Author: thehouseofvines

the gift is timely

Earlier in the month Petros (a good friend and regular commenter here) contacted me asking if I would be interested in a bust of Dionysos and Ariadne. His son is starting up a 3D-printing business and wanted to test some things out. So of course I said yeah, and the week of my birthday his precious gift arrived.

This turned out to be quite fortuitous, as I am currently in the process of remodeling my temple space. I got the inspiration to set up nine shrines rather than a single central one, each reflecting a different festival and the aspect of the God which presides over it. As the idol consists of Ariadne and Dionysos entwined this is a perfect representation for the Pannychia




And here are some remarks Petros sent along with it:

I’m glad that the gift is timely! I offered some pine and cedar incense (I have no storax) and let the smoke flow around it and said the Day 6 prayers to Dionysos and Ariadne since that was the day of its completion. Seemed like the right thing to do.


It actually was pretty cool to watch its creation. Over 32 hours this intricate lattice work was made like scaffolding. When it was over, my son peeled it off like a hardboiled eggshell and Voila! This was within. It’s around 8 inches tall.

Once I have the nine shrines constructed and their idols properly installed I will share pics of my own.

Thank you Petros and son of Petros.

Peter the Great Dionysian


Emily Frances Pagrabs, Peter the Great and His Changing Identity
The tsar was known throughout Europe for his ability to drink. A contemporary said, “He didn’t miss a single day without getting drunk.” This came as no surprise to contemporaries, as alcohol had long been “the joy of the Russes.” Peter’s father, Alexei, and his boyars used to take pleasure in out-drinking the foreign diplomats. While this drunkenness seems to be a national trait, Peter seems to have been one of the best. Said historian Robert Massie, “When he was young, though, these wild bacchanalia did not leave Peter exhausted and debauched, but actually seemed to refresh him for the next day’s work. He could drink all night with his comrades and then, while they snored in drunken slumber, rise at dawn and leave them to begin work as a carpenter or shipbuilder. Few could match his pace.”

Peter amassed a collection of friends and created, at the age of eighteen, the Drunken Synod. Mocking the hierarchy and order of the church, the friends were organized into a college of cardinals, bishops, priests, and deacons. Peter took care in devising a system of rituals and ceremonies; for example, the first commandment was, “Bacchus be worshipped with strong and honorable drinking and receive his just dues.” Even as the tsar matured and became an emperor, he continued to participate in such games and behaviors, which were worse on holidays and at weddings. The foreigners who visited the tsar found the behavior “vulgar and scandalous,” unsuited to a man who proclaimed to be the emperor of Russia.

You can read the rest here.

now it’s time to celebrate


A couple hours back 42 years ago I came screaming and blood-drenched into this world, and Gods willing that’s how I’ll depart it too.

This has been a fun – and important! – trip down memory lane, but now it’s time to celebrate. Empty a glass or three for Dionysos this day, if you would. 

Lex sacra from a temple in Teos

The boule and demos have resolved that the ephebes and the priest of the paides are to sing hymns every day at the opening of the temple of Dionysos, the leading God of our city. And at the closing of the temple of the God the priest of Tiberius Caesar is to make libations, burn incense, and light lamps; expenses are to be paid from the sacred revenues of Dionysos. And the archons of the city are to always sacrifice at the beginning of each month and on the seventh day pray for the success of the city. But if any person offends any of these requirements, that person is asebes. And this decree is to be engraved in the sanctuary of Dionysos and it is to have the status of law. (SEG XV.718)

Drugs and other mysteries

I’ve had a number of ecstatic and mystical experiences while drunk (anywhere from lightly buzzed to stumbling around puking on myself) or on weed, ‘shrooms and other variously legal substances.

I’ve had a number of ecstatic and mystical experiences brought about by physical exhaustion, fasting, pain and other ordeals as well as meditation, visualization and sex.

I’ve even had a number of ecstatic and mystical experiences where I was completely stone sober and not really doing anything.

And you know what? The differences between them are minimal.

They exist and in their way can be quite profound. For instance, I feel a gradual opening up while on pot and the visions tend to be rather heady – ethereal and intellectual and associative. I find that it strongly heightens my intuition and ability to make astounding logical leaps and it helps my writing to be more free-flowing. Mushrooms (especially amanita muscaria) give the experience a more pronounced physical focus, and not just because you tend to start off by riding waves of nausea. I become very conscious of my body and its processes (at the level of blood, muscle and bone) and this tends to take me deep down, through the corridors of flesh into the psychological and from there to other worlds, both in and outside myself. At the same time it tends to draw stuff up to the surface, especially illness, pollution and unresolved psychological shit which I am then able to purify and release. Salvia is something else entirely – it helps one to see the light and life that flow through all things and opens doors to strange topsy-turvy wonderlands.

But none of the experiences brought about by these plant and fungal allies are any more or less real than what I’ve experienced without them. That’s not to say that everything you experience on drugs is real – believing that will land you in the loony bin or prey to malevolent spirits or worse. Discernment is one of the first faculties you must cultivate if you’re going to be doing any kind of spiritual work – not just being able to tell the difference between real and fake, but to be able to understand the symbolic language of the drug and how to tell what is its influence, what is the influence of your mind, what is the influence of the God or spirit you’re interacting with and all of the other tangled threads. And you don’t just have to do that while on drugs – in fact some of the craziest shit I’ve been through was triggered by chanting and controlled breathing back in my Chan Buddhist days.

I’m not surprised that a lot of folks have got hang-ups about using entheogens – for the last twenty-six centuries Western culture has been waging a war against ecstasy. And note that I put the start of that before the birth of Christ – they’ve just waged it more effectively and ruthlessly than any of their predecessors. In fact one of the things that Christians, and especially the Protestant branch, have done is make people deeply suspicious of spiritual experience that comes mediated through anything external – including the body since they’ve also convinced us to view ourselves as ghosts trapped in fleshy machines. So someone who can think their way to henosis is more advanced than someone who loses themselves in dance and music which is still better than the poor benighted primitive who has to drink a potion to see his God. That kind of thing may be tolerated when brown people do it but whites ought to know better.

The Bacchic Orphic, on the other hand, is an animist who understands that all things possess life, intelligence and power – different from one’s own, to be sure, but no less meaningful. If not, how could the stones and trees and beasts have been charmed by the masterful lyre of the Thracian? How could the thunder have birthed their God, the mountain nursed him, the wild things attend him, the grape contain him? Reject this principle and you close yourself off to the world – it’s just you alone with the God of your imagination. For the Bacchic Orphic the world is one of expansive relationships, ever changing and increasingly complex since the splitting of the egg. Why do you think he drives the mad-women from their homes? To see what’s out there and discover who they are in connection with it.

That’s why when I smoke a bowl I’m not just inhaling the fumes of a weed – that weed has a spirit which I draw into myself so that she will help open my eyes and loosen my mind, a spirit I have long history with. Just as there’s a spirit in the drum and a spirit in these words I’m typing. The experience is going to be different depending on the spirits involved and how certain elements are configured – but even that’s no guarantee since repeating everything from rite to rite may still end in differing results because of something unrelated going on with you or the God you’re worshiping.

In fact, everyone’s experience of the Gods is unique. You can have half a dozen participants and get twenty different accounts of what happened during a rite. Not only may the same God engage with people differently he may want different things of them. That’s why when the animal sacrifice issue came up I spoke only to its central place within the Starry Bull tradition; Dionysos has not asked that of others, therefore their devotions are not lacking for its absence.

So while moderate indulgence may be the most sensible and sustainable way to approach Dionysos, I’m not prepared to take excess (even to the point of self-destructive addiction) off the table. Let’s be perfectly clear – not all the ways that lead to closeness and understanding of Dionysos are pleasant ways. Pentheus and Lykourgos have seen things in Dionysos that the pious will never glimpse and insanity contains more than just manic pixie dream girls. Sometimes it’s filth and fear and not leaving your bed for a week. If your goal isn’t just to make friends with Dionysos but to experience him in his entirety you’re going to go to the extremes and you’re going to get broken. Probably a lot.

Now, you can become too broken. You can stop experiencing anything but the broken parts of Dionysos – or worse, stop experiencing him at all. It can be really difficult to find your way back from that – and plenty never do. The failure rate for Dionysians is extraordinary – some of our best are also our worst, and I would caution against imitating them. But I would caution even more strenuously against assuming that Dionysos wasn’t with them in that moment, no matter how wretched, destructive and out of control they were. He’s an odd God after all.

Also, while I happen to like that passage from Euboulos a couple things need to be kept in mind. To begin with he has Dionysos claim that only the first three kraters belong to him. A krater is a mixing-bowl, not a cup. A decently sized one, such as the Euphronios krater, could hold around 45 liters of wine. I have a superhumanly high tolerance for alcohol and yet even I would find 36 gallons of wine a little hard to swallow, especially if I was using the recommended mixing rates – 3 parts water to 1 wine if you want a convivial symposion; 1:1 for orgies and waterless if you’re a barbaric Thracian. If you exceed the limit imposed by Dionysos intoxication’s the least of your worries – you’re going to be pissing for a week straight!

Secondly, Euboulos isn’t writing as a priest or mantis or from a similar position of authority – that tag was lifted by Athenaios from the play Semele which, judging by its remaining fragments, was a pretty obscene farce. Scholars are divided on whether it represented his fiery premature birth or his descent into the otherworld – I’m inclined to think the latter since at one point Dionysos acts as symposiarch, laying down all the rules to a chorus of rowdy, drunken initiates or satyrs, which means that it could have been a burlesque on the Orphic belief of the eternal banquet of the pious which Plato also mocks. Plus another fragment contains a phallic joke at the expense of Hermes and while he could have been escorting baby Dionysos off to Nysa I think it likelier that he was acting in his psychopomp role. Another notch in favor of this theory is that earlier Aristophanes had presented Dionysos on stage trying to get to the underworld in The Frogs, so clearly this was a scenario that the comic poets exploited. Most people who read The Frogs have a difficult time reconciling Aristophanes’ portrayal with the Dionysos they have encountered. He’s a boorish, lying, cheating coward – at one point he even pisses his chiton.

Now, I’m not suggesting that a jokester is incapable of providing accurate insight into the nature of this God or at least how he was viewed by certain segments of ancient Athenian society – heaven forfend! – but we need to consider our sources before relying too heavily on them. Diodoros didn’t write the same things or for the same reasons that Homer and Orpheus did, something I’ve discussed more fully here. Not every portrayal of the God is meant to carry equal weight.

a “phenomenon” to be interpreted by others

The gold tablet from Pelinna reads:

Now you have died and now you have been born, thrice blessed one, on this very day. Say to Persephone that Bakchios himself freed you. A bull you rushed to milk. Quickly, you rushed to milk. A ram you fell into milk. You have wine as your fortunate honor. And rites await you beneath the earth, just as the other blessed ones.

The gold tablet from Thurii reads:

Rejoice at the experience! This you have never before experienced. You have become divine instead of mortal. You have fallen as a kid into milk. Hail, hail, as you travel on the right, through the Holy Meadow and Groves of Persephone.

