Hunting the European Sky Bears

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

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

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

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

Beware rousing the sleeping bear

And also Bödvar Bjarki:

The famous poem Bjarkamál (of which only a few stanzas are preserved but which Saxo Grammaticus presents in the form of a florid Latin paraphrase) is understood as a dialogue between Bödvar Bjarki and his younger companion Hjalti which begins by Hjalti again and again urging Bödvar to awake from his sleep and fight for King Hrólf in this last battle in which they are doomed to be defeated. As explained in the prose, this rousing was ill-done, as Bjarki was in a trance and his spirit in the form of a monstrous bear was already aiding Hrólf far more than Bjarki could do with only his mannish strength: as Bjarki puts it on awakening, “You have not been so helpful to the king by this action as you think.”

a wind-age, a wolf-age

As the month of Chthonieion draws to a close and we prepare to celebrate the noumenia of Auxiteion I have had much to reflect upon.

There is, for instance, the mystery represented in this sequence of our calendar, with life, wealth, and growth arising from below, out of the shadowy realm of death.

Then, of course, there is the source of our next month’s name:

The founder of Heraia was Heraieus the son of Lykaon, and the city lies on the right of the Alpheios, mostly upon a gentle slope, though a part descends right to the Alpheios. Walks have been made along the river, separated by myrtles and other cultivated trees; the baths are there, as are also two temples to Dionysos. One is to the God named Polites (Citizen), the other to Auxites (the Giver of Increase), and they have a building there where they celebrate orgiastic rites in honor of Dionysos.  (Pausanias, Description of Greece 8.26.1)

Here we find Dionysos with a double aspect, civic and agrarian – and possibly a third, unless the οἴκημά was consecrated under one of these. This is an interesting term, by the way – it can mean anything from a chamber in a temple to a brothel, a storeroom, a prison cell, or even a cage for animals. Makes you wonder what kind of mystic orgies were conducted there, huh?

Especially when we consider that the eponymous founder of Heraia was one of the 50 sons Lykaon, famed baby-killer and werewolf: 

Lykaon brought a human baby to the altar of Zeus Lykaios and sacrificed it, pouring out its blood upon the altar, and according to the legend immediately after the sacrifice he was changed from a man to a wolf […] ever since the time of Lykaon a man has changed into a wolf at the sacrifice to Zeus Lykaios, but the change is not for life; if, when he is a wolf, he abstains from human flesh, after nine years he becomes a man again, but if he tastes human flesh he remains a beast for ever. (Pausanias 8.2.1-6) 

The baby he killed was Arkas, the Starry Bear:

He is said to be the son of Jove and Callisto, whom Lycaon served at a banquet, cut up with other meat, when Jupiter came to him as a guest. For Lycaon wanted to know whether the one who had asked for his hospitality was a God or not. For this deed he was punished by no slight punishment, for Jupiter, quickly overturning the table, burned the house with a thunderbolt, and turned Lycaon himself into a wolf. But the scattered limbs of the boy he put together, and gave Arcas to a certain Aetolian to care for. (Hyginus, Astronomica 2.4)

Arkas the Bear King afterwards became a great hunter, founded many cities, and was remembered for his just rule as much as for teaching his people how to weave and bake bread. 

Why this stands out in particular for me – aside from the Starry Bear reference, natch – is that it brings to mind the Oracle for the month of Auxiteion:

“It is only when a man feels himself face to face with such horrors that he can understand their true import.”

Wanna guess what horrors Dionysos is referring to?

This verse, from the Starry Bear bibliomancy system, was taken from the first chapter of Bram Stoker’s Dracula

But just then the moon, sailing through the black clouds, appeared behind the jagged crest of a beetling, pine-clad rock, and by its light I saw around us a ring of wolves, with white teeth and lolling red tongues, with long, sinewy limbs and shaggy hair. They were a hundred times more terrible in the grim silence which held them than even when they howled. For myself, I felt a sort of paralysis of fear. It is only when a man feels himself face to face with such horrors that he can understand their true import.

Oh yeah. Gonna be an interesting month, I wager. 

terror-of-giants is his name


Horace, Carmina 2.12

I saw Bacchus on distant cliffs – believe me,
O posterity – he was teaching songs there,
and the Nymphs were learning them, and all
the goat-footed Satyrs with pointed ears.

Evoe ! My mind fills with fresh fear, my heart
filled with Bacchus, is troubled, and violently
rejoices. Evoe! Spare me, Liber,
dreaded for your mighty thyrsus, spare me.

It’s right to sing of the wilful Bacchantes,
the fountain of wine, and the rivers of milk,
to sing of the honey that’s welling,
and sliding down from the hollow tree-trunks:
It’s right to sing of your bride turned goddess, your
Ariadne, crowned among stars: the palace
of Pentheus, shattered in ruins,
and the ending of Thracian Lycurgus.

You direct the streams, and the barbarous sea,
and on distant summits, you drunkenly tie
the hair of the Bistonian women,
with harmless knots made of venomous snakes.

When the impious army of Giants tried
to climb through the sky to Jupiter’s kingdom,
you hurled back Rhoetus, with the claws
and teeth of the terrifying lion.

Though you’re said to be more suited to dancing,
laughter, and games, and not equipped to suffer
the fighting, nevertheless you shared
the thick of battle as well as the peace.

Cerberus saw you, unharmed, and adorned
with your golden horn, and, stroking you gently,
with his tail, as you departed, licked
your ankles and feet with his triple tongue.

θάνατος. βίος. θάνατος.


Although Liberalia is not part of the official House of Vines festival calendar for the year 2018 e.v. it has always been one of my favorite Bacchic feasts. (I tend to think of it as Beenis Day, as bees and penises are the primary themes of the occasion.)

While preparing the post with the excerpt from Ovid’s Fasti something stood out for me that hadn’t upon previous readings:

He fell headlong, and received a kick from the ass, as he shouted to his friends and called for help. The Satyrs ran up, and laughed at their father’s face, while he limped about on his damaged knee. Bacchus himself laughed and showed him the use of mud: Silenus took his advice, and smeared his face with clay.

