Just do it! I know that may sound a little trite but it’s really the only thing that works with him. Don’t let your fear and insecurities get the better of you. Don’t wait around until the time feels right, until you’ve figured everything out, until you’ve memorized all of the prayers and hymns, mastered the ceremonial procedures, accumulated all of the pretty tools and built up the perfect shrine for him. Because you know what? That’s never going to happen! Perfection is an ideal we should aim for knowing full well that we can never truly attain it. And if you wait around until then to start you’re going to miss out on a lot of wonderful things and precious opportunities along the way. Besides which you’ll deprive yourself of the valuable lessons that can only be learned by monumentally screwing things up.
So my advice to people is this: make mistakes—and lots of them! Pay attention while you’re doing it, figure out why certain things don’t work in certain situations, and try to determine why that is and what you can do to improve on that next time around. And make sure there is a next time, even if you totally screwed the pooch or you’re not feeling it or getting anything out of it. Fake it till you make it. Experiment with different spiritual techniques and worship styles to see what works best for you and gets the strongest response from Dionysos. He’s not going to smite you for flubbing a line or missing a step, but he will be disappointed if you never get around to trying. There are definitely some things that don’t work—and he’ll be sure to let you know!—but unless you persist in doing these even after he’s made his preferences clear, you’re not likely to incur his wrath for doing some bad ritual.
Some additional pointers I’d offer those starting out in Dionysos worship: don’t limit what you do to only what can be done in front of your home shrine. Dionysos is best worshiped outdoors in the wild places of nature, even if that means just pouring out a libation on a mountaintop or whispering a prayer to him as you stroll through a wooded park. Also leave plenty of room for spontaneous, free-flowing, emotional encounters with him. Don’t spend all of your time reading off a script. Sincere, heartfelt words of praise are a thousand times better than even the most beautiful verses of Homer or Orpheus. If you can’t think of anything then just string together a bunch of his standard epithets or create some of your own, commemorating past experiences with him or utilizing imagery that is meaningful for you.
And above all else, you must worship the God with your whole body. Gesture, dance, sacred movement, even running around and yelling his name at the top of your lungs—this kind of physical “prayer” is what he likes best. Don’t worry about being skilled and graceful or avoiding looking foolish—just throw yourself into it completely and let his spirit carry you away. Also, there should always be music in his worship. Prerecorded stuff played during ritual is fine but it’s much better to have music that you make yourself. Drums, rattles, pipes, a bull-roarer or even clapping your hands and stomping your feet will suffice. Where music is he is, so make a joyful noise unto the Lord!
I know that some people find it problematic to equate the Greek and Roman deities but there’s absolutely no basis for distinguishing between Bacchus and Dionysos. First off there isn’t even a difference in names since Bacchus is just the Latinized form of the Greek Bakchos, which itself is thought to derive from the Lydian Baki, which we find designating both the God and his ecstatic worshipers. This means that the name goes back to the 7th century B.C.E. and is found in all sorts of words for intoxication and ritual madness well before the Classical period.
Secondly, and most significantly, the identification of the two isn’t a case of casual interpretatio graeca whereby an indigenous and originally distinct deity is recognized as possessing similar traits and therefore is claimed to be the same God just with a locally appropriate form. That process may have happened with Liber Pater, Fufluns, and related Italian deities but there was never an indigenous Bacchus. All of the sources from Livy on down—including inscriptions and the archaeological record—make it perfectly clear that he was a foreign import brought from the Hellenic mainland to Rome by way of Magna Graecia and Etruria.
Even once he had gained wide popular acceptance, Bacchus continued to be worshiped according to the ritus Graecus or with Hellenic ceremonial elements intact. In fact this was a big part of what contributed to the Senate’s antipathy for the Bacchanalia—fear of corruption and invasion, that the devotees of the God were setting up their own miniature religious “nation” in the heart of Rome itself. (And of course all that homosexuality and cross-dressing it encouraged.) They outlawed his worship and the keeping of his festivals except in the case of certain hereditary priesthoods and persecuted the Bacchic devotees, which resulted in the deaths of thousands.
This was the first and most widespread form of religious persecution in the ancient world until the Christians came on the scene, and it wasn’t until Julius Caesar repealed the tyrannical legislation that they were free to worship their God openly once more. Of course even during that time Bacchic and Dionysiac cults were plentiful in Italy and Rome, as we can see from things like the records of cult associations, the Villa of the Mysteries at Pompeii, the preponderance of funerary and symposiatic art reflecting his motifs, and the abundance of literary and poetic references to him. They just had to get permission from the Senate and maintain a polite and civilized façade. Caesar’s repeal of the legislation merely ended the appearance and pretense of illicitness surrounding these cults, which nevertheless earns him a special place in my affections.
