Dionysian sacred kingship and the Ptolemies

For the ancients Dionysos was not merely the sight-seer par excellence; he traveled with a mission. Numerous ancient legends speak of his bringing wine and viniculture to various localities. Here are two from Athens alone:

Philochoros has this: Amphiktyon, king of Athens, learned from Dionysos the art of mixing wine, and was the first to mix it. So it was that men came to stand upright, drinking wine mixed, whereas before they were bent double by the use of unmixed. Hence he founded an altar of Dionysos Orthos (Upright) in the shrine of the Horai (Seasons); for these make ripe the fruit of the vine. Near it he also built an altar to the Nymphai to remind devotees of the mixing; for the Nymphai are said to be the nurses of Dionysos. He also instituted the cutom of taking just a sip of unmixed wine after meat, as a proof of the power of the Good God, but after that he might drink mixed wine, as much as each man chose. They were also to repeat over this cup the name of Zeus Soter as a warning and reminder to drinkers that only when they drank in this fashion would they surely be safe. (Athenaios, Deipnosophistai 2.38c-d)

When Father Liber went out to visit men in order to demonstrate the sweetness and pleasantness of his fruit, he came to the generous hospitality of Icarius and Erigone. To them he gave a skin full of wine as a gift and bade them spread the use of it in all the other lands. Loading a wagon, Icarius with his daughter Erigone and a dog Maera came to shepherds in the land of Attica, and showed them the kind of sweetness wine had. The shepherds, made drunk by drinking immoderately, collapsed, and thinking that Icarius had given them some bad medicine, killed him with clubs. The dog Maera, howling over the body of the slain Icarius, showed Erigone where her father lay unburied. When she came there, she killed herself by hanging in a tree over the body of her father. Because of this, Father Liber afflicted the daughters of the Athenians with alike punishment. They asked an oracular response from Apollo concerning this, and he told them they had neglected he deaths of Icarius and Erigone. At this reply they exacted punishment from the shepherds, and in honour of Erigone instituted a festival day of swinging because of the affliction, decreeing that through the grape-harvest they should pour libations to Icarius and Erigone. By the will of the Gods they were put among the stars. Erigone is the sign Virgo whom we call Justice; Icarius is called Arcturus among the stars, and the dog Maera is Canicula. (Hyginus, Fabulae 130)

He collected an army:

The whole tribe of Satyroi is boldhearted while they are drunken with bumpers of wine; but in battle they are but braggarts who run away from the fight – hares in the battlefield, lions outside, clever dancers, who know better than all the world how to ladle strong drink from the full mixing-bowl. Few of these have been men of war, to whom bold Ares has taught all the practice of the fray and how to manage a battalion. Here when Lyaios prepared for war, some of them covered their bodies with raw oxhides, others fortified themselves with skins of shaggy lions, others put on the grim pelts of panthers, others equipped themselves with long pointed staves, others girt about their chests the skins of long-antlered stags dappled like stars in the sky. With these creatures, the two horns on the temples right and left strengthened their sharp points, and a scanty fluff grew on the top of the pointed skull over the crooked eyes. When they ran, the winged breezes blew back their two ears, stretched out straight and flapping against their hairy cheeks: behind them a horse’s tail stuck out straight and lashed round their loins on either side. (Nonnos, Dionysiaka 14. 105 ff)

You drive your pair of lynxes with bright coloured reigns. Bacchae and Satyri are your followers, and that old drunkard whose stout staff supports his tottering steps, who sits so insecure upon his sagging ass. Wherever your course leads you, young men’s shouts and women’s cries echo afar with noise of tambourines and clashing bronze and long-bored pipes of box. (Ovid, Metamorphoses 4. 25 ff)

And led them to the very edge of the world:

Dionysos was, in my opinion … the first to invade India, and the first to bridge the river Euphrates. Zeugma was the name given to that part of the country where the Euphrates was bridged, and at the present day the cable is still preserved with which he spanned the river; it is plaited with branches of the vine and ivy. Both the Greeks and the Egyptians have many legends about Dionysos. (Pausanias, 10.29.4)

Destruction feeds, O Bacchus, on that soldiery of thine, thy comrades to farthest India, who dared to ride on the Eastern plains and plant thy banners on the world’s first edge. The Arabs, blest with their cinnamon groves, they saw, and fleeing horsemen, the backs of the treacherous Parthians, to be feared for their flying shafts; they pierced to the shores of the ruddy sea, whence Phoebus discloses his rising beams, opens the gates of day, and with nearer torch darkens the naked Indians.(Seneca, Oedipus 112)

Megasthenes says that the Indians were originally nomads, like the non-agricultural Scythians, who wander in their waggons and move from one part of Scythia to another, not dwelling in cities and not reverencing shrines of the Gods. Just so the Indians had no cities and built no temples, but were clothed with the skins of wild animals they would kill, and ate the bark of trees; these trees were called in the Indian tongue Tala, and what look like clews of wool grew on them, just as on the tops of palm trees. They also fed on what game they had captured, eating it raw, at least until Dionysos reached India. But when he arrived and became master of India, he founded cities, gave them laws, bestowed wine on the Indians as on the Greeks, and taught them to sow their land, giving them seed. Dionysos first yoked oxen to the plough and made most of the Indians agriculturalists instead of nomads, and equipped them also with the arms of warfare. He also taught them to reverence various Gods, but especially of course himself, with clashings of cymbals and beating of drums; he instructed them to dance in the Satyric fashion, the dance called among Greeks the ‘cordax’, and showed them how to wear long hair in honour of the God with the conical cap, and instructed them in the use of perfumed ointments, so that even against Alexander the Indians came to battle to the sound of cymbals and drums. (Arrian, Indica 7.2-9)

One of the most beautiful evocations of this can be found in the prologue to Euripides’ Bakchai:

I, Dionysos, have left the wealthy lands of the Lydians and Phrygians, the sun-parched plains of the Persians, and the Bactrian walls, and have passed over the wintry land of the Medes, and blessed Arabia, and all of Asia which lies along the coast of the salt sea with its beautifully-towered cities full of Hellenes and barbarians mingled together; and I have come to this Hellenic city first, having already set those other lands to dance and established my mysteries there, so that I might be a deity manifest among men.