No, no. Not the alternative aition for titanos. This bit:

The Kite star turns downwards near the Lycaonian Bear: on this night it’s first visible. If you wish to know who raised that falcon to heaven, it was when Saturn had been dethroned by Jupiter: angered, he stirred the mighty Titans to battle, and sought whatever help the Fates could grant him. There was a bull, a marvellous monster, born of Mother Earth, the hind part of which was of serpent-form: warned by the three Fates, grim Styx had imprisoned him in dark woods, surrounded by triple walls. There was a prophecy that whoever burnt the entrails of the bull in the flames would defeat the Eternal Gods. Briareus sacrificed it with an adamantine axe, and was about to set the innards on the flames: but Jupiter ordered the birds to snatch them: and the Kite brought them, and his service set him among the stars.

And so it begins.




Augustine, De Civitate Dei 7.21
Now as to the rites of Liber, whom they have set over liquid seeds, and therefore not only over the liquors of fruits, among which wine holds, so to speak, the primacy, but also over the seeds of animals:— as to these rites, I am unwilling to undertake to show to what excess of turpitude they had reached, because that would entail a lengthened discourse, though I am not unwilling to do so as a demonstration of the proud stupidity of those who practice them. Varro says that certain rites of Liber were celebrated in Italy which were of such unrestrained wickedness that the shameful parts of the male were worshipped at crossroads in his honour. Nor was this abomination transacted in secret that some regard at least might be paid to modesty, but was openly and wantonly displayed. For during the festival of Liber this obscene member, placed on a little trolley, was first exhibited with great honour at the crossroads in the countryside, and then conveyed into the city itself. But in the town of Lavinium a whole month was devoted to Liber alone, during the days of which all the people gave themselves up to the must dissolute conversation, until that member had been carried through the forum and brought to rest in its own place; on which unseemly member it was necessary that the most honorable matron should place a wreath in the presence of all the people. Thus, forsooth, was the god Liber to be appeased in order for the growth of seeds. Thus was enchantment (fascinatio) to be driven away from fields, even by a matron’s being compelled to do in public what not even a harlot ought to be permitted to do in a theatre, if there were matrons among the spectators.



From the third book of Ovid’s Fasti

There’s a popular festival of Bacchus, on the third day after the Ides: Bacchus, favour the poet who sings your feast. I’ll not speak about Semele: you’d have been born defenceless, If it hadn’t been that Jupiter brought her his lightning too. Nor will I tell how the mother’s labour was fulfilled in a father’s body, so you might duly be born their son. It would take long to tell of the conquered Sithonians, and the Scythians, and the races of incense-bearing India. I’ll be silent about you too, Pentheus, sad prey to your own mother, and you Lycurgus, who killed your own son in madness. Lo, I’d like to speak of the monstrous Tyrrhenians, who suddenly became dolphins, but that’s not the task of this verse. The task of this verse is to set out the reasons why a vine-planter sells his cakes to the crowd.

Liber, before your birth the altars were without offerings, and grass appeared on the stone-cold hearths. They tell how you set aside the first fruits for Jupiter, after subduing the Ganges region, and the whole of the East. You were the first to offer up cinnamon and incense from conquered lands, and the roast entrails of triumphal oxen. Libations derive their name from their originator, And cake (liba) since a part is offered on the sacred hearth. Honey-cakes are baked for the God, because he delights in sweet substances, and they say that Bacchus discovered honey.

He was travelling from sandy Hebrus, accompanied by Satyrs, (my tale contains a not-unpleasant jest) and he’d come to Mount Rhodope, and flowering Pangaeus: with the cymbals clashing in his companions’ hands. Behold unknown winged things gather to the jangling, bees, that follow after the echoing bronze. Liber gathered the swarm and shut it in a hollow tree, And was rewarded with the prize of discovering honey. Once the Satyrs, and old bald-headed Silenus, had tasted it, they searched for the yellow combs in every tree. The old fellow heard a swarm humming in a hollow elm, saw the honeycombs, but pretended otherwise: and sitting lazily on his hollow-backed ass, he rode it up to the elm where the trunk was hollow. He stood and leant on the stump of a branch, And greedily reached for the honey hidden inside. But thousands of hornets gathered, thrusting their stings into his bald head, leaving their mark on his snub-nosed face. He fell headlong, and received a kick from the ass, as he shouted to his friends and called for help. The Satyrs ran up, and laughed at their father’s face, while he limped about on his damaged knee. Bacchus himself laughed and showed him the use of mud: Silenus took his advice, and smeared his face with clay.

Father Liber loves honey: its right to offer its discoverer Glittering honey diffused through oven-warm cakes. The reason why a woman presides isn’t obscure: Bacchus stirs crowds of women with his thyrsus. Why an old woman, you ask? That age drinks more, and loves the gifts of the teeming vine. Why is she wreathed with ivy? Ivy’s dearest to Bacchus: and why that’s so doesn’t take long to tell. They say that when Juno his stepmother was searching for the boy, the nymphs of Nysa hid the cradle in ivy leaves.

It remains for me to reveal why the toga virilis, the gown Of manhood, is given to boys on your day, Bacchus: whether it’s because you seem to be ever boy or youth, and your age is somewhere between the two: or because you’re a father, fathers commend their sons, their pledges of love, to your care and divinity: or because you’re Liber, the gown of liberty and a more liberated life are adopted, for you: or is it because, in the days when the ancients tilled the fields more vigorously, and Senators worked their fathers’ land, and ‘rods and axes’ took Consuls from the curving plough, and it wasn’t a crime to have work-worn hands, the farmers came to the City for the games, (though that was an honour paid to the Gods, and not their inclination: and the grape’s discoverer held his games this day, while now he shares that of torch-bearing Ceres.) And the day seemed not unfitting for granting the toga, so that a crowd could celebrate the fresh novice? Father turn your mild head here, and gentle horns, and spread the sails of my art to a favourable breeze.

If I remember rightly, on this, and the preceding day, crowds go to the Argei (their own page will tell who they are). The Kite star turns downwards near the Lycaonian Bear: on this night it’s first visible. If you wish to know who raised that falcon to heaven, it was when Saturn had been dethroned by Jupiter: angered, he stirred the mighty Titans to battle, And sought whatever help the Fates could grant him. There was a bull, a marvellous monster, born of Mother Earth, the hind part of which was of serpent-form: warned by the three Fates, grim Styx had imprisoned him in dark woods, surrounded by triple walls. There was a prophecy that whoever burnt the entrails of the bull, in the flames, would defeat the Eternal Gods. Briareus sacrificed it with an adamantine axe, and was about to set the innards on the flames: but Jupiter ordered the birds to snatch them: and the Kite brought them, and his service set him among the stars.