But really if one has any doubt concerning the identity of Bacchus and Dionysos they need only consult the Latin poets and historians of that period, all of whom were quite certain that they were dealing with the same God—and who are we to argue with them? Or go a little further back and you’ll find Sophokles praising Dionysos as the “Lord of all Italy” and Plato talking about the famous Dionysian festivals celebrated in Magna Graecia. His cult flourished especially in the Apulian countryside, and Southern Italy and Sicily more generally, which is interesting because those regions are exactly where you find Tarantism and related ecstatic cults nearly a thousand years after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, with only a thin and transparently artificial Christian veneer on them. Clearly once he was established there the roots of this God have run deep in the Italian soil and consciousness.
I am totally opposed to the institution of Sharia law because it is totally opposed to me in its condemnation of my Gods, their worship and many of the things associated with them such as sex, alcohol, dance and music. In fact Islam represents everything that is antithetical to the Dionysian way of life. If a Moslem wishes to adhere to that system of belief and law himself it is no concern of mine, but I’ll fight to the bloody end if he gets it in his head to try and coerce me into doing likewise.
Now the burka is a different matter entirely. As an advocate of absolute individual freedom – liberty, after all, comes from the Latin name of my God, Liber Pater – I believe that a Moslem woman has every right to dress in whatever way she finds most suitable. If she chooses to wear the burka as an expression of modesty, fidelity to her husband and respect for her God and her people’s traditions then she has my full blessing. I may find it ugly, repressive and extremely uncomfortable to wear but that’s why you’ll never find me wearing one! If she feels differently, why should I care? So, on those grounds I am totally opposed to the recent efforts in France and other European nations to ban the wearing of this garment, which I consider hypocritical, tyrannical and just plain idiotic since it plays into the Jihadis hands. However I’m well aware that in many parts of the world the wearing of the burka isn’t a choice the woman gets to make herself. Or rather she does get to choose – between covering herself from head to toe in heavy, hot fabric or face insults, ostracism, abuse, rape and sometimes even murder.
I find that extremely reprehensible, surpassed only by the infantile excuses the men use to justify their barbaric and disgusting treatment of women. “They must dress this way to ensure men are not inflamed with lust.” Well, where’s your decency and self-control, you weak hypocrites!?! The truly temperate and pious man ought to be able to pass a naked woman in the street without a single carnal thought entering his mind and distracting him from loving communion with his God. “It’s against Allah’s wishes!” If Allah is the creator of all that is then certainly he is responsible for feminine beauty and sexual longing. Why should he have given women clitorises if he didn’t want them to be used? Why create things like flowers and rainbows and pretty faces if beauty wasn’t meant to be appreciated for its own sake? “But the wife belongs to her husband!” No human is a commodity to be bought, sold and owned outright. She is a human, not a precious vase or a camel! And so on and so forth.
Well, that depends. I won’t participate in an observance that I feel brings about ritual impurity or which requires the espousal of beliefs that are contrary to mine or which I find deeply offensive. I will not, as an example, deny the existence of my Gods, seek atonement for sins I don’t believe in, permit others to pray for me or attempt to spiritually “heal” or “deliver” me – nor do I feel the need to participate in any kind of vague, watered down, ecumenical service. But on the other hand I’ve proudly stood by others as they offered sacrifice to their Gods even though they weren’t my Gods, I’ve marched in a Catholic procession through the streets at night, and been witness to many beautiful and touching displays of religious sentiment. I think that we can learn a lot about what makes good ritual by exposing ourselves to the practices of others, since it is fundamentally an art form whose essential components cut across cultural and ideological divides. And as a polytheist I affirm the reality of all divinities and believe they are worthy of our respect and worship, even if I tend to limit my cultic activity to only a handful of them. My Gods are not jealous and have no problem with me honoring the rest of their compatriots.
Oh Gods no, I hate the spotlight and having attention focused on me! I think anyone doing public ritual should have at least some familiarity with theater to learn how to navigate space, carry themselves, project and emote, etc but I do much better behind the curtain.
The ancients were not psychotic bullies who believed that you had to bribe or threaten people into loving the Gods. The Gods simply were and those who acknowledged them reaped the benefits of communion with the divine while those who didn’t deprived themselves of such blessings.
