Dionysus was the ancient Greek god of fertility, ritual dance, and mysticism, the mysterious and paradoxical god of altered states, of ecstasy and terror, of wildness and of the most blessed deliverance - the mad god whose apperance sends mankind into madness. Euripedes famously called him "most gentle and most terrible".
Dedicated to John Fork for 'perceiving' Dionysus
Many people Christians would be horrified to think that Jesus is in some way a manifestation of Dionysus, but the parallels are complex and deep. Like Jesus, Dionysus is a God in human form, who dies and is resurrected, born of a mortal mother by a divine father. Like Jesus, Dionysus is a god whose tragic passion is re-enacted by eating his flesh and drinking his blood. Like Jesus, Dionysus is a miraculous god associated with the immortality of the soul. Like Christianity, the religion of Dionysus spread like wildfire. Like Jesus, Dionysus is the God of the visionary state acheived through the sacrament. The rites of Dionysus frequently involved violent sacrificial death, which would make a Christian cringe.
But we have to recognise that this violence was to become magified to an extraordinary degree in Christianity. The example of the Crucifixion provoked tens of thousands of Christians to walk voluntarily into the cruellest of matryrdoms. Just like the vengeful Dyonisian priest swung his axe at the fleeing priestesses, the Inquisition and Witch Hunts then turned the blood back upon itself, resulting in millions of deaths across Europe. The Pangs of the Messiah have long outlived the rending of Dionysus.
He supposedly invented wine making and was considered the patron of poetry, song, and drama. He is often pictured as an 'effeminate' or ridiculous youth, or as a bearded man.
Among the 12 gods on Mount Olympus, he was depicted as a handsome young man often carried in a leopard-drawn chariot. Dressed in fawnskin shirt and holding drinking cup and thyrsus (staff), he was typically accompanied by deer and attended by Pan, Satyrs and Maenads (Grollier).
It was believed that Dionysus arose from the dead each year at Delphi and reigned during the three winter months, while Apollo was away. Two celebrations were regularly held in Athens in his honor: the Greater Dionysia, in March, and the Lesser Dionysia, in December. On January 6 th, Christ's Epiphany, a similar festival of Dionysus, was previously kept in the Aegean Islands and Anatolia.
The Dionysian festivities were often orgiastic; worshippers were sometimes overcome with ecstasy and enthusiasm or religious fervor. The central feature of his worship was called sparagmos: the tearing apart of a live animal, the eating of its flesh, and the drinking of its blood; participants believed they were in fact partaking of the god's body and blood.
Plays were also staged at these festivals.
Although an ancient god, Dionysus was often pictured as a newcomer, who travelled bearing gifts demanding recognition and punishing the unbelievers. It is thus believed that Dionysus made his way into Greece as a foreigner, and that he was able to receive recognition only after overcoming powerful opposition. It is held that he came over the Aegean sea, out of Phrygia or Lydia, from the Thracians who had migrated to Asia Minor in the eighth century, and that his victory over the orthodox believers may not be dated prior to the year 700 BC. The mainland of Greece, itself, is designated as the third seat of the Dionysiac movement, because the great excitement which the arrival of Dionysus evoked there is supposed to have been only a re-awakening of an age-old worship. The Greeks considered their principal cults of Dionysus to be age-old. In Delphi the worship of Dionysus may be older than that of Apollo. In Smyrna there is evidence of a festival of Dionysus already for the period when the city was still Aeolic. Homeric epic speaks of him in the same manner in which it speaks of the deities who have been worshipped since time immemorial.
Dionysus seems a misfit among the Gods of Olympus, but according to Briffault (v3 128), this indicates he is more ancient, rather than a newcomer. He suggests the myths of his arrival are rather associated with the gathering of a host of ancient fertility deities of the mother goddess, especially Artemis, under his collective name - the god of many names. This would indicate that, far from tipping the Olympian balance towards the patriarchal hegemony by displacing Hestia, he is a primal fertility consort of the Goddess, belying Euripedes' words:
Pentheus, the grandson of Cadmus has the "Eastern Stranger" (Dionysus disguised) captured, but he easily escapes. The Maenad's bands are loosed as in Acts 16:25. Pentheus, obsessed by Dionysus, goes to the hills dressed as a woman to spy on theorgiastic rites of the Bacchants. He is caught and, led by his own mother Agave, is torn to pieces in a frenzy.
