Tag Archives: Dionysus

Altar to Eros, Aphrodite, and Dionysus

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Last night I finally unpacked my second Dionysus statue–the one that went with me to Indiana and back–and dedicated the altar he now shares with Eros and Aphrodite.  This is not their final home, but the vanity I wish to appropriate for this purpose is still full of heirlooms.

No, your eyes do not deceive you: that is a penis-shaped bottle opener front and center.  I got it in Athens.

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Dionysiac Sketches

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A pair of sketches from the last few days: a female satyr (unattested in the 5th and 4th centuries Greece, but appearingin the Roman era and rife in later neo-Classical periods) and a Dionysiac phallus.

From Eric Csapo:

The zoomorphic concept of the phallus is pervasive in Greek thought-one has only to think of the many representations of phallus birds in Greek art.  It is also essentially Dionysiac. The phallus icon of Dionysus and the phalli carried in Dionysiac processions are always regarded as independent living organisms, of which the glans is a head, equipped with eyes and sometimes with (phallic, horse-like) ears and other animal attributes (see Plates 1A, 1B, 1C, 3, 4, 8A, 8B).41 The eyes, ears, and the phallus are the essential organs of the Dionysiac creature, but especially the eyes and phallus, because, though one can be possessed by music through one’s ears and possess others through theirs, it is by one’s own eyes and phallus that one is both possessed and takes possession.
— p.260 “Riding the Phallus for Dionysus: Iconology, Ritual, and Gender-Role De/Construction.” Phoenix. 51. no.3/4 (Autumn – Winter, 1997): 253-295. Emphasis mine.

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Violence In the Heart of Ecstacy

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.

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My Liberalia

English: Dionysus is equated with both Bacchus...

English: Dionysus is equated with both Bacchus and Liber (also Liber Pater). Liber (“the free one”) was a god of fertility, wine, and growth, married to Libera. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Calendars are a problem.  The more of them you have, the harder they are to match up.  At this stage in my life, I’m struggling to reconcile four: the Gregorian, the academic, the lunar, and the Wheel of the Year.  Sometimes, it can be a fucking mess, especially as I try to splice in ancient festivals AND keep everything relevant to the life I actually live.

So, it was very much to my delight last year when I learned of an interesting coincidence: namely that Saint Patrick’s Day (an “Irish” American drinking festival, for those who don’t live in the USA) and the Liberalia fall at about the same time.  Even more fortuitous, both coincide with the beginning of Spring Break (an academic American drinking festival) at my particular institution of higher education.  My celebrations last year were impromptu and (mostly) solitary.  But I did start a batch of mead with this year in mind.

Now the date approaches and  I watch with some curiosity as Sanion anticipates Anthesteria. I am trying to find time to do research into what “traditional” festivities would have included, and then decide / beg for divine inspiration as to which elements to maintain, which to adopt from other festivals, and what to make up whole cloth.

There will be wine, of course, and mead: both drinking the mead I started last year and will bottle in about a week, and the starting of a new batch for next year.  And feasting: I never open the Sunrise Temple without providing food.  Offerings aplenty to the God, and a special altar erected to him for the occasion.

But what else?  I don’t really have the resources to put on a play of any kind, and playing movies in the background seems … a weak

Statue of Dionysus of the "Madrid-Varese ...

Statue of Dionysus of the “Madrid-Varese type”. Roman artwork based on a late Hellenistic original (ca. 125–100 BC). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

substitute at best.  (Besides which, all the appropriate movies that I own will be played for the same people three weeks prior at my Midsem party.)  Perhaps I can encourage participants to declaim from the various hymns to Dionysus; a lot of them are thespians, they’ll probably get a kick out of it.  And should I bring in elements of the Urban Dionysia, which falls about the same time of year (depending on the vagaries of the lunar calendar) but much less fortuitously in terms of free time to devote to worship?

I’m thinking that there may be some ritual (and playful) flogging, both to purify and to excite (though, contrary to Pausanius’ Skiereia, it will be everyone getting lashed).  Possibly arts-and-crafts, especially the making and donning of masks and thyrsoi.  I may encourage cross-dressing, in honor of the god’s youth spent hiding from Hera, and in memory of Tieresias and Cadmus, who donned women’s clothing that they might participate in the rites when the other men of Thebes followed Pentheus’ lead in denying Dionysus.