Plutarch, De Anima fragment preserved in Stobaios Florigelium 120
When the soul comes to the point of death, it suffers something like those who participate in the great initiations (teletai). Therefore the word teleutan closely resembles the word teleisthai just as the act of dying resembles the act of being initiated. At first there are wanderings and toilsome running about in circles and journeys through the dark over uncertain roads and culs de sacs; then, just before the end, there are all kinds of terrors, with shivering, trembling, sweating, and utter amazement. After this, a strange and wonderful light meets the wanderer; he is admitted into clean and verdant meadows, where he discerns gentle voices, and choric dances, and the majesty of holy sounds and sacred visions. Here the now fully initiated is free, and walks at liberty like a crowned and dedicated victim, joining in the revelry.



The mention of Bacchic sister triads in my piece On the Orgia reminded me of another example, albeit with an Apollonian twist:

Later, when the Samians were oppressed with the tyranny of Polycrates, Pythagoras saw that life in such a state was unsuitable for a philosopher, and so planned to travel to Italy. At Delphi he inscribed an elegy on the tomb of Apollon, declaring that Apollon was the son of Silenos, but was slain by Pytho, and buried in the place called Triops, so named from the local mourning for Apollo by the three daughters of Triopas. (Porphyry, Life of Pythagoras 16)

For those who have eyes to see that obscure and oft overlooked passage contains a metric shit ton of significance. (Especially for those familiar with the bull-wolf-dragon and Black Sun mysteries of the Starry Bull tradition.)

Oh, and by the by – Triopas means “he who has three eyes” (from τρι- “three” + -ωπ- “see”) though the ending -ωψ, -οπος suggests a Pre-Greek origin.

You know what that reminds me of? No, not the tricephalous Giant from the Golden Horns of Gallehus, nor the Avestan Tištrya – though I can totally see why one’s mind might go there. I’m thinking about the three sisters from White-Bear King Valemon and the Black Bull of Norroway, which naturally makes one recall Vǫlundr and the Bear in Norse Tradition.

Circles, man. Fucking circles.

Il Ragno Industrioso


Charles Godfrey Leland, Etruscan Roman Remains in Popular Tradition p. 265-66

This is an extremely curious and ancient formula of declaring that whatever one does is not to stop at a certain point. By means of it almost any action is turned into magic. Thus to find and pick up anything, at once converts it into a fetish, or insures that all will go well with it if we say when taking it: “I do not pick up”,–naming the object–“I pick up good luck, which may never abandon me!” It is an incantation of universal application, enabling one to secure a wish out of every chance occurrence.

The spider is also used in divination. I find the following in a popular chapbook:–

Il Ragno Industrioso. In the Book of Dreams, and in the works of the famous cabalists Rutilio Benicosa, Casamia, l’Indovino, Il Palmaverde, Nostradamus, and the ancient Sybils or Haruspices, we often find methods of divining the secret of getting numbers by the lottery. Among the many extraordinary experiments made, the most singular is that by means of the spider.

Take one of these insects-let it be very large-and put it, without hurting it, in a little box,on the bottom of which are many small pieces of paper, numbered from one to ninety. Cover it with a transparent veil, and give the spider time to weave a web.

Naturally the insect in going here and there will turn up certain numbers. These must be noted. Do this three times, and then let the spider go. Many have won lucky numbers in the lottery by means of this experiment.

It may be observed that it is necessary to the success of this sortilege that we let the spider go. So in several of the charms Of MARCELLUS, the animal used in such spells must be dismissed in safety–Ecce dimitto te vivam!

The spider, it may be observed, can also be used for other divination as well as for lucky numbers in the lottery. Thus, if you write “Yes” or “No,” she will turn up for you an affirmative or negative for any question, or select the names of friends or enemies, or pick out lucky days.

Persephone’s goose

In Southern Italy the goose is one of the sacred animals of Persephone and often found accompanying her, as we see in this pinax from Lokroi Epizephyrii which depicts a maiden offering a rooster to the enthroned goddess while a goose flexes its wings beneath the offering table:

On an Attic red figure krater said to have been found in S. Agata dei Goti in Campania the goose has wandered into the andrōn where Persephone’s husband is hosting a symposion with Dionysos and his retinue (including a drunken Hephaistos and rambunctious Eros who is about to assault the poor goose) as the guests of honor:

This bird was so closely associated with Persephone that it figured prominently on her throne in the underworld:

Two more series, related to each other, also belong indisputably to the sphere of Persephone: the scenes depicting Hades and Persephone enthroned, and the ‘homage’ scenes in which various deities pay homage to an enthroned Persephone or to the enthroned couple. In the first series we find the following symbols and cult objects. (I) The cock (one is held by Persephone and another is standing under the throne). (2) The thymiaterion surmounted by a cock. (3) The stalk of grain (held by Persephone). (4) The phiale (held by Hades). (5) A blooming twig (held by Hades). (6) The throne with a back ending in a goose’s head. In the homage scenes the divinities paying homage hold attributes which identify them (e.g. Hermes the ram), or offer the cock or other objects appropriate to Persephone or the circumstances. The following deities appear in these scenes. (a) Hermes, always with a ram, and often presenting a cock to Persephone; he is sometimes accompanied by a female figure to whom I shall return below. (b) Dionysos, holding a kantharos and a vine, sometimes also accompanied by a female figure. (c) Apollo, in one type with a lyre, in the other with a lyre and a bow. (d) Triptolemos, holding a stalk of grain in one hand and with the other guiding the winged serpents of his chariot. (e) The Dioskouroi, who are represented as horsemen, sometimes followed by a female figure; they hold a cup or a kantharos and a shield or a lyre. Pruickner so recognizes Athena in one of the types. […] In the fifth group a girl carrying the peplos on a tray and followed by the phialophoros arrives in front of a seated deity who has her himation drawn over her head and is holding a cock; under her seat there is a hydria. This type would suggest that in this cycle at least the phialophoros figure is a priestess, while the goddess, shown as ‘ideally present’, is meeting the peplos-carrying procession. The final group’ shows a girl putting the peplos away in a chest which stands in front of a throne with a back ending in a goose’s head. Since this simple act is shown on pinakes, it must have had a religious significance. The peplos, the type of throne, and the kalathos and kantharos hanging on the wall indicate that we are still in Persephone’s cultic sphere. A mirror is also handing on the wall: we saw that this object had entered Persephone’s orbit. There is also a lekythos on the wall, but this conveys no information to us. The context indicates a sacred garment kept in a sanctuary; this, in combination with the peplophoria scenes, suggests an occasion of garment presentation to a goddess, a well-known ritual act in Greek religion. Zancani Montuoro suggested that we are dealing with the presentation of Persephone’s bridal peplos; she considered the whole nexus of scenes involving the peplos as part of Persephone’s theogamia, but was undecided as to whether these are cultic scenes taking place in the Locrian sanctuary or mythological ones, though she is inclined towards the latter view. (Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood, Persephone and Aphrodite at Locri: A Model for Personality Definitions in Greek Religion)