Edward Butler offers a brilliant interpretation of this recurring motif:

The Orphic slogan, “A kid, I fell into milk”: I believe this to be equivalent in a certain respect to part of Crowley’s Oath of the Abyss; namely, the part about “interpreting every phenomenon as a particular dealing of God with my soul.” To say “A kid, I fell into milk” is to say that I was thrown into a world not of my making, but found it was made of meaning. […] It is not just a question, then, of interpreting one’s own life, but that one becomes a “phenomenon” to be interpreted by others. This is what a hero is, I think, a mortal having become such a site of meaning.

Because I’m strange that way, his post reminded me of something Lana Del Rey once said:

I was a singer, not a very popular one, who once had dreams of becoming a beautiful poet- but upon an unfortunate series of events saw those dreams dashed and divided like a million stars in the night sky that I wished on over and over again- sparkling and broken. But I really didn’t mind because I knew that it takes getting everything you ever wanted and then losing it to know what true freedom is. When the people I used to know found out what I had been doing, how I had been living- they asked me why. But there’s no use in talking to people who have a home, they have no idea what its like to seek safety in other people, for home to be wherever you lay your head. I was always an unusual girl, my mother told me that I had a chameleon soul. No moral compass pointing me due north, no fixed personality. Just an inner indecisiveness that was as wide as wavering as the ocean. And if I said that I didn’t plan for it to turn out this way I’d be lying- because I was born to be the other woman. I belonged to no one- who belonged to everyone, who had nothing- who wanted everything with a fire for every experience and an obsession for freedom that terrified me to the point that I couldn’t even talk about- and pushed me to a nomadic point of madness that both dazzled and dizzied me. Every night I used to pray that I’d find my people- and finally I did- on the open road. We have nothing to lose, nothing to gain, nothing we desired anymore- except to make our lives into a work of art.

Nothing about Dionysos is simple

So there’s a discussion playing out on Tumblr about whether all the gods love all people which was started by someone’s comment that Aphrodite hates asexuals, based on a rather shallow reading of Euripides’ play Hippolytos. Not going to comment on any of that, though in passing someone remarked:

Also I think people forget about Dionysus?? Like he is the God of sex and wine. Although I don’t think he would out right smite them, but I think he’ll try to tempt them.

Which I will address, as it touches on something that I think a lot of people, including really smart and seriously devoted people, tend to overlook when it comes to him.

Dionysos is paradox.

Just about everything one can say about him is true, and it’s complete negation is also true.

This is something the Orphics of Olbia knew well when they wrote:

SEG 28.659:
βίος. θάνατος. βίος. ἀλήθεια. Ζαγρεύς. Διόνυσος

Life. Death. Life. Truth. Zagreus. Dionysos.

SEG 28.660:
εἰρήνη. πόλεμος. ἀλήθεια. ψεῦδος. Διόνυσος

Peace. War. Truth. Lie. Dionysos

SEG 28.661:
Διόνυσος. ἀλήθεια. σῶμα. ψυχή

Dionysos. Truth. Body. Soul.

Dionysos is definitely about the sexy times, as evidenced by the giant imitation cocks people carried in his festivals which often turned into violent drunken orgies. His best friends are lusty satyrs and home-wrecking madwomen. He churns up erotic excitement and a lot of folks, particularly in Southern Italy, looked forward to carnal union with him in the afterlife. His own proclivities run the gamut from pretty boys and genderqueers to fairly straight-lacedheteronormativemonogamy.

That’s not paradox though.

As his son by the goddess Aphrodite was fond of saying, haec cunnum, caput hic praebeat, ille nates for it’s all the same in the dark.

In Euripides’ play The Bakchai Pentheus is obsessed with the idea that the Theban women have been led astray by the perverse stranger and are engaged in all sorts of lewd activities on the mountainside:

They creep off one by one
to lonely spots to have sex with men,
claiming they’re busy maenads worshipping.
But they rank Aphrodite, goddess of sexual desire,
ahead of Bacchus their lord.
People say some stranger has arrived,
some wizard, a conjurer from the land of Lydia—
with sweet-smelling hair in golden ringlets
and Aphrodite’s charms in wine-dark eyes.
He hangs around the young girls day and night,
dangling in front of them his joyful mysteries.
If I catch him in this city, I’ll stop him.
He’ll make no more clatter with his thyrsos,
or wave his hair around. I’ll chop off his head,
slice it right from his body.

To which the aged Tieresias replies:

On women, where Aphrodite is concerned,
Dionysos will not enforce restraint
such modesty you must seek in nature,
where it already dwells. For any woman
whose character is chaste won’t be defiled
by Bacchic revelry.

Once Pentheus has the stranger (who is none other than Dionysos himself) in his possession he presses the point:

Well, stranger, I see this body of yours
is not unsuitable for women’s pleasure—
that’s why you’ve come to Thebes. As for your hair,
it’s long, which suggests that you’re no wrestler.
It flows across your cheeks that are most seductive.
You’ve a white skin, too. You’ve looked after it,
avoiding the sun’s rays by staying in the shade,
while with your beauty you chase Aphrodite.

Their exchange is like a tango, part duel and part dance of desire, with Dionysos cool, calm and collected the whole time as Pentheus becomes increasingly hysterical. At one point they are interrupted by the Messenger whom the king had sent out to spy on the women and what he reports is completely at variance with Pentheus’ lust-fueled delusions:

They were all asleep, bodies quite relaxed,
some leaning back on leafy boughs of pine,
others cradling heads on oak-leaf pillows,
resting on the ground—in all modesty.
They weren’t as you described—all drunk on wine
or on the music of their flutes, hunting
for Aphrodite in the woods alone.
Once she heard my men,
your mother stood up amid those Bacchae,
then called them to stir their limbs from sleep.
They rubbed refreshing sleep out of their eyes,
and stood up straight there—a marvelous sight,
to see such an orderly arrangement,
women young and old and still unmarried girls.
First, they let their hair loose down their shoulders,
tied up the fawn skins (some had untied the knots
to loosen up the chords). Then around those skins
they looped some snakes, who licked the women’s cheeks.
Some held young gazelles or wild wolf cubs
and fed them on their own white milk,
the ones who’d left behind at home a new-born child
whose breasts were still swollen full of milk.
They draped themselves with garlands from oak trees,
ivy and flowering yew. Then one of them,
taking a thyrsos, struck a rock with it,
and water gushed out, fresh as dew. Another,
using her thyrsos, scraped the ground. At once,
the god sent fountains of wine up from the spot.
All those who craved white milk to drink
just scratched the earth with their fingertips—
it came out in streams. From their ivy wands
thick sweet honey dripped. Oh, if you’d been there,
if you’d seen this, you’d come with reverence
to that god whom you criticize so much.

The eros that these women experience is not directed towards other humans, nor even to the god who has driven them frenzied from their homes, husbands and children – it is rather a transpersonal connection to nature and the beasts of the wild, with whom they feel a profound kinship. He has roused them from ordinary existence, lifted them out of the confines of their small and circumscribed identities, blurred the boundaries between them and all of creation, showed them that they are capable of being so much more than they ever dreamed of and given them the power to work miracles. They are filled with a lust for life and take animals, literally life embodied, to their breasts not for pleasure but to share the sustenance of their own life with them. They are imitating the primordial nymphs who had been the nurses and care-givers of the infant god when he was most vulnerable, as Diodoros Sikeliotes explicitly states:

Consequently in many Greek cities every other year Bacchic bands of women gather, and it is lawful for the maidens to carry the thyrsos and to join in the frenzied revelry, crying out ‘Euai!’ and honouring the god; while the matrons, forming in groups, offer sacrifices to the god and celebrate his mysteries and, in general, extol with hymns the presence of Dionysos, in this manner acting the parts of those who of old were the companions and nurses of the god. (Library of History 4.3.2-5)

Nor is this the only instance where we may observe such Dionysian chastity. There are numerous vases and other artistic representations of mainades fending off the unwanted sexual advances of satyrs with their thyrsoi, as well as thiasoi that were restricted to the female sex and sometimes even elderly women who were outside the domain of Aphrodite, such as in Italy:

Then Hispala gave an account of the origin of these rites. At first they were confined to women; no male was admitted, and they had three stated days in the year on which persons were initiated during the daytime, and matrons were chosen to act as priestesses. (Livy, History of Rome 39.13)

And at Athens:

I wish now to call before you the sacred herald who waits upon the wife of the king, when she administers the oath to the Gerarai as they carry their baskets in front of the altar before they touch the victims, in order that you may hear the oath and the words that are pronounced, at least as far as it is permitted you to hear them; and that you may understand how august and holy and ancient the rites are. I live a holy life and am pure and unstained by all else that pollutes and by commerce with man and I will celebrate the feast of the wine god and the Iobacchic feast in honor of Dionysos in accordance with custom and at the appointed times. (Demosthenes, Against Neaira 74-78)

Interestingly, there were also thiasoi that excluded women (I.Kallatis 47) and men who abstained from sex in service to the god:

I, who never in my life experienced Kypris and was an enemy of wickedness, was taken as a companion (hetairos) by Bromios together with the Fates. Bromios has me as a fellow-initiate in his own dances. My name is Julianus, and I lived 18 years. My father was Julianus and my mother was Apphia. Having died, they honored me with the tomb and this inscribed monument. His step-father Asklepiades, his aunt Juliane, his maternal uncle Dionysios, Ammianos, and Stratoneikos honored him. Year 325 of the Sullan era, 12th of the month of Peritios. (TAM 5.477)

And in myth Dionysos helps bring sanity to a raging hermaphroditic deity by castrating hir:

In him there had been resistless might, and a fierceness of disposition beyond control, a lust made furious, and derived from both sexes. He violently plundered and laid waste; he scattered destruction wherever the ferocity of his disposition had led him; he regarded not gods nor men, nor did he think anything more powerful than himself; he contemned earth, heaven, and the stars. Now, when it had been often considered in the councils of the gods, by what means it might be possible either to weaken or to curb his audacity, Liber, the rest hanging back, takes upon himself this task. With the strongest wine he drugs a spring much resorted to by Acdestis where he had been wont to assuage the heat and burning thirst roused in him by sport and hunting. Hither runs Acdestis to drink when he felt the need; he gulps down the draught too greedily into his gaping veins. Overcome by what he is quite unaccustomed to, he is in consequence sent fast asleep. Liber is near the snare which he had set; over his foot he throws one end of a halter formed of hairs, woven together very skilfully; with the other end he lays hold of his privy members. When the fumes of the wine passed off, Acdestis starts up furiously, and his foot dragging the noose, by his own strength he robs himself of his sex; with the tearing asunder of these parts there is an immense flow of blood; both are carried off and swallowed up by the earth; from them there suddenly springs up, covered with fruit, a pomegranate tree. (Arnobius of Sicca, Against the Heathen 5.5-6)

A fate which Dionysos, himself, is said to have suffered as Clement of Alexandria’s Exhortation to the Greeks relates:

If you wish to inspect the orgies of the Corybantes, then know that, having killed their third brother, they covered the head of the dead body with a purple cloth, crowned it, and carrying it on the point of a spear, buried it under the roots of Olympus. These mysteries are, in short, murders and funerals. And the priests of these rites, who are called kings of the sacred rites by those whose business it is to name them, give additional strangeness to the tragic occurrence, by forbidding parsley with the roots from being placed on the table, for they think that parsley grew from the Corybantic blood that flowed forth; just as the women, in celebrating the Thesmophoria, abstain from eating the seeds of the pomegranate which have fallen on the ground, from the idea that pomegranates sprang from the drops of the blood of Dionysos. Those Corybantes also they call Cabiric; and the ceremony itself they announce as the Cabiric mystery. For those two identical fratricides, having abstracted the box in which the phallos of Bacchus was deposited, took it to Etruria–dealers in honourable wares truly. They lived there as exiles, employing themselves in communicating the precious teaching of their superstition, and presenting phallic symbols and the box for the Tyrrhenians to worship. And some will have it, not improbably, that for this reason Dionysos was called Attis, because he was mutilated. And what is surprising at the Tyrrhenians, who were barbarians, being thus initiated into these foul indignities, when among the Athenians, and in the whole of Greece–I blush to say it–the shameful legend about Demeter holds its ground?