Dionysus is a dying and resurrected god of fertility, in the mold of Tammuz who even in his genesis myths has two, or even three, successive incarnations, firstly between Zeus and Persephone representing heaven and the underworld reincarnated as the divine son of a mortal mother Semele by god the father Zeus, finally returning to the underworld like Orpheus, but to retrieve his mother. The first is the Orphic tradition of Dionysos-Zagreus and the second of Hesiod (Mylonas 309).
Demeter came from Crete to Sicily, where, near the springs of Kayane, she discovered a cave. There she hid her daughter Persephone, and set as guardians over her, two serpents that at other times were harnessed to her chariot. In the cave the maiden worked in wool - the customary occupation for maidens under the protection of Pallas Athene, in her sacred citadel at Athens. Persephone began weaving a great web, a robe for her father or her mother, which was a picture of the whole world. While she was engaged in this work Zeus came to her in the shape of a serpent, and he begat by his daughter that god, Zagreus or Dionysos who, in the Orphic stories, was to be his successor, the fifth ruler of the world. . The birth of the son and successor to the throne actually took place in the maternal cave. A late ivory relief shows the bed in the cave: the bed in which the horned child - the horns signify attributes of the heavenly bull, the waxing and waning (lunar) son of Persephone, the moon-goddess of the underworld - had just been born. He is also crowned with serpents. . The Orphic story also named the toys of the new ruler of the world: toys that became symbols of those rites of initiation which were first undergone by the divine boy, the first Dionysos: dice, ball, top, golden apples, bull-roarer and wool. The last two played a part in the ceremony of initiation.
It was told that the [Titans] surprised the child-god as he was playing with the toys. Jealous Hera had instigated them to this: . The Titans had whitened their faces with chalk. They came like spirits of the dead from the Underworld, to which Zeus had banished them. They attacked the playing boy, tore him into seven pieces and threw these into a cauldron standing on a tripod. In his flight from attack he had fled and like Dumuzzi transformed himself into Zeus, Chronos, a young man, a lion, a horse a serpent and finally a bull, the form in which he was torn apart. A pomegranate tree sprouted from his fallen blood. When the flesh was boiled, they began roasting it over the fire on seven spits. . When Zeus smote the Titans with his lightning they had already eaten the flesh of Dionysos. They must have been hurled back into the Underworld, since. they are invoked as the subterranean ancestors of mankind. . The boiled limbs of the god were burnt - with the exception of a single limb, or sometimes the heart . A pomegranate is said to have sprung from the blood like the anenomes of Adonis.
A goddess was present at the meal - in later tales, the goddess Pallas Athene - and she hid the remaining undamaged limb, or heart, in a covered basket. Zeus took charge of it. It was said to have been Dionysos's heart. This statement contains a pun: for it was also said that Zeus entrusted the kradiaios (heart or 'fig') of Dionysos to great mother Rhea [Hipta], so that she might carry it on her head. On her head was a liknon: a winnowing-fan, such as was carried on the head at festal processions, and contained a phallus hidden under a pile of fruit - Dionysos himself having made the phallus of fig-wood.
In the myth of the second Dionysus the god Zeus came to the mortal Semele, the daughter of Cadmus, King of Thebes, with a potion from the heart of Dionysos, and this he gave Semele to drink, making her pregnant. When Hera heard of this, she tried to prevent the birth. She disguised herself as Semele's nurse, . . . when Zeus first came to Semele he had assumed a mortal guise. Led astray by her pretended nurse, Semele asked Zeus to grant her just one wish. Zeus promised to do so, and when his beloved wished that he would appear to her as he did to Hera, he visited her with lightning The lightning struck her and she descended into the Underworld consumed in the holocaust of the lightning of her heavenly bridegroom.