This is as close as I’ve come to finding an explanation for this bit of Magna Graecian iconography – until the other night.

I was looking through the Karaitos Catalogue of Heroines to see if I could track down any Dionysiac figures I wasn’t already familiar with (alas, none turned up) when I came across this:

HERKYNA (Lebadeia) a companion of Kore. She has a temple on the banks of the river of the same name (Paus. 9.39.2-3). It is unclear whether she received divine or heroic cult there.

Now Lebadeia is where the oracle of Trophonios was located and that has some intriguing parallels with Bacchic Orphic stuff since at various points in the katabasis ritual you had to drink water from Lethe and Mnemosyne. So I decided to refresh my memory and see what Pausanias had to say about her:

They say that here Herkyna, when playing with Kore, the daughter of Demeter, held a goose which against her will she let loose. The bird flew into a hollow cave and hid under a stone; Kore entered and took the bird as it lay under the stone. The water flowed, they say, from the place where Kore took up the stone, and hence the river received the name Herkyna. On the bank of the river there is a temple of Herkyna, in which is a maiden holding a goose in her arms. In the cave are the sources of the river and images standing, and serpents are coiled around their sceptres. One might conjecture the images to be of Asklepios and Hygeia; but they might equally be Trophonios and Herkyna, because they think that serpents are just as much sacred to Trophonios as Asklepios. (Description of Greece 9.39.2)

The only other information I could turn up on her was at

Her name probably means guard-dog, from eruô, to guard, and kyôn a dog, or alternatively, she-who-wards-off, erukô. The story given by Pausanias, however, has it derive from herkos, a bird-catching net or noose. Herkyna appears to be closely identified with the goddess Hekate. Both were childhood companions of the goddess Persephone; and chthonian (or underworld) goddesses associated with dogs. […] Herkyna founded the worship of Demeter at Lebadeia, who hence received the surname of Herkyna. (Lycoph. 153, with the note of Tzetzes.) Herkyna was worshipped at Lebadeia in common with Zeus, and sacrifices were offered to both in common. (Liv. xlv. 27.) […] It appears that Pausanias has ommitted certain details of this story, which seems to be a local version of the tale of the abduction of Persephone. The goose appears to be the lure (rather than the usual narcissus flower), and the burried stream the entranceway to the upper world for the god Haides.

That conjures all sorts of associations with Acheloos and Euthymos, the latter of whom was linked with Persephone at Lokroi:

Many terracotta plaques featuring three female heads were found in the Grotta, sometimes with Pan and sometimes with Dionysiac symbols. This trio of heads is found in nymphaea, in Persephone shrines, and in tombs elsewhere in the Greek world, but in the Grotta Caruso an unusual combination occurs: sometimes the nymphs appear with a tauromorph, a bull with a human face and horns. The iconography of this figure is consistent with portraits of Acheloos or other river gods, and we have textual evidence that ties the Locrian one to a river. An inscription on one of the Grotta’s plaques names the bull-man as Euthymos, a curious Locrian hero. (Bonnie MacLachlan, Kore as Nymph, not Daughter: Persephone in a Locrian Cave)

This makes me curious – is the Herkynaean goose the one depicted in Magna Graecian art? And if so, how did it get there? Most of the Hellenic colonies in Italy were outside the Boiotian cultural sphere, so does that mean that this form of the abduction myth was at one point more widespread before being eclipsed by the ‘canonical’ Eleusinian version? One possibility is that it was favored by Orphics, since both locations betray a strong Orphic influence.

Animals strike curious poses

[Relevant to a couple ongoing conversations, so I’m reposting it. Note, since writing this I’ve discovered another bird associated with Dionysos.]

A while back, in the context of discussing a possible Orphic ritual involving the freeing of a caged bird I mentioned how frequently doves come up in the Starry Bull tradition. They’re linked to Aphrodite, Persephone, Ariadne, Columbina, John the Baptist and Hermes. Well, apparently they were also considered sacred to Dionysos at Delphi.

G. W. Elderkin, in The Sacred Doves of Delphi (Classical Philology, Vol. 35, No. 1 (Jan., 1940), pp. 49-52) writes:

As Ion was about to partake of a banquet at Delphi, an ill-omened word from one of the servants caused him and the others present to cast upon the ground the libation which had been intended for the god. He then ordered the sacred craters to be filled anew with wine of Byblos. At this moment the doves which dwelt in the halls of Apollo flew into the banquet tent and drank of the rejected libation. One of the birds reeled and fell dead of the poisoned wine which had been intended for Ion. The presence of doves in the Delphic sanctuary was not a figment of Euripides. […] A second significant detail of the description is that the doves drank wine. For this reason the poet happily called them a κώμος πελειών (1197) and enriched the Dionysiac flavor of the reference with the verb έβάκχευσευ (1204). That Euripides was not the first to give the dove a Dionysiac habit is shown by certain coins which have been assigned to Mallos in Cilicia, a Cretan colony. On these coins which are dated between 485 and 425 appears a dove with a body formed of a bunch of grapes, while closely related types of the same city have only the bunch of grapes. This curious grape dove may be the rock dove called οίνάς – a word which means not only “dove” but “vine” and “wine.” Aristotle, the earliest author known to have used the word, derived it from οίνος because of the wine-dark color of the dove. This derivation leaves out of account the bibulous propensities of the Delphic flock and the grape dove of Mallos where there was, as at Delphi, a most trustworthy oracle.

