Dionysian Apoliticism

(Note: I’m going through my old blog and republishing choice articles here. Eventually the old blog will be deactivated.)

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When I tell people that I am a Dionysian there is often a presupposition that I’m a drunk.

A few years ago I was sitting with a very good friend talking about Dionysos. It was when I was first getting a grasp of this overly complex deity. My friend said something like, “why worship Dionysos? He is a selfish god, there is nothing he offers but drunkenness.”

Granted, my friend has a limited understanding of Dionysos, also he has a strong catholic background which was influencing his criticism. Yet at the time I was wordless. I was incapable of defending Dionysos. I did not have the knowledge or presence to tell my friend otherwise.If my friend asked me that question now the conversation would had gone a lot differently. The reason is I’ve been going on my own journey. If my friend asked me that question in the future, I would have another set of responses.

The only thing I believe in is flux, motion, cause and effect.

What I can say now is that Dionysians have roles, each role is different and even sometimes polar opposite to the other. There is a Dionysian in the Storming of the Bastille, there is a Dionysian of the opulence of Versailles. How can a person acknowledge and respect both all at once? A Dionysian must be of two or more states, they are the radicals chopping off the aristocrats heads and also the decadent nobles living in naivety. If you want to categorise Dionysians as something they are the emulsion of water and wine.

To assigned a Dionysian to a political position is wrong because of this movement of liquids like when the river meets the sea. To be a Dionysian is to be Pentheus and Dionysos at once. For those innocent of myth, imagine the archetypes of a fascist and the anarchist being one. Dionysos may be the ultimate anarchist, but to comprehend him requires the other side.

If I was to argue with my friend today I’d say that Dionysos is not a selfish god, but the host. He is like a barman distributing the drinks. He is also the drinks. But in the form of a barkeeper he is a host. The barman is someone we usually attribute to being sober, to be outside of the drunks perspective, an observer yet still directly related to drinking.
In this fantasy bar all people are served, all people get drunk. They all have their beliefs and ideologies. By speaking in this place does not mean that the patron owns this space, they are simply guests in the establishment. For lack of a better word the host is “leasing” this space for discourse, it does not mean that the host believes, follows or even understand the argument.

I could draw on more classical analogies like the theatre. We imagine that the theatre is a place solely for performance, which it is, but our concept of performance is limited by the TV screen. In the past performance included political discourse, politicians would give speeches before and after a play they produced and funded that was relevant to their political campaign. But the theatre itself remained the same.

The physical characteristics of the theatre maintains this bi-polar relationship also. Traditional Greek theatres were situated on a hillside and carved into it. It was a part of nature, open to the sky. Earth was literally cultivated for performance. The seating of the theatre are focused forwards, with masses all enjoying an individual experience on mass and in their own heads.

The role of performance continues with this outside/inside relationship. Three actors played all the characters in one performance. An interchange between characters would just be a replacing of the mask. You could theoretically have a play where Pentheus and Dionysos are played by the same actor. The actor is host to these characters but only in role does the actor believe in what the character believes. Outside of the theatre the actors personality is their own, but by empathising and playing the various roles does the actor become a Dionysian.

This apoliticism was recognised in classical times with a intuition called the Dionysiakoi Technitai (Artists of Dionysos). The technitai was a guild of artists without borders. They were granted incredibly powerful privileges based on their talent and devotion to the gods. These privileges included: unlimited travel, free of national taxes, free of conscription and seizure of person and possessions. This intuition was recognised by all the city states in a very rare agreement in the form the 279 BC Delphi Decree:

It was decided by the Amphictyons and the hieromnemones and the agoratroi: In order for all time the technitai in Athens may have freedom from seizure (asylia) and from taxation, and that no one may be apprehended from anywhere in war or in peace or their goods seized, but that they may have freedom from taxation and immunity accorded to them surely by all of Greece, the technitai are to be free of taxes for military service on land or sea and all special levies, so that honours and sacrifices for which the technitai are appointed may be performed for the gods at appropriate times, seeing that they are apolitical (apolypragmoneton) and consecrated to the services of the gods: let it be permitted to no one to make off with the technitai either in war or in peace or to take reprisals against them, provided that they have contracted no debt with the city as debtors, or are under no obligation for a private contract. If anyone acts contrary to this, let him be liable before the Amphictyons, both he himself and the city in which the offence was committed against the technitai. The freedom from taxation and security that has been granted by the Amphictyons is to belong for all time to the technitai at Athens, who are apolitical. The secretaries are to inscribe this decree on a stone slab and set it up in Delphi, and to send to the Athenians a sealed copy of this decree, so that the technitai may know that the Amphictyons have the greatest respect for their piety towards the gods and adhering to the requests of the technitai and shall try also for the future to safeguard this for all time and in addition to increase any other privilege they have on behalf of the Artists of Dionysus. Ambassadors: Artydamas, poet of tragedies, Neoptolemos, tragic actor.
Eric Csapo & William Slater, The Context of Ancient Drama; 233, 244

So you see in my role as Dionysian I must be apolitical. I worship the gods, I give all I can to them. But my gods demand that I leave politics outside of my devotion. My path may intersect with politics, personally I am politically minded – but that is in a different role. If anyone automatically assigns my polytheism into a political definition I will revolt against it. Not only are they offending my own agency, but my religious beliefs.

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