other.
When I asked for writing prompts I got two requests: more Starry Bear stuff, and more Harlequinade stuff. I’m going to start with the Starry Bear stuff.
As many of you are aware the Starry Bear is a proto-tradition and the companion of the Starry Bull tradition, but predominantly focused on Northern Europe. In the coming months I’ll be writing about four threads of this proto-tradition, which can be divided as follows.
The first is mythological. It focuses on the stories told about our Gods and Spirits, drawing on a diversity of sources. These sources includes archaic star-lore, Neolithic and migration-era petroglyphs and other archeological evidence, Greco-Roman ethnographies regarding the various Barbarian populations, Eddic and Skaldic poetry, Germanic and Slavic folktales, 18th through early 20th century Romantic continuations primarily by German, Scandinavian and Russian authors, as well as some modern material.
The second concerns praxis. This consists of what can be reconstructed of the pre-Christian religious beliefs and practices of Northern Europe, combined with elements from Medieval and Early Modern Christian folk customs, superstitions and other potential “pagan survivals” and syncretic and dual tradition religions, as well as later inspired and reimagined versions of these from the Romantic period, plus Heathenry as well as contemporary Slavic and Baltic polytheisms.
The third consists of UPG – from myself, my ritual partners, and some of our colleagues. This can encompass everything from encounters with our Gods and Spirits and what this teaches us about right engagement with these Powers, to techniques that they have taught or shown us, visions and other ecstatic revelations they’ve gifted us, attempts at reconstructing ancient mystic and esoteric practices, as well as new material we’ve come up with or been given by them. Likewise inspired poetry, modern myths and elaborations, prophecies and oracles, and the like fall into this category.
Finally, there is an evolving culture which includes folk practices, values and norms, shared terminology, and other expectations regarding human interactions both with fellow members and outsiders, as well as similar elements pertaining to community – both that which exists now, primarily on the internet, and that which we are striving to create in the world, which will hopefully continue to exist long after us.
Take all of this, put it in a blender for a while, and what you’ll end up with is the Starry Bear proto-tradition.
I’m sure there’s a lot more that I’ve left out, but that should give you an idea of what to expect in the coming months here at the House of Vines.
Hopefully that will be to your liking and I won’t frighten off the remainder of my readership.
Most people are probably aware that, beginning in the fourth century b.c.e. with the rise to power of the Makedonian dynasty founded by Ptolemy, son of Lagos, there were extensive contacts between Greece and Egypt, resulting in a fusion of cultures which produced the wildly popular cult of Isis and Serapis that proved a worthy competitor to Christianity for the mind and soul of the Roman Empire. What often isn’t as well known is the extent to which these contacts existed for centuries, and even millenia before then.
In fact, Egypt’s presence can be felt on Greek soil even before there were proper Greek-speaking people there. The Keftiu, whom archaeologists believe to be the Minoans, participated in the raids of the Sea Peoples that harried Egypt’s borders in the 2nd millennium bce. (Merneptah Stele 52) Many historians see in Plato’s account of the mythical Atlantis a memory of these excursions:
“…the island of Atlantis…had subjugated the parts of Libya within the Pillars of Hercules as far as Egypt, and Europe as far Tyrrhenia. This vast power, gathered into one, endeavored to subdue at a blow our country [Egypt] and yours [Greece], and the whole of the region within the straits…”(Timaeus 24d)
When they weren’t involved in piracy, the Minoans seem to have had extensive trade relations with Egypt, unsurprising since Crete is centrally located between Egypt, Cyprus, and the Levant. Numerous archaeological remains attest to these early contacts: an obsidian vessel rim fragment dating from the early Dynastic period, a worked hippopotamus tusk, and Egyptian stone vases were found in Early Minoan IIA domestic contexts at Knossos (Jacke Phillips, Aegypto-Aegean relations up to the 2nd millennium B.C. in: Interregional Contacts in the Later Prehistory of Northeastern Africa, 1986, pg. 459). Cretan goods have even been found in Egypt. Professor Flinders Petrie discovered in the lowest levels of the temple at Abydos black pottery which he concluded came from Crete on account of its close resemblance to fragments discovered by Sir Arthur Evans in the Late Neolithic deposits of Knossos. (Abydos, Vol. II, p. 38)
There are clear Egyptian influences in Cretan and Mycenean art, society, and cult practice. The earliest Minoan written language, as seen on the Phaistos disk, bears striking resemblances to Egyptian hieroglyphs, though it has yet to be deciphered in its entirety. And, as the Australian philologist Gordon Childe observed, “At least on the Mesara, the great plain of southern Crete facing Africa, Minoan Crete’s indebtedness to the Nile is disclosed in the most intimate aspects of its culture. Not only do the forms of early Minoan stone vases, the precision of the lapidaries’ technique and the aesthetic selection of variegated stones as his materials carry on the the pre-dynastic tradition, Nilotic religious customs such as the use of the sistrum, the wearing of amulets in the forms of legs, mummies and monkeys, and statuettes plainly derived from Gerzean ‘block figures’, and personal habits revealed by depilatory tweezers of the Egyptian shape and stone unguent palettes from the early tombs and, later, details of costumes such as the penis-sheath and loin-cloth betoken something deeper than the external relations of commerce.”