The article goes on to discuss the dove’s association with Apollon and Aphrodite as well as Dionysos, and there’s some interesting bits about Sicily and Phoenicia – but then it takes a detour into crazy land, proposing that the Pythia and other Apollonian oracular women received their inspiration from drinking water from springs or cisterns that had been mixed with wine. There were actually several Dionysian oracles where that was the medium through which the mantis achieved a state of entheos or enthousiasmos but that’s just not how things were done at Delphi, Klaros, etc. But hey, at least Elderkin wasn’t proposing that the Pythia ingested oleander.

I find this connection between Dionysos and doves very interesting and not just because it helps explain their strong presence in the Starry Bull tradition.

Birds, for the most part, aren’t found in the Dionysian menagerie. Bulls, goats, foxes, donkeys, spiders, beetles, large and small felines, deer, gazelle, pigs, dolphins, bears, elephants and whatever the fuck these animals here and here are – but not birds. The few exceptions I can think of are owls (which he transforms the Minyades into in some accounts), peacocks (found mostly in Ptolemaic Egypt) and eagles, though in all probability Pausanias was describing a statue of Sabazios:

Polykleitos of Argos made the image; it is like Dionysos in having buskins as footwear and in holding a kantharos in one hand and a thyrsos in the other, but an eagle sitting on the thyrsos does not fit in with the received accounts of Dionysos. (Description of Greece 8.31.4)

Interestingly, as I was tracking down the above quote I found another source pertaining to Dionysian doves – the Oinotrophoi:

Then virtuous Anchises said: ‘O chosen priest of Phoebus, am I wrong, or do I not remember that you had a son and four daughters, when I first saw your city?’ Shaking his head, bound with its white sacrificial fillets, Anius replied sadly: ‘Mightiest of heroes, you are not wrong: you saw me the father of five children, whom now you see almost bereft. What is the use of my absent son, who holds the island of Andros, that takes its name from him, and rules it in his father’s place? Delian Apollo gave him the power of prophecy. Bacchus Liber gave my female offspring other gifts, greater than those they hoped or prayed for. All that my daughter’s touched turned into corn or wine or the grey-green olives of Minerva, and employing them was profitable.

‘When Agamemnon, son of Atreus, ravager of Troy, learned of this (so that you do not think we escaped all knowledge of your destructive storm) he used armed force to snatch my unwilling daughters from a father’s arms, and ordered them to feed the Greek fleet, using their gift from heaven. Each escaped where they could. Two made for Euboea, and two for their brother’s island of Andros. The army landed and threatened war unless they were given up. Fear overcame brotherly affection, and he surrendered his blood-kin. It is possible to forgive the cowardly brother, since Aeneas and Hector, thanks to whom you held out till the tenth year, were not here to defend Andros.

Now they were readying the chains for the prisoners’ arms. They, while their arms were free, stretched them out to the sky, saying: “Help, O Father Bacchus; deliver us, we pray!” and he, who granted their gifts, helped them – if you call it help for them to lose in some strange way their human form, for I could not discover by what process they lost it, nor can I describe it. The end of this misfortune I did observe: they took wing, and became snow-white doves, the birds of your goddess-wife Anchises, Venus.’ (Ovid, Metamorphoses 13.640-674)

Which could actually serve as an aition for the Orphic rite described in the Derveni papyrus:

For libations, prayers and sacrifices placate souls. An incantation by magoi can dislodge daimones that have become a hindrance; daimones that are a hindrance are vengeful souls. This is why the magoiperform the sacrifice, as they are paying a blood-price. Onto the offerings they make libations of water and milk, with both of which they also made drink-offerings. They sacrifice cakes which are countless and many-humped, because the souls too are countless. Initiates make a first sacrifice to the Eumenides in the same way as magoi do; for the Eumenides are souls. For these reasons a person who intends to make offerings to the gods, first frees a bird, having a hope of being sometime in the netherworld with the souls, when the evil (?) … but they are souls … this (?), but as many (souls) as … of … but (?) they wear …


Even more fascinating, since that rite is supposed to effect the liberation of the soul from spiritual bondage and ancestral guilt – the banded owl butterfly’s scientific name is Caligo atreus dionysosPsuchai in Greek can mean either “soul” or “butterfly” and the Atreidae are practically the definition of a tragically doomed family.

Begging priests and prophets frequent the doors of the rich and persuade them that they possess a god-given power founded on sacrifices and incantations. If the rich person or any of his ancestors has committed an injustice, they can fix it with pleasant things and feasts. Moreover, if he wishes to injure some enemy, then, at little expense, he’ll be able to harm just and unjust alike, for by means of spells and enchantments they can persuade the gods to serve them. And they present a hubbub of books by Musaeus and Orpheus, offspring as they say of Selene and the Muses, according to which they arrange their rites, convincing not only individuals but also cities that liberation and purification from injustice is possible, both during life and after death, by means of sacrifices and enjoyable games to the deceased which free us from the evils of the beyond, whereas something horrible awaits those who have not celebrated sacrifices. (Plato, Republic 2.364a–365b)

We are everywhere


I was reading Matthew Lloyd’s Dionysus, masculinity, and the return of Hephaestus when I came across this interesting detail:

Indeed, Dionysus maintains his appeal to the more traditionally masculine. Nick Offerman, the actor best known for playing Ron Swanson in the sitcom Parks and Recreation, is an avid worshipper of Dionysus. In his 2014 autobiography, Paddle Your Own Canoe he says:

if I had to choose one god to serve, I would choose… Dionysus. The Greek god of wine, song, and theatre. My Eucharist is found in entertaining people, receiving the bread and the wine of laughter and tears from the crowd, and being brought to catharsis by the work of others. When I take the stage, Dionysus (or Bacchus) sees and hears my ministry and he is muchly pleased.

To Offerman, Dionysus is a god of theatre, revelry, and performance.

The public perception of Offerman is that he is a traditionally manly man. This perception is partially based on the character of Ron Swanson, but also on Offerman’s skill at woodworking. In Chapter 7 of Paddle Your Own Canoe, “Enter Dionysus”, he discusses his early time in the theatre and how his skill with his hands supported his theatrical pursuits. Nevertheless, he denies his own manliness – largely because of those Dionysiac tendencies. In a recent interview with Men’s Health, he says: “I went to theatre school. I took two semesters of ballet. I’m the sissy in my family. I cry with pretty great regularity. It’s not entirely accurate to equate me with manliness.” Indeed, even for Offerman Dionysus is not necessarily male – the quotation from Paddle Your Own Canoe above ends: “Or she. No reason to stick with the tired dogma of the patriarchy.”

