As mentioned in the introduction Lenaia and Anthesteria* are two major Athenian festivals dedicated to Dionysos. There is also the Dionysia, divided between Rural (Later winter months) and City (after Anthesteria). Usually the Dionysia would spread throughout Greece, during the spring and summer months. Surrounding towns would celebrate based on their local customs and time. Most often these festivals involved public performance, pomp / processions, plays, coming to age rituals, day of the dead, public drunkenness, vulgar language / insults, feasting, role exchanges between masters and slaves, prisoner pardoning, wine miracles, singing, sacrifice and religious observances and Mystery performance / initiation.
*Lenaia is celebrated between January to February. Anthesteria in February to March. Dates depends on the lunar cycle, likewise for other Hellenic festive dates.
In Italy these festivals are the Bacchanalia (The Dionysia) and the Liberalia (In part a indigenous holiday heavily influenced by Dionysian festivals from Greece).
Nowadays modern Polytheists still practice these rituals, although to a lesser extent to what is recorded in ancient times. Also some of these customs still exist in Greece, between March and May, with phallic processions or dressing in goat skins ringing bells, performed by locals who generally don’t identify as polytheist / pagan.
In my own practice I rarely celebrate festivals. This is in part my location being in the southern hemisphere and festivals never ‘jived’ with my personal practice.
Offerings are interesting and I admit that I think quite philosophically in this department, going into realms that were not regarded by the ancients.
When one brings it down to the basics what constitutes an offering, what is it?
My point of view is that offerings, sacrifice and devotion is expression.
Sometimes this expression involves objects and physical sacrifice, other times it can be as simple as a breath, spoken word or gesture. But when it comes down to the very foundations of it, it is always an act, an expression. I therefore see offerings as a form of art.
This is one of the core concepts of the Dionysian Artists, (devotional artists). Any act dedicated to the gods is a form of devotional art, thus the devotee giving an offering is an artist. This is a really nuanced philosophy that I go by, but it allows great freedoms of how we engage with the gods. It allows us to respectfully dedicate whatever we can to the gods. The act, by its very nature, is holy.
That aside, the question is about specifics.
Like many aspects of Hellenic polytheism offerings often depend on circumstance. There are everyday offerings typically represent Dionysos in some way like: wine, grains, bread, honey, fruits and flowers, spices, common incense (I prefer pine based oils and Indian style incense.)
Then offerings that may be used during festivals: eggs, meats – especially beef and chicken – resin incense, water, blood (Bloodletting), giving yourself to Dionysos through drunkenness and ecstasy. As mentioned already it depends on the circumstance and intent of the ritual.
Then there are music, art, performance, singing and hymn reading. (Me spending time writing these posts is a form of offering.)
I’m not aware of any general taboos against offerings given to Dionysos.
As a god of foreigners and strangeness I see no problems in offering non-traditional offerings like fruits and veg, spices, incense, modern produce like sweets lollies (candy) etc., not native to Europe or time period. This may be regarded as ‘UPG’, but makes perfect sense to me.
As a livelihood I produce classical themed artwork in public, most of these pieces have a Dionysian element to them which therefore encourages strangers to talk to me about Dionysos. This is an interesting position to be in as it gives me an idea of how much common people know of the gods, especially the one I love.
It is not uncommon for people to express their revulsion at the idea of him being the god of wine. Calling him a hedonistic god, a god of orgies and sex. I acknowledge that these aspects are very much in his realm, but also express that he has a far greater meaning than those three features. It’s an all too common misconception of Dionysos and one that devalues his place within the Pantheon of Greeks.
What’s more, it’s not uncommon for this misunderstanding to be found within the “pagan” community. A group of people one would hope to know better. Yet it happens.
Much of the demonising of Dionysos comes from cultures that maintained strict prudery (Romans) and later Christians that took every opportunity to make Dionysos as a god of excess.
Dionysos is a god of many things, some of which does involve drinking, parting and sex. But also he is the god of death, a god of life, nature, theatre and art, mysteries and refinement of our souls. He is a god of madness and a god that heals, he is many things other than what the common idea of him.
Whenever I discuss the cult of Dionysos I always add a plural, cults. There is no one authoritative singularity of the expressions of Dionysos. Throughout history people have viewed multiple identities of the god, even at the same time and place. For example there are references of two temples being side by side both dedicated to Dionysos, each dedicated to a specific aspect of Dionysos. Each with their own cultus, methods of worship, taboos, decorum and practice, yet they worshipped the same god. This is just one example in one city with differing cults. Imagine that across the entire Hellenic world.
Athens is often the default location to look at for Hellenic polytheists, but as we look outwards from there we see regional differences. In the barbaric north of Thracia and Macedonia the Dionysian expression is much more wild: involving hunts and practices which can be related to shamanism. To the west in Magna Graecia, the “Mecca” of Dionysos, the god plays a prominent role in everyday life with a emphasis on the deathly side of Dionysos. His place in this land is so strong that much of the artwork from there was dedicated to him.