The Minoans apparetly learned how to work with faience from the Egyptians, and created lovely figurines of snake-handling goddesses adorned with a crown upon which rises a serpent like the Uraeus of the Egyptian Pharaohs. The Uraeus Crown was connected with the goddess Wadjyt, which makes Sir Arthur Evans’ discovery on the site of the lower part of diorite statue of a seated Egyptian figure identified from the hieroglyphic inscriptions as a priest of Wadjyt all the more striking. (The Palace of Minos, 4 vols., London: Macmillan, 1921-1935) Another statue of an Egyptian goddess, this time the hippopotamus-formed Taweret, patroness of childbirth, was also found on Knossos.
Even after the decline of Minoan civilization, contacts between Egypt and Greece flourished. There was extensive trade between the two cultures, with Egyptian goods showing up in the mound tombs of the Mycenean royalty, and Egyptian influence evident in the golden face-masks of the deceased kings, a part of the funeral arrangement that Homer appears to be ignorant of. Trading ports at Cypros, Pylos, and Myceneae arose during this period, and their wares have been found in several sites at Egypt. (Marianne Nichols, Man, Myth and Monument, William Morris, 1975)
The Roman author Flavius Josephus speaks of how these trading ventures came to influence Greek culture:
“Since, therefore, besides what we have already taken notice of, we Jews have had a peculiar way of living of our own, there was no occasion offered us in ancient ages for intermixing among the Greeks, as they had for mixing among the Egyptians, by their intercourse of exporting and importing their several goods; as they also mixed with the Phoenicians, who lived by the sea-side, by means of their love of lucre in trade and merchandise. Nor did our forefathers betake themselves, as did some others, to robbery; nor did they, in order to gain more wealth, fall into foreign wars, although our country contained many ten thousands of men of courage sufficient for that purpose. For this reason it was that the Phoenicians themselves came soon by trading and navigation to be known to the Grecians, and by their means the Egyptians became known to the Grecians also, as did all those people whence the Phoenicians in long voyages over the seas carried wares to the Grecians.” (Against Apion 1.12)
It wasn’t just by way of trading, however, that Egypt came to influence Greek culture on the mainland. Several of the royal houses of Greece claimed descent from Egypt. For instance, the Argives traced their lineage back to Danaus, the twin-brother of Aigyptos, who gave his name to the land of Egypt. While in that country the brothers had a falling out and the younger fled to Greece with his fifty daughters. (Aeschylus’ Suppliants) This was a homecoming of sorts, as the brothers were descendents of Epaphos, the first king of Egypt, whose mother Io had originally been a Greek princess whom Zeus had taken a liking to, and as a consequence of that was transformed into a heifer by Hera and driven across the ocean, where she eventually ended up in Egypt. (Apollodorus 2.5-9) Additionally, both the the Spartan royal household and the sons of Acrisius claimed descent from Egypt (Herodotus 6.53-54).
Another Greek dynasty, that of the Theban city founded by Kadmos, could also look back to Egypt for its roots. In antiquity there was disagreement about Kadmos’ origins. According to the standard account, he was the son of the Phoenician king Agenor, who came to Greece while looking for his sister Europa and decided to settle there instead of returning home. He was credited with the invention of the alphabet, called phoinikeia grammata by Herodotus (5.58) However, there was also a variant tradition that claimed that he was originally of Egyptian extraction and expelled at the time of the Hyksos:
“Now that we are about to record the war against the Jews, we consider it appropriate to give first a summary account of the establishment of the nation, from its origins, and of the practices observed among them. When in ancient times a pestilence arose in Egypt, the common people ascribed their troubles to the workings of a divine agency; for indeed with many strangers of all sorts dwelling in their midst and practicing different rites of religion and sacrifice, their own traditional observances in honour of the gods had fallen into disuse. Hence the natives of the land surmised that unless they removed the foreigners, their troubles would never be resolved. At once, therefore, the aliens were driven from the country, and the most outstanding and active among them banded together and, as some say, were cast ashore in Greece and certain other regions; their leaders were notable men, chief among them being Danaus and Cadmus. But the greater number were driven into what is now called Judaea, which is not far distant from Egypt and was at that time utterly uninhabited.” (Diodorus Siculus, 40.3.279-283)
Interestingly, fragments of Minoan fresco have been found in the Egyptian site of Avaris during the Hyksos period (1674-1566 b.c.e.) which may have been the basis for such a variant tradition.
