I am, and will probably be for some years to come, very immature in my worship of Dionysos. Partly this is due to the fairly limited reading list available to me as a Classicist at my small, Indiana, liberal arts college. There are exactly two professors in my department, and although they both share my general interest in ancient Graeco-Roman religion, neither emphasize it in their teaching. So I am still stumbling about in the dark, encountering rites and sources as I fall upon them or they are foisted at me.
Sannion has recently written on the violence of Dionysus. (And the conversation continues to grow, hence my decision to contribute this post now, rather than after my ritual write-ups.) Although I, as many others, do not focus on that violence in my personal practice, it is, in fact, one of the many things that draws me to the god. I take comfort in the fact that he, too, carries a wrath capable of crushing nations in his heart, housed within that beautiful body—as Sannion put it: “handsome … with a crown of ivy, come hither eyes and lips wet with wine. ”
Unlike the god I may not, must not, unleash that violence. Violence means something different in today’s world than it did in ancient Hellas—though the consequences for the victims, blamed post facto for their own destruction, are shamefully unchanged. But I feel vindicated to know that even my beloved Bacchus feels wrath. And, when he restrains it as he does before Pentheus—giving the twisted, flesh-fearing, petty tyrant chance after chance to see his divinity before finally setting his fate to die (ah, for pronouns as nuanced as those in Attic or Latin!)—I am inspired by the fact that even a god as great as Dionysus can endure such insults before unleashing his ire. If the dignity of a god can so endure—particularly a god whose Olympian siblings would never have tolerated the first slight, let alone the second, third, and fourth—then perhaps I, too, can have the dignity to respond with my better judgment, lashing out not from rage alone, but only when the defeat of those who seek my own destruction can be assured.
I am not unafraid of the flesh-eating Dionysus: I am not that kind of fool. I fear to lose myself entirely in the weight of his mask. Queer as fuck I may be, but my violence will only ever be read as just another white man lashing out. For me to act on the violence in my heart can only serve to support the patriarchy, to reinforce the role I was assigned at birth, to undermine the trust I have so carefully cultivated in persons more vulnerable than I. But neither do I flinch at the sight of him: I do not deny the god—or, for that matter, myself—his violent nature.
To deny the one is, perhaps, an attempt to deny the latter: an attempt to see oneself as transcendent, the embodiment of a merciful, all-loving Divine; to reject the bestial nature which is the inheritance of all mortal (and, I think, most immortal) life. But rejecting that savagery, trying to deny that it exists, is like any other form of prohibition or asceticism: it creates a space for the undesired thing to thrive, to fester, to swell … and, ultimately, to burst out unwanted and out of proportion.
Dionysus is not just a god of wine, of happy sex-in-the-woods between the maenads and satyrs who are so inclined (after all, it is only the “virtuous” maidens who are “safe”*: I desire neither appellation). He is the god of madness: cursed by Hera and cured by initiation into the rites of Rhea/Cybele. The wine we offer to the gods is his blood. He is the Render of Flesh and the Devourer of Men. He is a god of madness, death, and dismemberment every bit as much as a god of ecstasy and Mystery, of queers and of misfits. All these things go hand in hand: to be queer in this society, every bit as much as in ancient Hellas, is to BE dismembered, either figurative or literally, and often both.
* As described by Teiresias and Cadmus to Pentheus in Euripides’ Bacchae. Proper citation when I have time to look it up. Sorry: it’s midterms and I shouldn’t even be ON the Internet. Likewise for all that follows… no, wait, on second though: do yer goddamn research. Theoi.com is a good place to start.