Cooling ivy tendrils protected him from the heat by which his mother was consumed. Zeus rescued from her body the unripe fruit of her womb, the child Dionysos and sheltered the prematurely born god in his own thigh by sewing the child into his divine body. And when the proper time for his birth had come, he brought his son into the light and bore him, far away to the east, on Mount Nysa. Zeus then . entrusted Dionysos to the divine nurses who were to look after him in the cave. When they had reared him to full stature, he went into the woods wreathed with ivy and laurel, but not yet with vine-leaves. He was accompanied Satyrs and by women, the nymphs of the woods, the Maenads armed with ivy-clad staffs tipped with pine cones, swords, shakes and bull-roarers. Satyrs, addicted to wine revelry and lust, are often depicted naked and sexually aroused. They would pursue the Maenads but were happy to consummate their desire with any creature or with inanimate objects.
Thus, the "twice-born one" has already, before his entry into the world, outgrown everything that is mortal. He has become a god, the god of intoxicated delight. A god supposedly inflicted with madness by Hera for Zeus's indiscretion. Thus the, the bringer of joy was predestined for suffering and death - the suffering and death of a god! And to the house of his mother blessedness and suffering.
Later Dionysos descends to the Underworld in search of Semele. As a price for his service he had to promise complete female surrender. Only if he did this could he reach his mother and bring her back. He fulfilled his promise with the help of a phallus made of fig-wood, which he erected on the spot. . . . When Dionysos had brought Semele back and had made her immortal, he named her Thyone, "The ecstatically raging" and took up to Heaven as a goddess.?That the name Semele, which supposedly originally referred to a goddess, was actually a human name is indicated by the second name which the mother of Dionysus bears, the new mother freed from the realm of death by her son and crowned with immortality. Dionysus is said to possess nine choirs among the Heavenly Host (Waite 271).
Different stages of this myth are enacted in different localities. In Crete it is Jupiter and Juno and his siter Minerva who had shared in the deed who replace Zeus, Hera and Athene.
Despite the blame placed on Hera, the myth is telling of the son of a king who is given the scepter of kingship and placed on the throne as the last 'king of all the gods of the world' for a day and then sacrificed in the king's stead to maintain fertility of the earth. It is likewise said the infant leaped into the throne and held up the thunderbolt. The tearing apart of Dionysus is itself the refertilizing of the land with blood, just as Tammuz was ground and Osiris was scatteres. Dionysus as dying god of vegetation was 'he of the winnowing fan', piled with fruits, particularly the pomegranate and also 'he of the tree' (Frazer 1890 7/1-33). In Rome he was Pater Liber 'father freedom' who protected the crops against evil fortune. As a bull, he is the first to yoke oxen to the plough in planting barley. He is the Minotaur and the bull jumping and sacrifice of Crete. As the white bull he is Persephone's dying moon.
His rites which usually accompanied the coming of spring re-enacted his passion in every detail. Allthat he had done or suffered in his last moments was enacted before the eyes of his worshippers, who tore a live bull to pieces with their teeth and roamed the woods with frantic shouts. At Chios and Tendenos it was known that human rather than animal sacrifice continued and in Pontniae and Boetia a child was formerly sacrificed.Like Christians in principle, but in a wilder manner, the supplicants were thus eating the flesh and drinking the blood of the divine saviour. The Bacchanals of Thrace wore horns in imitation of their god. In front of them was carried a casket supposed to contain his sacred heart and to the wild music of flutes and cymbals they mimicked the rattles by which he had been lured to his doom. Where the resurrection formed part ofthe myth it was enacted at the rites and resurrection and immortality became part of the doctrine. Plutarch comforted his wife on the loss of their infant Daughter by the thought of immortality of the soul as revealed in the mysteries.
Many of the myths of dismembership surrounding Dionysus appear to record ancient rite in which a king was killed and spread for the fertility of the land. This is the case for both Pentheus, who like Dionysus was immolated at Thebes, and for Lycurgus who cut his own son Dryas mistaking him for a vine, that is he sacrificed him in his stead as the dying vegetation god, but when there was a prolonged drought, he was torn in pieces by his subjects using a team of horses. It can thus be seen that the original savagery of the myths and rites of Dionysus arise from his history as a sacrificial fertility deity rather than the personally vengeful, violent nature of the god himself.
The women of Elis hailed him as a bull and prayed him to come with his bull foot. The use of foot appears to indicate the human manifestation was lamed in the manner of Jacob. It is known that Dionysus wore buskins. At Tendenos where an animal was sacrificed, it also wore buskins. Dionysus also manifested as a goat and black goatskins were worn by his impersonators.