Other important figures from Greek legend who have connections to Egypt include Herakles (Diodorus 4.18, 27), the Argonauts (Hecataeus frag. 18a), and according to Herodotos, Helen, who as the story goes was never even at Troy, but spent the whole war in Egypt (2.116).
While she may have been in Egypt at the time, one of Egypt’s neighbors was at Troy, Memnon, the beautiful and shining son of the dawn, who was one of the greatest warriors to have ever lived, and fought alongside Priam defending the city walls against the invading Greeks, according to Homer (Odyssey 11.522).
Nor was this Homer’s only reference to Egypt and her neighboring lands.
In the Ninth nook of the Iliad, Homer praises the wealth of the Egyptians. “He may promise me the wealth of Orchomenus or of Egyptian Thebes, which is the richest city in the whole world, for it has a hundred gates through each of which two hundred men may drive at once with their chariots and horses.” In the Third book of the Odyssey, he speaks of how in Egypt “Menelaus gathered much gold and substance among people of an alien speech.” In the Fourth book of the Odyssey, we learn that the Egyptians are skilled in magical drugs. “Helen drugged the wine with an herb that banishes all care, sorrow, and ill humour. Whoever drinks wine thus drugged cannot shed a single tear all the rest of the day, not even though his father and mother both of them drop down dead, or he sees a brother or a son hewn in pieces before his very eyes. This drug, of such sovereign power and virtue, had been given to Helen by Polydamna wife of Thon, a woman of Egypt, where there grow all sorts of herbs, some good to put into the mixing-bowl and others poisonous. Moreover, every one in the whole country is a skilled physician, for they are of the race of Paeeon.” Also in the Fourth book, Menelaus recounts the time that he was detained in Egypt: “I was trying to come on here, but the gods detained me in Egypt, for my hecatombs had not given them full satisfaction, and the gods are very strict about having their dues. Now off Egypt, about as far as a ship can sail in a day with a good stiff breeze behind her, there is an island called Pharos- it has a good harbour from which vessels can get out into open sea when they have taken in water- and the gods becalmed me twenty days without so much as a breath of fair wind to help me forward.” Alexander the Great used this passage in determining where to found his first city, the famous Alexandria, which would become the capital of the Ptolemaic Dynasty in Egypt.
In the first book of the Iliad, Homer has Thetis tell her son that Zeus and the other gods went to Okeanos to feast with the Ethiopians. In the opening of the Odyssey, he locates the Ethiopians at the world’s end, and says that Poseidon was among them, receiving a hecatomb in sacrifice when the other gods met in council to discuss the aftermath of Troy.
Homer would not be the last to locate the Greek gods also among the Egyptians. Herodotos even went so far as to claim that they originated there:
“In fact, the names of nearly all the gods came to Hellas from Egypt. For I am convinced by inquiry that they have come from foreign parts, and I believe that they came chiefly from Egypt. Except the names of Poseidon and the Dioscuri, as I have already said, and Hera, and Hestia, and Themis, and the Graces, and the Nereids, the names of all the gods have always existed in Egypt. I only say what the Egyptians themselves say. The gods whose names they say they do not know were, as I think, named by the Pelasgians, except Poseidon, the knowledge of whom they learned from the Libyans.” (2.50.1-2)
Hekataios of Abdera, however, claimed that it was the other way around, and that the Egyptians actually derived their culture and religion from Greek colonizers!
