god of the muliebria

DionysusIndia1890

Clement of Alexandria, Protreptikos pros Ellenas 2
I pass over in silence just now Dionysos Choiropsales. The Sicyonians reverence this deity, whom they have constituted the god of the muliebria — the patron of filthiness — and religiously honour as the author of licentiousness.

mannikin of Dionysos

Lucian, The Syrian Goddess
16. I approve of the remarks about the temple made by those who in the main accept the theories of the Greeks: according to these the Goddess is Hera, but the work was carried out by Dionysos, the son of Semele: Dionysos visited Syria on his journey to Aethiopia. There are in the temple many tokens that Dionysos was its actual founder: for instance, barbaric raiment, Indian precious stones, and elephants’ tusks brought by Dionysos from the Aethiopians. Further, a pair of phalli of great size are seen standing in the vestibule, bearing the inscription, “I, Dionysos, dedicated these phalli to Hera my stepmother.” This proof satisfies me. And I will describe another curiosity to be found in this temple, a sacred symbol of Dionysos. The Greeks erect phalli in honour of Dionysos, and on these they carry, singular to say, mannikins made of wood, with enormous pudenda; they call these puppets. There is this further curiosity in the temple: as you enter, on the right hand, a small brazen statue meets your eye of a man in a sitting posture, with parts of monstrous size.

28. The place whereon the temple is placed is a hill: it lies nearly in the centre of the city, and is surrounded by a double wall. Of the two walls the one is ancient; the other is not much older than our own times. The entrance to the temple faces the north; its size is about a hundred fathoms. In this entrance those phalli stand which Dionysos erected: they stand thirty fathoms high. Into one of these a man mounts twice every year, and he abides on the summit of the phallus for the space of seven days. The reason of this ascent is given as follows: The people believe that the man who is aloft holds converse with the Gods, and prays for good fortune for the whole of Syria, and that the Gods from their neighbourhood hear his prayers. Others allege that this takes place in memory of the great calamity of Deukalion’s time, when men climbed up to mountain tops and to the highest trees, in terror of the mass of waters. To me all this seems highly improbable, and I think that they observe this custom in honour of Dionysos, and I conjecture this from the following fact, that all those who rear phalli to Dionysos take care to place mannikins of wood on the phalli; the reason of this I cannot say, but it seems to me that the ascent is made in imitation of the wooden mannikin.

29. To proceed, the ascent is made in this way; the man throws round himself and the phallus a small chain; afterwards he climbs up by means of pieces of wood attached to the phallus large enough to admit the end of his foot. As he mounts he jerks the chain up his own length, as a driver his reins. Those who have not seen this process, but who have seen those who have to climb palm trees in Arabia, or in Egypt, or any other place, will understand what I mean. When he has climbed to the top, he lets down a different chain, a long one, and drags up anything that he wants, such as wood, clothing, and vases; he binds these together and sits upon them, as it were, on a nest, and he remains there for the space of time that I have mentioned. Many visitors bring him gold and silver, and some bring brass; then those who have brought these offerings leave them and depart, and each visitor gives his name. A bystander shouts the name up; and he on hearing the name utters a prayer for each donor; between the prayers he raises a sound on a brazen instrument which, on being shaken, gives forth a loud and grating noise. He never sleeps; for if at any time sleep surprises him, a scorpion creeps up and wakes him, and stings him severely; this is the penalty for wrongfully sleeping. This story about the scorpion is a sacred one, and one of the mysteries of religion; whether it is true I cannot say, but, as it seems to me, his wakefulness is in no small degree due to his fear of falling. So much then for the climbers of the phalli. As for the temple, it looks to the rising sun.

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Hail the God of Freedom!

mortons-maypole

Read something interesting this morning by Anthony Comegna:

In 1627, Thomas Morton and the residents, friends, and allies of Merrymount gathered together for a celebration of life and leisure. The settlement was a bustling little burgh, pleasantly situated on the fringes of Puritan Massachusetts Bay. Having prior felled one of New England’s many mighty pines, the revelers marked their New World holy day by building a grand Maypole. In a very conscious imitation of the ancient, pagan world, the crowd decked their construction in garlands and intertwined ribbons, topping the whole with a formidable set of antlers. Morton constructed what historian Peter Linebaugh claims were “the first lyric verses penned in America,” and he nailed the infamous (and excerpted) “Bacchanalian song” to the Maypole itself, in proud defiance of the Puritan norms prevailing elsewhere in Massachusetts. In Merrymount, Native Americans and English lived alongside one another peacefully, they traded, they enjoyed mutual and consensual romantic and sexual relationships, and they intermixed philosophies and perspectives in convivial atmospheres like the Mayday festival. The Puritans viewed all of the above with nothing short of horror and contempt. Where the Merrymounters saw Natives as brothers and sisters, the Puritans saw Satan’s minions inhabiting the darkest corners of their New Israel. They called the Maypole “an Idoll,” and the free settlement “Mount Dagon.” As Linebaugh notes, in its short life, Merrymount had become “a refuge for Indians, the discontented, gay people, runaway servants, and what [Governor Bradford] called ‘all the scume of the countrie.’” Convinced that the free settlers and Mayday revelers were devils in human skins, Miles Standish and a Puritan contingent destroyed the settlement with fire, and the Maypole got the axe.

Bolded for emphasis.

That’s right. What may have been the first lyric verses penned in America were in honor of Dionysos!

That makes my heart all warm and tingly. 

You can find more, including excerpts from Morton’s New English Canaan, here.

Honored through the centuries

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1100 to 1199
Golias the Bishop,
The Apocalypse

When the Abbot and his brethren [of a heretical monastery in Southern France] sit to feast, they quickly pass the cups of wine along. The Abbot lifts the cup above his head and makes the rafters echo with this song:

How lovely is the vessel of the Lord!
Behold the chalice of inebriation!
O Bacchus, be the master of our board!
O Son of the Vine, be always our salvation!

Then lifting up his cup again, he asks:

This chalice I am now about to sup,
can you too drink it?

Quickly all reply:

We can! Just watch us! Bottoms up!

The one thing that can spoil a pious feast is a dispute about who’s had the most. The abbey therefore has a simple rule: the limit is a cup per monk per toast.

A second popular decree is this: a zealous monk never leaves a drop. A third: since God abhors a vacuum, make sure your belly’s stuffed before you stop.

The drunken monks are like demoniacs, and chatter like a flock of noisy birds. Their conversation seldom makes much sense since Bacchus, the stomach’s master, teaches them their words. They chew and chew until their jaws puff out; their huge, distended guts are even worse, and as a final touch, the wine they swill provokes a swelling in the “nether purse.”

1200 to 1299
The
Chronicle of Lanercost for the year 1282

About this time, in Easter week, the parish priest of Inverkeithing, named John, revived the profane rites of Priapus, collecting young girls from the villages, and compelling them to dance in circles to the honour of Father Bacchus. When he had these females in a troop, out of sheer wantonness, he led the dance, carrying in front on a pole a representation of the human organs of reproduction, and singing and dancing himself like a mime, he viewed them all and stirred them to lust by filthy language. Those who held respectable matrimony in honour were scandalised by such a shameless performance, although they respected the parson because of the dignity of his rank. If anybody remonstrated kindly with him, the priest became worse than before, violently reviling him.

1300 to 1399
The Goliards were a group of Clerici Vagante or “wandering scholars” in 12th- through 14th-century Europe famed for their riotous behaviour, intemperance, and composition of satirical and ribald Latin verse. They were condemned by the University of Paris for the following:

Priests and clerks dance in the choir dressed as women, and they sing wanton songs. They eat black pudding at the altar itself, while the celebrant is saying Mass. They play dice on the altar. They cense with stinking smoke from the soles of old shoes. They run and leap throughout the church, without a blush of their own shame. Finally they drive about the town and its theatres in shabby carriages and carts, and rouse the laughter of their fellows and the bystanders in infamous performances, with indecent gestures and with scurrilous and unchaste words.

Here is the text of one of their infamous performances, the Missa de Potatoribus or “Drinkers’ Mass”:   

Va. I will go in to the altar of Bacchus. R. To him who rejoices the heart of man.

I confess to the all-drinking culprit Bacchus, and the accursed red wine, and to all his dishes, and to you drinkers, that I have drunk most excessively gluttonously through great sickness of the culprit Bacchus my god with snorting, with greatest speed, through my vat, through my most grievous vat. Therefore I pray the most blessed Bacchus, and all his dishes, and you brother drinkers, that you will drink for me to the lord culprit Bacchus, so that he will pity me. May cup-powerful Bacchus have mercy on you, and permit you to lose all your clothes, and lead you to the great tavern, he who drinks and gulps through all the cups of cups, Strawmen. May cup-powerful Bacchus grant you intoxication and devouring, and the loss of all your clothes, through Decius our lord, Straw-men. Thy god will turn, and bring us rejoicing. And your people shall be drinking in you. Show us, O Lord, your joy. And grant us the loss of our clothes. Fraud be with you. And with your groaning. Let us drink. Oratio.

