Every time you perpetuate a flame-war you make baby Zagreus cry

Ah yes, it’s that time of the month again. No, I’m not talking about some lunar phenomena or a woman’s menstrual cycle, but something that happens with almost the same regularity. Yup, there’s been another flame-war in the Hellenic community. *yawn* I know, hardly anything extraordinary, and probably not even worth commenting on. In fact, if you missed this one you can probably just wait a couple more weeks and there’ll be a whole new one for you to participate in. Although the subjects that set us off change periodically (though not with enough randomness to keep things interesting) they all pretty much follow the same pattern. Person A makes an unfounded or generalized comment. Person B calls them on it, demanding they clarify or provide apropriate sources. Person A gets defensive and attacks Person B. Persons C, D, and E jump in, attacking Person A for attacking B and not providing the proper sources; Persons F, G, and H rush to A’s defense; I and J make sarcastic comments at everyone’s expense; K pleads for sanity and an end to the constant bickering, and then all hell breaks loose until either the Moderators have to step in or someone leaves the list in a huff, crying alligator tears and saying they’re never coming back and going to practice as a solitary for the rest of their life. (Which usually lasts about two to three weeks until they come slinking back because they’re bored or masochistic.) Somewhere along the line someone will have called somebody else a Wiccan. Another person will try to invalidate the traditionalist stance by pointing to slaves, pederasty, and the role of women in antiquity. Whoever invokes Hitler or the Nazis first automatically loses. Old hat. We’ve all been there, done that before. Plenty of us have the battle-scars to show for it, too. In fact, it’s kind of a rite of passage. If you can stand your ground, take it as good as you give, and actually make the occasional intelligent comment instead of being driven off with your tail between your legs, you will have gained respect points from the old guard. Last long enough – about two years – and you will have become part of the old guard.

That’s life in the Hellenic polytheist community. We’re a hard-headed, stubborn, passionately bellicose lot. There are a number of reasons why we’re like this. Partly it has to do with who our cultural ancestors are. The Greeks loved to argue. In fact, they made an art-form out of it and wrote plenty of legal speeches never intended to be delivered in court. They just liked the flow of words, the formation of arguments, getting the blood boiling with righteous indignation. They’d argue in the agora or marketplace; they’d argue at the assembly; they’d argue at festivals; they’d argue over wine at dinner-parties. In fact, husbands probably argued with their wives while they were making love. And the Greeks would literally argue about anything and everything. In fact, one argument at the library of Alexandria became so heated that it broke out into fisticuffs in the street by the opposing parties. Do you know what caused this rumble among the scholars? A debate as to whether the Achaeans at Troy used a razor to shave their faces based on an obscure verb in Homer. I kid you not.

Another reason why we argue today is because, let’s face it, we’re all a bunch of nerds. Most of us are college educated or reading books that are intended for college-level courses. And whereas college kids are forced to read those excruciatingly dry texts, we do it for pleasure. (Recently a lot of us got together at Pantheacon, and one of the rare treats was when we all unpacked our libraries – yes, we traveled with our own libraries – and oohed and ahhed over each other’s rare texts.) We love to quote those books, too, chapter and verse, and then discuss them down to their tiniest details. We keep our fingers on the pulse of academia, and as soon as a theory has fallen out of favor with the Ivy Leaguers, we lambast anyone who is out of date and has the temerity to quote the discredited information – even if it was the norm just a few short years ago. Additionally, plenty of us are in the computer industry, or spend an inordinate amount of time online. (After all, considering the widespread geographical distribution of our community, the ‘net is pretty much the only place we’re likely to meet a co-religionist.) A lot of us are into science-fiction and fantasy, RPGs, fandoms, alternative sexualities, and assorted other geekly activities. Considering how contentious all of those groups are, and that many of us belong to several simultaneously – it’s a wonder we’re ever civil to each other. As nerds we are very committed to clear-thinking, articulate communication, factual accuracy, and proper terminology. Unless, of course, these things get in the way of us making a point.

Additionally, this is a religion for us. It involves deeply cherished beliefs, things that touch the remotest parts of our souls, that encompass how we view the world around us, how we should relate to our fellow men, the very nature of divinity itself. We are passionate in our convictions – and so are the people who hold convictions opposed to ours. Looking back at the history of man, nothing has caused more wars, oppression, and general suffering than religion and philosophy. Frankly, we should be pleased with ourselves that the worst thing that any of us has ever done to each other was call someone an uncharitable name when we could be lynching people and setting fire to their books. (There’s a greater probability that we’d lynch someone than actually burn a book, however.) Unlike many religions, ours is a highly diverse and individualistic faith. From the time that the first Greek-speaking peoples entered Hellas to the closing of the last temples by Theodosius and the philosophical schools by Justinian, you’ve got almost two thousand six hundred years of history. Each polis or city-state had its own laws, traditions, religious practices, and even dialects of Greek. That is a huge amount of material to consider, and each of us focuses on different areas, different time periods, different gods and customs when forming our own personal practice and views. That is bound to cause at least some conflict when discussing these very important issues.

And, lastly, another contributing factor to our frequent ‘net battles is the fact that we are communicating with each other through the printed word. It’s very easy to read the wrong emotion into text. Most of the communication that we do is actually non-verbal. Tone, expression, gesture, stance, etc. can radically alter how our message is conveyed. Something said with a wry grin and a chuckle would likely not offend as much as the same sentence coming across e-mail. We often forget about that in the heat of the moment, when a dozen e-mails are coming across our inbox in the span of five minutes, and everything is immediate, intense, and seems far more important than it normally would. Often, I suspect people do not read e-mails in their entirety, but scan them to find the passage most liable to offend.

So, considering all of this, it’s easy to see why these sorts of flame-wars keep frequently popping up. Some of us simply take them in stride, seeing them as inevitable and hoping that each new manifestation will subside quickly so that we can get back to the important business at hand: fellowship, worship, and the building of a real community, both on and off the internet. Some even think it’s a good thing, showing our diversity, and allowing us to refine and come to a better understanding of our beliefs through exchanges and conflict. Others decry the situation, saying that no real community can be built amidst such a situation, that it’s all just ego-driven dick-waving and that a religion is not a pissing contest. When the people making this point are sincere and refrain from fanning the flames, I applaud their efforts at peace-keeping. Unfortunately, all too often the people who are so vociferously condemning the uncivil tone of discourse and waving the white flag are the same people who either started the flame-war in the first place, or fed it throughout. As soon as they see that their side is losing they’ll jump onto the pacifist train and condemn the other side as trouble-makers, malcontents, and enemies of peace, harmony, and understanding.

So, what’s the solution? Someone doesn’t write this long about a topic such as this unless they’ve got something to contribute.

It’s simple, really. If you want to stop the flame-wars, take a good, hard look in the mirror. A flame-war begins and ends with you, my friend. Yes, I know. Personal responsibility is never a pleasant pill to swallow, and it’s so much easier to blame everyone else. After all, you’re just responding to something they said, right? They set the tone, you’re just following their lead. Well, that’s the thing. Everyone thinks they’re in the right. No one wants to admit that they’re the one causing all the trouble. To their mind, they’re just expressing their views – and you’re the one twisting their words, antogonizing them, and generally being an asshole. And when you follow along, returning force for force, things have a way of escalating. It’s like how Herodotos describes the origin of the enmity between the Greeks and Persians. Some Phoenician sailors came to Greece to hawk their wares. They spotted some pretty Greek princesses, and once all their goods had sold, they fled off with the girls in tow. The Greeks eventually gave chase, abducted the Phoenician king’s daughters, and before you know it you’ve got the Trojan War and the Persian Wars and a whole hell of a lot of dead Greeks and barbarians. Retribution and retaliation always spiral out of control, because each side only sees itself as aggrieved and never the aggriever. Also, it’s pretty damn childish. That’s the behavior you’d expect out of a two year old – not an adult. It is only when one can begin to temper themselves, to use self-control and restraint – sophrosune in the Greek – to keep their anger in check, reply with civility, respect, and gentleness, that one shows the true maturity of an adult and a human. Yes, I admit, being an adult is not very much fun. It’s so much easier to let yourself get swept up in the moment, to give in to your baser, violent, animal instincts, to tear out the throat of the person you think has done you wrong, to show your strength and intelligence for all to see. But think about it. Which takes more strength, keeping yourself in check or smiting an enemy? Which shows more intelligence – making a witty, insulting comment, or finding a way to communicate your point in a manner that doesn’t offend? In the end, you may be completely in the right, but if you act like a total asshole, no one is going to listen to you. They’re just going to dismiss you and everything you say. So, if you truly want to overcome your enemy, overcome yourself first. Let them look like the raging fool, the out of control animal, the belligerent, ignorant creep. You do not have to lower yourself to their level. Never lose sight of who you are and aspire to be. The second you do that, they’ve already won, no matter how off-base their points are.

Of course, I’m not saying that it’s easy, by any means. Hell, if it was easy we’d all be doing it. And anyone who knows me knows that I sure as hell haven’t lived up to this standard plenty of times myself. But the thing is, it’s something you can keep working on, every day, in every exchange, a continually unfolding process. And you’re going to slip, you’re going to lose your temper – we all do, we’re human – but the key is, don’t stop trying. If this is something that’s important to you, it’s worth working at. And here are some guidelines that might help.

* When you feel yourself losing control, step away from the computer. Calm down and come back to it later. Nothing, absolutely nothing, has to be sent off just this second. Give yourself time and space to really think about what you’re going to say. Is it absolutely necessary? Are there any other ways to express it? Are you just repeating yourself? What effect is this going to have on the conversation? Is it just going to keep things going and piss off the other person – or does it represent an actual breakthrough, a new idea or way of looking at something? Write out everything that’s in your head, no matter how angry and insulting it is. Then delete it, and start all over again.

* Learn to communicate clearly. Electronic communication is fraught with peril. As already said, it’s hard to read intent in such a cerebral form of expression. Also, understand that there is often a difference between what’s in your head and what comes out. In our head there are all of these companion concepts, associations, words, history, etc. We think completely, but communicate only partially. Since very few people are mind-readers, don’t presume anything and take extra care in how you communicate your ideas. And, let’s face it, not everyone is on the same experential or intellectual level. Some people can become very sensitive about this fact and react badly when they think you are intentionally talking over their head. Complicating this is the fact that not everyone you will communicate with has English as their first or primary language. Because they understand words and concepts differently, this can open the doors to all sorts of unpleasant misunderstandings. Try to make your points as clearly and concisely as possible. If people seem to be misunderstanding you, offer to restate your views in a better manner.

* Whenever possible, provide sources for what you are claiming, especially when it’s regarding a controversial subject. When asked for sources, don’t get offended. That doesn’t mean that people are trying to show you up or that they even doubt what you’re saying. They may simply be curious and want to see how you came to your understanding, or to learn about something they previously didn’t know. If there is no basis for your view beyond your own personal opinion or experience, clearly state that. That is a perfectly fine source in and of itself, and will often avert a lot of heated discussion.

* Learn how to disagree with people without making it personal. Don’t take pot-shots or bring up unrelated issues. Keep private matters out of public discource. Separate the idea and action from the indivdual themselves. No matter what this person believes, they are still a person just like you, and thus worthy of decency and respect. It’s okay if you don’t see eye to eye. Very few issues are so important that you should stop being friends with the person simply because you disagree with them. Alternately, no matter what an asshole this person may be, eventually they’re going to have something good to say. Don’t dismiss their ideas out of hand, simply because you don’t like them. Make sure that what you are disagreeing with is the idea itself, and not the person expressing it.

* Don’t take things so damn seriously! In the middle of an argument it can seem like everything’s on the line, like it’s a life or death issue. It’s not. Believe me, very few things in life are worth getting that upset over. Someone disagrees with you, someone makes a snotty comment, someone even says something not so nice to you – so what? Does their having said so make it true? Grow a thick skin and learn to let stuff roll off your back like water off a tortoise shell. I’m not saying that you should be a doormat and never stick up for yourself – just choose your battles wisely, and understand that not everything is as intense as you’re feeling it right this second. Find a way to laugh at things. If you can find the humor in a situation, you’ll be much better off. Plenty of volatile situations have been defused with laughter.

