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)

Antony,
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.

Why this stuff matters

The power of Orpheotelestai came from their knowledge, experience and discernment in matters of religion and was further predicated on a natural hierarchy – if the average person could solve their own physical or psychological maladies they naturally wouldn’t have any need for such specialists. The Orpheotelest, on the other hand, was able to diagnose their client’s problems and assign the proper prayers, taboos, ritual procedures, etc. that would bring about purification and release, often by pacifying furious spirits through music, dance and feasting. The more that they could impress their clients with their mastery of arcane lore, ability to discern the will of the divinities and get results with their theatrics the higher the price they could command for their services. Failures didn’t remain in the profession long and rarely escaped with their lives.

So, in other words, my whole tradition is predicated on there being a right and a wrong way to do religion. Circumstances call for specific powers to be engaged with in a specific way in order to get specific results and if any of those details are wrong or left out there can be pretty serious consequences – and not just for the one overseeing the rites. For instance a common feature in the Bacchic and Orphic cults was a form of exorcism where the patient was put in a trance state and then exposed to music, colors and objects that would induce frenzied motion in the body resulting in cathartic ecstasy. The principle of sympathia governed these rites so that each of its elements were carefully chosen in order to bring the person into alignment with the proper power. Dissonance could cause the power in them to become agitated, angry and violent resulting in harm being done to the patient. That said, I fully support a person’s right to be wrong, particularly in this age of massive overpopulation.

One of the things that distinguished Orphikoi from the general population of ancient Greece was that theirs was a text-based religion with a strong emphasis on memorizing and internalizing hieroi logoi or holy words. Indeed, this association was so strong that anyone inordinately fond of books was immediately suspected of having Orphic sympathies. Of course since this was a tradition of ecstatic possession and there was no universal Orphic church to exercise control over doctrinal matters a lot of different groups and individuals developed the Orphic tradition in novel ways, sometimes to the point where the only commonality between a pair of texts is that they claim some connection to the figure of Orpheus. While Orphics may not all have agreed on the contents of their master’s teachings, all felt that they were deeply important, to the point that many inscribed their texts on sheets of gold which they carried on their persons like protective amulets and had them buried with them when they went beneath the earth. These texts were meant to help the Orphic call to mind the initiations they had received, giving them foreknowledge of what awaited them in the underworld and how to overcome the adversaries and lords of judgment they would encounter there. It further reminded them of who they were, what their relationship to Dionysos was and the song to sing to release the poinê of Persephone.

Without faith in your Guide it’s very easy to get lost in the Labyrinth.

For the Bacchic Orphic the telos is everything. We look forward to an eternity of fucking and feasting and frenzy with our God and his Furious Host and everything we do here is to prepare us for that. So while there is no negation of this world and carnal existence – indeed we’re to soak up as much of it as we can in order to bring its vitality over there with us – at the same time priority is definitely given to the otherworldly in our tradition.  Our pantheon pretty much consists of chthonic Gods, Nymphai, Daimones, Heroes and the ancestors so if you are afraid of death this is definitely not the religion for you.

Of course, the ancient Orphics believed that anyone who wasn’t initiated into the mysteries would spend their posthumous existence buried in shit, endlessly remembering the worst and most shameful moments of their life.

Everyone is confronted with a choice below – do you drink from the spring of Memory or Forgetfulness? The mysteries teach you to live life well, so you regret nothing, so that you’re not afraid to remember who you are. It’s those who are seeking escape that are forced to relive their lives. You’re only free when you stop running from yourself.  That’s why you say to the door-keepers, “My name is Asterios.”

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)

Mysteries

I don’t want to talk about this.

Every fiber of my being is resisting – and that’s why I’m going to do it. Because in the end that’s what being a Dionysian comes down to. A constant struggle to be free and true, tearing away the masks no matter how painful the process, striving for an openness that leaves you so raw the wind against your skin bruises and filled with a monstrous hunger to experience more, always more, no matter the cost. Being alive and knowing fully what your flesh is capable of.

That is what being a Dionysian means to me, and it’s terrifying as the face of the Devourer, my sweet prince, is terrifying. I love him and I will never stop pouring myself out for him. And I know that he would do the same for me because I am an initiate.

We don’t talk a lot about initiations and mysteries in contemporary polytheism and especially not within Hellenismos.

There’s a couple good reasons for this.