Take away from us all of our clothes, we implore you, Bacchus, that with naked bodies we may be worthy to enter to the tavern of cups through all the cups of cups, Straw-men. Introitus.

Let us all lament in the die, bewailing the mournful day in honor of the square die, at whose throwing the wretched complain and slander the son of God. V’. Blessed are they who live in thy tavern, Bacchus, and he shall meditate there day and night.

O God, who made the multitude of rustics come to the service of clerics and knights, and between us and them sowed discord, grant us, we pray, to live from their labors, and use their wives, and rejoice in their mortification, through our lord culprit Bacchus, who drinks and quaffs through all the cups without end. Straw-men. tuum apurtatricum?

In spring time, drinkers said to one another, “Let us go over to the tavern, and let us see the word that is said concerning this jar.” And entering the tavern they found the hostess and three dice lying in the dish. And tasting from this pure wine, they understood that it was true what had been spoken to them concerning this cask. And all that were there were inebriated by those things that were told them by the drinkers. But the hostess considered their clothes, pondering them in her heart, if they might be valuable. And the drinkers were stripped, glorifying Bacchus, and cursing the die. Fraud be with you. And with thy groaning. Let us drink. Off. The dishes pour forth the abundance of Bacchus, and nauseate the mouth of the drinkers all the way to the bottom. The Sanctus is not sung, nor the Agnus Dei, but let the kiss of peace be given with swords and cudgels.

Our Father, who art in dishes, hallowed be that wine. May the cup of Bacchus come, may thy storm be done in wine as it is in the tavern, give us this day our bread for the devouring, and forgive us our great cups as we forgive our drinkers, and lead us not into temptation of wine, but deliver us from our clothing.

Co. May the souls of drinkers rejoice, who followed the footsteps of Bacchus, and because they destroyed their clothes for his love, indeed with Bacchus in a jar of wine. Fraud be with you, and with thy groaning. Let us drink. Oratio.

1400 to 1499
Record of the interrogation of the
barbes Martino and Pietro, 1492

Asked why the said synagogue is held, he replies that it derives from the fact that they as a custom were in the habit of adoring a certain idol called Bacchus and Baron and also the Sibyl and the Fairies and that Baron and the Fairies were accustomed to holding congregations during which there was no respect between daughter and father, nor with the godmother, as there is, however, outside the said synagogue. And in the synagogue, by night, when the candle was out, they mixed and each took the woman he could have, without recognising her and without speaking while the synagogue lasted; and if a son was begotten, he was the most appropriate and apt to exercise the office of barbe; and he said other things, that his companion had previously said.

1500 to 1599
Edith Helen Sichel,
Catherine De’ Medici and the French Reformation

After it had been performed at Court, the poets “honorant son esprit gaillard et bien appris” fêted him joyously at Arceuil. A banquet was spread on a green lawn; the company composed classic verses after the Greek “Bacchanalia”; a buck – le pére du troupeau … des Tragiques “le prix” was lead up to the victorious Jodelle, its head wreathed with flowers:

Le bouquet sur l’orielle, et bien fier se sentait
De quoy telle jeunesse ainsi le présentait.

The Huguenots made capital out of this festivity and proclaimed that the Pléiade had sacrificed the buck to Bacchus.