Hopefully everyone will have enough fun to get naked, because … Maenads and Satyrs, duh.  Should that happen, face and body paint are great games.

I have numerous Tarot decks, and it might be an interesting occasion on which to employ the oracular powers of Dionysus.  Also, the ouija board.  (Of course I have a ouija board.  Don’t look at me that way.  You have one, too.)

All this would be just a little easier, of course, if I had a more concrete relationship with the god.  When I do my thrice-weekly offering rites, I hail him as I pour the libations: “Dionysus, Liber Pater, Lord of the Vine, source and surcease of madness.”  But if those things were all that he is to me, then I would not need to have a festival: I would simply meditate on what passes for my sanity whilst drinking until I cry.  But Dionysus is more than that.  So much more.

I struggle in my search for how best to honor him.

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HPF 2012: The Blessings of Dionysus Upon you All

 

"Bacchus" by Caravaggio.

“Bacchus” by Caravaggio. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Flannigan’s Right Hook was playing their cover of Paint it Black as Aradia and I stumbled back from one of the furthest-flung encampments at Gaea, still high from our first shamanic journey.  That was Friday night of HPF 2009, our first year together; they played again the following year on the Sunday night main-stage, to which they returned  this year.  I missed the first part of this show, too, eventually abandoning half of my encampment to their face-painting shenanigans.

After the quiet of rest of the festival, walking up to the stage was like running face-first into a cacophonic wall of neon light and raucous sound.  A beautiful, much-needed wall, the impact with which brought me back to 2k9 and ‘10, returning to those moments in cyclical time.  The guitars, the cello, the electric fiddle … it was catharsis, pure and powerful.

I needed it desperately.  The festival, to that point, had had its ups and downs.  The main ritual, the day before, had been an utter disaster from which we were all—despite the passage of twenty-four hours, multiple cleansing rituals, and the completion of the public closing ritual just hours before—still recovering.  Even the land was stained.

So I stood there, vibrating with the music, and trying to let go.  To let go of my frustration with the Sacred Experience Committee.  To let go of my frustration with my camp-mates, most of whom had not yet made it to the pavilion[1].  To let go of my desire for the festival—which I have been attending since I was eighteen years old, to which I have introduced probably a dozen people at this point, and to which I had brought three “virgins” this very year—to be perfect, and just enjoy it as it was in the then and the now.  Perfection doesn’t exist in this world.  I’m skeptical that it exists anywhere.  …. So why, then, do I get so upset when things turn out to be less than perfect?

The music was amazing, the light show was a blast, and I was drinking thoroughly-blessed wine.  And yet, I was still struggling to find the fun.  My ambivalence must have been clear.  When Aradia asked me if I was alright, I didn’t lie.

Aradia and Aurora had been to one of the workshops I’d missed on account of my work exchange obligations.  The workshop was on aura cleansing and chakra balancing.  Together, as I stood there listening to the music, they worked over my energetic bodies until I was almost in tears.  Finally, something inside me broke loose, the tears came, my aura opened up, and I was able to let go and find the fun.  Power filled me, and a few sudden insights.

The band was clearly having the time of their lives, too.  Somehow, bottles of mead kept finding their way on stage.  At one point, the band stopped to toast the audience.  I raised my glass and toasted them back: “The blessings of Dionysus upon you all.”

My wine, as I said, was well-blessed.  Recognizing that I was not the only one in my encampment stained by the miasma of the previous night’s ritual, I took the box of wine Aurora had offered for the purposes, and called upon Dionysus to bless it so that all who drank of it would be purged of the stain and incited to sacred revelry.  I wish I’d thought to wright down the specifics, but I kinda got lost in the moment.  I completed the blessing by pouring a libation in a circle around the box; suddenly, it was “hot” to the touch.

“Holy shit,” said Aradia.  “What did you just do?”

When I toasted the band, my blessing spread to their bottles.  But one of the things about working with gods and spirits, I guess, is that once you start talking to them, they’re listening more than you realize.   And I had said “upon you all.”  Little lights started going off in the audience as the blessing spread to those bottles.  And then little bells started ringing in my head as other bottles throughout camp were lighted with the same blessing, too.

