The chaste woman will not be defiled by Bacchic rites

Another older piece, but the themes are relevant so I’m reposting it. 

So there’s a discussion playing out on Tumblr about whether all the Gods love all people which was started by someone’s comment that Aphrodite hates asexuals, based on a rather shallow reading of Euripides’ play Hippolytos. Not going to comment on any of that, though in passing someone remarked:

Also I think people forget about Dionysus?? Like he is the God of sex and wine. Although I don’t think he would out right smite them, but I think he’ll try to tempt them.

Which I will address, as it touches on something that I think a lot of people, including really smart and seriously devoted people, tend to overlook when it comes to him.

Dionysos is paradox.

Just about everything one can say about him is true, and it’s complete negation is also true.

This is something the Orphics of Olbia knew well when they wrote:

SEG 28.659:
βίος. θάνατος. βίος. ἀλήθεια. Ζαγρεύς. Διόνυσος

Life. Death. Life. Truth. Zagreus. Dionysos.

SEG 28.660:
εἰρήνη. πόλεμος. ἀλήθεια. ψεῦδος. Διόνυσος

Peace. War. Truth. Lie. Dionysos

SEG 28.661:
Διόνυσος. ἀλήθεια. σῶμα. ψυχή

Dionysos. Truth. Body. Soul.

Dionysos is definitely about the sexy times, as evidenced by the giant imitation cocks people carried in his festivals which often turned into violent drunken orgies. His best friends are lusty satyrs and home-wrecking madwomen. He churns up erotic excitement and a lot of folks, particularly in Southern Italy, looked forward to carnal union with him in the afterlife. His own proclivities run the gamut from pretty boys and genderqueers to fairly straight-lacedheteronormativemonogamy.

That’s not paradox though.

As his son by the Goddess Aphrodite was fond of saying, haec cunnum, caput hic praebeat, ille nates for it’s all the same in the dark.

In Euripides’ play The Bakchai Pentheus is obsessed with the idea that the Theban women have been led astray by the perverse stranger and are engaged in all sorts of lewd activities on the mountainside:

They creep off one by one
to lonely spots to have sex with men,
claiming they’re busy maenads worshipping.
But they rank Aphrodite, Goddess of sexual desire,
ahead of Bacchus their lord.
People say some stranger has arrived,
some wizard, a conjurer from the land of Lydia—
with sweet-smelling hair in golden ringlets
and Aphrodite’s charms in wine-dark eyes.
He hangs around the young girls day and night,
dangling in front of them his joyful mysteries.
If I catch him in this city, I’ll stop him.
He’ll make no more clatter with his thyrsos,
or wave his hair around. I’ll chop off his head,
slice it right from his body.

To which the aged Tieresias replies:

On women, where Aphrodite is concerned,
Dionysos will not enforce restraint
such modesty you must seek in nature,
where it already dwells. For any woman
whose character is chaste won’t be defiled
by Bacchic revelry.

Once Pentheus has the stranger (who is none other than Dionysos himself) in his possession he presses the point:

Well, stranger, I see this body of yours
is not unsuitable for women’s pleasure—
that’s why you’ve come to Thebes. As for your hair,
it’s long, which suggests that you’re no wrestler.
It flows across your cheeks that are most seductive.
You’ve a white skin, too. You’ve looked after it,
avoiding the sun’s rays by staying in the shade,
while with your beauty you chase Aphrodite.

Their exchange is like a tango, part duel and part dance of desire, with Dionysos cool, calm and collected the whole time as Pentheus becomes increasingly hysterical. At one point they are interrupted by the Messenger whom the king had sent out to spy on the women and what he reports is completely at variance with Pentheus’ lust-fueled delusions:

They were all asleep, bodies quite relaxed,
some leaning back on leafy boughs of pine,
others cradling heads on oak-leaf pillows,
resting on the ground—in all modesty.
They weren’t as you described—all drunk on wine
or on the music of their flutes, hunting
for Aphrodite in the woods alone.
Once she heard my men,
your mother stood up amid those Bacchae,
then called them to stir their limbs from sleep.
They rubbed refreshing sleep out of their eyes,
and stood up straight there—a marvelous sight,
to see such an orderly arrangement,
women young and old and still unmarried girls.
First, they let their hair loose down their shoulders,
tied up the fawn skins (some had untied the knots
to loosen up the chords). Then around those skins
they looped some snakes, who licked the women’s cheeks.
Some held young gazelles or wild wolf cubs
and fed them on their own white milk,
the ones who’d left behind at home a new-born child
whose breasts were still swollen full of milk.
They draped themselves with garlands from oak trees,
ivy and flowering yew. Then one of them,
taking a thyrsos, struck a rock with it,
and water gushed out, fresh as dew. Another,
using her thyrsos, scraped the ground. At once,
the God sent fountains of wine up from the spot.
All those who craved white milk to drink
just scratched the earth with their fingertips—
it came out in streams. From their ivy wands
thick sweet honey dripped. Oh, if you’d been there,
if you’d seen this, you’d come with reverence
to that God whom you criticize so much.

The eros that these women experience is not directed towards other humans, nor even to the God who has driven them frenzied from their homes, husbands and children – it is rather a transpersonal connection to nature and the beasts of the wild, with whom they feel a profound kinship. He has roused them from ordinary existence, lifted them out of the confines of their small and circumscribed identities, blurred the boundaries between them and all of creation, showed them that they are capable of being so much more than they ever dreamed of and given them the power to work miracles. They are filled with a lust for life and take animals, literally life embodied, to their breasts not for pleasure but to share the sustenance of their own life with them. They are imitating the primordial nymphs who had been the nurses and care-givers of the infant God when he was most vulnerable, as Diodoros Sikeliotes explicitly states:

Consequently in many Greek cities every other year Bacchic bands of women gather, and it is lawful for the maidens to carry the thyrsos and to join in the frenzied revelry, crying out ‘Euai!’ and honouring the God; while the matrons, forming in groups, offer sacrifices to the God and celebrate his mysteries and, in general, extol with hymns the presence of Dionysos, in this manner acting the parts of those who of old were the companions and nurses of the God. (Library of History 4.3.2-5)

Nor is this the only instance where we may observe such Dionysian chastity. There are numerous vases and other artistic representations of mainades fending off the unwanted sexual advances of satyrs with their thyrsoi, as well as thiasoi that were restricted to the female sex and sometimes even elderly women who were outside the domain of Aphrodite, such as in Italy:

Then Hispala gave an account of the origin of these rites. At first they were confined to women; no male was admitted, and they had three stated days in the year on which persons were initiated during the daytime, and matrons were chosen to act as priestesses. (Livy, History of Rome 39.13)

And at Athens:

I wish now to call before you the sacred herald who waits upon the wife of the king, when she administers the oath to the Gerarai as they carry their baskets in front of the altar before they touch the victims, in order that you may hear the oath and the words that are pronounced, at least as far as it is permitted you to hear them; and that you may understand how august and holy and ancient the rites are. I live a holy life and am pure and unstained by all else that pollutes and by commerce with man and I will celebrate the feast of the wine God and the Iobacchic feast in honor of Dionysos in accordance with custom and at the appointed times. (Demosthenes, Against Neaira 74-78)

Interestingly, there were also thiasoi that excluded women (I.Kallatis 47) and men who abstained from sex in service to the God:

I, who never in my life experienced Kypris and was an enemy of wickedness, was taken as a companion (hetairos) by Bromios together with the Fates. Bromios has me as a fellow-initiate in his own dances. My name is Julianus, and I lived 18 years. My father was Julianus and my mother was Apphia. Having died, they honored me with the tomb and this inscribed monument. His step-father Asklepiades, his aunt Juliane, his maternal uncle Dionysios, Ammianos, and Stratoneikos honored him. Year 325 of the Sullan era, 12th of the month of Peritios. (TAM 5.477)

And in myth Dionysos helps bring sanity to a raging hermaphroditic deity by castrating hir:

In him there had been resistless might, and a fierceness of disposition beyond control, a lust made furious, and derived from both sexes. He violently plundered and laid waste; he scattered destruction wherever the ferocity of his disposition had led him; he regarded not Gods nor men, nor did he think anything more powerful than himself; he contemned earth, heaven, and the stars. Now, when it had been often considered in the councils of the Gods, by what means it might be possible either to weaken or to curb his audacity, Liber, the rest hanging back, takes upon himself this task. With the strongest wine he drugs a spring much resorted to by Acdestis where he had been wont to assuage the heat and burning thirst roused in him by sport and hunting. Hither runs Acdestis to drink when he felt the need; he gulps down the draught too greedily into his gaping veins. Overcome by what he is quite unaccustomed to, he is in consequence sent fast asleep. Liber is near the snare which he had set; over his foot he throws one end of a halter formed of hairs, woven together very skilfully; with the other end he lays hold of his privy members. When the fumes of the wine passed off, Acdestis starts up furiously, and his foot dragging the noose, by his own strength he robs himself of his sex; with the tearing asunder of these parts there is an immense flow of blood; both are carried off and swallowed up by the earth; from them there suddenly springs up, covered with fruit, a pomegranate tree. (Arnobius of Sicca, Against the Heathen 5.5-6)

A fate which Dionysos, himself, is said to have suffered as Clement of Alexandria’s Exhortation to the Greeks relates:

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?