1600 to 1699
Wikipedia article on Thomas Morton

Morton’s religious beliefs were strongly condemned by the Puritans of the nearby Plymouth Colony as little more than a thinly disguised form of heathenism, and they suspected him of “going native”. Scandalous rumours spread of debauchery at Merrymount, which they claimed included immoral sexual liaisons with native women during what amounted to drunken orgies in honour of Bacchus and Aphrodite, or as the Puritan Governor William Bradford wrote in his History of Plymouth Plantation, “They … set up a May-pole, drinking and dancing about it many days together, inviting the Indian women for their consorts, dancing and frisking together (like so many fairies, or furies rather) and worse practices. As if they had anew revived & celebrated the feasts of ye Roman Goddess Flora, or ye beastly practices of ye mad Bacchanalians.” Morton had transplanted traditional West Country May Day customs to the colony, and combined them with fashionable classical myth, couched according to his own libertine tastes and fueled by the enthusiasm of his newly freed fellow colonists. On a practical level the annual May Day festival was not only a reward for his hardworking colonists but also a joint celebration with the Native Tribes who also marked the day, and a chance for the mostly male colonists to find brides amongst the native population. Puritan ire was no doubt also fueled by the fact that Merrymount was the fastest-growing colony in New England and rapidly becoming the most prosperous, both as an agricultural producer and in the fur trade, in which the Plymouth Colony was trying to build a monopoly. The Puritan account of this was very different, regarding the colony as a decadent nest of good-for-nothings that annually attracted “all the scum of the country” to the area, or as Peter Lamborn Wilson more romantically puts it, “a Comus-crew of disaffected fur traders, antinomians, loose women, Indians and bon-vivants”. The second 1628 Mayday, “Revels of New Canaan”, inspired by “Cupid’s mother” — with its “pagan odes” to Neptune and Triton (as well as Venus and her lustful children, Cupid, Hymen and Priapus), its drinking song, and its erection of a huge 80-foot (24 m) Maypole, topped with deer antlers — that proved too much for the “Princes of Limbo”, as Morton referred to his Puritan neighbours. The Plymouth militia under Myles Standish took the town the following June with little resistance, chopped down the Maypole and arrested Morton for “supplying guns to the Indians”. He was put in stocks in Plymouth, given a trial and finally marooned on the deserted Isles of Shoals, off the coast of New Hampshire, until an “English ship could take him home”, as he was believed too well connected to be imprisoned or executed (as later became the penalty for blasphemy in the colony). He was essentially left to starve on the island, but was supplied with food by friendly natives from the mainland, who were said to be bemused by the events, and he eventually gained enough strength to escape to England under his own volition. The Merrymount community survived without Morton for another year, but was renamed Mount Dagon by the Puritans, after the Semitic sea god, and they pledged to make it a place of woe. During the severe winter famine of 1629 residents of New Salem under John Endecott raided Mount Dagon’s plentiful corn supplies and destroyed what was left of the Maypole, denouncing it as a pagan idol and calling it the “Calf of Horeb”. Morton returned to the colony soon after and, after finding that most of the inhabitants had been scattered, was rearrested, again put on trial and banished from the colonies. The following year the colony of Mount Dagon was burned to the ground and Morton shipped back to England.

1700 to 1799
Thomas Langley,
The History of Antiquities of the Hundred of Desborough

The delightful gardens of West Wycombe were opened to the public and a novel exhibition took place in one of the rural walks. A fine portico at the west end of the house has been lately erected (in imitation of a Temple of Bacchus) for the dedication of which a Bacchanalian procession was formed of Bacchanals, Priests, Pans, Fauns, Satyrs, Silenus, etc., all in proper habits and skins wreathed with vine leaves, ivy, oak, etc. On the arrival of the procession in the portico the High Priest addressed the Statue in an Invocation which was succeeded by several hymns, and other pieces of music vocal and instrumental suitable to the occasion, and having finished the sacrifice proceeded through the grove to a Tent pitched among several others at the head of the lake where the Paeans and libations were repeated – then ferrying to a vessel adorned with colours and streamers, again performed various ceremonies with discharges of cannon and bursts of acclamations from the populace. The ceremony was finished by a congratulatory address or ode to the Deity of the place. Several of the company wore masques on this occasion.

1800 to 1899
Peter Muise,
New England Folklore

In the year 1820, Ephraim Lyon of Eastford, Connecticut came up with a surprising idea: he decided to found a church dedicated to Bacchus, the god of wine.

The temperance movement was starting to gain influence at this time, so perhaps Ephraim’s religious revelation was in reaction to the movement’s anti-alcohol messages. Whatever the reason, Ephraim took his calling seriously. As the History of Windham County, Connecticut notes, “He named himself as the high priest, saying he must become badly intoxicated several times each year in order that he might hold the office.”

The rest of the church’s membership was composed of those who “used intoxicating liquids to excess.” Members didn’t need to apply, and Ephraim didn’t ask permission before adding someone to the church’s membership list. Instead, he added a new member’s name whenever he learned of someone who had been drinking heavily. Eventually, the Church of Bacchus had more than 1,000 members, both male and female, in its congregation. The only way to be removed from Ephraim’s list was to go on the wagon.