Of course, both men were mistaken since each culture had developed its religion independent of the other, but numerous ancient authors saw striking similarities between them. For instance, Herodotos who actually traveled through large parts of Egypt during the Persian period, observed:
“Furthermore, it was the Egyptians who first made it a matter of religious observance not to have intercourse with women in temples or to enter a temple after such intercourse without washing. Nearly all other peoples are less careful in this matter than are the Egyptians and Greeks, and consider a man to be like any other animal; for beasts and birds (they say) are seen to mate both in the temples and in the sacred precincts; now were this displeasing to the god, the beasts would not do so. This is the reason given by others for practices which I, for my part, dislike” (2.64.1)
And he also noted the similarity between the worship of Dionysos and Osiris:
“The rest of the festival of Dionysos is observed by the Egyptians much as it is by the Greeks, except for the dances; but in place of the phallus, they have invented the use of puppets two feet high moved by strings, the male member nodding and nearly as big as the rest of the body, which are carried about the villages by women; a flute-player goes ahead, the women follow behind singing of Dionysos. Why the male member is so large and is the only part of the body that moves, there is a sacred legend that explains. Now then, it seems to me that Melampos son of Amytheon was not ignorant of but was familiar with this sacrifice. For Melampos was the one who taught the Greeks the name of Dionysos and the way of sacrificing to him and the phallic procession; he did not exactly unveil the subject taking all its details into consideration, for the teachers who came after him made a fuller revelation; but it was from him that the Greeks learned to bear the phallus along in honor of Dionysos, and they got their present practice from his teaching. I say, then, that Melampos acquired the prophetic art, being a discerning man, and that, besides many other things which he learned from Egypt, he also taught the Greeks things concerning Dionysos, altering few of them; for I will not say that what is done in Egypt in connection with the god and what is done among the Greeks originated independently: for they would then be of an Hellenic character and not recently introduced. Nor again will I say that the Egyptians took either this or any other custom from the Greeks.” (2.47-49)
The Roman author Diodorus Siculus added the following to Herodotos’ observation:
“Orpheus, for instance, brought from Egypt most of his mystic ceremonies, the orgiastic rites that accompanied his wanderings, and his fabulous account of his experiences in Hades. For the rite of Osiris is the same as that of Dionysos, and that of Isis very similar to that of Demeter, the names alone having been interchanged; and the punishments in Hades of the unrighteous, the Fields of the Righteous, and the fantastic conceptions, current among the many, which are figments of the imagination – all these were introduced by Orpheus in imitation of Egyptian funeral customs.” (1.96)
There were many reasons why the Greeks might identify the Egyptian gods with their own.
They could have similar mythological stories told about them, as in the case of the wanderings, sorrows, purification of the child in fire, founding of mysteries, and reunion with their loved one which was recounted of Demeter in the Homeric Hymn and of Isis in assorted Egyptian texts and Plutarch’s prolongued account in On Isis and Osiris.
They could preside over similar realms, as in the case of Apollo and Horus, as Diodorus Siculus records:
“Moreover, they say that the name Horus, when translated, is Apollo, and that, having been instructed by his mother Isis in both medicine and divination, he is now a benefactor of the race of men through his oracular responses and his healings.” (1.25)
Or of Hermes and Thoth, as Diodorus again recounts:
“It was by Hermes, for instance, according to them, that the common language of mankind was first further articulated, and that many objects which were still nameless received an appellation, that the alphabet was invented, and that ordinances regarding the honours and offerings due to the gods were duly established; he was the first also to observe the orderly arrangement of the stars and the harmony of the musical sounds and their nature, to establish a wrestling school, and to give thought to the rhythmical movement of the human body and its proper development. He also made a lyre and gave it three strings, imitating the seasons of the year; for he adopted three tones, a high, a low, and a medium; the high from the summer, the low from the winter, and the medium from the spring. The Greeks also were taught by him how to expound (hermeneia) their thoughts, and it was for this reason that he was given the name Hermes. In a word, Osiris, taking him for his priestly scribe, communicated with him on every matter and used his counsel above that of all others. The olive tree also, they claim, was his discovery, not Athena’s, as Greeks say.” (1.16)
They could have similar festivals, as in the case of Athena and Neith:
“Next to the Makhlyes are the Auseans; these and the Makhlyes, separated by the Triton, live on the shores of Lake Tritonis. The Makhlyes wear their hair long behind, the Auseans in front. They celebrate a yearly festival of Athena, where their maidens are separated into two bands and fight each other with stones and sticks, thus, they say, honoring in the way of their ancestors that native goddess whom we call Athena. Maidens who die of their wounds are called false virgins. Before the girls are set fighting, the whole people choose the fairest maid, and arm her with a Korinthian helmet and Greek panoply, to be then mounted on a chariot and drawn all along the lake shore. With what armor they equipped their maidens before Greeks came to live near them, I cannot say; but I suppose the armor was Egyptian; for I maintain that the Greeks took their shield and helmet from Egypt..” (Herodotus 4.180)
And sometimes the prompting for this came from the Egyptian priests themselves, as Plato recounts:
“In the Egyptian Delta, at the head of which the river Nile divides, there is a certain district which is called the district of Sais, and the great city of the district is also called Sais, and is the city from which King Amasis came. The citizens have a deity for their foundress; she is called in the Egyptian tongue Neith, and is asserted by them to be the same whom the Hellenes call Athene; they are great lovers of the Athenians, and say that they are in some way related to them.” (Timaeus 21e)
But this wasn’t the only way that Greek and Egyptian religion intersected. There were plenty of instances where the Greeks adopted Egyptian gods, precisely as Egyptian gods, without necessarily identifying them with their own.