This is a trait found within liberal polytheist cultures. When we look at monotheistic religions there is an orthodoxy in practice, only *one* legit way to honour and view god. Yet, when with the Greeks they allowed open interpretations of practice, this is usually regarded as the difference between orthodoxy and orthopraxis.
This environment invites regional cults and differing belief systems.
As a specific difference in cultic identities the most obvious in the Orphic religion. A belief system that claims to be derived from the hero, Orpheus. Even within Orphism there are variants that range from location and teacher. I’ve been studying this unique aspect of Hellenic religion for a long time now (5 years?) and even after all this research I cannot illustrate an absolute “common core” of their beliefs. In general, however, it is believed that that soul has a divine component which needs to be ‘unlocked’ to rest eternally in bliss. Most of the time this divine aspect is Dionysian in nature.
Co-existing with the Orphics is the Dionysian Artists, this was a sacred guild based in Athens but spread throughout the Hellenic world, including Egypt and Italy. I’ve written extensively on this guild and continue to do so. The identity that this guild mostly dealt with was the God of the Theatre.
So when examining ancient Hellenic culture it is key to keep in mind that the way people viewed the gods varied on circumstance, even in the same location and amongst the same people.
I hope it does not come as a shock that Dionysos has a complex and often confusing family tree. I’ve divided this into three tales:
Standard myth: has him the son of Zeus and Semele, daughter of the founder of Thebes, Cadmus (his grandfather) and Harmonia (his grandmother). If we look back through Cadmus’ family tree Zeus is something like Dionysos’ great, great, great, great grandfather via Io. Zeus is also his great grandfather on Dionysos’ grandmother’s family side. And as a technicality Zeus is his father and mother… is your mind twisted yet?
If we regard Orphic mythology: the Olympian Dionysos is a second incarnation. His first incarnation is known as Zagreus-Dionysos, the son of Persephone and Zeus.
Zagreus is a supreme deity that Zeus concedes the throne to his son, thus giving Zagreus the universe as a mere babe. As is typical in myth: Hera is jealous, and employs the Titans to kill Zagreus. The Titans play with the child with toys, eventually presenting Zagreus with a mirror. The reflected splendour of Zagreus entrances the god himself, giving the Titians an opportunity to pounce on him; killing the child and eating him.
Upon smelling the foul odour of his son being cooked Zeus discovers the crime of the Titans and smites them to ashes (From which humanity rise from the ashes, part evil Titan and part divine Zagreus-Dionysos). Zeus saves the essence of Dionysos (his heart, soul or phallus) and impregnates Semele, therefore giving birth to Dionysos we know now.
If we want it take it further into the odd we can look at speculated myth: (What follows should not be treated as acceptable myth. There a few ancient sources to supports this, but not in a linear fashion I present it.)
In vague references Zagreus is the second incarnation, the last being the third. The first and most pure is Phanes, the first god of the cosmos. Zeus either eats Phanes or engages in cosmic fulicio… (that is not a joke) …. whatever the case, Zeus absorbs the supremacy of Phanes and passes this to his children. In some cases this can be Dionysos and Athena. (Thereby making them divine twins?)
This is source of Zagreus’ supremacy. Continue on with the the myth above.
These tales of back and forth death and rebirth, “refinement”, are typically regarded as the farming of vine and the process required to create drinkable wine. (As already mentioned in previous posts).
Immortalised in play by Euripides, The Bacchae is my favourite mythological tale of Dionysos: it tells of Dionysos’ return to his birthplace Thebes:
The common people and some nobles follow Dionysos. However the young king of Thebes (and the cousin to Dionysos), Pentheus, rejects the divinity of new god and quite literally has a hissy fit that his family and friends are honouring the “supposed” god and ignoring him.
Dionysos enters the city in which Pentheus thinks him only a priest, not a god. Pentheus confronts Dionysos and the two engage in a debate. Dionysos pleads to the king to concede to his divine argument and gives him a fair warning about the hubris being committed against the godly family member, but Pentheus does not listen, in fact he takes it to the next step and imprisons Dionysos.
Thus invoking the wraith of Dionysos.
Dionysos destroys the Theban palace (scaring the crap out of everyone). Somewhere between then (I’m doing verbatim here!) a herder appears informing Pentheus of the marvels of the Maenads, their powers and witnessing miracles.
Dionysos emerges from his prison as the great god, intoxicating the king, he convinces the Pentheus to dress as a maenad in order to spy upon the women. He then leads the king into the woods. Pentheus climbs a pine tree to view upon the mysteries of the women – only to have his disguise transmuted into a lion by Dionysos who then informs the mad women of the intruder. Thinking the king a lion, the frenzied women hunt and kill Pentheus, tearing him limb from limb.
The maenads, which include Pentheus’ mother and other female family members, enter the city with their trophy, proud of their hunt. To then realise from the shock and horror of others that the lion is their king, son and brother…
What follows is the exile of the royal family. Their neglect and crimes against the king is unforgivable.