While the soul is judged after death in both Greek and Egyptian thought, with our good and evil deeds weighed in a balance, “belief” doesn’t really enter into the equation. There is punishment for our wickedness, but it is commensurate with our actions – not an excruciating torment from which there is no hope of escape.
Once we have atoned for our wrongdoing we either go on to our posthumous abode – Haides for most, the Isles of the Blest for a few or Tartaros for an even smaller number – or else, according to the Orphics and Pythagoreans at least, we are born again on earth in order to improve our future lot. But you have to be exceptionally evil to end up in Tartaros – Sisyphos, Tantalos, or Lykourgos level evil. Or in terms most will understand: Hitler, Dahmer or Phelps.
Religion is the primary focus of my life, to the point where scarcely any part of who I am, what I do or how I think about things remains untouched by it. I can’t take a stroll through a park without feeling the presence of the Nymphai and other nature-spirits. I can’t watch a movie or listen to music without my mind being flooded by religious imagery and thoughts. When I hear about contemporary events I flash back to what I’ve read of history and how the ancients dealt with similar matters. I strive to have my every act reflect the greater glory of my Gods and conduct myself with piety, righteousness, gentleness and consciousness of the delicate balance that preserves all life on this planet.
On the other hand I believe that intelligence is a divinely given faculty and that we honor the Gods most when we use our brains to the best of our ability. So while I consider the traditional teachings of Classical antiquity to be a sound guide through the confusing and dangerous labyrinth of life, I have no problem parting ways with them when I feel that our ancestors were in error or a situation requires a more nuanced approach.
As an example, slavery was widely practiced in the ancient world, and though some intellectuals (especially among the Stoics) abhorred it they never got around to abolishing the institution entirely and probably couldn’t have with their level of technological advancement. (We moderns only succeeded in doing so after the industrial revolution was well underway.) I have no problem condemning slavery and saying that we’re much better off now without it. Ditto the misogyny and xenophobia that one all-too-frequently encounters in ancient writings.
So, if you want my take on these issues as a contemporary Dionysian, here they are: it is my adamant conviction that there ought to be plenty of abortion and gay marriage for those who want it and none for those who don’t.
Oh, he definitely has that function and I think one of the reasons may be that he is partly human himself and so may understand us a little better than his fellow Gods—what makes us tick, what gets our attention—allowing him to slip through our defenses and awaken us to the wider world around us. Or maybe not. What do I know?
I know he is a very generous God who loves his family; his myths are filled with accounts of him coming to the aid of other Olympians, raising mortals up to divine status, building temples, introducing cults and serving other Gods in a priestly capacity. That’s a pretty extraordinary thing when you think about it; most Greek Gods are eager to elevate their own dignity and thus are not inclined to humble themselves in the service of others.
So really what a lot of people recount today—Dionysos coming into their lives merely to turn them over to another deity—is sort of an extension of that ancient tradition.
Plus, well, Dionysos is sexy, exciting, mysterious, dangerous, etc. so it’s not a huge surprise that he’s great at getting our attention.
Dionysos is a dangerous God, there’s just no getting around that. He’s not only the bringer of madness, but a God who is himself mad. And if that doesn’t fill you with terror on some level then you’re not paying close enough attention!
Most people don’t really experience this side of him however, especially when they’re just starting off. They get only the fun-loving, joyful party God come to liberate them from their cares. And that’s great! We all need to let down our hair and blow off a little steam now and again. But when you start to get closer to him you’ll likely discover what true liberation entails: stripping away the false layers, everything that holds you back and keeps you enslaved, all your fears and doubts and inhibitions, all the social conditioning meant to turn you into a mindless, emotionally repressed robot.
Before you can truly be one of his he’s going to have to reach deep inside of you and scoop out all the dirt and shit, all the trauma and delusion and unhealthy stuff that’s polluting your soul. And let me tell you from personal experience, it hurts like a mother when that happens! When all that stuff starts bubbling up to the surface and you’ve got to confront things you’ve spent a lifetime avoiding, well, it isn’t fun. It isn’t fun for you and it isn’t going to be very fun for any of the people around you, either.
Before the process is complete a lot of Dionysians end up hurting the ones they love in horrible ways and their lives often fall apart around them. Especially the ones who don’t follow it through to the end. That’s where the real danger lies—stopping midway. You can get caught in madness (the bad kind) and addiction, without any way of coping since those mechanisms are often the first to go. But if you stick with it and let Dionysos guide you through the purifying flames, some really awesome things can happen. But you’ve got to have faith and trust and love for him, an iron-willed commitment to live fully and freely, no matter the cost.