One of the most popular Egyptian gods was Ammon. According to Herodotus (1.46) the sixth century Lydian king Kroisos “sent an embassy to Libya to consult the oracle of Ammon.” The worship of Ammon was introduced into Greece itself at an early period, probably through the medium of the Greek colony in Kyrene, which must have formed a connection with the great oracle of Ammon in the Oasis soon after its establishment. Ammon had a temple and a statue at Thebes, the gift of Pindar who wrote a famous hymn in his honor (Pausanias 9.16.1), and another at Sparta, the inhabitants of which, as Pausanias (3.18.2) says, consulted the oracle of Ammon in Libya from early times more than the other Greeks. At Aphytis, Ammon was worshipped, from the time of Lysander, as zealously as in Ammonium. At Megalopolis the god was represented with the head of a ram (Paus. 8.32.1), and the Greeks of Cyrenaica dedicated at Delphi a chariot with a statue of Ammon. (10.13.3)
Thoth was known to the Athens of Socrates:
“There is a famous old god, whose name was Theuth; the bird which is called the Ibis is sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters.” (Plato, Phaedrus 14.273)
And Socrates may even have reverenced Anoubis, for throughout the Republic Plato frequently has him swear “By the Dog of Egypt!”
And perhaps the most distinctly Egyptian of all the gods known to the Greeks was Neilos, the divinity of the river which gave life to the Black Land. He is found as early as the poet Hesiod who wrote, “Tethys bore to Okeanos the swirling Potamoi, Neilos, Alpheios, and deep-eddying Eridanos.” (Theogony 337) Pausanias noted that the Greeks normally made statues of the river-gods out of white stone, but for Neilos dark stone was preferred because “he flows down to the sea through Aithiopia.” (8.24.11)
Nor was this shared interest in religion entirely one-sided.
The Pharaoh Amasis (Ahmose II in Egyptian inscriptions) came to power when an uprising of soldiers removed his predecessor Apries from the throne. He established the 26th Dynasty, which governed from Sais, and was the last native ruler of Egypt before the Persian conquest. He was immensely popular with his subjects, and established friendly relations with a number of Greek states, earning him the title Philihellene or “Greek-lover”. Herodotos devotes a significant portion of Book II of his Histories to this fascinating Pharoah. He relates that under his prudent administration Egypt reached the highest pitch of prosperity; he adorned the temples of Lower Egypt especially with splendid monolithic shrines and other monuments (his activity here is proved by remains still existing).
“First in Sais he built and completed for Athene a temple-gateway which is a great marvel, and he far surpassed herein all who had done the like before, both in regard to height and greatness, so large are the stones and of such quality. Then secondly he dedicated great colossal statues and man-headed sphinxes very large, and for restoration he caused to be brought from the stone-quarries which are opposite Memphis, others of very great size from the city of Elephantine, distant a voyage of not less than twenty days from Sais: and of them all I marvel most at this, namely a monolith chamber which he brought from the city of Elephantine; and they were three years engaged in bringing this, and two thousand men were appointed to convey it, who all were of the class of boatmen. Of this house the length outside is one-and-twenty cubits, the breadth is fourteen cubits, and the height eight. These are the measures of the monolith house outside; but the length inside is eighteen cubits and five-sixths of a cubit, the breadth twelve cubits, and the height five cubits. This lies by the side of the entrance to the temple; for within the temple they did not draw it, because, as it is said, while the house was being drawn along, the chief artificer of it groaned aloud, seeing that much time had been spent and he was wearied by the work; and Amasis took it to heart as a warning and did not allow them to draw it further onwards. Some say on the other hand that a man was killed by it, of those who were heaving it with levers, and that it was not drawn in for that reason.
“Amasis also dedicated in all the other temples which were of repute, works which are worth seeing for their size, and among them also at Memphis the colossal statue which lies on its back in front of the temple of Hephaistos, whose length is five-and-seventy feet; and on the same base made of the same stone are set two colossal statues, each of twenty feet in length, one on this side and the other on that side of the large statue. There is also another of stone of the same size in Sais, lying in the same manner as that at Memphis. Moreover Amasis was he who built and finished for Isis her temple at Memphis, which is of great size and very worthy to be seen.”