Daß Narrenschyff

This bit from Kathryn Topper’s Dionysos, Sympotic Ships, and Empire: Banqueting aboard the Thalamegos of Ptolemy IV:

A fragment of Kallixeinos of Rhodes’ Peri Alexandreias (FGrH 627 F 1, ap. Ath., Deipn. 5.204d-206d) provides a lengthy description of the Thalamegos, the luxurious Nile barge of Ptolemy IV Philopator. Unlike the Tessarakonteres, Philopator’s giant warship, the Thalamegos was built for pleasure cruises, a purpose reflected in its lavish interior design. Distributed over its two decks were promenades, bed chambers, and several dining rooms, including one dining room decorated in an Egyptian style and another with columns of Indian stone. Additionally, the upper deck held a shrine to Aphrodite and a large “Dionysian” room capable of holding thirteen couches and furnished with an artificial cave that housed portrait statues of the royal family.


The metaphor of the symposium as a ship or a journey at sea appears as early as the archaic period, and for several centuries it permeated every aspect of the Greek banquet, from painted pottery to poetry to mosaic floor decoration. The metaphor could function in a variety of ways, referring sometimes to the physical and aesthetic experiences of the symposiasts, and at other times to the relationship between the sympotic group and the larger community (Slater 1976, Davies 1978, Daraki 1982, Corner 2010). As Franks has recently shown, it could also cast the symposiasts as voyagers to distant lands whose journeys resembled that of Dionysos as he traveled throughout the known world triumphantly spreading his cult (Franks 2014), and it is this last use of the metaphor that is most relevant to my reading of Philopator’s Thalamegos.


Banqueting aboard a ship that allowed them to travel – albeit metaphorically – to the limits of the civilized world, guests on the Thalamegos performed their own version of Dionysos’ journeys throughout Greece and the East. In doing so, they enacted a crucial aspect of Ptolemaic ideology, which cast the kings as semidivine spreaders of civilization whose capital city – with its zoo, botanical gardens, Museion, and library – was itself a microcosm of the inhabited world (Casey 2006, Strootman 2014a, 2014b). A ship that brought the riches of the world on board while promising travel to exotic lands, the Thalamegos turned banqueters into participants in this imperial program of collection and expansion.

Reminded me of my favorite Agrigentine anecdote:

Timaeus of Tauromenium relates that there was a certain house at Akragas called the Trireme, on this account:— At a festival of Dionysos once a group of young men were drinking and became so wild when overheated by the liquor that they imagined they were sailing in a trireme, and that they were in a bad storm on the ocean. Finally they completely lost their senses, and tossed all the furniture and bedding out of the house as though upon the waters, convinced that the pilot directed them to lighten the ship because of the raging storm. Well, a great crowd gathered and began to carry off the jetsam, but even then the youngsters did not cease from their mad actions. The next day the military authorities appeared at the house and made a complaint against the young men when they were still half-seas over. To the questions of the magistrates they answered that they had been much put to it by a storm and had been compelled to throw into the sea the superfluous cargo. When the authorities expressed surprise at their insanity, one of the young men, though he appeared to be the eldest of the company, said to them: ‘Ye Tritons, I was so frightened that I threw myself into the lowest possible place in the hold and lay there.’ The magistrates, therefore, pardoned their delirium, but sentenced them never to drink too much and let them go. (Athenaios, Deipnosophistai 2.37)

Okay, second favorite.

There’ll be birds on the ground


“In Hermione, Argolis is a temple of Dionysos Melanaigis (of the Black Goatskin). In his honor every year they hold a competition in music, and they offer prizes for swimming-races and boat-races.” (Pausanias, Description of Greece 2.35.1)

“Want your boat, Georgie?”

Okay. I am terribly amused.

I chose the swarthy fellow in the jester’s cap to illustrate this post because I’d always understood Mórychos to be a Dionysian epiklesis from Syracuse meaning “the Dark One” and his sinister expression conveyed all the right notes (sexy, mysterious, slightly menacing and mad, etc.) The clown thing was just icing on the cake.

Well, as it turns out the image was more appropriate than I guessed!

Or icing is more important than it seems!

Morychos, you see, was a proverbial buffoon; people would say, “stupider than Morychos” as in this quip recorded by Zenobios:

You are more stupid than Morychos, who got rid of his furniture and now has to sit outside his house.

He seems to have started off as a 5th century tragedian whom Aristophanes mocked for his gluttony in The Peace; after that the character took on a life of it own.

According to Thomas Horn he’s alive and well today as the Spirit of Mardi Gras:

In Syracuse, Dionysus was known as Dionysus Morychos (“the dark one”) a fiendish creature; roughly equivalent to the biblical Satan, who wore goatskins and dwelt in the reqions of the underworld. In the scholarly book, Dionysus Myth And Cult, Walter F. Otto connected Dionysus with the prince of the underworld. He wrote: “The similarity and relationship which Dionysus has with the prince of the underworld (and this is revealed by a large number of comparisons) is not only confirmed by an authority of the first rank, but he says the two deities are actually the same. Heraclitus says, ‘Hades and Dionysus, for whom they go mad and rage, are one and the same.'”

But the Hebrews considered the magic (witchcraft) of the Bacchae (the female followers of Dionysus) to be the best evidence of Dionysus’ Satanic connection, and, while most of the details are no longer available because of the fact that Dionysus was a mystery god and his rituals were thus revealed to the initiated only, the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel described the “magic bands” (kesatot) of the Bacchae, which, as in the omophagia, were used to capture (magically imprison) the souls of men. We read, “Therefore, thus says the Lord GOD, “Behold I am against your magic bands [kesatot] by which you hunt lives [souls] there as birds, and I will tear them off your arms; and I will let them go, even those lives [souls] whom you hunt as birds” (Ez. 13:20 NAS).