The Bacchae is one of the most usual and violent plays in the Greek tragic cycles. It is also one of the most important tales to Dionysians. At face value it is easy to think this play is simply about the pride and hubris committed by a tyrant king. But with analysis it is apparent that Pentheus is the victim of his own family’s neglect. His family do not take the him seriously and refuse to counsel and teach him of his hubris, instead they only offering vague warnings before abandoning him to his own demise. Dionysos therefore is an agent, a force of nature. In the process of the debate between king and god and further with Pentheus’ intoxication and the manner of his death Pentheus is initiated into the Dionysian cult. Pentheus becomes Dionysos, the two merge into one as the Pharmakos, the sacrifice, which teaches the ills of the citizens of Thebes.
His death, as horrific as it is, is a blessing and cathartic. This is exemplified in later pottery where Pentheus stands amongst the Blessed Dead as a Dionysian hero.
Compared to other Greek gods, who’s wraith typically involve smiting – death and eternal punishment in Tartarus – a quality of Dionysos is that he converts his victims. His enemies become him, he forgives them and teaches them of their ills. He is also an indirect god in his wraith, he is the agent of his foes demise and thus works through others, the effect of his wraith is contagious to those that are influenced by him as they also learn of their own ills.
Dionysos has many symbols associated with him, I have divided these into categories for ease of use.
One of Dionysos’ major symbol is the grape vine. It symbolically represents his association with life. In terms of humours it is regarded as the hot plant. As the grape vine is a cultivated plant it requires constant maintenance for it to bear fruit. Meaning that the community had to care for it. After season it is, as a necessity, killed (i.e. pruned back for winter), the labours of its fruit turned into wine (which continues to be a community intensive work and symbolic life / death process.)
The differing stages of the grape vine symbolically represent Dionysos’ death and rebirth process.
The second major plant symbol of Dionysos is the Ivy, the counterpart of the grape vine. It represents his association with death, completing the dualistic nature of Dionysos. In humours it is cold, this is why drinkers of wine would wear ivy on their head, it was to level out their humours. As the grape vine represents life with its tasty fruit, ivy represents death with its poison fruit. The common ivy also bears fruit in winter as oppose to the grape (summer). In addition Ivy does not die back in any season, it continues to wildly grow spreading out it’s tendrils, whereas the grapevine requires support and tender care.
Fig and Apple tree
Dionysos is known to have discovered both the fig and apple tree, both being sacred to him. The fig is his most beloved fruit next to grape. He was worshipped as Dionysos Sykites (of the fig) and Meilikhios (Gentle) due to the gentle nature of the fruit. Figs were popular fruit in classical times and made up a stable diet and also there is sexual connotations in classical and Roman vulgarity they give appear like the anus, “fig fucker” and “giving the fig” being insults for “up the arse”. This is due to dried figs (and fresh figs cut in half) looking similar to the human anus.
In some mystery traditions the apple is one of Dionysos’ childhood toys.
The evergreen nature of the Pine has a strong connection to the everlasting, immortal life. Another concept that is important to Dionysos known as: Zoë. The symbolism continues today with the Christmas tree, potentially a remnant of the Dionysian cultic expression adopted by Christians.
The pine cone too is extremely sacred, see below.
A note: the pine tree is a feature in the death of Pentheus (more of this will come in following posts.)
Specifically the Ferula communis is another sacred plant. It is used as the support for Dionysos wand called a thyrsos, however he is featured in pottery simply holding the blooming fennel flowers. It may be symbolic of the phallus.
Thyrsos and Pine Cone
The Thyrsos is a staff carried by Dionysos and his followers, it is usually constructed as a long fennel shaft, with a pinecone atop and red and white ribbons. When wielded by a maenad it has to ability to create honey and milk from the earth and bring about springs of wine. It can raise the dead and also kill, again with the dualism of Dionysos.
The Thyrsos is usually broken up into symbols:
-The fennel shaft being the phallus.
-The pine cone is the head of the penis, it’s seamen being honey and bearing pine seeds.
-The two ribbons can be regarded as the liquids of life, seamen and blood.
As a god of nature and fertility the phallic symbolism of Dionysos is very strong. His earliest representations of him being a tree or a pole. The phallus is very easy to understand… a rod that produces life. During Dionysian processions it was often accompanied with a giant phallus that was carried around by men. This phallic procession would move out into the countryside blessing the farmland with fertility and regrowth.
The cup is commonly regarded as the counterpart of the phallus, it is a container that holds the liquids of life. As a vessel is sometimes connected with the vagina and female reproductive system. Cups were often decorated with Dionysian scenes and dedicated as votive offerings.
Masks and Eyes
Mask are perhaps the oldest known images of Dionysos, therefore he is god of masks. This establishes his connection to the theatre and mystic performance. Masks act as barriers in reality, living idols, a paradox of an inanimate object that is made animated by its living host – which by the nature of donning a mask is disconnected from reality. Only the actors eyes can be seen behind the mask.
Eyes hold a special purpose to Dionysos as a symbol that confronts. As a apotropaic (evil averting) his eyes hold special symbolism. This is especially noted when examine pottery, Dionysos is quite famous for confronting the viewer, as exemplified in the Francois vase where he is the only god looking at the viewer, and other examples where even in profile his eyes are prominent compared to other deities around him.