* Don’t be a drama-whore. If your disagreement with an individual or a group is so great that you no longer feel that you can associate with them, simply leave. Don’t make long-winded and accusatory good-bye speeches. Try to move on without having to attack the individuals in question, to recriminate or “blow the lid off their shit”, or to demand that everyone you know choose your side over theirs. This only perpetuates the unpleasantness and puts everyone in a difficult position. Trust that things will work out in the end, and that you don’t have to right every wrong. People are smart. They notice patterns. They can figure things out without us having to tell them or rub their faces in it. Of course, if it is a serious situation which might potentially harm others, you do have an obligation to speak up. But know clearly that you are addressing a serious problem and not just spreading rumours and making hateful comments about someone you don’t like. And don’t go running to Livejournal and make a million posts, both private and public, in order to keep the cycle of conflict going. Because inevitably, the other side will do it, too, and then you will have to respond to what they respond to, and then they’ll respond, and really, it just keeps going on and on and on, long after the initial confrontation has blown over, bringing in individuals who had no part in the initial fray. And, if things do get resolved you’ll be sitting there with egg all over your face, having to explain the nasty things you said and how you no longer believe them. Much better to let things blow over, make sure the bridges have really been burnt before saying anything. And don’t talk about people behind their back. Gossip and spreading nasty rumours about people may be cathartic in the moment – but just consider that the same thing might be being done about you behind your back. And really, we’re a small community. Can you be sure that the person you’re talking to won’t talk to someone else, and that that person in turn won’t talk to the indvidual you’re talking about? When it gets back to them, it opens up a whole new can of worms.

I could go on, but hopefully you get my point. Really, it all comes down to the words of the Roman slave and philosopher Epictetus, “What you would avoid suffering yourself, seek not to impose on others.” Sounds like pretty good advice to me. If you want the madness to stop (and there’s no reason to assume that everyone does) it must stop with you. Take the initiative – or in the parlance of the self-help movement, be proactive and be the first one to do what’s right. Not only will you be looked up to as an elder and leader in our community, a person of wisdom and self-control – but you will know, at the very least, that you are not contributing to an evil, even if others are.

Apomainesthai: A Rite of Relaxation

Apomainesthai (to end the frenzy of the mind)

Find a place where you won’t be disturbed for at least five minutes. You may choose to light candles or incense, or play calming music, if such things are conducive to your relaxation. But these are not necessary.

The rite:
Stand with your arms raised heavenward, fingers extended. Imagine that you are reaching up to Olympos, the Abode of the Gods.


“Dionysos, Lord, you are a blessing to mortalkind, you who carry off our sorrows and fill our hearts to bursting with joy.”

Now slowly lower your arms, and envision a calming light descending through your body, from the top of your head to your belly and beyond, as warm wine fills you when it’s drunk. As you lower your arms, intone his names, vibrating each syllable carefully. Feel the God’s presence enfold you, his power dissolving all of the anxieties, mental blocks, and daimonic hindrances that are keeping you from reaching a state of contentment.

Appropriate names for this exercise are:

Bakchos, Lysios, Bromios, Bassareus, Zagreus

But you may use whichever ones you have a strong connection to.

Stop when your hands reach your sides, and extend them in front of you, with palms down, facing the earth. Stand like this in silence for several moments, and feel the calmness, strength, and fecundity of the earth flowing into you through your hands. Imagine that energy rising up to meet the heavenly energy that you drew down, mingling into one.

Now slowly bring your hands up and fold them over your chest, so that you resemble a mummy. Remain in this stance for several moments, envisioning ivy tendrils wrapping themselves around your legs, working themselves up your body until they have formed a cocoon around you. This is the cool, soothing ivy that kept the baby Dionysos safe in the womb while the flames devoured Semele around him. Similarly, they shall protect you from whatever anxieties, mental blocks, or daimonic hindrances were troubling you.

Perform this rite as frequently as you like. It works great as a daily devotional act, as well as preparation for sacred workings, or a way of stilling your mind and calming your emotions.

Gods, I was so dorkly back then.

Seilenos was reclining in the shade of a pine tree to escape the mid-day sun when the satyr Chreios* sought him out.

Chreios said, “Father Seilenos, I come to you in great need! Everyone everywhere recognizes your wisdom, for it was you who instructed our Lord Dionysos in the arts and philosophy when he was but a nursling in the groves of Nysa. I am very poor, and need a magic charm that will bring me wealth.”

Seilenos replied: “Very well my son. Make yourself a satchet of pure linen, and place in it 3 parts patchouli, 2 parts basil, 1 part cinnamon, and 1 part cedar.

“Patchouli will draw to you fertility and the richness of the earth.

“Basil will keep off negative influences, and ensure the happy conclusion of your endeavors.

“Sweet cinnamon purifies like a mighty fire and attracts as the flames of lust.

“And strength you will need to accomplish your will, as the ancient cedars of Lebanon.

“Now when you mix these ingredients in your satchet, recite the following prayer:

“Lord Dionysos, when you were torn to pieces by the Titans your blood spilled onto the rich, fertile earth, and everywhere that a drop fell a new plant sprouted up. May the power of these herbs bring me the wealth I so deeply desire, you who are the giver of every blessing.

“Then put the satchet in a bath of pure water, and immerse yourself in it. Feel the power of the herbs flow into your body as you bathe, and you shall surely find the wealth you desire when you arise.”

“Thank you!” Chreios exclaimed, “A hundred times, thank you! However can I repay you for this boon?”

“By stepping out of my shade, child. It is very hot out.”

And Seilenos turned over and went back to sleep.

* Chreios’ name is apparently derived from the Greek word χρεια meaning ‘want’, ‘necessity’, or ‘business’.

Prayer for an Oracular Dream

Hear me, kindly Lord of the Earth’s rich bounty,
master of my passionate heart,
Dionysos at the head of the triumphant procession,
Bromios entwined in ivy and ripe bunches of grapes,
Zagreus who dwells in the Deep and hunts beneath the Moon’s full light,
and by whatever other names you like, hear me, as you have heard me before!
Lord who weaves the fantastic dreams while we sleep,
who sends forth oracles by day and night,
who fills minds and bodies with powerful, prophetic spirits,
who dances with the mad women on the side of the mountain.
Hither, O Blessed One, O mighty son of heavenly Zeus,
be kind and look upon me graciously,
and to your passionate servant reveal a sign,
and when I sleep send to me
an oracular dream, true and without fault.

The Synopsis of Eunomius

A pre-Starry Bull account of the myths of Dionysos. 

There are many accounts of Dionysos’ birth. I shall begin with the Orphic one. In it, Demeter and her daughter Kore, who one day would be called Persephone, lived on the island of Sicily, where they made their home in a cave near the spring of Kyane. One day, Zeus, the father of the girl, came to the cave when the mother was gone, and in the form of a snake lay with his daughter and conceived by her a child, the bull-horned God Zagreus, the first Dionysos.

Now Zeus took the child back to Olympus with him, and his wife Hera grew jealous, for Zagreus was a most special child. Because of her jealousy, Hera plotted against the child, and when the guards who Zeus had placed over the boy were distracted, Hera caused the Titans to rise up from the underworld and set upon the child with their murderous knives. Brave Zagreus sought to evade the Titans by turning himself into a number of different creatures, a lion, a horse, a man, and finally a bull, but all his effort was for naught, for the Titans eventually caught the child, holding him by hoof and horn, and fulfilled their obligation to the Goddess by tearing the child to pieces. These pieces they cooked in a stew of milk, and then roasted over a fire, before they commenced their awful feast. The smell of roasting flesh drew the boy’s father, and Zeus upon discovering what happened, hurled his mighty lightning-bolts at the Titans, burning them up where they stood. Athena managed to save the heart of the child, and with this Zeus was able to conceive the God again. He did this either by eating the heart himself, or by giving it in a potion to the daughter of King Cadmus, who, however it was done, soon was with child.

Now when Hera discovered that Semele, as the girl was called, was pregnant with Zeus’ child, and the child was none other than Zagreus reborn, her wrath knew no limit. Immediately Hera disguised herself as the girl’s old nurse, Beroë, and with cunning words began to set doubt in the girl’s mind as to whether her lover was a God indeed, or just some rascal out to play a trick on her. The only proof, Hera claimed, was for her lover to reveal himself in his fullness, otherwise Semele’d never know if Zeus really was a God. The next time that Zeus came to lay with the girl, for he had fallen in love with her, Semele made him promise to grant her wish, whatever it would be. Impetuous Zeus made his promise, only to regret it when she made her request. Now, once a God has given his word, he cannot go back on it, however much he’d like to. Zeus put off his human form, and revealed himself to her in his fullness. The sight of Zeus in this form proved too great for her, and the girl was burned up at once.

The child in her womb would have died too, but for a miracle. Lush foliage wrapped itself round the baby in his mother’s womb and kept him safe from the heavenly fire that consumed her. And when Zeus saw that the child was safe, he immediately lifted the fetus up, and sewed it into a pocket in his thigh, there to keep him safe ’till he should come to term. When Zeus got back to Olympus, Hermes laughed at the funny way he walked, and so it was that the child was called Dionysos, for one meaning of that name is “the limp of Zeus.”

When the child was born, Zeus gave him into the care of his aunt, Ino, whose husband was Athamas. To hide him from the wrath of Hera, they dressed little Dionysos as a girl, and kept him in the women’s quarters of the palace. This only succeeded for a short time, and then Hera’s vengeance caught up with the child and his foster parents. Hera sent a madness against them, and Ino and Athamas slew their children, thinking that they were killing the boy. Dionysos, however, had turned himself into a kid, and so escaped the terrible trap.

Zeus sent Hermes to retrieve the boy and find a safe place for him. The Messenger of the Gods traveled far until he came to the mountain of Nysa, where there were some Nymphs into whose care the child was placed. Sources differ as to which Nysa the God was brought to – the one in Ethiopia, the one in Thrace, the one in India, or some other Nysa.

Now the Nymphs took good care of their charge, and loved him dearly. They suckled him on milk from their breasts, and later wild honey from nearby caves, until Dionysos gave them wine to drink and neither they nor the child never again tasted that inferior food. The Nymphs kept the boy entertained by singing songs to him, and playing the drums and pipes for him. Little Dionysos loved the pipes very much, and he begged them to teach him how to play. The Nymphs could refuse the boy nothing, and before long he had mastered the pipes. Animals and birds came to listen to him; trees and rocks too. Never before had the world heard such fine playing as Dionysos on his pipes – it was only the memory of the God’s playing that made people respond so to that Thracian and his lyre.

Silenus, that half man, half horse Satyr, wisest of the daimons, was the God’s own teacher. Every day he sat the boy down and gave him his lessons. It wasn’t long before Dionysos had surpassed his teacher in rhetoric and philosophy and then it was the boy who was schooling the Satyr in these weighty matters.

For all that, Dionysos preferred to spend his time in the forests surrounding Nysa. He would run through the vales, his joyful songs filling the forest with their gay sound. The Nymphs and Silenus tried to keep up with him, but Dionysos knew the forest as if he had spent his whole life there, and they would always fall behind. No part of the forest was unknown to him – all the creatures that dwelt there acknowledged him as their Lord. Frequently the God would hunt in the forest. After chasing down a goat, he would catch the creature and tear it apart with his bare hands. Once he had eaten its raw flesh, he would bring the goat back to life, that they might run and hunt another day.

This was how the God spent his youth, and while Dionysos loved his Nurses and wise old Silenus, he nevertheless grew bored at Nysa, and longed to travel the world. When he explained this to the Nymphs, they tried to dissuade the youth by explaining that he was safe from Hera only on the holy mountain. If he left, there would be no protection. Like all youths, Dionysos was headstrong and in his heart he did not fear Hera. So Dionysos left his home to explore the world, and suffer many great adventures. The Nymphs, unwilling to be without their Lord, came too.