Delia Morgan explores this side of Dionysos in her powerful piece, The Ivied Rod: Gender and the Phallus in Dionysian Religion:

Nowhere is the paradox of Dionysos more dramatic than in the stark contrast between the god of the phallus and the ‘effeminate’ god of women. Ancient sources make frequent reference to Dionysos as ‘womanly’ or ‘not a real man’ (Evans, 20-21; Jameson, 45); they sometimes dress him in women’s clothing as well. Dionysos himself was never shown with an erection. This iconographic convention, along with the occasional reference to effeminacy or androgyny, has led to various theories seeking to drastically unman the god, as it were; some writers read into these details the idea that perhaps Dionysos himself was asexual (Jameson, 44), or even emasculated through castration (Kerenyi, 275-277, 285). Jameson, for example, in examining some of the mythic fragments dealing with Dionysos, has arrived at the idea of the wine god as weak, cowardly and asexual – all aspects which would support the charge of effeminacy. (Jameson, 50, 59-63). He cites the myth of Lycurgus, who drove the young god into the ocean with an ox-goad. Francois Lissarrague states: “Dionysos as depicted is scarcely sexed; he is never seen in an erect state or manipulating his phallus.” Another factor frequently cited as support for the effeminacy of Dionysos is his feminine appearance. Early iconography of Dionysos shows him as a youthful adult with long hair and a beard, exotically dressed in a long chiton and himation. Dionysos had to be feminine, for the same reason that he had to be foreign and bestial: he was Other, opposed by nature to the dearest values of Greek society. He was wet and wild, emotional and disorderly, a god of madness and shape-shifting. He could not be a ‘real man’ in the eyes of the Greeks because a real man could not be allowed to possess these attributes. He was a strange god, and a god of the periphery – edging on the dark and unknown. The periphery, the uncivilized, was the realm of women and beasts; hence his companions were maenads and satyrs. His dangerous influence further exacerbated the problem with women: possessed by Dionysos, they became even more irrational, passionate and wild. Liberated by the god, they abandoned their chaste behavior and wifely duties and danced madly through the forests, defying all social restraints. By enhancing those qualities that were seen as the dark side of femininity, Dionysos himself could be seen as partaking of a female extreme; his nature was in some threatening ways even more feminine than that of an ordinary woman. The charge of effeminacy was not taken lightly in ancient Greece or Rome; there were social stigmas and sometimes civil penalties attached to the label. In Greece, a man earned a reputation as a ‘kinaidos,’ an effeminate man, through a penchant for taking a passive role in sexuality or through excessive unrestrained lust; he was not to be allowed to take leadership roles or any active public role in government. (Winkler, 176-178, 188-190) Given the seriousness of the accusation when directed against a man, what religious import could be read into the charge of effeminacy when directed against a god? Dionysos was the only major god to be spoken of in this way; he was thought by many to be a dangerous foreign import, although evidence points to his presence in the pantheon from the Mycenean era. He was seen as a subversive influence, who in his myths faced opposition by kings and led entire cities into chaos and revolt. His religion was always regarded with some fear and ambivalence, almost as a necessary evil.

This is something that I have experienced myself and discussed a while back in Chthonic Dionysos and the Saints of the True Vine:

This Dionysos is dark and still and somber, the quiet amid the storm, the masked pillar around which those filled with his frenzy dance and shout in ecstatic celebration. He is not completely immobile – his movements are just slow like the shoots of a plant triumphantly rising up through the soil, like the gradual formation of stalactites in a cave, like the procession of the stars through the heavens. The face of this Dionysos is always concealed in shadows, except for his eyes which are bright with the flames of madness and gaze into the depths of your soul and beyond. His voice echoes across a vast chasm even when he is nearer to you than your next heartbeat. There is an impenetrable denseness to his spirit, a gloom so black and so full of painful memories that even he has difficulty bearing its weight. He is ancient beyond all reckoning and yet remains unwearied by all that he has witnessed and experienced. His heart is fierce with love for the fragile and ephemeral things of this world, rejoicing and suffering along with them. He cannot turn his face away from them – he must witness it all, even if it makes him mad. And though part of him remains forever down in the caverns deep beneath the earth, another part extends upwards into our world, surrounded by an innumerable host. The lusty satyrs, the madwomen, the nymphs who nurse him and the dead who belong to him, an invisible troop of wild spirits that march unseen but clearly heard in his processions, who race through the fields and forests and city streets on certain especially dark nights in pursuit of the victims of the hunt.

Nothing about Dionysos is simple so we would do well to avoid the sort of simplifications one frequently finds in discussions about him on Tumblr.

for therapeutic purposes

Margites was famed in antiquity for his foolishness. The man was such a simpleton, in fact, that he didn’t know what sex was or how to do it.

Eustathius tells the following story about him:

He did not fall upon his bride until she, at her mother’s instigation, pretended to have suffered a wound in her lower parts, and said that no remedy would be of any help except for a male member being fitted to the place: so it was that he made love to her, for therapeutic purposes.

According to Hesychius the poor woman claimed to have been bitten between the legs by a scorpion. (Which has interesting parallels with tarantism.)

In another version of this story Margites travels to consult the prophetic head of Orpheus before his wedding and receives the following oracular advice, preserved in Hippolytos’ Refutation of All Heresies and usually assumed to be a reference to the two roads in the underworld, though scholar M. L. West believes it to be an allusion to the vagina:

About these Mysteries, and the road that leads there, which is ‘level and capacious’ and takes the damned to Persephone, the Poet says:

But below it there is a rugged path,
enclosed and slippery like mud,
which is the best way to reach
the delightful grove of much-esteemed Aphrodite.

On these matters, the Saviour has stated explicitly that ‘narrow and tight is the road that leads to life, and few are they that enter upon it, but level and capacious is the road that leads to perdition, and many are they that pass along it.’ (8.41-5)

Which makes me think of the Gold Tablet from Thurii:

A: I come from the pure, o Pure Queen of the earthly ones, Eukles, Eubouleus, and You other Immortal Gods! I too claim to be of your blessed race, but Fate and other Immortal gods conquered me with the star-smiting thunder. And I flew out from the hard and deeply-grievous circle, and stepped into the crown with my swift feet, and slipped into the bosom of the Mistress, the Queen of the Underworld. And I stepped out from the crown with my swift feet.
B: Happy and blessed one! You shall be divine instead of mortal.
A: I have fallen as a kid into milk.

something worth getting torn apart to see

Today is the Feast of the Dionysian Kings, and we had a pretty good discussion on the underlying themes of the festival and some ways to celebrate it last night in the thiasos’ fancy new Skype chat. It also prompted this piece by Galina reappraising the figure of Pentheus, who is pretty universally reviled but considered one of the heroes of the Starry Bull pantheon. Even after reading her piece some people might have a difficult time understanding why he’s included. I sure as hell did when Dionysos started pushing for it.

And yet it makes perfect fucking sense – he’s the god of outsiders, including those outside his circle. His love is too large to be fit into rigid little boxes. A while back I said that you don’t really know Dionysos until you hate him – but you also don’t know him until you really know how big he is. He is big enough to take all of the hate and all of the rage we can muster, just keep taking it and taking it until we have nothing left to pour out of us – and yet he’s still there, still bigger than us, stronger than us and most terrible of all, still loving us.

Now, don’t get the impression that he’s weak or sentimental from that. There comes a point where we’ve made our choice and the consequences come crashing down on us and he won’t stop it, even if he could. If nothing else, Pentheus shows that. But it doesn’t mean he stops loving us, even when those horrible things we’ve brought upon ourselves play out – or after.

And I think that’s why Pentheus is one of our heroes – to remind us of how limitless Dionysos’ love is.

Or maybe it’s a challenge – everything about Dionysos challenges us in one way or another. But this is a challenge to look beyond the surface, to look beyond the commonly accepted truths, to look at things with other than human eyes and human values.

To see the world how Dionysos sees us.

Do you think there’s any part of you he doesn’t know, any thought or desire that remains hidden from him? When you drink that wine or give yourself over to a spontaneous ecstasy you’re inviting him into you and he sloshes about in all your crevices and crannies, slips through all those dusty, boarded up places inside your mind, rushes through your bloodstream, dances through your liver, wears you like meat pyjamas and gets pissed out of you the following morning.

Yeah, sit with that image for a while.

Now, depending on the nature of your relationship, he may never let on that you guys have shared that level of intimacy – but the knowledge still colors his perception of you.

Think about that for a moment too. There’s nowhere to hide and nothing you can hide from him.

All your fears, all your weaknesses, all those countless ways you don’t measure up, all your gross little human bits.

He’s seen them. He knows them. He’s felt them.

Through you and everyone else that’s let him in going back to the beginning of humanity, he’s felt them.

And he loves them. He loves you. As long as you are you – whatever that is, whatever it was, whatever it’s becoming – he loves you. That’s why he asks, “Who are you?”

It’s putting a mirror before your eyes and asking you to see yourself as he does.

As he did when he was a little child gazing into his reflection in a burnished surface in an empty hall, hearing the approach of the horrible chalk-faced monsters come to devour him, and not caring because what he saw was beautiful, too beautiful to look away from.

And what he saw was you – something worth getting torn apart to see.

cut up

In a recent discussion I mentioned bricolage:

Though it’s evolved organically the Starry Bull pantheon is tightly-knit with a lot of intersection among its members. Many of them have a habit of showing up when the others are called, especially within specifically thiasos-style rites. This is part of why there’s such a strong insistence that one get to know the entire pantheon during the early stages – we don’t want folks freaking out when headless saints or giant spiders show up during their devotions. Another part is because all of them are involved in the mysteries of our tradition. In fact how and to what degree they are involved determines which mystery a person goes through, bricolage-style.