Dionysus, himself, dispenses the water which enlivens and invigorates. Inherent in the Dionysiac clement of moisture is not only the power which maintains life but also the power which creates it. Thus it flows through the entire human and animal world as a fertilizing, generative substance. The learned Varro was very well informed when he declared that the sovereignty of Dionysus was not only to be recognized in the juice of fruits whose crowning glory was wine but also in the sperms of living creatures. From this sphere of the god's activity he traced the origin of the custom in which a phallus was crowned with wreaths and carried around in the god's cult. We certainly know how great a role this symbol of procreative power played in his festivals. "A wine jar, a vine, a goat, a basket of figs, and then the phallus" - this is the description Plutarch gives us of the original simplicity of the Dionysiac celebration .
Briffault (3 121-157) takes his origins right back to the earliest fertility rites of Greece which were exclusively the province of womens religion. He notes that Mainads originally were three women carrying shamanic tympana with spears and a double axe to kill sacrificial victims. Dionysus thus stands as the archetype of the dying sacred king, the frenzy of the Mainads thus representing anceint rites of male sacrifice rather than the violent disposition of the god himself.
No men were allowed into the birth chapel of Dionysus at Thebes up to the time of Pansanias. Later male Dionysian priests had to wear female attire. Dionysus himself was effeminate and called "lord of the vulva" and sham-man. "It would in fact appear that the whole cult associated with Dionysus was originally a women's religion from the rites of which men were excluded" (Briffault v3 128). This would explain that Pentheus was originally torn apart for spying on women's secret rites.
He is thus associated with the original fertility rites of the agrarian goddess as the male principle of fertility. His identification firstly as son of Persephone the moon goddess of the realm of death and later a son of Semele who becomes Tyrone the raging one, far from making her a mere human as in later patriarchal legend is associated in both cases with his being the fertility consort s who is seasonally sacrificed by the great goddess. Graves (1958) notes that Semele was worshipped at Athens during the Lenaea Festival fo the Wild Women when a yearling bull, representing Dionysus was sacrificed to her and cut into nine pieces, one being burned and the rest eaten raw, noting that she is generally explained as a form of Selene another moon goddess.
Aeschylus notes that Delphi was the province of a three-fold goddess Gaia, Themis and Phoibe before being appropriated by Apollo. As elsewhere, the three were associated with a male god. Among those displaced by Apollo, Dionysus is expressly named. Delphi was initiated Delphos whose mother was Thyia "who was the first priestess of Dionysus and founded his orgies", the Thyades or 'frantic women' being identifiable with the Maenads. Plutarch who was a Delphic priest says the oracle was inspired by the night and the moon. "Dionysus had as much to do with Delphi as Apollo." He is represented by his Thyades. The oracle was delivered on his grave, the sacred 'omphalos' centre of the world.
His mythical journeys to Egypt and to India can be identified both with the generality of the same sacrificial fertility gods Osiris, Adonis and Tammuz and even with Soma the Vedic moon god, the archetypal moon god of the sacred potion of altered states, with which Dionysus shares a horned aspect. He is 'the nocturnal' who wears a dark star-spangled robe and a crescent-shaped mitre, who in Phrygia is identified with the moon god Men. Soma is also called "the deathless one" and "the raging one".
His identity as wine god may have emerged from a later importation of viticulture from Phoenicia as the Tyrians attest. Osiris and Tammuz are similarly associated with the vine.
His association with the terebinth (Erebinthos) pomegranate and other fruits attest to his general fertility nature. Plutarch has even identified Yahweh with Dionysus. The connection between moisture, vegetation and generation is thus referred to by Plutarch "The Greeks call a son 'hyon' from water and rain which are called 'hydor' and 'hyein'; and they call Dionysus Hyes, who presides over all moisture.
Dionysus was extensively worshipped in association with Artemis and also with Demeter. Plutarch notes "The ancients worshipped Dionysus and Demeter together".The sanctuary of Eleusis is we are told "a temple of Dionysus". Barabara Walker (236) notes that the epiphany or advent of Dionysus was at Eleusis. "Dionysus was represented seated on the same throne as Demeter, nay on the lap of the goddess. In Rome they made Dionysus and Persephone Liber and Libera the children of Demeter (Ceres).