It should be noted that this is not exactly ancient in source, but the number 7 is thought to be sacred to Dionysos.
It comes several references related to Dionysos:
– The seven Pleiades were nurses to Dionysos.
– The Corona Borealis (Crown of Ariadne) was given to Ariadne as wedding gift by Dionysos. (seven stars)
– The seven youths and maidens given to the minotaur, (Dionysos is strongly connected to the minotaur, AKA the Starry Bull.)
– When Dionysos is dismembered and eaten by the Titans he is cut into seven portions, legs, arms, torso, head and penis.
Colours and Metal
Purple: a colour associated with priests, royalty and wine. It was commonly worn by high ranking members of the Artists of Dionysos.
Red, Black and White: Orphic colours with many symbolic purposes. More info here.
Gold: A metal famous for its purity, value and sacredness it was commonly worn by Dionysian priests and Artists of Dionysos. The myth of Midas associates Dionysos with gold.
Dionysos is god of all natural liquids, often categorised as all still fluid in nature. (That said, he has a strong relationship with the sea and some lakes.)
As with the grape vine, wine represents the life cycle of Dionysos. To make it the grape must die. It also requires a communal collaboration, dedication and patience. Wine is often thought of as the blood of Dionysos, the liquid of life and death
Dionysos discovers honey in myth. With deep connections with early prehistoric man. It is possible that he was a mead god before being a wine god. More info on this topic can be found in my writings. His Thyrsos is said to drip honey.
A life giving liquid, especially to babes. It is often connected with Dionysos. Milk too plays an important part in the Orphic mysteries and practice – where it was thought to be the only liquid to clean ritual tools. Also the saying: theos egenoy ex anthroopoy, eriphos es gala epetes – you have become god from man, lamb you fell into milk.
Water (Swamp water, the Sea)
He is known to be god of swamps and marshes. Some of the most organic and thriving environments of life.
Dionysos has strong connections to the sea, he uses it as a refuge and hiding place. Also he is often depicted in both pottery and festivals on a boat. The concept of a float during civic parades is Dionysian in origin.
Big cats: Leopards, lions and tigers
Lions illustrate a connection to the Rhea cult, Rhea being one of the few gods to aid Dionysos in his madness. Leopards and tigers being exotic animals illustrate his foreign nature and connection to the east and India.
Dionysos is a bull god, he has strong links with the Minotaur (Starry Bull) and also he turns into a bull in which form he is killed by the Titans and consumed. The bull is symbolic of his sacrifice and therefore his flesh (as like wine being his blood). The bull is a creature of considerable strength, power and fertility. It is also the victim to be killed and consumed. It’s death supporting the longevity of the community.
Snakes are sacred animals to many gods, they are dangerous, beautiful, alien, odd and cold animals. They are symbolic of living death, undead by their very nature. The snake is legless, yet quick and powerful creatures. They hold mysteries and educate Dionysians their power of reincarnation through shedding their skin. They taught Dionysos how to make wine in myth.
Griffons are common mounts for many gods, they often symbolise the sun and gold. In the case of Dionysos can be symbolic by their dual nature being part bird, part large cat. Part in flight, part grounded on earth.
The sacred mountain of Nysa is the home of Dionysos, the land that hid him from the agents of his step mother Hera. Nysa sits between the realms of reality and myth, existing in its own mythscape. Throughout history people have sort Nysa, especially Alexander, seeking out the sacred grove that protected the great god.
One of the first triumphal acts of Dionysos is conquering India, since it has been his land. India represents Dionysos’ exotic nature the land that is strange compared to what it known in ancient Greece.
Dionysos is famous for his few temples. However as a god of nature his temple is all around us. The theatre is a symbol of Dionysian expression, a place that is open to nature, but also built by man. It is set into a hill with carved seating and a theatrical circle, yet also exposed to the sky. The theatre is therefore a symbol of duality, nature and cultivation, in and out.
In some regards I was fortunate to be raised in a religiously liberal family. All members being agnostic with a New Age / Mystic streak. It was not unusual for us to attend New Age festivals, have “crystal parties”, we even had a family psychic / medium who was a close family friend.
My sister is a practising “Neo-Shaman”, “Earth worker” and “Light Worker”. She performs various rituals: “healing nature and correcting vibration energy that has been imbalanced by the wrongs of mankind”.
My mother is very causal, she has a shrine dedicated to Ganesh in her house and an ancestor shrine – she is naturalistic in her ‘practice’, I don’t even think she is aware of what she is has done – this makes it all the more beautiful.
