Clowns: Creatures of Profound and Profane

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Lasse Beischer in character (source)

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.”

And

“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

Relief of a seated poet (Menander) with masks of New Comedy, 1st century B.C. – early 1st century A.D. (source)

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.

Commedia dell’arte

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.

Pierrot and Harlequin by Cézanne (source)

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.

Gacy as Pogo (source)

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

(source)

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.

Conclusion

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.”
-Steven Wright


1 2 3 4

http://screencrush.com/professional-clowns-worried-about-it-movie/

http://www.news.com.au/entertainment/movies/movie-trailers/the-hugely-popular-it-trailer-has-further-damaged-the-clown-industry/news-story/01ba788626b828c3f9e40cf81d566470

http://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/2017/04/05/real-life-clowns-arent-laughing-at-the-it-movie-remake_a_22027963/

http://bloody-disgusting.com/news/3431255/actual-clowns-not-happy-trailer/

5

Clown Doctors: Shaman Healers of Western Medicine
Linda Miller Van Blerkom
(Towson 1976:13)

6,7
Seaford, Dionysos, pp. 89, 90

8
http://www.stoa.org/diotima/essays/fc04/MacLachlan.html

9 http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/why-smart-clowns-immortalize-their-makeup-designs-on-ceramic-eggs

10 http://www.sbs.com.au/comedy/article/2014/10/16/how-agros-cartoon-connection-made-real-connection

11 https://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/oct/29/the-10-most-terrifying-clowns-movies-film-tv

12 http://www.tor.com/2013/09/25/the-great-stephen-king-reread-it/


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

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

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ancientgreekcostumes
(Image source)

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

 

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

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

Dionysos

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

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

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

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

The Cults of Dionysos and the Theatre of Madness

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

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

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

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

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

Madness and Memory

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

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

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

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

Masks

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

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

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

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

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

Mysteries

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

 

Citation and Notes:

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

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

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

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

Notes:

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

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

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

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

Special Thanks to:

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

Dionysian Festivals

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 to Dionysos

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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.

So the skies the limit!

Common Mistakes About Dionysos

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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.

The Different Forms of Dionysos

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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.

The Many Names of Dionysos

Dionysos has many names and there is already great lists available online with explanations to them and their origins, so for convenience here they are:

http://www.hermeticfellowship.org/Dionysion/Godnames.html

http://www.theoi.com/Cult/DionysosTitles.html

I’ve selected a few I often use:

Bromios : meaning loud, roaring, vibrating (Earth rumbling), lightning, shock.

Khthonios : of the underground, of hades. The deathly aspect of Dionysos. This is a primary form of Dionysos I deal with in my personal cultus.

Lysios : To be released, or releasing.

Dimetor : twice born

 

A god Between

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As a god that moves freely between realms of divine and humanity, even the animal kingdom… it is possible to find my beloved god in all and everything. He is commonly associated with *many* deities.

As I have limited time contrasts so I’ll requote stuff I’ve already written:

– Jesus Christ has many resemblances to Dionysos, he was born from a god with a mortal mother, he was hunted down as an infant and smuggled out of his homeland to escape death, he travelled in his youth becoming enlightened before returning to his homeland. He taught a retinue followers his radical system of belief, he performs a series of miracles that prove his holiness including turning water into wine, he is betrayed by his peers and judged by a non-believer as a false prophet, he is sentenced and humiliated dressed like Dionysos and crucified, he dies and is resurrected as a great divine and continues to teach his followers and forgives his foes before ascending into heaven. Throughout the New Testament and other Christian texts, Jesus is referred as the grape vine, or the grape. Wine is symbolic as his blood, likewise bread is his flesh. They share similarities with the concept of a holy spirit, divine force within all. The trail by Pilate is also has parallels to the Bacchae by Euripides.

christos_acheiropoietos

– Hindu god, Shiva shares many similarities to Dionysos. Both are creator destroyers, prescribe asceticism, considered the greatest of gods, is judge in the afterlife, wears snakes, sacred animal is the bull, sits on a tiger skin, is called god of the mountain, is both male and female, is the super soul found everywhere, drums , dancing, fertility, wild women, god of animals, god of ambiguity and paradox, nakedness, enlightenment, liberator, drinker and phallic worship . The list goes on and on.

