September 2017 I experienced a rather intense dream of me drawing a massive picture of Lord Shiva on the street. The dream was extensively detailed, for a dream, of what the image should look like, how it should be presented and what aspects I should focus upon.
Four months later I finally have resources to begin this project.
I’m not exactly sure why Shiva has instructed me to do this picture, but I have a very strong feeling it has to do with purification and elevation of myself and the street. A major focus is his poisoned neck (Shiva known as Neelakantha). This suspicion is related to my mental health, which has been out of control for the last year, triggered by The Bourke Street Mall attack on the 20th of January 2017, this event resulted in the murder of people where I work, people died on the same pavement I draw upon. Naturally this intensified my depression and anxiety.
By sheer coincidence, as in I had not planned it and noticed it later, my first day working on The Shiva Street Art Project on the street begun on the 20th of January this year…
Whatever the case, I’ve finally started the project, one I predict will take me a few months to complete.
As per instructions given, I must create a permanent boarder around the whole canvas in red and yellow, with some kind of pronouncement in Devanagari. I’m just calling my source divine inspiration, as I don’t presume, but I am informed that technically this *is* the icon, ie., it is technically finished as Om Namah Shivaya is all that is needed…
So here you can my canvas with the boarder and ॐ नमः शिवाय (Om Namah Shivaya) written at the base in a stylized Lingam. The canvas has been tinted blue with ultramarine blue pure pigment. The canvas size is 230×166 cm (roughly 7.5×5.5 feet).
As for the depiction of Shiva, I am using a pastiche of Hindu iconography. For the main body I have chosen a famous statue from Rishikesh, India. This statue is representative of his ascetic aspects. I’ve been instructed that he must not be totally blue, however his neck *must* be blue with green aspects. Eyes closed, bare chested, two-armed, meditative, sitting on the tiger skin. The cobra must have its head up with hood flared. Ganga is not personified in his hair, but is spouting out of the topknot onto a Lingam on the right, the Trident (Trishula) and drum on the left, with the pot (Kamandalu) at the base. The background is mountainous with the Kailash peak somewhere.
This is my second day progress, I still need to refine his face, but I’m so far happy with the progress.
Day 4 Progress:
These are my references:
So far the most challenging thing is learning more in-depth about Shiva, he is god I’ve known about for a very long time, but never had contact with – until now. I’m also put extra precautions about taboos and conscious about my feet, as I am doing this as a devotional street art project I lay down a protective mat to keep the icon directly off the pavement and I do not walk on or touch the canvas with my feet.
In terms of art, it has been challenging working out his flesh tones. I want him to be ashen, but not completely grey or devoid of colour, nor do I want him to be completely blue. I’m working off a black and white photo so I’m making this up on the spot… I have to be imaginative… I think I’m getting the colour I want though.
When finished, I am willing to donate the icon to a local Hindu temple, if they will accept him.
I hope to keep this blog posted as more progress continues!
Late last year I sent out requests for questions of The Dionysian Artists. A modern devotional artist guild and religious cultic tradition I’m attempting to formulate. These are the questions and answers so far. If you have more to add feel free to leave a comment or email me. firstname.lastname@example.org
I also wish to thank everyone who has already asked me questions!
How to develop a relationship?
Like any other relationship it requires respect and honour. Foremost is establishing some kind of cultus (worship), this may be in any kind of religious expression. It could be via art, devotion, sacrifice, offering yourself through drug use, dance, music, ecstatic practice – etc. Dionysos is a god that comes, he is literal epiphany, it just a matter of accepting him and letting him take over. More here
What is the Dionysian Artists?
The Dionysian Artists is a modern guild, mystery cult and polytheist tradition based upon the Dionysiakoi Tekhnitai (Dionysian Artists) of antiquity. The goal is to foster and create devotional art for the gods.
The modern expression of the Dionysian Artists may be abbreviated, shortened or referred to as: The DA, The Artists, The Guild.
To define the ancient guild from the modern, they are always referred to by their Greek to English title of Dionysiakoi Tekhnitai, abbreviated to The DT and referred to as Tekhnitai.
How does the DA foster and create devotional art for the Gods?
In a sense, the DA is a modern art movement that has clear goals of defining “what is devotional art”, that is the public aspect of the cult/guild. The private aspect is exploring the “language” of art, the “transversive” and “manifestive” function of divine art. I’ll explain what I mean by these terms in further posts.
What was the Dionysiakoi Tekhnitai?
It is unknown when the guild was formally established but it is quite possible it existed before the height of classical Athens 400BC with numerous grave stones and heroons commissioned by the guild. It was formally recognised with the Delphi decree of 279 BC. The decree acknowledged the guild and granted unprecedented rights to the artists, allowing them absolute freedoms including: unimpeded travel, freedom from taxation and freedom from imprisonment, freedom from conscription.
The purpose of the guild was to perform for the gods, they were the writers, actors, set designers, anyone involved in the production of plays. The Tekhnitai were the masters and keepers of the theatre, the leaders of the Dionysian festivities and sacred performers of Mystery.
They became an apolitical autonomous intuition unto themselves, a stateless organisation – as such they are often regarded as the first international religious organisation, the first trade union and first international diplomatic mission. To be a member of guild was the highest achievement of an artist and were recognised as being a caste apart from all other social classes, equal to royalty. Due to the liberities and apolticalism of the TA they became diplomats, spies and ambassadors.
The guilds history is often in the background and scattered, but there are references of their existence during the Roman civil war, in the court of Mark Antony and Cleopatra. Later Hadrian is recorded making references to their existence. It is safe to assume that the guild continued to exist through the Roman era until the closing of the theatres between 300 to 400 AD.
Are they looked on as Ancestors, guides, teachers, etc.?
Yes, The Tekhnitai and known members are part of the DA pantheon and are given cultus as a whole and as individuals.
What do we know of the Dionysiakoi Tekhnitai and how do the modern DA relate to them?
Although little has been published on them by modern academics, we know a lot of them via graves/ heroons and marble “credit reels” of play productions. They encouraged hero/ancestor cultus and were exceptionally powerful. The modern DA seeks to replicate the original but with the inclusion of modern art philosophy. (More info here and here )
Is the DA reconstructionist?
I have two schools of thought, one is looking back to the ancients, but the other is advancing and adapting to our time. I’m not a reconstructionist, nor do I look at any one time or place. The Dionysian Cult was international, it went as far as England and Germany all the way to China. Then there is the history, his cults or some expression of it has never really ceased throughout history. To focus one just one thing limits a boundless god.
Is the DA Initiatory?
There are two sides, public and private. The public side is open to all. The private side is initiatory and requires in person tuition and standards. It is my full intention to make this a lineage initiatory tradition.
What defines a Dionysian Artist?
Within this tradition of Dionysian Artists, it is up to the artist what defines devotional art and what is art. Theoretically a person who is an artist (whatever that may be) and dedicates their work to the gods can be a Dionysian Artist. It is a matter of thought, purpose, belief and philosophy. There is no exclusion of what is art, no limits on the artists – other than the art is devotional.
Do I need to be a devotee of Dionysos to be a Dionysian Artist?