He was also extremely fond of Oracles, as Herodotos relates:
“It is said however that Amasis, even when he was in a private station, was a lover of drinking and of jesting, and not at all seriously disposed; and whenever his means of livelihood failed him through his drinking and luxurious living, he would go about and steal; and they from whom he stole would charge him with having their property, and when he denied it would bring him before the judgment of an Oracle, whenever there was one in their place; and many times he was convicted by the Oracles and many times he was absolved: and then when finally he became king he did as follows:–as many of the gods as had absolved him and pronounced him not to be a thief, to their temples he paid no regard, nor gave anything for the further adornment of them, nor even visited them to offer sacrifice, considering them to be worth nothing and to possess lying Oracles; but as many as had convicted him of being a thief, to these he paid very great regard, considering them to be truly gods, and to present Oracles which did not lie.”
Amasis showed equal benefaction to the Greek temples and Oracles.
“Moreover when the Amphictyons had let out the contract for building the temple which now exists at Delphi, agreeing to pay a sum of three hundred talents (for the temple which formerly stood there had been burnt down of itself), it fell to the share of the people of Delphi to provide the fourth part of the payment; and accordingly the Delphians went about to various cities and collected contributions. And when they did this they got from Egypt as much as from any place, for Amasis gave them a thousand talents’ weight of alum, while the Hellenes who dwelt in Egypt gave them twenty pounds of silver.”
His other dedication in Greece were as follows:
“First at Kyrene an image of Athene covered over with gold and a figure of himself made like by painting; then in the temple of Athene at Lindos two images of stone and a corslet of linen worthy to be seen; and also at Samos two wooden figures of himself dedicated to Hera, which were standing even to my own time in the great temple, behind the doors. Now at Samos he dedicated offerings because of the guest-friendship between himself and Polycrates the son of Aiakes; at Lindos for no guest-friendship but because the temple of Athene at Lindos is said to have been founded by the daughters of Danaos, who had touched land there at the time when they were fleeing from the sons of Aigyptos. These offerings were dedicated by Amasis; and he was the first of men who conquered Cyprus and subdued it so that it paid him tribute.”
It was under Amasis’ reign that Thales, Solon, and Pythagoras visited Egypt. His love of all things Greek was so great that he even took a Greek woman as his wife.
“Also with the people of Kyrene Amasis made an agreement for friendship and alliance; and he resolved too to marry a wife from thence, whether because he desired to have a wife of Hellenic race, or, apart from that, on account of friendship for the people of Kyrene: however that may be, he married, some say the daughter of Battos, others of Arkesilaos, and others of Critobulos, a man of repute among the citizens; and her name was Ladike.
“Now whenever Amasis lay with her he found himself unable to have intercourse, but with his other wives he associated as he was wont; and as this happened repeatedly, Amasis said to his wife, whose name was Ladike: “Woman, thou hast given me drugs, and thou shall surely perish more miserably than any other.” Then Ladike, when by her denials Amasis was not at all appeased in his anger against her, made a vow in her soul to Aphrodite, that if Amasis on that night had intercourse with her (seeing that this was the remedy for her danger), she would send an image to be dedicated to her at Kyrene; and after the vow immediately Amasis had intercourse, and from thenceforth whenever Amasis came in to her he had intercourse with her; and after this he became very greatly attached to her. And Ladike paid the vow that she had made to the goddess; for she had an image made and sent it to Kyrene, and it is still preserved even to my own time, standing with its face turned away from the city of the Kyrenians. This Ladike Cambyses, having conquered Egypt and heard from her who she was, sent back unharmed to Kyrene.”
Another benefaction that he gave was the settlement of a Greek trading-port or emporium within the borders of Egypt.
“Moreover Amasis became a lover of the Hellenes; and besides other proofs of friendship which he gave to several among them, he also granted the city of Naukratis for those of them who came to Egypt to dwell in; and to those who did not desire to stay, but who made voyages thither, he granted portions of land to set up altars and make sacred enclosures for their gods. Their greatest enclosure and that one which has most name and is most frequented is called the Hellenion, and this was established by the following cities in common: –of the Ionians Chios, Teos, Phocaia, Clazomenai, of the Dorians Rhodes, Cnidos, Halicarnassos, Phaselis, and of the Aiolians Mytilene alone. To these belongs this enclosure and these are the cities which appoint superintendents of the port; and all other cities which claim a share in it, are making a claim without any right. Besides this the Eginetans established on their own account a sacred enclosure dedicated to Zeus, the Samians one to Hera, and the Milesians one to Apollo. Now in old times Naukratis alone was an open trading-place, and no other place in Egypt: and if any one came to any other of the Nile mouths, he was compelled to swear that he came not thither of his own free will, and when he had thus sworn his innocence he had to sail with his ship to the Canobic mouth, or if it were not possible to sail by reason of contrary winds, then he had to carry his cargo round the head of the Delta in boats to Naukratis: thus highly was Naukratis privileged.”
