Most of us today in the West operate under a fairly simplified conception of what constitutes Ho Anthropos, The Man. Man is a body and a mind with the mind subdivided into its conscious and unconscious halves. Many further postulate the existence of a spirit or soul that survives beyond the grave and is regarded as the true essence of a man. This nebulous organ of consciousness may be conceived of as independent of both mind and body or arising from the unconscious depths of mind.
The reductiveness of this model is strikingly apparent when you compare it to the ones that proliferate among most traditional polytheist cultures and indeed throughout much of Christian Europe until quite recently. Although I suspect it would prove fruitful to compare the various spiritual bodies and local and non-localized organs of intellect and power among the Greeks, Celts, Norse, Egyptians and other philosophical and religiomagical systems such as Qaballah and Buddhism, that is not my intent here.
What I intend to do instead is discuss why I believe that dance and music play a cathartic role in Dionysiac religion.
Ancient Dionysians held to the majority view that man consists of more than a mind, body and soul or spirit. In fact the impetus for this conception may have come from the Dionysian currents that swept through Greek religion with the God’s arrival from abroad — up to that point there is little said on the subject. But with the enraptured rupture of the personality brought about by the God’s unique form of worship characterized as it is by the experience of ekstasis (literally “stepping out of one’s self”) and enthousiasmos (“being filled with a divinity”) the Greeks began to think hard about what they were made up of and what was going on within them. This sort of speculation became so widespread that it ended up as a significant plot point in the epics of Homer and was the constant obsession of philosophers, particularly those who claimed descent from Pythagoras. Much attention was spent on sorting out where these parts were located and how they operated together and whether there was any material component to them.
With regard to the last question I tend to think that there is, with the understanding that “material” encompasses a far wider degree of density than we are capable of perceiving with our ordinary senses. Meaning that even things that we think of as purely insubstantial such as emotion and thought possess a physicality that enables them to act and be acted upon by other objects. Those familiar with the theory of optics and harmonics developed by the school of Demokritos will understand.
For the most part thoughts are fluid and constantly in motion, bouncing off of each other and merging with other thoughts into something new. But what happens when too many thoughts collect in the chamber of our mind and congeal into a viscous blob that clogs the pipes and impedes the passage of other thoughts? Or when the flow of thoughts become agitated and erratic, chaotic and impossible to calm? This is madness, and in both cases the cure lies in Dionysiac ritual, especially with its strong emphasis on music and dance and striking imagery.
The point of these things is to get us flowing properly again, harmoniously. The vibrations from the music effect particular agitations on our thoughts, rather like the influence the moon holds over the tides or the force of magnetism, so that one could conjure quite specific moods out of thin air through the simple arrangement of a handful of notes. Likewise specific configurations of movement can radically alter our mental state — imagine if I grabbed the child from your arms and started shaking it violently; undoubtedly you would feel an elevation of annoyance as a result — especially when that movement is aligned with rhythm and melody, as in the dance. Seriously, next time you’re feeling blue do the Twist. Five hours of that will have you grinning like Gwynplaine.
Our thoughts are influenced by what we see, often at a level far below rational awareness and beyond our cultural and personal associations. Dionysian religion with its penchant for theatricality manipulated this to great effect through its choice of color and objects laden with symbolism such as the egg and cup but also objects capable of triggering powerful unconscious responses such as the snake or mask or bloody victim handled in an unconventional manner. Thought was even put into the order of presentation so that one’s responses would build upon themselves and the individual could be lead through a series of experiences and understandings that resulted in epiphany and catharsis. This is what makes art such a powerful force in our lives and why true art and ritual are indistinguishable from each other.
And that’s why whenever I’m feeling angry or depressed or like nothing is quite synching up right I resort to acts of creativity and ritual. Doing so helps focus my mind on my Gods and spirits and that connection alone can help me get over the hump — but more than that I believe that there is efficacy in the rites themselves since I can feel their benefit even when I am unable to establish contact with my divinities. Even if I don’t feel immediately better after doing it, I often find that in the aftermath my mind becomes more fluid and I am able to let go of unpleasant emotions I had been obsessively clinging to.
Now obviously the primary reason for doing these rituals is not therapeutic but devotional, however if this stuff is left unattended it can get in the way of pure devotion so I consider putting my mental house in order to be part of the work. But I also strongly believe that Dionysos is Lusios, the Loosener of Cares who has come to soothe men’s suffering hearts and that it was he himself who taught us these sacred techniques, so it is only proper to use them in the way that he intended.
The great thing about all of this is that you don’t have to understand how or why it works in order to receive the benefits of this type of ritual. Everything you need to know to do this can be found on the side of an amphora or a description of Maenads and Satyrs from Greek literature.
What do you do?
Surround yourself with his imagery.
Speak from the heart.
Let the music move you.
Repetition is key.
Repetition is key.
Repetition is key.
Shake that shit loose!
Don’t hold back.
Go where it takes you.
Do what feels right, even if it doesn’t make sense. Especially then.
Praise him with all you have. If all you have is broken, filthy and empty — give that to him. If you are his, it belongs to him anyway. He will restore it and make it better.