No. Actually if we look at the gravestones of the first Dionysiakoi Tekhnitai, it is rare to find one who is a devotee to the god. Often they are devotees of Apollon and the Muses. The Dionysian Artists is the cultic guild, dedicated to Dionysos, but members are free to honour and devote themselves to whatever god.
Does the DA involve magic or witchcraft?
I’d ask what is magic? My understanding of magic is intended purpose of “change” that manifests from “nothing”. Thus magic is art, art is magic. To enchant an audience with words, or to mix pigment in such a way it turns coloured particles in abstract forms into images of divine… that is magic. So the DA is enriched with magic. But it is not a deliberate magical path or school. It is up to members if they consider their art witchcraft, in the DA there is no prohibition or/neither official inclusion of any magical paths. That is totally up to individual beliefs of members.
((I will say as a note, however, that in the private side of the DA there is expected study of the Orphic schools, the PGM (Greek magical papyri) and antique/classical Goetia.))
I separate this section as some aspects are personal and not a required belief to be involved in the DA.
What are your thoughts of the Afterlife?
I believe that the Afterlife is what we make of it in life.
There are differing ideas even amongst Dionysians, for myself I believe we have two souls. Human and Dionysian, the human soul has some value, but only through what we gain in life (bios). The Dionysian is eternal and exists in the infinite (zoe). My conception is that the Dionysian’s goal is to combine with him in death, uniting our souls and joining with him. Apotheosis. When you undergo Mystery, you learn that this has already happened and will happen again and again, so it is a kind of “enlightenment”. But also it is an acknowledgement that the trials, agog, of life is a requirement to attain this elevation. Souls that do not attain this state continue to live on in a sort of cycle of reincarnation named the Grievous Cycle. I relate the cycle to the Labyrinth.
Is your idea akin to other religious concepts such as the Buddhists?
No, it’s not exactly like Buddhist ideas of Nirvana, nor a rejection of our humanity/human quality… actually it’s more of an embracing of human. The “transcendental”, “enlightenment” of the Dionysian does not come about from an outright rejection of our humanity. The Dionysian quality of our ego (soul), may actually require things like sexual pleasures, drunkenness, excess etc., to be awakened. The functions and limits of which must be discovered through experience, by this, I mean we explore the ‘hedonism’ in order to know our limits. This can be found in many ways, including that which may be considered self-destructive, but also it can be safely explored through art, e.g., the theatre. The purpose though, is to learn our limits and limit from there on.
We relate things to the theatre, because these subjects can be explored and played out in an artificial environment. But… this is where we get to the philosophy of the Dionysian Artist, something that is actually dangerous if misunderstood. A Dionysian Artist is a master of profane and profound. They commit acts of hubris, to cause universal catharsis. When we watch The Bacchae, not only is the actors committing hubris, but the audience is being exposed to it. If we take into account the ideas of how one receives Miasma, the audience is being exposed to something that is totally toxic. They are observing a play that deals with the wrongs against our great god, also they are witnessing actors play our this horror in real life. For the actor, the mask shields them, after the performance they leave the mask to rot, or burn it.
For the audience, they must take it in collectively. This is done by acknowledging, subconsciously, that the theatre is a realm of fantasy, but more importantly they experience joint empathy. Witnessing horrors en masse eradicates the individual, it takes away the persons fears and ego, the worries of the day, enchants and distracts them and fills them with new Memory. The end result is profound catharsis.
These concepts come from the function of both tragedy and comedy. With tragedy, to witness something horrible, ideally more horrible than our own situation, is cathartic. It puts us in our place. Ironically comedy is more cruel than tragedy, because we laugh at the suffering of others… but that is good too because we are really laughing at ourselves – so there is still an emphatic connection. Plus it has been proven that laughter is physically therapeutic to our bodies.
Antonin Artaud believes that freedom, liberation of the human condition comes through the breakdown of social order. His prime example is the plague and relates the theatre to a disease. During the plague, when bodies are filling the streets, the social order is broken down. Man become drunk on panic and all inhibitions are torn down. He believes this to be the most spiritual period of man, the most Dionysian. Thus in his philosophy he created the Theatre of Cruelty, An production so horrible it liberates people from their daily concerns. Artaud’s work is of his time and a requirement for people to find Mystery. I’m more of an opinion that there should be a balance of performance now. This is due to the over exposure of our cultural ethos to Theatre of Cruelty being played out each day, whenever someone watches the news…
An overview of what I’m saying, Dionysians ‘awaken’ the Dionysian soul through acts in life. These acts relate to sacrifice, which may be seen as profane, but the intention is divine. These acts typically relate directly with death, which is ultimately a loss of identity (ego) in all literal sense (i.e., our bodies rot). When we don a mask, when we go into ecstatic trance, when we have sex, when we drink, when we observe the theatre. Our identity is taken from us. Dionysos fills us and we become him. This is the goal of the Dionysian Artists.
On the 7th of October I celebrated the Feast of the Bacchic Martyrs, this festival is celebrating the devotees of Dionysos that have been killed for their religious beliefs. (Dionysians were persecuted well before Christians.) I cannot describe the day in detail because, frankly, I can’t remember. I was so heavily entranced that my actions were not my own and guided by someone else. With limited resources (as in money) I managed to craft my first thyrsos, admittedly a lot of it is made of artificial plants, but I see a ritual meaning of plastic as it is the ultimate dead thing. The thyrsos being a symbol of life and death, seems pretty fitting. Ironic even.
I also dressed formally as Δ the festival falling roughly in the same month of confirmations of initiation as The Dionysian Artist back in 2015.
I finished the Feast with a basic but delicious vegetarian pasta dish, a plate of which was given at a crossroads by a funeral home I live next too. (Yeah, a funeral home is my neighbour, little wonder why I come in contact with the dead so often.)
Here are some photos that were *permitted* to be shared of the days activities.
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Due to my unconventional lifestyle as a public performing artist a lot of my friends and associates are actually professional clowns. Since the international 2016 “Creepy Clown epidemic” some clowns (and friends) have reported a loss of income, public aggression and threats of physical assault. Further concern is being generated by part one of the “It” movie to be released later this year. There is a growing fear that the art form and profession is due to die out. (1, 2, 3, 4)
This subject interests me, in many respects it interconnects with my religious practice. Clown symbolism and tradition goes back to ancient history, quite possibly prehistory. The idea of the fading profession is worrisome to say the least. So here I thought I’d venture into the history of clowns, the symbolism and the likelihood of their function in the Mysteries. It may interest readers that clowns have always been a border between the profane and sacred, life and death.
It is more than possible that the clown itself was a feature of early western religion and folk traditions. What anthropologists generalise as the term Shamanism. Outside of Europe in America, clown medicine men play an important function as mediums between worlds of real and unreal, guides of spirits and apotropaic warders against evil and illness. This is exemplified by native American cultures such as the Pueblo peoples, within their culture was a separate society known as the Zuni Ne’ wekwe: funny people whom dressed in mud. Although defined as apart from society the Zuni played a crucial role in healing ailments through comedy. The Iroquois similarly used such means as healing including: “False Faces use clown-like theatrics to exorcise disease”. (5) Also the Heyoka of the Lakota, of whom spoke, walked and behaved opposite of nature.