More info found in the book: Gods of Love and Ecstasy: The Traditions of Shiva and Dionysos By Alain Daniélou

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– Some Greeks and Romans believed Dionysos was from Egypt, originating from the Osiris cult. It was thought that a mythical prophet, Melampous, taught the Greeks the mysteries of Osiris, but in a ‘Greek’ way. This lead to the creation of the Dionysos cults. Just like Dionysos, Osiris is a nature and death god, he is killed and dismembered, only to be reassembled to create life once again.

– In regards to the Roman Bacchus, I don’t view the god any different from the Hellenic Dionysos. Bacchus is a Latin version of the Greek epithet Bakkhos: meaning loud and roaring, of the frenzy or of the berry. So unlike other Roman gods, which were sometimes a mixture of Etruscans and indigenous deities, Dionysos’ Roman identity is still Greek in nature.

This gets somewhat confusing as there is the indigenous god Liber (Liber Pater / Father Freedom). I see Liber as a separate deity or at least another expression of Dionysos. Throughout Roman history though, Liber, Bacchus and Dionysos were used synonymously by Romans.

Lastly another god compared with Dionysos by Romans is the Etruscan Fufluns: god of wine, happiness, plants and happiness.

 

Other divinities that can be associated:

Attis
Adonis
Zagreus
Zeus
Hades
Sabazios
The Minoan Bull god
Zalmoxis
(And gees, literally many other gods!)

The fucked up family of Dionysos

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.

The Toys of Dionysos
The Toys of Dionysos

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).

The Bacchae

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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.

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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.

Symbols and icons of Dionysos

Dionysos
Dionysos by Wayne McMillan

Dionysos has many symbols associated with him, I have divided these into categories for ease of use.

Plants

Grape vine

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.

Ivy

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.

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Pine tree

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.)

Fennel

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.

Symbols

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.

The Phallus

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.

Cup

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.

When drinking from a
When drinking from a “Eye Cup” it forms a mask.
(source)

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.

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Tracing of the Francois vase, Dionysos is lower mid section. The only figure looking at the viewer. (source)

Numbers

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.

Liquids

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.)

Wine

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

Honey

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.

Milk

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.

Animals

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.

Bulls

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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

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

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.

Locations

Mount Nysa

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.

India

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.

The Theatre

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.

How did I become first aware of Dionysos?

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Dionysos by Hephaestian Studios (Wayne McMillan and me.)

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.

A time for Celebration

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.

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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 NousMind of Zeus. Diemai nũsahe 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.

So you see Dionysos is a god of many things.

Art for God’s Sake

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Many polytheists have an identity or a ‘theme’ for their personal cultus, some are devoted to a particular god/s, others include sexuality and gender, some use politics. My main focus is art, all art, I quite literally worship art. It serves as the foundation for everything I do and is an expression of my relationship with the gods. It does not matter if I’m making art, writing about art, enjoying art or criticising art, everything is devoted to it as a language between my gods. Thus I see all art as sacred, regardless of if I think it is trash or if it is offensive to me, I will never attempt to censor, destroy or limit art.

This is not a view shared by many today, even within my own community of polytheists and Dionysians. It is a trend, long running now, to not only censor, but destroy art, to limit artists and their possibilities.

At The House of Vines Sannion has been discussing this, first a comment from G&R where they have linked Neo-Folk “and other artistic movements” to the “New Right” and then an article on the ban of traditional Black Faced Morris dancers in England reported by The Wild Hunt. The latter critique from Sannion reminded me of something I read last week with the trans community being upset at a Cis-gay actor Matt Bomer playing a transgender role. The discussion being furthered by including the history of straight actors playing trans, and calls that only gays should play gay roles too.