Open yourself up to him.
Discover him in the dance.
If you do this enough you’ll find the right way, what works and what does not.
You’ll find the harmony that your component parts naturally seek.
You’ll find his grace in the ritual.
The Lord has shown me what my soul must say on its ascent to heaven, and how it must answer each of the powers on high. I have recognized myself, it says, and gathered myself from every quarter, and have sown no children for the archon. But I have pulled up his roots, and gathered my scattered members, and I know who you are. For I, it saith, am of those on high. And so, they say, it is set free. (Fragment from the Gospel of Philip)
Yesterday my Google News Feed felt I would enjoy an article by Princess Weekes, assistant editor of something called “the Mary Sue.”
It was wrong. Very, very wrong.
The article, entitled 5 Greek Mythological Figures Who Are Actually the Worst, Besides Zeus starts much as you’d expect, with the same tired anti-Zeus boilerplate found on numerous Neopagan and Christian sites:
We all know that Zeus sucks. He’s a rapist, a terrible husband, father, son, and grandson—an all around toxic douchebag who creates a lot of problems with his dick.
This kind of invective almost makes one think Plato had a point about poets in the Republic and Laws.
But then, as Princess Weekes continues her e-theomachia, the true solution becomes apparent: we need to read more, not less.
Equal opportunity douchebag call out. Athena is kind of the worst. Hera and Aphrodite get called out a lot for victim blaming and being petty, but Athena is hella petty. She’s pretty much the kind of woman who only has male friends because she’s “one of the guys” and wonders why other women don’t like her. Despite being the goddess of wisdom and a champion of heroes, I challenge you to find a myth where she helps a woman. I’ll wait.
So, Athene has no female friends? Clearly you have not read about her relationship with Semele:
Such is the tale told of the fair-throned maids of Kadmos, who suffered mightily, but heavy woe falls before greater good. With the immortals Semele of the flowing locks lives still–who died in the roar of thunder–and Pallas loves her ever, and Zeus no less, and dearly too the ivy-bearing god, her son. (Pindar, Olympian Ode 2.2)
So her new body bathed in the purifying fire ((lacuna)) Semele received the immortal life of the Olympians. Instead of Kadmos and the soil of earth, instead of Autonoe and Agave, she found Artemis by her side, she had converse with Athena, she received the heavens as her wedding-gift, sitting at one table with Zeus and Hermes and Ares and Kythereia. (Nonnos, Dionysiaka 8. 413 ff)
Or the love of the Sicilian Nymphs (not to mention Kore and Artemis) for Athene:
And both Athena and Artemis, the myth goes on to say, who had made the same choice of maidenhood as had Kore and were reared together with her, joined with her in gathering the flowers, and all of them together wove the robe for their father Zeus. And because of the time they had spent together and their intimacy they all loved this island above any other, and each one of them received for her portion a territory, Athena receiving hers in the region of Himera, where the Nymphs, to please Athena, caused the springs of warm water to gush forth on the occasion of the visit of Herakles to the island, and the natives consecrated a city to her and a plot of ground which to this day is called Athena’s. (Diodoros Sikeliotes, Library of History 5.3.4)
She’s never helped a woman out? How about Nyktimene:
Nyctimene, daughter of Epopeus, king of the Lesbians, is said to have been a most beautiful girl. Her father, Epopeus, smitten by passion, embraced her, and overcome by shame, she hid herself in the woods. Minerva out of pity changed her into an owl, so that she might avoid the light and find solace in night. (Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 204)
Or Metioche and Menippe:
In Boiotia Orion, son of Hyrieos, had as daughters Metioche and Menippe. After Artemis had taken him away from the sight of mankind, they were brought up by their mother. Athena taught them to weave the loom and Aphrodite gave them beauty. (Antoninus Liberalis, Metamorphoses 25)
Eurynome the daughter of Nisos, Pandion’s son, to whom Pallas Athene taught all her art, both wit and wisdom too; for she was as wise as the gods. A marvellous scent rose from her silvern raiment as she moved, and beauty was wafted from her eyes. Her, then, Glaukos sought to win by Athena’s advising, and he drove oxen as a bride gift for her. (Hesiod, Catalogues of Women Fragment 7 from Berlin Papyri No 7497 & Oxyrhynchus Papyri 421)
Or the Pandareïdes:
The daughters of Pandareos were reared as orphans by Aphrodite and received gifts from other goddesses: from Hera wisdom and beauty of form, from Artemis high stature, from Athena schooling in the works that befit women. (Pausanias, Description of Greece 10.30.1)
Or the Danaïdes:
Danaus, son of Belus, had fifty daughters by as many wives, and his brother Aegyptos had the same number of sons. Aegyptos wished to kill Danaus and his daughters, so that he alone might hold the paternal kingdom; he asked his brother for wives for his sons. Danaus, realizing the plot, with Minerva’s aid flew from Africa to Argos. Then for the first time Minerva is said to have built a two-prowed ship in which Danaus could escape. (Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 168)
‘My father was the famous king of Phocis, Coroneus, as the world knows well enough, and I was a princess, and I was wooed (you must not laugh) by many a wealthy man. My beauty doomed me. One day on the shore, pacing across the sand with long slow strides, as I still do, the Sea-God saw me there, and fell in love with me. In my flight I left the hard firm beach and soon, in the soft sand, was quite worn out–in vain! I cried for help to gods and men. No human heard my voice; a virgin’s anguish moved the Virgin’s heart and Minerva brought her aid. I raised my arms to heaven; along my arms a sable down of feathers spread. I strove to throw my cloak back from my shoulders: that was feathers too, deep-rooted in my skin. I tried to beat my hands on my bare breast and had no hands nor bare breast any more. And then I ran, and found the sand no longer clogged my feet; I skimmed the surface; in a trice I soared high up into the air; and I was given to Minerva, her companion without stain.’ (Ovid, Metamorphoses 2.569 ff )
Or the women of Elis:
The women of Elis, it is said, seeing that their land had been deprived of its vigorous manhood [following the war with Herakles], prayed to Athena that they might conceive at their first union with their husbands. Their prayer was answered, and they set up a sanctuary of Athena surnamed Meter (Mother). (Pausanias, Description of Greece 5.3.2)
Et cetera. Et cetera. Et cetera.
