The Cults of Dionysos: Ecstatic Practices and Shamanism in Classical Greece

This piece was intended for publication in the Walking the Worlds Winter 2016 : Ecstatic Practices volume. Unfortunately time constraints and limited resources prevented me from bringing this to the publication standards.
Good news is you get it for free here.

I wish to thank the editors of WtW for their hard work and dedication, please subscribe and read this awesome journal.


ancientgreekcostumes
(Image source)

The Cults of Dionysos: Ecstatic Practices and Shamanism in Classical Greece

 

There are a lot of misconceptions about ancient Greek Religion, mention of which often conjures images of bronze statues, pious priests in toga and grand, white-pillared temples. Yet Greek religion permeated all aspects of the Greek world and included elements of what we could regard as shamanism. While not exclusive to the Dionysian cults, expressions of shamanism could be seen in Dionysian functions, including: wine drinking, ecstatic states, dancing, music, mask donning / cross dressing and the theatre.

It’s important to first give the definition of shamanism used in this article. Shamanism especially refers to ecstatic holy people belonging to northern Asia, but since first usage it has become a catch-all term for local ethnic beliefs and practices around the world that has a common core of members communicating with spirits and deities through ecstatic rituals. How one reaches these states vary greatly, but in general shamans utilise dance, drumming, mask donning, identity transference / acting, substance use, etc. A secondary aspect of shamans is initiatory rituals which simulate or physically enact a near-death experience. This experience gives the shaman insight into the afterlife, a theme found as well in Greek Mystery religions.

Dionysos

Dionysos is a god whose nature encompasses much, a god of paradoxes, a god of extremes. A civic god and a rustic god. A god that encourages personal liberty and free expression but also is domineering and intoxicating. He breaks down barriers, lifts veils and transcends boarders. His very nature is ecstasy’s epiphany, the god that comes, as Ovid states: “there is no god more certainly present than he is.” (1) Dionysos is accessible when we reach ecstatic states through dancing, music, drinking, ritual madness or similar techniques, he is felt within us. He fills us up with his presence like a cup of wine. When someone dresses as Dionysos, to lead a triumph or to act in a play, the actor becomes a living, breathing manifestation of Dionysos. He exists, physically, in our reality.

The first recording of Dionysos dates back over three thousand years ago in Linear B tablets. This puts him in the Mycenaean culture five hundred years before Homer and Hesiod developed the Greek Pantheon as we know it today. The origins of his cult are unknown, some speculating that he arrived from Thrace (Ulrich von Wilamowitz), others, like Walter Otto, that he is from the Near East, possibly Turkey or Syria; it is interesting to note that in 2007 the oldest winery was discovered in Armenia dating back to 4,100 BCE (2). In Dionysos: Archetypal Images of Indestructible Life (3), Carl Kerenyi speculates that the first ecstatic cults in the Hellenic world began in Minoan, Crete in the form of sun caves. In these caves one could see the ancient subterranean gods in the form of somewhat anthropomorphic stalagmites, but also observe the movement of the sun. A miracle of light that happened once a year marked the passage of time. It may be difficult for modern man to grasp how simple natural motion of dark to light could be regarded as a miracle, but to these people the phenomena enacted the mysteries of the afterlife, descending into the earth to see the sun’s epiphany, thereafter returning to surface anew, reborn, initiated.

In these cave the Prehistoric Minoans came in contact with the caves’ inhabitants, bees. Throughout antiquity mead making maintained a connection to the sun (4). The process of producing it beginning in midsummer, the rising of Sirius, the classical new year, when the sun caves would light. It is only natural to see the link between the miracle of light, the subterranean domain of the divine and the epiphany-inducing golden liquid of mead originating from the cave’s bees. Drunkenness is mind altering, a state that cannot be brought about easily without a corresponding substance, in this state people undergo ecstatic experiences, new identities arise, barriers and inhibition are brought down.

Honey has also been long regarded as the blood and food of the gods, the hive sometimes regarded as the flesh of god.  The Greeks, conceiving wine as the blood of Dionysos and the meat of the bull the literal flesh of god, or the bread used as symbolic substitute, akin to the Christian Eucharist. The act of consuming Dionysos makes him part of us, we merge with his divinity, resulting in altered states of being – therefore we become Dionysos, or rather, part of us which is Dionysian becomes free.