In these instances the clown shamans are contrarians and exist in two realms of real and unreal. They mock and ridicule sacred ritual, committing taboos and breaking social conventions (transgressive), yet, at the same time empowering themselves and the community by completing a paradox of profound. The clowns are mirrors of society pointing out faults within their own culture and reinforcing the overall social commitments of the normal.
Satyr Plays and Classical Theatre
The origins of the Greek theatre is a historical mystery but it is possible it begun in the clownish antics of profane versus profound in Greek satyr plays. It is here that we find parallels between clown medicine men in America.
The earliest known Dionysian festival is Anthesteria, which among many things (including coming of age rites), centres around the marriage of Dionysos to Ariadne. The marriage itself was an enacted ceremony between the Queen of Athens to Dionysos. As a theme in Greek Mystery cults: marriage, coming to age and death are interlinked, thus Mystery deals primary with the subject of death and rebirth, ie., initiation.
How this was performed is mostly unknown, but earlier references suggest that the ritual ended with consummation of the marriage in a cow shed, making the king a cuckold to a god. This sacrifice was restorative of nature:
“Not all the magistrates lived together. The King kept what is now called the Boukoleion [cow-shed] near the Prytaneion. The evidence is that even now the mating and marriage of the wife of the King with Dionysos takes place there.” Aristotle, Constitution of the Athenians 3.5
The function of the clown comes into this through the attendees of this ceremony. Men dressed as satyrs, donning masks and appearing as a cross between human and animal. These lewd creatures would accompany Dionysos with slapstick and farce. Although the ritual between the Queen and Dionysos was secret, it is thought to become open to public as satyr plays. In turn, these plays were later superseded by tragedy during Anthesteria, but the satyr plays still maintained a place in the festival as interludes between tragic plays. Maintaining the balance of the theatrical experience of the audience. This is argued by Richard Seaford:
“Moreover, Aristotle in Chapter 4 of his Poetics (by far our best source for the genesis of tragedy) states that tragedy began in improvisation and that it took time to acquire its elevated tone ‘because it developed from the satyr-play-like’. He also stated that tragedy developed ‘from the leaders of the dithyramb’. This evidence all coheres. The dithyramb was a hymn (originally processional) to Dionysos, that might be performed by satyrs, and indeed at the Athenian Anthesteria it seems that pipe-playing satyrs participated in a festal procession of the kind likely to have been accompanied by the dithyramb. The procession was, moreover, probably followed by the secret ritual in the old royal house.”
“At the Dionysiac festivals the citizens en masse watched the ritual impersonation of myth on the streets, but were excluded from the mystic ritual at the heart of the festival. And so not only was the traditional processional hymn transformed into a scripted stationary hymn under a hillside (so that all could see), but also the irresistibly secret sights of mystic ritual were opened out to the curious gaze of the entire polis. Greek ritual tends to enact its own aetiological myth, and the first tragedies were, I suspect, dramatisations of the aetiological myths enacted in mystery-cult – as was, a century later, the highly traditional Bacchae.” (6,7)
The only example we have of a satyr play is The Cyclops by Euripides, this farce making light of Homer’s Odyssey. But with other examples of Athenian comedy we get insight into Mystery, openly mocking what is consider profound such as: The Frogs and Thesmophoriazusae by Aristophanes. This can be used as an example of clownish characters making light of subjects as serious as religious rites and death. The refinement of Athenian writers however stripped away the farce, inventing tragedy. But elsewhere this was not the case.
In Poetics (5.1449b), Aristotle speculates comedy originated from the Dorian colonies in Italy and was refined by the Athenians.
“The making of tales (i.e. plots) originally came from Sicily, but of the Athenians Crates first began, by discarding the abusive scheme as a whole, to construct stories and tales.”
This connection from Aristotle is interesting, as unlike Athens, the Dorian colonies of Italy, Magna Graecia, comedy was held in high regard. Again it was also deeply rooted in Mystery cults, Bonnie MacLachlan discusses this in her essay on the Locrian Cave, in which comedic actors were given cultus in caves where maidens would perform rituals to indicate their coming of age (initiative death) as a woman. (8)
“Rhinthon, who was born in Syracuse but worked in Taras/Tarentum, has earned the reputation of expanding the genre of tragi-comedy, subverting some of the Attic conventions. It is very likely that his plays were performed in the theater at Locri, and the presence of a phlyax figure in the Grotta suggests that Locrian women enjoyed the sophistication and wit he represents.
[…] There may have been actual theatrical performances in the cave: among the votive objects were miniature models of the Grotta on which curtains were carved in relief. Terracotta figurines of comic actors and musicians, along with masks, indicate the importance of the theater to the votaries. The chiaroscuro mix of the serious and the comic, like the interplay between death and life, would be appropriate for the rituals in a nymphaeum.”
So while the concepts and history of Greek comedy is a little more nuanced than the Native American clown societies, we still witness themes that follow the same context of the profound and profane. The seriousness of death being turned into a farce, the religious ideals and natural cycle being challenged by beings (satyrs) that exist between worlds of real and fantasy.
Middle Comedy and New Comedy
The distinction between old, middle and new comedy in Greece is retrospective. The evolution of theatre being subtle. This is further complicated by the fact that no plays survive from the Middle era and only fragments from New Comedy era. (Probably because this was a return to the farce and impromptu.) Aristophanes is often credited with instituting the concept with his satirical plays that dealt with historical or contemporary people. This was a departure from the old as the prominence of mythological beings and satyrs was downplayed or humanised. It is during these two periods that archetypes/stock characters representing everyday life began appearing on stage like: parasites, revellers, philosophers, boastful soldiers, courtesans, bakers and cooks. It is safe to assume that the costumes and themes of Commeia dell’arte arose from these eras. New Comedy saw human masks with grotesque features, similar to satyr masks, that are easily identifying by the audience. A improvised mockery of the social caste and social conventions.
Roman Christians closed the theatres in 391 AD with it the history of performance became a vague memory. We can only assume that the traditions of New Comedy never died out in the medieval period. It is possible that troupes took their art to the streets as travellers, thus maintaining some lineage from the old. This is entirely an assumption, as akin to Middle and New Greek Comedy, the historical record of the rise of the Commedia dell’arte is few and far in the thousand year gap between the closure of the theatres and the emergence of it in the Renaissance. That said, some examples of the similarity between latter Greek comedy and Commedia dell’arte is the function of the stage, a special stage wagon, and the stock characters. The Commedia took on and developed its own traditions originating from Italy slowly evolving into its own art form, most noticeable is the interplay between the Zanni (rustic fools), Harlequin and the Pierrot.
The Harlequin (Arlecchino) is known as the trickster, sometimes appearing frail and weak, yet nimble and capable of great physical feats. He uses deception and tricks to fool those that around him. He is often known for his black mask and colourful diamond-shaped costume, he carries a club which later evolved into the Marotte. The Harlequin is often associate with the devil or a servant of Satan, but going back to the Greek theatre he is also a linked to Herakles. The Harlequin is interesting as although connected with what we would consider evil he is the anti-hero, through his feats the audience become charmed, enchanted by his prowess.