The first of these great adventures happened shortly after leaving. Dionysos was sitting on a beach, appearing to all as a handsome youth with rich purple robes and long golden locks, when some pirates came upon him. The Tyrrhenians, for that was their race, spotted the boy and thought him some wealthy king’s son who had wandered off. If they caught him, certainly the boy’s father would pay a hefty ransom for his return, and so they plotted his capture. When Dionysos hailed the sailors, and begged passage to the island of Naxos, the Tyrrhenians agreed, and took the boy aboard their ship. Now their helmsman was a man named Acoetes, and he was good in his heart. When he saw the beautiful youth, he immediately recognized him as something more than mortal, and begged his fellows to set the boy free, warning them that they had taken some God aboard their ship and that he would not take kindly to their plans. The captain did not listen to this man’s wise words, and in fact he punished him for speaking them. Just as his crewmen were about to toss Acoetes over the side of the ship a sound of flutes was heard. Though there was a stiff breeze in its sails, the ship stood still. Ivy and grapevines twined themselves about the masts, and the oars turned into snakes. The ship was flooded with sweet wine, and on the deck appeared wild creatures – panthers, lions, and bears, who presently set upon the treacherous crew. The captain was devoured by a lion, or else Dionysos leapt upon him and attacked him with the fierceness of a lion. Those crewmen who were not mauled by the fierce creatures tried to jump to safety over the side of the ship, though when they hit the water they were no longer men, but dolphins. Acoetes, fearing for his life, tried to jump over the side with his former friends, but the God stopped him, saying that he had nothing to fear. For the kindness that he had shown the God, he would grant Acoetes whatever he wished. And so it was that Acoetes joined the holy band of the God’s followers, for that was his wish. Dionysos placed a dolphin in the sky to commemorate this event, and, no doubt, as a warning to all sailors.

Hera saw this, and grew angry. Some claimed that Hera had sent the pirates to catch the young God, others that it made Hera fear for her safety, for in this encounter the power of Dionysos was revealed. Out of her anger, Hera sent a madness to Dionysos, and it drove the young God across the face of the earth. He wandered through Egypt, Syria, and other lands, and in his madness did many terrible things. He killed a whole race of Amazons, flaying them alive. He made the Argive women think that they were cows, and made them eat the children that they had suckled at their breast. And he almost laid waste to the oracle at Delphi, and would have succeeded had Apollo, thinking quickly, not offered the God rule of the oracle during the winter months, which succeeded in checking the God’s wrath. Finally the God came to Phrygia where, in a swamp, he collapsed as he tried to cross the marsh. Two asses came along and helped the God across the marsh, where he found a temple to Cybele. In gratitude, the God placed one of the asses in the sky, and gave the other a human voice.

As it happened, Cybele was present in her temple, and when she spotted her grandson (for this was the same Goddess whom the Greeks called Rheia, the Mother of Zeus) she brought him inside, and tended to his needs. She purified the God, freeing him from the grip of madness, and taught him her ancient rites, which she gave over to Dionysos. It was also in Phrygia that he adopted the oriental costume that he and his followers would wear.

Dionysos met up with his Nurses at Dodona, where they had been waiting for him. (In some accounts, this was their original home.) Together, they traveled the world, establishing his worship and giving to those who honored him the gifts of wine and ecstasy. In that holy band there were Nymphs and Satyrs, mortal women called Mainads and Thyiades and Bassarides and Bacchae, and mortal men too, who dressed in the same flowing robes as the women, and everyone, whether mortal or immortal, man or woman, wore crowns of ivy, laurel, or myrtle, and carried the God’s emblem, the thyrsos-wand topped with a pine cone and twined with ivy or colored ribbons. Through the God, the Mainadic women were able to accomplish many great things: they could carry fire unscathed by its flames, speak with animals, conjure milk and wine with the touch of their thyrsic wands, and they possessed the ability to control weather. Mainad rites culminated in states of ecstasy where the God and his followers became one. While in these ecstatic states Mainads were impervious to physical harm, gifted with the arts of prophecy, and possessed incredible amounts of strength so that they could lift a full-sized bull over their heads, or tear apart a sacrificial goat with their bare hands. The Mainads honored Dionysos with drumming and dances and with the special rite of omophagia or the eating of raw flesh. Everywhere they went, women left their homes to join the revels of the God. Most returned after fulfilling their duty – some stayed with the God the whole of their lives, traveling with him across the world, part of the triumphant army of Lord Dionysos.

There were many places that accepted the fabulous gifts of the God, and gladly worshipped him, among them the Laconians, the Delians, the Eleans, the Carians, and all the people of the Islands – but their stories are not the most famous ones, for the poets preferred tales of opposition. And the first and greatest of those who opposed the God was Lycurgus, Dryas’ son, that violent fool who ruled the Edonians. Now the Edonians lived on the banks of the river Strymon and their soil was such that it received the grapevines of the God with ease, and before long the vines were everywhere. Now the people liked this, for they were fond of the God’s wine, but Lycurgus detested the plants, and the nocturnal rites that Dionysos had established with them. Therefore one night when the followers of the God, and Dionysos with them, had gathered to perform their holy dances outside the city, Lycurgus and his men crept upon them to disrupt the sacred rites. Lycurgus, brandishing an ox-goad, burst upon the group and scattered them, chasing the women to the shores of the river where they, urged on by Dionysos, sought refuge under the waves with the Oceanid Thetis, who kept the girls from drowning out of her love for the God. Now Lycurgus thought that he had won, since he had gotten the Mainads to drop their thyrsi and run, fleeing with their God into the river. This only confirmed the king’s contempt for the God, for he had fled from a mere mortal, and what sort of God would do that? Little did he understand that it was not fear that drove the God to flee, but concern for his followers, and so, once they were safe, the God came back up and confronted the king, who was busy trying to pull up all of the God’s vines. It was an easy thing to beat the king – indeed he was already half-mad to begin with. All that the God did was put before his eyes a vision of endless rows of grapevines, one after the other, grapevines that multiplied as the king and his men tried to pull them up. All through the morning, and into the day the king labored in his fields, and still they were full of vines. He bid his servants tear up the hateful plants, and when they were too slow, or grew tired and begged for rest, the king leapt upon them, and beat them with his ox-goad. The king’s son began to worry for his father, and when the boy approached Lycurgus to beg him to put off this madness, the king picked up an ax and began hacking away at his son, thinking as he did, that the boy was covered in vines. When the son’s blood splattered on Lycurgus, Dionysos made him think that the vines had taken hold of him – and so the king took the ax to his own legs. This seemed to bring the villain’s fit to an end – or at least stopped him from harming others with his madness. Fearing the man they had once proclaimed king, the Edonians banished the son of Dryas to a nearby mountain, Pangaeüs where the panthers roamed. Those wild beasts, sacred to the God, hunted down Lycurgus, tearing him apart like a fawn in the hands of a Mainad.

Another man who resisted the worship of God, and should have known better, was Pentheus the king of Thebes, whose own mother was the sister of Semele. Dionysos came to the daughters of Cadmus – Agave, Autonoe and Ino who had returned to the city of her father after the evil done in her husband’s home. Dionysos sought to convince these women that he was a God, and that his mother had indeed conceived him from a God. They would not listen: they persisted in their belief that Semele had only ascribed her pregnancy to Zeus, and that for this lie she had been punished with death. To them, Dionysos had died in his mother’s womb – they would not hear Ino’s tale of nursing the child, thinking as they did, that it was a delusion born of her madness. They spoke other lies against their sister, and spread this falsehood among the women of Thebes, who, on hearing it believed, and doubted the God. This was intolerable for the God, and so he drove the women of Thebes into the mountains outside their city, and there on Cithaeron they honored the God whom they had denied, honored him with songs and dances and the red, raw feast which so delights him.

The men of Thebes, Pentheus chief among them, found the situation unbearable, and so the king sent his soldiers into the hills to flush the women out. This got them nothing, for Dionysos was among his followers, and through him they were able to resist the armed men, working wonders before their awe-struck eyes. The women were able to turn aside the soldiers’ sharp-bladed swords, and cut through their bronze shields with the ivy-wrapped wands that they carried. Women held fire in their hands, and caused milk and wine to flow along the mountain’s side. Tiny girls, through the God, found the strength to lift full-grown men over their heads, and wild creatures ran at their sides, sharers in the holy mysteries of God. The women routed Pentheus’ finest soldiers: even so, a few Bacchants allowed themselves to be captured, that they might greet the king, and show him the ways of God. Among those that Pentheus’ men captured was Dionysos himself, disguised as a mortal priest in the robes of God.

Pentheus interrogated him at length, thinking correctly that he was the leader of the Bacchae, and though the God answered his questions in all truth, it made no sense to the king, for his mind was closed to all but the narrowest of truths. As the God continued on, trying to teach Pentheus a better way, the king grew enraged, for he thought that the God mocked him. Finally, when Pentheus was near to tears, the God ended the conversation, saying that if Pentheus intended to punish him, he should let nothing stand in his way. While Pentheus attempted to do just that, it proved a far difficulter task than he had expected. The chains that he had bound the God with fell from him and his followers at a word from Dionysos. When the king ordered his men to take hold of the prisoners, they could not move their limbs till the God gave them leave to, and when Pentheus tried to run the God through with his own sword, he found in Dionysos’ place one of the tall columns of the palace, the God having set before him a confounding image to do battle with.

The king was powerless to stop him, yet still he would not concede and grant the God that which he deserved, namely to be honored in the city that once housed his mother. Recognizing that, Dionysos placed before the king the method of his own demise, and Pentheus, blinded by his own foolishness, grasped for it as a thirsty man grasps for a cup of wine. Dionysos persuaded the king to follow him into the hills, where the Bacchae awaited them. He promised an end to this war, and the return of peace to Thebes. Pentheus interpreted this as the death of the Mainads – it was his own death that the God offered him.

Dressed as a Mainad, in gown and crown and ivy-wrapped wand, the king crept upon the camp of the Mainads, eager to see what infernal rites they were up to. When the king couldn’t see things as well as he had hoped, he climbed a pine tree to spy on the women in their nocturnal rites. From that vantage point all was revealed to Pentheus – and Pentheus was revealed to all. The Mainads saw the intruder, and were upon him in an instant, pulling the king from his tree, and tearing him apart once they had him on the ground. Chief among those who mauled the king were Autonoe and Agave, the very aunt and mother of Pentheus. When the deed was done, the women returned to their proper states of mind – only to witness the horrible things that they had done. All who had partaken in the savage rite were banished from Thebes, and wandered the world alone until alone they died. This, then, was the fate incurred by those who mocked the God in his own home – to commit an awful crime, and die a hideous death.

This should have proved a warning to all those who would deny another’s right to honor the God. However, the daughters of Minyas paid no attention to the fate of Pentheus, and when the holy band came to their city, and people filled the streets with revelry, the girls remained in their father’s bower, busying themselves with the “proper” work of women. Dionysos did not care that they refused to honor him – but when he heard that they would not allow their slaves to join the celebration, the God was forced to visit on them the punishment which comes to all those who refuse him – namely the madness which leads to death. The daughters, spurred on by the God, ate each other’s children, and then were themselves turned into bats who fled into the hills and the darkness, both of which they had previously felt were unfit places for well-bred women to frequent.

At Tangara they accepted the God, and their women honored him in the proper way. But Tritons, those terrible creatures who live under the sea, sought to disrupt their holy rites – though the God would not let them. He battled the Tritons to keep his voataries safe, and drove them far from Tangara once he had vanquished their leader, that they might never harm that holy people again. When Butes and his men tried to rape the Thessalian Mainads, the God hunted them down, until every last one of those black-hearts had paid the penalty for assaulting those dear to the God. To the daughters of Anius he gave the gift of growth, that they might produce corn, wine, and oil for their drought-stricken land. And when Agamemnon’s men tried to carry the girls off to feed his army, Dionysos kept them safe, turning them into doves that they might fly to freedom. He punished the Thracian bacchants when they killed his chosen prophet, Orpheus of the splendid voice, giving the singer’s head into the care of the Lesbians, that it might continue to give oracles in times of great need. Dionysos honored his votary Dirce when she died by causing a holy spring to rise up on the spot. He placed the Haliae in the sky when they were slain by Perseus the king of Mycenae for bringing wine into his city and getting his soldiers drunk while he was at war with the Aegean islands. (Perseus was well punished for his hastiness, although he eventually repented and established the God’s worship in his city.) And he danced up the rains for the people of Limos, an eastern city.