Definitely not! My religion provides me with many things but peace of mind certainly isn’t one of them. It’s probably the biggest cause of stress and anxiety in my life – and I wouldn’t have it any other way!
You see, one of the core values of Classical Polytheism is αρετή, a Greek word meaning virtue, excellence, exceptionalness. Areté represents the ideal, the peak of perfection, our highest aspirations which as humans we are ultimately unable to attain. But that’s beside the point – we must strive with all we have, offer and become our best – and in so doing come as close to divinity as we are ever going to. For the ancients this was not just a deeply cherished social value but rather a fundamentally religious concept. Hence most festivals contained an agon or competition in the fields of athletics, music, dance, poetry or beauty. It was felt that the Gods desired and deserved to see humanity at its finest and that the struggle to attain that purified not only the individuals but the whole community. Further because of their perfection it was necessary to give to the Gods the very best that we have: the most beautiful temples and statues, the choicest sacrificial animals, the costliest perfumes and incenses, the first-fruits of our labor, the sweat of our brow and mastery of our craft gained from long hours of discipline and practice. Anything less than our best is an affront to their greatness.
Therefore no matter how good I get I am always trying to improve on that and challenge myself in new and different ways. I refuse to sit on my laurels and congratulate myself on past accomplishments. Whether in my writing, my studies, my oracular and other spiritual work, the rituals I perform and any other part of my life that comes under their purview I am constantly looking for ways to improve, things I neglected or got wrong, new directions I could take it in or techniques to try out. I do not compare myself to my contemporaries but rather to the giants and geniuses who came before. And I won’t be satisfied even once I’ve surpassed them, because there is always room for improvement. Always. So no, my religion does not offer peace of mind – but it holds out something infinitely preferable: greatness.
This question confused me because I couldn’t comprehend why anyone would remain part of a religion that they felt under- or devalued them. And then I realized that you probably had to ask this because it’s the experience of a lot of people and that deeply saddened me. So, my message to your readers would be this: Listen up, folks! No religion holds a monopoly on truth or the sole means of connecting with the divine. Either find one better suited to your needs or hell, go off and create your own! The only thing you’ve got to lose is your shackles.
To keep things fresh here at The House of Vines while I’m fleshing out our festivals I’ve decided to post some excerpts from a couple interviews I’ve done over the years. Enjoy.
What is it like to have a relationship with Dionysos?
Well, to begin with, he is a very intense God, whose presence intensifies everything, often to a fever pitch. He comes into our lives like a whirlwind, frenzied, ecstatic and beautiful, melting, changing, heightening everything he touches. Those walls we built up, those masks we carefully constructed to shield us from the painful and frightening things in our past and in the world dissolve before him like brittle clay submerged in water. He coaxes us out of the shadows into the light of day, unfolding us gently like a flower to behold the beauty and warmth of a world enchanted and infused with his radiance and life-nourishing essence. He drives off our sorrows and fears, leaving us free and alive, a whole vista of unexplored sensations and emotions now open to us. He holds out a cup full of the wine of life and bids us drink deeply from it, then courses through our bodies: a dizzying, maddening, blessed fire which drives us to dance and shout and laugh in a state of unparalleled bliss. This is what it means to touch God and be touched by him in return – and having felt the ecstasy of an encounter with Dionysos you will never forget it.
But sometimes that’s the problem. We are mortals. It’s not possible for us to maintain that peak of pure experience, of divine joy, indefinitely. Some try and manage an intimacy with him which most can only dream of – but even the greatest mystic must eventually come down from the mountain and walk amid the mortal world. And for some this can be a sad and disheartening experience. But it needn’t be – in fact, it shouldn’t be. Because Dionysos is no world-denying, body-hating ascetic contemptuous of the commonplace, dreaming of a fantasy land that doesn’t exist. His world is here, now, and he recognizes no dichotomy – and in fact tears down all barriers which might impede the flow of life and spirit.