The evolution of the court Jester likely comes from The Harlequin, the Jester role in the court was to mock the rulership of the monarch, yet through his honesty an unusual adviser. The Marotte too played a very important role, it is a parody of a parody, a miniature puppet of the jester himself who likewise served as an advisor to the jester, sometimes the serious expression of the jester or alter ego, thus completing the paradox of the Jester/Harlequin.
The Pierrot is the counterpart and victim of the Harlequin. He is the trusting fool, the sad clown, sometimes considered a peasant or common man. His usual story is his naïve and fruitless love for The Courtesan who later betrays him for the Harlequin. (Remarkably akin to the Dionysian cuckolding the king of Athens.) The Pierrot is one of only stock characters of Commedia dell’arte that does not wear a mask, only white face paint, his costume is mostly white with a workers cap / dunce cap, he wears exaggerated loose clothing with large buttons.
His lack of a mask makes him something that the audience instantly identifies with and also able to convey real emotion. The audience can see themselves in the Pierrot, though, by the misdeeds of the Harlequin he becomes the butt of jokes, meaning that the audience ends up laughing at themselves, the catharsis of seeing others suffering.
The Modern Clown and rise of Fear
With the Industrial revolution and development of technology and easier means of travel the modern circus developed. The modern clown drew heavily from the Zanni traditions of the Commedia dell’arte. The mask of the Harlequin becoming simplified face paint and clown noses (known as Auguste), the themes of the trickster and sad clown continued. There is usually a blend of different costumes from daggy, loose colourful clothes to parodies of everyday clothing with each clown having their own personality, jokes and act. The profession of clowning was such that they developed their own unique registry for costumes in the 1940’s that gives us some insight to the diversity of costumes. (9) The advent of film and television saw clowns becoming popular culture, Charlie Chaplin and Emmett Kelly playing upon the sad tramp clown. While in the US the TV show The Bozo Show. In Australia during the 90’s we had Crikey the Clown, a cynical and belligerent clown that performed questionable antics for children’s morning TV. (10) Yet the popularity and international invasion of clowns can never be trumped by that of McDonald’s (Ronald was originally played by Willard Scott who played Bozo). Clowns became a culturally accepted funny role throughout the twentieth century.
Also in this period three famous evil clowns evolved. The first and eldest is the Joker, the counterpart of Batman. The Joker was directly inspired by Gwynplaine. Jokers role fittingly fills that of the profound and profane as the silly villain that rises against the ultra-serious Batman. The evolution of the Joker is complex in itself, but he went from an outright ridiculous nemesis to deformed and frightening during the 80’s, climaxing with Heath Ledger’s performance.
The second being the real-life evil clown and serial killer John Wayne Gacy. Gacy had two clown persona: Pogo and Patches that he would perform for charities and birthday parties. An interesting feature of Gacy’s costume is that he broke clown conventions in the style of his makeup, opting for more pointed-sharp features that appear sinister. It’s unknown if this was intentional.
The third is known as the scariest clown in popular culture (11), Stephen King’s It or Pennywise. It is an eponymous being that appears as the phobia of its victims. Commonly appearing as a clown. King said of It that he found clowns to be the first and most frightening figure to introduce to children, his insight is particularly interesting as his book hits on themes of coming of age and developing as adults. (12)
Coulrophobia is a neologism and unofficial fear of clowns. The development noted with the appearance of the above evil clowns. Popular culture introduced an aspect of the clown that I believe has always been inherent. The function of initiators into adulthood (death of the child). The clown is deliberately confronting, transgressive and contrarian. Their function results in three fears:
The first is the “Uncanny Valley” a hypothesis that humans have a natural revulsion towards something that mimics / alters the human form. This revulsion formulates into fear. The source of this is our instinctive response to a dead body, a psychological self-defence mechanism. Death is the ultimate loss of identity. Clowns fall into the uncanny valley as they are both living and dead, they have no identity. Their appearance is often similar to a corpse, if not that the exaggerated and deformed features put us on nerve. Whether we know it or not, clowns by their function, are deathly.
The second fear is Confrontation. Clowns force us into a fantasy that likewise results in us questioning our reality, questioning ourselves. All art-forms do this, art is some kind of illusion, a magic that transcends the real and draws us away – thus art by nature is confrontational. It’s further enhanced with clowns because they are not just an inanimate sculpture or a painting but something that talks back. Clowns are interactive and this forms as comedy, making fun, making fun of you. They are honest and free creatures that serve to humiliate. This is embarrassing because they force us to question ourselves, to know yourself, picking out our faults and making it into a joke. For some this is damn right terrifying.
The third is linked above. The initiators of adulthood. Is it any wonder why clowns are most often featured at birthday parties? They are harbingers of coming of age, the bridge between child to adult. If one watches horror movies a common trope is a set of objects that we as adults find scary: children’s toys. Toys, like clowns, exist in two worlds: as a child they are a reminder to who we will become -a baby doll, or a tin soldier- but as adults they remind us of what we were. It’s something that we have lost, our innocence. Clowns are usually adults that behave like children, this transgressive behaviour is a reminder that formulates into envy and therefore disgust.
So why now? In 1988 PBD aired the documentary and last commentary of Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth. In the third episode Campbell expresses a worry for Western culture because of the lack of initiation rituals. In previous epochs, and still in cultures outside the west, youths undergo some kind of personal experience to become an adult and fit into society. This initiation was/is an ordeal of such greatness it served as a constant reminder of one’s self – an identity granted to us by our forebears (these forebears sometimes appearing as shaman-clowns). In the modern western culture there is no such ritual, our identity is granted to us by the impersonal government in the form of a driving license or I.D. card that allows us the ability to drink alcohol. To some extent we never become detached from our childhood and we lack any purpose and identity. We’re lost. When it comes to subjects that used to be innocuous and common -like clowns- we’re repulsed, our childhood, which should be beautiful, is turned into a manifestation of fear. This is why Stephen King’s It is so effective as a piece of literature he is tapping into a purpose of the clown, the initiator.
I find it worrisome that the clowning profession may be hurt by the developing popular culture image of clowns, yet as history demonstrates there has always been an evolution of clowns. In a society that is so lost in finding its own identity it is little wonder that something we once were able to laugh at has become an personification of horror. Our culture is increasingly becoming one of fear that shuns death, the inherent nature of clowns is a reflection of death. It is their duty to bring it to us and face it head on, with us ultimately laughing in its face. It is now that clowns are most needed and it is now that audiences need to find laughter. I hope this essay has been helpful to not just my readers, but the clowns themselves.
“I had a friend who was a clown. When he died, all his friends went to the funeral in one car.”
(Note: I’m going through my old blog and republishing choice articles here. This piece was first published in October 2014 and became my first “viral” post. It was shared throughout social media with positive and negative reactions. While I have advanced quite far from when I wrote this it still rings true to me. *I’ve slightly edited this version for spelling and context.)
After a discussion with an associate and friend about how pagans view gods, I said something that stuck out:
‘I recognize that Dionysos is not my “natural god” he’s not my “Mary Sue god” I don’t worship him for pure comfort and unquestioning admiration.’
Yeah, that sums up a lot for me. Many newcomers or inexperienced people to paganism or Hellenic polytheism (whatever the fuck you want to call it) tend to choose or pick a deity that they think is appropriate for their personality or what they think their personality is. Most often they are polluted with Jungian archetype concepts: “I think I’ll worship so and so god because I’m so much like them.” Well I’m sorry. In my experience gods are far more complex than some stupid archetype you want to attribute to them or how you relate to them.