When Dionysos came to Attica it was not a king that greeted the God, but a humble shepherd, who offered the God his hospitality – modest though it was – and so was rewarded with the gift of wine and the knowledge of its cultivation. Icarius, for that was the shepherd’s name, took such great pleasure in the God’s wine – before then, all that he had had to drink was water, the same as his sheep – that he immediately wanted to go off and share this wonderful gift with his neighbors, for he was indeed generous of heart. Erigone, the man’s daughter, agreed with her father that they must share that which the God had given to them, and so the girl watched her father’s flocks while he went to the neighboring farm to bestow on them the rich wine of Dionysos. Now in his eagerness Icarius did not cut the wine with water, as the God had taught him to do, and so his neighbor’s sons were soon quite drunk, for they liked the wine as much as Icarius had. When the father came upon his sons in their drunken state, he thought that Icarius had poisoned them, for they had passed out and would not waken, or stumbled about in their drunken stupor. The neighbor and his friends sought vengeance against the kindly shepherd, killing him with heavy rocks and sticks plucked from the ground. When the boys awoke, no worse for wear, the father and his friends repented their hasty action, but too late, for Icarius was already dead. Fearing that others might find out what they had done, the men carried Icarius’ body to a nearby well and stuffed it in there, that he might be hidden from the eyes of men, and their dark deed go unpunished.

When Erigone’s father did not return, the girl began to despair. With her faithful dog Maeara, the girl searched out her father, and eventually found the well where his body was hidden, directed to the spot by the light of the moon. When the girl saw her father’s lifeless body, madness took hold of her, and the girl hung herself from a tree that grew near the spot. The dog, abandoned by those that he had loved, flung himself into the well where he died.

Now the men did not escape their evil deeds – as always happens, vengeance caught up with them. The Lord sent a madness upon the women of Attica, and as Erigone had hung herself from a tree, so too did they hang themselves. Nothing that the men of Attica could do stopped their women from taking their lives – even force of arm failed to stop the maddened women. In desperation the men of Attica consulted the Delphic oracle, where they discovered the cause of their plague and the means by which they could remedy it. First, they hunted down the killers of Icarius, slaying the impetuous men as they had slain the helpless shepherd. Next, they instituted a festival of Dionysos, the Aiora or “swinging festival” which was held during the grape harvest. During the Aiora young girls swung from trees on swings, in imitation of Erigone, and all sorts of small images were hung on trees and swung, and fruits were brought as an offering to the father and daughter. Dionysos relented, and the women regained their sanity, those that had not killed themselves. He further honored his votaries by placing them in the sky as the constellations Boötes, Virgo and Canicula or Porcyon.

In Aetolia the God recieved a hospitable welcome from Oeneus, king of Calydon. Not only did he entertain Dionysos and his holy band, but when the king recognized that Dionysos had taken an interest in his wife, he arranged so that he was called away on urgent business, that the two might be left alone. For his generosity, Dionysos gave him the vine, and taught him to make wine. Calydon prospered from its production of wine, and became, in time, one of the richest of nations. By Althea, the wife of Oeneus, the God bore a daughter, Deïaneira, the future bride of Heracles.

Crete had been at war with the nations of the Aegean, and because of her greater naval strength, and the fact that the Gods loved her above every other nation, she was able to overcome them. As a result of this, Minos forced Athens to pay tribute, in the form of seven youths and seven maids which she was forced to send to Crete on every ninth year. These youths were then sacrificed to the Minotaur, a monstrous creature – half-man and half-bull – that lived in the labyrinth, a giant maze that Minos had constructed under his palace. Despite his father’s pleas, Theseus volunteered to be one of the fourteen, and came to Crete to slay the beast and topple Minos’ rule. When Ariadne met the handsome youth, she immediately fell in love with Theseus. She gave the dashing young hero a silver thread, which, unraveled as he wandered through the labyrinth, would help him find his way out again – a thing no one, including the Minotaur, had been able to do before. When Theseus succeded in killing the beast and overthrowing Minos, he left for his home and took Ariadne with him as he had agreed to do. But on their way home, they stopped off on the Isle of Naxos where Theseus – who didn’t really love Ariadne – abandoned her to die. Some time later, Dionysos arrived at the island and found the princess near to death from exposure and heartbreak. He nursed her back to health, and when she recovered her strength, married the God, as they had fallen in love while she was recuperating. Ariadne bore many children for the God, and theirs was a most happy marriage. But it was not without sorrow, for the Goddess Artemis, thinking that Ariadne had betrayed Dionysos with Theseus, killed the princess on the Isle of Dia, which some claimed was the same as Naxos. Devastated, the wine-God placed the bridal crown of Ariadne in the heavens as the Corona Borealis, and, unable to bear the loss of his great love, begged his father Zeus to bring Ariadne back to life. Though it went against the very laws of heaven, Zeus consented, and Ariadne was made a Goddess. Together, the two immortals dwelt happily on Olympus and on the world, their love ever flowing.

Dionysos sought to share his mysteries and the gift of wine with all the men of the world, not just the Greeks and Asiatics who clung to the shores of the Mediterranean. Indeed, the God and his army – for that is how the holy band came to be called – carried his message to the very ends of the earth, “through Syria and Arabia and Palestine they traveled, into Egypt and Persia and Bactria they came, and on to India they went, that land of a hundred tongues” as the poets have it. Everywhere he went the God accomplished many wonderful things, teaching men to plant the vine and harvest wine and worship the Gods through mysteries. He got the Arabians to stop eating the flesh of men, and established among them civilization, with laws and art and worship of the Gods. In Egypt, the holy band was lost, and would have died of thirst, but for the intervention of the God Ammon, who, appearing as a ram, led the votaries back to their God, who caused a spring to rise up that they might drink and lose their thirst. For this kindness, Dionysos established a shrine to the ram-headed God Ammon, and placed a ram in the sky as Aries. Also in Egypt, Dionysos won the throne of Egypt back for its rightful owner, punishing the interloper who had taken it with madness, so that he wandered the land thinking himself a cow like Io – only there was no Isis to take pity on the man, and his days were ended as some farmer’s dinner. Dionysos was well loved in India – many of the ascetics’ wives fled to him, longing for that which their husbands would not give them, simple love. Dionysos taught the women powerful magics to win back the affections of their husbands, and taught the men to see in their wives an image of the Goddess, so that in making love to them they worshipped the divine. Seeing the popularity of the God, an Indian king declared war on him. The two armies met, the king’s and the assorted followers of the God, and they prepared to make fierce war, but the God gave a great shout, and the king’s army fled in fear, leaving the holy band victorious. This was how they conquered the world, without the shedding of blood. In order to cross the Euphrates (some said that it was the mother of rivers, the Ganges) Dionysos constructed a bridge of plaited vines and ivy strands for his followers to cross, and as for the Tigris – how else should he cross that river, but on the back of a tiger?

One day as the holy band was traveling through Phrygia, Silenus, the God’s old teacher, disappeared, and no one could find him. Finally, escorted by an honor guard sent along by Midas, king of the Mygdonians, the old Satyr returned. The king, or some of his peasants, had easily captured the ever-thirsty old man by setting out some wine-bowls, and once the old man had prophecized for him – that was what Satyrs were supposed to do when they were captured – Midas entertained him with splendid hospitality, giving him his best men as an escort when the old Satyr wished to return to the God. Dionysos rewarded the king for his kindness by agreeing to grant whatever Midas wished – and Midas foolishly asked that everything he touch turn to gold. Reluctantly – for once a God has given his word, he cannot turn back – Dionysos did so, and the God was not surprised when the king sought him out the next day, begging that his gift be withdrawn. It had worked too well, and he was starving since his very food turned to gold as well. Dionysos gladly told the king how he might banish his “golden touch” by bathing in the icy waters of the river Pactolus, a river rich with gold to this day.

Now that all the world worshipped him as a God, Dionysos took his place with the other immortals on Mount Olympus, but not, however, before he had descended into the underworld to bring up his mother out of that dark land. He took his mother up to Olympus with him, where she assumed the name Thyone and lived among the Gods.

Dionysos soon found himself involved in the war between the Gods and the Giants. Warlike Dionysos battled the Giant Eurythus with his wand, vanquishing his fierce opponent. Next the God took on Alcyoneus who was awed by the God’s powers and forsook battle with the Lord. Chthonious was not so wise – Dionysos dug a pit which the Giant fell into, and then filled the pit with wine, drowning his opponent. Pelorus and Porphyrian attacked the God together – together they were torn apart by the God’s fierce panthers. The other Giants were routed by the braying of the asses on which Dionysos and his Satyr companions rode. And when the Gods finally overcame the Giants, it was Dionysos’ suggestion which brought them victory. The God said that only by taking on their animal forms could they hope to vanquish their foes. The Gods feared losing their place in the world by lowering themselves in this way. As it turned out, only by adopting their bestail natures were they able to keep their noble place in heaven.

His role in the War with the Giants had gone a long way towards resolving the enimity between him and Hera – when a Giant had threatened to rape the Goddess, it had been Dionysos not Zeus who came to her aid. It was the following incident which completely ended it.

Hephaestus had always resented being abandoned as a child by his mother. So one day he hatched a plan to get revenge on her. The Great Artisan crafted for the Gods marvelous gifts, each one greater than the last. Finally, he presented to them the greatest gift of all – a marvelous golden throne for his mother, a chair inlaid with gems and precious stones, and sculpted with all her favorite things. The Queen of the Gods sat in her throne and proclaimed it the most comfortable thing she had ever sat upon in all her long lifetime. Hephaestus replied that that was good, because she was going to be spending a lot of time in the chair – and when the Goddess tried to rise from her seat, she found that she was quite stuck. Many of the strongest Gods tried to pull her free – they would have yanked the Goddess’ arms off before they would have pulled her free. In all the commotion, the throne was overturned and that is how it remained, hanging upside down with the Goddess still stuck in it. After the Gods had all gotten a good laugh, kingly Zeus ordered Hephaestus to free his mother (noting, as he had, the fierce look in her eyes) but the smith-God was nowhere to be found. He had gone down to his home below the waves, where his great smithy was. Now Ares, angry at the rough treatment of his mother, volunteered to go down and bring back the God – but this was a task easier to declare than to fulfill. Hephaestus was waiting for the war-God under the waves, and when Ares approached, Hephaestus began to fling fiery brands at the God, and drove him back to the shore, where he fled, nursing his wounds.

Dionysos proved more successful in his attempt. He did not try to bring the artisan back by force, knowing, as he did, that that path would not succeed. Instead the God brought his best wine, and he and the smith began to talk, speaking about Hera and Olympus and the problems that they had had with both. Before long Hephaestus was drunk – this was, after all, Dionysos’ best wine – and Dionysos managed to convince the God to relent. But because the God was so drunk he couldn’t make it back up to Olympus under his own power. Dionysos placed the heavy God on the back of an ass and led him up the high path to Olympus where the Gods were waiting anxiously for their return. Drunk Hephaestus agreed to set Hera free – but only on the condition that she acknowledge him as her child, and Zeus grant him the beautiful Aphrodite as his bride. All his demands were met, and Hera was released.

Out of gratitude for this service done her, Hera relented in her wrath. Further, she nominated Dionysos to the ruling council of the Gods, and all agreed that this was a grand idea.

So ends my account of the things that Dionysos did, the wonders he wrought, the gifts he shared, the marvel he became. In him is our redemption. Great is the God Dionysos!

Images from the Karneia

Look at how the young boys run! Chests heaving, fists pumping, thighs tensing, naked feet slapping the pavement as they hurtle towards the prize. The grape-laden man runs, not naked like them, but draped with fillets of wool in the hot summer sun. He is sweating and his cheeks puffing – but he is fast – far faster than the boys expected! They thought it’d be easy to catch the old man. Slap his back and smile as he proclaimed the blessing for the city. Then there would be feasting and beautiful hymns, and the great circle dances with the pretty young girls and their loose brown hair and slender ankles.

But the grape-man is so far ahead – what if he reaches the altar before they can touch him? Will Apollo Karneios really turn his face from them? And what would that mean? The failure of the crops, certainly – and war. Perhaps even plague, like that which befell the Greeks when they unknowingly cut down Apollo’s sacred cherry-grove on Mount Ida to build the Trojan Horse. Raging, the God afflicted them with disease – and only the institution of the Karneia was able to appease his wrath. But what if they should fail in the race?