Bricolage (and there’s a fairly decent entry on it at Wikipedia) was Radcliffe G. Edmonds III’s solution to the problem of varying types of Orphism:

I propose a re-examination of the ancient evidence that takes seriously the model, proposed by Burkert and others, of itinerant religious specialists competing for religious authority among a varying clientele. Rather than looking for a coherent set of sacred texts canonical to people who considered themselves Orphics, texts expressive of doctrines pertaining to sin, salvation, and afterlife, we should look for the products of bricolage, pieced together from widely available traditional material to meet the demand of clients looking for extra-ordinary solutions to their problems. If the texts and rituals are products of bricolage, however, and their creators bricoleurs competing for authority, we cannot expect to find either consistency of texts or doctrines, merely a loose family resemblance between composites of the same traditional elements. A redefinition of ancient Orphism requires a polythetic definition that accommodates the complexities of the ancient contexts rather than the sort of monothetic definition that identifies Orphism by its scriptures and doctrines. Nevertheless, the attempt to force the evidence into this preconceived modern construct has created unnecessary confusions in interpretation, as, e.g., the debate over the Orphic status of the author of the Derveni papyrus shows. (Redefining Ancient Orphism)

There’s a strong parallel between this and a practice pioneered by William S. Burroughs called the cut-up technique:

Also in the 1950s, painter and writer Brion Gysin more fully developed the cut-up method after accidentally re-discovering it. He had placed layers of newspapers as a mat to protect a tabletop from being scratched while he cut papers with a razor blade. Upon cutting through the newspapers, Gysin noticed that the sliced layers offered interesting juxtapositions of text and image. He began deliberately cutting newspaper articles into sections, which he randomly rearranged. The book Minutes to Go resulted from his initial cut-up experiment: unedited and unchanged cut-ups which emerged as coherent and meaningful prose. Gysin introduced Burroughs to the technique at the Beat Hotel. The pair later applied the technique to printed media and audio recordings in an effort to decode the material’s implicit content, hypothesizing that such a technique could be used to discover the true meaning of a given text. Burroughs also suggested cut-ups may be effective as a form of divination saying, “When you cut into the present the future leaks out.”

Interestingly I just came across a reference to this from antiquity, Irenaeus’ Against Heresies 1.9.4:

Then, again, collecting a set of expressions and names scattered here and there in Scripture, they twist them, as we have already said, from a natural to a non-natural sense. In so doing, they act like those who bring forward any kind of hypothesis they fancy, and then endeavour to support them out of the poems of Homer, so that the ignorant imagine that Homer actually composed the verses bearing upon that hypothesis, which has, in fact, been but newly constructed; and many others are led so far by the regularly-formed sequence of the verses, as to doubt whether Homer may not have composed them. Of this kind is the following passage, where one, describing Hercules as having been sent by Eurystheus to the dog in the infernal regions, does so by means of these Homeric verses—for there can be no objection to our citing these by way of illustration, since the same sort of attempt appears in both:—

Thus saying, there sent forth from his house deeply groaning.— Od., x. 76.
The hero Hercules conversant with mighty deeds.— Od., xxi. 26.
Eurystheus, the son of Sthenelus, descended from Perseus.— Il., xix. 123.
That he might bring from Erebus the dog of gloomy Pluto.— Il., viii. 368.
And he advanced like a mountain-bred lion confident of strength.— Od., vi. 130.
Rapidly through the city, while all his friends followed. — Il., xxiv. 327.
Both maidens, and youths, and much-enduring old men.— Od., xi. 38.
Mourning for him bitterly as one going forward to death. — Il., xxiv. 328.
But Mercury and the blue-eyed Minerva conducted him.— Od., xi. 626.
For she knew the mind of her brother, how it laboured with grief.— Il., ii. 409.

Now, what simple-minded man, I ask, would not be led away by such verses as these to think that Homer actually framed them so with reference to the subject indicated? But he who is acquainted with the Homeric writings will recognise the verses indeed, but not the subject to which they are applied, as knowing that some of them were spoken of Ulysses, others of Hercules himself, others still of Priam, and others again of Menelaus and Agamemnon. But if he takes them and restores each of them to its proper position, he at once destroys the narrative in question.

Why must we assume intent to deceive? Who is to say that the bricoleur did not feel himself inspired in the arrangement of these random scraps of text, especially when a new story seemed to emerge almost of its own bidding from the disparate fragments? As Burroughs said, “When you cut into the present the future leaks out.”

At any rate, these methods have deep resonance for me because of Dionysiac sparagmos:

Dionysos, when he saw his image reflected in the mirror, began to pursue it and so was torn to pieces. But Apollon put Dionysos back together and brought him back to life because he was a purifying god and the true savior. (Olympiodoros, Commentary on Plato’s Phaedo 67c)


On henotheism

Note: there have been some significant changes since I made this post, but the broader points it makes are important enough that it deserves to be revived. 

I saw some folks discussing my theological beliefs the other day which I found both flattering and confusing. Flattering because with all of the wonderful plentitude of topics to discuss in the world these people had chosen to focus on little old unimportant me, but confusing in that they hadn’t actually bothered to ask me what my views are which is kind of odd since I’m easy to get a hold of and far from shy about such things. Doing so could have saved them some confusion of their own since one of the gentlemen is under the impression that I’m a henotheist, of all things!

I can’t imagine where he came up with the notion that the only deity I venerate is Dionysos since I’ve filled this blog with posts about Hermes, Spider, Ariadne, Erigone, Harlequin, the Nymphai, Aphrodite, Jim Morrison, Mark Antony and the rest of the Dionysian Dead. More recently there’s been a ton of stuff about Persephone, Melinoë, Hekate, Herakles, Orpheus, Medeia and the gods, heroes and spirits of Magna Graecia. And while a lot of that is writings or research notes I do periodically post about the festivals and regular devotions I perform if I can find a way to make them interesting to my readership. (Most of the time I can’t so I don’t; I do this stuff to maintain the relationships I have with my divinities not to impress a bunch of strangers on the internet.) Hell, I have even branched out of the Mediterranean basin to do the occasional rite for Odin, Loki, Mani and some of the other Norse deities who are important to my partner and I have likewise hailed Thracian, Canaanite, Celtic, Egyptian and African divinities with friends though I have no interest or connection to them outside of such circumstances.

So I’m really not sure where the henotheist tag came from. Is Dionysos important to me? Supremely so. Are all of my core pantheon intimately connected to him? Absolutely. And that not only influences who I worship but who I respectfully leave out, since it would not be right for me to come before a lot of the Olympian gods while in the constant state of miasma I’m in as a result of the work I do with purification, healing, ecstasy and the chthonic powers. These rules are in place for a reason and disregarding that is like giving a finger to the one you’re ostensibly honoring. Thus I honor them best by keeping my distance and doing what I can to assist those who are venerating them in a right and reverent manner.

It’s kind of funny, actually. One of the folks discussing my beliefs was concerned that my unhealthy fixation on Dionysos was the cause of my abnormal psychology. I’d say if anything Dionysos has had a healing and stabilizing effect on me. More importantly he has pushed me to examine everything about myself and to completely own my shit. Everything I do or say is a conscious choice on my part, even when that involves things I know aren’t good for me like smoking or reading the Patheos pagan channel. This is the great challenge of Dionysos, the question he asks us continuously as we roam the earth and which will be asked again when we face the sentries below: Who are you? Those who haven’t done the hard, long, painful work of figuring that out are the ones who are prone to dysmania, which is something that his myths make abundantly and eloquently clear.

In Euripides’ Bakchai there are two groups of mainades: the Asian Bacchants who have given up everything to follow the stranger god in his wanderings through the Greek and Near Eastern world and the Theban Bacchants who run about witless and violently raging with the impudent daughters of Kadmos. The one dance and sing and joyously revel on the mountainside with the wild things; the other are tormented with delusion, driven to atrocities by unresolved internal pressures and in the end are shown to be strangers both to themselves and their community – with disastrous results, as the play’s anagnorisis scene so horrifyingly reveals. And note that nowhere does Dionysos actively punish anyone in the Bakchai, even when Pentheus is calling him every dirty name in the book; he merely sets them up, teasing out things they don’t want to face and when they refuse to he steps back, letting them destroy themselves and those dearest to them in the process. How many times before then did he try to intervene, try to talk sense into them but they were too blind and self-deluded to recognize his outstretched helping hand, and so instead reaped the whirlwind of their own devising. That is the terrible message of the play: in the end you have no one to blame for your actions and their consequences but yourself.

It really surprises me that a Jungian of all people fails to perceive this since Carl himself was quite insistent about the need to embrace and integrate rather than suppress or reject the Shadow. But I suppose we are often most resistant to those things we most need to hear and do in our work.


Dionysos: Once you see, once you confront something you don’t expect, then you’ll consider me your dearest friend. (Euripides, Bakchai 938-941)

I found it!

Five or six years ago I came across this quote. It interested me for very different reasons back then. I posted it to the blog, but didn’t put it in any of my quote files and consequently lost track of it after one of my scrubs. A fact I repeatedly regretted as I got deeper and deeper into Starry Bear stuff. All I could recall was that this messianic Bacchic figure started out somewhere in Russia or Germany; I couldn’t even have told you whether the anecdote was in Livy or Ammianus, hence my difficulty in tracking it down. But here it is:

Shortly before this a man that many said was a daimon — though he himself claimed to be the famous Alexander of Macedon and resembled him in looks and general attire — set out from the regions along the Ister, after somehow or other making his appearance there. He made his way through Moesia and Thrace performing Bacchic rites. He was accompanied by as many as four hundred men equipped with Bacchic wands and fawn-skins, but they harmed no one. In fact all in Thrace at the time agreed that bed and board would be provided for the man and his company at public expense. And no one — no governor, soldier, procurator or local magistrate — dared to confront or contradict him. He traveled the whole time as if in a solemn procession as far as Byzantium and then, taking ship, he made his way to the region of Chalcedon where he performed some sacred rites by night, buried a wooden horse, and then vanished completely, never to be heard from again. (Cassius Dio, Roman History 80.18.1-3)

That’s hella significant, actually. The horse burial alone stands out in ways it most certainly did not the first time around. 

This is the stuff of mysteries

Interesting fact: many of the cities of Magna Graecia had a double foundation. First by a god or hero and later by a mortal, who was like their living shadow. As an example, Tarentum was originally settled by Taras, the son of Poseidon and Satyra the swamp-nymph and then later, after the Messenian war Phalanthos led the Spartan Virgins’ sons there. Phalanthos was eighth in descent from Herakles, which I found significant since eight is a number with obvious arachnid associations. Speaking of which, did you know that Tarentum was famed for it’s wool and murex in antiquity?

The most esteemed wool of all is that of Apulia, and that which in Italy is called Grecian wool, in other countries Italian. The fleeces of Miletus hold the third rank. The Apulian wool is shorter in the hair, and only owes its high character to the cloaks that are made of it. That which comes from the vicinity of Tarentum and Canusium is the most celebrated. (Pliny, Natural History 8.73)

I find it interesting that Tarentum was colonized by the Partheniae since the constellation Virgo is the asterized Erigone. Though that story is set in Athens, the Spartans had their version of it too:

Opposite is what is called the Knoll, with a temple of Dionysos of the Knoll, by which is a precinct of the hero who they say guided Dionysos on the way to Sparta. To this hero sacrifices are offered before they are offered to the god by the daughters of Dionysos and the daughters of Leucippus. For the other eleven ladies who are named daughters of Dionysos there is held a footrace; this custom came to Sparta from Delphi. (Pausanias, Description of Greece 3.13.7)

But in this version Ikarios is a king:

The image of Modesty, some thirty stades distant from the city, they say was dedicated by Ikarios, the following being the reason for making it. When Ikarios gave Penelope in marriage to Odysseus, he tried to make Odysseus himself settle in Lacedaemon, but failing in the attempt, he next besought his daughter to remain behind, and when she was setting forth to Ithaca he followed the chariot, begging her to stay. Odysseus endured it for a time, but at last he bade Penelope either to accompany him willingly, or else, if she preferred her father, to go back to Lacedaemon. They say that she made no reply, but covered her face with a veil in reply to the question, so that Ikarios, realizing that she wished to depart with Odysseus, let her go, and dedicated an image of Modesty; for Penelope, they say, had reached this point of the road when she veiled herself. (ibid 3.20.10-11)

Gee, what was it Penelope was famed for again?