In the past two years I have had encounters with two particular gods that have made me feel really, really uncomfortable:
Dionysos and Pan.
I’ll start with Pan. Pan is perhaps the most popular god within Wicca and Neopagan groups as an aspect of the ‘Horned God’ who is mixed with a combination of classical, medieval and modern symbolism, attributions to Satan etc. this has seen as him being greatly respected in these said circles.
This is all fine and dandy but in my experience Pan is not a free loving, frolicking, happy, pipe playing shepherd. No. He is a natural carnal force that dominates over *you*. It’s all fun playing at bdsm sex parties and all, but typically there is a safe word, something that would end it if those involve have gone too far. From what I’ve experienced there is no safe word around Pan.
To friends I have described Pan as being the last thoughts in your head as a tiger crushes your skull with its’ jaws. The goat mounting you unexpectedly or this poor fellow and the donkey, the feeling of realising your death as hypothermia is setting in after an avalanche of snow has covered you.
Succumbing to nature, being defeated by it, the terror of it. Death is not always a result, but that feeling of panic, that terror you feel when you’re in an uncontrollable situation is how I experienced Pan.
Dionysos. In thirteen years of being a Hellenic Polytheist I never regarded Dionysos as much. I have always respected him along with other deities of the pantheon of Greece, but other than simply reciting prayers and reading myths I did not pay Dionysos much attention.
I cannot pin point the exact time when he burst into my life, but it was around two years ago when my partner and I started “The Awakening of Pan” picture.
Since, I’ve been falling down the rabbit hole and I don’t think I’ve hit the bottom yet.
Dionysos is a far more complex deity than the carnal driven Pan. But still maintains some attributes. In a simple metaphor, Pan is like camping in the forest surrounded by lions, tigers and bears. Dionysos is like sleeping in a city park, surrounded by cultivated plants, humans and tamed critters. While not exclusively true – one could be considered rustic and the other urban. Still there are risks of camping in an urban park, ever heard of the recent news story of the homeless guy getting his brains smashed in? No? That’s because the media does not publish that stuff. But it happens a lot more often than what we’re told. Humans are as dangerous as any tiger, lion or bear.
Dionysos is part human, part god. He empowers us and also dominates us. He is god of liberty, individual expression but also the god that can strip every personal trait from you. He transcends the carnal nature of… nature, but also maintains it.
A god of paradoxes.
Much of this is way too simplistic for Dionysos. He is a complex god. However I find him far more terrifying than Pan. Pan is humiliating, he dominates over your physical humility. Dionysos however… Dionysos can strip your soul, remove your identity, steal your ego. What you think you are is questioned by Dionysos because he knows who you are. He knows because he *is* you, you are him, I am him, we are him. The ideals we construct ourselves around, the scaffolds we delude ourselves as being “me”, “I” are part of Dionysos. He tears them down to their foundations and makes us aware of that.
This is a frighting aspect. It’s actually fucking terrifying. While Pan is crushing our heads by tiger jaws or raping via donkey dick. Dionysos is taking over us, changing us, enlightening us.
Why? Why worship a god that scares me?
There is a trend in the last couple of hundred years to view god or gods as being loving, kind and blessing regardless of who we are or what we do. There is a reason for the term: “god fearing”. Gods are not some cute fuzzy critters to cater to our egos, but forces that direct us, herd us towards a form of enlightenment – whatever that enlightenment is. Confronting that now is a step for preparation in the future, like in the next life future. Dionysos and Pan are far from my ‘Mary Sue’ gods, neither fit my personality at all. But I don’t worship them because of me, I worship them because of Them.
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Classical Greek theatre was radical. It most likely begun as a private ritual performance between the elite, even leading with direct interaction between actors and observers in the form of mystery plays, maybe as satyr plays. As it progressed the theatre became more open to the public. This is how it was radical, at the time in antiquity, public performance was limited in surrounding nations. In Egypt we have references of street performers, the equivalent of buskers, they also performed rituals in public, but nothing on such scale and public domain as the Greek theatre.
It was an equaliser of class, a place which the common people could actively observe the gods. What’s more, we have common people as writers and performers freely criticising and mocking kings, nobility and public figures, which gave birth to our concepts of free speech. The theatre was a place for religion, politics, expression and entertainment.
A sacred domain dedicated to Dionysos.
So how does the theatre prove that the gods exist? This is summed up in two ways, one the actor, two the observer.
The actor playing a role relinquishes themselves to their character. In simplest terms they are invoking a character, allowing it to possess them and reflecting that possession. If you’re familiar with how Greek plays were performed then you’ll know that there was only three actors on the stage at one time. These actors would play various roles throughout the play which was illustrated by what mask they wore. The masks themselves were the characters and the actor was a living moving prop or host for the mask. In this function when they assumed the role of a god they were host to the god. To the Greeks, they were witnessing, in every sense, their gods on stage.
The audience brought the gods to life. The base function of performance is suspension of reality. In order to appreciate the performance the audience must allow themselves to be fooled. They have to accept the fantasy in front of them and believe in its existence. By believing in the play they are demonstrating their faith in the gods.
So how is this any different from now? This is a good point and one that has been discussed with the pop culture pagans. I will not dismiss their beliefs, but my personal opinion is that the difference between modern people watching a film and ancient Greeks watching the theatre is audience attitude. An average person does not enter the movie theatre with the expectation of watching something divine and religious. For the Greeks, not only were they entering a sacred domain, but also observing a devotional, religious performance.
To understand this concept is realising how disenchanted modern people are. Over exposure of media has led us to become jaded, whereas ancient people would only observe these performances once or twice a year. It’s not lost on me that we call celebrity actors “Stars”, “Idols” which further serves as a point at how wrong modern people are when enjoying a production. This is why it’s difficult for some to come to grasps with the idea that watching or participating in a performance is a sacred act.
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Anathema is a word I’ve heard of but never knew what it meant. In Catholic and Orthodox faith it’s a word of condemnation with varying levels of complexity and negative connotations. For the Ancient Hellenics it was different, votive sacrifices dedicated to the gods often in the form of artwork.
What really caught me is this from A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities by William Smith (as quoted on the Art is Anathema website )
“DONA′RIA (ἀναθήματα or ἀνακείμενα), are names by which the ancients designated presents made to the gods, either by individuals or communities. Sometimes they are also called dona or δῶρα. The belief that the gods were pleased with costly presents was as natural to the ancients as the belief that they could be influenced in their conduct towards men by the offering of sacrifices; and, indeed, both sprang from the same feeling. Presents were mostly given as tokens of gratitude for some favour which a god had bestowed on man; but in many cases they were intended to induce the deity to grant some special favour.
At the time when the fine arts flourished in Greece the anathemata were generally works of art of exquisite workmanship, such as high tripods bearing vases, craters, cups, candelabras, pictures, statues, and various other things. The materials of which they were made differed according to circumstances; some were of bronze, others of silver or gold (Athen. VI p231, &c.), and their number is to us almost inconceivable (Demosth.Olynth. III. p35). The treasures of the temples of Delphi and Olympia, in particular, surpass all conception. Even Pausanias, at a period when numberless works of art must have perished in the various ravages and plunders to which Greece had been exposed, saw and described an astonishing number of anathemata.