Unbidden, the images fly into Alexis’ brain. He sees the grapes rotting on the vine in his uncle’s vineyard, black and poisonous looking things. And he sees his cousin take a dagger in the side and collapse under the press of bodies as the black smoke rises from the charred hulls of his city’s buildings. And worse yet is the image of his sisters and mother puking black blood into their hands, their once red cheeks white like bone. All this, because he failed to obtain the grape-laden man’s blessing for his city.

Alexis digs deep. His legs burn, and his chest is tight so that even the shallow runner’s breaths are hard to draw. But he drives away these concerns like an old woman chasing away a stray dog with a stick. Even if his legs splintered, he would run. Even if his heart burst in his chest, he would run. The other boys, winded, start to fall off, but Alexis won’t let himself give in, won’t let the bad things happen. He has to touch the back of the old fat man – everyone depends on him.

He is five, now four strides behind. He might just make it! But no – he can see the altar of the God at the end of the track. If the grape-laden man reaches it, it’s all over. His arm burns as he reaches out, his muscles straining. His vision is blurred by sweat and tears, and his heart feels like it’s going to pound right out of his chest. Closer, closer they draw to the altar of Apollo, harder, harder he pushes himself, trying desperately to close the distance between them. His fingers shake, longing to touch something solid, to feel the sweaty wollen fellets, and the soft flesh of the man’s back. “Apollo,” the boy prays, “make me worthy to save my city.”

And then there are no more thoughts, no more fears and longing. He is just sinew and flesh, muscle and sweat. A body, working perfectly, pure instinct. He feels his steps grow lighter, the distance shrinking, and he reaches out again, and slaps the back of the grape-laden man!

The touch startles the old man, and he tumbles to the ground in a flury of limbs and wollen fillets, and Alexis trips over him and crashes to the ground himself, bloodying his knees. But he is elated! Joy washes over him, and his spirit leaps into the sky like a giant eagle. He did it, he saved his city! Even as his legs are gripped with cramps, and his chest pounds so hard that he’s sure his heart is going to burst any minute, and his vision goes black from the pounding in his ears that sounds like the Bacchic drums at night, he is happier than he has ever been in his short life. The other boys arrive and lift him up, and carry his limp body to the altar, cheering and patting his back to await the blessing of the grape-laden man. Alexis smiles, and continues to sweat and bleed for Apollo.

You sweet, naive bastard.


Something I wrote back on 8-25-01:

Something has been lost from the world. We dwell in our comfortable cities, in our comfortable homes, living our comfortable lives, dying each day as our soul is stifled by the comfort around us. We go to jobs we hate so we’ll have enough money to buy things we don’t really need, because we’re convinced that they’ll bring us some sense of happiness or the completion that we so desperately want. But they never do, and the more things we acquire, the more lonely we feel. We do what everyone expects us to do. We go to school, get a respectable job, get married, have kids, take part in community volunteer activities, go to the right Church, read the right books, buy all the right things – all that is expected of us, whether we want to do it or not. We never go outside of our bounds, challenge ourselves, follow our dreams – because that would be silly and impractical, and what would the neighbors think? And so, each day, the chasm grows wider, our lives have less meaning and less joy, until we are filled with emptiness and self-hatred, and we can barely get up in the morning, afraid of the hellish drudgery that our existence has become.

This is the plight of modern man. We have become monsters, alienated from everything that is good and true in life. We no longer live with the rhythms of nature, no longer feel the vital, fluid power that courses through all things. We’re disconnected from our bodies – they’re just flesh suits that house our minds. We don’t feel any real connection with the people around us, because we’re afraid of opening ourselves up and letting another person really, truly touch our lives. We suppress our dreams, finding a million reasons why it will never work out, even though this is the only thing that will bring us true happiness in life. This is what our world has become. A nightmare place of darkness and depression, far worse than the torments of any mythical Hell.

Why did it become like this? The reason is that man banished the Old Gods from his life. In his arrogance he said, “We can make it on our own. We know best what will make us happy. It is too much to pay you the proper respects, so we aren’t going to do that any more.” And the Gods said, “Very well, if that is what you want, it will be so. Your will is free, we do not command respect, though it is properly ours. Foolish man, if you can make it on your own, then do so.” And so the Gods no longer spoke with man, no longer gave him their wise council. In time, man forgot the ancient rites, which were a source of great happiness in his life, and he ceased to see the wonder and beauty of the world around him. With piety gone from his heart, greed and arrogance took over, upsetting the natural balance, so that there was no longer room for joy and peace. Man warred with nature, killing the other animals, building his ugly cities everywhere, poisoning the air and water and land around him. He was no kinder to his fellow man, making murder and war and suffering the common lot. Man thinks he knows best, but his life is filled with sadness and aching and fear and desperation. And the worst part is – it doesn’t have to be this way!

For you see, the Gods never went away. They have been here the whole time, working for our best, even though they did so in the shadows, the mass of men neither noticing nor honoring them for their help. A few men of great vision have seen the Gods at work in their lives, and have honored them properly, keeping the memory of the Gods alive through art and philosophy, and here and there through the keeping of the Gods’ festivals. And now, in our darkest hour, more and more people are stepping into the light, seeing the Gods and honoring them. The Old Ways are coming back, in all their wonderful diversity. People are saying, “This horrible thing that you say should be enough – this modern life – I will have no part of it. I claim more from life, I want fullness, and real joy. And I will honor the Gods for the wonderful things they do, and because it is proper to honor them!”

The God who has remained the closest to man, and who is now so busy in our world, is Dionysos, the wild God of fluid nature, of wine and drunkenness, of madness and blessed release. He appears to people and helps them to truly see what life is about, waking them up from the terrible nightmare, and bringing them out to dance wild in the hills, where they can discover their true selves, and drink deeply of all that life has to offer, the bitter and the sweet. Dionysos transforms everything that he touches. He takes our suffering, and turns it into joy; he cracks the coward’s shell to let the wild Satyr free. Dionysos dissolves all boundaries: between people, between the worlds, between our souls and our body. Everything becomes unified in the sacred dance of the God.

Many people are feeling the call of Dionysos, though, perhaps, they do not always realize that it is Dionysos who is calling them. These people want to honor the God, but they are often alone, with no one else who has ever felt anything like they have, or they do not know the proper ways to worship Dionysos. Sure, they make do with their solitary devotions, but there is always the sense that there is something missing, that they need to gather with other worshippers, and perform the rituals as they once were for it to have meaning. This is why I believe the time is right to bring back the formal worship of Dionysos. I think that we need to create groups that will gather to learn about the God, and to observe his festivals. Groups to fellowship, to celebrate our shared experiences with Dionysos, to create a place where those experiences can happen. To bring back the revels, bring back the triennial feasts, bring back the wine festivals and sacred theater. To create new rituals in his honor. To go through the Mysteries once more.

I want to find a group of people to work with, to practice these rituals and undergo initiation with. There is so much I, myself, have to learn and experience. I want to learn trance techniques and experience states of ecstasy. I want to become transformed, to discover who I truly am, to feel the God rise up and take possession of me. I want to live the Mysteries, and I want to be there for others, and teach them how to do this, guide them along the path.

That is my goal, my dream, the thing I have dedicated my life to accomplishing. And while it is difficult – the pressure to do it right, the difficulty of breaking free of the inertia of a bad life, the fears and insecurity about whether it will ever actually happen – the rewards are well worth it. I cannot think of anything I would rather do. This is my True Will, the meaning of my life. Io euoi! Io Bacchus!


Here are the central panels of the dual Dionysos shrines, waiting to be installed.





For perspective these panels are about 3 1/2 to 4 feet tall – which is gonna make for some big shrines. 

And here is Θηρώ (“beastly”) the taxidermy temple fox. (And my thyrsos, barely visible in the corner.) She is bringing a trophy of the hunt to her master Bassareos.



Lusios and Bakcheios

Pausanias, Description of Greece 2.2.5-7
The things worthy of mention in Corinth include the extant remains of antiquity, but the greater number of them belong to the period of its second ascendancy. On the market-place, where most of the sanctuaries are, stand Artemis surnamed Ephesian and wooden images of Dionysos, which are covered with gold with the exception of their faces; these are ornamented with red paint. They are called Lusios and Bakcheios, and I will now give the story told about them.

They say that Pentheus treated Dionysos spitefully, his crowning outrage being that he went to Cithaeron to spy upon the women, and climbing up a tree beheld what was done. When the women detected Pentheus, they immediately dragged him down, and joined in tearing him, living as he was, limb from limb. Afterwards, as the Corinthians say, the Pythian priestess commanded them by an oracle to discover that tree and to worship it equally with the God. For this reason they have made these images from the tree.

Damascius, Commentary on the Phaedo 1.11
Dionysos is the cause of release, whence the God is also called Lusios. And Orpheus says: “Men performing rituals will send hekatombs in every season throughout the year and celebrate festivals, seeking release from lawless ancestors. You, having power over them, whomever you wish you will release from harsh toil and the unending goad.”

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

Herodotos, The Histories 4.79
Skyles conceived a desire to be initiated into the rites of Dionysos Bakcheios; and when he was about to begin the sacred mysteries, he saw the greatest vision. He had in the city of the Borysthenites a spacious house, grand and costly (the same house I just mentioned), all surrounded by sphinxes and griffins worked in white marble; this house was struck by a thunderbolt. And though the house burnt to the ground, Skyles none the less performed the rite to the end. Now the Skythians reproach the Greeks for this Bacchic revelling, saying that it is not reasonable to set up a God who leads men to madness. So when Skyles had been initiated into the Bacchic rite, some one of the Borysthenites scoffed at the Skythians, `You laugh at us, Skythians, because we play the Bacchant and the God possesses us; but now this deity has possessed your own king, so that he plays the Bacchant and is maddened by the God. If you will not believe me, follow me now and I will show him to you.’ The leading men among the Skythians followed him, and the Borysthenite brought them up secretly onto a tower; from which, when Skyles passed by with his company of worshipers, they saw him raving like a Bacchant; thinking it a great misfortune, they left the city and told the whole army what they had seen. After this Skyles rode off to his own place; but the Skythians rebelled against him. […] Sitalkes sent this message to Octamasadas, by a herald, and Octamasadas, with whom a brother of Sitalkes had formerly taken refuge, accepted the terms. He surrendered his own uncle to Sitalkes, and obtained in exchange his brother Skyles. Sitalkes took his brother with him and withdrew; but Octamasadas beheaded Skyles upon the spot. Thus rigidly do the Skythians maintain their own customs, and thus severely do they punish such as adopt foreign usages.

Io Dionysos!

I am putting the finishing touches on my substantially redesigned temple space in preparation for Foundation Day, which will inaugurate Year Two of the Bakcheion. It will consist of a divination station, a shrine to the Retinue of Dionysos (including several allied divinities) and separate shrines to Dionysos Lusios and Dionysos Bakcheios.  Because I’m me I compiled playlists for each of them. Here are the Lusios and Bakcheios playlists, for your delectation.

So what do you think will happen when you die?

I am often asked what the position of the Starry Bull tradition is with regard to metempsychosis or reincarnation.

We don’t have one.

This may strike some as peculiar since we place such a strong emphasis on eschatology but there is nothing within our system of belief which depends on or is refuted by reincarnation, therefore it remains a matter which each member must make their own decisions about. (An approach which, incidentally, reflects the custom of our ancient Bacchic Orphic predecessors who were in universal agreement on almost nothing.) For every quote you dig up that’s pro you can find another that’s con. Most, in fact, are so ambiguous that they can be read in any number of ways depending on the preferences of the interpreter.

I tend, for instance, to interpret many of these quotes as referring to metempsychosis but not reincarnation.

Originally this word meant the transfer of a soul from one body to another. Obviously reincarnation (wherein a person dies and their soul gets reborn in a different body) is a type of metempsychosis but it is not the only type. For instance it could also refer to things like sending one’s soul out to take possession of another person’s body, the transformation of an individual (whether here or in another realm) into an animal or bird, the generation of some kind of spiritual body or it could be a metaphor for the start of a new life and identity post initiation. None of these require the catalyst of a physical death.