The Dionysiac Triumph was particularly popular in Egyptian works of art, as Jack Lindsay points out:

On a mosaic is represented a procession in his honor; he stands in a car drawn by centaur and centauress. On a Coptic textile he holds a bowl in his right hand and a duck in his left as he stands in a car drawn by spotted panthers. On two other textiles the car is drawn by rampant panthers or lions. Elsewhere mosaics, silver plate, and sarcophagi show lionesses, tigers, panthers, elephants drawing the chariot; and at times lions accompany the God. The child Dionysos is set astride both a lion and a panther on Ptolemaic sculptures at Memphis. A relief on an Alexandrian ivory pyxis depicts Dionysos in a car drawn by panthers, while he fights Indians, a torch in his right hand and a shield in his left. In a mosaic from Acholla in N. Africa he is drawn by galloping centaurs, a kantharos in his right hand, in his left a spear such as was used in hunting. Such spears are shown as carried by bacchantes: on a Coptic textile of a Triumph and in a Pompeian wall-painting of the dismemberment of Pentheus. (Leisure and Pleasure in Roman Egypt, pgs. 225-226)

As you can see, the essential features of this myth had already been firmly established long before Alexander the Great. This is significant since some scholars have sought to dismiss the story as a Hellenistic fabrication. Granted, the myth was given new relevance after Alexander and like all myths it accumulated novel elements through repeated retellings, but the core of it had always been there, and indeed is essential for a proper understanding of Dionysos.

That’s because Dionysos is the epiphanal God (ἐπιφανέστατος θεός), he who appears, he who comes from afar. He is the stranger, the embodiment of the Other. He affirms the norms of a society by outlining and transgressing their boundaries. And Dionysos is a culture-bringer in every sense of the word, for you cannot have culture without agriculture. When we learn to till the soil we come to value what is permanent and settled, and most important of all, how to get along with others. Cooperation is essential for this: you cannot sow the seeds, tend the fields and harvest its produce all on your own. You must rely on others and come up with satisfactory ways to settle disputes. Those who place their own petty desires above the needs of the community bring great suffering to all. So out of agricultural cooperation are born all of our laws and customs.

This is the heart of the myth of Dionysos the world-conqueror. He sets out to bring knowledge of the vine to distant lands. In the process he teaches them law and civilization, the tools necessary to properly care for the fields. He puts down evil customs such as cannibalism and opposes those who are haughty and unjust, those who are selfish, violent, and quarrelsome such as Lykourgos and Deriades. And with the advent of agriculture comes the blessings of civilization: prosperity, peace and happiness. Men’s bellies are full, their spirits free, and their hearts joyous.

When Alexander sought to put down the tyranny of the Persians he looked back to the glorious accomplishments of his ancestor and consciously sought to follow in his footsteps. In fact, Plutarch even makes Alexander admit as much:

“I imitate Herakles, and emulate Perseus, and follow in the footsteps of Dionysos, the divine author and progenitor of my family, and desire that victorious Greeks should dance again in India and revive the memory of the Bacchic revels among the savage mountain tribes beyond the Kaukasos.” (On the Fortune of Alexander 1.332A)

Alexander not only imitated the military accomplishments of his ancestor but also his theatrical displays which, in a sense, were deeply intertwined:

Some writers have recounted a story, which I do not myself credit, that Alexander bound together two war-chariots, and drove through Carmania reclining with his Companions to the sound of the pipes, while his army followed behind, garlanded and sporting; that provisions and everything else that could make for luxury had been brought together along their path by the Carmanians; and that this pageantry was devised by Alexander in imitation of the Bacchic revelry of Dionysos, since there was a story about Dionysos that, after subduing India, he traversed the greater part of Asia in this way, that he himself was surnamed ‘Triumph’, and that processions after victories in war were for this very reason called ‘triumphs’.(Arrian, Anabasis VI.28.1-2)

Therefore, as was said before, rivaling not only the glory of Father Liber which he had carried off from those nations, but also his procession, whether that was a triumph first invented by that God or the sport of drunken revelers, he decided to imitate it, in a spirit raised above the level of human greatness. To this end, he ordered the villages through which his route lay to be strewn with flowers and garlands, mixing-bowls filled with wine, and other vessels of unusual size to be placed everywhere on the thresholds of the houses, then carriages to be spread, so that each might hold many soldiers, and to be equipped like tents, some with white curtains, and others with costly tapestries. At the head marched the king’s friends and the royal troop, wreathed with chaplets made of a variety of flowers; on one side was heard the music of flute-players, on another the notes of the lyre; the army also joined the revels in vehicles adorned according to the means of each man and hung around with their most beautiful arms. The king and his companions rode in a chariot loaded down with golden bowls and huge beakers of the same material. In this way the army for seven days marched in riotous procession, an easy prey if the conquered had had any courage even against revelers; a single thousand, by Heaven! provided they were real men and sober, could have captured in the midst of their triumph those who for seven days had been heavy with drunkenness. But Fortune, who assigns renown and value to actions, turned to glory even this disgrace to an army. Both the age of that time, and afterwards posterity, regarded it as wonderful that they marched drunken through nations not wholly subdued, and that the barbarians took this rash conduct for confidence. (Quintus Curtius Rufus, Historiae Alexandri Magni IX.10.24ff)

