While I slept a discussion erupted on my facebook account after sharing a quote from Walter F. Otto. This has spawned a beautifully written blog post from Galina. This is my commentary on this topic. I recommend to first read Galina’s post.
As the quote is great it merits repeating:
“No single Greek god even approaches Dionysus in the horror of his epithets, which near witness to a savagery that is absolutely without mercy… He is called the “render of men”, “the eater of raw flesh”, “who delights in the sword and bloodshed”. We hear not only of human sacrifice in his cult, but also of the ghastly ritual in which a man is torn to pieces. Where does this put us? Surely there can be no further doubt that this puts us into death’s sphere. The terrors of destruction, which make all if life tremble, belong also, as horrible desire, to the kingdom of Dionysus. The monster whose supernatural duality speaks to us from the mask has one side of his nature turned toward eternal night.”
~Walter F. Otto, Dionysus: Myth and Cult
The Render of Man
Among many things Dionysos is the god of death, the god of life – *Bios* (decaying life) and the god of *Zoë* (eternal life, memory) <– I’m not going to touch the Zoë aspect in this commentary but it’s important to note.
These aspects of Dionysos are summed up in an Orphic saying:
“Bios, Thanatos, Bios”
In these various states he is terrifying, he *is* the Render of man, a title that can be related to our lives. We are in *bios* we are living-death, decaying, ageing. Dionysos epitomises that beautiful horror and he knows what it’s like. He has endured the same and has some kind of compassion in stopping it. This is a human quality of his, which many consider a salvation aspect. It is here that we can find niceness. The thing is this salvation requires that we experience death and face it.
A secondary idea and related to the epithet of Render of man, (what Paul mentioned). Confrontation. Dionysos is one of the few gods that confronts, he is Apotropaic, he stares right at you and sees you for what you are. His sight is so piecing he sees through your flesh, to your very soul. He can do this because he knows the human condition, he is the human condition. With his stare he can strip down all those barriers we establish and find the spark that makes us who we are. This stare can be cathartic and terrible, knowing yourself is a horrible process and the most important aspect of the Dionysian Mysteries.
In both myth and ritual this rendering is literal, the most precious example we have is the play, The Bacchae by Euripides. The hero of the play Pentheus is torn apart by his family for his hubris and unacceptance of Dionysos. Most see this a punishment by Dionysos, when in fact it is a blessing. Pentheus becomes a Dionysian Hero, I believe him to be one of the most beloved by the god. Now when I mention this it often causes confusion, given that it is so horrible. But Dionysos initiates Pentheus to his mysteries, he learns what it’s like to be Dionysos and therefore becomes him. This is a blessing.
Mystery initiation follows the same concept, the initiate dies. This is viewed as symbolic but it is literal, the person who undergoes the Mysteries is not the same person afterwards. This initiation is in part related to knowing yourself, knowing what you are and confronting it.
I would protest calling this intense, horrible, but ultimately healing and cathartic process nice.
After posting that quote on facebook I watched the film The VVitch with my partner. This film always results in a serious argument between us both because I don’t think that the goat Black Philip is inherently evil. Actually he could very well be Dionysos. Part of my argument is that I don’t believe in evil. My partner argues that he is evil, because that is what the film is about. The actions of the witches is evil (AKA not nice).
I agree that the film makers would have us think the goat is Satan, but the role Philip plays is Dionysian. He is a catalyst to the family, who sins are their own. Apart from Phillip being the final judge and executioner the family themselves are the ones that bring about their doom, if I believed in evil I could say that the family is themselves as evil as the witches.
We may consider the only real innocent in the film is the baby at the start, but here again is an issue. The father is exiled because he refuses to follow puritan orthodoxy, he does not baptise his children. He lives in pride and his sins reflect back on his children. Keeping in mind this screwed up Christian morality, the baby is a sinner and thus not innocent. The problems the family faces are their own. Philip and the witches are only a force of nature taking advantage of the weak.
In other words: if I go and camp in the wilderness without proper protection and am eaten by a tiger, is that tiger evil? No, it’s natural and me being so stupid to camp where tigers roam is my fault.
The family go out, live in what they consider their own sin and devour themselves. They do not know themselves, they hide away, suppress and demonise the beauty of the wilderness before them. Through their self-righteous pride they open the door to the witches and Phillip.
My opinion is completely amoral, because there is no morality in nature. This is how I view Dionysos. He is terrible, frightening, confronting, scary. It’s all there. In his myths, in his names, in his actions. If we want to apply Christian concepts to Dionysos he could be considered evil, but it’s impossible to grasp Dionysos if we do this. Thus good and evil has no place here. Likewise for the word nice. These ideas are limiting, taming, demonising, simplifying a complex and beautiful god.
To sum up my feelings on this, I present my comment on facebook:
“I have a long and intense relationship with Dionysos and seen him in many forms. I would not say he is ‘nice’, but awe inspiring. Like when one climbs a mountain and overlooks the vastness of the wilderness. That view is not nice, in fact it’s damn intimidating. It’s the confrontation of nature. And that is only a small snippet of nature, limited to that mountaintop, to that perspective, to your eyes. The gods are very much like that, they are vast and intense and no matter how much you perceive them there is always a limitation in knowing them.”