This was her latest masterpiece of guile: she set up a great loom in the royal halls and she began to weave, and the weaving finespun, the yarns endless … So by day she’d weave at her great and growing web –. by night, by the light of torches set beside her, she would unravel all she’d done. (Homer, Odyssey 2.93-95)

Nearby the spot where Ikarios’ maiden daughter was abducted rites of Kore were celebrated:

The sanctuary of Demeter surnamed Eleusinian is where, according to the Lacedaemonian story, Herakles was hidden by Asklepios while he was being healed of a wound. In the sanctuary is a wooden image of Orpheus, a work, they say, of Pelasgians. From Helos they bring up to the sanctuary of the Eleusinian a wooden image of the Maid, daughter of Demeter. (Pausanias, Description of Greece 3.20.5-7)

This is not the only time we find an overlap of Erigone and Persephone. As you know, Erigone was honored during the Aiora on the 12th or 13th of Anthesterion. During that same month the Lesser Mysteries of Eleusis were carried out:

Great and Lesser Mysteries used to be celebrated at Eleusis in Attica. Previously the Lesser did not exist, but when Herakles came and wanted to be initiated. It was not lawful for the Athenians to initiate any foreigner, but as they respected his outstanding qualities and because he was a friend of the city and a son of Zeus, they created the Lesser Mysteries into which they initiated him. The Great Mysteries belong to Demeter, the Lesser to Persephone her daughter. (Scholiast on Aristophanes, Ploutos 845)

The inventor of these mysteries was Mousaios, according to Diodoros Sikeliotes:

Herakles, having completed the tenth Labour, received an order from Eurystheus to bring Cerberus from Hades up to the light. For this Labour, supposing this would benefit him, he went along to Athens and took part in the Mysteries at Eleusis. Mousaios, son of Orpheus, was at that stage in charge of the rite. (4.25.1)

Mysteries which had a Dionysiac tenor:

Agra and Agrai: place, singular and plural, in Attica in front of the city; there the Lesser Mysteries are celebrated, which are an imitation of matters concerning Dionysos. (Stephanos of Byzantium, Lexikon s.v. Agrai)

You find this same constellation during the Haloa:

Haloa is a festival at Athens including secret rites of Demeter and Kore and Dionysos, celebrated by the Athenians at the pruning of the vine and the tasting of the stored-up wine. In these rites images of male organs are displayed, concerning which they say that they are performed as a symbol of the procreation of men, since Dionysos, who gave the wine, made it a potion which stimulates one to intercourse. He gave it to Ikarios, whom the shepherds killed, in ignorance that drinking wine had such consequence. Then they were driven mad, because of their outrageous actions against Dionysos, and they had remained in the state of shame. The oracle, to stop their madness, ordered them to make and dedicate clay sexual organs. When the evil had passed, they established this festival as a memorial of the incident. In this festival, an initiation is given in Eleusis by women, and many games and jokes are told. Since only women are present, they have freedom to say what they want. And they say the most shameful things to each other then; the priestesses stealthily draw near to the women and discuss illicit love, whispering, as it is something unspeakable. All the women shout shameful and irreverent things to each other, holding up indecent representations of male and female organs. Here much wine is set out, and tables full of all the foods of earth and sea, except the things forbidden in the mystery, namely: pomegranates, apples, domestic fowl, eggs, seal-mullet, erythinos, black-fish, crayfish, dogfish. The archons furnish the tables, and leaving the inside to the women they go outside and remain there, expounding to all the inhabitants that cultivated foods were discovered among them and made common to all men by them. Sexual organs of both sexes, made from pastry, are set out on the tables. The Haloa are named on account of the fruit of Dionysos. The aloai are the vineyards. (Scholia to Lucian 279)

A maiden is abducted by death; the land is cursed with madness so that the girls swing from trees and the boys rage with lust. Deliverance comes through dance, music and feasting at the marriage of the bull-leading hero and the divine daughter. This is the stuff of mysteries.

Oh, and incidentally – Satyra the swamp-nymph? She wasn’t always a nymph.

Originally Satyra was the sister of the hero Iapyx, famed for his healing powers and knowledge of drugs, after whom the Iapygians were named, a population that had settled in Italy at an early period and were displaced by the Spartan colonists who arrived with Phalanthos. But here’s where things get really interesting. The Iapygians were Cretans who had either arrived in Italy when Theseus was blown ashore there on his return voyage to Athens or else they came with Minos in pursuit of Daidalos, who had taken up residence with the Sicilian king Kokalos. Iapyx and Satyra were children of Minos. Which, of course, makes Taras the nephew of Ariadne.


Orphism is not misogynistic

People say some really stupid shit.

For instance, this scholar I’m reading actually asserted that Orphism was misogynistic!

Now, Plato in the Republic (10.620a) does have Er relate that Orpheus so loathed women that he chose to come back as a swan in order to not have to crawl through a vagina a second time. Er recounts this as part of a near-death experience during which his brain was no doubt deprived of oxygen for a span of time, so we shouldn’t necessarily put a lot of weight behind these words.

Nor is it necessary to accept the story Phanokles tells about Orpheus’ death:

Orpheus, the son of Oeagrus, loved Calaïs, the son of Boreas, with all his heart and often he would sit in the shady groves singing his heart’s desire; nor was his spirit at peace, but always his soul was consumed with sleepless cares as he gazed on fresh Calaïs. But the Bistonian women of evil devices killed Orpheus, having poured about him, their keen-edged swords sharpened, because he was the first to reveal male loves among the Thracians and did not recommend love of women. The women cut off his head with their bronze and straightaway they threw it in the sea with his Thracian lyre of tortoiseshell, fastening them together with a nail, so that both would be borne on the sea, drenched by the grey waves. The hoary sea brought them to land on holy Lesbos […] and thus the lyre’s clear ring held sway over the sea and the islands and the sea-soaked shores, where the men gave the clear-sounding head of Orpheus its funeral rites, and in the tomb they put the clear lyre, which used to persuade even dumb rocks and the hateful water of Phorcys. From that day on, songs and lovely lyre-playing have held sway over the island and it is the most songful of all islands. As for the warlike Thracian men, when they had learned the women’s savage deeds and dire grief had sunk into them all, they began the custom of tattooing their wives, so that having on their flesh signs of dark blue, they would not forget their hateful murder. And even now, the women pay reparations to the dead Orpheus because of that sin. (fragment preserved in Stobaeus, Eclogae 20.2.47, IV 461-2)

When Orpheus had almost as many deaths as Dionysos. After all, he was immolated by heavenly fire:

Some say that Orpheus came to his end by being struck by a thunderbolt, hurled at him by the god because he revealed sayings in the mysteries to men who had not heard them before. (Pausanias, Description of Greece 9.30.6)

Murdered by an angry mob for being a charlatan:

At the base of Olympus is the city of Dium, near which lies the village of Pimpleia. Here lived Orpheus, the Ciconian, it is said — a wizard who at first collected money from his music, together with his soothsaying and his celebration of the orgies connected with the mystic initiatory rites, but soon afterwards thought himself worthy of still greater things and procured for himself a throng of followers and power. Some, of course, received him willingly, but others, since they suspected a plot and violence, combined against him and killed him. And near here, also, is Leibethra. (Strabo, Geography 7.7)

And committed suicide over the loss of his wife:

But by others it is said that when his wife died before him, he went to Aornum in Thesprotia on her account. For there was an ancient oracle of the dead there. And thinking that the soul of Eurydice was following him, and being deprived of her when he turned around, he committed suicide because of his grief. The Thracians say that the nightingales who have their nests on the tomb of Orpheus sing more sweetly and loudly. (Pausanias, Description of Greece 9.30.6)

To name just a few.

In fact there was so much confusion around his death that Hyginus wasn’t sure if Orpheus was killed in punishment by Dionysos:

The Lyre was put among the constellations for the following reason, as Eratosthenes says. Made at first by Mercury from a tortoise shell, it was given to Orpheus, son of Calliope and Oeagrus, who was passionately devoted to music. It is thought that by his skill he could charm even wild beasts to listen. When, grieving for his wife Eurydice, he descended to the Lower World, he praised the children of the gods in his song, all except Father Liber; him he overlooked and forgot, as Oeneus did Diana in sacrifice. Afterwards, then, when Orpheus was taking delight in song, seated, as many say, on Mt. Olympus, which separates Macedonia from Thrace, or on Pangaeum, as Eratosthenes says, Liber is said to have roused the Bacchanals against him. They slew him and dismembered his body. But others say that this happened because he had looked on the rites of Liber. The Muses gathered the scattered limbs and gave them burial, and as the greatest favour they could confer, they put as a memorial his lyre, pictured with stars, among the constellations. Apollo and Jove consented, for Orpheus had praised Apollo highly, and Jupiter granted this favour to his daughter. (Astronomica 1.2)

Or Aphrodite:

Some also have said that Venus and Proserpina came to Jove for his decision, asking him to which of them he would grant Adonis. Calliope, the judge appointed by Jove, decided that each should posses him half of the year. But Venus, angry because she had not been granted what she thought was her right, stirred the women in Thrace by love, each to seek Orpheus for herself, so that they tore him limb from limb. His head, carried down from the mountain into the sea, was cast by the waves upon the island of Lesbos. It was taken up and buried by the people of Lesbos, and in return for this kindness, they have the reputation of being exceedingly skilled in the art of music. The lyre, as we have said, was put by the Muses among the stars. (Astronomica 2.7)

Therefore I see no point in privileging this one legend above the others, especially when it is so violently in opposition to Orpheus’ well-established preference for the feminine. After all it was for love of his wife that he (successfully, in some accounts) harrowed hell:

Such was she whom the dear son of Oeagros, armed only with the lyre, brought back from Haides, even the Thracian Agriope. Aye, he sailed to that evil and inexorable place where Charon drags into the common barque the souls of the departed; and over the lake he shouts afar, as it pours its flood from out the tall reeds. Yet Orpheus, though girded for the journey all alone, dared to sound his lyre beside the wave, and he won over gods of every shape; even the lawless Kokytos he saw, raging beneath his banks; and he flinched not before the gaze of the hound most dread, his voice baying forth angry fire, with fire his cruel eye gleaming, an eye that on triple heads bore terror. Whence, by his song, Orpheus persuaded the mighty lords that Agriope should recover the gentle breath of life. Nor did the son of the Moon, Mousaios, master of the Graces, cause Antiope to go without her due of honour. And she, beside Eleusis’ strand, expounded to the initiates the loud, sacred voice of mystic oracles, as she duly escorted the priest through the Rarian plain to honour Demeter. And she is known even in Hades. (Athenaios, Deipnosophistai 597a)