The Greeks shrouded the mysteries in holy silence, recognizing two related but distinct types of silence. The mysteries could not be shared with others because they were such a personally transformative experience that only one who had gone through it themselves would understand. You could tell a stranger all that had happened to you, the mechanisms and imagery and everything involved in the process, tell them what you took away from it and how it’s changed your whole outlook and they couldn’t comprehend. No matter how hard they tried they just wouldn’t get it. They might catch an accurate glimpse – but then everything would just shift about in their heads again and go all fuzzy like an impressionist painting. Until they’ve been woken up – the word mystery comes from the opening of the eyes of the initiate – through the ceremonial experience, they simply do not, cannot understand.

Secondly the initiate was forbidden to share the contents of the mysteries with outsiders because it would profane them, literally to take them beyond the temple enclosure. The external tools by which the experience was created were sacred and needed to be kept from contamination (and also from contaminating.) You see these things had been fashioned and handed down by the Gods, preserved by a line of holy people through the centuries. They built up great power over time – power that was conferred to the initiate and renewed through them. Power is dangerous so they hedged these things in with traditions and taboos and holy structures and before anyone would approach them and have the experience they had to pass tests proving their worthiness, showing that they could handle the strain. This was a wise thing to do for mystery is heavy when it lies upon a human heart – those who cannot bear it will crumble and crack. It does that to everyone – that’s how you’re opened up to see – but there are those who can walk away from the experience and many more that can’t.

So that’s a big part of why Hellenic polytheists are reluctant to talk about the mysteries today.

Unfortunately this has retarded progress within the community. “The mysteries are gone, never to be restored,” they bitterly moan – but on the other hand they wouldn’t recognize a true mystery if it was happening to them.

They think that mysteries can be done only a certain way, with certain tools in a certain location and officiated over by certain people with a certain lineage.

And, well, they’re right.

All of that was a requirement in at least certain forms of the ancient mysteries – and our line was sundered.

Thanks to a millennium and a half of aggressive monotheism and secularism all that we know of these things is what we read in books, and the material is so fragmentary that we can’t even piece it together enough to see the picture it reveals let alone breathe life back into it.

Even if you could reconstruct it properly it would not be the mystery that the ancients experienced.

The mystery came from the Gods and was passed down through a line of initiators – without that unbroken chain of continuity you don’t have the same mystery. And some mysteries were deeply rooted in place. This is the spot where mythic events unfolded – the rites can be performed here and only here or else they lose their efficacy.

But here’s the thing – all of that applies only to certain types of mystery, mostly the ones performed at Samothrace, Pessinos, Andania and Eleusis. These were, unquestionably, the largest and most important mysteries celebrated throughout the ancient world – which has subsequently shaped our understanding of the phenomena since they receive the most attention from scholars – but these were ever only one option among many.

There were other major cult centers where things were done differently and other mysteries offered by that divinity – not to mention the private associations that conducted their own rites independent of the temples and priesthood as well as itinerant holy men who went about selling initiations to bored housewives and wealthy matrons. In fact so many forms of Dionysiac mysteries flourished in Egypt that the fourth Ptolemy sought to codify and solidify them under a single authority.

If we are to see a revival of the mysteries we have to stop looking back at what the ancients had and thinking that this is the only way that a mystery may express itself. This both limits the manifestations of the Gods and is particularly silly since we don’t even know what the mysteries of the ancients were in order to reconstruct them. Scholars haven’e been able to arrive at consensus on the matter so what hope do you think we’ll have if we rely on nothing but their commentary and the scattered remnants that have come down to us?

We have to be able to recognize the mysteries when they are happening even if they are wearing an unfamiliar and unlikely form.

When I was initiated into a mystery of Dionysos there was no one there to confer that initiation on me, much as I would have preferred it that way. I had to put myself back together afterwards and there was none I could share what I had gone through with, none to help me make sense of it all.

It was Dionysos who initiated me, as it always is in his mysteries. The props, the priests, the rituals and traditions may all facilitate the experience but the experience itself is a direct encounter with Dionysos, an opening up to him in a way you never have before. If he is not there there is no mystery. Consequently, any time that he is present there is potential for a mystery to occur.

But keep in mind that a mystery is a very particular thing, a specific experience with a God – and not every experience counts. I experience Dionysos all the time and some of those experiences are quite intense and transformative. But they aren’t mysteries.