Unfortunately because of the growing temperance movement many of the church’s members didn’t want their names on the list, and asked Ephraim to be removed. He refused. The requests became threats, but still Ephraim refused. Fearing for life and property, Ephraim’s wife finally burned her husband’s list, but he recreated it from memory and hid it someplace secure. It was rumored that he shared the list only with an inner circle of church deacons derived from Windham County’s most zealous drinkers.

Despite threats and being socially ostracized, Ephraim maintained his devotion to the god of wine until his death in 1840. The deacons and other devout Bacchants memorialized his life with plenty of strong liquor and merrymaking. Ephraim claimed that “members who died in full membership were said to go the Bacchanalian revels of their patron god,” so I hope he’s happy somewhere with a big glass of wine in his hand.

Was Ephraim Lyon serious about his church? Did he really believe in Bacchus as the god of wine? I suppose it’s impossible to say. Maybe he was just protesting against the temperance movement, or perhaps it was just all an elaborate joke.

I do wonder, though, if a joker would risk his life and his home the way Ephraim did. And Ephraim’s statements about the afterlife match what the ancient followers of Bacchus believed. Perhaps he did receive a genuine divine revelation, even if it was a drunken one.

1900 to 1999
Ronald Hutton,
Triumph of the Moon pages 165-169

A year after founding the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry Ernest Westlake wrote that, ‘from the religious side it is an application of Miss [Jane Ellen] Harrison’s work … her work might have been written for us.’ It was her celebration of the ecstatic and life-affirming in Greek religion which had most seized his imagination, so that he could declare that ‘our movement is a Dionysos movement,’ saving people from ‘the cul de sac of intellectualized religion.’ By 1921 he added that the vital text for woodcraft was Euripides’ ancient drama about the return of Dionysos to rejuvenate Greece, The Bacchae: ‘As the Dionysos worship revived old Hellas, so may the same thing, introduced by the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry, revive the greater Hellas of modern civilization.’ He decided that the English equivalent to Dionysos was the leaf-clad figure in May Day processions, the Jack-in-the-Green, and thought of taking this as his personal title in the order.

The deity of wine and ecstasy was not, however, the only one favored by Westlake. In 1921 he decided that the ‘Trinity of Woodcraft’ consisted of Pan, Artemis and Dionysos, and also suggested that Aphrodite be revered at times, with the reflection that unless alcohol and sexuality were honoured responsibly and treated as sacred, they would manifest themselves in drunkenness and prostitution. The Westlakes had bought an estate at Sandy Balls on the northern edge of the New Forest, and there the order held its first folkmoot ceremony at the beginning of August 1921, the old feast of Lammas. The sacred fire was lit in the centre of a ritual circle, by four people dressed in colours appropriate to the elemental associations of each quarter, bearing greetings from its powers and proceeding in a succession from east round to north. When it was burning, Westlake delivered the invocation (taken from Socrates): ‘Beloved Pan, and all ye other gods who haunt this place, give me beauty in the inward soul and may the outward and inward be at one.’ At some point in these years he composed (but apparently did not place) a newspaper advertisement reading: ‘An ex-Quaker wishes to unite with some heathen church in England worshipping the gods, especially Venus and Bacchus.’ In 1919 he and his family drew up a plan for a forest park stocked with the surviving fauna of the Old Stone Age, including bison (which would be hunted) and deer. Young women, ‘attired like Artemis of old, would follow the deer on foot through the forests, tending and milking them’; this fantastic idea was taken from one of Maurice Hewlett’s novels, The Forest Lovers.

[…]

His place as British Chief of the Order was taken by Aubrey, but the role of principal representative of paganism in it fell to a much more flamboyant and uncompromising character, a slim, dark-haired and tanned young south Londoner with a strong chin and stubborn mouth called Harry Byngham. Byngham had absorbed to the full Ernest Westlake’s belief that the joyous and nature-related aspects of ancient Greek religion could bring benefit to the modern world, but whereas Westlake had been inspired by them, Byngham could be described as intoxicated; he subsequently changed his own first name to Dion, short for Dionysos. Unlike Westlake, he saw nothing in Christianity that deserved saving. Unlike him, also, he espoused another radical cause, that of naturism, being a keen member of the New Gymnosophy Society. Dionysos especially appealed to him as representing the animal part of manhood, and he wrote in the magazine The Healthy Life (which promoted naturism and other libertarian ideas) to extol phallic worship as a veneration of the life-force. In 1923 he acquired a parallel platform in the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry, by launching a periodical for it, Pine Cone, edited by himself.