He recognized Medeia as a colleague and partnered with her in certain necromantic operations:

After I came to the enclosures and the sacred place, I dug a three-sided pit in some flat ground. I quickly brought some trunks of juniper, dry cedar, prickly boxthorn and weeping black poplars, and in the pit I made a pyre of them. Skilled Medea brought to me many drugs, taking them from the innermost part of a chest smelling of incense. At once, I fashioned certain images from barley-meal [the text is corrupt here]. I threw them onto the pyre, and as a sacrifice to honor the dead, I killed three black puppies. I mixed with their blood copper sulfate, soapwort, a sprig of safflower, and in addition odorless fleawort, red alkanet, and bronze-plant. After this, I filled the bellies of the puppies with this mixture and placed them on the wood. Then I mixed the bowels with water and poured the mixture around the pit. Dressed in a black mantle, I sounded bronze cymbals and made my prayer to the Furies. They heard me quickly, and breaking forth from the caverns of the gloomy abyss, Tisiphone, Allecto, and divine Megaira arrived, brandishing the light of death in their dry pine torches. Suddenly the pit blazed up, and the deadly fire crackled, and the unclean flame sent high its smoke. At once, on the far side of the fire, the terrible, fearful, savage goddesses arose. One had a body of iron. The dead call her Pandora. With her came one who takes on various shapes, having three heads, a deadly monster you do not wish to know: Hecate of Tartarus. From her left shoulder leapt a horse with a long mane. On her right should there could be seen a dog with a maddened face. The middle head had the shape of a lion [or snake] of wild form. In her hand she held a well-hilted sword. Pandora and Hecate circled the pit, moving this way and that, and the Furies leapt with them. Suddenly the wooden guardian statue of Artemis dropped its torches from its hands and raised its eyes to heaven. Her canine companions fawned. The bolts of the silver bars were loosened, and the beautiful gates of the thick walls opened; and the sacred grove within came into view. I crossed the threshold. (Orphic Argonautika 122ff)

He founded mysteries for the Great Mother Rheia:

Jason supplicated the goddess with many prayers to turn away the tempest, as he poured libations on the blazing sacrifices. At the same time, upon Orpheus’ command, the young men leapt as they danced the dance-in-armor and beat their shields with their swords, so that any ill-omened cry of grief, which the people were still sending up in lament for their king, would be lost in the air. Since then, the Phrygians have always propitiated Rhea with rhombus and tambourine. The amenable goddess evidently paid heed to their holy sacrifices, for fitting signs appeared. (Apollonios Rhodios, Argonautika 1.1132–1141)

And placated the nymphs whose homes had been destroyed by pollution:

The women instantly turned to dust and earth there on the spot. Orpheus recognized the divine portent and for his comrades’ sake sought to comfort the nymphs with prayers. “O goddesses beautiful and kind, be gracious, O queens whether you are counted among the heavenly goddesses or those under the earth, or are called solitary nymphs, come, O nymphs, holy offspring of Ocean, and appear before our longing eyes and show us either some flow of water from a rock or some sacred stream gushing from the ground, goddesses, with which we may relieve our endlessly burning thirst.” (Apollonios Rhodios, Argonautika 4.1408–1418)

He even helped cure a group of women who were suffering from a violent affliction of madness:

In Pieria frenzied female worshipers of Dionysos were tearing apart the bodies of sheep and goats and performing many other violent acts; they turned to the mountains to spend their days there. When they failed to return to their homes, the townspeople, fearing for the safety of their wives and daughters, summoned Orpheus and asked him to devise a plan to get the women down from the mountain. Orpheus performed appropriate sacrificial rites to the god Dionysos and then by playing his lyre led the frenzied Bacchants down from the mountain. (Palaiphatos, Peri Apiston 33)

In fact women were among those who composed inspired verse under his name, such as Arignote:

A Samian woman; student of Pythagoras and Theano and a great philosopher in her own right. She composed the following: Bakchica, which is about the mysteries of Demeter; and also a Hieros Logos and the Teletai of Dionysos, among other philosophical works. (Suidas s.v. Arignote)

And there were female Orpheotelestai as both Plato:

There were certain priests and priestesses who have studied so as to be able to give a reasoned account of their ministry; and Pindar also and many another poet of heavenly gifts. As to their words, they are these: mark now, if you judge them to be true. They say that the soul of man is immortal, and at one time comes to an end, which is called dying, and at another is born again, but never perishes. Consequently one ought to live all one’s life in the utmost holiness. ‘For from whomsoever Persephone shall accept requital for ancient wrong, the souls of these she restores in the ninth year to the upper sun again; from them arise glorious kings and men of splendid might and surpassing wisdom, and for all remaining time men call them sainted heroes.’ (Meno 81a)

And Athanasius of Alexandria attest:

Well, an old woman, for twenty mites or a pint of wine will spin you an Orphic spell. (cod. Reg. 1993 fr. 317)

Orpheus’ name was even associated with female-centric mystic rites in Makedonia:

All the women of these parts were addicted to the Orphic rites and the orgies of Dionysus from very ancient times (being called Klodones and Mimallones), and imitated in many ways the practices of the Edonian women and the Thracian women about Mount Haemus, from whom, as it would seem, the word threskeuein came to be applied to the celebration of extravagant and superstitious ceremonies. Now Olympias, who affected these divine possessions more zealously than other women, and carried out these divine inspirations in wilder fashion, used to provide the revelling companies with great tame serpents, which would often lift their heads from out the ivy and the mystic winnowing baskets, or coil themselves about the wands and garlands of the women, thus terrifying the men. (Plutarch, Life of Alexander 2.1.6)

And Attica:

When he is to be initiated into the Orphic mysteries, he visits the priests every month, taking his wife with him; or, if she can’t make it, the nursemaid and children will suffice. (Theophrastos, On The Superstitious Man)

On attaining manhood, you abetted your mother in her initiations and the other rituals, and read aloud from the cultic writings. At night, you mixed the libations, purified the initiates, and dressed them in fawnskins. You cleansed them off with clay and cornhusks, and raising them up from the purification, you led the chant, ‘The evil I flee, the better I find.’ And it was your pride that no one ever emitted that holy ululation so powerfully as yourself. I can well believe it! When you hear the stentorian tones of the orator, can you doubt that the ejaculations of the acolyte were simply magnificent? In the daylight, you led the fine thiasos through the streets, wearing their garlands of fennel and white poplar. You rubbed the fat-cheeked snakes and swung them above your head crying ‘Euoi Saboi’ and dancing to the tune of hues attes, attes hues. Old women hailed you ‘Leader’, ‘mysteries instructor’, ‘ivy-bearer’, ‘liknon carrier’, and the like. (Demosthenes, On the Crown 259-60)

And Rome:

The Romans have a goddess whom they call Good, whom the Greeks call the Women’s Goddess. The Phrygians say that this goddess originated with them, and that she was the mother of their king Midas. The Romans say that she was a Dryad nymph who married Faunus, and the Greeks say that she was the Unnameable One among the mothers of Dionysos. For this reason the women who celebrate her rites cover their tents with vine-branches, and a sacred serpent sits beside the goddess on her throne, as in the myth. It is unlawful for a man to approach or to be in the house when the rites are celebrated. The women, alone by themselves, are said to perform rites that conform to Orphic ritual during the sacred ceremony. (Plutarch, Life of Caesar 93)

In fact, a significant number of the Bacchic Orphic gold lamellae were found in graves belonging to women or inscribed with a woman’s name, such as this one from Rome:

A: I come pure from the pure, Queen of the Underworld, Eukles and Eubouleus, noble child of Zeus! I have this gift of Memory, prized by men!
B: Caecilia Secundina, come, made divine by the Law!

If Orpheus had a “contempt for women and their realm” he sure did a good job of hiding it. 

the power of choice

We often talk about Dionysos as the God of freedom, the one who comes to liberate us from our chains whether they are personal inhibitions, psychological addictions, societal convention or even physical bondage.

There are many ways that he works his wonders in our lives, but one of the most important is also, in some respects, the simplest: he reminds us that we’ve got a choice. Think back on the bulk of his myths: what’s he usually doing? Trying to get people to seriously think about their lives and what they want out of them, to show them that they don’t have to settle for what’s been given to them or follow certain predetermined roles because that’s what everyone expects them to do. He urges people to take responsibility for their actions, to realize that they’ve got the power to change things, to look at things in a different light.

King Midas couldn’t conceive of anything more valuable than gold until Dionysos showed him otherwise. Akoites couldn’t imagine any way out of violence and thievery until Dionysos revealed to him the power of dreams. Hephaistos and Hera were trapped in a cycle of violence and recrimination until Dionysos intervened. Ariadne thought herself worthy of death for the crimes of her past until Dionysos woke her up on Naxos. Countless women believed that they could be nothing more than wives and mothers until Dionysos got ahold of them. And he even tried to reason with his bitterest enemies. How many times does Dionysos come before Pentheus, humbling himself and pleading with him to turn aside, to let go of his wrath and delusions and choose the path of peace instead? The same course of action was taken with Lykourgos and the daughters of Minyas, though it didn’t do them any more good than it did Pentheus.

That’s because we humans are stubborn and stupid and blind and cling to our misery even as it destroys us. We do this because although misery isn’t exactly comfortable, it is familiar and unchallenging. Freedom is scary because it opens the doors of possibility into realms full of strangeness and uncertainty. Maybe something worse lies in store for us if we walk through those doors. Maybe we’ll be confronted with trials greater than we can handle. Maybe it’ll take us far from home and everything we’ve ever known. Maybe it’ll end up transforming us into people we’d hardly recognize any more – or like. Maybe we’ll see that there’s nothing to all the excuses and empty stories we’ve told ourselves to justify our stagnation and unhappiness and then we’ll actually have to start taking responsibility for our actions and the contents of our lives. Maybe … but is all of that necessarily such a bad thing? Don’t you want to be in charge of your life? Don’t you want to know that if you fail or succeed it’s because of what’s in you and not a result of what others have done to you in the past or because of all those nebulous, intangible forces stacked against you?

When it comes down to it most people don’t have any idea how truly free they are. Unless someone’s keeping you locked away in a basement somewhere there’s not a damned thing stopping you from picking up and starting your life over from scratch somewhere else. Seriously. Tomorrow you could decide to move all the way across the country to Florida, change your name, change your hair, get a bunch of tattoos and become an exotic dancer, leaving your job, your life up to this point, your family and everyone who’s ever known you behind for good. There’s nothing stopping you from doing that or anything else you could dream of – except yourself. I know because I’ve already done it twice in my life and for all I know I may end up doing it again.