Delia Morgan explores this side of Dionysos in her powerful piece, The Ivied Rod: Gender and the Phallus in Dionysian Religion:

Nowhere is the paradox of Dionysos more dramatic than in the stark contrast between the god of the phallus and the ‘effeminate’ god of women. Ancient sources make frequent reference to Dionysos as ‘womanly’ or ‘not a real man’ (Evans, 20-21; Jameson, 45); they sometimes dress him in women’s clothing as well. Dionysos himself was never shown with an erection. This iconographic convention, along with the occasional reference to effeminacy or androgyny, has led to various theories seeking to drastically unman the god, as it were; some writers read into these details the idea that perhaps Dionysos himself was asexual (Jameson, 44), or even emasculated through castration (Kerenyi, 275-277, 285). Jameson, for example, in examining some of the mythic fragments dealing with Dionysos, has arrived at the idea of the wine god as weak, cowardly and asexual – all aspects which would support the charge of effeminacy. (Jameson, 50, 59-63). He cites the myth of Lycurgus, who drove the young god into the ocean with an ox-goad. Francois Lissarrague states: “Dionysos as depicted is scarcely sexed; he is never seen in an erect state or manipulating his phallus.” Another factor frequently cited as support for the effeminacy of Dionysos is his feminine appearance. Early iconography of Dionysos shows him as a youthful adult with long hair and a beard, exotically dressed in a long chiton and himation. Dionysos had to be feminine, for the same reason that he had to be foreign and bestial: he was Other, opposed by nature to the dearest values of Greek society. He was wet and wild, emotional and disorderly, a god of madness and shape-shifting. He could not be a ‘real man’ in the eyes of the Greeks because a real man could not be allowed to possess these attributes. He was a strange god, and a god of the periphery – edging on the dark and unknown. The periphery, the uncivilized, was the realm of women and beasts; hence his companions were maenads and satyrs. His dangerous influence further exacerbated the problem with women: possessed by Dionysos, they became even more irrational, passionate and wild. Liberated by the god, they abandoned their chaste behavior and wifely duties and danced madly through the forests, defying all social restraints. By enhancing those qualities that were seen as the dark side of femininity, Dionysos himself could be seen as partaking of a female extreme; his nature was in some threatening ways even more feminine than that of an ordinary woman. The charge of effeminacy was not taken lightly in ancient Greece or Rome; there were social stigmas and sometimes civil penalties attached to the label. In Greece, a man earned a reputation as a ‘kinaidos,’ an effeminate man, through a penchant for taking a passive role in sexuality or through excessive unrestrained lust; he was not to be allowed to take leadership roles or any active public role in government. (Winkler, 176-178, 188-190) Given the seriousness of the accusation when directed against a man, what religious import could be read into the charge of effeminacy when directed against a god? Dionysos was the only major god to be spoken of in this way; he was thought by many to be a dangerous foreign import, although evidence points to his presence in the pantheon from the Mycenean era. He was seen as a subversive influence, who in his myths faced opposition by kings and led entire cities into chaos and revolt. His religion was always regarded with some fear and ambivalence, almost as a necessary evil.

This is something that I have experienced myself and discussed a while back in Chthonic Dionysos and the Saints of the True Vine:

This Dionysos is dark and still and somber, the quiet amid the storm, the masked pillar around which those filled with his frenzy dance and shout in ecstatic celebration. He is not completely immobile – his movements are just slow like the shoots of a plant triumphantly rising up through the soil, like the gradual formation of stalactites in a cave, like the procession of the stars through the heavens. The face of this Dionysos is always concealed in shadows, except for his eyes which are bright with the flames of madness and gaze into the depths of your soul and beyond. His voice echoes across a vast chasm even when he is nearer to you than your next heartbeat. There is an impenetrable denseness to his spirit, a gloom so black and so full of painful memories that even he has difficulty bearing its weight. He is ancient beyond all reckoning and yet remains unwearied by all that he has witnessed and experienced. His heart is fierce with love for the fragile and ephemeral things of this world, rejoicing and suffering along with them. He cannot turn his face away from them – he must witness it all, even if it makes him mad. And though part of him remains forever down in the caverns deep beneath the earth, another part extends upwards into our world, surrounded by an innumerable host. The lusty satyrs, the madwomen, the nymphs who nurse him and the dead who belong to him, an invisible troop of wild spirits that march unseen but clearly heard in his processions, who race through the fields and forests and city streets on certain especially dark nights in pursuit of the victims of the hunt.

Nothing about Dionysos is simple so we would do well to avoid the sort of simplifications one frequently finds in discussions about him on Tumblr.

Bakcheia for the Barbarians

I was asked how someone who is primarily devoted to the divinities of another pantheon should go about incorporating Dionysos into their worship routine. Rather than go into all of the theological quandaries and the history of intercultural exchange, I’m going to keep things fairly simple and focused on the practicalities of doing so.

The first step is to confirm with both Dionysos and your own Gods and Spirits that this is permissible and will not violate any individual or traditional obligations you may have. If there are boundaries and restrictions in play, determine how best to navigate them in a manner that is respectful and pleasing to both parties. You may want to consult diviners and religious specialists to assist with this process, especially if negotiations are required.

Although Dionysos is widely traveled and has important ties to members of diverse pantheons there are some beings he just doesn’t share space with well, either because of personality clashes or conflicting energies. (True both within the Hellenic pantheon and outside it.) This could necessitate maintaining a shrine for him in a totally different part of your home from theirs, or outside it, or even honoring him without one.

You should also determine what sorts of devotional activities you can engage in for Dionysos, if these will put you in a state of ritual impurity with regard to the others, what you’ll need to do to restore that equilibrium, and how far apart this needs to be spaced. For instance, Dionysian worship can involve alcohol, drugs, sex, dancing, flogging, the consumption of meat, spending time in wild places, exploring the dark, painful, dangerous, and repressed parts of ourselves, and conversing with strange Spirits and the dead. Surprisingly, not all divinities are down with that.

He often brings about catharsis by tearing things apart and then putting them back together again; while radical transformation doesn’t occur every time you invite Dionysos into your life, it is something you should at least consider within the realm of possibility if you do so, and your Gods and Spirits may have opinions on that. Dionysos is big on consent and generally will not overstep your bounds if they are clearly and firmly articulated (especially if other divinities are involved) but anything up to that point could be considered fair game.

That said, he’s incredibly accommodating and flexible, so if you are not permitted to engage in certain activities he can usually find a workaround. For instance, there are plenty of Dionysians I know who for whatever reason (taboo, sobriety, stomach problems, etc) drink infrequently or not at all, and yet they still have incredibly rich and intimate relationships with the God.

Once you have established all of the above (or even while the process is ongoing) begin learning about Dionysos and the sorts of things he likes. I’ve written extensively about this at the Bakcheion, but don’t limit yourself to just that. In addition to scholarly resources there are a lot of really passionate, devoted and creative Dionysians in our overlapping communities who have written books, and blogs and websites, participate in online groups and forums, or are just out there doing their own thing that you can draw on. Each has a unique understanding of who Dionysos is and what has worked for them as far as honoring him goes. Test out different ritual styles and methodologies, noting what gets you the results you desire and what doesn’t. Once you have the basics down, branch out to things like monthly or weekly observances, festivals, city rambles and visits to forests, mountains and other wild places. Experiment with dance, sacred movement, austerities, trance and meditation, dreamwork, entheogens, and similar methods of inducing ecstatic and visionary states. Make art for him. Hell, you can even study mime and theater, which at the very least will make you a better ritualist.

The final consideration should probably wait until you have solidified Dionysos’ presence in your life – though it certainly doesn’t have to if there is some pressing reason – and that’s figuring out how he fits into the ecology of your private religious life. It may be fine to keep him an outsider you just honor on special occasions or as circumstances require. You may also integrate him into your household cultus either by keeping separate shrines and rites for him in the Hellenic manner while honoring your other Gods according to the customs they prefer, or if everyone is copacetic and divination confirms you can extend those forms of worship to include him, or create a new blended style. I don’t know if this would work with every type of polytheism but in my experience Dionysos has been quite receptive to elements of Kemetic, Heathen, Hindu and even folk Catholic forms of worship over the years. However, don’t assume anything and verify before proceeding! Also the appropriateness of this may change with time. (And then change back, and change again. Dionysos is … weird.)

Hamas claims Israel deployed ‘killer Zionist dolphins’ near Gaza

A friend and long-time reader of this blog sent me the following video:

Looking to verify these claims, I did some internet sleuthing and uncovered a bunch of news articles, including this piece for Forbes by a London-based journalist condemning the long and sordid history of using sea creatures for combat.