[…]

It began in July 1923, when the first issue of Pine Cone included a call from Byngham for ‘the realization of Life … Life is adventure, audacity, revolt … Life springs out of the star-tissue womb of Nature as the virile son of the All-Mother.’ Life was, in fact, Dionysos, and Byngham printed an illustration of the thyrsos, the ivy-bound staff of the god, beside the pine cone which was the symbol of the magazine. At the folkmoot in the New Forest that summer, he challenged the singing of Christian hymns and asked instead for readings from Carpenter, Symonds or William Blake. Complaints poured in from members, but the second edition of Pine Cone brazenly carried a cover picture of a nude Dionysos dancing with a pine cone on his thyrsos. The contents were, however, more balanced – the report on the folkmoot was written by a member who spoke of the presence of God in the event – and the third issue contained nothing provocative. The fourth, on the other hand, more than made up for this restraint, containing a photograph of a nude Byngham reclining and playing panpipes while his girlfriend performed ‘The Dawn Dance of Spring’ above him in a short Grecian tunic which left her legs and one breast bare.

2000 to the present
Deo Mercurio,
Report-back on two speeches from Olympia 14 August, 2015

This is the second part of my report-back from the Many Gods West conference in Olympia, Washington. In it I’d like to give my reactions to two rituals I attended at the conference: the first of these was the rite for Διόνυσος Βακχεῖος (a name I shall hereafter transcribe in Latin letters as Dionysus Baccheus, with apologies to the Bakcheion—I’m an old fuddy-duddy about such things!). As far as I can recall (there was some drinking involved), the ritual’s structure could hardly have been simpler: a purification of the attendees was followed by some chants, gifts, and prayers, following which we shared in the god’s vinific bounty and danced. And yet I’ve rarely experienced a more satisfying ritual. The music, the dress of the participants, the décor and lighting—all were calculated to evoke a deep sympathy with the god himself, as well as with Ariadne and with Semele, the numinous presence of whom was palpable.

You may mock me, if you will, as a softy and a romantic, but I really love the story of Ariadne and, as warm as my feelings are towards Bacchus, I find Ariadne somehow more inviting or compatible to my sentiments. I felt the same at this ritual. Dionysus Baccheus was the god principally honoured, and yet it was Ariadne whom I felt most keenly there. Euhoe to the both of them! It was wonderful to spend time with them.

[…]

I’d also like to thank the Bakcheion for providing really delicious wine for the occasion. They must have been at some expense to keep the attendees well-plied with the divine nectar, but their outlay was deeply appreciated. I noticed one vintage of the name of Phebus—Bacchus and Phœbus, together at last?

[…]

By the way, these Western conceptions of Dionysus and Bacchus are of interest from the Gaulish perspective for a variety of reasons. While votive inscriptions to Bacchus or Dionysus are comparatively rare in Gaul, Bacchic imagery is all over the place—particularly on funerary monuments. This implies an expectation among many people (at least in the social class wealthy enough to commission funerary sculpture) of a joyous afterlife presided over by Bacchus. Can people have had this expectation without having already established a devotional relationship with the god in life? Possibly. But my suspicion is that Bacchus was on people’s minds, and in their prayers, more often than we have documentary evidence of—he might, of course, have been honoured by libations of wine (and mead and ale?) even where there was no altar inscribed with his name. Bacchic imagery also influences the depictions of wine-related deities in Burgundy whose names are not definitely known, but who in some respects resemble Sucellus and Nantosuelta. And of course there is a small scattering of votive inscriptions to Liber Pater, as well as some Greek-language inscriptions in southern Gaul dedicated to Διόνυσος.

What can I do?

All you can do is what you can do

One of my favorite stories about the Ptolemies comes down to us from the Roman author Claudius Aelianus who compiled his Varia Historia or Historical Miscellany in the middle of the second century of the common era. According to Aelian (1.30) Ptolemy Philometor had a young companion named Galestes with whom he was deeply enamored. Although everyone remarked on the physical beauty of Galestes it was actually his deep wisdom and gentle spirit that had won Ptolemy over. Galestes was always at the side of his king and the pair especially liked to go out riding and hunting together.