Granted, that sort of radical transformation may not be for everyone and even my own recreations weren’t quite on that level. And I’m not saying it’d be easy, by any means. In fact, for most of us it’d be damn hard, full of unimaginable sacrifices and pain, with only a slim chance of actually succeeding. (Besides, no sensible person actually wants to live in Florida.) But the fact remains, it can be done. And if there’s nothing stopping a person from making a change of that magnitude then there’s nothing stopping you from making the changes in your own life that you feel are necessary. You don’t like the career you’ve got? Start over. So what if you’re fifty? Aischylos wrote his best plays when he was eighty. Sure, the economy’s tough and there may not be a whole lot of money or security in making artisan furniture or illustrating children’s books or whatever your calling happens to be, but do you really want to spend the rest of your life chained to a desk performing tedious, mind-numbing work that eats away at your soul? The sooner you get started the more time you’ll have to grow yourself a new career and even if it’s not exactly what you dreamed of certainly you can find something more in keeping with your goals and personal values. In the end, it’s your life – what are you going to do with it?

Or take another situation. There are a lot of folks who feel bound to the people in their past, even though those people are cruel, indifferent or toxic to them. There’s nothing in the world that forces you to keep talking with them if you don’t really want to. But they’re co-workers! Then talk to them as much as the conditions of your employment require and ignore and avoid them the rest of the time. But they’re friends of friends! A true friend will understand and not force you to socialize with someone whom you don’t get along with. If it’s unavoidable, then find new friends and social environments to hang out in. But they’re the only friends I’ve got and I don’t want to be alone! What’s so scary about being alone? We’re born that way, we leave the world that way, each night when we sleep we enter the world of dreams alone. If you aren’t comfortable with your own company, can’t find ways to entertain yourself and meaningfully fill your time on your own, then you aren’t going to be happy anyway, even if you’re constantly surrounded by a crowd. But they’re family! So what? We all share blood if you go far enough back, and otherwise “family” is just a concept. It’s an important one, to be sure, but if they’re actively harming you in some way you’re not obligated to remain in touch with them. Your own health and happiness have to come first. And you can always create a new family of people you like, people who nourish you, support your interests, and enrich your life. They may not have your DNA but they’re family in every way that matters.

And even more importantly we must take full responsibility for our actions. How often have you seen a person caught in a vicious cycle of escalating violence and blame? Person A did something shitty to Person B so B retaliates by doing something even worse and so on and so forth until they’ve dragged everyone else into it and no one is entirely sure why they’re fighting any longer, just that their side is in the right and it won’t be stopping any time soon. It’s easy to laugh at this sort of madness – and weep when we see it played out on the geopolitical stage every night on the news – but the truth is many of us are ensnared in this sort of thing without even realizing it. It’s imperative that we do, however, and that we take personal responsibility in this and all such situations. Hate and violence are choices. So are love and peace. You choose to keep the old wounds fresh and create new ones – or you choose not to. Any time you find yourself thinking “I have to feel or act this way,” or “this is what I was taught, it’s all I’ve ever known” or “if I don’t do ___, someone else will do ___ to me” it should give you a profound pause. You’re not thinking at that point, you’re just following the programming in your brain, reacting instead of acting. And if you’re okay with being a robot, that’s fine. But Dionysos expects something bigger and better of us. Maybe you can’t stop the cycle. You definitely can’t control how another thinks or acts. But you do have control over yourself and the choices you make and that’s all that you’ll be held accountable for in the end. You have the choice to end your part of it here and now – or to keep it going. And no one else can take that away from you.

Related to this, of course, are the choices we make about what we do with our bodies and what we put into them. Every time that you take a swig of alcohol, every time you take another drag of that cigarette, every time you eat something you know is bad for you, every time you put off exercising, or get into bed with someone you don’t really care for … you are making a choice. Maybe you’ve got a bad past or shitty genetics that predispose you to these behaviors and cloud your judgment, but each and every time you do it you’re consciously making a decision. Your past isn’t some tangible person holding a gun to your head saying, “Do this or I’ll splatter your brains all over the wall!” The people who fucked you over before aren’t pouring the glass down your throat. It’s just you, alone with your choices and the consequences of those choices.

I could go on and on but I’m sure you get the point. Nothing ever has more power over us than we’re willing to give it. There will always be consequences for our choices, and sometimes those consequences can be greater than we’re prepared to deal with. But the flip side of the coin is that when we realize that we are making a choice and taking responsibility for our decisions, we know what we’re getting into and that it’s our choice, something we can endure if we feel it’s worth it – or not, if we don’t feel it adds up. I may not follow every dream I’ve got. Living as a mad-poet on the streets is romantic but I’m not interested in the realities of poverty, hunger, danger and disease that come with it. So instead I’ve chosen to pursue other dreams, dreams that are more realistic and attainable and won’t inevitably lead to my destruction. Dreams that are a balance between freedom and security. I also do other things I know I probably shouldn’t – but I do them because I choose to, not because I have to. I own my choices and take full responsibility for what happens as a result of them. It never comes as a surprise when the consequences catch up with me. I may not like it, but I knew going in it was at least a possible outcome. I don’t blame other people or my history for the decisions I make. I know that I’m not just sleep-walking through life, doing only what’s programmed into me. I’m living the way I’ve decided to and accepting everything that naturally follows from those choices. And if I don’t like the consequences, I change my actions or I live with them, intentionally.

And that, to me, is the heart of having a Dionysian lifestyle. The only victim he tolerates is a sacrificial one – the bloodier the better!

Mysteries of the bees and lizards

The best honey in antiquity was that which came from the Hyblaean mountain range in Sicily:

They’ve been as plentiful as the pomegranate seeds reddening
under their slow-growing husks, in some fertile farm’s orchard,
as African grain, as the grape clusters of Lydia,
as olives of Sicyon, as honeycombs of Hybla.
(Ovid, Ex Ponto IV.XV:1-42)

Happy old man, who ‘mid familiar streams
and hallowed springs, will court the cooling shade!
Here, as of old, your neighbour’s bordering hedge,
that feasts with willow-flower the Hybla bees,
shall oft with gentle murmur lull to sleep.
(Virgil, Eclogue 1)

The posture of your blows are yet unknown.
But for your words, they rob the Hybla bees
And leave them honeyless.
(William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar 5.1.2)

A contingent of Dionysos’ army during the Indian War came from this area:

To him came from Sicily longshot Achates, and shieldbearing comrades with him, a great host of Cillyrioi and Elymoi, and those who lived round the seat of the Palicoi; those who had a city by the lake Catana near the Sirens, whom rosy Terpsichore brought forth by the stormy embraces of her bull-horned husband Acheloös; those who possessed Camarina, where the wild Hipparis disgorges his winding water in a roaring flood; those form the sacred citadel of Hybla, and those dwelling near Aitna, where the rock is alight and kettles of fire boil up the hot flare of Typhaon’s bed; those who scattered their houses along the beetling brow of Peloros and the island ground of sea-resounding Pachynos; and Sicilian Arethusa, where after his wandering travels Alpheios creeps proud of his Pisan chaplet – he crosses the deep like a highway, and draws his water, the slave of love, unwetted, over the surface of the sea, for he carries a burning fire warm through the cold water. After these Phaunos came, leaving the firesealed Pelorian plain of threepeak Sicily the rocky, whom Circe bore embraced by Cronion of the Deep, Circe the witch of many poisons, Aietas’s sister, who dwelt in the deepshadowed cells of a rocky palace. (Nonnos, Dionysiaka 13.309-332)

Hybla is named after a powerful indigenous goddess of the island:

By the chariot of Gelon stands an ancient Zeus holding a scepter which is said to be an offering of the Hyblaeans. There were two cities in Sicily called Hybla, one surnamed Gereatis and the other Greater, it being in fact the greater of the two. They still retain their old names, and are in the district of Catana. Greater Hybla is entirely uninhabited, but Gereatis is a village of Catana, with a sanctuary of the goddess Hyblaea which is held in honor by the Sicilians. The people of Gereatis, I think, brought the image to Olympia. For Philistus, the son of Archomenides, says that they were interpreters of portents and dreams, and more given to devotions than any other foreigners in Sicily. (Pausanias, Description of Greece 5.23.6)

The Galeotae were descended from Galeos:

That is, “the lizard,” a son of Apollo and Themisto, the daughter of the Hyperborean king Zabius. In pursuance of an oracle of the Dodonean Zeus, Galeus emigrated to Sicily, where he built a sanctuary to his father Apollo. The Galeotae, a family of Sicilian soothsayers, derived their origin from him. (Aelian, V. H. xii. 46; Cic. de Dixin. 1.20; Steph. Byz. s. v. galeôtai. The principal seat of the Galeatae was the town of Hybla, which was hence called Galeôtis, or as Thucydides (vi. 62.) writes it, Geleatis.

Dionysos, too, has a saurian aspect.

Kôlôtês (Gecko): Spotted lizard. Also an epithet of Dionysos. (Suidas s.v. Κωλωτης)

Which, in case you’re curious, is why the prophet Jim Morrison shouts, “I am the Lizard King! I can do anything!” during his dithyrambic Celebration of the Lizard.

We don’t need another shero

Apparently breastfeeding is sufficient to make one a shero these days. (And, just for clarification female heroes are heroines, not sheroes.)

Before I have the mommy brigade up in arms let me just say that while there’s nothing wrong if you can’t, I think it’s optimal for mothers to breastfeed as this not only provides the child with nutrition, minimizes its exposure to harmful chemicals but also provides the pair with some truly essential bonding at that early stage.

So I applaud this woman’s desire to breastfeed regardless of the pain and obstacles involved. That demonstrates strength of character and commitment, which are virtues all of us should strive to cultivate.

Likewise I agree with her comparison of giving birth to war, which is straight out of the ancient Greek epigraphic tradition. Epigraphic as in what’s inscribed on tombstones – giving birth was a tremendously dangerous enterprise back then, with a staggering mortality rate for both mother and child. Anyone who walks away from such an intimate brush with death is a badass in my book. Perhaps not a warrior, per se, since one of the defining characteristics of a warrior is that they are a person who not only can but has taken human life and I detest how this word has gotten watered down to the point where anything that requires discipline, fortitude, bravery, etc. is described as a “warrior’s path” – but you know, pushing something that large out of such a small orifice is indeed a praise-worthy accomplishment. (I should know – I was rather constipated last week.)

So, mad respect to mothers and all but come on – nor does letting a baby suckle from your tit automatically make you a hero. By definition there is something extraordinary about heroes and doing a thing that the majority of women throughout history have done and which is furthermore common to all mammals isn’t very extra ordinary. In fact it’s kind of the antithesis of that.

And if we’re going by the ancient Greek understanding of the ἥρως it’s even more inappropriate since in order to receive hero cultus you pretty much had to be dead first. (Alexander the Great tried to get his men to pay him heroic honors while still respiring and they found an efficient solution to that little theological dilemma.) Death alone, however, does not make one a hero.