Indeed, there are plenty of reasons to reject the notion of reincarnation, particularly as it is understood in the West so often with a radically reductionist view of the soul. The majority of ancient Greeks, whether they held to a more traditional Homeric view or aligned with marginal folks like Empedokles, Aristeas, Parmenides and Pythagoras, did not conceive of man as just a ghost in a fleshy machine. Man is made up of many parts, including various spiritual bodies and non-localized organs of intelligence, perception and emotion. Some of these are bound to the body until death and after; some may separate and roam free even in life; some only come into being once the person has crossed over to the other side. Which, of course, begs the question – if all of these different parts have different destinations how much of “you” gets recycled into a new body? And if everyone automatically gets reincarnated why do we make offerings to ancestors, heroes, daimones and restless spirits? For that matter, how can the dead walk the earth once more on Anthesteria, Lemuria, Samain, Día de Muertos or Yule? (Depending on your tradition and locale.)

Now, of course, none of these preclude at least some type of reincarnation from taking place (part of what we are going to simplistically refer to as the soul may go on to abide with the ancestors while a different part gets implanted into a gestating fetus) but that is largely irrelevant for the Bacchic Orphic who intends to spend at least some portion of eternity in drunken carousel with Dionysos and his Retinue. The whole point of initiation is to prepare us for that underworld journey and the dangers and obstacles we shall encounter upon the way. (It also keeps us whole so we can remember who we are.) There’s no lock on the door, however. You can wander off any time. Explore other parts of the underworld, or the endless corridors of the Labyrinth and all the places they lead; if you wanted, you could even put on another meatsuit and see again what exquisite pleasures and suffering the world of the living contains. Sometimes birth is a punishment for wicked deeds; sometimes an accident. And sometimes you enter at different points in the stream of time. (Like, what if past lives are actually future lives, man? *bong hit*)

Maybe. Maybe not.

I’d never pretend I have it all figured out. Hell, I wouldn’t want to know all the secret mechanics of life and shit even if I could.

That’d be boring.

So what do you think will happen when you die?


Authors of the God’s sufferings

The creatures who hunt the young God down, tear him apart and devour his flesh raw aren’t Titans. It was Onomakritos who first called them that:

Those about the sanctuary say that the Mistress was brought up by Anytos, who was one of the Titans, as they are called. The first to introduce Titans into poetry was Homer, representing them as Gods down in what is called Tartaros; the lines are in the passage about Hera’s oath. From Homer the name of the Titans was taken by Onomakritos, who in the orgies he composed for Dionysos made the Titans the authors of the God’s sufferings. (Pausanias, Description of Greece 8.37.5)

The Titans were terrifying ancestral spirits who dwelt in the abyss of the underworld; thus a natural choice to play the part of villain in the myth he was stitching together from random Orphic fragments. Part of what may have inspired Onomakritos to take this artistic license is that the perpetrators of the deed smeared themselves with titanos, as Nonnos lets slip:

Zagreus the horned baby, who by himself climbed upon the heavenly throne of Zeus and brandished lightning in his little hand, and newly born, lifted and carried thunderbolts in his tender fingers for Zeus meant him to be king of the universe. But he did not hold the throne of Zeus for long. By the fierce resentment of implacable Hera, the Titanes cunningly smeared their round faces with disguising chalk (titanos), and while he contemplated his changeling countenance reflected in a mirror they destroyed him with an infernal knife. There where his limbs had been cut piecemeal by the Titan steel, the end of his life was the beginning of a new life as Dionysos. He appeared in another shape, and changed into many forms: now young like crafty Kronides shaking the aegis-cape, now as ancient Kronos heavy-kneed, pouring rain. Sometimes he was a curiously formed baby, sometimes like a mad youth with the flower of the first down marking his rounded chin with black. Again, a mimic lion he uttered a horrible roar in furious rage from a wild snarling throat, as he lifted a neck shadowed by a thick mane, marking his body on both sides with the self-striking whip of a tail which flickered about over his hairy back. Next, he left the shape of a lion’s looks and let out a ringing neigh, now like an unbroken horse that lifts his neck on high to shake out the imperious tooth of the bit, and rubbing, whitened his cheek with hoary foam. Sometimes he poured out a whistling hiss from his mouth, a curling horned serpent covered with scales, darting out his tongue from his gaping throat, and leaping upon the grim head of some Titan encircled his neck in snaky spiral coils. Then he left the shape of the restless crawler and became a tiger with gay stripes on his body; or again like a bull emitting a counterfeit roar from his mouth he butted the Titanes with sharp horn. So he fought for his life, until Hera with jealous throat bellowed harshly through the air–that heavy-resentful step-mother! And the gates of Olympos rattled in echo to her jealous throat from high heaven. Then the bold bull collapsed: the murderers each eager for his turn with the knife chopt piecemeal the bull-shaped Dionysos. (Dionysiaka 6.155 ff)

Eustathius lets us in on the secret when he remarks:

We apply the word titanos in general to dust, in particular to what is called asbestos, which is the white fluffy substance in burnt stones. It is so called from the Titans in mythology, whom Zeus in the story smote with his thunderbolts and consumed to dust. For from them, the fine dust of stones which has crumbled from excessive heat, so to speak Titanic heat, is called titanic, as though a Titanic penalty had been accomplished upon it. And the ancients call dust and gypsum titanos.

But it’s Clement of Alexandria who reveals the truth without fully understanding what he exhorts:

The mysteries of Dionysos are wholly inhuman; for while still a child, and the Curetes danced around his cradle clashing their weapons, and the Titans having come upon them by stealth, and having beguiled him with childish toys, these very Titans tore him limb from limb when but a child, as the bard of this mystery, the Thracian Orpheus, says:–

“Cone, and spinning-top, and limb-moving rattles, and fair golden apples from the clear-toned Hesperides.”

And the useless symbols of this mystic rite it will not be useless to exhibit for condemnation. These are dice, ball, hoop, apples, top, looking-glass, tuft of wool.

Athene, to resume our account, having abstracted the heart of Dionysos received the name Pallas from its palpitating (pallein). And the Titans who had torn him limb from limb, setting a caldron on a tripod, and throwing into it the members of Dionysos, first boiled them down, and then fixing them on spits, “held them over the fire.” But Zeus having appeared, since he was a God, having speedily perceived the savour of the pieces of flesh that were being cooked,–that savour which your Gods agree to have assigned to them as their perquisite, assails the Titans with his thunderbolt, and consigns the members of Dionysos to his son Apollo to be interred. And he–for he did not disobey Zeus–bore the dismembered corpse to Parnassus, and there deposited it.

If you wish to inspect the orgies of the Corybantes, then know that, having killed their third brother, they covered the head of the dead body with a purple cloth, crowned it, and carrying it on the point of a spear, buried it under the roots of Olympus. These mysteries are, in short, murders and funerals. And the priests of these rites, who are called kings of the sacred rites by those whose business it is to name them, give additional strangeness to the tragic occurrence, by forbidding parsley with the roots from being placed on the table, for they think that parsley grew from the Corybantic blood that flowed forth; just as the women, in celebrating the Thesmophoria, abstain from eating the seeds of the pomegranate which have fallen on the ground, from the idea that pomegranates sprang from the drops of the blood of Dionysos. Those Corybantes also they call Cabiric; and the ceremony itself they announce as the Cabiric mystery.

For those two identical fratricides, having abstracted the box in which the phallos of Bacchus was deposited, took it to Etruria–dealers in honourable wares truly. They lived there as exiles, employing themselves in communicating the precious teaching of their superstition, and presenting phallic symbols and the box for the Tyrrhenians to worship. And some will have it, not improbably, that for this reason Dionysos was called Attis, because he was mutilated. And what is surprising at the Tyrrhenians, who were barbarians, being thus initiated into these foul indignities, when among the Athenians, and in the whole of Greece–I blush to say it–the shameful legend about Demeter holds its ground?

Did you catch it?

Here’s a hint: it’s actually the same story.

The murderers of Dionysos were his protectors, the Korybantes. They were charged with guarding his body and instead they tore and devoured it.

Mind you, this may not have happened when he was a child. His name is Zagreus, after all – the Great Hunter.

The one who greatly hunts, as the writer of the Alcmeonis said Mistress Earth, and Zagreus highest of all the Gods. That is, Dionysos. (Etymologicum Gudianum s.v. Zagreus)

He’s the savage one who roams the night with his mailed priests:

Son of the Phoenician princess, child of Tyrian Europa and great Zeus, ruler over hundred-fortressed Crete—here am I, come from the sanctity of temples roofed with cut beam of our native wood, its true joints of cypress welded together with Chalybean axe and cement from the bull. Pure has my life been since the day when I became an initiate of Idaean Zeus. Where midnight Zagreus roves, I rove; I have endured his thunder-cry; fulfilled his red and bleeding feasts; held the Great Mother’s mountain flame; I am set free and named by name a Bakchos of the Mailed Priests. Having all-white garments, I flee the birth of mortals and, not nearing the place of corpses, I guard myself against the eating of ensouled flesh. (Euripides, Cretans fragment 472)

They are warriors performing a frenzied dance amid thunderous drums and clanging metal. Nonnos describes them thus:

Already the bird of morning was cutting the air with loud cries; already the helmeted bands of desert-haunting Korybantes were beating on their shields in the Knossian dance, and leaping with rhythmic steps, and the oxhides thudded under the blows of the iron as they whirled them about in rivalry, while the double pipe made music, and quickened the dancers with its rollicking tune in time to the bounding steps. Aye, and the trees whispered, the rocks boomed, the forests held jubilee with their intelligent movings and shakings, and the Dryades did sing. Packs of bears joined the dance, skipping and wheeling face to face; lions with a roar from emulous throats mimicked the triumphant cry of the priests of the Kabeiroi, sane in their madness; the revelling pipes rang out a tune to honour of Hekate, divine friend of dogs, those single pipes, which the horn-polisher’s art invented in Kronos’s days. The noisy Korybantes with their ringing din awoke Kadmos early in the morning; the Sidonian seamen also with one accord, hearing the never-silent oxhide at dawn, rose from their rattling pebbly pallets and left the brine-beaten back of the shore. (Dionysiaka 3. 61 ff)

A less poetic but no loss evocative account of them is provided by Strabo:

Pherekydes says that nine Kyrbantes were sprung from Apollon and Rhetia, and that they took up their abode in Samothrake; and that three Kabeiroi and three Nymphai called Kabeirides were the children of Kabeiro, the daughter of Proteus, and Hephaistos, and that sacred rites were instituted in honor of each triad. Demetrius of Scepsis says that it is probable that the Kouretes and the Korybantes were the same, being those who had been accepted as young men, or ‘youths,’ for the war-dance in connection with the holy rites of the Mother of the Gods, and also as korybantes from the fact that they ‘walked with a butting of their heads’ in a dancing way. These are called by the poet betarmones: ‘Come now, all ye that are the best betarmones of the Phaiakes.’ And because the Korybantes are inclined to dancing and to religious frenzy, we say of those who are stirred with frenzy that they are ‘korybantising.’