Being raised in this environment was something I’m grateful for, but resulted in feeling “empty”. I have always been curious about religion and begun seeking something when I was very young. At around age fifteen I looked into several religions, including Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Wicca, Druids, Heathenry – none really clicked. Something I always found myself drawn towards was Greek mythology, the stories, the gods, the heroes inspired me. I would skip school and just read Greek myths all day until my mother came home from work where I would dress in my school uniform and pretend I went to school. This was when I first became aware of Dionysos and begun my devotion to Hellenic Gods. Throughout my teenage years I did this, reading Greek myths, history, cultic practices – despite my low attendance grades at school, my history teacher was impressed by my knowledge of history. At this time Hypnos, Nyx, Morpheus and Hermes were the first gods I was dedicated towards.
After high-school I focused on my artistic inclinations and went to arts school, at this time I became more connected with Hermes, Hephaestus, Athena and Apollon. These four “patrons” being the core of my practice.
In art school I meet my life partner and we made plans for when we finished school, establishing a business call Hephaestian Studios: making and selling statues dedicated to the Greek gods. After two years we decided to close business and downgrade our work to making art on the streets of Melbourne for free, moving into the city. Another two years we decided to go the next step, throw out our belongings and go homeless. Travelling around Australia making art.
This is when Dionysos entered my life.
I cannot put an exact date when it happened, but it was the around the end of 2011 to 2012, I experienced a number of epiphanies from Dionysos. He has been a massive part of my life ever since.
Today marks a year since my initiation by formal ritual (22nd of October 2015). As such I thought I’d celebrate this with the 30 days of devotion challenge. This will be dedicated to Dionysos. Most of this writing will be deliberately written as a brief, only exploring basic concepts. I hope turns out as a basic and helpful resource for new comers.
A basic introduction to Dionysos
Dionysos was and still is a popular god, most famously known as the god of wine, but he has many other important attributes. Our first archaeological proof of his name comes from linear-B clay tablets found in Pylos, dating his existence (in terms of proof) to 1200BCE. Dionysian cultic expressions, such as ambiguous artefacts that share similar themes, go far back further into history, meaning it is more than possible that his cult existence is much older, potentially running far into pre-history.
In terms of linguistics his name is very unusual, “Dios” is usually regarded as Zeus/God, the “nysos” part being linguistically mysterious in origin. Both ancient and modern scholars have attempted to find its meaning, the most accepted being God of Mount Nysa – the mountain where Dionysos was raised and protected as an infant. The others meanings being: Dios Nous – Mind of Zeus. Diemai nũsa – he who runs amongst tree. Nonnos claims that it means Zeus-Limp, the Nysos meaning limping in Syracusan language. (Source: Ecstatic by H. Jeremiah Lewis)
By the classical period of Athens, Dionysos was well established as the god we know today, the god of wine, theatre, mystery, nature and ecstasy. There were two major festivals dedicated to him one being: Lenaia (celebrated between January to February) and Anthesteria (February to March; dates depends on the lunar cycle). Lenaia being a private civic festival celebrated by woman and comedic plays, Anthesteria being a public festival lasting three days, including massive theatrical performances, games, pomp / parades, public mockery, drunkenness and fun, coming of age ceremonies and finally a day of the dead. After Anthesteria in Athens the Dionysia spread throughout Greece with traveling performers dedicating plays and inviting celebrations to the far reaches of the Hellenic world.
There is always a misunderstanding of Dionysos, he is often considered the god of excess, sexual promiscuously, god of hedonism… but Dionysos is a god of duality. The God that confronts. As equal to his celebratory nature is his death (chthonic) connection. This expression of Dionysos is found in his mysteries and funerals. Many Dionysian artefacts, such as pottery, sarcophagus, votive icons etc., originate from funeral sites. In fact, a large sum of what we know of Dionysos and his cult originates from tombs and grave monuments. A god of life and a god of death.
The Dionysos of the afterlife became popular especially with the unusual Orphic cult that sometimes see Dionysos as a saviour of souls. Being initiated into this cult granted passage to blissful death, the end of the grievous cycle of reincarnation.
Dionysos is also a god of nature and agriculture. He has strong connections to earth including seasons. He is a god of trees, plants and fruits.
As I’m attempting to keep this brief I will discuss one final major aspect of Dionysos as being the god of Ecstasy. This is perhaps the eldest expression of Dionysos, (I suspect it having to do with what we now call Shamanism.) Dionysos is the god of Epiphany, The God that Comes, he does this through ecstatic performance of man. If it be through intoxication via substances, dance, music or performance. He manifests and blurs the lines of reality inviting us into the divine through his ecstatic presence. He breaks down the inhibitions and logic that hinder our potential and opens the world to us. This gift he grants to all humanity, regardless of who you are.
(This article was originally published for The Thiasos of the Starry Bull, on The Boukoleon, 4/9/14)
Thanks to a couple thousand years of aggressive monotheistic faiths, Dionysus has been plenty demonised. As Sannion points out here (dead link), he is often shown as being hedonist, evil, chaotic, drunk, excessive and fat in popular culture. This identity is by no means diminishing either. I have personally been attacked by members of the public for depicting Dionysus in art, even had people attempt to destroy our artwork and threaten to assault us because of our ‘satanic pictures’. However this is not solely a Christian thing, even some pagans deny Dionysus respect.