Some are speculating that his countryman Malik Faisal Akram may have taken the Rabbi and several members of the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, Texas hostage in retaliation. I want to believe that these people are nuts and there are no connections between the two events. But when you start off with killer Zionist dolphins, man, all bets are off. (And no, I’m not linking to their crazy bullshit. Do your own sleuthing. I got standards here at the House of Vines. Not many, but I got ’em.)

However, since dolphins belong to Dionysos I am taking this as further proof that Dionysos loves the Jews.

That’s how you become the GOAT

When I’m struggling religiously (usually because of my assorted chronic ailments) I think of an anecdote related by Arrian of Nicomedia in his Anabasis of Alexander.

Arrian writes that Alexander the Great, after receiving a terrible wound on the battlefield, became so ill that he was forced to remain bed-ridden. However, “he was carried out on a couch to perform the sacrifices custom prescribed for each day; after making the offerings he lay down in the men’s apartments till dark.” (VII.25.2)

And I think, fuck. If this man – mortally wounded, inconceivably far from home, and engaged in leading probably one of the greatest military campaigns known to history – could find time in his day to honor his Gods, why, there’s no reason I can’t too.

And I get up and make my prayers and offerings.

A Brief Meditation on Dionysos in Orphic Hymn 30

“The Wild, Ineffable, Secret One of the Two Horns, of the Two Forms, The Ivy-lush, Bull-faced Warrior, He of the Euhoi, the Pure One” – Orphic Hymn 30

What an image these words conjure! Have you ever seen a bull enraged? They are huge creatures to begin with, powerful, immense. There is a primal virility about them. Looking at them, one cannot help but think of the earth. Looking at their horns, one cannot help but think of being gored on them. And how the bull moves! Lithe, graceful, dancing on its feet, even as it lunges its massive frame.

Now imagine a great warrior. Strong, masculine. Girt in armor, his sword glinting in the early morning light. This is a man who leads other men; a man who is skilled in making war; a man whose hands are red with the blood of his enemies.

Now put the two images together. A warrior, with the face of a bull. All that power, aggression, masculinity, that wild destructive force, barely contained. This is a face of our God!

There is a part of Dionysos which is terrifying, destructive. An inhuman intelligence, which looks on with unblinking eyes at the most ghastly of atrocities, mute witness to life’s unimaginable cruelties. This Dionysos who tears things apart, who revels in an orgy of destruction, the beautiful bloody consummation of life. The pulse of life is staccato: with one beat, it breathes things into being; with the next, they pass out of it. Our Lord presides over both. He is equally in the heat of passion, the first cry of an infant and the pounding of adrenaline and fear through our ears, the moment when we cry out our life’s last breath. He is everything pure, primal, undiluted. That which flows, which spills past its bounds, that which expresses its individuality, regardless of the limits of others. Dionysos is the instinct, the moment, pure experience before mind interferes.

Assorted early prayers

An Invocation

Greetings, O Dionysos! You who are hailed by the Satyrs and Maenads as the Beautiful One, the Fertile Bull, the Dancer on the mountain, Mad One, Boisterous One, Full of Life, Ecstatic, many-formed and many-named Lord of ineffable Mysteries, hear my words, and come! Join me in my rite, and graciously accept these gifts I have to offer you.

To close the rite

I thank you, O Dionysos, kindly Lord whom my heart adores, for coming and accepting these gifts, offered in gratitude for the multitude of gifts and blessings that you have given me. May the memory of your beauty and greatness remain with me throughout the day, a constant source of joy and strength for me.

Wine consecration

This, O Lord, is your greatest gift to care-worn mortals, for it eases our suffering, and when we are drunk from it, we are filled with joy and a lively spirit. Without wine, there would be no festivals, no fine banquets, no sacrifices for the Gods, and love would completely disappear from the world. But wine is even more precious than that, for this wine is your blood, first poured out upon the black earth when the Titans set upon you with their murderous knives. A part of you dwells in each sip of wine, and dwells within us when we drink it.

From a rite for oracular dreams, adapted from the PGM

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 send to me an oracular dream, true and without fault.

To make chernips

Take a bowl and fill it with water. Hold it aloft and say:

“Water, be pure! Become like the tears that Ariadne shed when she beheld the beauty of Dionysos on Naxos; become like the streams that flow through the forests on Mount Nysa, where the pure and lovely Nymphs dance; become like the waters that washed off the foolishness of Midas. Water, you are pure! You are pure! You are pure!”

Incense offering

The first offering to be made to Dionysos is that of incense. Light the incense and then hold the burner up before you. Say:

“As fragrant as your skin when you appeared to Ariadne on rocky Naxos, is this (name of incense). May it fill the temple with its pleasing scent, a reminder of the day on which you were born, when the fruit sprouted on the vine, the earth adorned itself with green grass and flowers of every hue, and the air was sweet with the scent of fine Arabian incenses: the whole world rejoiced at that time, as I rejoice now in you.”

Hymn to Dionysos

Dionysos, I sing, whose head is twined with ivy
and grapes in ripe bunches that tumble to his gentle shoulders,
clad in their fawn-skin cloak.
Swift-moving God, racing down the side of Olympos,
or through the wooded coverts of the Nysan plane,
attended by goat-footed Satyrs, and the lovely Nymphs,
giving out the call, “Euoi!”
All-conquering, fierce-eyed One,
who wields his thyrsos like a fiery brand,
striking with madness those who offend him.
Mystery discovered through our bodies,
in dancing round bonfires till exhaustion overtakes us,
and the touching of
trembling flesh against trembling flesh
underneath the all-seeing moon.
I suppose there are older Gods, and stronger –
but there has never been a God dearer to my heart
than the son of Semele and Zeus who reigns in Heaven!

An obscene poem for Dionysos

I was kicked out of a group once for writing this poem.

Follow the shaggy Satyr through secret forest paths
Until you reach the gathering where the Nymphs still dance
Circling round and round in rapturous worship of
King Lusios, crowned with clusters of ripe grapes and green
Foliage, he the master of men’s hearts whose tender touch
Unleashes their hidden spirits, freeing them from ego’s
Cruel chains to revel in primal purity, feeling themselves not apart but
Kin to all creation. They dance a dance old as time,
Flowing blissful on waves of wine, their every move
Under the control of their God, whose heartbeat is heard in the
Clangor of drum and pipe and wailing barbarous shouts.
Keep the memory of this moment in your heart, how it
Felt to touch the divine and be touched by him in return, the
Unspeakable ecstasy of dissolving at his feet, your fears and
Concerns, your fragile, broken, imperfect parts melting away in his
Kiss and the way he stroked your cheek, saying:
Follow me, my child, and I will make you whole again,
Unbelievable as it may seem, and teach you to be free.
Child, my path is not easy: it will cost you everything to be mine.
Knowledge of this sort is a heavy burden – though ignorance is heavier – and
Freedom, real freedom, is never easy. But
Unless you walk this path, you will be like a dead man,
Close to living, but not really. How empty the other way seems,
Kept apart from the source of life. Never to
Feel the heart in your breast thunder with excitement,
Ugliness all about instead of the beauty of the mountain –
Crisp snow beneath your feet and the smell of pine in the air –
Knife-sharp pain and transcendent joy, these two sides of one coin.
Feel everything, and feel it intensely!
Understand this above all else: mine is the path of life,
Child, and everything in it. Leave no sensation unexplored;
Kill what holds you back inside and drink your
Fill from my cup, emptying it and asking for more
Until your lips are stained with wine and you
Cannot recall a time when you were sober.
Keep these commandments of mine and I will bless you, o
Friend of mine!
Up you lift your head, proud to be
Counted among the ivy-clad Bakchoi of
Kissokomes, the ivy-crowned God.
From your wine-drenched lips
Unbidden and incomprehensible
Comes a shout like that made by the mighty
Kine in the field, and in that moment you understand the mystery.

Paths to Dionysos

This is one of my older pieces; there are a few things in it I’d phrase differently today, or not at all. But in general it holds up fairly well, and addresses some things I’ve been discussing with folks over the last couple days so I wanted to share it here.

Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, one of the last defenders of Classical paganism remarked, “What matters the path by which one seeks the truth? One road alone does not suffice to attain so great a mystery!”

Although his wisdom could be applied to many things, it holds especially true when we are approaching the God Dionysos, who is the mystery of all mysteries. I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve received e-mails from people who have begun to feel a call from Dionysos but stop dead in their tracks because they are afraid of what heeding such a call might do to them, or feel that they could never be a true Dionysian, by which they usually mean either a drunken mystic sensualist or a wild woman who leaves behind her home and family to rave with the God on the mountain-top and consume the raw flesh of freshly killed animals. And these people are probably right: it isn’t within their nature to act in such a way, or to radically commit themselves to tearing down the walls of fear and inhibition that they have spent a life-time building up. But that doesn’t mean that there is no place for the God within their lives, or that they can’t benefit in even a small way from having a relationship with him.