Plutarch asks in his Greek Questions "Why do the women of Elis summon Dionysus in their hymns to come among them with his bull foot? These women were representatives of the three 'Charites' or Graces who shared an altar with Dionysus. We note that Dionysus was also known to wear the high-heeled buskins of Greek Tragedy. The upshot appears to be that Dionysus was, kile the sacred king Jacob lamed at the thigh requiring sacred buskins, which were also symbols of the goddess.
Dionysus is a dying god who ritually celebrates the hieros gamos. The house in which the holy marriage was consummated, the Boukolion, was, according to Aristotle, formerly the official residence of the Archon Basileus. Into the house of the high official, heir to the title of the kings of old, the god set foot to claim the Archon's wife for his own. Unlike the Babylonian and the Egyptian god who demand the companionship of a consecrated woman in their temples, he presents himself to her in the house of her husband, to make her his through his embrace. The Queen of Athens was ritually united with the god.
Ariadne, the symbol of womanhood which gave itself up to Dionysus in love, is a mortal Aphrodite, the divine archetype of bewitching graciousness. With Ariadne the nature of the Dionysiac woman is exalted in their queen. She is the perfect image of the beauty which, when it is touched by its lover, gives life immortality. And yet, it is a beauty which must pass down a road whose unavoidable termini are sorrow and death. She is explicitly called the wife of Dionysus. Just as Semele, as mother, may share immortality with the god, so may Ariadne, as loved one - born mortal though she is. For Dionysus' sake, Zeus, as Hesiod says, gave her eternal life and eternal youth. And thus she rides in the chariot of Dionysus toward heaven.
In Amathus on Cyprus she was worshipped as Ariadne Aphrodite. So apparent is Ariadne's relationship with the sea and with sea-born Aphrodite. The fate of the Dionysiac is that life and death, mortality and eternity are mixed up with one another in a miraculous way and just as he must endure suffering and death, so the women with whom he is most intimately associated reach a state of glory only by passing through deep sorrow - the suffering and death of all those who are associated with him. Both Ariadne and Semele met destruction through the one they loved. In the Odyssey Theseus wished to carry Ariadne away with him from Crete to Athens but had to lose her on the island of Dia because Artemis put her to death there at the prompting of Dionysus, at Apollo's bidding, because she had become unfaithful to the god. She died at the moment when she was about to bring a child into the world.
There is however another much more cheerful picture Graves (1958, Willis 150). Ariadne, who is deserted at the island of Naxos and follows her faithless lover with sorrowing eyes as she stands deserted on the reedy shore is discovered by Dionysus with his full retinue. He marries her amid great celebrations by the gods. She bears him six children. Later he placed her bridal chaplet among the stars and turned her into the Corona.
Women make up the intimate surroundings and retinue of Dionysus. He, himself, has something feminine in his nature. To be sure, he is in no way a weakling but a warrior and a hero who triumphs; and we shall have something to say about that later. But his manhood celebrates its sublimest victory in the arms of the perfect woman. This is why the thyiads on Parnassus awaken the sleeping child Dionysus at regular intervals. And the women who hold their revel rout around the mature god are also called "nurses."
In addition to the Lenai we know of a large number of other women's societies which had as their function the performance of all sorts of cult practices and the organization of ecstatic dances in the service of the god. On the day of his appearance they evoke the god, who has vanished into the depths or the distance, or they wake up the baby Dionysus, who is sleeping in his cradle.
We can get some idea of the wildness of their dances when we hear that they once arrived at Amphissa in complete bewilderment and sank down there in the market place exhausted. At this, the women of the town formed a circle around them as they slept so that the soldiers who were present in the town would not molest them.
The inner force of this dual reality is so great that he appears among men like a storm. All tradition, all order must be shattered. Life becomes suddenly an ecstasy - an ecstasy of blessedness, but an ecstasy, no less, of terror. His appearance is startling, disquieting, violent. It arouses opposition and agitation. Right at his birth gods arise as his enemies. Terrible disturbances are engendered in his vicinity. And in this way, even the revelation of the god who has become a man creates wild emotion, anger, and opposition among mankind. The god appeared with such wildness and demanded such unheard-of things, so much that mocked all human order, that he first had to over-power the hearts of men before they could do him homage. Thus the conception of his first arrival, the mythic image of a regular coming - became a story of strife and conquest.