The Cults of Dionysos and the Theatre of Madness

When the Hellenic nations arose from the Dark Age at the end of the Mycenaean era the pantheon of the Greeks became more cemented within their established urban culture. Many wild gods and goddesses turned tame, ugly monsters like the Gorgons became beautiful maidens, male gods lost their rustic characteristics for ideal aesthetics and focus on arts, while fertile goddesses became chaste and pious. However Dionysos remained the odd one out, the weird god, the foreign god – even though his place in the pantheon is of equal timeframe to other gods*. This, I believe, is because there is no Dionysos without his strangeness, he is always the god that confronts, a god who breaks through into reality. This is perhaps why Dionysos had few temples. His role within Athenian culture was quite large, with several major holidays and festivals dedicated to him each year, but there is a lack of major temples for him as compared to other gods. This is due to Dionysos existing at once inside and outside the urban environment. For example, in Athens his first major festival just after the winter solstice is Lenaia, usually regarded as a summoning of Dionysos from his winter retreat in the wilds**. Maenads would venture into the woodlands, calling the god back into the city, a process climaxing a few months later at Anthesteria, a major urban and public festival welcoming Dionysos back into the city. Both these festivals illustrate his inside and outside / public and private nature.

This theme continues with the festivals centring on the theatre, a place dedicated to Dionysos in much the same way as a temple, another reason for his lack of temples. The Greek theatre in many ways reflects Dionysos’ dual characteristics. It is a domain crafted into the earth, typically carved or cultivated from a hillside with artificial staging and seats, yet is also open to nature and to the sky. It is apart from nature and part of nature by it very structure. It is the theatre we find a peculiarly Greek form of shamanism.

Our own culture is so saturated in performance it may be difficult for us to see the mysticism of performance, but it function is dependent on core elements found within shamanism. These elements are what I call identity transference and reality suspension.

Identity transference: Is when an actor suppress their own personality and adopts another character, invoking the character into reality. A good actor even changes their way of thought, they become wholly the character they are acting in manner. A modern day example of this is when actors continue playing their character outside of the film studio, commonly associated with so-called ‘Method’ Acting. Such actors do not break character and live out their everyday life as the role they are playing. In some cases going to extremes like Daniel Day-Lewis starting street fights while playing Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York and refusing to walk and care for himself during the filming of My Left Foot.
It is here that the actor plays the most magical role, not just performing but becoming the living conduit of the essence of their character. They bring these fabrications into reality and make them real. In this process, they are also suppressing their own character, becoming for the time they are acting someone or something else, in a sense possessed.
In these scared roles the actor thus becomes host and expression of spirits and gods, much the same as a shaman opening themselves to their spirits while in the state of ecstasy. A polytheistic culture would observe the gods and heroes in the theatre: actors in ancient Greece were thus not just playing roles, they were living examples, manifestations of the divine in the flesh. The actor and the viewer were therefore engaged in a religious experience.

Reality suspension: The second aspect of performance is audience participation. When we watch a performance ideally all that is around us is placed on hold while we are brought into the fantasy before us. All art is lying, an illusion, but to admire it we must allow ourselves to be fooled. I believe that art can exist on its own, (especially in the form of devotional art), but having a human audience further reaffirms the magic of art. The entertainment of the mob gives human validity to art by its recognition. Each play performed is shown to the audience as a whole, but each member experiences the play from their own unique perspective. Acknowledging this presents the experience of art in infinite possibilities based on each emotional state of the audience members. The nature of the play being public, open and whole but admired from the inner workings of each individual mind, continues to thus maintain the ‘inside and outside’ extremes of Dionysos.

Madness and Memory

In addition to the suggestively shamanic viewpoints of actor and of audience there is also a shamanic resonance in the attitudes of memory as conceived by the Greeks. As argued in a fascinating essay by Yulia Ustinova (5), the Greek terms for madness and memory, µavía, and μνήμη, are cognate words with a multifarious meaning. Memory is related to inspiration, as in myth where the Muses are sired from Mnemosyne (Memory), likewise these words were related to madness or mania, a Homeric bard calling upon the muses to recite the Iliad, in activating the memory of the epic and the events in it, was also in a state of madness.

This is likewise related to the name of mead, as Kerenyi (6) notes: “The original Greek words for “to be drunk” and “to make drunk” are methyein and methyskein. Rarer and later is oinoun “to intoxicate with wine.” Echoes of methy signify “honey” not only in a number of Indo-European languages but also in a common Indo-European-Finn-Ugric stratum; for example, Finnish mesi, metinen, and Hungarian mez. German Met and English “mead” signify, “honey beer,” and these words have exact parallels in the Norse languages.”