In Euripides’ famous play the Bakchai, the headstrong young king Pentheus believed that there was only one way to worship Dionysos and that was through drunken debauchery and madness. The wise Tieresias, who was a blind seer dedicated to Apollo, advised him that there was more to the God than what one might at first surmise. In addition to being the lord of the vine he is a God of all vegetative life, a kindly benefactor to humankind, he brought joy and merriment to care-worn hearts, he is a strong God, and warlike, who was able to conquer large parts of the world, and while he enjoyed festive celebration and sensuality, that wasn’t the only way that he could be honored. In fact, he goes on to say:

“Dionysos does not, I admit, compel a woman to be chaste. Always and in every case it is her character and her nature that keeps a woman chaste. But even in the rites of Dionysos the chaste woman will not be corrupted.” (Bakchai 315)

That is an important line. It shows that what matters lies in the heart of each individual. Dionysos helps us find our authentic self, the part of us which too often becomes dulled and corrupted and hidden under layers of fear and social respectability. Dionysos is the God who awakens us, who brings us fully to life, and the means of accomplishing that, and the form that it will take when manifested, differs from person to person. For some, intoxication and revelry are the doors through which we pass into wholeness: others find a quieter, more contemplative approach works best for them. Dionysos doesn’t want us to pretend to be something we’re not, to offer him false worship because we think this, and only this will be pleasing to him. He wants us to unfold the truth within us, to strip away the lies and false exterior and revel in wholeness with him. And he won’t force us to do something we don’t want to or aren’t ready to: a chaste woman will remain chaste within his rites.

When we look at the mythology connected with Dionysos, we find this truth that there are many paths which lead to him amply reflected. The way of the Mainad and the way of the mystic may stand out most prominently, but there are others of equal importance.

For instance, we find the way of Tieresias himself, which I call the path of philia or friendship. For such a person, Dionysos must always remain on the periphery. They are devoted primarily to another God, whose demands on them are of central importance. To embrace Dionysos completely would be to forsake the relationship they already have with their God, to violate their principles, to go against their own innate psychology. Dionysos does not want this. He respects his family and their territorial claims, and he would not cross that boundary even if he could.

Instead what he offers to such people is temporary release. A time of license and celebration, which once completed reverts back to normal life. Such a person may have fond feelings for Dionysos, but nothing more. No intense devotion, no strong commitment. They may do a lot to contribute to the work of the God, for instance by helping to put on festivals for him, by writing poetry, by telling others about Dionysos, by helping those who are truly devoted to the God – but all their efforts are those of an outsider.

And Dionysos looks fondly upon this sort of work. They have much to contribute, for he is a social God, the God of the throng and crowd, the God whose mania spreads among large groups of people, the God who, according to Euripides, wishes to receive honors from all. If his worship was reserved for only the few who are intensely devoted to him, none of this would be possible. In fact, the really good rituals that he so enjoys would never come to be, for there are all sorts of details that need to be taken care of which the diehard mystics would probably overlook. Stuff such as organization, acquiring goods, setting up things, getting people together, etc. Other Gods inspire the sort of people that are good at handling these little details, but Dionysos benefits from their presence at his ceremonies.

And Dionysos, in turn, can help these people strengthen their relationship to their own Gods. Many times people have described Dionysos as a gateway God. He may be the first one that catches their interest, that starts them along the path of Hellenismos, that helps them deal with certain issues and tears down mental blockages, but after that they don’t feel any deep connection to him. Instead, another God rises up in prominence for them, someone who more properly fills their spiritual needs, someone who inspires that deep, committed devotion on their part. They often become confused and saddened: where did Dionysos go? Did I do something wrong and that’s why he disappeared? Since he was the first, why do I feel so much more for ____?

Although these thoughts are natural, and may be important steps on the introspective path, it is also important to remember that Dionysos is a fluid God who comes and goes as he will, and who has a very strong working relationship with the other Gods. They will often do things for each other when one of them is better suited to the task than the others. So it’s quite possible that that’s what lies behind this: you were never meant to be a Dionysian, but rather a friend of Dionysos.

Related to this path, but different from it is the way of the Satyr. For these people, Dionysos is first, foremost, and in the end, a God of exuberance, joy, celebration, sex, drunkenness, and reveling. Although they may be aware that there’s more to the God, it doesn’t really matter. They need to unwind and let go, and he’s there to help them. This is the face of the God that is seen most prominently in our wider culture. In fact, most people know Dionysos only as the drunken frat-boy party God.

At first this bothered me because I was aware of the deeper complexity of the God – saw him, in fact, primarily as a dark, dangerous, mysterious force of liberation and spiritual ecstasy. I thought they were ignorant and had only the shallowest of relationships with him. But maybe that is exactly what they most need and therefore it’s what the God provides them with.

We live in a society that thrives on control and repression. From birth we are bombarded with messages that tell us our bodies are bad and that everything we do with them is sinful, that we can’t trust our instincts, that to let go is weak and disgusting, that we will never be good enough, thin enough, pretty enough, and that the only value lies in transcendence, in controlling our every thought and action, in lifting ourselves out of the muck and looking up to heaven for our redemption.

The Satyr stands in direct and radical opposition to this. In the face of seriousness he bellows with laughter. To those who would hold up an idealized impossible image of beauty, he flaunts his grotesque obesity and says this flesh, too, is beautiful. He affirms that there is nothing wrong with enjoying yourself, in experiencing the pleasures of life to their fullness, that man is an animal and he shouldn’t try to hide that or pretend otherwise. That sex, food, and drink are good things in and of themselves, that they don’t need to be given a polite spiritualizing coat of whitewash to be tolerated.

True, such a path may not be fulfilling to all, but it has its value and its place within the Dionysian realm. Sometimes it can lead into a deeper understanding of the God, but plenty of times it doesn’t. And I don’t think Dionysos is bothered by that. He comes to people where they are, as they are, and he gives them as much of his blessings as they are ready and able to accept. Maybe these people will never feel sublime spiritual union or behold the mysteries of death and rebirth which are his provenance, but at his hands they have felt joy and release, and who can say what good this will end up doing for them in the long run?

The polar opposite of this path would have to be the way of Orpheus. To some this may seem paradoxical. What has asceticism and restraint to do with Dionysos? Isn’t he the wild, sensual God of liberation? He is. But his ecstasy can also be felt in other ways. It can lead to an awareness that there is something more to us than just our bodies, and that this intangible principle is the most important part of us. He is a God of liberation, and sometimes we need to be freed from a gross, dense materialism, to let our souls fly free, to elevate our minds, to transcend our limitations.

Dionysos has nothing to do with addiction. Addiction is bondage, and Dionysos is about freedom. Indulgence taken too far is slavery. And so Dionysos is there to help those who are battling against the invisible chains that keep them from living authentic and self-governingly. Dionysos is the one who invented the custom of watering wine and who taught the ancients to drink temperately. As the God says in the comedy by the playwright Eubulus:

“Three kraters only do I propose for sensible men, one for health, the second for love and pleasure and the third for sleep; when this has been drunk up, wise guests depart for home. The fourth krater is mine no longer, but belongs to hubris; the fifth to shouting; the sixth to revel; the seventh to black eyes; the eighth to summonses; the ninth to bile; and the tenth to madness and people tossing furniture about.”

He is also a very sensual God, and when a behavior becomes conditioned, automatic, addictive so that you have to keep doing it in order to function, how are you truly enjoying it? When you drink to the point of oblivion every night, you don’t get the positive benefits of alcohol. When you have to have a cigarette every twenty minutes or you go insane, you’re a slave, and all those harmful chemicals in your body, choking on phlegm when you wake in the morning, and emphysema or cancer, stop you from feeling the goodness and pleasure of life and enjoying other activities besides.

Dionysos can help us pare down these things, open us to a more expansive vision of life, feel all that it has in store for us. Also, by restraining ourselves, and indulging in an act infrequently, the pleasures become magnified many times when we actually do allow ourselves to enjoy them. Take sex, for instance. If you copulate every single night, several times a night, over a prolonged period, it becomes dull, boring, and eventually you may start to lose sensation. But go for a period without it and see what a difference there is. Your desire will grow stronger, and start to bleed through into other aspects of your life. You may start to become so sensitive that the slightest touch drives you wild. And when you do finally have sex, the intensity of your orgasm after the build up will be mind-blowing.

Dionysian asceticism isn’t about denying our pleasures or the world – it’s about reshaping them, intensifying them, redirecting them into other avenues. There are of course other ways to do this, but the path of discipline and denial can be a powerful tool towards that end.

A path which benefits from Orphic discipline and asceticism, but which differs widely from it in aims and methodology is that of the Mainad. The Mainades were the wild-women who followed Dionysos. They were his companions, his hunting-pack, his nurses and protectors. The path of the Mainad is one that is only open to women (or those who possess the souls of women). And not every woman who is a devoted follower of Dionysos is actually a Mainad. There is something special about this role and what it actually signifies.