I have long been a supporter of the trans community, I am usually included or categorised into the LGBT community. I am damn proud of the inclusiveness that T in that abbreviation, but I draw the line here. This is limiting art, this is destroying art. BOTH WAYS. A good actor regardless of sex should be able to play a character regardless of sex. This means a male should be able to play a woman or trans, a woman should be able to play a man or trans, a trans should be able to play a man or a woman or trans.

My god wears woman’s clothes and over his dress he dons armour, he pins his hair in female fashion and sports a beard. He is a god that transcends gender and guess what? The theatre is his temple. The theatre therefore reflects him, it is a fluid domain where masks are removed to be replaced by other masks. The actors are the ones that does this divine act, they are the expressions of Dionysos regardless of what role they play and what sex they as individuals identity as.

Forcing limits on gender roles based on the “real-life” identifiers therefore impends art, it shackles something that should be free. While I personally strongly encourage producers and directors to hire Trans actors to play Trans, enforcing that *only* trans, or gays, (or any other role, including disability, and yes even race), typecasts actors based *only* on who they are in “reality”. It limits their ability to produced good art, it destroys the fantasy and impedes art.

The actual sex, gender of the actor should never determine the role.

 

Medusa meme

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Over on facebook in a private group is this meme being shared relating to Medusa and her apparent African origins. The meme is extremely questionable, especially considering it is completely lacking sources and any reference to where the info is coming from. However it has likewise caused protest amongst some Hellenic Polytheists who appear to be misinformed about the cultural exchange between the Greeks and nations south of the Aegean.  Below is my response, due to facebooks nature I couldn’t include links or images which I have done here and merits a proper blog post:


This meme is very misleading and questionable but there are some interesting notes in this regard. The iconography of the Gorgon is extremely old, like pre-historic old, some historians suspect it was the first depiction of the face. (Marija Gimbutas) The oldest depictions are actually questionable in terms of sex, with the gorgon having both male and female features. They also share similar characteristics with The Master of Beasts iconography found in the Minoan culture. Universally Gorgons are apotropaic, warding off evil which can be connected to early shamanistic concepts. The mask-like quality of the gorgon also hints at other apotropaic deities like Dionysos. (Who likewise shares connections with the Master of Beasts, intersex nature and shamanic ties).

Part of the Aegina treasure. This golden pendant is called "Master of Animals". It is interpreted as showing an Cretan god in a field of lotus flowers. In each hand he holds a goose, while the background is composed of two unidentified objects that are considered to be either connected to "cult horns", the sacred horns of bulls, or maybe composite bows. British Museum Catalogue Jewellery #762.  (wikipedia)
Part of the Aegina treasure. This golden pendant is called “Master of Animals”. It is interpreted as showing an Cretan god in a field of lotus flowers. In each hand he holds a goose, while the background is composed of two unidentified objects that are considered to be either connected to “cult horns”, the sacred horns of bulls, or maybe composite bows. British Museum Catalogue Jewellery #762. (wikipedia)
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Winged goddess with a Gorgon’s head, orientalizing plate, c. 600 BC, from Kameiros, Rhodes (Wikipedia)
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digital tracing of a Greek pot, illustrating Dionysos tearing a dear apart.
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A painting of Dionysos directly inspired from “Greek eye cups

Blacks were present early in Greece, some were slaves, but also some were free, meaning that they were not regarded as a specific ‘slave race’. (See slavery in ancient Greece). Blacks likewise did influence ancient Greek religion, a Dionysian hero -claimed to have introduced the Dionysian cult to Greece by Herodotus- is Melampus, referenced as being a black African that presented a Hellenic variant of Egyptian religion. We also have Aesop establishing tales that are regarded as Hellenic but share a cultural connection with his African origins. So yes, Greeks were influenced by Africa in some sense.

Blacks were depicted in Greek art too, in some instances they are illustrated with satyr like features or examples of satyrs, relating to Dionysos. Also there are curious pottery from Thebes celebrating their variant of the Samothracian mysteries. The meaning of these pots are contestable, but modern research concludes that they may have been used for apotropaic purposes. Therefore illustrating a possible link between blacks and gorgon imagery.