Likewise, when the Ptolemies succeeded Alexander they modeled their rule on that of Dionysos:

Great King Ptolemy, son of King Ptolemy and Queen Arsinoe the Brother and Sister Gods, the children of King Ptolemy and Queen Berenike the Savior Gods, descendant on the paternal side of Herakles the son of Zeus, on the maternal of Dionysos the son of Zeus, having inherited from his father the kingdom of Egypt and Libya and Syria and Phoenicia and Cyprus and Lycia and Caria and the Cyclades islands led a campaign into Asia with infantry and cavalry and fleet and Troglodytic and Ethiopian elephants, which he and his father were the first to hunt from these lands and, bringing them back into Egypt, to fit out for military service. Having become master of all the land this side of the Euphrates and of Cilicia and Pamphylia and Ionia and the Hellespont and Thrace and of all the forces and Indian elephants in these lands, and having made subject all the princes in the (various) regions, he crossed the Euphrates river and after subjecting to himself Mesopotamia and Babylonia and Sousiane and Persis and Media and all the rest of the land up to Bactriane and having sought out all the temple belongings that had been carried out of Egypt by the Persians and having brought them back with the rest of the treasure from the (various) regions he sent (his) forces to Egypt through the canals that had been dug …. (OGIS 54)

There was a great Viceroy in Egypt, Ptolemaeus was he called. A person of youthful energy was he, strong in both arms, prudent of mind, powerful amidst men, of firm courage, steady foot, repelling the raging, not turning his back, striking the face of his foes amidst their combat. When he had seized the bow not a shot is from the opponent, a flourish of his sword in the fight no one could stand his ground, of mighty hand, nor was his hand repulsed, nor repented he of what his mouth utters, none is like him in the stranger’s world. He had restored the statues of the Gods, found in Asia, and all the furniture and books of the temples of Northern and Southern Egypt, he had restored them to their place. He had made as his residence the fortress of the King, ‘Loving the name of Amen the sun-chosen the Son of the Sun, Alexander,’ as it is called on the shore of the great sea of the Ionians. Rakotis was its former name. He had gathered many Ionians and their cavalry (and) their numerous ships, with their crew. When he marched with his men to the Syrians’ land, who were at war with him, he penetrated its interior, his courage was as mighty as the eagle amongst the young birds. He took them at one stroke, he led their princes, their cavalry, their ships, their works of art, all to Egypt. After this, when he set out for the region of Mermerti, he took it in one time, he brought home their folk, men, women, with their horses, as revenge for what they did to Egypt. When he arrived in Egypt, his heart was rejoicing in what he had done, he solemnized a holiday, (and) this great Viceroy seeking the best for the Gods of Upper Egypt (and) Lower Egypt. (The Satrap Stele)

Ptolemy rules the land of Egypt, and has added to his empire a part of Phoinikia and Arabia, and of Syria and Libya and the black Aithiopians. He rules all the Pamphylians and Kilikians, the Lykians and the war-loving Karians, and the islands of the Kyklades. For his ships are the best that sail the seas, and all the seas and lands and roaring rivers acknowledge Ptolemy’s reign. Many horsemen and many foot-soldiers clad in shining bronze gather round him. In riches he outweighs all kings, so many things come every day to his splendid palace from every side. His people carry on their trades in peace. No enemy from the land crosses the Neilos, teeming with monsters, to raise the battlecry in villages not his own. And none leaps armed from his swift ship upon the shore to harry Egypt’s cattle, so great a man is throned in those level plains – Ptolemy, gold-haired, skilled spearman. Like a good king he is determined to hold everything inherited from his fathers and to add something of his own. (Theokritos, 17th Idyll)

When necessary Dionysos could be a forceful and heroic figure, squashing his enemies. But that was not his main purpose. He was no Ares or Herakles: he was the culture-bringer, the peace-lover, the inaugurator of a new golden era of civilization.

And that’s what they wished the Ptolemaic Kingdom to be. And in many respects it was

In all the qualities which make a good ruler, Ptolemy Philadelphos excelled not only his contemporaries, but all who have arisen in the past and even til today, after so many generations, his praises are sung for the many evidences and monuments of his greatness of mind which he left behind him in different cities and countries, so that, even now, acts of more than ordinary munificence or buildings on a specially great scale are proverbially called Philadelphian after him. … To put it shortly, as the house of the Ptolemies was highly distinguished, compared with other dynasties, so was Philadelphos among the Ptolemies. The creditable achievements of this one man almost outnumbered those of all the others put together, and, as the head takes the highest place in the living body, so he may be said to head the kings. (Philo, Life of Moses 2.29-30)

In Egypt a young man could find everything there is and will be: wealth, the wrestling arena, power, peace, renown, shows, philosophers, money, young men, the temple of the Sibling Gods, the king a good ruler, the Mouseion, wine, all the goods somebody may desire, and more women, by Hades’ wife Kore, than the sky boasts of stars, and beautiful like the Goddesses who once came to Paris to let him judge their beauty. (Herondas, Mimes l.26ff)

Zeus, the son of Kronos, has in his care all great kings, but especially the one he has loved from birth. Much wealth is his, and he rules many lands and many seas. Ten thousand countries and ten thousand tribes ripen their crops with the help of Zeus’ rain, but none is so fertile as Egypt’s plain, when overflowing Neilos soaks the soil and loosens it. The piles of gold, like the stores of ever-toiling ants, do not lie useless in the rich house of Ptolemy. The glorious temples of the Gods receive much, for he offers first-fruits and many other gifts, and he gives much to mighty kings, and much to cities, and much to his loyal friends. No singer skilled in raising his clear-voiced song comes to Dionysos’ sacred contests without the receiving the gift his art deserves. And these interpreters of the Muses sing of Ptolemy for his kindness. (Theokritos, 17th Idyll)