The fact that Dionysus is attributed to wine is often the cause of these allegations. Wine and alcohol is seen as a recreational drug, associated with Saturday night binge drinking and waking up in the morning with a terrible headache and embarrassing facebook comments or worst photos. But what did wine mean to the ancients? Of all things why did they have a god of wine?
We are in an age of decadence, if we want something all we have to do is go to the supermarket. Even free clean water can be found in most cities via drinking taps. We wash ourselves with clean water, we even dispose of our waste with drinkable water. In most western countries it is there for our use. However in ancient times it was not and the water that was available was often polluted or infected with parasites.
The production of wine begun with the rise of civilisation around 7,000 years ago with some of the oldest industrial sites ever discovered found in the middle east dating to around 4,100 BC, (the Areni-1 winery, discovered in 2007.) Wine was necessary for urban civilisation as it enabled large quantities of people to survive in a polluted environment. It made water safe to drink. Being a social drug it also brought the communities together. Apart from drinking in groups, wine would have been made in groups. In Greece there were community ceremonies and festivals to celebrate the different stages of wine production with each festival usually coinciding with different seasonal changes. So wine not only helped keep the population healthy but also brought it together as a community. In relation to Dionysian cults, wine and mead were more than likely used for ecstatic spiritual purposes – these cults transcended the community celebration as it brought people closer to god through mysteries and initiation.
Then there is trade. Has anyone ever wondered why Dionysus is often depicted on a ship? Apart from the myth of the Tyrrhenian pirates, Dionysus was depicted in ancient festivals on a ship that was wheeled through Athens. He also has strong ties with the sea, using it as a refuge in the myth of Lykourgos. Wine was a commodity and encouraged trade, it unified nations to cooperate and allowed growth in wealth and also health. Greece being a naval nation, wine was transported via ships. Apart from trade however, wine also enabled sailors to travel further distances without water supplies going off. Wine was a means of hydration in the hot sun of the Aegean.
Also another note: scurvy was a documented disease by Hippocrates (460 – c. 370 BC). It is caused by a lack of vitamin C. A disease that was cured in ancient times by the Greeks by using, among other things, wine. The cure of scurvy was lost to more contemporary explorers like the English and Spanish and it caused devastating impediments in their exploration of new lands. Wine drunk by sailors in classical times prevented this and again allowed greater time spent on the seas.
While I’m certain that ancient people enjoyed alcohol as much as we do today, wine was far more than getting drunk and making a fool of oneself at the end of the week. It was a substance that allowed us to grow and develop throughout the world. It brought friendships together, increased wealth and living standards, encouraged industrialism, trade and alliances. Even classical philosophers praise it for allowing them to think freely. It is a sacred liquid that connects us with ourselves, nature and the divine with Dionysus ruling over its holy epiphanies. Like Dionysus, wine should not be abused, it is the cup of life and the cup of death, but we should not never forgot or dismiss it’s sacredness.
(This article was originally published for The Thiasos of the Starry Bull, on The Boukoleon, 1/4/15)
There is a story within all mankind, a story that is not myth, nor fiction, it is part of our psyche, it contributes to our creation and drive: it’s the tale of survival.
Your attention is caught by the cracking of wood and earth. A stampeding beast, a massive blur strewn with blood and gore, heckled with arrows and spears. It’s horns shrouded in a net that veils it’s rage filled eyes. A wild bull blazing over trees and scrub while a pack of hounds nip at its hooves only to be repelled by a kick. For a moment the bull stands in place rocking back and forth with its horned head arching up sending a dog flying over the breath of its back, until out of desperation the bull leaps into a nearby river.
Through the struggling moans of the drowning bull and the lamenting barks of the hounds is the incoherent but equally wild yells of men. Armed with net and spear they come to the river bank and in a starving frenzy they throw their weapons at the drowning beast. Blood mixes with water and in that second before death the hunters eyes meet with the hunted. Time stops as they are connected in the same act forever, interchanging in roles, hunted and hunter, hunter and hunted.
Death is seen by the killer and the victim.
The hunters return to their village with their prize and find their starving women and children. Despite hunger, the whole tribe leaps up in celebration at the hunters return greeting them with praise and merriment, the hunters are heroes. They all prepare a great feast and eat the flesh of their kill, they all experience euphoria as they become one with their prey.
Afterwards while relaxing by the fire, the sun dies and the stars become visible and in those blazing dots they see the day’s events unfold again. The hunters name the stars and retell of their exploits, of killed dogs, the river and the bull. A narrative develops, the elements become characters and locations.
The hounds become fourteen victims doomed to the minotaur, the river becomes the labyrinth, the hunters become Theseus.
Through the flesh of the bull the hunters grow old, unable to keep providing for the tribe themselves they show others. They become the story tellers, the masters of the mysteries and through rites of death and rebirth they teach the youth the holy tales and initiate them into adulthood.
Over generations these hunters learn to grow food, they see the same process of death and rebirth in the seasons, in the day and night, in the earth, in the very plants they grow and in themselves. The tale of eternal life that differs each time its told.