Naukratis continued as a settlement well into Ptolemiac times, where it was one of the three proper Greek poleis in the country, possessing a democratic constitution, a boule, a theater, a gymnasium, and all of the other features essential for Greek polity. However, as Alexandria grew in stature, Naukratis began to decline, until in the second century c.e. many of the citizens moved to the new foundation of Antinoopolis, which the Emperor Hadrian had founded on the same model as the city.
The early Egyptian archaeologist Flinders Petrie actually excevated the site of Naukratis, and described it as follows:
“These Greeks brought with them their national worship; and of the temples mentioned by Herodotos, those of Apollo, Aphrodite, and Hera, have been found, and also one to the Dioskouroi, not recorded in history. The temple of the Milesian Apollo appears to have been the oldest; it stood in the centre of town, outside of the fort, and was first built of mud-brick, plastered over, and later on, of white stone. The site had been nearly cleared out by the native diggers; and I only came in time to get fragments of the temple, and to open up the great rubbish trench, where all the temple refuse was thrown. Very precious this rubbish was to me, layer under layer of broken vases, from the innumerable small bowls to the great craters of noble size and design; and most precious of all were the hundreds of dedications inscribed on the pottery, some of them probably the oldest examples of Greek writing known. The temple of Aphrodite I found the next year and unearthed three successive buildings, one over the other. Though perhaps as old as that of Apollo, its inscriptions are not so primitive.” (Ten Years Digging in Egypt, Chapter 11)
But Greek activity in this period was not limited to the emporium of Naukratis. In fact, at various times Greeks held influential political and military positions in Egypt. The Egyptian priest and general Potasimto commanded a troop of Greek soldiers during the reign of Necho II. (Jean Yoyotte, “Potasimto de Pharbaithos et la titre grand combattantmaitre du triumphe” Chronique d’Egypte 28 (1953): 101-106) In the seventh century b.c.e. an unfortunately unnamed Egyptian city was governed by an Ionian Greek named Pedon. (Olivier Mason and Jean Yoyotte, “Une inscription ioienne mentionnant Psammatique ler” Epigraphica Anatolia I (1988): 171-179) And in a Demotic papyrus from Hermopolis we learn that a Greek named Ariston was an important Egyptian official circa 575 b.c.e. (El Hussein M. Zaghloul, “Frudemotische Urkunden aus Hermupolis”, Bulletin of the Center of Papyrological Studies 2, Cairo, 1985 23-31)
Additionally, many important Greeks came to visit Egypt, lured by its antiquity and reputation for mysterious wisdom.
“But now that we have examined these matters we must enumerate what Greeks, who have won fame for their wisdom and learning, visited Egypt in ancient times in order to become acquainted with its customs and learning. For the priests of Egypt recount from the records of their sacred books that they were visited in early times by Orpheus, Musaeus, Melampus, and Daedalus, also by the poet Homer and Lycurgus of Sparta, later by Solon of Athens and the philosopher Plato, and that there came also Pythagoras of Samos and the mathematician Eudoxus, as well as Democritus of Abdera and Oenopides of Chios. As evidence for the visits of all these men they point in some cases to their statues and in others to places or buildings which bear their names, and they offer proofs from the branch of learning which each one of these men pursued, arguing that all the things for which they were admired among the Greeks were borrowed from Egypt.” (Diodorus Siculus 1.96)
Plato (Timaeus 21-22) described the visit of Solon to Egypt in the following way:
“Solon said that, when he traveled to Sais, he was received with much honor; and further that, when he inquired about ancient times from the priests who knew most of such matters, he discovered that neither he nor any other Greek had any knowledge of antiquity worth speaking of. Once, wishing to lead them on to talk about ancient times, he set about telling them the most venerable of our legends, about Phoroneus the reputed first man and Niobe, and the story how Deucalion and Pyrrha survived the deluge. He traced the pedigree of their descendents, and tried, by reckoning the generations, to compute how many years had passed since those events.
‘Ah, Solon, Solon,’ said one of the priests, a very old man, ‘you Greeks are always children; in Greece there is no such thing as an old man.’
‘What do you mean?’ Solon asked.
‘You are all young in your minds,’ said the priest, ‘which hold no store of old belief based on long tradition, no knowledge hoary with age,'”
Plato’s own sojourn in Egypt was recorded by the geographer Strabo (17.1.29):
“At Heliopolis the houses of the priests and the schools of Plato and Eudoxus were pointed out to us; for Eudoxus went up to that place with Plato and they both passed thirteen years with the priests, as is stated by some writers; for since these priests excelled in their knowledge of the heavenly bodies, albeit secretive and slow to impart it, Plato and Eudoxus prevailed upon them in time by courting their favor to let them learn some of the principles of their doctrines; but the barbarians concealed most things.”