The advantages of Alexandria are of various kinds. The site is washed by two seas, on the north by what is called the Egyptian Sea, and on the south, by the sea of the lake Mareia, which is also called Mareotis. This lake is filled by many canals from the Nile, both by those above and those at the sides, through which a greater quantity of merchandise is imported than by those communicating with the sea. Hence the harbor on the lake is richer than the seaside harbor. The exports of Alexandria exceed the imports. This any person can ascertain by watching the arrival and departure of the merchant ships, and observing how much heavier or lighter their cargoes are than when they depart or return. The shape of the city is that of a chlamys or military cloak. The whole city is intersected with streets for the passage of horsemen and chariots. Two of these are exceeding broad, over a plethrum in breadth, and cut one another at right angles. The city contains also very beautiful public parks and royal palaces, which occupy a fourth or even a third of its whole extent. For as each of the kings was desirous of adding some embellishment to the places dedicated to the public use, so besides the buildings already existing each of them erected a building at his own expense. All the buildings are connected one with another, and these also with what are beyond it. The Mouseion is a part of the palaces. It has a public walk, and a place furnished with seats, and a large hall, in which men of learning, who belong to the Mouseion, take their common meal. This community possesses also property in common; and a priest, formerly appointed by the kings, but at present by Caesar, presides over the Mouseion. In the great harbor at the entrance, on the right hand, are the island and the Pharos tower, on the left are the reef of rocks and the promontory Lochias, with a palace upon it; at the entrance on the other hand are the inner palaces which are continuous with those on the Lochias, and contain many painted apartments and groves. Near by is the theater, then the Poseideion, a kind of elbow projecting out from the merchant harbor with a temple of Poseidon upon it. There follow along the water front a vast succession of docks, military and mercantile harbors, magazines, also canals reaching the lake Mareotis, and many magnificent temples, an amphitheater, stadium, etc. In short, the city of Alexandria abounds with public and sacred buildings. The most beautiful of the former is the Gymnasion, with porticoes exceeding a stadium in extent. In the middle of it are the court of justice and groves. Here, too, is a Paneion, an artificial mound of the shape of a fir cone, resembling a pile of rock, to the top of which there is an ascent by a spiral path. From the summit may be seen the wide city lying all around and beneath it. The Wide Street extends in length along the Gymnasion to the Canopic gate. Next is the Hippodrome, as it is called, and other buildings. The greatest advantage which the city of Alexandria possesses arises from its being the only place in all Egypt well situated by nature for communication with the sea — by its fine harbor, and with the land, by the river by means of which everything is easily transported to the city, which is the greatest market in the habitable world. (Strabo, Geography 12.1.6ff)

Egypt under the Ptolemies was the most prosperous nation in the world and its wealth was utilized to promote culture in ways never imagined before. The specifically Dionysian nature of their Kingship was demonstrated for all to see in the Grand Procession of Ptolemy Philadelphos. Here are some choice excerpts from the account of this spectacle that has come down to us from the pen of Kallixeinos of Rhodes via the anthologist Athenaios of Naukratis:

Next there followed another four-wheeler, thirty and more feet long, twenty-four feet wide, drawn by three hundred men; in this was set up a wine-press thirty six feet long, twenty-two and a half wide, full of grapes. And sixty Satyrs trod them while they sang a vintage song to the accompaniment of pipes, and a Silenus superintended them. The new wine streamed through the whole line of march. Next came a four-wheeled cart thirty-seven and a half feet long, twenty-one feet wide, and drawn by six-hundred men; in it was a wine skin holding thirty thousand gallons, stitched together from leopard pelts; this also trickled over the whole line of march as the wine was slowly let out. Following the skin came a hundred and twenty crowned Satyrs and Sileni, some carrying wine-pitchers, others shallow cups, still others large deep cups – everything of gold. Immediately next to them passed a silver mixing-bowl holding six thousand gallons, in a cart drawn by six hundred men. It bore, beneath the brim and handles and under the base, figures of beaten metal, and round the middle ran a gold band, like a wreath, studded with jewels. Next were carried two silver stands for drinking-cups, eighteen feet long and nine feet in height ; these had end-ornaments on top, and on the swelling sides all round as well as on the legs were carved figures, many in number, two and three feet high. And there were then large basins and sixteen mixing bowls, the larger of which held three hundred gallons, while the smallest held fifty. Then there were twenty-four cauldrons ornamented with an acorn boss, all of them on stands; and two silver wine-presses, on which were twenty–four jars, a table of solid silver eighteen feet long, and thirty more tables nine feet long. Added to these were four tripods, one of which had a circumference of twenty-four feet, plated throughout with silver, while the other three, which were smaller, were studded with jewels in the center. After these were borne along Delphic tripods of silver, eighty in number, but smaller than those just mentioned; at their corners (were figures in beaten metal), and the tripods had a capacity of forty gallons. There were twenty-six water jars, sixteen Panathenaic amphoras, one hundred and sixty wine-coolers; of these the largest contained sixty gallons, the smallest twenty. All of these vessels were of silver.