Sometimes the hunter is a lover who lost his love and confronts death itself to find her again. Sometimes the bull is a god-child and the hunters are titans. Other times the hunter is the god of the underworld who steals the goddess of spring which brings winter.
It’s always a different tale, but no matter the telling the themes are always the same. Something is lost, something is gained / something is killed, something is reborn. At the centre of this tale are two opposing forces, hunter and hunted, both one and the same, always one destroying the other in order to become the survivor. Be it: the crushing of grapes to ferment wine, the burial of seeds to spout as plants, cutting and gathering of the harvest, the grinding of grain to make flour, the marriage of husband and wife, the loss of virginity to give birth, the coming to age, initiation into the mysteries, the killing of the bull.
It’s in these instances we see ourselves and see that we are part of this ongoing narrative, both the antagonist and protagonist of our own tale of survival. The Starry Bull is our antagonist, our direct opposite, as such: it is a god, it is an animal, of the stars and the earth, it is part man – part beast. When we thrust our weapon into it and look at its dying eyes we see the reflection of ourselves and when we consume its flesh we become one with it.
(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.
It’s a not so secret, secret that I offer free advice and mentoring in regards to Hellenic Polytheism and related subjects. There are several persons I’ve been working with who have all brought up similar questions regarding mythology — all at the same time — so from my limited demographic I’m guessing that this is a question that pops up all the time…
Is myth truth?
This is such a delicate question. I believe that truth can be found in myth, but do not believe it as the divine truth akin to that found in the Bible. You see, we have to realise that regardless of our own agenda, the definitions and language used, our culture has been influenced by monotheism. This is a serious problem for people who seek to detach themselves from the over-culture and focus on polytheism . There is an inherent ‘monothought’ that is bred into us, this manner of thought denigrates our “polythought”.
Now before people phase out, allow me to explain my definitions of these made up terms:
‘Monothought’ relates to religious information that is compacted into our brains as “TRUTH”. So we are educated to take these religious things as literal, black and white, right and wrong.
‘Polythought’ is a process of critical thinking. It is being able to hear a literal story but understanding the subtext or possible subtext of the tale and seeing it on multiple levels and even realities.
Mythology is kind of subtext. Often innumerably complex. So every person reading myth will apply their own concept to it, in other words: our interpretations are influenced by our own life experience. This is totally cool to do because it demonstrates how deep mythology is, each person can read the same story and come away with a different meaning. This is the Power of Myth.
However, if we want to explore myth more deeply and come to terms to what it meant to the original people who spoke the stories… this is where it becomes tricky as not only does myth require us to forget our knowledge, it also requires empathy. This is even more difficult because we have to fantasise what it would be like in bronze age Greece, not only at a time and culture we cannot comprehend, but often a location/country we don’t have firsthand knowledge of. In this difficult exercise we can find hints of truth within myth.
So I’ll provide some examples:
Most people, (I hope), know the basics of the Labours of Herakles. As penance of his crimes Herakles is forced to work for his relative and a favourite of Hera, King Eurystheus. Eurystheus deliberately sets Herakles on impossible tasks in order to defeat him and see Herakles’ failure. However Herakles is victorious every time, not only that – he embarrasses Eurystheus who is often so terrified of the heroes’ return he hides in a jar. Now we can take the story as just myth, it’s entertaining and illustrates Herakles ascension to godhood, but it is quite possible it has a deeper meaning. Each labour can be related to ancient star constellations, or zodiac, if we picture Herakles as the sun, he moves through each constellation to illustrate a time of the year. Meaning that the story can be seen as a calendar story. I even theorise that Eurystheus hiding in the jar is the moon, maybe symbolising special festive dates for the cultic calendar of Herakles (so far I have found no academic proof of this, but I think it’s a sound theory.)
So there is the subtext of the tale, it is more than possible that ancient people would use this story to remember the times of the year, they would measure the suns (Herakles) passing of the constellations (labours) to determine when to plant seed, when winter was coming (going to Hades to tame Cerberus) etc. Afterwards Herakles would rise again to repeat the labours.
Another example is a very deep myth – it is deep as it relates to religious rites and possibly actual historic events.
Theseus and the Minotaur. Theseus is an up in coming king of Athens, sadly Athens is subjugated to the wrath of King Minos of Crete. Athens must provide a tribute of seven maidens and seven courageous youths every seven years as tribute to the monstrous Minotaur.
To prove himself as rightful heir to Athens and also to free the city of this horrible tribute, Theseus offers himself up as pseudo-tribute and embarks with the youths to defeat the Minotaur. With the aid of the Princess Ariadne he navigates the labyrinth and defeats the beast. Thus ending the dominion over Athens and eventually proves the rights of Theseus as king.
This again can be seen as a solar story, the traditional seven arch Cretan Labyrinth has celestial significance, sometimes it’s related to the seven known classical planets with its centre being the Minotaur or sun. In other words it can be a primitive representation of a solar system. This is interesting when we think of the constellation of Taurus, a common theme found in classical iconography is the slaying of the bull by the sun (Mithraic Tauroctony) often this is symbolic of the sun conquering, i.e., passing through the bull constellation marking an end a year and beginning of another. So it can be seen that this tale is another calendar myth.