The kesatot was a magic arm band used in connection with a container called the kiste. Wherever the kiste is inscribed on sarcophagi and on Bacchic scenes, it is depicted as a sacred vessel (a soul prison?) with a snake peering through an open lid. How the magic worked and in what way a soul was imprisoned is still a mystery. Pan, the half-man/half-goat god (later relegated to devildom) is sometimes pictured as kicking the lid open and letting the snake (soul?) out. Such loose snakes were then depicted as being enslaved around the limbs, and bound in the hair, of the Bacchae women. The demon Pan, the serpents, the imprisoned souls, and the magic Kesatot and Kiste, were evidently perceived by the prophet Ezekiel as an effort of the Bacchae to mystically imprison the souls of men through magic and sensuality. Also, Pan was beloved of Dionysus for his pandemonium (“all the devils”) which struck panic and/or pleasure in the hearts of men and beasts. Does the same spirit reside over New Orlean’s Mardi Gras, Rio’s Carnival, and Sydney’s Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras? It appears to this writer that an equally tenacious effort on the part of modern Bacchae to embrace the will of evil supernaturalism exists.

It’s funny, I’ve been getting pinged for a while to start working more with the Harlequinade portion of Dionysos’ Retinue, and (once the monotheist lunacy and historical innacuracies/misrepresentations have been filtered out) I’d say this is a pretty strong confirmation and ties things together rather nicely. (Hahaha. Get it? Ties. Kesatot. I slay me.)

Oh, this should make Anthesteria extra fun this year.

Take it away, Crispin:

Step through to the other side

Etruscan myth provides us a glimpse into another world, one that is a distorted reflection of our own. Case in point, the Icarius Mirror:


Click to enlarge and around the edge you’ll find an inscription which reads:

Ikra the king from Mount Ossa of Ixion,
three things on this side he went to see,
I long for the brother also to go,
I cut the grapes abundant of the wine-stock to owe,
to the wine press! Young boy,
three on the side bedewed.

Context is provided by Mel Copeland and the Schøyen Collection

MS in Etruscan on bronze, Etruria, Italy, 6th c. BC. Illustration of Icarius standing, with a club over his shoulder, with a Phrygian style cap, in a chariot pulled by two bearded centaurs, one carries a bunch of grapes, the other a long cutting knife and a wine bag, above Icarius is a cherub sprinkling water, below is Icarius’ dog Maera running. So far this seems to be the only contemporary example of Etruscan literature recorded, and where the text is illustrated in addition. This records a part of Greek mythology that is not yet fully known, adding some new information. Icarius was the hero of the Attic town of Icaria who had a daughter, Erigone. He had been taught by Dionysos to make wine and the Bacchalian rites, and he loaded a wagon with wine skins, called his faithful dog Maera, and set off to spread the word about wine. He gave wine to some sheperds who got drunk, and who believed Icarius had tried to poison them. They beat him to death with clubs and buried him under a tree.

This suggests oh so very much to me. For instance, as Ikarios received the bakcheia from Dionysos, the God was instructed in them by the centaur Cheiron, at least according to Ptolemy Hephaistion’s New History (as preserved in Photius, Myriobiblon 190):

Dionysos was loved by Cheiron, from whom he learned chants and dances, the so-called Bacchic rites and initiations.

Euphorion, however, believed that Dionysos was older than the centaurs and inadvertently responsible for their creation:

Wroth with Hyes, the bull-horned Dionysos,
Rheione cast mind-destroying drugs upon the Pheres;
all those drugs in which Polydamna or Cytaean Mede were skilled.

The Etymologicum Genuinum states that Ῥείωνη is a name for Hera, while Nonnos (Dionysiaka 14.143–185) provides the rest of the story our fragment can only allude to: angry that the Pheres (a primitive race who lived in the mountains) had nursed the infant Dionysos, the Goddess Hera gave them poisonous drugs, transforming them into centaurs “who had the horns of bulls.”

Euphorion, who lived during the Hellenistic era, is one of our earliest testimonies to the Titanic sparagmos of Dionysos:

Dionysos, too, was honoured in Delphi together with Apollon, in the following way. The Titans tore asunder Dionysos’ limbs, threw them into a cauldron, and set it before his brother Apollon. Apollon stowed it away beside his tripod, as we learn from Kallimachos and Euphorion, who says:

Into the fire those arrogant beings cast divine Bacchus

(Tzetzes’s commentary on Lykophron’s Alexandra 207.98.5)

Which parallels Ikarios getting mauled by the mad throng of drugged peasants. However there’s an even more direct parallel with Ikarios in the story of Pholos’ reception of the ambivalent gift of Dionysos:

Pholos was a centaur who received Herakles with the courtesies due to a guest and opened for him a jar of wine which had been buried in the earth. This jar, the writers of myths relate, had of old been left with a certain centaur by Dionysos, who had given him orders only to open it when Herakles should come to that place. And so, four generations after that time, when Herakles was being entertained as a guest, Pholos recalled the orders of Dionysos. Now when the jar had been opened the sweet odour of the wine, because of its great age and strength, came to the centaurs dwelling near there, it came to pass that they were driven mad; consequently they rushed in a body to the dwelling of Pholos and set about plundering him of the wine in a terrifying manner. (Diodoros Sikeliotes, Library of History 4.12.3)

Though I was familiar with this legend I never noticed until now how it’s basically a condensed version of the Aiora and Anthesteria but with Herakles taking the place of Orestes, the way the Keres are swapped out for the Sirens in the South Italian version of the festival. There’s even a jar of wine buried in the earth.

Say: wine, centaurs, Ixion – where have I seen that combination before?

Oh yes, that trusted authority Robert Graves:

Since revising The Greek Myths in 1958, I have had second thoughts about the drunken god Dionysus, about the Centaurs with their contradictory reputation for wisdom and misdemeanour, and about the nature of divine ambrosia and nectar. These subjects are closely related, because the Centaurs worshipped Dionysus, whose wild autumnal feast was called `the Ambrosia’. I no longer believe that when his Maenads ran raging around the countryside, tearing animals or children in pieces and boasted afterwards of travelling to India and back, they had intoxicated themselves solely on wine or ivy-ale. The evidence, summarized in my What Food the Centaurs Ate (Steps: Cassell & Co., 1958, pp.319-343) suggests that Satyrs (goat-totem tribesemen), Centaurs (horse-totem tribesmen), and their Maenad womenfolk, used these brews to wash down mouthfuls of a far stronger drug: namely a raw mushroom,amanita muscaria, which induces hallucinations, senseless rioting, prophetic sight, erotic energy, and remarkable muscular strength. Some hours of this ecstasy are followed by complete inertia; a phenomenon that would account for the story of how Lycurgus, armed only with an ox-goad, routed Dionysus’s drunken army of Maenads and Satyrs after its victorious return from India.