Diogenes Laertius (1.43, 24) records that Thales of Miletos, the famous physical scientist who predicted an eclipse in 584 b.c.e., visited “Egypt to confer with the priests and astronomers” and that he “seems to have learned geometry from them as well.”
Thales’ contemporary Pythagoras came there for a similar reason, though he found the Egyptian priests less than obliging.
“Having been received by Amasis, he obtained from him letters of recommendation to the priests of Heliopolis, who sent him to those of Memphis, since they were older – which was, at heart, only a pretext. Then, for the same reasons, he was again sent from Memphis to the priests of Diospolis. The latter, fearing the king and not daring to find false excuses to exclude the newcomer from their sanctuary, thought they would rid themselves of him by forcing him to undergo very bad treatment and to carry out very difficult orders quite foreign to a Hellenic education. All that was calculated to drive him to despair so that he would give up his mission. But since he zealously executed all that was demanded of him, the priests ended by conceiving a great admiration for him, treating him respectfully and even allowing him to sacrifice to their deities, which until then had never been permitted to a foreigner.” (Porphyry Life of Pythagoras, 7)
And so we bring our review of the contacts between Greece and Egypt before Alexander and the Ptolemies to a close. As you can see, the splendid multicultural society that they created had ample precedent and very firm foundations. For several millenia these two cultures had met, mingled, and jointly inspired each other. They would continue to do so even through Roman domination (in fact, their mutual hatred for the Romans actually solidified the bonds between Greek and Egyptian far more solidly than any Ptolemaic policy could) and through to the triumph of Christianity which saw, under Theodosius, the closing of the Egyptian temples and their destruction by rabid mobs of religious zealots.
In his universal history Diodoros of Sicily provides a number of competing accounts of the origin of Dionysos:
But since we have previously made mention, in connection with our discussion of Egypt, of the birth of Dionysus and of his deeds as they are preserved in the local histories of that country, we are of the opinion that it is appropriate in this place to add the myths about this god which are current among the Greeks. But since the early composers of myths and the early poets who have written about Dionysus do not agree with one another and have committed to writing many monstrous tales, it is a difficult undertaking to give a clear account of the birth and deeds of this god. For some have handed down the story that there was but one Dionysus, others that there were three, and there are those who state that there was never any birth of him in human form whatsoever.
After relating the various accounts that circulated in Greece, he goes on to provide a curious version from Africa in which Dionysos and Athene participate in the Titanomachy:
I am not unaware that also those inhabitants of Libya who dwell on the shore of the ocean lay claim to the birthplace of the god, and point out that Nysa and all the stories which the myths record are found among themselves, and many witnesses to this statement, they say, remain in the land down to our own lifetime; and I also know that many of the ancient Greek writers of myths and poets, and not a few of the later historians as well, agree with this in their accounts. Consequently, in order not to omit anything which history records about Dionysus, we shall present in summary what is told by the Libyans and those Greek historians whose writings are in accord with these and with that Dionysius who composed an account out of the ancient fabulous tales. For this writer has composed an account of Dionysus and the Amazons, as well as of the Argonauts and the events connected with the Trojan War and many other matters, in which he cites the versions of the ancient writers, both the composers of myths and the poets.
To read the rest of it, click here.
Tony Todd is best known for his superb (and very Dionysian) performance as the titular role in the Candyman series. However, in 2006 Todd was also in a movie called Minotaur which is loosely (very loosely) based on the ancient myth. Here is a synopsis contributed by Claudio Carvalho of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for IMDB:
In the age of gods and spirits, the world was ruled by a dark empire from a palace on the Island of Minus. The locals worshipped the Bull, and the ambitious Queen got pregnant by their god, generating an offspring that was part human and part bull. When the Prince is killed on the island, the dwellers blame the villagers, and they are sentenced to give eight young women per year to satisfy the Minotaur. The shepherd Theo (Tom Hardy), son of the village leader Cyrnan (Rutger Hauer), misses his girlfriend that was abducted a couple of years ago. When he meets a leper seer, she tells him that his beloved Ffion (Donata Janietz) is alive, and that Theo must go to the island to kill the beast and save his love. Theo goes to the palace and faces King Deucalion (Tony Todd) and the Minotaur, supported by Deucalion’s sister, Queen Raphaella (Michelle Van Der Water), who discloses the truth about the Minotaur.