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An example of Africans in Greek pottery with apotropaic features.
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Thebean cup featuring the Greek gods Hera, Aphrodite, Hermes (Paris?) as Africans. The fact that Hera is looking at the viewer suggests an apotrpaic element.

 

Wine

(This article was originally published for The Thiasos of the Starry Bull, on The Boukoleon, 4/9/14)

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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.

dionysusship

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.

Dionysos and Anarchism

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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 indestructible life 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.

Divine Regicide.

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.

 

Dionysos Rip, Rippy, Rip-Rip

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This is one of my all-time favourite depictions of Dionysos I’ve been meaning to do a tracing of it for ages. My source file was… less than ideal and I had to make up a lot. He came out a bit sadder than the original and there are some problems I just noticed. I’ll continue refining him more, but if you like the tracing feel free to download and print for personal use only. If you share it online please give credits and link backs.

Meanwhile while I was working on the tracing Dver called out the appropriation of Dionysian terms and poor “scholarship” of mystery religions and supposed ‘drugs’ used during rituals… I really wish folk would put ergot consumption to the test when they make these idiotic claims.

Anyway, the following comments from a certain someone are funny (on facebook Rhyd went on with: “I -may- be done with American Fundamentalist Polytheism”*, haha), which in turn provoked comments from Sannion to keep the fun and games going.

Oh, and unless my memory is off, I believe Dver has the same image of Dionysos as a tat? Circles.

Another than that I’m going back to work. Have fun!

*dude if you are reading this and want me to stop ‘stalking’ your facebook profile, maybe stop posting everything public?

On Satire

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If folks have been following the bad news about this year’s Bakcheion they may of seen that Dver has given a fair and detailed account of why it has been cancelled. Others have joined the conversation on her post and also my personal facebook page. Some commentators have expressed their concerns about the nature of Sannion’s satire and that the Many Gods West (MGW) organisers concerns were valid.

So here I’m going to discuss satire itself, give a brief lesson of origins and importance to our culture. While I am upset and disappointed at the result of Sannion’s satire I’m also supportive of it, as it is Sannion’s role as a Dionysian to practice this holy art form.

Contrary of my preferred false etymology the term satire does not originate from satyr, still it’s agreed etymology has a Dionysian element:  Wikipedia (source):

“The word satire comes from the Latin word satur and the subsequent phrase lanx satura. Satur meant “full” but the juxtaposition with lanx shifted the meaning to “miscellany or medley”: the expression lanx satura literally means “a full dish of various kinds of fruits.”

The word of satire is Latin but the nature of satire is found in the Satyr plays and the various ages of Greek comedy. The history of comedy is unfortunately neglected but it is more than possible it was the first form of theatrical entertainment. The etymology of comedy is obscure possibly: Kom-oid meaning “party song”. Karl Kerenyi also provides another false etymology of:

Kome (village) and modia (mockery) “Supposedly the komos consisted originally of poor peasants who entered the city at night, went to the houses of rich people from whom they had suffered injustice, and avenged themselves with songs of mockery.”

The origin of Satyr Plays appears wholly shamanistic to me, they were first known as private mystery plays between the elite that required audience participation, maybe even a ritualised orgy of sorts. But as Richard Seaford elaborates:

“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.” 1.

We see here that the origins of Satyr Plays had a ritualised sexual element. A typical scenario involves a king being defeated by a god, this god steals his wife and marries her.  Turning the king into a cuckold. This archetypical theme is found to this day in festivals, such as local city parade / festivals which include mock crowning of monarchs (typically common people) by the city mayor or even something like the high school crowning of the prom king and queen by the school principal. The heart of this ritual lays with Mystery Satyr Plays which eventually evolved in public festive events, e.g. Anthesteria.