It was about that time that the rest of our encampment showed up, beaming and with faces painted.  The wine flowed liberally and, when the concert was over, we found a secluded place to load a bowl while they lit the bonfire.

The tenor of the evening was changed, radically, and for the better.


1 – I love you guys, but you can’t spend five days camped with anyone and not end up a bit frustrated at some point.

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Dionysus Miscellanea

Statue of Dionysus of the "Madrid-Varese ...

Statue of Dionysus of the "Madrid-Varese type". Roman artwork based on a late Hellenistic original (ca. 125–100 BC). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hey, folks, it’s the end of the semester.  While I’m buy writing papers for the next few days, I may not get another chance to post.  In the meantime, check out some of the fun facts I that my research turned up but which I couldn’t work into my paper on the cult of Dionysus in Hellenistic Greece and the Roman Republic:

* Although most often described as the son of the mortal princess Semele, Dionysos is also said to be the son of Persephone, a relationship which explains his cthonic attributes (Burkert 1985.294)  Those familiar with Orphic mythology already know this.

* The thyrsos wand, associated with Bacchic worship, may—according to Burkert—draw its name from association “with a god attested in Ugarit, tirsu, intoxicating drink, or alternatively with the Late Hittite tuwarsa, vine…”, and that the very name Bacchus may be drawn from a Semitic word for wailing, drawing a parallel with the wailing over the death of the Mesopotamian god Tammuz. (Burkert 1985 p.163)

* Dionysus shares the thyrsos wand with Artemis—the only other deity to use the wand in their rites. (Burkert 1985 p.223)

* Dionysus may have been depicted on herms, either as himself or synchretised with Hermes (Burkert 1985 p.222)

* Prefiguring later synchretisms, the worship of Dionysus was influenced by the cult of Osiris as early as 660 BCE (Burkert 1985 p.163), an association later affirmed by both Herodotus and Plutarch, the latter of whom also equated Dionysus with Serapis. (Martin 1987.91)

——-

Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985.

Martin, Luther H. Hellenistic Religions: An Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

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Dionysus Devotional Art I

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I’ve been working on this off-and-on for a few months.  I finished coloring it Thursday as a part of my Dionysia.

His beauty is a major point of iconography in Euripides Bacchae, and his purple robe is similarly emphasized in the first of the Homeric Hymns.  The horns are in recognition of his title as Bull-god (and the attendant associations with unfettered lust, especially masculine).  The significance of the thyrsus and wine should be obvious.

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Urban Dionysia

The Facebook group Prayers to the Gods of Hellas informs me that the Urban Dionysia began at sundown last night, and will continue for the next eight days .  The Attic title was Διονύσια τὰ ἐν Ἄστει (Dionusia ta en Astei: lit. “The In City Dionusia”) or Διονύσια τὰ Μεγάλα (Dionusia ta Megala: lit. “Dionusia the Big”).  The Wikipedia article can be found here.

It is both interesting and appropriate that Sannafrid and I (unknowingly) chose to spend last night smoking and drinking, while I read aloud from my copy of the Homeric Hymns.  First the Hymns to Aphrodite, as we had been discussing goddesses of fucking, and then the Hymns to Dionysus.  As the evening went on, I colored an iconographic image of the god I have been working on off-and-on for some time.  This afternoon, shortly before penning this post, I poured a libation of mead before the idol on my altar.

It is further interesting that, although we are shifting from Greek drama to Roman in my Greek and Roman Drama class, I have spent the afternoon reading* Euripides Hippolytus in anticipation of reading Phaedra, Seneca’s version of the story, next week.  Hippolytus was first performed in 428 BCE, and—like all the Attic dramas which have survived—was a winner of the theatre competitions which were a major part of the festival.

Unfortunately, I do not have the liberty to take eight days off in honor of Dionysos—or even to get ploughed for the next seven nights in his name (and “sacrifice my liver”, as Sannafrid put it).  Besides, the original was a state-sponsored festival which (to a casual but cynical reader, at least) looks like it was intended to duplicate, tame, and profit off of the older, Rural, Dionysia … and the Cults of the Olympians are not state-sponsored religion anymore.