Well, one day they were out on an adventure when Galestes spotted some young men who were being led off to the executioner’s block. These were troubled times in the land of Egypt. It seemed like there was constant turmoil – wars abroad and bloody insurrections at home. Many unfortunates had been driven from their land by poverty, drought, heavy taxes, conscription and gangs of violent youths who roamed the countryside causing untold trouble to the simple peasants. The king’s forces had attempted to reestablish civil order in the countryside, but often they were cruel and heavy-handed in doing so, succeeding only in making the situation worse for everyone.

Galestes looked at these youths, not much older than himself and yet with lives of bitter misery, poverty and desperation so unlike his own, and he felt pity for them. Certainly whatever crimes they had committed had been minor infractions which they had been driven to out of a lack of opportunity. He wanted very much to help them, but what could he do? He was only a boy, and though the king’s companion he had no real power of his own. Physically he could do nothing to stop the soldiers, nor did they seem inclined to listen to him. But still, he could not sit idly by and allow an injustice to be committed.

So Galestes turned to his beloved and pleaded with the king for the lives of the unfortunates. He reminded Ptolemy that he had power over life and death and that it was incumbent upon him as Pharaoh to see that justice flourished in the land. And by riding in on horseback to dramatically save the boys at the last instant people would be struck by the heroic image they cut and perhaps even compare them to the Dioskouroi. In troubled times such as these it was important to have a good image. Ptolemy was won over by Galestes’ words and so they rushed in and saved the youths from death.

This is such an important story, in my opinion, because it conveys one of the central tenets of Greco-Egyptian polytheism which is basically that each and every one of us, no matter how high or low our station in life, nor what gifts the Gods have seen fit to bestow upon us, have an important role to play in keeping this world of ours going.

You see, in the Greco-Egyptian conception of things the world is a beautiful, magical and well-ordered system. Harmonia is how the Greeks described this operation, while the Egyptians called it Ma’at. Basically two ways of saying the same thing, that the world depends on balance, order and symmetry. But the ancients were deeply conscious of the fact that this was not a permanent state. In fact this stasis was very fragile and prone to chaotic fluctuation, upheaval and dissolution. They lived with a constant reminder of this in their natural surroundings, for Egypt was essentially a narrow swath of fertile land carved out of the arid desert wastes by the Nile river. If the annual flood proved insufficient the crops would wither and there would be hunger and death. But on the other hand if the waters were too abundant then their fields would be swept away and their homes destroyed. Everything thus depended on a proper balance, neither too much nor too little. And this principle applied to all aspects of their lives. In fact the philosopher Aristotle had argued that all virtue was the middle ground or balance between two extreme types of vice. Thus bravery was the balance between cowardice and recklessness. This is a view that runs through a great deal of Greek and Egyptian ethical writing.

It isn’t difficult to see how these concepts play out in our lives. We are constantly bombarded by hostile forces from all sides. We work and struggle to carve out some measure of small happiness for ourselves, but it is a delicate thing, easily dashed to the ground and shattered to pieces. Very often it is a lack of proper balance which causes our calamity. We spend too much or give into our anger or addictive tendencies and before we know it the whole thing is unraveling around us. But when we’re thoughtful, temperate and disciplined we are better able to hold things together. For the ancients this was not just a bit of practical advice but a religious obligation as well. Because they recognized that all things are interconnected and when imbalance manifests on one level it goes on to affect all others. It’s easy to discern this in our social interactions. Who hasn’t watched a bad mood spread like a cold from person to person in an office, growing more intense and aggressive with each individual it affects? Often people will lash out or feel depressed for no good reason, simply because everyone around them feels tense and angry. The ancients understood that no man is an island and that everything we do has consequences, often in ways we cannot predict. Not just our actions but sometimes even our thoughts have the ability to influence the very fabric of reality, as science is only now beginning to recognize. Therefore the ancients held that it was imperative not only to lead a balanced, disciplined and wholesome life but that by doing so they could improve the world around them. This is an idea we find expressed as far back as the poet Homer who beautifully summed it up with the following words:

“The flawless king, God-fearing and ruling a numerous and doughty people upholds justice so that the dark earth will bring forth wheat and barley, and the trees become heavy with fruit, and the sheep and goats give birth without fail, and the sea provides countless fish. All this is a result of his good leadership, and the people flourish under him.” (Odyssey 19.109-14)

Though the king plays a vital role in this process he does not do so alone. Each of us must strive to uphold justice and bring balance to our portion of the world. Which is where the story that I opened with comes into play, since I’m sure many of you right now are saying, “What can I do? I’m just one person. I don’t have any power or influence. The problems of the world are too big. Even if I could fix some of them there are just too many. So what’s the point of trying anyway?”