The first forms of comedy in mainland Greece were mostly slapstick farce, known as the Dorian farce. This migrated to southern Italy where they advanced on comedy by applying a plot and turning the farce into an actual story. But the farcical nature of the comedy remained the same and typically included elements of what we know of as satire.

For example it is possible that actors would make satyr masks that were caricatures of politicians and nobility. It is also known that in some performances of the Bacchae satire would be taken to the extreme and use actual heads of enemies as props.

“The Armenians and Parthians had won a major battle against Rome just before the performance, in which the Roman general Crosus (‘Craxis’) was captured. The head and right hand of Crosus was severed from the body and used in the climactic moment of the play, given to the Parthian King during the performance.” 2.

So what I’m trying to illustrate here is that satire has and is part of the realm of Dionysos. For one to be shocked or surprised by someone who is a well-known Dionysian using satire is a fault of the witness.

On to the next part: The nature and importance of satire.

When a dictator takes over a liberal country who is the first to die?

That’s right, Satirists.

Whenever satire is being attacked openly by politicians you should question the power that person holds. Satire is the ultimate form of free speech, it is extreme, it is hurtful, it is ancient, it is Dionysian. Satire cultivates democracy, it aids civilisation in progressing forwards.  It points out our faults and if one is wise, one can learn from it.

A great example of extreme satire is the 2007 APEC gate crash by the Chasers. If background is required: APEC is a political economic meeting between country leaders, the first and biggest of its kind at the time in Australia. The largest city in the country, Sydney, was practically shut down to cater to the world’s elite leaders. Effectively becoming a prison city.

Wikipedia:

“the NSW Police Force [were given] new powers, including a suspension of the normal function of habeas corpus, freedom of movement, an excluded persons blacklist and other civil liberties.”

And boy did the police love their powers!

As good Satirists, the Chasers proved how utterly redundant, contrary of our nations beliefs and draconian this event was by simply donning fake ID’s, dressing as Osama Bin Laden and driving in a car with Canadian flags on the front towards the motorcade that led to the most heavily guarded building in Australian history. They passed several security checkpoints before closing the stunt themselves.

Of course this caused an absolute shit storm! With the guys arrested and the public questioning satire in the same manner they are doing Sannion. “Hurtful”, “Shameful”, “Dangerous”, “Illegal”, “Stupid”  were words used.

That is the power of satire!

Satire is an unique art form and a reason why I elaborated on satyr plays and comedy as they  are an example of an important, advanced and shamanistic aspect of classical comedy. Great satire breaks the fourth wall. Being presented with a fantasy only to have it broken.
All art is lying. When you watch your favourite movie, see your favourite play, view your favourite masterpiece you are being deceived. Satire is the only truth you find in art, but as a Dionysian paradox it requires insincerity. It forces you to question what is being presented to you and if you click onto it you get some greater insight and maybe some entertainment. If you don’t click into the satire, you become part of it. This is explained by Anomalous Thracian on my facebook:

“It’s perfectly fine to not like satire, and to find it offensive or in poor taste; and the risk that all satirists walk is that they may miss their mark and fail, or cross a line (transgressing) too far, such that the “thinking” that is the intent of the transgression is overshadowed by the turmoil and pain. This, however, gets bit meta: satire that overshoots or overplays its hand, in the manner described above, does not cease to be satire… instead it turns the entire situation into satire. Those reacting so poorly and brashly become the actors on the stage of self-ridicule and self-demonstration; they’re now satirizing themselves, which could be seen as satire gone wrong or as satire in its holiest and most proficient form.”

Perhaps the greatest irony of all this was the reasons behind the satire… Sannion was making a point about some political motivated speeches to be held at the MGW, especially Rhyd discussing fascism… which I suppose is against … fascism? And how did the MGW organisers react?

And this sums up why I’m supportive of Sannion’s satire. Those involved in his banning from the MGW were playing their role in his game, despite their gloating on social media and the criticisms directed towards his humour and ‘poor satire’ he actually succeeded.

 

 

  1. Richard Seaford, Dionysos; 90
  2. (source http://www.tacentral.com/history_story.asp?story_no=6)