Clement has these frenzied daimones dancing protectively around Zagreus and then suddenly the Titans show up – really there was just one group. Vengeful Hera goaded them and in a fit of madness they turned upon the leader of their war-band, murdered him and ate his flesh. Dionysos comes back to life:

Furthermore, so that we might seem to go more deeply, the story says that the Giants found Bacchus inebriated. After they tore him to pieces limb by limb, they buried the bits, and a little while later he arose alive and whole. We read that the disciples of Orpheus interpreted this fiction philosophically and that they represent this story in his sacred rites. (The Third Vatican Mythographer 12.5)

He then freed them from madness:

The titanic mode of life is the irrational mode, by which rational life is torn asunder: It is better to acknowledge its existence everywhere, since in any case at its source there are Gods, the Titans; then also on the plane of rational life, this apparent self-determination, which seems to aim at belonging to itself alone and neither to the superior nor to the inferior, is wrought in us by the Titans; through it we tear asunder the Dionysos in ourselves, breaking up the natural continuity of our being and our partnership, so to speak, with the superior and inferior. While in this condition, we are Titans; but when we recover that lost unity, we become Dionysoi and we attain what can truly be called completeness. (Damascius, Commentary on the Phaedo 1.9)

 And they rejoined his army – which we get in a variant tradition related by Diodoros Sikeliotes:

The struggle having proved sharp and many having fallen on both sides, Kronos finally was wounded and victory lay with Dionysos, who had distinguished himself in the battle. Thereupon the Titans fled to the regions which had once been possessed by Ammon, and Dionysos gathered up a multitude of captives and returned to Nysa. Here, drawing up his force in arms about the prisoners, he brought a formal accusation against the Titans and gave them every reason to suspect that he was going to execute the captives. But when he got them free from the charges and allowed them to make their choice either to join him in his campaign or to go scot free, they all chose to join him, and because their lives had been spared contrary to their expectation they venerated him like a God. Dionysos, then, taking the captives singly and giving them a libation of wine, required of all of them an oath that they would join in the campaign without treachery and fight manfully until death. (Library of History 3.71.4-6)

I believe that they represent the core of the Furious Host,

That is no wonder; for ’tis Bacchus himself, the God of wine, and the captain and emperor of drunkards. He is crown’d with ivy and vine leaves. He has a thyrsus instead of a scepter; that is, a javelin with an iron head, encircled by ivy or vine leaves in his hand. He is carried in a chariot, sometimes drawn by tigers and lions and sometimes by lynxes and panthers. And like a king he has his guards, who are a drunken band of satyrs, demons, nymphs that preside over the wine presses, fairies of the fountains and priestesses. Silenus sometimes comes after him sitting on an ass that bends under his burden. (Andrew Tooke, The Pantheon representing the Fabulous Histories of the Heathen Gods and Most Illustrious Heroes)

And what’s more, I believe that the healing ritual he performed to bring them back to sanity is the one reenacted through enthronismos:

They are doing just the same thing as those in the rite of the Korybantes do, when they perform the enthronement ceremony with the one who is about to be initiated. In that situation too there is some dancing and playing around, as you know if you have been initiated. (Plato, Euthydemos 277d)

Because the first Bacchus is Dionysos, possessed by the dance and the shout, by all movements of which he is the cause according to the Laws (II.672a5–d4): but one who has consecrated himself to Dionysos, being similar to the God, takes part in his name as well. (Damascius, Commentary on the Phaedrus 1.171)

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

So it is just as if someone were to initiate a man, Greek or barbarian, leading him into some mystic shrine overwhelming in its size and beauty. He would see many mystic spectacles and hear many such voices; light and darkness would appear to him in alternation, and a myriad other things would happen. Still more, just as they are accustomed to do in the ritual called enthronement, the initiators, having enthroned the initiands, dance in circles around them. Is it at all likely that this man would experience nothing in his soul and that he would not suspect that what was taking place was done with a wiser understanding and preparation? … Still more, if, not humans like the initiands, but immortal Gods were initiating mortals, and night and day, both in the light and under the stars were, if it is right to speak so, literally dancing around them eternally. (Dio Chrysostom, Oration 12.33-34)

What you should take away from this isn’t that Dionysos was destroyed by monsters – it’s that he then turned around and made those monsters his friends. Also, that the Korybantes are sons of Apollon.


You become what you eat

The Orphic prohibition on eating certain animals isn’t vegetarianism (though it was sometimes mistaken for such in antiquity) nor is it driven by sentimentality – it is straight up a taboo in the Frazerian sense. The concern wasn’t for the preservation of life (which is why they had no problem participating in animal sacrifice) but rather the effect that consuming the animal’s soul would have on the individual – since that was actually part of the telete.

This is made clear in the original Greek – in the rare instances when you find Orphics mentioned in conjunction with abstention from meat (and that rarity should tell us something, since vegetarians wouldn’t have missed the opportunity to enshroud their beliefs in the authority of a figure like Orpheus if they could) what they are avoiding is flesh that is empsuchos “ensouled” not “alive” zōntes or something similar. Notably, in Homer, psuchai are something we possess only in death, a sort of spiritual double that’s produced when the body ceases to respirate and is sent down to the house of Haides. This concept changed drastically under the Presocratics until it came to have its contemporary psychological associations – but Orphism was self-consciously Homeric and pre-Homeric in its orientation. (Most Orphic literature, even in the late period, was produced in strict dactylic hexameters and there are strong, and rather ironic, borrowings from Homer in the gold lamellae.) So I think Orphics were drawing on primitive (one might even say shamanic considering the region where the tradition originated) notions of the soul as a repository of qualities and consciousness that could migrate from one body to another. Thus by eating an animal one would take on the soul of that animal, including its powers, personality and behaviors. So, for instance, when we find prohibitions such as these:

Those who are mages (magoi) and purifiers (kathartai) and beggar-priests (agurtai) and vagrant-charlatans (alazones) purport to be extremely reverent of the gods and to know something more than the rest of us. They use the divine to hide behind and to cloak the fact that they have nothing to apply to disease that will bring relief. So that their ignorance should not become manifest, they promoted the belief that disease was sacred. They added further appropriate arguments to render their method of healing safe for themselves. They applied purifications (katharmoi) and incantations (epaoidai) and told people to refrain from bathing and many foods unsuitable for the sick to eat: among fish they banned red mullet, black-tail, grey mullet, and eel (for these are the most hazardous); among meats goat, venison, pork and dog (for these are the meats that upset the stomach most); among poultry cock, pigeon, the otis-bird and all those birds considered to be least indigestible; among vegetables mint, garlic, and onions (their sharpness is deleterious for a sick man). They also forbade the wearing of a black cloak (for black is deathly), the lying on or wearing of goatskin, the placing of foot upon foot or hand upon hand (for this is shackling). (Hippocrates, On the Sacred Disease 1.11–18)

We can see the laws of sympatheia and contagion at work here. These specific animals are singled out for what they represent which was situationally undesirable, particularly since the recommendations are being made for a client who is suffering from illness. In other contexts one might actually want to become a goat or a bull and thus would consume their flesh in order to draw the animals’ souls into them. Seen in this light several Orphic texts suddenly take on a whole new meaning:

Where midnight Zagreus roves, I rove; I have endured his thunder-cry; fulfilled his red and bleeding feasts; held the Great Mother’s mountain flame; I am set free and named by name a Bakchos of the Mailed Priests. Having all-white garments, I flee the birth of mortals and, not nearing the place of corpses, I guard myself against the eating of ensouled flesh. (Euripides, Cretans fragment 472)

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

Accept ye my great offering as the payment for my lawless fathers.
Save me, great Brimo …
and Demeter and Rhea …
and the armed Kouretes: let us … and we will make fine sacrifices.
A ram and a he-goat … boundless gifts.
… and by the law of the river …
Taking of the goat … let him eat the rest of the meat …
Let no uninitiated look on!
(The Gurôb Papyrus)

So there may have been a taboo not just on eating certain animals – but on eating them outside of ritual or before rituals where a different sort of energy was required. 

And a mythic prototype of this would naturally have been the metamorphoses described by Nonnos in the sixth book of his Dionysiaka:

He appeared in another shape, and changed into many forms: now young like crafty Kronides shaking the aegis-cape, now as ancient Kronos heavy-kneed, pouring rain. Sometimes he was a curiously formed baby, sometimes like a mad youth with the flower of the first down marking his rounded chin with black. Again, a mimic lion he uttered a horrible roar in furious rage from a wild snarling throat, as he lifted a neck shadowed by a thick mane, marking his body on both sides with the self-striking whip of a tail which flickered about over his hairy back. Next, he left the shape of a lion’s looks and let out a ringing neigh, now like an unbroken horse that lifts his neck on high to shake out the imperious tooth of the bit, and rubbing, whitened his cheek with hoary foam. Sometimes he poured out a whistling hiss from his mouth, a curling horned serpent covered with scales, darting out his tongue from his gaping throat, and leaping upon the grim head of some Titan encircled his neck in snaky spiral coils. Then he left the shape of the restless crawler and became a tiger with gay stripes on his body; or again like a bull emitting a counterfeit roar from his mouth he butted the Titanes with sharp horn. So he fought for his life, until Hera with jealous throat bellowed harshly through the air–that heavy-resentful step-mother! And the gates of Olympos rattled in echo to her jealous throat from high heaven. Then the bold bull collapsed: the murderers each eager for his turn with the knife chopt piecemeal the bull-shaped Dionysos.

As well as the vision of Platonic revenant Er who described a musical orgy during which Orpheus was transformed into a swan and Thamyras a nightingale and a bird became a man in a “strange, pitiful ridiculous spectacle.” (Republic 10.620a)

The profound identification of eater with eaten which lies at the heart of omophagia was too much for certain sensitive individuals such as Empedokles:

Will ye not cease from this ill-sounding slaughter? See ye not that ye are devouring one another in the thoughtlessness of your hearts? […] And the father lifts up his own son in a changed form and slays him with a prayer. Infatuated fool! And they run up to the sacrificers, begging mercy, while he, deaf to their cries, slaughters them in his halls and gets ready the evil feast. In like manner does the son seize his father, and children their mother, tear out their life and eat the kindred flesh. […] Draining their life with bronze. […] Ah, woe is me that the pitiless day of death did not destroy me ere ever I wrought evil deeds of devouring with my lips! (fragments 136-39)

And like someone reeling from a bad acid trip who swears off all drugs, he rejected the core sacrament of Orphism after going through it. This sarcophobic strain enters Pythagoreanism in the second or third generation and gives rise to the soma-sema tag “the body is a tomb” which dominates Neo-Pythagoreanism, Neoplatonism and certain branches of Orphism (such as the ones that emphasize Apollon or Zeus above Dionysos and Persephone) to the end of antiquity. But death as a transition from one state of life to another and sacramental theriomorphism remained hallmarks of Bacchic Orphism and related Dionysiac traditions.

Like tarantism, which seems to be the process in reverse. Instead of becoming what you bite, you become what bites you.

Gilbert Rouget writes in Music and Trance: A theory of the relations between music and possession:

One of the dance figures of the tarantulees – the best known – consists, as we know, in imitating the spider’s movements: back to the ground, body arched to a great or lesser degree, the tarantulee moves about like a spider on all fours. One can see this very clearly in D. Carpitella’s film, and the sight is striking […] Despite appearances, the divinity responsible for the possession is not the one that is excorcised. On the contrary, it is the divinity concerned who, by allowing the possessing person to identify with him or her, provides the means of ecxorcising the illness – real or imagined – from which the person is suffering.

Elaborating on this, blogger quotidian banality writes:

The spider which was held responsible for tarantism was a mythical creature which did not correspond to any arachnid of modern zoology. Instead, the taranta assembled the characteristics of several different species of spider into a mythical whole. Different colours were attributed to the spiders – principally red, green and black – and the ‘bite’ of each respective spider caused different behaviour in the victim. Those bit by red spiders displayed martial, heroic behaviour; those bit by green spiders displayed eroticised behaviour; and those bitten by black spiders were fascinated by funerary paraphernalia. Furthermore, each colour spider had its own repertoire of musical figures and dances: for example, those bitten by a green spider would only dance to a tarantella tune associated with the green spider. Finally, the victims of the spider’s bite were fascinated by pieces of cloth with the appropriate colour. Thus, during the course of an exorcism different Tarantella tunes were played and different colours of clothes were given to the victim in order to determine which spider possesses her. Only the appropriate tarantella tune, the appropriate colour and the appropriate dance would cure the victim – at least for the time being, until the affliction reoccured a year later. Music serves at once as diagnosis and therapy.

Which hearkens back to what I was saying about sympatheia and contagion earlier. 

And circles make me think of labyrinths which makes me wonder – if eating animals makes us bestial, by eating human flesh did Asterion become more man-like?


For Mysterium magnum is nothing else than the hiddenness of the Deity, together with the Being of all beings, from which one mysterium proceeds after another, and each mysterium is the mirror and model of the other. And it is the great wonder of eternity, wherein all is included, and from eternity has been seen in the mirror of wisdom. And nothing comes to pass that has not from eternity been known in the mirror of wisdom. But you must understand this according to the properties of the mirror, according to all the forms of Nature, viz. according to light and darkness, according to comprehensibility and incomprehensibility, according to love and wrath, or according to fire and light, as has been set forth elsewhere. The Magician has power in this Mystery to act according to his will, and can do what he pleases. But he must be armed in that element wherein he would create; else he will be cast out as a stranger, and given into the power of the spirits thereof, to deal with him according to their desire. Of which in this place no more is to be said, because of the turba.

OK Böhmer.