Individuals who had escaped from some danger were no less anxious to show their gratitude to the gods by anathemata than communities. In all cases in which a cure was effected presents were made to the temple, and little tablets (tabulae votivae) were suspended on its walls, containing an account of the danger from which the patient had escaped, and of the manner in which he had been restored to health. Some tablets of this kind, with their inscriptions, are still extant (Wolf, l.c., p242, &c.). From some relics of ancient art we must infer, that in some cases, when a particular part of the body was attacked by disease, the person, after his recovery, dedicated an imitation of that part in gold or silver to the god to whom he owed his recovery. Persons who had escaped from shipwreck usually dedicated to Neptune the dress which they wore at the time of their danger (Hor. Carm. I.5.13;Virg. Aen. XII.768); but if they had escaped naked, they dedicated some locks of their hair (Lucian, de Merc. Cond. c1 vol. I p652, ed. Reiz.). Shipwrecked persons also suspended votive tablets in the temple of Neptune, on which their accident was described or painted. Individuals who gave up the profession or occupation by which they had gained their livelihood, frequently dedicated in a temple the instruments which they had used, as a grateful acknowledgment of the favour of the gods. The soldier thus dedicated his arms, the fishermen his net, the shepherd his flute, the poet his lyre, cithara, or harp, &c.
It would be impossible to attempt to enumerate all the occasions on which individuals, as well as communities, showed their gratefulness towards the gods by anathemata. Descriptions of the most remarkable presents in the various temples of Greece may be read in the works of Herodotus, Strabo, Pausanias, Athenaeus, and others.”
As Smith states there are many ancient examples of votive offerings dedicated to temples, including simple things like basic terracotta or bronze animals to complex protomes, sculptures of deities, tripods, tables etc. But what I wasn’t aware of is the commissioned illustration of traumatic scenes, illness, accidents. This is a particularly fascinating to me because it’s a tradition that continues today in Sicily in the form of Ex-Voto.
“Ex-votos can take a wide variety of forms. They are not only intended for the helping figure, but also as a testimony to later visitors of the received help. As such they may include texts explaining a miracle attributed to the helper, or symbols such as a painted or modeled reproduction of a miraculously healed body part, or a directly related item such as a crutch given by a person formerly lame.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ex-voto
This then brings me back to my own work as a pavement artist. As this is my profession I have a keen interested in regards to the history of pavement art. It is an history obscured by a lack of interest from art historians because it deals with a subject that is usually considered lowly.
However pavement art history is extremely rich and powerful, there are even examples of it being a political movement in the late 1800’s as a preferred form of expression for the suffragettes. http://screever.org/
Asphalt Renaissance by Kurt Wenner* discusses the history of the pavement art, looking at examples found in other cultures in India and Buddhist mandalas, but Wenner’s main focus is on the Madonnari The traditional pavement artists of Italy. The Madonnari are known for drawing votive images of Madonna. In this regard, the Madonnari are considered the first pavement artists with references of their existence in the late Renaissance as maimed veterans of the Crusades.**
They were in every sense ex-voto painters, that would work outside churches, churchgoers would purchase the crude images and donate them to the church. Just like what the Greeks did. Some artists were so poor they could not afford boards to draw / paint upon so they began drawing on the street itself – giving birth to pavement art.
This discovery therefore draws a direct line from the Madonnari to the dona artists of ancient Greece and illustrates that the tradition of devotional artists goes back to ancient Hellenistic times.
*Unfortunately my book was stolen so I cannot provide quotes, however it’s highly recommended to buy this well researched, beautiful and awe inspiring book.
** This is why the crutch is a symbol of pavement artists.
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Thinking back through my artistic ‘career’ it’s hard to find a time where my work was not devotional in some sense. But it’s only when I experienced my initiation experience in late 2015 that I really ‘clicked’ to what I was doing and turned it into my primary form of devotional expression/engagement. Taking on the mantel of Dionysian Artist and name Δ.
Thus my devotion looks a lot different from others that consider themselves “Hellenic Polytheists” or even Dionysians.
The ultimate idea of ‘Art for god’s sake’ is that it is more liberating to the artist than ‘Art for art’s sake’, even if the work is unpleasing to the human audience, it does not matter. The opinions of human’s is only consequential and unnecessary. Devotional art is therefore free of any criticism from mankind and the artist need not worry of others opinions. From your comment Dver, you certainly understand my intention here.
Others… it can be difficult to explain. I recently had a conversation with a fellow artist, who is also an art historian / theorist / critic and teacher. He was dismayed at the fact that we do not do shows and rarely sell our work. I explained to him I’d rather see the art burned than sell it to some hipster who just likes the work because “it’s cool”. Our art, especially the street art, is not designed to be decorative. It’s designed as dedication to the gods. It is not owned by me, I am only a mere creator and custodian of the work. That is not to say I am forbidden to sell the work, just that if sold it has to go to someone who understands and respects the sacredness of the work. And boy… have I turned down mega offers that would make most impoverished artists wet their pants, as the destination for the work was an office space, or a cafe…
This behaviour has caused dismay in not only my admirers, but family and friends (including the one I mentioned). They cannot understand the purpose of this art, it is not an object, it is not a thing to be brought and sold in the stock exchanged (aka, art market), it is a piece of work dedicated to the gods and any human appreciation should be reverence over any other methods of our culture views art now.
Art for art’s sake is a relatively modern idea credited by the art critic, Théophile Gautier in the 1800’s. The concept became popular through artists like James Whistler (made famous by the “Whistler-Ruskin Trial, 1878″) and was continually echoed through the modernist period until now. The basic idea is that art should exist for itself. It should be free of any political, personal, religious, reactionary meaning. If these ideas were involved in the conception of the art, the viewer should be able to appreciate it as art without knowing the ideas behind it.
This concept was radical at the time as it gave artists liberties in attempting to define art. With the advent of art movements such as the Dadaists and then the Modernists the definition of what is art became blurred, in some cases it became totally atheistic with a reductionist mentality applied to art to the point artists ambitions was to destroy art itself.
There is a certain irony in this as when Art for art’s sake was coined it was actually a socialist concept to bring art to the people, bring it down to base level and indeed many of the Modernist artists and thinkers were socialist / communists in their intentions of making art. The irony is the reduction of art disconnected artists from their general audience. Art became elitist, with its only admires being the educated bourgeoisie.
Criticism of the art world aside, these artists and thinkers did achieve a new definition of what is art, which has granted artists liberties. The basic modernist definition of art is: anything can be art as long as there is an artist to define it as art. This is why we have pieces like Duchamp’s ready-made urinal, “Fountain” being considered a major landmark in 20th-century art and why artists like Damien Hirst have pickled animals in some of the world’s major art galleries.
Now that we have a crash course on the very bare basics of how art is viewed today, let’s explore my concept of devotional art. The Dionysian Artists (Devotional artists) definition of devotional art is an amalgamation of Modernist ideology but also a rejection of Art for art’s sake, instead the phrase of a devotional artist should be Art for god’s sake.