To begin with, the Mainad is a mad-woman. She is one who is filled with the spirit of the God, who has given complete control of her mind and body over to him to use as he will. Her consciousness recedes before the divine presence, and he guides her every step. Through him she is able to perform miraculous physical feats like touching fire without being burned, enduring other types of pain, lifting impossible weights, running for great lengths, possessing an elasticity in her movement which is not normally possible, consuming harmful substances without any negative effects, and other related activities. Many stories said that the Mainades could draw milk, oil and wine from the ground, and while I haven’t actually seen this myself I’ve seen enough not to discount it outright.

But a Mainad is more than just a ‘horse’ for the God, to borrow the terminology of Afro-Caribbean religions which have a very similar phenomenon in their entranced priestesses. A Mainad is also the one who rouses the God, who calls him up from the depths, awakens him from sleep and death, and brings him forth into this world. She is the mortal double of the nymphs and Goddesses who performed this function in the myths: she is at once his mother, his lover, his protector and hunting-companion. And that is why I say that only a woman can be a Mainad, because there is something that happens when the masculine spirit of the God comes into contact with the receptive feminine vessel. It is very different from when the God’s spirit fills a masculine vessel, as we shall discuss later.

A Mainad is also a woman apart. She doesn’t truly come into her own until she is in the wilds, be that the dark forests of her mind or the physical mountain far from her home and her ordinary life as mother, wife, daughter, etc. To do so, she must forsake her normal obligations, must challenge the assumptions of what a good woman is and does, must strip away her inhibitions, her doubts and fears, must purify herself in the God’s madness so that she may emerge whole and wild and fierce.

And she must do the same for the God. She first coaxes his spirit up and nurtures it, as we see in accounts of the Mainades taking young beasts to the breast or performing their secret rites to awaken Liknites, the infant God in the basket. Then she arouses him through her songs and dances, which are performed before the masked idol. She draws him out of it and excites him to dance, to come into his fullness as the wild and raving God of ecstasy. Sometimes this has an overtly sensual nature, as in the case of the Bridal Mysticism that we will soon be discussing, but other times it doesn’t and can be simply the intoxication of life, the liberation of the dance, the pulse and thrum of all creation. When the God is ready, they rush down the mountain together, howling, mad, until they come upon their victim and tear it apart. They are hunters. Fierce. Terrible. Hungry for flesh, aching to feel the warm spray of blood across their lips. And if the God should grow weak and tired in the revels, it is the duty of the Mainad to hunt him, to slay her lord and tear him to pieces, so that he may emerge reborn and whole at another time.

This is powerful stuff. And as I said, not every woman is capable of it, however devoted to her God she may be, however strongly she has felt his ecstasy before. Only in the meeting of this constellation of practices does the actual Mainad emerge. Without it, she is simply a devotee, possibly his priestess, possibly his lover, but not a Mainad.

What of the lover? The best image of this is Ariadne, the bride of Dionysos, or her mortal counterpart in the Anthesteria, the wife of the Arkhon Basileios. But it would be mistaken to assume that only a woman can be the lover of the God, for we also have accounts of Ampelios, of Prosymnos, of countless men who over the centuries have met the God in lust and found that transformed into the sublimest of spiritual unions with Dionysos.

The story of Ariadne is worth recounting, for it serves as the model of this type of relationship. She was a mortal princess of Crete who had fallen in love with Theseus, and for that love had turned her back on her family and her land, betraying them so that her beloved could live. Escaping, they stopped on Naxos, where Theseus abandoned her because he didn’t really love her. She ran after his departing ship, but collapsed on the rocks at the shore. Overcome with grief at what she had done, and agony at being spurned, she fell asleep wishing that she would die. It was at that point that Dionysos came to her, awakening her with his kiss and claiming her as his bride.

In a way, this serves as an allegory of the human soul. So many of us are caught in misery, guilt and pain. We feel trapped and abandoned, rejected by the world and infinitely far from our homes. And so we go to sleep. We let our souls die, overcome by the hardship of existence. And it takes the hand of a lover to draw us back to the waking world. We respond to his touch with a deep longing that rouses our souls until we are fully awake, fully alive, and free of all the impurities that caused us to go to sleep. We embrace him, join with him in a union that is at once spiritual and sensual, and from that we experience the deepest, profoundest joy of our lives, which burns as brightly as the stars at night.

Others may not have such an intensely redemptive experience, but they respond to the God as a lover. They seek him out in the darkness, through the labyrinth they follow his laughing voice, and as they draw nearer their hearts leap with ecstasy, their steps are sprightly with dance, they burn and ache and love and create. He visits them in dreams and visions, teasingly revealing himself, reveling with them, seducing and making love to them. He fills them with joy and pleasure and his full abundance. And when he is not near they ache for him with an intensity undreamed of, and only that union can make them whole. They belong to him, body and soul, like a wife to her husband and a husband to his wife.

For such people the language of love, of sexuality, of Bridal Mysticism which can be found running through Judaism, Christianity, Islam and numerous pagan paths, is their preferred vocabulary to describe their religious experience. Often such people will not readily admit to this. They are embarrassed, uncomfortable, fearful of what others might say. And so they will only hesitantly reveal the depths of their feelings for the God to others who have undergone the same sort of thing. But I have come across a number of people for whom this is a reality, whatever others might think of it.

Another path which lies open for some is that of the vessel or avatar, which is perhaps best represented by Akoites. Akoites was the helmsman on the ship of Tyrrhenian pirates that captured Dionysos who was disguised as a young prince and sought to ransom him off. Unlike the others, Akoites saw through the disguise and recognized the God for what he was. He pleaded with his fellows to let the God go, but they refused and were punished for their acts. Akoites, however, was saved, and he spent the rest of his life serving the God and carrying his message to distant lands. According to Ovid it was Akoites, serving as mortal vessel for the God, who came to Thebes and confronted Pentheus.

This sort of thing was common in the Dionysian mysteries. A male priest – and in the accounts it is almost always a man who fills this role of Bakchos, at once God and the priest of the God, like the women who alone are Mainades – would become filled with the spirit of the God, a process called enthousiasmos which meant literally “he has a God in him”, and then throughout the ritual would represent the God in all his actions, speak with the God’s voice, work wonders at his behest, and in short, allow him to be manifest in the physical world.

Nor was this sort of thing limited simply to a religious setting. There were a number of people from antiquity who came to deeply identify with the God, so much so that this shaped their behavior and how people perceived them. Their whole being became suffused with his presence, so that it was as if the God peered out of their eyes and acted through their body. Their lives were a mortal reflection of the God, and whether consciously or unconsciously, they came to act out and manifest his mythology through their existence. Alexander the Great, Ptolemy IV and Marcus Antonius are prime examples of this from the ancient world, but many have seen this same pattern reflected in the lives of Friedrich Nietzsche, Arthur Rimbaud, Elvis Presley, and perhaps most famous of all Jim Morrison.

These people serve as a lightning-rod for which the forces of liberation, inspiration, madness, sensuality, joyousness and destruction may collect. They represent everything about the God: his fluidness, his sexual ambiguity, his love of pleasure, his rebelliousness, his desire to tear down walls and destroy the old social order in order to create something new – but also his self-destructive excesses, his inconsistency, his uncontrollable emotion. Unless they learn moderate self-control they are prone to burning out fast and furiously, to grand self-absorbed dysfunctional displays that ruin both their own lives and those of everyone around them. But before that happens they are beautiful and prophetic, they show the way to liberation, to connection with wild nature and our truest selves, they transform everything they touch and make it shine just as brightly as their own souls which are lit with the fire of the God himself. And that is why people draw near them, unconsciously desiring contact with the divine source of that light and power.

Such a person’s life need not end in tragedy. Nor is it always the case that they will become a famous, charismatic artist or political figure. Many more people simply act out the myths of the God in their own lives, undergoing powerful, painful transformations, traveling widely, blurring the lines and challenging social conventions and common assumptions, inspiring creativity, connection, and liberation in those they encounter, and sometimes serving as a vehicle for which the God can touch lives and awaken people to his presence. They are following, then, in the footsteps of Akoites just as surely as Alexander or Jim Morrison.

The last path that we will consider (though there are certainly others) is one that a lot of people might not actually consider under the heading of ‘ways to Dionysos’, and that is the path of theomachia, or the one who fights against the God.

There are numerous examples of this from mythology – Pentheus is of course the most famous, but there is also Lykourgos, the Minyades, the Proitides, and Desderides the Indian king. Although the details of their stories differ in many regards, it often follows a similar pattern. The God calls to them, and they resist. He makes other attempts to get their attention, and they either ignore him, spurn him, or actively try to suppress the activities of his followers. Finally, he confronts them. He inflicts madness on them, and draws out their failings and self-destructive tendencies, exploiting these to teach them a lesson. Finally they are forced to confront themselves and the God, and either relent and accept him, or are punished in a most cruel and creative manner.