Within Germantic mythology: “Mimir (Memory), a wisdom figure, had a well under the roots of the world tree; its spring water was in fact mead, and through drinking it Odin, the war god/magician- poet, was endowed with the poetic gift.” (Ustinova)

Assuming this linguistic connection between memory, mead and madness, we can proceed to relate this complex to the theatre, where actors are reciting lines in character and hence engaged in an act of madness / memory. This conceptualization that was inherent for the ancient Greek mind, is lost today, though we still experience its manifestation. Actors in their manic state are contagious, they spread their drunkenness through fantasy which the audience engages in by viewing bringing forth the divine through belief found within the theatre.

Masks

Perhaps an element of performance that is again not so obvious in our current culture is the use of masks. Nowadays masks exist in the concept of makeup, CGI and artificial lighting of the film studio; actors also undergo rigorous routines to physically alter their appearance through fasting or body building. However in classical plays, masks played a prominent role invoking the forces of drama in to presence. Traditionally plays only allowed two actors and the chorus, later three actors on stage became the norm. This limitation meant that an actor could and would occupy multiple roles, sometimes in the same scene. It is even theoretically possible to have one actor changing between protagonist and antagonist. So within the same scene, in reality, the actor could be talking to themselves, but in the drunken fantasy of the theatre they would be talking between two characters. The classical actors became a living idol, interchanging characters through masks alone. These changes of masks and roles could be as extreme as changing between mortal and god, male and female, thus the host, the actor is the ultimate expression of roles as such.

Knowing this, it is easy to understand that Dionysos as the god of theatre is also the god of masks, depicted in his most minimalist form as a pillar adorned with a mask. When the maenads would venture into the woodland to celebrate Lenaia, they would don a pillar, tree or herm with a mask as Dionysos, creating their god from ritual artefacts. The actor, hence, is such a pillar and Dionysos is the ultimate actor, whose face is never known, a veil that presents more veils when lifted, the greatest mystery. To reach the core of Dionysos, to know him, is to not know him.

The inside and outside nature of Dionysos is further illustrated by the function of the mask. As Otto states:

“[…] it acts as the strongest symbol of presence. Its eyes, which stare straight ahead, cannot be avoided; its face, with its inexorable immobility, is quite different from other images which seem ready to move, to turn around, to step aside. Here there is nothing but encounter, from which there is no withdrawal—an immovable, spell-binding antipode. […] The mask is pure confrontation— an antipode, and nothing else. It has no reverse side—”Spirits have no back,” the people say. It has nothing which might transcend this mighty moment of confrontation. It has, in other words, no complete existence either. It is the symbol and the manifestation of that which is simultaneously there and not there: that which is excruciatingly near, that which is completely absent—both in one reality.” (7)

The mask is an object in which we are compelled to believe, in the case of theatre an object we are forced to accept in order to appreciate the art, an object to know the truth of which is at once to acknowledge its falsity. It is an existing paradox of life and death, animated but also inanimate. The mask in its purest nature is between realms, a flat two dimensional surface made three dimensional by its host.

Mysteries

The final part of this essay concerns the Mysteries, a subject too vast to treat here in its wholeness, if words could actually sum up or express their beautiful and horrifying play of life and death in the first place. But limiting myself to the classical context, I think I can bring to light enough to make a point.

The most famous of the mystery cults was the Eleusinian Mysteries. Based in their namesake village they were open to everyone once a year. What happened during these rites is unconfirmed as a whole but we get hints of what they included, such as fasting, forced marching, states of mania, consuming a drink called kykeon, viewing sacred objects and theatrical performance***. The concept behind these Mysteries is that the initiates would witness god, specifically the descent and ascension of Kore/Persephone, which would be regarded as a miracle. Afterward the newly initiate would be aware of the afterlife, the mysteries behind death, and become totally new from their experience. Therefore this is a life and death process for the audience, a near-death experience akin to other rites practiced in what is regarded as shamanism.

But how does this work? With previous explanations of the religious roles actors played we can understand more about the significance of these Mysteries. The sacred play that people were observing was a revelation, even though the logical person would be aware that they were observing actors. The audience is placed in a trance, brought into the fantasy to such a point that they witnessed an epiphany.