One of the central things that a mystery does is change your status – it rewrites who you are and what you’re capable of on a fundamental level. In the more than twenty years that I have been a Dionysian I have experienced his mysteries five times, only three of which I would consider proper initiations. My first came almost six years into worshiping the God. I thought I knew him pretty well up to that point: I’d already undergone some pretty heavy stuff at his hands. But that was nothing compared to the mystery experience. The initiations I’ve gone through since blow that one away – I seriously do not know how I survived what happened at Horse Creek – and yet this one sticks with me even more because that was really the start of it all for me. That single event has bisected my life so that I now think of events as happening either before or after it – prelude and postscript. That’s what mystery does – you’re never the same after it.

And we need that.

We need to be taken out of this present world of man, with all of its messed up social conditioning and the blindness it imposes to the presence of the divine. We need to be taken apart and put back together again with extra organs to perceive and interact with the holy powers on a deeper level. We need an awakening, an infusion of inspiration if we want to know life in its fullness.

That’s what mystery does.

And that’s why I hit the notes I do in my writing as hard as I do and as often as I do.

I want the mysteries back!

The mysteries of my God and of all Gods.

And that ain’t gonna happen if people remain so timid, small and cautious, doing just what they find in books and can read off scripts from their smartphones.

You’ve got to feel it.

You’ve got to open your heart wide in worship and let your Gods grab hold of you.

You’ve got to make the space for that to happen – make space and do the rituals.

The more you do them, the more you put into them, the more of your life you set aside for them to manifest in – they will. Tend the land and fertilize the soil and in time a seed of divine grace may be planted that will result in a plentiful yield of grapes.

But that’s the thing! Mystery is the miraculous sprouting of fruit in your soul – but that’s just the start of the work. You’ve got to harvest in the fields and bring it home and either eat it right there or begin the long, difficult process of creating wine.

Initiation is not the end that many think it is – in truth it’s just the beginning.

It transforms you, but you’re still you. You’ve still got to eat and shit and earn a living and deal with people and perform your regular devotions just like you did before. And even though you know deep in your bones after encountering the mystery things are still going to be tough for you. There will even be times when you doubt and question whether what you’ve been through was real, times when you feel distant from the Gods and wonder what the point of all this is anyway.

In some ways it’s harder because you know and yet you’re still subject to all of this. Shouldn’t the mystery have changed that?

It did, but you’re also human and there’s only so much that can be done about that.

But you know, you know, and initiation makes it easier to find your way back to that place and point of knowledge. Every time you do ritual there will be a taste of that experience in the back of your mouth, ready to be called forth once more. And if you’re lucky and the grace of the Gods is with you, you will succeed every now and again and that will drive you to do it more, to do more.

Mystery is necessary for the reclamation of our traditions – it is what makes them live and ensures that they are passed down to future generations.

We who stand before the Gods now are in a precarious position. We do not have firm traditions to stand on, and nothing to pass down to our children and those who come after them but a few meager handfuls of fragments we’ve salvaged from the dirt. We don’t even have our songs and dances.

It is our duty to rediscover them and fashion new ones in honor of the Gods. Take the best that we were given and make something better out of it to pass on.

This is work that each and every one of us can have a hand in. Rituals are repeated actions. Find what works for your Gods and Spirits and then do that again. And again. And again. And again. And again. Until you’ve built up a tradition and can teach others to do it. All of this, together, creates the religion and from this will emerge our collective mysteries – mysteries for this place and age.

You have a hand in this task whether you are a mystic or completely mundane, whether you’ve been doing this for decades or only weeks. Whatever your aptitude and inclinations, whatever gifts and levels of devotion you’ve got – you have a role to play in the restoration of the Gods’ worship. Even a supportive role is still a role. Dionysos needs his wand-bearers as much as he needs his Bakchoi – above all else he needs you and what you have to offer.

 

Orphism isn’t monist

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Well, first off, Orphism is more an interpretive methodology than a coherent system of belief; each group operated independently of the others and even when they were using a similar body of myths they often emphasized or elaborated on different elements within them. (In other words, there are no Orphic myths but rather an Orphic treatment of myth, if you get what I mean.)

Secondly, even if one takes the cosmology that modern scholars have reconstructed (using fairly late Neoplatonic sources in the process) I’d hardly describe that as a good example of monism. To begin with that Orphic pantheon consists of a couple dozen entities making it one of the hardest of polytheisms known to the ancient world (they even treat as separate beings I tend to lump together) and secondly it’s only monist in certain phases. And then fairly problematically so.