Now, obviously this is not a very desirable path, but it is one that exists. And it is one in which the God is most intimately felt. When one capitulates at the first attempt at Dionysos to reach them, and immediately rushes off to follow him, there is no need for pain and unpleasantness, for tearing down the barriers and the destruction of their personality. Such people have it easy, and the God needn’t spend much time working on them. They experience him solely as a force for good and joy, and that’s it. But the more we resist him, the more he has to push his way into our lives. He will bring up our anxieties and inhibitions, he will push against our walls and masks until they crumble and break altogether. He will force us to confront what we fear the most, and he won’t let up until we finally succumb to his greater power. This is a path of pain and suffering, a path in which we have to fight hard, with everything we have, to resist him. In so doing, however, we often come to a much greater understanding of ourselves than those who never resist, because the God holds us down and forces that introspection upon us. When we finally do give into his call – it means something. It has completely changed our lives, and we have a level of intimacy with him which others will never experience. We also get to see depths of the God concealed to others. His dark and terribleness, his awesome power, his true divinity. And once one finally embraces the Dionysian life, they will never let go of it, they will hold it as the dearest thing because he has ensured that they have nothing left, and they will be steadfast and vigilant, lest they slip back into his disfavor. So for that reason I have no problem with counting this among the ways to Dionysos, though it’s certainly not one that I would recommend to others!

Now, in considering these different paths it has been necessary to discuss them in isolation and emphasize their differences. But the truth is, nothing is ever so simple or clear-cut with the God. And while there are those who follow one path and one only, the vast majority of people blur the line and step foot equally on many of them. There are also paths which I have not felt it necessary to discuss, since these are either too general or too specific. And anyway, the point isn’t to blindly follow what another has set down for you, but to find the path that leads you best into the heart of Dionysos. For that, you are the final and sole arbiter, and the only person who can determine whether you are a true Dionysian or not is the God himself.

Dionysos cleared things up

Feeling that what I posted was just part of the picture, I returned to the mat and performed some more divination and Dionysos was able to clear things up. I can’t say that I’m entirely happy with the answers I got, but I accept the wisdom of his counsel and if certain things play out as indicated, this will indeed prove the necessary course of action. As always, I am immensely appreciative of his guidance and his patience with me, and will strive to prove worthy of them.

This sucks

I am the worst ἱεροποιός (temple-steward) ever.

Okay, maybe that’s a little hyperbolic — thus far I haven’t raped anyone in the temple, or murdered a baby and offered its succulent flesh to the Gods, or let some Iranian burn the place to the ground, or a dozen other examples from Greek myth and legend. But I fucking forgot that last night was Lenaia. I am so ashamed, and this is a really shitty way to kick off Year 4.

For some reason I was under the impression that the festival didn’t start until January 23rd or 25th. So I limped downstairs this morning, leg hurting too much to sleep, with the intent to grab one from the stack of unsold calendars on the table near the Óðinn and Frigga shrine, so I could begin planning out our observance now that our household’s Yuletide season is over, only to flip it open and discover the bad news.

Man, I should have hung the calendar by the door in the Bakcheion after putting down the finishing touches, left one beside my desktop computer, or plugged the dates into my Google calendar with notifications, or really anything other than relying on my shitty sense of time.

Oh well. I have nearly a month to get my shit together in time for Anthesteria. No sense dwelling on this fuck up.

Evaluating literature

To do polytheism right requires well-honed critical faculties and an appreciation for differentiation. Reading isn’t enough; you need to know how to properly evaluate what you’re reading or you’ll wind up meandering through mad and fruitless passages.

This is a significant problem within mainstream contemporary Hellenic polytheism and I think it stems primarily from an inability to distinguish between types of religious literature as a result of the priority given to the Christian scriptures in our society. That is to say, Christians have one Bible and how they treat this book has influenced our understanding of what it means for something to be a piece of religious writing, whereas the ancient view was far more nuanced and complex. Plus, they’re a people of the Book; we’re the people of the Library!

Take Orpheus, Homer and Diodoros Sikeliotes as an example. (Note that I am simplifying things greatly by positing a single “Homer” and “Orpheus” as authors of the works attributed to them, but I don’t want to get too side-tracked in this discussion.) All of these men wrote about Gods, mythological events and cultus and as such their work could be classed as “religious” but there’s a wide gulf between the type of writing they did and their intent in doing so. Consequently we should evaluate them differently and give their words varying degrees of authority.

Diodoros, for instance, was writing primarily as an historian – his discussion of Gods and their rites comes in a work intended to chronicle the totality of human culture and accomplishment from its start up to his own times. There’s a great deal of mythological material and accounts of variant local traditions, but it’s because this serves his narrative needs or he’s relaying the beliefs and words of others, not because he’s laying out his own understanding of things. Indeed he frequently expresses skepticism about his subject matter or offers his own rationalistic (often euhemerizing) interpretation as a counterpoint.

This is very different from Homer who is consciously working within an established, albeit localized and divergent, mythological tradition which he is using to provide a contextual background for the stories he wants to tell about the heroes of Troy. His intent is to praise these men (and flatter his audience by emphasizing their own connection to great events and figures from the past) and add to the tradition he has inherited from his oral predecessors.

Homer’s words become invested with authority over time, recited at festivals and scrupulously studied, so that they come to shape a Pan-Hellenic consciousness of myth, tradition and the Gods and heroes. There wasn’t universal agreement with him, but all discussion was carried out with reference to his epic poems.

Different again are the works of Orpheus – they represent a unique revelation and a specific tradition with Orpheus as its head and final arbiter. They are not concerned with the products of human culture and the Gods as important peripherals to that – their intent is to bring about an understanding of these powerful personages and set forth the science of ritual engagement with them.

(At least that’s what those who ascribed religious weight to writings and ceremonies attached to name-famous Orpheus – as Ibycus put it – held, no matter how much the different threads of Orphic tradition diverged, which is to be expected considering the heterogeneous populations which promulgated it – itinerant religious specialists, discount magicians, oracle-peddlers, poets, philosophers, aristocrats, athletes, soldiers and similar marginal figures.)  

As such, we need to evaluate each of these forms of religious literature differently, regardless of whether we accept the claims made within them and in particular we must avoid assigning greater authority to them than was intended by the writer – or at least be conscious that we are doing so.

For instance, I find a lot of valuable information in the works of early Christian apologists such as Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytos of Rome and Origen – but these are very problematic sources, since they are often intentionally distorting what they discuss for aggressive rhetorical purposes, all the way down to outright fabrication. This hostility, in addition to the biases all authors possess, need to be factored into any conclusions one makes about ancient polytheist religion based on them.

Think about this the next time someone flings a quote at you – especially when it’s so easy to manufacture false ones. The truth will set you free, as Charles Manson said.

Dionysos is a badass God

A portion of this piece was recycled into the last post. As it is pertinent to the discussion I’m going to share it in its entirety.

During the Classical period there was a pretty broad repertoire of Dionysiac depictions, many of which cast the God in a hardly favorable light. The comic poet Aristophanes, for instance, made him a bumbling fool in The Frogs who has to ask directions to the underworld and pisses all over himself when confronted by Empousa (288 ff).

Certainly this is the sort of thing that one expects from Aristophanes (who regularly included jabs at the audience in his plays, calling them cock-suckers, parricides, and greedy cowards) but Dionysos isn’t treated much better by the respectable authors.

Euripides called him “effeminate” (Bakkhai 350), Aiskhylos a “womanly man” and a “weakling” (Edonoi frag. 30-31). Stories were told of Dionysos being dressed in the clothing of little girls or changed into a goat to escape the wrath of Hera, and eventually he was said to have been driven insane when she inevitably caught up with him. (Apollodoros 3.28)

But perhaps the most embarrassing tale of all was the one that Homer told:

“I will not fight against any God of the heaven, since even the son of Dryas, Lykourgos the powerful, did not live long; he who tried to fight with the Gods of the bright sky, who once drove the fosterers of Mainomenos Dionysos headlong down the sacred Nyseian hill, and all of them shed and scattered their wands on the ground, stricken with an ox-goad by murderous Lykourgos, while Dionysos in terror dived into the salt surf, and Thetis took him to her bosom, frightened, with the strong shivers upon him at the man’s blustering. But the Gods who live at their ease were angered with Lykourgos and the son of Kronos struck him to blindness, nor did he live long afterwards, since he was hated by all the immortals.” (Iliad 6.129)

Nor, unfortunately, was this the only such fable that circulated in the Greek mainland.

Pausanias relates (2.20.4) that in Argos there was a tomb “which they claim belongs to the maenad Khorea, saying that she was one of the women who joined Dionysos in his expedition against Argos, and that Perseus, being victorious in the battle, put most of the women to the sword. To the rest they gave a common grave, but to Khorea they gave burial apart because of her high rank.” Both Pausanias (2.23.7-8) and Nonnos (25.104) maintain that during this battle Perseus slew the beloved bride of Dionysos who was powerless to save her.

What a different situation we find in Egypt! This Dionysos is a mighty God who more than knows how to handle his enemies.