Next to these in his catalogue were six-foot tables on which were borne remarkable scenes lavishly represented. Among these was included the bridal chamber of Semele, in which certain characters wear tunics of gold bejeweled with the costliest gems. And it would not be right to omit the following mention of the four-wheeled cart, in length thirty-three feet, in width twenty-one, drawn by five hundred men ; in it was a deep cavern profusely shaded with ivy and yew. From this pigeons, ring-doves, and turtle-doves flew forth along the whole route, with nooses tied to their feet so that they could be easily caught by the spectators. And from it also gushed forth two fountains, one of milk, the other of wine. And all the nymphs standing round him wore crowns of gold, and Hermes had a staff of gold, and all in rich garments. In another cart, which contained ‘the return of Dionysos from India,’ there was a Dionysos measuring eighteen feet who reclined upon an elephant’s back, clad in a purple coat and wearing a gold crown, of ivy and vine pattern; he held in his hands a gold wand-lance, and his feet were shod with shoes fastened by gold straps. Seated in front of him on the elephant’s neck was a Satyr measuring seven and a half feet, crowned with a gold pine-wreath, his right hand holding a goat-horn of gold, as though he were signaling with it. The elephant had trappings of gold and round its neck an ivy-crown in gold. This cart was followed by five hundred young girls dressed in purple tunics with gold girdles. Those who were in the lead, numbering one hundred and twenty, wore gold pine-crowns; following them came one hundred and twenty Satyrs, some in gold, some in silver, and some in bronze panoply. After them marched five troops of asses on which were mounted Sileni and Satyrs wearing crowns. Some of the asses had frontlets and harness of gold, others, of silver. After them were sent forth twenty-four elephant chariots, sixty teams of he-goats, twelve of saiga antelopes, seven of beisa antelopes, fifteen of leucoryse, eight teams of ostriches, seven of Pere David deer, four of wild asses, and four four-horse chariots. On all these were mounted little boys wearing the tunics and wide-brimmed hats of charioteers, and beside them stood little girls equipped with small crescent shields and wand-lances, dressed in robes and decked with gold coins. The lads driving the chariots wore pine crowns, the girls wore ivy. Next after them came six teams of camels, three on either side. These were immediately followed by carts drawn by mules. These contained barbaric tents, under which sat Indian and other women dressed as captives. Then came camels, some of which carried three hundred pounds of myrrh, and two hundred of saffron, cassia, cinnamon, oris, and all other spices. Next to these were negro tribute-bearers, some of whom brought six hundred tusks, others two thousand ebony logs, others sixty mixing-bowls full of gold and silver coins and gold dust. After these, in the procession, marched two hunters carrying gilded hunting-spears. Dogs were also led along, numbering two thousand four hundred, some Indian, the others Hyrcanian or Molossian or of other breeds. Next came one hundred and fifty men carrying trees on which were suspended all sorts of animals and birds. Then were brought, in cages, parrots, peacocks, guinea-fowls, and birds from the pheasants and others from Aethiopia, in great quantities. Also, one hundred and thirty Aethiopian sheep, three hundred Arabian, twenty Euboean ; also twenty-six Indian zebus entirely white, eight Aethiopian, one large white she-bear, fourteen leopards, sixteen genets, four caracals, three bear-cubs, one giraffe, one Aethiopian rhinoceros. Next in a four-wheeled cart was Dionysos at the altar of Rhea, having found refuge there while being pursued by Hera; he had on a gold crown, and Priapus stood at his side, with a gold ivy-crown. The statue of Hera had a gold diadem. Then there were statues of Alexander and Ptolemy, crowned with ivy-crowns made of gold. The statue of Goodness which stood beside Ptolemy had a gold olive-crown. Priapus stood beside them also wearing an ivy-crown made of gold. The city of Corinth, standing beside Ptolemy, was crowned with a gold band. Beside all these figures were placed a stand for cups, full of gold vessels, and a gold mixing-bowl of fifty gallons capacity. Following this cart were women who wore very rich robes and ornaments; they bore the names of cities, some from Ionia, while all the rest were Greek cities which occupied Asia and the islands and had been under the rule of the Persians; they all wore gold crowns. In other carts, also, were carried a Bacchic wand of gold, one hundred and thirty-five feet long, and a silver spear ninety feet long; in another was a gold phallus one hundred and eighty feet long, painted in various colors and bound with fillets of gold; it had at the extremity a gold star, the perimeter of which was nine feet.

It is hard not to be awe-struck by such accounts, to marvel at the power and wealth of these great Dionysian Kings. And this was a tradition that continued down to the end of the Dynasty. Kleopatra and her Roman husband Marcus Antonius were no less skilled in the art of pageantry nor unaware of the importance of Dionysos in maintaining their power.

Marcus Antonius claimed the epiklesis “Neos Dionysos” that so many of the Ptolemies had borne before him:

Marcus Antonius had previously given orders that he should be called the new Father Liber, and indeed in a procession at Alexandria he had impersonated Father Liber, his head bound with the ivy wreath, his person enveloped in the saffron robe of gold, holding in his hand the thyrsus, wearing the buskins, and riding in the Bacchic chariot. (Velleius Paterculus, Roman History 2.82)

Both he and his followers exploited this connection to dramatic effect:

At any rate, when Antony made his entry into Ephesus, women arrayed like Bacchanals, and men and boys like Satyrs and Pans, led the way before him, and the city was full of ivy and thyrsus-wands and harps and pipes and flutes, the people hailing him as Dionysos Carnivorous and Savage. (Plutarch, Life of Antony 24)

And Kleopatra herself used it to win Antony over after the assassination of Julius Caesar:

Though Kleopatra received many letters of summons both from Antony himself and from his friends, she was so bold as to sail up the river Cydnus in a barge with gilded poop, its sails spread purple, its rowers urging it on with silver oars to the sound of the flute blended with pipes and lutes. She herself reclined beneath a canopy spangled with gold, adorned like Venus in a painting, while boys like Loves in paintings stood on either side and fanned her. Likewise also the fairest of her serving-maidens, attired like Nereïds and Graces, were stationed, some at the rudder-sweeps, and others at the reefing-ropes. Wondrous odours from countless incense-offerings diffused themselves along the river-banks. Of the inhabitants, some accompanied her on either bank of the river from its very mouth, while others went down from the city to behold the sight. The throng in the market-place gradually streamed away, until at last Antony himself, seated on his tribunal, was left alone. And a rumour spread on every hand that Venus was come to revel with Bacchus for the good of Asia. (Plutarch, Life of Antony 26.1-3)

The two were well-matched, and famed for their luxurious Dionysian celebrations:

But Cleopatra having met Antony in Cilicia, prepared a royal entertainment, in which every dish was golden and inlaid with precious stones, wonderfully chased and embossed. And the walls were hung with cloths embroidered in gold and purple. And she had twelve triclinia laid; and invited Antony to a banquet, and desired him to bring with him whatever companions he pleased. And he being astonished at the magnificence of the sight, expressed his surprise; and she, smiling, said that she made him a present of everything which he saw, and invited him to sup with her again the next day, and to bring his friends and captains with him. And then she prepared a banquet by far more splendid than the former one, so as to make that first one appear contemptible; and again she presented to him everything that there was on the table; and she desired each of his captains to take for his own the couch on which he lay, and the goblets which were set before each couch. And when they were departing she gave to all those of the highest rank palanquins, with the slaves for palanquin bearers; and to the rest she gave horses, adorned with golden furniture: and to every one she gave Ethiopian boys, to bear torches before them. And on the fourth day she paid more than a talent for roses; and the floor of the chamber for the men was strewed a cubit deep, nets being spread over the blooms. Antony himself, when he was staying at Athens, a short time after this, prepared a very superb scaffold to spread over the theatre, covered with green wood such as is seen in the caves sacred to Bacchus; and from this scaffold he suspended drums and fawn-skins, and all the other toys which one names in connection with Bacchus, and then sat there with his friends, getting drunk from daybreak, a band of musicians, whom he had sent for from Italy, playing to him all the time, and all the Greeks around being collected to see the sight. And presently, he crossed over to the Acropolis, the whole city of Athens being illuminated with lamps suspended from the roof; and after that lie ordered himself to be proclaimed as Bacchus throughout all the cities in that district. (Sokrates the Rhodian, History of the Civil War Book 3 [Quoted in Athenaios, 4.29])

Indeed, Antony was so closely linked with the God that after the defeat of the Ptolemaic naval force at Actium there was a legend that Dionysos had abandoned him:

During this night, it is said, about the middle of it, while the city was quiet and depressed through fear and expectation of what was coming, suddenly certain harmonious sounds from all sorts of instruments were heard, and the shouting of a throng, accompanied by cries of Bacchic revelry and satyric leapings, as if a troop of revellers, making a great tumult, were going forth from the city; and their course seemed to lie about through the middle of the city toward the outer gate which faced the enemy, at which point the tumult became loudest and then dashed out. Those who sought the meaning of the sign were of the opinion that the God to whom Antony always most likened and attached himself was now deserting him. (Plutarch, Life of Antony 75)

What can I do?

All you can do is what you can do

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My leadership philosophy

If you want to build a ship
don’t herd people together to collect wood
and don’t assign them tasks and work,
but rather teach them to long
for the endless immensity of the sea.
– Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

в гостях хорошо, а дома лучше

So what kind of a commune am I envisioning?

Well, to begin with it will be open only to polytheists – and specifically those who honor the Gods and Spirits of the Kingdom. The foundation of the Kingdom – indeed, the very reason for our coming together – is to uphold the covenants or sacred contracts between our Gods, our Spirits, our Dead, our Land and our people. This creates a reciprocal bond between us; we will make offerings, perform devotional activities, keep their festivals and holy days, tend and protect their shrines and those portions of the land that have been consecrated to them, consult them on all important matters of both an individual and communal nature, follow and preserve the sacred traditions, customs, rites and mysteries that they have entrusted us with and everything else that goes into being a proper member of the tribe; in return they will guide, protect and bless our land and our people. Divinities who have not formally entered into a covenant with the Kingdom are of no more concern to us than non-members of the tribe. This does not mean that members cannot maintain private cultus for them, merely that they are not reflected in our communal rites and customs and there exist no formal collective obligations. Children will be raised to value the traditions of our tribe and to reverence the Gods and Spirits of our Kingdom. Anyone who cannot do so, regardless of age, will be removed from our land and not permitted back until they have demonstrated correct belief and behavior.

The land will contain the following: numerous small homes for the permanent residents, lodging for guests and space for camping, a great hall for public business and feasting, workshops for our artisans, land set aside for farming and livestock, a place for our warriors to train, a common field for religious ceremonies ringed by god-poles, outdoor shrines and even a couple small temples, as well as a labyrinth, a sauna, an untouched grove, a hill and a lake. This, at least, is what I was shown in the initial dream – what we end up with may be a whole other matter.

We shall strive to be a self-sustained and contained community. Our members will have a diversity of skills and use barter and work-trade to supplement what they cannot make or do for themselves. There will be common tools and machinery to cut down on costs. To the extent that they are able everyone will be expected to pitch in at planting and harvest time, perform communal chores and help with the general upkeep of the place and its possessions, as well as defend our people and our land from threats both internal and external. In addition to the permanent residents (and allies from other polytheist communities and groups who may be in attendance) we will have an extended community drawn from the neighboring area and further afield who will visit for festivals, retreats and similar special events. Anyone who sets foot on our land is expected to contribute, especially at planting and harvest time. In return none shall want for their basic necessities – they especially will not go hungry or suffer untreated ailments or injuries – for as long as they are with us.