The Dionysian Artists should accept the Modernist definition of art, that anything can be art, but also with an added bonus: devotional art should be dedicated to the gods. Artwork created by the artists should not be made for humankind – it’s intended audience is the gods themselves – any human appreciation for this divine art is consequential. How an artist applies their devotion is totally up to the artist themselves. Like how an artist can define anything as art, a devotional artist can define anything as devotional art.
What this definition allows is anyone can call themselves a Devotional Artist (or a Dionysian Artist), its more so a matter of mind state being aware of ones actions when committing art to the gods. Art does not need to be something permanent, devotional art can be an expression, gesture, a dance, acting, singing etc. Or it can be a ready-made object, appropriation of existing art, a painting, stick figure drawing, crude votive statue, or a master piece.
As long as one is doing this for the gods, they may consider the art devotional and themselves Dionysian Artists.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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:
Bk III:638-691 Acoetes’s ship and crew are transformed,
A. S. Kline’s Version
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
Madness into Memory: Mania and Mnēmē in Greek Culture
Yulia Ustinova, Scripta Classia Israelica, 2012
Dionysos: Archetypal Images of Indestructible Life , p. 38, Kerenyi
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.
* 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.
(This article was originally published for The Thiasos of the Starry Bull, on The Boukoleon, 1/5/15)
The Starry Bull maintains and identifies with the Orphic colours white, red and black, when combined together they make the sacred colour named orphninos, ὄρφνῐνος, “dusky dark”. But how did we come to this conclusion and what is their significance to our tradition, what are these colours?
Colour theory has been a major study subject for my entire adult life. By trade I deal with colours every day. I need to know what’s in pigments, how it’s made and how long it will last because walking into this field without knowledge can not only be detrimental to my work, but also to my health*. Given my background and obsession with colour, when I’m presented with these sacred hues I’m quite curious to what they are made of, what colour they actually are and what they mean.
I was first introduced to this colour scheme by Sannion, blog posts. Specifically he turned me on to a passage in the Orphic Argonautika which discussed these colours in the context of Orpheus’ ritual robes and a contemporary Bulgarian healing ritual where the following associations are given: black representing death and the impure, red for human action and white to symbolise heaven and destiny.
In my own studies relating to street performance I’ve noticed these colours popping up in contemporary street shows. The traditions are derived from the modern circus which honours many of the symbols and colours from the Commedia dell’Arte, that in turn followed the customs of the Greek farce and theatre. Throughout the history of theatre these colours have changed in meaning, but I speculate that they were first used on the theatre masks as red, black and white are the most present colours of the simplified face, e.g. like modern mime face paint. So through theatre alone we see the associations with Dionysos.
If we look past the theatre and literature another source of colour associations is pottery, with literally thousands of wine cups, jugs and assorted earthenware decorated with these colours. Ancient Greek artists like Apelles also used a limited palette of these colours with just the addition of yellow ochre.
Many colours we are exposed to on a daily basis are new. Synthesising colours can in fact be traced through alchemical experiments and early chemistry, but mass production of now common colours like blues, reds and yellows has been a result of technological advancement in the last 200 years. In the past, blues and reds were mostly derived from precious stones, rare inks from sea creatures and butterfly wings. The strongest non-earth yellows were created from a laborious process of collecting and drying animal urine. Up until the mid-1800’s artists palettes were dependant on common earth tones, and naturally, in ancient times the most common, strongest and cheap colours were also these same colours. (The only synthetic colour ancient people had access too was Egyptian Blue, but the secret of making this colour was lost by the Roman period.)
If we consider the limitations of the ancients we can easily guess what red, black and whites were used and when we consider where each of these colours are derived one could point out that they directly correspond with Bacchic ritual sacrifice. So I propose that the actual Orphic colours are red ochre, ivory black and chalk white. By knowing this information we can closely reproduce the colour orphninos.
All earth based pigments are derived from iron oxide (rust) this includes red sienna, yellow ochre, red ochre, brown umber, mars black and mars red, etc. The variation in colour is a result of exposure of certain other elements and conditions over millions of years or made in laboratories (mars colours). Red ochre is the most common of reds and the basis of soil on earth. It’s also a near colour of dried blood and made up of similar properties, no doubt the Orphics would have noticed the comparison between blood and the pigment, after all, when found naturally with chalk deposits it is called sanguine red.
When bone is burnt it becomes a distinctive dark grey – near black, aptly named Ivory Black. This colour is the closest we get to literally being derived from ritual sacrifice. What’s more, there is a magical quality of the white bone becoming one of the darkest natural blacks. This is why I believe the Orphic black is Ivory black.
Another potential and apt black is vine black which is made from stripped grapevines, in hue it is similar to Ivory black but sometimes has a cooler greenness.
The last common darkest black used by the ancients is lamp black, which requires a much more intensive process of burning oil and collecting the soot off a copper utensil, the process just seems to intrusive compared to the inherent nature of burning bone or vine as an offering to the gods.
Black is important to note because there is no true black in nature, black is just a dark colour usually of blue, green or red. When tinted with other colours it affects the overall colour of orphninos.
We know from numerous accounts of ritual and theatre that chalk white was used to cover faces as masks. It holds a sacred significance in Orphic belief from the story of the death of Zagreus Dionysos, where the Titans used it to hide their features from the god child. Chalk is calcium carbonate which is petrified bone and shell that has gone through a compositionally changed process over millions of years. Like red ochre it is a common earth element that has been used extensively in ancient times until now. In Greece today houses and roads are still painted in chalk.
Chalk white is not an opaque white which means when exposed to water it becomes translucent and is a suitable filler and binder for other pigments. Therefore if it was mixed with ivory black and red ochre to make orphninos it would have only a slight effect on the overall hue, but as a binder it would develop into a paste and give the other pigments greater adhesive integrity. The hue would dry lighter than the paint and result in a uniformed matt finish.
The only alternative white that is opaque is flake white (lead white) which was used by the Romans in cosmetics. But all accounts specifically state that the white used in ritual is chalk.
So what is the colour of the “dusky dark” orphninos? Here’s the thing with colour theory, in ideal colour theory orphninos is a shaded red that has had its value saturated or desaturated by black and white. It’s always red, as it’s the only colour on the palette.
In reality however chalk white and ivory black are colours and retain elements of that colour. For example: you can make green out of yellow ochre and black, a grey blue out of black and white. The colour value of ivory black maintains elements of blue or green and when mixed with red ochre it produces a muddy, warm grey purple. The tonal value of this grey can be manipulated by chalk.
If another black is used, ie. Vine black this will affect the colour of orphninos.
Below are examples of what it may appear as.
Ideal colour**, Proposed orphninos with ivory black, far right which is a shade of pseudo ivory black (warm blue grey) and red ochre combined.
Ideal colour, Proposed orphninos with vine black, far right which is a shade of pseudo vine black (cool green grey) and red ochre combined.
For comparison, below is a digital spectrum colour test. Note the last colour on the right is a shade of spectrum red, it’s identical to the red in the centre but the value has been changed by the pure black and white.
Pigment colour test.
The warm grey area is what I propose is orphninos. The saturation value of this colour is changed by the addition of chalk.