This is the great lie of Isfet, of chaos and uncreation. That quiet whisper in the back of your head that tells you that you’re powerless, you’re small, that you don’t matter, that there’s no point to any of it. Bullshit.

While it’s certainly true that Ma’at is a fragile and at times imperfect thing, fighting against the world’s tendency to split apart at the seams – that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible or that we have no part to play in increasing order and putting things back on a firm foundation. Even if we’re not capable of great things, even if we can’t solve all of the world’s problems, we can do something and every little bit matters. Which is what the story of Galestes shows us.

He was just one powerless boy and yet he refused to be cowed into inactivity. He saw a wrong being perpetrated and though all he was capable of was speaking out against it, he did that and his words prompted Ptolemy Philometor into action. (Which is actually quite an impressive accomplishment when you consider how this Ptolemy normally acted!) And yes, perhaps in the end all that they accomplished was a small thing, the saving of a couple lives which were themselves of little consequence – this is not the stuff of history, the stuff that brings about lasting change in the world. But think what it meant to those young men and to the families who loved them. Their world was certainly changed forever!

And that’s the thing. You have no idea how big of an impact you can have on the life of another person. A kind word or act of casual generosity can pull them back from the brink of despair, show them that there are people out there who still care, reasons to keep going. Or maybe something you create will inspire others, help them put the pieces together or encourage them to do something extraordinary on their own. Religiously, something you do or say can even help people find their way to the Gods. And even if your acts do not cause great changes they may still be necessary to keep something important going.

I see this all the time in religious organizations and groups. There are often a handful of people who get the lion’s share of attention. This is because they have a charismatic personality or a commanding way with words, because they are capable of exceptional spiritual feats or have an intimate relationship with the Gods. A person just starting out or of average skill and gifts sees this and feels terribly inadequate as a result. How can they possibly compare? What could they conceivably have to offer when they aren’t as smart and talented, when they so often feel clumsy, shy and never have fantastic visions or heart-to-heart conversations with the Gods? Such people feel out of place, worthless, inconsequential.

This, of course, couldn’t be further from the truth. If a group is made up only of these attention-grabbing superstars it is going to crumble faster than a sand-castle on the beach. A strong group needs its rank and file, people with organizational skills, competency, folks who know how to take care of all the little details and will be there doing that even through the rough times. Think about an ancient temple. It didn’t just have ecstatic prophets and eloquent philosophers hanging out in the courtyard. There were also the people who swept the floors and cleaned up the remains of the sacrifice, people whose job it was to procure the items for sacred use, the weavers and butchers and farmers that worked temple lands, there were the priests whose job was to dress the idol or light the lamps, others who answered the questions of curious pilgrims or made sure the dancers and other entertainers got paid on time, etc. etc. etc. Not to mention the common worshiper who came to pray to the God and leave their humble votive offering behind. Without all of these different and necessary positions the temple could not function properly and the Gods could not be honored in the manner that they deserved. Therefore no matter who you are or what skills you possess you are needed if your community is going to continue and thrive.

Even if all you’ve got to contribute is your warm body, that’s still something of value because there is strength in numbers. Plutarch illustrates this principle beautifully in his Sayings of Kings and Commanders. Upon his deathbed the Skythian king Skiluros summoned his many children who had been squabbling amongst themselves, each hoping to succeed their father on the throne. He passed around a bundle of rods that had been lashed together, encouraging each of his children to try and break them. None were capable of doing so and when the bundle returned to him Skiluros proceeded to remove the rods one by one and easily shattered them. From this he hoped to show his children that when many persons are united and work towards a common goal they are much stronger and likelier to meet with success than those who attempt to go it alone.

So instead of worrying about what you don’t have or can’t do as well as others, look within and see what skills and resources you have to contribute. Then give to the Gods and your community whatever you can because even if it is small and humble it is at least something and grows in potency when added to the offerings of others. By doing so you are making your corner of the world a better place and causing Ma’at to flourish. And if all of us did our part everywhere think what amazing things we could bring about!

Hunting the European Sky Bears

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

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

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

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