The curse of our culture is trying to understand rationally the authentic no-rational nature of devotion. This is why people (8) treat the Mysteries as having been nothing but ritualised drug consumption. The idea that ancient people saw the divine without substance is illogical. The idea that people could observe a play and see it as anything other than a play is illogical. The idea of god appearing in reality, in the flesh, is illogical.
Experiencing the divine is not logical; manic states, dancing, music, art are not logical, but illusions we accept. To appreciate art we do not need drugs.

Ascribing the Mysteries merely to drug use dismisses the powerful found in them. It is rationalist, simplistic and ultimately atheistic. It dismisses the truth and beauty of the Mysteries and simplifies it to ones and zeroes. “It was nothing but a high”. The irony is that people we describe as being primitive, compared to us, had more sophisticated understanding of the divine.

The Mysteries are therefore an experience. One that many people would observe once ever in their life, also one that they had been anticipating all their life. We can experience this now with a good film, often people anticipate a film and when they finally see it they love it. But all that is left is the memory of it, of the experience. Even upon seeing the film again they will never regain the exact experience they first had. The ecstasy, the madness, the memory. Memory being key to understanding the nature of the Mysteries: memory based upon experience. In no circumstance can it be experienced again, nor can it embody the same revelation as the first experience, which was one of a kind.

Conclusion

Romanticism has its own beauty, it is an agreeable fantasy we accept, even though we see falsehoods. Yet, it is the problem here. When we approach classical subjects we come with preconceptions that can be a hindrance. Suggesting that there was a shamanic aspect to Greek culture often causes protest because of the assumptions of “refinement” found in the romantic image of Greek culture. Yet in the brief examples here I have illustrated that these concepts lay at the core of Greek culture and religion. It is a fallacy of ours that does not recognise it.

These same aspects exist within our own culture, it’s just that we have forgotten the meaning of our acts, roles and traditions. I find this very sad for when we are exposed to art we don’t recognise it as art. We see it as an image, or a thing. Art is the ultimate expression, the purest sense of real, in the flesh, connection to the divine. It not only allows the artist to commune with the divine, it likewise allows the audience to experience it too. An anchor to realm that cannot be seen or found elsewhere. The artist is therefore the medium between these two realms, but the audience too is taking on a shamanic role in order to comprehend the divine. What are they left with? The memory of madness.

 

Citation and Notes:

  1. Ovid Metamorphoses
    Bk III:638-691 Acoetes’s ship and crew are transformed,
    A. S. Kline’s Version
  2. Areni-1 winery, Republic of Armenia, believed to be over 6,100 years old. One of the oldest industrial sites in human history discovered thus far. First discovered in 2007 with excavations completed in 2010.

3 / 4 Dionysos: Archetypal Images of Indestructible Life  pp. 29, 35 Light and Honey
Kerenyi

  1. Madness into Memory: Mania and Mnēmē in Greek Culture
    Yulia Ustinova, Scripta Classia Israelica, 2012
  2. Dionysos: Archetypal Images of Indestructible Life , p. 38, Kerenyi
  3. Dionysos: myth and cult, pp. 90, 91.
    Water F. Otto,

8 The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries.
R. Gordon Wasson, Albert Hofmann, Carl A. P. Ruck
Note: A three part set of essays speculating that the Mysteries utilised drugs during ritual.

Notes:

* The Mycenaean pantheon includes many gods we’re familiar with today. But some key deities, including Zeus, have lesser prominence than what would be regarded as the classical norm,  e.g. Poseidon apparently being the chief of the pantheon. The name Dionysos on the Pylos tablets makes him one of oldest known Greek gods.

* The Mycenaean pantheon includes many gods we’re familiar with today. But some key deities, including Zeus, have lesser prominence than what would be regarded as the classical norm, e.g. Poseidon apparently being the chief of the pantheon. The name Dionysos on the Pylos tablets makes him one of oldest known Greek gods.

** Lenaia is a festival shrouded in mystery, with the private aspect unconfirmed by classical sources. It is therefore speculation as to what was performed in the woods and how. Some note that this time of the year may be still too cold for women camping in the wilds. What we do know is the public aspect of this festival involved comedic plays. (Tragic plays were later added.)

***It should be noted that current excavation of Eleusis show no sign of a dedicated theatron. I would argue that this does not mean that there was not a theatrical component, but instead suspect it was more unconventional, possibly directly engaging with the crowd. This is speculative, but other mystery rites include an element of performance.

Special Thanks to:

H. Jeremiah Lewis, Edward Butler and WtW staff for their support and feedback.

Advertisements

3 thoughts on “The Cults of Dionysos: Ecstatic Practices and Shamanism in Classical Greece

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s