* Why I need to know about pigments:
1 Even with laws preventing paints being made by toxic heavy metals like lead, there are still colours that are derived from toxic materials. Most of these colours are benign to handle and touch, however their toxic properties can be activated when combined with other chemicals. (e.g. fast drying mediums, alkyd resins.)
2 The best professional grade art materials still have issues with light fastness. This means they are very susceptible to UV / sunlight and fade.
3 Some pigments are made out of compositionally opposite materials and do not mix well with other pigments. Resulting in muddy uncontrolled colours.
4 Art suppliers rip off artists and sell the same colours as a another colour with added white. Essentially diluted colours are pitched as different colours. You only know this if you know and check the pigment numbers of paints.
**Digital colour test info:
Colour samples sourced from a paint manufacture hex no. comparison catalogue. Colours vary by manufacture. I chose the hues from the list and judged by my own knowledge of colours. The actual blacks in reality appear quite dark. An untrained eye would not know the difference between the blacks, but the hex is the colour translated through a computer and outputted by a light based screen, stripping away the darkness.
Maybe it’s the political climate right now, but I’ve read a few times and had the question posed to me in person, is Dionysos a god of anarchism? Right off the bat I’m going to say that I don’t profess to be an expert on this political subject, most of what I know about anarchism, socialism, democracy – political theory etc. was taught to me in high school by a wonderful history teacher, who I suspect was an anarchist.
To start, I’ll explain what I think political systems are: they are a constructed system that we silly monkeys have developed in order to live in order. Finding a divine behind these systems can be difficult, but not unheard of. There was a religious component in politics in ancient times and these themes continued until recently (and still do) . However I do not believe that Dionysos can be confined to a particular kind of system. Second, the nature of politics itself is bios, it is temporary and comes and goes in waves. This kind of inconsistency, impermanence does not necessarily fall within the realm of Zoë, an element of indestructiblelife that Dionysos is often associated with. (1)
Now let’s look at anarchism, in general it’s an ideal of a stateless society where people live in cooperative harmony. Within anarchism itself there are different concepts to how this ideal is achieved: Socialist, Green, Marxist etc. I’m going to avoid the different political theories and just focus on the ideal meaning of statelessness.
I’m assuming people associate Dionysos with anarchy for a number of reasons, I’ll address each I mention here: Dionysos’ involvement in regicide. God of liberty and freedom. Breaker of boundaries, including confronting social norms.
Two of the most well-known stories of Dionysos’ wrath involves regicide, first being king Lycurgus of Thrace. There are a couple of reasons why, but whatever the case Lycurgus sort to ban the cult of Dionysos even to the extent of imprisoning the god’s followers and driving Dionysos into the sea. The god eventually sort revenge by making the king mad resulting in his death or Dionysos cursed the land until the kings own subjects killed him.
The second case is Pentheus, this story is complex -nuanced- and depending on how one looks at it, one can consider Dionysos doing Pentheus a favour (2). Like Lycurgus, Pentheus expresses disapproval of the cult of Dionysos. When Dionysos arrives in the city he confronts Pentheus, who assumes the god to be mortal. After a of series back and forth quips where Dionysos tries his best to change the kings mind, Pentheus imprisons him. Naturally the boundless god frees himself and makes the king intoxicated, fools him to venture into the woods to spy upon the Bacchantes, at the roar of Dionysos the mad women find Pentheus, thinking him a lion, and tear him apart.
In both these stories Dionysos is not responding to the status of the kings, nor does he challenge their right to rule. He is challenging their sovereignty over his divinity. The kings are committing hubris against him and enforcing their human rules upon him, a god. In myth there are more instances of Dionysos favouring kings. Also within his major festivals we see sacred kingship, even during times of dictatorship and democracy in Athens. (3) Then there is Dionysos being a choice god to identify with by leaders. Next to Herakles, Dionysos is a very humanistic god and is known to appear in reality, literally. When Dionysos is on stage he is *actually* appearing on stage, when a man dressed as Dionysos leads the parade through the city he is *actually* leading the parade. He is a god of manifestation, of epiphany, a god of coming. Naturally kings also appear as the god. We really need to question why would a king want to appear as an so called anarchistic god? Lastly, Dionysos is a domineering god, which is why he is known to be so vicious towards those that oppose him. He intoxicates us, he is possessive, he dictates a state upon us which is his and only his.
God of liberty and freedom.
Being a non-American I’ve come to laugh at how citizens of that country view liberty and freedom. Watch a Hollywood period film like Braveheart, Alexander the Great, Troy, King Arthur, Gladiator etc. there is always some corny speech spouting about liberty and FREEDOM! This concept, which is totally weird in itself, is foreign and wholly American, originating from the War of Independence against the British. I have no idea why Alexander would be trying to espouse freedom on subjects who were in fact taken over by him and his father… Anyway, freedom in Dionysos’ regard is better seen as freedom of worry, stress. The kind of freedom one experiences from a couple of glasses of wine after a hard day’s work. It’s the freedom to submerge yourself in the fantasy of the theatre, to be entranced in the dance, to be yourself. If we wish to look at Dionysos’ Chthonic nature, it is the freedom found in death. The kind of freedom Dionysos grants is cathartic and healing, if that is related to politics its circumstantial.
Breaker of boundaries.
The cult of Dionysos is one of the few instances where the tightly structured society of Ancient Athens saw a relief from the social conformity expected, transgressing status of gender, social standing, wealth and poverty, even slavery. Women were allowed to venture outside their homes and camp in the wild, slaves changed roles with their masters, public drunkenness was allowed, but all within a limited time frame once per year. Again this is cathartic, the Dionysia was a time where neighbours and friends could shout insults at one another without repercussions, for common folk to mock nobles, a time for *equal* release. Afterwards the women would return home to their children, the men would go to work and the nobles would continue to rule. If this demonstrates an association of anarchism, it’s a very limited one.
Actually one could more soundly argue that if there is a political position Dionysos has it is democracy, the democracy born in the theatre. Theatre was of same measure of sacredness to Dionysos as his more well know attributes of wine and it is in theatre that freedom of speech developed, of public political discussion and political plays. It’s no coincidence that Athens had a theatre going culture alongside the first sparks of democracy. But who was running these performances? Apolitical Dionysian Artists. A holy guild founded to ensure that art and performance was given to the gods, that no social or political situation could prevent the artists from doing their duty. Like the god that comes to all, regardless of their sex or status, the artists were expected to perform for all. There was no room for politics and when exceptions were made it was viewed with suspicion (4).
Overall I would be cautious of applying any human system to Dionysos. He is a god of many things and he grants his blessing to all regardless of how they think or what they believe, a god of true equality, this equality can be seen granted to even his enemies. I can see a Dionysian in an anarchist, and I can see a Dionysian in a fascist, I can see him in Old regime before the French revolution and in the Jacobins during the Reign of Terror. He offers himself to everyone.
1. See: The introduction of Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life by Carl Kerenyi.
2. It can be regarded that Pentheus undergoes an initiation experience and is introduced into the cult and retinue of Dionysos.
3. Anesthesia, eventually this role of sacred king became an honouree position, its origins most likely begun with the formal king (Archon). 4. See: On the False Embassy.