And these are just figures of myth and legend – what of the countless score of unfamous women who knew the Goddess as their helper in craft and protector in times of war, who prayed to her in their homes, brought sacrifices to her temples, faithfully kept her civic festivals and participated in her sacred mysteries over the long centuries of her active cultus, and after?
What, you don’t know anything about that? Just what you’ve gleaned from the comic books, video games and movies you “review” on your little blog?
Well here, let me help you:
- Oliver R Brookes, Athena: The creation of an iconography, and its representation on Attic Red-figure vases in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E
- Joanna Davis, Interpreting Athena: Ancient Times and Now
- Susan Deacy, Athena and Ares: War, violence and warlike deities
- Susan Deacy, Athena Past and Present
- Annette Goldmacher, Athena in The Mediterranean: A Comparative Analysis of the Evidence for Cult Worship of Athena in Athens and the South Italian City-States of Magna Graecia
- James Mark Shields, A Sacrifice to Athena: Oikos and Polis in Sophoclean Drama
- Alexandra Claudia Villing, The Iconography of Athena in Attic Vase-painting from 440–370 BC
That’s a good place to start. When you’re done with those, I have plenty more to recommend. Then, perhaps, we can have an intelligent and informed discussion on the subject.
I recently sat down with Sarenth Odinsson and James Stovall Around Grandfather Fire to discuss “topics ranging from Dionysus and his Toys, to Odin, Runes, tribalism, pop-culture polytheism, reconstructionist paganism and polytheism, mead, beer and more.”
The Bacchic Orphic Alphabet Oracle (BOAO): Part One – The Tokens
Α (Alpha) = Bull Skull
Β (Beta) = Grape-cluster
Γ (Gamma) = Goat
Δ (Delta) = Door
Ε (Epsilon) = Serpette or Pruning Knife
Ζ (Zeta) = Thunder
Η (Eta) = Ivy-twined Pillars
Θ (Theta) = Coiling snake
Ι (Iota) = Phallos
Κ (Kappa) = Drinking Cup
Λ (Lambda) = Mirror
Μ (Mu) = Mouth
Ν (Nu) = Cat
Ξ (Xi) = Division of the Egg
Ο (Omicron) = The Wholeness of the Egg
Π (Pi) = Mountain
Ρ (Rho) = Knee
Σ (Sigma) = Spider
Τ (Tau) = Tree
Υ (Upsilon) = Where Three Roads Meet
Φ (Phi) = Mask
Χ (Chi) = Nebris Cloak
Ψ (Psi) = Labyrinth
Ω (Omega) = Severed Head
Discover the Mystery yourself.
Since today is my birthday I am going to begin creating a new divination system modeled on the Greek, Phoenician and Hebrew alphabet oracles.
A lot will be packed into these, including cleansings, prescriptions, myths for reflection, devotional suggestions, etc. as well as the Letters’ more esoteric associations. I’m also going to forge bonds between the individual Letters and members of Dionysos’ Retinue so that they can be used as doors, sigils and other fun magical tools.
I will begin offering readings with the Letters on November 1st, if all goes according to plan. Basic readings will run $28 while more esoteric workings are likely to be in the $50-75 range.
I don’t know if I will be offering training in this system to the general public, though that may be something I make available for Friends of the Kingdom (or FOKers for short.)
Something you can help with – regardless of your affiliation – is determining what we shall call them. Thus far I am considering:
- The Alphmego
- Orphic Elements (Ὀρφικά Στοιχεῖα)
- Kadmeian Letters (Καδμεια Γράμματα)
- The 24 Keys or Seals (Κλεῖς or Σφραγῖδας)
- The Charaktêres (Χαρακτῆρες)
- Óðr’s Zauberzeichen (magic signs)
- or simply “Bacchic Runes”
What do you guys think?