The goal of the Dionysian is not to have great mind-blowing trips, to cultivate strange powers and unique experiences like notches on a belt, with all the time between as this dull, dismal interlude to real existence. Rather, the purpose of the true Dionysian is to resist such spiritual dilettantism and to work a much more subtle and powerful form of magic than the maenads of old did when they drew fountains of wine from the earth or tore apart wild bulls with their bare hands. Our task is to gradually transform consciousness, to awaken ourselves to an awareness of the world as it truly is, to its beauty and complexity and contradictory nature, the inherent rhythm of creation and destruction which beats through the hearts of all living things. This pulse is so omnipresent that we often cannot hear it, since it has been with us from the moment we drew our first breath and before that even. It sounds in even the humblest of circumstances, in the cadence of our footfalls as we walk through the hallway at work, in the splash of water as we do the dishes after dinner. It is with us always, and so we never hear it; but Dionysos urges us to open our ears and listen, for that song is his song, the song of life which he performs for all creation. Such a simple thing, really, this mindfulness, this being present in the world around you – and yet for many in our fast-paced, hectic society it’s next to impossible to accomplish. And so they feel disconnected, alien, cut-off from the source of life. But how much of that is just in their heads?
The biggest barrier to a rewarding spiritual life is usually one’s own self. Not the true self, the primal core of our being whose fiery essence is composed of the same essential stuff as the stars in heaven and Dionysos himself – no, not their true self, but the illusionary self that we create for ourselves, composed of fears and self-doubt and the internalized criticism of our family, friends, and society. Our wants and petty aspirations, our material desires, that part of us which is defined by the work we do during the day, the clubs we belong to, our political, racial and even familial identity – all the things that we take to us and wrap around our true selves, weaving a cocoon of illusionary identity in order to fit in with other people who have a similar identity. But none of this is who we truly are, as we find when those strands are cut and fall away. It may be painful to lose them, since we can grow attached to our carefully constructed ego, but we will not cease to be if they are lost. And that is an important distinction to keep in mind. Because if we should begin to lose part of our true selves, a process of death begins. And sometimes the weight of all these masks, all these layers of ego can begin to smother our true selves, snuff out the flame of our immortal being.
And when Dionysos senses that happening he intervenes. He comes to us and challenges us to remember who we truly are, to loosen the threads that bind us, to lift the masks and stare out at the world with our own true eyes once more. And when gently coaxing and subtle reminders are not enough, Dionysos will put on a frightening visage and he will begin to tear all of that stuff away from us, devouring it with his sharp and vicious teeth, and that can be the most painful experience imaginable if you are deeply attached to the false layers. It can feel like you are being torn apart alive, the flesh peeled from your body to reveal muscle and blood and raw nerve endings. And if you resist, if your fear gets the better of you and you fight to stay trapped in ego-snares, you can even die. But if you trust him, if you let him dissolved the falseness, you will find him to be gentle and kind and full of greater love than you could ever have imagined. Not a soft, sentimental, indulgent love – for Dionysos’ love is a challenge which we must always strive to meet. His love is freedom and truth, an erotic attraction to our primal being and the transcendent unity of all creation. With that love blazing in our hearts we flee from our homes, our settled, conventional existence, to run free through the forested mountain heights, proclaiming our adoration of him through ecstatic song and dance. Io euoi! Io Dionysos the liberator!
And here are the Daily Hymns all gathered together, running from Monday to Sunday. Reciting these will be part of my regular service as ἱεροποιός of the Hudson Valley Bakcheion; feel free to add your voice to the choir wherever you are located.
I call upon the Dionysos who shines
out of the vast gloom of the underworld,
torch-bearing, flame-haired wild redeemer
who wears the fawnskin spangled with stars,
dancing through the long Night
until greeted by Dawn’s rosy light,
he who spends the Day rushing through fields
of golden wheat and leaping over the highest cliffs
like a falcon with wide-stretched wings
or a long-maned lion who loves the hunt.
Uniter of opposites, dissolver of boundaries,
swirling polarity and equal measure Helios and Haides;
show yourself to us, you who were born again in the fire
Dionysos the Black Sun, God who creates through destruction.
Join us in this pious dwelling,
O Dionysos who brings the gift of grace,
boundless joy and effortless abundance,
juice-swollen fruit from the branch
carried by prancing, pirouetting, pratfalling lads,
and unfading flowers
good for braiding into crowns
for white-gowned girls to wear
when they dance the nuptials
of the strange, handsome youth who comes
from far across the wine-dark sea
with the charm of foam-born Aphrodite
in his laughter-loving and limb-loosening eyes
to mate with the pure and perfect wife of the King
in the ancient ox-shed
so the pulse might quicken,
and animal heat spread
like a rutting pandemic,
the tight bud unfurl,
the fertile drops fall
in well-furrowed fields,
heads tossed carelessly back in all-consuming ecstasy
as fire and ice unite
making the world new again.
Potent Lord of Life we cry to you
and to your fair-girdled, lovely-tressed paramour,
bless this place and those who worship you here
in the time-honored and local fashion.