Consider the following passage from a 3rd century epic poem about the conflict between Dionysos and Lykourgos. Our fragment picks up in the middle, after Lykourgos and Dionysos have been going at it for some time. The God has just wrought a terrible miracle, transforming the lush countryside into a barren desert wasteland:

No longer flowed the spring beside the elm, nor were there ways of watering, nor paths nor fences nor trees, but all had vanished. Only the empty plain was visible. Where a meadow was before, close came Lykourgos, heart-stricken with mighty fear and speechlessness. For irresistibly, beyond mortal defense, all their works were upset and turned about before their eyes. But when Lykourgos knew him for the glorious son of Zeus, pale terror fell upon his spirit; the ox-goad, wherewith he had been at labor smiting, fell from his hand before his feet. He had no will to utter or to ask a word. Now might that poor wretch have escaped his gloomy fate: but he besought not then the divinity to abate his wrath. In his heart he foresaw that doom was nigh to him, when he saw Dionysos come to assail him amid lightnings that flashed manifold with repeated thunderclaps, while Zeus did great honor to his son’s destructive deeds.

So Dionysos urged his ministers, and they together sped against Lykourgos and scourged him with rods of foliage. Unflinching he stood, like a rock that juts into the marble sea and groans when a wind arises and blows, and abides the smiting of the seas: even so abode Lykourgos steadfast, and recked not of their smiting. But ever more unceasing wrath went deep into the heart of Thyone’s son: he was minded not at all to take his victim with a sudden death, that still alive he might repay a grievous penalty. He sent madness upon him, and spread about the phantom shapes of serpents, that he might spend the time fending away, til baneful Rumor of his madness should arrive at Thebes on wings and summon Ardys and Astakios, his two sons, and Kytis who married him and was subdued to his embrace.

Then, when led by Rumor’s many tongues they came, found Lykourgos just now released from suffering, worn out by madness. They cast their arms around him as he lay in the dust – fools! They were destined to perish at their father’s hand before their mother’s eyes! For not long after, madness, at the command of Dionysos, aroused Lykourgos yet again, but this time with real frenzy. He thought that he was smiting serpents; but they were his children from whom he stole the spirit. And now would Kytis have fallen about them, but in compassion Dionysos snatched her forth and set her beyond the reach of doom, because she had warned her lord constantly in his storms of evil passion. Yet she could not persuade her master, too stubborn; he, when his sudden madness was undone, recognized the God through experience of suffering. Still Dionysos abated not his wrath: as Lykourgos stood unflinching, yet frenzied by distress, the God spread vines about him and fettered all his limbs. His neck and both ankles imprisoned, he suffered the most pitiable doom of all men on earth: and now in the land of Sinners his phantom endures that endless labor – drawing water into a broken pitcher: the stream is poured forth into Haides.

Such is the penalty which the loud-thundering son of Kronos ordained for men that fight against the Gods; that retribution may pursue them both while living and again in death.

We aren’t dealing with the weak and impotent Dionysos of Homer here, who flees to the bosom of Thetis and can’t protect those near and dear to him. The Greco-Egyptian Dionysos is a potent force of nature and master of all vegetative life. He is also harsh and cruel when provoked, and the punishment he metes out to Lykourgos is nothing compared to what he has in store for an Indian spy in the Bassarika of the Greco-Egyptian poet Dionysios. There is some speculation that Dionysios may have lived in Panopolis: he certainly influenced the epic school that flourished there a couple centuries later. Not only does Nonnos continue the theme of the Indian War, but he even borrowed the names Deriades and Modaios for his Dionysiaka.

In the Bassarika fragment that has come down to us a spy sent into the camp of Dionysos by the Indian king Deriades has just been discovered. The God orders several of his soldiers to go out and hunt a stag. That’s when the fun starts.

They slew it and flayed it, and stripping off the skin, arrayed the wretched man from head and shoulders down. The new-flayed hide clave to his body, moulded to the flesh; above, the horns gleamed to be seen afar; to one that beheld him, he wanted nothing of the wild beast’s form. Thus had they transformed a man into a counterfeit animal … The Bacchanal God leapt into the midst of the enemy army, where most of all the Kethaians were rushing to the flame of battle. Standing there he cried aloud to Dereiades and the rest: ‘Slaves of women, Indians, consider now this way: to Deriades above all I speak this from knowledge. You shall not, in your present straits, withstand the onslaught of the gleaming wine and escape your evil fate, before in the swift night you tear apart the raw flesh of a living animal and eat it. Behold this tall stag straight of horn, the finest that followed us from holy Hellas, a marvel to behold! Come, hasten to rend it in good conflict for its flesh.’ So he spoke, and they of their own accord were fain to fall upon human flesh, and to appease their boundless desire, smitten by eager madness. And Deriades answered the son of Zeus, saying: ‘Would that I might cut your body limb from limb and swallow the flesh raw ….’

And that, unfortunately, is where the fragment cuts off. You just know that Dionysos had some witty retort, perhaps even revealing the horrendous sparagmos and cannibalistic omophagia that he had compelled the Indians to unwittingly commit upon their kinsman. Perhaps it even ended with him saying something along the lines of, “Bitch, this is what happens when you send spies into my camp. Don’t try it again or you will know that I am the Lord Dionysos!”

We find this sort of reveling in the raw power and ferocity of the God in other Greco-Egyptian poets as well. One thinks especially of the great Alexandrian Theokritos who composed a cult-hymn that recounted the conflict between Dionysos and the insolent king Pentheus. I won’t bother to cite The Bacchanals in full – though it is a lovely poem, subject-matter notwithstanding – and instead cut to the climax, which is very relevant to our discussion:

“His mother took her son’s head and roared like a lioness with cubs; and Ino, setting her foot upon his stomach, tore off the great shoulder with the shoulder-blade, and in like fashion wrought Autonoa, while the other women parted among them piecemeal what was left of him: and to Thebes they came all blood-bedrabbled, bringing from the hill not Pentheus but tribulation. I care not. And let not another care for an enemy of Dionysos – not though he suffer a fate more grievous than this and be in his ninth year or entering on his tenth. But for myself may I be pure and pleasing in the eyes of the pure, like the eagle which is honored by aegis-bearing Zeus. To the children of the righteous, not of the unrighteous, comes the better fate. Farewell to Dionysos, whom Lord Zeus set down on snowy Drakanos when he had opened his mighty thigh. Farewell to comely Semele and her sisters, Kadmean dames honored as heroines, who, at Dionysos’ instigation, did this deed, wherein is no blame. At the acts of the Gods let no man cavil.”


Dionysos is a God

A reader commented with regard to my Amazons post that these female warriors seemed so “nasty” and “violent” and so he couldn’t conceive of them being part of the Retinue since Dionysos’ conquest of the East was “peaceful” and “bloodless.”

Oh, have I got news for you buddy.

As it turns out, I’ve had this conversation several times before, most notably with a prominent Tumblrite to which I wrote the following reply. Their response was to delete their account. Hopefully you will not behave in such an histrionic fashion as I’ve enjoyed our exchanges, most especially when you’ve had critical feedback.

To begin with, let me just reiterate a point of supreme importance, which is why I flog it constantly: you cannot derive an accurate understanding of what the ancients did or believed from only a single source.

We have no idea how widely representative such a view may have been or often even what the author’s intent in making it was. What are our source’s biases? Is he describing something contemporary with him or something he thinks happened in the remote past? It’s also important to keep in mind that each community gave a local spin to the myths and were not really bothered when they encountered regional variations, even quite drastic ones. Context is everything when interpreting the ancients.

Now, to bring it back around to your objections — it is true that there are sources that claim Dionysos won a bloodless victory over the East either as a result of his powers of persuasion or when Pan came to his aid and frightened all of his opponents, but this was only ever a minority view.

Classical literature is filled with far more anecdotes such as these:

It is related, anyhow, that Herakles of Egypt and Dionysos after they had overrun the Indian people with their arms, constructed engines of war, and tried to take the place by assault; but the sages, instead of taking the field against them, lay quiet and passive, as it seemed to the enemy; but as soon as the latter approached they were driven off by rockets of fire and thunderbolts which were hurled obliquely from above and fell upon their armour. (Philostratos, Life of Apollonius of Tyana 2.33)

Inachos was witness to both, when the heavy bronze pikes of Mykenai resisted the ivy and deadly fennel, when Perseus sickle in hand gave way to Bakchos with his wand, and fled before the fury of Satyrs cyring Euoi; Perseus cast a raging spear, and hit frail Ariadne unarmed instead of Lyaios the warrior. I do not admire Perseus for killing one woman, in her bridal dress still breathing of love. (Nonnos, Dionysiaka 25.104)

On its rich stream has Lydian Pactolus borne thee, leading along its burning banks the golden waters; the Massgetan who mingles blood with milk in his goblets has unstrung his vanquished bow and given up his Getan arrows; the realms of axe-wielding Lycurgus have felt the dominion of Bacchus; the fierce lands of the Zalaces have felt it, and those wandering tribes whom neighbouring Boreas smites, and the nations which Maeotis’ cold water washes, and they on whom the Arcadian constellation looks down from the zenith and the wagons twain. He has subdued the scattered Gelonians; he has wrested their arms form the warrior maidens; with downcast face they fell to earth, those Thermodontian hordes, gave up at length their light arrows, and became maenads. Sacred Cithaeron has flowed with the blood of Ophionian slaughter; the Proetides fled to the woods, and Argos, in his stepdame’s very presence, paid homage to Bacchus. (Seneca, Oedipus 401 ff)

And then there’s the fragment from the Greco-Egyptian poet Dionysios’ Bassarika. The fragment begins with the discovery of a spy who has been sent into the camp of Dionysos by the Indian king Deriades. The God orders several of his soldiers to go out and hunt a stag. That’s when the fun starts.