What I can do is make a point of taking an hour or two out of each of the next seven days to meditating on the Bacchic One and upon my relationship with him, finishing the one devotional image I have so far, finishing reading Written in Wine (the devotional anthology Aradia gave me so long ago), and working on translating the Homeric hymn I never got to over Spring Break because the Hymn to Phanes took me so long.  Hopefully, between these various things, I may develop some sense of how I might celebrate this festival (and the Rural, in the winter) within my own cultural frame work and (still infantile) devotional practice.

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* I have read Hippolytus before, of course, for last semester’s mythology class.  The roles of the goddesses Aphrodite and Artemis are too prominent to pass up.  I could write a whole post about that play alone.  Possibly several: one tackling the theme of hubris and failure to treat the altars of the gods; one dealing with Euripides treatment of women in general, and another on the misogyny of Hippolytus in particular.  But those are rants for another day.

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St. Patrick’s Day, Liberalia, and a Modern Neo-Pagan’s Ritual Calendar

In the ancient world—in the early modern world, as well, in fact, and to this very day in some places—the liturgical calendar was managed by the state.  That is, in fact, a large part of why we have the records we do.  Although this was not theocracy in any sense, this was not mere public piety, either: in addition to stimulating the economy—food stalls, sacrifices, costume, and the like—state-sponsored religious rituals helped form and maintain community bonds.

Today, in the United States, we don’t quite have state-sponsored religious rituals.  We have “bank holidays” which are not formal religious (or even nationalist) observances, though they “coincidentally” lean strongly in that direction, which are set aside by law so that employees of local, state, and federal governments have a paid day off, and bank employees do as well.  Christmas, Thanksgiving, Memorial Day, Labor Day.  We also have a number of “unofficial” holidays—that is, days when no one can count on a paid holiday, but which local authorities bend over backwards to facilitate.

The most recent of these is St. Patrick’s day.  I’ve heard so many different versions of the history, I’m not even entirely certain which ones to believe.  One thing I am certain of is that the snakes-as-pagans version plays into the historical oppression narrative that we’re a little too fond of—see the Burning Times—and on closer examination, doesn’t fit what I know of Christian myth without being viewed through that lens.  Another thing I’m certain of is that, regardless of its roots, its modern manifestation is harmful only in terms of liver damage and drunk driving.  Not being a fan of the whole “pinching (or punching) people for failing to wear green” thing, and being somewhat terrified of the amateur drunk drivers who come out of the woodwork on St.P’s and New Years.

My attitude about that sort of thing has changed over the last couple years.  For one, I’ve just flat-out loosened up a lot.  When I was younger, I found bars to be painfully over-stimulating on a regular Saturday; these days, I enjoy a little hyper-stimulation from time to time.

Then, late Friday night, I learned, about the festival of Liberalia through one of the above links.  Liber Pater, to the best of my knowledge, is not a god of wine and harvest “like Bacchus”, as the Wikipedia asserts, but one of Dionysus’ Roman cult titles.  Although the Roman reconstructionist source I find emphasize the part where of the festival at which a Roman youth was acknowledged as an adult man, Ovid memorializes it as a festival of fertility and protection under the auspices of Bacchus and formless Numina, of whom I previously had not heard and will need to do some research.

Now, as some of you may know, I count Dionysus among my patron divinities.  He and his representatives have helped me a few times, first at my initiation and during subsequent explorations of the Underworld.  But, other than offering him tastes of every batch of homebrew I make (every time I sample it myself during the racking process), and of most of my bottles of “recreational” wine and mead, we haven’t really worked out a devotional relationship yet.  I don’t know what he wants from me … if anything.

The coincidence of St. Patrick’s day—one of the great US drinking holidays—and a day sacred to Dionysus is too interesting to ignore.  And it seems like a good place to start.  So I made offerings at midnight when I discovered the fact, in the morning, and upon returning from the bar after my revelries.  He seemed to like them, but I (so far) haven’t gotten very … tactile responses for any of the offerings I make—from the gifts I give to Tsu, to the offerings I make to my Kouros and Cyclades figures, or to any of the other gods on my altar.

Besides, I need holidays more frequent than every six weeks.  Liberalia is now officially on my own personal calendar.

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