One is not simply born into the tribe; rather an individual must undergo thorough training in our ways and prove their worth through a series of ordeals and initiations. With the passing of each level comes an increase in rights and responsibilities until one is made a full member of the tribe. Until then the individual is as much of a non-entity as outsiders are. This process is also intended to determine the individual’s aptitudes and affinities from which their vocation will be forged. Everyone has a place, and that place is doing the thing they love most. Guilds will exist to facilitate specialized education within a particular field and foster professional relationships and opportunities. Each Guild will have its patron divinities whose cultus (private and public) members are responsible for maintaining. Guilds will also have Representatives who will sit on the Council of the King’s Advisors.

There is more I could say – much more – but that should give you a good sense of what I have in mind for this grand venture.

Hier stehe ich. Ich kann nicht anders. Gott helfe mir.

Before I continue with the wonderful questions that have trickled in since I posted the writing prompt there is something I need to say, particularly as it will influence how I answer some of these, especially the ones on traditionalism and tribalism. Astute readers may have picked up on it already, as I have been dropping hints for a while now (most notably in the pieces Dionysos in the Northlands and Behind the Mask) but I am sure for others this will prove rather shocking. I still do not know how I feel about it, and I have been living with this for quite some time!

The apocalyptic scenario I outlined here is only part of the story. Most of it is based on a dream I had about four or five years ago, and the rest was pieced together over the interim from various oracles, visions, weird experiences and conversations I had. In the dream I watched as environmental catastrophes and political violence ripped our world apart, mirroring what was happening in the divine realm. From this chaos and destruction was born a new world, represented by a community of devout polytheists who came together in the Pacific Northwest during those final, terrifying days. I watched them grow from a ragtag band of artists, mystics, bikers, and preppers into a powerful kingdom at the center of a network of like-minded communities stretching all along the West coast and into what had been Idaho, Montana and parts of Canada over the course  of a couple hundred years. 

When I woke I was struck by the vividness and concreteness of the dream – it was clearly not a normal dream – and yet I did my best to dismiss and interpret it metaphorically. Surely Dionysos wasn’t saying that literal monsters are going to rise up and rampage across the globe and that I needed to move and acquire land on the other side of the country, get myself crowned King and start up some wacky commune in the Cascadian wilds before that happened … was he? I mean, I know he’s the God of madness and all, but this was certainly a bit much.

Regardless, I put my efforts into building up the Starry Bull tradition, establishing connections and working with a bunch of colleagues in the nascent pan-polytheist movement, figuring that these were useful activities even if the end never came. And for a while we met with moderate success – before it all unraveled due to ego trips, incompetence and endless keyboard crusades.

One of the things that became evident to me during this frustrating period is that belief in the Gods was not enough. Many of those in the movement felt it was sufficient to extract the religious components from ancient cultures and graft them onto their modern habits, notions, politics and values. (Assuming they even had these.) This inevitably led to confusion, conflicts and schisms within their individual communities, to say nothing of our larger ecumenical effort. Unsurprisingly I soon became disillusioned, disheartened and disinterested in continuing to associate with such people, finally withdrawing to focus on writing poetry and my evolving private practice – which got really complicated once the Norse Gods started showing up and Dionysos revealed his whole secret history among them.

Every so often my mind would turn to what I had learned from these experiences about the need for a holistic, interconnected identity rooted in tribalism and sacred traditions. These need not be atavistic and could not be bloodless recreations – they had to grow organically out of our lived experience with the Holy Powers, the land, and our people, and they must be totalizing, like the Zen parable of the tea cup. More and more I came to see that this was what Dionysos had been telling me in the dream, and it was the best way to make it through the troubled times that lay ahead. 

And so here we are. 

More than a mere exploration of the crossroads between religion, politics, ethics, culture, aesthetics, etc. I intend for these writings to become a blueprint for a real-world intentional community of devotees of the Starry Bull and Starry Bear Gods and Spirits. 

I would invite you to join us in the forest but most of my readership will disappear in a scandalized huff before I’m even halfway through. If you remain and find meaning in these remarks, then we can talk. 

Apolitical Dionysianism

Responding to my call for writing prompts, Sarenth posed the following:

  • Would you tackle the intersection of politics and Dionysian and/or Starry Bear work/cultus?

Dionysos is a radically inclusive God. One of the first and most powerful expressions of this in the literary record comes from Euripides’ Bakchai, in the famous speech of Tieresias the prophet:

Those old traditions from our ancestors,
the ones we’ve had as long as time itself,
no argument will ever overthrow,
in spite of subtleties sharp minds invent.
Will someone say I disrespect old age,
if I intend to dance with ivy on my head?
Not so, for the God makes no distinctions—
whether the dancing is for young or old.
He wants to gather honours from us all,
to be praised communally, without division.

Much further back, a thousand years and more, the archaeological record confirms this. In the handful of references to the God in Linear B we already find him associated with women, with tenant-farmers, and with kings. Every class, every category, every permutation of humanity is welcome in his rites.