For those who are not familiar with the cosmology I’m discussing I’ll briefly summarize it.

In the beginning there was an egg. Just an egg, nothing else. Not even time or space or emptiness. Just an egg, because Orpheus said so, alright?

Inside the egg is a bisexual being who is Manifest Light and Love. S/he’s just boogieing down being all lovey and stuff when the motion causes the egg to crack open and all of the primordial elements of creation ooze forth like some kind of yolky substance.

Light’s like, “Wow, I didn’t realize all that stuff was in there with me,” and then one of the primordial elements comes up to Light and says, “Hey. My name’s Night. I can see the future and stuff.”

Light says, “That’s cool. What’s a future?”

And Night says, “Want to fuck?”

So Night and Light fuck and they have lots of babies and soon those babies are like, “We need somewhere to live since mom and dad just spend all of their time fucking.”

And so the babies go about reordering the primordial elements into something more suitable for habitation and eventually we end up with a material universal. Light and Night are too busy fucking to notice, however.

Then the babies say, “Hey – which one of us is going to rule everything?” and so they start fighting amongst themselves. Eventually the stronger ones go on to make babies who decide that they want to rule so they kill their parents and then have babies of their own, who then scheme to kill them so they can make babies.

It’s all very violent and sexy and repetitive and eventually we end up with Zeus who’s like, “I enjoy the baby-making part but I don’t want to be killed.”

So he goes and talks with Night during one of the brief moments when she and Light aren’t fucking and Night says, “You have to make the many one.”

So Zeus eats Light’s penis and gains awesome kosmokrater powers.

Now that he’s the true ruler of everything he puts everything inside of himself so nothing could ever possibly challenge his authority. It kind of sucks being the only thing left in existence: but on the other hand, everything continues running the same as before, it’s all just happening inside him now. That’s right. Your whole existence is being lived out within the belly of Zeus.

And that account (clearly by someone who was tripping balls) is as close as you get to monism in Orphism.

If that’s the kind of thing you want to believe, be my guest. I am clearly not drunk enough to understand it.

I’m going to listen to Sorne, who made the art I opened this piece with.

An exemplary woman

When people go on about the great pagans of antiquity who deserve to be remembered today, everyone mentions Hypatia but she wasn’t the only exceptional female philosopher that the exceptional city of Alexandria produced – there was also, a generation later, Aidesia.

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Here’s what the Neoplatonic philospher Damascius (Life of Isidore fr. 124) had to say about her:

Wife of Hermeias. She was related by birth to the great Syrianos, and was the fairest and finest of all the women in Alexandria. In her character she was similar to her husband: simple, noble, and a devotee of Justice no less than of Propriety through her whole life. But her outstanding qualities were her piety and her philanthropy. Because of this she tried to benefit those in need even beyond her means, to the extent that even when Hermeias died and she was left behind with orphan children she continued in her good works. In fact, she spent her life in debt to her sons, upon which basis some even tried to find fault with her. But she, thinking there to be but one storehouse of hope for the better — for whoever might wish to lighten the burdens of holy and virtuous men — spared nothing, out of her pity for the fortunes that befall humankind. Therefore even the most wretched of the citizens loved her. She especially took care for her sons in the area of philosophy, desiring to bequeath to them the wisdom of their father as though it were a sort of inheritence of paternal property. She saved for the children the public allowance given to their father when they were still young, so they studied philosophy. This is something that we know of no other man doing, much less any other woman. There was no small amount of honor and respect for Aidesia in the eyes of all. But when she even sailed together with her sons to Athens, who were sent there to learn philosophy, it was not only the common crowd of philosophers who marvelled at her virtue, but even their chief, Proklos. It is this Aidesia whom Syrianos would have betrothed to Proklos had not one of the gods prevented Proklos from entering upon marriage. In regard to divine matters she was so pious and holy and, to put it in a single word, god-loving, that she was deemed worthy of many divine epiphanies. Such was Aidesia, and she lived her whole life beloved and praised by the gods and by men. I met her when she was an old woman, and at her death, while I was still young, a mere lad in fact, I recited at her tomb the customary eulogy adorned with heroic verses. (s.v. Aidesia)

Granted, her story’s not as “sexy” as Hypatia’s but in some respects she is a better representative of the Classical values, especially philanthropy and piety. And the fact that she impressed the holy man Proklos in this regard says a lot.

So hail Aidesia, patron of polytheist mothers!