On an Etruscan mirror the amanita muscaria is engraved at Ixion’s feet; he was a Thessalian hero who feasted on ambrosia among the gods. Several myths are consistent with my theory that his descendents, the Centaurs, ate this mushroom; and, according to some historians, it was later employed by the Norse `berserks’ to give them reckless power in battle. I now believe that `ambrosia’ and `nectar’ were intoxicant mushrooms: certainly the amanita muscaria; but perhaps others, too, especially a small, slender dung-mushroom named panaeolus papilionaceus, which induces harmless and most enjoyable hallucinations. A mushroom not unlike it appears on an Attic vase between the hooves of Nessus the Centaur. The `gods’ for whom, in the myths, ambrosia and nectar were reserved, will have been sacred queens and kings of the pre-Classical era. King Tantalus’s crime was that he broke the taboo by inviting commoners to share his ambrosia.

I have myself eaten the hallucigenic mushroom, psilocybe, a divine ambrosia in immemorial use among the Masatec Indians of Oaxaca Province, Mexico; heard the priestess invoke Tlaloc, the Mushroom-god, and seen transcendental visions. Thus I wholeheartedly agree with R. Gordon Wasson, the American discoverer of this ancient rite, that European ideas of heaven and hell may well have derived from similar mysteries. Tlaloc was engendered by lightning; so was Dionysus; and in Greek folklore, as in Masatec, so are all mushrooms — proverbially called `food of the gods’ in both languages. Tlaloc wore a serpent-crown; so did Dionysus. Tlaloc had an underwater retreat; so had Dionysus. The Maenads’ savage custom of tearing off their victims’ heads may refer allegorically to tearing off the sacred mushroom’s head — since in Mexico its stalk is never eaten. We read that Perseus, a sacred King of Argos, converted to Dionysus worship, named Mycenae after a toadstool which he found growing on the site, and which gave forth a stream of water. Tlaloc’s emblem was a toad, so was that of Argos; and from the mouth of Tlaloc’s toad in the Tepentitla fresco issues a stream of water.

Dig deep enough, maaaan, and everything’s a mushroom.

Shall pierce you with a sudden painful joy

I’m always fascinated by the glimpses we get of local variant traditions in Italy, such as this Etruscan mirror:


Nancy de Grummond in Mirrors, Marriage and Mystery explains the scene thusly:

Another specimen, of a Praenestine pear-shaped type but with Etruscan inscription, has the theme of the fate of Esia, a name unknown in Greco-Roman myth. E. H. Richardson argued that she was the equivalent of Ariadne, in a story of the latter’s death as caused by Artemis, and many have accepted her suggestion. She is held wrapped up like a dead soul by Artumes, who displays the arrows with which the goddess is accustomed to end the lives of young girls. Next to her stand Fufluns, the Etruscan Dionysos, a bearded male with a drinking cup, and a winged Menrva. Below, coming up from the ground, appears an oracular head. We do not know its message, but most likely it relates to the fate of Esia. It may be that Fufluns will receive her and bestow immortality upon her. Whatever the message, Fufluns and Menrva seem to react strongly: Menrva throws up both hands in a gesture of surprise (or dismay?) and Fufluns also raises one hand. We shall observe these gestures again in other scenes of individuals who are receiving a prophecy.

I’d love to know more details of this story, as it has some direct bearing on the relationship between Ariadne and Arachne, a subject of no little importance within the Starry Bull tradition.

Speaking of which, I received a bit of external corroboration a while back from no less than the Bard, good old Willy Shakespeare himself.

I’ll let Elizabeth Freund tell the tale:

In Book VI of The Metamorphoses Ovid tells the story of Arachne, a subtle weaver of Lydia, too skillful for her own good. She dares to rival Pallas Athene with her superior artistry at the loom. Mortal and goddess engaged in a competition in which each wove splendid scene into her tapestry. Athene represented the Immortals (including herself) as all-powerful figures of authority, while Arachne chose to weave tales of divine erotica into her web. When the work was done not even Athene’s envy could deny the superior quality of Arachne’s art. In her jealous rage the goddess struck through Arachne’s loom and tore the tapestry. The girl, ashamed and humiliated, hung herself, but the goddess restored her to life as a spider.

Arachne makes a single, abbreviated appearance in the Shakespearean canon, and even then her provenance is doubtful. Her tale of ill-fated rivalry with divine artistic power is curtailed to a rather obscure simile in V.ii of Troilus and Cressida.

Troilus: Within my soul there doth conduce a fight
Of this strange nature that a thing inseparate
Divides more wider than the sky and earth;
And yet the spacious breadth of this division
Admits no orifex for a point as subtle
As Ariachne’s broken woof to enter.
(V.ii 146-51)

By what devious detours of the imagination does this apocryphal “Ariachne” find her way into the texture of Troilus and Cressida? How subtle is “a point as subtle as Ariachne’s broken woof?” What are we to make of this pointed figure, sharp enough to penetrate the impenetrable, yet obscured by breakage and division? How Ariadne, who provided Theseus with the clue of a thread to guide him out of the Cretan maze, came to be enmeshed in Arachne’s web, whether by a printer’s carelessness or in an author’s slip of the pen or daring of the imagination, is probably beyond conclusive recovery. “Ariachne” may be an “original,” a felicitous neologism spun spider-fashion out of the creator’s own gut; or she may be no more than the accidental issue of a typesetter’s clumsy fingers. In either event she is a new creation who also carries incontestable traces of prior origins.

The conflation or confusion of this marginal figure of “Ariachne,” who is and is not Arachne, is and is not Ariadne, points the way into the major labyrinth of citation and the travesty of citation which is the “stuff” out of which Troilus and Cressida “makes paradoxes” (I. iii. 184). Yet this fragmentary clue proves also the very obstacle which thwarts the expectation of a safe conduct through the maze.

And while you’re pondering all of that, listen to Ariadna en su Laberinto (Ariadne in Her Labyrinth) – a traditional Sephardic romance by Osvaldo Golijov, from his song-cycle Ayre.

Here are the lyrics:

Why do you cry fair child?
Why do you cry, white flower?
I cry because you leave me.