While it’s true that his worship could give expression to revolutionary tendencies:

Dionysus was left to the powerless of Italy and they embraced him. In 185-184, the slave shepherds of Apulia – the heel of the Italian “boot” – revolted and sources hint they claimed Dionysus as their patron. Between 135 and 101 B.C., two slave revolts in Sicily and one slave revolt in western Anatolia all invoked Dionysus. The god appeared again in the rebellion of Rome’s Italian allies known as the Social War (91-88 B.C.): rebel coins showed Bacchus as a symbol of liberation. (Barry Strauss, The Spartacus War pgs 34-35)

It held equal appeal for the wealthy and powerful:

Antony himself, when he was staying at Athens, a short time after this, prepared a very superb scaffold to spread over the theatre, covered with green wood such as is seen in the caves sacred to Bacchus; and from this scaffold he suspended drums and fawn-skins, and all the other toys which one names in connection with Bacchus, and then sat there with his friends, getting drunk from daybreak, a band of musicians, whom he had sent for from Italy, playing to him all the time, and all the Greeks around being collected to see the sight. And presently, he crossed over to the Acropolis, the whole city of Athens being illuminated with lamps suspended from the roof; and after that lie ordered himself to be proclaimed as Bacchus throughout all the cities in that district. (History of the Civil War Book 3 quoted in Athenaios 4.29)

Indeed, one of the most interesting things about reading epigraphic testimonies of the God’s cults is how frequently we find the different classes mingling in his worship, as you can see for yourself in Philip Harland’s exhaustive, though by no means complete, collection of them.

This was such a strong component of Dionysiac worship that it completely scandalized Philo the Jew:

In the city there are thiasoi with a large membership, whose fellowship is founded on no sound principle but on strong liquor, drunkenness, intoxicated violence, and their offspring, wantonness. (In Flaccum 136)

Which is what ultimately led to the suppression of the Bacchanalia in Rome. Had this just been a cult of slaves, women and foreigners the Senate wouldn’t have freaked out as they did:

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. Paculla Annia, a Campanian, when she was priestess, made a complete change, as though by divine monition, for she was the first to admit men, and she initiated her own sons, Minius Cerinnius and Herennius Cerinnius. At the same time she made the rite a nocturnal one, and instead of three days in the year celebrated it five times a month. When once the mysteries had assumed this promiscuous character, and men were mingled with women with all the licence of nocturnal orgies, there was no crime, no deed of shame, wanting. More uncleanness was wrought by men with men than with women. […] They formed an immense multitude, almost equal to the population of Rome; amongst them were members of noble families both men and women. (Livy, History of Rome 39.13-16)

Once upperclass folk started getting involved that’s when the hammer fell, with disastrous consequences:

But so great were the numbers that fled from the city, that because the lawsuits and property of many persons were going to ruin, the praetors, Titus Maenius and Marcus Licinius, were obliged, under the direction of the senate, to adjourn their courts for thirty days, until the inquiries should be finished by the consuls. The same deserted state of the law-courts, since the persons, against whom charges were brought, did not appear to answer, nor could be found in Rome, necessitated the consuls to make a circuit of the country towns, and there to make their inquisitions and hold the trials. […] A greater number were executed than thrown into prison; indeed, the multitude of men and women who suffered in both ways, was very considerable. A charge was then given to demolish all the places where the Bacchanalians had held their meetings; first in Rome, and then throughout all Italy. (Livy, History of Rome 34.18)

Which is why I am concerned by efforts to politicize our religious communities. By insisting that paganism and polytheism are not religious but revolutionary, dictating what positions a person must take on contemporary socioeconomic issues and furthermore insisting that they have the backing of the Gods in all that they are doing I cannot in good conscience stand with such folk. It is not right when the Christian dominionists push for the blurring of the separation of the sacred and secular, and it’s not right when “we” do it either.

For one, it diminishes our intellectual and moral capacities to believe that a God must tell us right from wrong. I can get upset all on my own about the militarization of the police force or corporations blowing up mountains and dumping toxic sludge into our waterways.

And for another, outside of those and a handful of other serious issues a lot of this stuff doesn’t have simple answers. Decent, sincere, caring people can come to diametrically opposed conclusions on these matters and I’m not going to shun someone because they happen to think differently than I do.

In point of fact I am not permitted to exclude another Dionysian from fellowship unless their actions violate the xenia of the God, for instance by taking advantage of someone who is too inebriated to give proper consent. Tolerance is one of the cardinal virtues of Dionysos and sometimes that means putting up with people I don’t particularly like.

Wild Things

The travels of Dionysos in the North and his identification as Óðr are an important strand of the Starry Bear tradition but far from all that we are about. Indeed there is a whole constellation of archaic myth and ritual attached to the name, and more broadly we are concerned with the historical intersections of Germano-Slavic and Greco-Italian religious culture which occurred at different levels and through different means depending on time and place, with Northern Italy being among the earliest and most important centers of this. (Everything always comes back to Italy.)

Already in the rock art of the Valcamonica (the earliest strata of which date back eight to six thousand years before Christ) we find a potent complex of symbols such as solar wheels, meanders, spirals, geometric shapes and Labyrinths, as well as the Camunian Rose, the distaff and similar weaving tools, boats, bear and other hunt scenes, Giant-slaying Horned Warriors and proto-Runes – the Runic script, scholars theorize, having evolved out of archaic Etruscan directly or via Rhaetian. Interestingly, a late Rhaetic inscription found in Verona (once ruled by none other than heroic Þiðreks, who recently got a write-up at The Wild Hunt) invokes Bacchus alongside the Slavic deity Veles who could be represented as a serpent with a bear’s head, much like the Badalisc who is still a favorite figure of the region’s Christmas mumming traditions. (Echoes of Vǫlundr and the Bear, anyone?) The Valcamonica also encompasses Benevento (with its famous witches), Bergamo (home of Arlecchino) and Puplonia the fabled city of Fufluns Pacha who was still revered as Faflon into Leland’s day, despite the place having been nominally converted since at least the time of Lombard conquest. (Don’t get me started on those long-beards for that’s a rather chewy hasenpfeffer as well as Perticae, pesky Lokian epiphanies and the Squasc and Gigat, oh my!)

And that’s nothing compared to what we’ll uncover on the shores of the Black Sea.