They slew it and flayed it, and stripping off the skin, arrayed the wretched man from head and shoulders down. The new-flayed hide clave to his body, moulded to the flesh; above, the horns gleamed to be seen afar; to one that beheld him, he wanted nothing of the wild beast’s form. Thus had they transformed a man into a counterfeit animal … The Bacchanal God leapt into the midst of the enemy army, where most of all the Kethaians were rushing to the flame of battle. Standing there he cried aloud to Dereiades and the rest: ‘Slaves of women, Indians, consider now this way: to Deriades above all I speak this from knowledge. You shall not, in your present straits, withstand the onslaught of the gleaming wine and escape your evil fate, before in the swift night you tear apart the raw flesh of a living animal and eat it. Behold this tall stag straight of horn, the finest that followed us from holy Hellas, a marvel to behold! Come, hasten to rend it in good conflict for its flesh.’ So he spoke, and they of their own accord were fain to fall upon human flesh, and to appease their boundless desire, smitten by eager madness. And Deriades answered the son of Zeus, saying: ‘Would that I might cut your body limb from limb and swallow the flesh raw ….’

And you know, even the komos of Alexander the Great which helped solidify this legend in the Hellenistic mind, was not without violence and drunken mayhem:

Alexander held games in honor of his victories. He performed costly sacrifices to the Gods and entertained his friends bountifully. While they were feasting and the drinking was far advanced, as they began to be drunken a madness took possession of the minds of the intoxicated guests. At this point one of the women present, Thais by name and Attic by origin, said that for Alexander it would be the finest of all his feats in Asia if he joined them in a triumphal procession, set fire to the palaces, and permitted women’s hands in a minute to extinguish the famed accomplishments of the Persians. This was said to men who were still young and giddy with wine, and so, as would be expected, someone shouted out to form the komos and to light torches, and urged all to take vengeance for the destruction of the Greek temples. Others took up the cry and said that this was a deed worthy of Alexander alone. When the king had caught fire at their words, all leaped up from their couches and passed the word along to form a victory procession in honor of Dionysos. Promptly many torches were gathered. Female musicians were present at the banquet, so the king led them all out for the komos to the sound of voices and flutes and pipes, Thais the courtesan leading the whole performance. She was the first, after the king, to hurl her blazing torch into the palace. As the others all did the same, immediately the entire palace area was consumed, so great was the conflagration. It was most remarkable that the impious act of Xerxes, king of the Persians, against the acropolis at Athens should have been repaid in kind after many years by one woman, a citizen of the land which had suffered it, and in sport.” (Diodoros Sikeliotes, Library of History 17.72.1-6)

This should surprise no one. After all the God was hailed by the names Savage, Man-Killer, He Who Tears Apart, He Who Devours Raw Flesh. The ancients understood this about him even if many today have forgotten or would prefer not to contemplate the implications of it.

And of course to do so they must consciously ignore about two-thirds of his mythology.

Lykourgos. Pentheus. Perseus. The daughters of Kadmos. The daughters of Proitos. The daughters of Minyas.

Need I go on?

If these names do not fill you with fear, you should probably crack open a book. Might I suggest you begin with Euripides’ Bakchai? By the end you will see why the playwright refers to him as most tender and most terrible of Gods.

Dionysos is a God of extremes, the paradox personified. He blurs all boundaries and enjoys crossing no line more than the arbitrary one of sexuality. To put it in the modern parlance, Dionysos is the God of genderfuck. He turns brash kings into simpering queens and bored housewives into frenzied soldiers driving back the settled folk of the valley with their deadly ivy-twined spears. Dionysos is soft, sensual, womanly — and also hirsute and hungry, virile as a hundred bulls. He spans everything in between, a whirlwind of form, a clever shape-shifter.

Now hold on to your seat, because this shit’s going to blow your mind.

Dionysos is a God.

Even the smallest God is beyond man’s full comprehension — and Dionysos is immense.

You know what that means? Dionysos is more than just some handsome bearded dude with a crown of ivy, come hither eyes and lips wet with wine.

He may show himself to you like that but he’s not limited to just that one mask, that one form. When you can see a dozen such masks, a hundred simultaneously then you’ll get at something of the truth of what Dionysos is.

But you still won’t know him completely. No mortal possibly can. For Dionysos exists beyond what is known. He is a God of mystery, as all true Gods are.

And art is man’s imperfect means of expressing the ineffable. Art points the way, it alludes and suggests. It can do no more.

When that is understood about art, art is a profound ally to religion. We are sensual creatures — there is nothing wrong with engaging the senses in worship. This makes for the most powerful kind of worship in fact.

But the object is not the subject.

The Gods are more than our conceptions of them.

When you mistake the image for what inspired it, when you accept only the surface reading of a text and go no further — you do a grave disservice to art and to religion.

Yes, the myths are true and what art depicts is real — but don’t stop there. He is more than that, always more than we can imagine. And if you try to box him in you’ll miss the really special stuff about him, the stuff you can only learn by opening yourself up to him completely. And you’ll piss him off. He doesn’t do well in cramped spaces — unless those spaces happen to be bottles.


Here’s another interesting bit from Harpokration’s Lexicon of the Ten Orators:

§ a193 Apomatton (wiping off): Demosthenes in For Ktesiphon. Some understand it plainly for ‘wiping away’ and ‘cleaning oneself,’ but others more elaborately, as ‘plastering clay and bran on those being initiated,’ as we say ‘to wipe the statue with clay’: for they used to anoint with clay and bran the initiates, imitating the stories told in myths according to some, that the Titans hurt Dionysos by plastering themselves with gypsum to avoid being recognized. They say that then this custom has ceased, but that later people smeared themselves with mud for tradition’s sake. Sophocles in Aichmalotides: ‘purifier of the army and experienced in rites of cleaning’ and again: ‘and most skilled wiper-off of great misfortunes.’

Very interesting

Another name for the Kerkopes – the mischievous, hairy forest creatures Herakles chased to Ephesos – is Koboloi, a portion of the Retinue of Dionysos which are still active in parts of modern Greece under the guise of Kalikántzaroi. Reading Harpokration’s Lexicon of the Ten Orators (as one does for fun at 4:00 in the morning) I came across the following, which adds an interesting dimension:

§ k67  Kobaleia: Deinarchos in the impeachment Against Pytheas. Childishness affected with deceit used to be called ‘kobaleia,’ and the one who employs this is a ‘kobalos.’ It seems to be synonymous with bomolochos (one who lurks by the altar): Philochoros in book 2 of Atthis: ‘One mustn’t believe, as some say, that Dionysos was some kind of bomolochos and kobalos.’ And Aristotle in book 8 of the History of Animals says that the horned owl, being a kobalos and a mimic, captures prey by imitating their dance.

Interesting. Very interesting.

The More You Know!

Did you know pants were invented by a woman?

According to Adrienne Mayor’s Amazons in the Iranian world:

Another legendary warrior queen was said to be the first to invent trousers. According to a lost history by Hellanikos (5th century BCE), Atossa, whose ethnic origin is not clear, was raised as a boy by her father King Ariaspes (the names are Persian but their origins and dates are shrouded in mystery).After she inherited her father’s kingdom, this Atossa “ruled over many tribes and was most warlike and brave in all deeds” (Jacoby, frag. in Gera, p. 8). She created a new style of dress to be worn by men and women alike, long sleeves and trousers that blurred gender differences (Gera, pp. 8, 141-58). Amazons in ancient Greek art are depicted wearing trousers.

Amazons weren’t just figures of myth and legend. From the Wiley Encyclopedia of Ancient History:

In the 1950s, Soviet archaeologists excavated burial mounds of Sarmatian-Saka-Scythian nomads who had traded with the Greeks in Herodotus’ time. Similar fieldwork continued in the 1990s in Kazakhstan by Jeannine Davis-Kimball; she was the first to use DNA analysis to determine that some of the armed skeletons were females. Since then, other archaeologists have identified about 300 graves of female warriors on the steppes. Of tombs containing warriors’ weapons, armor, and horse trappings, nearly a quarter belonged to women,some showing evidence of battle wounds, skull injuries, and arrowheads embedded in bone. These archaeological finds and grave goods that match Amazons’ clothing and equipment depicted in Greek vase paintings, suggest that there may have been some historical basis to the Greek stories of Amazons.

For a deeper dive on the subject, might I recommend Martine Diepenbroek’s Searching for Amazons? And if you want to learn about the affair Alexander the Great had with an Amazon, check out Elizabeth Baynham’s Alexander and the Amazons