Then there is the historic side. We know through archaeological evidence, mythology and classical study that during the height of Cretan culture (Minoan) it was dominate in the Aegean pre-dark age, early bronze age (3650 to 1450 BC). There is no clear consensus of what actually happened but we know that the Minoan civilization had some effect and influence on mainland Mycenaean Greece until the Minoan’s were somehow devastated, most likely by the Thera eruption. Afterwards we find evidence through language that Minoan culture was taken over by Mycenaeans. Is it possible that the Theseus story illustrates actual historic events of a weaker culture taking over the previous dominate one?
There is so much we can take from this myth, another aspect of this story is the abandoning of Ariadne on Naxos. Ariadne was most likely originally a powerful Minoan goddess, but with the decline of Minoan culture we also see a decline in her role and cult to the point she is ‘downgraded’ to a mere mortal in the story. I often see the abandoning as a cross culture cultic merge of one cult into another. This is quite common in early mythology where goddesses were downgraded or even desexed to fit into the apparent male dominated culture of the Mycenaeans.
The final example I want to talk about has been a little controversial of late: The Crippling of Hephaistos.
In the myth Hephaistos is either born from the consummation between Zeus and Hera, or just Hera alone. Whatever the case the babe is deformed at birth and thrown from Olympus as a reject and becomes forever disabled in the legs. The master smiths of Lemnos, the Cyclopes, adopt Hephaistos and teach him to become a master crafter. Hephaistos eventually gets revenge against his mother (who is often the one that rejects him) by humiliating Hera through his craft. When Hephaistos finally frees Hera from his curse he is welcomed back into Olympus as an Olympian god.
This has been controversial of late because of terms used in myth to describe the affliction suffered by Hephaistos. Certain folk are offended at terms like cripple, lame, deformed and even disabled. This behaviour fits into my definition of “Monothought” as it’s becoming focused on an aspect of the narrative of myth, while ignoring the context behind it. In this regard I’m pretty critical of people who forcedly want to divert or reinterpret myth by their own modern standards and make it applicable to the wider community. I believe this is very dangerous territory and is ultimately hubris.
Criticism aside, there are cultural subtexts found in these stories that explain the affliction of Hephaistos and his followers. This is where “Polythought” comes in handy as it allows us to critically assess the subtext of the myth.
Health and safety laws were not in effect during the bronze age, nor did the people have an understanding of the dangers of dealing with toxins. On top of that natural elements required to produce metal alloys were not available to Greeks.
The Bronze Age is named that because it was a period where the culture learnt the mysteries of the metal alloy of bronze, a metal stronger than iron and copper, but weaker than the near impossible to produce at the time alloy of steel. It was a technological advancement discovering bronze but also very difficult and toxic to produce. Nearly all bronze today is produced as an alloy of tin and copper, but tin is extremely rare in the Mediterranean, as an alternative arsenic was a substitute of tin. I pray to the gods above and below that my readers are not dim-witted to know how toxic arsenic is… but let’s just say it’s been used to assassinate a number of famous characters throughout history. Low level, long term exposure of arsenic causes problems to the feet and hands, also mental issues including irrational rage and general madness.
Apart from the obvious toxins in bronze making, metalworkers worked with lead too, also known for inducing madness, deformed limbs and even hereditary dwarfism. And also mercury that was used with gold, silver and copper to create a process called, Amalgam. Mercury makes certain metals cold liquids that enables the base metal to be manipulated without firing. Naturally this is also highly toxic and results in all kinds of mental and physical problems.
So we see by thinking in terms of what we know of ancient times the smiths would had suffered some form of deformity through their work. Honestly I suspect it was seen as a sign of their mastery of craft, magic. This assumption comes from other cultures that exist today in Siberia and West Africa where the role of smiths is akin to priests and shamans and marked out as their own social class. Yet today in our minority culture we are privilege with a flip of a switch or click a cigarette lighter — fire is born, but we don’t know anything about the meaning behind the magic itself. For these ancient smiths they not only mastered the flame they taught fire to turn solids to liquids, back into solids. Solids given to the flame that are reborn into the form of strong swords and weapons or icons of the gods! The price of this magic work and knowledge of the mysteries of flame is deformity. A prideful price to pay for mastery of the mysteries.
I suppose I need to round this essay up. Is myth truth? No, I don’t believe in mythology as literal truth. I don’t believe that historically Herakles performed the twelve labours, nor that historically Theseus killed the Minotaur. I do, however, believe that myth lives in a realm outside our reality and lives on in its own ‘mythscape’, a place that is anchored in our reality, landscape and history. It is a narrative of our DNA and ancestral collective consciousness. Hidden deep within myth is truth, but how we draw upon that rational truth is no more important than the story itself. We can rewrite mythology, apply rational thought, we can use new terms and even get offended. But deep down it lives within us, therefore it should be respected and embraced as it is the memory and understanding of humanity before us.