Heroes did things such as found citiesslay monsters, or have divine parentage or favor, as well as associations with fertilityprotection and the underworld. More important than what this person may or may not have done in life, however, was their ability to act posthumously. I summarized the Hellenic conception in my piece on hero cultus for Jim Morrison in the following way:

For the ancients a hero was predominantly a dead person who continued to influence things on earth from beyond the grave in stark contrast to the majority of the deceased who resided as impotent and ignorant shades of their former selves in the underworld. Without first being fed on the blood of sacrificial victims, Teiresias informs Odysseus in the Homeric Nekyia, they cannot even recognize their fellows let alone what transpires in the world above. The hero, on the other hand, was one of the mighty dead who sent disease, blighted the crops, destroyed livestock and afflicted their families and members of the community with other violent punishments if neglected. Conversely if a proper shrine was built and tended for them with sacrifices, games and similar appropriate honors regularly bequeathed to them then the hero could be a powerful ally to the community, promoting fertility and health and offering prophetic guidance and protection from outsiders. In fact the assistance of the heroic dead was considered so vital to the wellbeing of a community that wars were fought over possession of the hero’s remains and the rights to conduct his or her festivals.

Information on these beings and their veneration is easily attainable. For instance you can read the complete text of Flavius Philostratus’ Heroikos, Sarah Hitch’s Hero Cult in Apollonius Rhodius and Gregory Nagy’s The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours all from Harvard’s Center of Hellenic Studies. For free. So really, there’s no excuse for not knowing who and what these beings are. And if one doesn’t want to be limited by the standard understanding why employ the terminology at all? Trying to appropriate the cachet of this word without fulfilling any of the requirements is just going to cast one in a poor light. I mean what would you think of me if I started describing myself as a mother because I crapped out a log last week?

So why do I care if someone else thinks that giving birth and breastfeeding qualify them for heroic status? Because doing so muddies the waters and if that’s permitted to happen people won’t be able to recognize heroes any longer and thus will be deprived of engagement with them – and that can have potentially serious consequences.

Polytheism, for me, isn’t just about the veneration of multiple deities. Gods are great and I’m all about the restoration of their worship in the modern era but even in their vast plenitude they are only a portion of what constitutes the category of “divinities.” Using the standard Hellenic model as an example, preceding the Gods are immense cosmological powers and alongside them are other races or families, such as the Titans, Giants, Cyclopes, etc. Then you’ve got Nymphs and other Spirits associated with the heavens, the earth and bodies of water. Then you’ve got daimones and Heroes and ancestors and tons of other entities ranging in power and influence. Even things like winds, dreams, money and virtues are possessed of intelligence and agency in a properly polytheistic worldview.

And yet a lot of people who come into polytheism tend to focus on the Gods to the exclusion of all other types of beings. Which I’m not knocking entirely because hey, that puts them ahead of the majority of neopagans – but by doing so they are missing out on some really vital elements of religion.

You see, one of the things that makes the Gods so great is their bigness. Take Dionysos, for instance. He’s been bopping around the globe more or less without interruption since the second millennium BCE, even well after Christian domination brought an end to the worship of the Olympian Gods on the state level. He’s got epithets in the triple digits, each with their own set of associations, attributes, functions, myths, etc. Indeed some of these are so complex and contradictory that it almost feels at times as if you’re dealing with an entire pantheon of Dionysoses. Today there are thousands of people across the globe who are having intimate and unique experiences with him – sometimes simultaneously with others. Because Dionysos tore me apart and put me back together again, he knows me in ways that no other entity can and yet after twenty years I still don’t know even the tiniest fraction of who he is. I especially don’t know who he is or what he reveals of himself when he’s off dancing with other Dionysians. And because of his bigness when he looks at the world or even at me he cannot help but see the big picture. No matter how dear to him I may be (and he has taken very good care of me) I cannot be his primary focus or concern. He’s got all of his other Bakchai and Bakchoi to look after, as well as his role in maintaining natural order and the obligations he has to the other Gods and Spirits – not to mention the fact that he’s an innate schemer and so he’s no doubt pursuing a multitude of interests and agendas of his own. So even if he might want to do me a solid he may not be able to because of conflicting loyalties or duties.

Smaller, less powerful beings often do not have as many of these limitations. Their sphere of influence is diminished accordingly but on the other hand if you’re the only one paying them cultus they’ll likely have the time, motivation and freedom to reciprocate. Plus I think a mature polytheism necessitates engagement with these beings as an extension of hospitality.

Using Dionysos as an example – when we bring him into ritual with us he is essentially our guest. After all, his homes are on Mount Parnassos, Mount Olympos, Mount Nysa and in the underworld as well as all of the temples that have been consecrated to him over the centuries. Even when we give over space in our homes to him by setting up shrines we are still, by default, the owners and maintainers of that property. Setting up a fully functioning temple is an entirely different matter as I’m sure my Thracian Adversary can attest. (And I owe this whole analogy I’m making to a conversation we had a couple days ago amid copious amounts of alcohol so if I’m butchering it hopefully he will chime in.) Therefore as host it is proper that we should demonstrate generosity and devotion as we feast and celebrate him.

But with ancestors and land-spirits the situation is reversed – we are coming into their territory as suppliants. In the case of the ancestors we have our whole existence through them – we owe them for the flesh that adorns our bones, the blood that flows through our veins, the traits and culture, the fortune and luck that has been handed down through their line. In the case of the land-spirits they are the place where we build our homes, the soil that produces the food we eat, the water that nourishes and cleanses us and when we go out to the woods or down by the shore of the river or deep beneath the earth in a cave – in these particular places that are unlike any other place on earth – it is them that we are visiting, and we should ever remain mindful of that. As suppliants we should treat our hosts properly and request of them what we desire instead of just greedily taking it. And I think it is proper for a guest to ask a favor of their host for that enhances their stature and gives them an opportunity to demonstrate their power. And when applied to spirits, approaching them in such a fashion keeps us mindful of the pervasiveness of their dominion.

So when want is created in our lives we should look to who presides over that area and approach them for assistance. Accepting such then produces debt and obligation on our part and as we go about repaying that we are bound to them in a more intimate relationship. This, of course, applies to Gods as well as the various types of Spirits but since we owe our existence more directly to the ancestors and spirits we should probably start with them first and work our way up the chain of divinity.

As an example, consider this story about the second prophet of the Bacchic Orphic tradition, Melampos:

Bias wooed Pero, daughter of Neleus. But as there were many suitors for his daughter’s hand, Neleus said that he would give her to him who should bring him the kine of Phylakos. These were in Phylake, and they were guarded by a dog which neither man nor beast could come near. Unable to steal these kine, Bias invited his brother to help him. Melampos promised to do so, and foretold that he should be detected in the act of stealing them, and that he should get the kine after being kept in bondage for a year. After making this promise he repaired to Phylake and, just as he had foretold, he was detected in the theft and kept a prisoner in a cell. When the year was nearly up, he heard the worms in the hidden part of the roof, one of them asking how much of the beam had been already gnawed through, and others answering that very little of it was left. At once he bade them transfer him to another cell, and not long after that had been done the cell fell in. Phylakos marvelled, and perceiving that he was an excellent soothsayer, he released him and invited him to say how his son Iphiklos might get children. Melampos promised to tell him, provided he got the kine. And having sacrificed two bulls and cut them in pieces he summoned the birds; and when a vulture came, he learned from it that once, when Phylakos was gelding rams, he laid down the knife, still bloody, beside Iphiklos, and that when the child was frightened and ran away, he stuck the knife on the sacred oak, and the bark encompassed the knife and hid it. He said, therefore, that if the knife were found, and he scraped off the rust, and gave it to Iphiklos to drink for ten days, he would beget a son. Having learned these things from the vulture, Melampos found the knife, scraped the rust, and gave it to Iphiklos for ten days to drink, and a son Podarces was born to him. But he drove the kine to Pylos, and having received the daughter of Neleus he gave her to his brother. For a time he continued to dwell in Messene, but when Dionysos drove the women of Argos mad, he healed them on condition of receiving part of the kingdom, and settled down there with Bias. (Apollodoros, Bibliotheka 1.9.12)

Why would you go to Zeus the cosmic king, ruler of all Gods and men when it’s the tree itself that was harmed and required placation?

Of course, this brings up another area where I think contemporary polytheist practice tends to be deficient – it’s not just the over-emphasis on the Gods but devotion as the default ritual setting.

Look, there’s nothing wrong with honoring and celebrating the Gods and Spirits – far, far, far, far, far from it!

It’s just not the only category of ritual.

The Greeks and Romans had tons of rituals that touched on practically every area of their lives. We can get a sense of the diversity of these ritual actions from this sketch of deisidaimonia by Theophrastos:

He is one who will wash his hands and sprinkle himself at the Sacred Fountain, and put a bit of laurel leaf in his mouth, to prepare himself for each day. If a marten should cross his path, he will not continue until someone else has gone by, or he has thrown three stones across the road. And if he should see a snake in his house, he will call up a prayer to Sabazios if it is one of the red ones; if it is one of the sacred variety, he will immediately construct a shrine on the spot. Nor will he go by the smooth stones at a crossroads without anointing them with oil from his flask, and he will not leave without falling on his knees in reverence to them. If a mouse should chew through his bag of grain, he will seek advice on what should be done from the official diviner of omens; but if the answer is, ‘Give it to the shoemaker to have it sewn up,’ he will pay no attention, but rather go away and free himself of the omen through sacrifice. He is also likely to be purifying his house continually, claiming that terrible Hecate has been mysteriously brought into it. And if an owl should hoot while he is outside, he becomes terribly agitated, and will not continue before crying out, ‘O! Mighty Athena!’ Never will he step on a tomb, nor get near a dead body, nor a woman in childbirth: he says he must keep on his guard against being polluted. On the unlucky days of the month– the fourth and seventh– he will order his servants to heat wine. Then he will go out and buy myrtle-wreaths, frankincense, and holy pictures; upon returning home, he spends the entire day arranging the wreaths on statues of the Hermaphrodites. Also, when he has a dream, he will go to the dream interpreters, the fortune-tellers, and the readers of bird-omens, to ask what God or Goddess he should pray to. When he is to be initiated into the Orphic mysteries, he visits the priests every month, taking his wife with him; or, if she can’t make it, the nursemaid and children will suffice. It is also apparent that he is one of those people who go to great lengths to sprinkle themselves with sea-water. And if he sees someone eating Hecate’s garlic at the crossroads, he must go home and wash his head; and then he calls upon the priestesses to carry a squill or a puppy around him for purification. If he sees a madman or epileptic, he shudders and spits into his lap.

Few of these could be described as devotional in any kind of meaningful sense and many blur the line between magic and religion – and yet in their totality they constituted a full and dynamic engagement with the holy powers through mindfulness and ritual. As it should be.

So, to bring it back around – if you don’t even know what a hero is how are you going to be able to figure out how to honor them properly? And if you can’t you’re either going to neglect or offend them which will end up compromising your quality of life.

Personally I feel Areios Didymos goes a little too far, but only a little when he writes:

It is the Stoic view that every wrong act is an impious act. For to do something against the wish of a God is proof of impiety. As the Gods have an affinity with virtue and its deeds, but are alienated from vice and those things which are produced by it, and as a wrong act is an activation in accord with vice, every wrong act is revealed as displeasing to the Gods. Furthermore enmity is disharmony and discord in matters of life, just as friendship is harmony and concord. But the worthless are in disharmony with the Gods in matters of life. Hence, every stupid person is an enemy of the Gods. Furthermore if all believe that those opposed to them are their enemies, and the worthless person is hostile to the worthwhile, and God is worthwhile, then the worthless person is an enemy of the Gods. (Epitome of Stoic Ethics 3.684)