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The Christian heresiarch Carpocrates (whom I posted about here and here) was born in 2nd century Egypt and ended his days in Asia Minor, which had a pronounced Bacchic presence. Around this time there were even small circles of Orphikoi in the area, such as the community that produced the collection of hymns that has come down to us under their master’s name. I strongly suspect that these groups intersected and that there was substantial mutual inspiration between them.

Consider what Livy relates about the Bacchanalia and the Bacchic Martyrs of Southern Italy, as well as stories that circulated elsewhere. Hell, even back in the days of Plato we Bacchic Orphics had a pretty sketchy reputation.

But it isn’t just their marginal status and antinomian beliefs that causes me to intuit a connection between these groups, as Clement of Alexandria makes clear in book 3, chapter 2 of the Miscellanies:

6. This is what he says, then, in the book Concerning Righteousness: “The righteousness of God is a kind of universal fairness and equality. There is equality in the heaven which is stretched out in all directions and contains the entire earth in its circle. The night reveals equally all the stars. The light of the sun, which is the cause of the daytime and the father of light, God pours out from above upon the earth in equal measure on all who have power to see. For all see alike. There is no distinction between rich and poor, people and governor, stupid and clever, female and male, free men and slaves. Even the irrational animals are not accorded any different treatment; but in just the same way God pours out from above sunlight equally upon all the animals. He establishes his righteousness to both good and bad by seeing that none is able to get more than his share and to deprive his neighbour, so that he has twice the light his neighbour has. The sun causes food to grow for all living beings alike; the universal righteousness is given to all equally. In this respect there is no difference between the entire species of oxen and any individual oxen, between the species of pigs and particular pigs, between the species of sheep and particular sheep, and so on with all the rest. In them the universality of God’s fairness is manifest. Furthermore all plants of whatever sort are sown equally in the earth. Common nourishment grows for all beasts which feed on the earth’s produce; to all it is alike. It is regulated by no law, but rather is harmoniously available to all through the gift of him who gives it and makes it to grow.

7. “And for birth there is no written law (for otherwise it would have been transcribed). All beings beget and give birth alike, having received by God’s righteousness an innate equality. The Creator and Father of all with his own righteousness appointed this, just as he gave equally the eye to all to enable them to see. He did not make a distinction between female and male, rational and irrational, nor between anything and anything else at all; rather he shared out sight equally and universally. It was given to all alike by a single command. As the laws (he says) could not punish men who were ignorant of them, they taught men that they were transgressors. But the laws, by pre-supposing the existence of private property, cut up and destroyed the universal equality decreed by the divine law.” As he does not understand the words of the apostle where he says “Through the law I knew sin,” he says that the idea of Mine and Thine came into existence through the laws so that the earth and money were no longer put to common use. And so also with marriage. “For God has made vines for all to use in common, since they are not protected against sparrows and a thief; and similarly corn and the other fruits. But the abolition, contrary to divine law, of community of use and equality begat the thief of domestic animals and fruits.

8. He brought female to be with male and in the same way united all animals. He thus showed righteousness to be a universal fairness and equality .But those who have been born in this way have denied the universality which is the corollary of their birth and say, ‘Let him who has taken one woman keep her,’ whereas all alike can have her, just as the other animals do.” After this, which is quoted word for word, he again continues in the same spirit as follows: “With a view to the permanence of the race, he has implanted in males a strong and ardent desire which neither law nor custom nor any other restraint is able to destroy. For it is God’s decree.”

And how can this man still be reckoned among our number when he openly abolishes both law and gospel by these words. The one says: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” The other says: “Everyone who looks lustfully has already committed adultery.” The saying in the law, “Thou shalt not covet,” lt shows that one God is proclaimed by law, prophets, and gospel; for it says: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife.” But for a Jew the “neighbour” is not a Jew, for he is a brother and has the same spirit. Therefore it remains that “neighbour” means one of another race. But how can he not be a neighbour who is able to share in the same spirit? For Abraham is father not only of the Hebrews, but also of the Gentiles.

9. If the adulteress and he who committed fornication with her are punished with death, clearly the command which says “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife” speaks of the Gentiles, in order that anyone who, as the law directs, abstains from his neighbour’s wife and from his sister may hear clearly from the Lord, “But I say unto you, Thou shalt not lust.” The addition of the word “I,” however, shows the stricter force of the commandment, and that Carpocrates fights against God, and Epiphanes likewise. The latter in the same notorious book, I mean Concerning Righteousness, writes in one passage as follows: “Consequently one must understand the saying ‘Thou shalt not covet’ as if the lawgiver was making a jest, to which he added the even more comic words ‘thy neighbour’s goods’. For he himself who gave the desire to sustain the race orders that it is to be suppressed, though he removes it from no other animals. And by the words ‘thy neighbour’s wife’ he says something even more ludicrous, since he forces what should be common property to be treated as a private possession.”

These then are the doctrines of the excellent Carpocratians. These, so they say, and certain other enthusiasts for the same wickednesses, gather together for feasts (I would not call their meeting an Agape), men and women together. After they have sated their appetites (“on repletion Cypris, the Goddess of love, enters,” as it is said), then they overturn the lamps and so extinguish the light that the shame of their adulterous “righteousness” is hidden, and they have intercourse where they will and with whom they will. After they have practiced community of use in this love-feast, they demand by daylight of whatever women they wish that they will be obedient to the law of Carpocrates-it would not be right to say the law of God. Such, I think, is the law that Carpocrates must have given for the copulations of dogs and pigs and goats. He seems to me to have misunderstood the saying of Plato in the Republic that the women of all are to be common. Plato means that the unmarried are common for those who wish to ask them, as also the theatre is open to the public for all who wish to see, but that when each one has chosen his wife, then the married woman is no longer common to all.

II. In his book entitled Magica Xanthus says: “The Magi think it permissible to have sexual intercourse with mothers and daughters and sisters, and that wives are to be held in common, not by force and in secret, but both parties may agree when one man wishes to marry another’s wife. “Of these and other similar sects Jude, I think, spoke prophetically in his letter- “In the same way also these dreamers” (for they do not seek to find the truth in the light of day) as far as the words “and their mouth speaks arrogant things.”

A lot of this cosmology is downright Empedoclean and Herakleitian.

And this strain of utopian Bacchic communitarianism interests me a great deal, as it’s something that we see resurface (again and again) with the Germanic, Scandinavian and Russian Romantic poets and even much earlier with François Rabelais and his Abbey of Thélème. (Not to mention here in America too.)

But even more relevant is the hero-cultus that developed around Epiphanes, the son of Carpocrates:

6. But the followers of Carpocrates and Epiphanes think that wives should be common property. Through them the worst calumny has become current against the Christian name. This fellow Epiphanes, whose writings I have at hand, was a son of Carpocrates and his mother was named Alexandria. On his father’s side he was an Alexandrine, on his mother’s a Cephallenian. He lived in all only seventeen years, and at Same in Cephallenia was honoured as a God. There a temple of vast blocks of stone was erected and dedicated to him, with altars, sacred precincts, and a “museum.” The Cephallenians gather at the temple every new moon and celebrate with sacrifices the day when Epiphanes became a God as his birthday; they pour libations to him, feast in his honour, and sing his praises. He was educated by his father in the general education and in Platonism, and he was instructed in the knowledge of the Monad, which is the root-origin of the Carpocratians’ heresy.

So much to be unpacked here, that I hesitate to introduce the following – but it does show that Gnostics and Orphics rubbed shoulders, even if these selections from the fifth book of Hippolytus Romanus’ Philosophoumena are concerning a different denomination:

Worshipping, however, Kyllenios with special distinction, they style him Logios. For Hermes is the Word who being interpreter and fabricator of the things that have been made simultaneously and that are being produced and that will exist, stands honoured among them, fashioned into the form of the phallos of a man, having an impulsive power from the parts below towards those above. And that this deity is a conjurer of the dead and a guide of departed spirits and an originator of souls has not escaped the notice of the poets.

This is the Christ who, he says, in all that have been generated, is the portrayed Son of Man from the unportrayable Logos. This, he says, is the great and unspeakable mystery of the Eleusinian rites, Hye, Kye! (“Rain, conceive!”) And he affirms that all things have been subjected unto him, and this is that which has been spoken, Their sound is gone forth unto all the earth just as it agrees with the expression, Hermes waving his wand, guides the souls, but they twittering follow. The poet means the disembodied spirits follow continuously in such a way as by his imagery he delineates:

And as when in the magic cave’s recess
Bats humming fly, and when one drops from ridge of rock,
and each to other closely clings.

These are, he says, what are by all called the secret mysteries which also we speak, not in words taught of human wisdom, but in those taught of the spirit, comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man receives not the things of God’s spirt for they are foolishness unto him.

And again, he says, the savior has declared the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of heaven before you.

Jeremiah himself remarked He is a man, and who shall know him?

These, he says, are the inferior mysteries, those appertaining to carnal generation. Now, those men who are initiated into these inferior mysteries ought to pause, and then be admitted into the great and heavenly ones. For they, he says, who obtain their shares in this mystery, receive greater portions. For this, he says, is the gate of heaven; and this a house of God, where the Good Deity dwells alone. And into this gate, he says, no unclean person shall enter, nor one that is natural or carnal; but it is reserved for the spiritual only. And those who come hither ought to cast off their garments, and become all of them bridegrooms.

Concerning these, it is said, the Savior has expressly declared that straight and narrow is the way that leads unto life, and few there are that enter upon it; whereas broad and spacious is the way that leads unto destruction, and many there are that pass through it.

The entire system of their doctrine, however, is derived from the ancient theologians Mousaios, Linos and Orpheus, who elucidates especially the ceremonies of initiation, as well as the mysteries themselves. For their doctrine concerning the womb is also the tenet of Orpheus; and the idea of the navel, which is harmony, is to be found with the same symbolism attached to it in the Bacchanalian orgies of Orpheus. But prior to the observance of the mystic rites of Keleos and Triptolemos and Demeter and Bakchos in Eleusis, these orgies have been celebrated and handed down to men in Phliom of Attica.

And in the greater number of these books is also drawn the representation of a certain aged man, grey-haired, winged, having his penis erect, pursuing a retreating woman of azure color. And over the aged man is the inscription phaos ruentes, and over the woman peree. But phaos ruentes appears to be the light which exists, according to the doctrine of the Sethians, and phicola the darkish water; while the space in the midst of these seems to be a harmony constituted from the spirit that is placed between. The name, however, of phaos ruentes manifests, as they allege, the flow from above of the light downwards. Wherefore one may reasonably assert that the Sethians celebrate rites among themselves, very closely bordering upon those orgies of the Great Mother which are observed among the Phliasians. And the poet likewise seems to bear his testimony to this triple division, when he remarks:

And all things have been triply divided, and everything obtains its proper distinction

 That is, each member of the threefold division has obtained a particular capacity. But now, as regards the tenet that the subjacent water below, which is dark, ought, because the light has set over it, to convey upwards and receive the spark borne down from the light itself is the assertion of this tenet. I say the all-wise Sethians appear to derive their opinion from Homer

By earth I swore, and yon broad Heaven above,
And Stygian stream beneath, the weightiest oath
Of solemn power, to bind the blessed Gods.

 Therefore, he says, when, on the people assembling in the theatres, any one enters clad in a remarkable robe, carrying a harp and playing a tune upon it, accompanying it with a song of the great mysteries, he speaks as follows, not knowing what he says:

 Whether you are the race of Kronos or blessed Zeus, or mighty Rheia, Hail, Attis, gloomy mutilation of Rheia. Assyrians style you thrice-longed-for Adonis, and the whole of Egypt calls you Osiris, celestial horn of the moon; Greeks denominate you Wisdom; Samothracians, venerable Adam; Haemonians, Korybas; and the Phrygians name you at one time Papa, at another time Corpse, or God, or Fruitless, or Aipolos, or Green Ear of Corn that has been reaped, or whom the very fertile Amygdalos produced— a man, a musician.

 This, he says, is multiform Attis, whom while they celebrate in a hymn, they utter these words:

I will hymn Attis, son of Rheia, not with the buzzing sounds of trumpets, or of Idaean pipers, which accord with the voices of Kouretes; but I will mingle my song with Apollon’s music of harps, “evohe, euan,” inasmuch as you are Pan, as you are Bakchos, as you are shepherd of brilliant stars.