The cult forms portray the passionate irresistability with which he arrives, the god who comes, the god of epiphany, whose appearance is far more urgent, far more compelling than that of any other god. He had disappeared in an incomprehensible manner from the circle of his followers or is swallowed up in the deep, and now he will suddenly be here again with his tipsy look and his dazed smile, or bursting forth from the darkness in the form of a savage bull.
Waiting for him were choruses of women, who followed Dionysus everywhere. In Elis it was the dancing chorus of "the sixteen women,' Who invoked the god with: "Come, Lord Dionysus, attended by the Graces, into the holy temple of Elis, rushing into the temple with your bull's hoof!" In Athens he was invoked at the festival of the Lenaea, by the Lenai, a chorus of frenzied women worshippers, who called to the god to come: "Oh, thou leader of the choral dance of the fire-breathing stars, lord of the songs of night, child sprung from Zeus, appear, sovereign, with the women who attend thee, the thyiai, who dance the night through in ecstasy for thee!"
No matter whether he sails over the sea in a wondrous ship, or rises up from the depths of the sea, or as a new-born child suddenly opens his divine eyes-his passion takes possession of the women who awaited him, so that they throw their heads back, toss their hair and rave, just as he himself is the one who raves.
The history of European theater begins with the Greeks, whose annual festivals in honor of the god Dionysus, the patron of poetry, song, and drama, included competitions in Tragedy and Comedy. According to tradition, the first of these dramatic forms evolved from choral songs (choric dithyrambs) concerning the death and resurrection of Dionysus. The dithyramb was originally a Greek choric hymn, with accompanying mime, in honor of Dionysus.
Probably dating from the 7th century BC, it underwent various developments and became an integral part of the drama festivals.This occurred about the middle of the 6th century BC, when Thepsis of Icaria, in a drama of his own composition, impersonated a character and engaged the chorus in dialogue, thereby becoming both the first playwright and the first actor.?Thespis won first prize in the initial tragedy competition held at Athens in 534 BC and is also credited with the introduction of masks, which were thereafter a conventional feature of Greek and Roman theater (Grollier).
The mask tells us that the theophany of Dionysus, which is different from that of the other gods because of its stunning assault on the senses and its urgency, is linked with the eternal enigmas of duality and paradox. This theophany thrusts Dionysus violently and unavoidably into the here and now - and sweeps him away at the same time into the inexpressible distance. It excites with a nearness which is at the same time a remoteness. The final secrets of existence and non-existence transfix mankind with monstrous eyes (Otto).
At the beginning of the fifth century BC tragedy formed part of the Greater Dionysia, the Spring Festival of Dionysus Eleuthereus. Three poets competed, each contributing three tragedies and one satyric play. The later was performed by choruses of fifty singers in a circle, dressed as satyrs, part human, part bestial and bearing before them huge replicas of the erect penis, as they sang dithyrambs. The Greek word tragoidia "tragedy" has been connected with tragos "goat". "Come to us King Dithyramb, Bacchus, god of the Holy Chant" 4th cent BC (Allegro 1970 85).
Tragedy comes from tragos - goat indicating the animal head of the Dionysian impersonator, comedy komos-eidein means revel and sing. Tragedy represents death and the opposition of light and dark, conedy the resolution of chaos in "comedy's wondrous reunions".
The crucifixion represents tragic passion drama and Shakespeare's Twelfth Night the resolution of the gender dilemma in comedy.
Wine was a sacred drink in Greece and its ritualized consumption played in most religious festivals and there were celebrations to mark the grape harvest and the opening of new casks over which Dionysus presided. When people were drunk, acting or in a state of religious ecstasy they were believed to be in the realm of Dionysus.
In the Rig-Veda, a Hindu sacred text, mention is made of drinking soma and of finding one-footed beings that live upside-down in the shade. These beings may have been mushrooms consumed for religious practices. The Eleusinian mysteries of ancient Greece also may have included the ingestion of fleshlike hallucinogenic mushrooms, perhaps Amanita, as part of a secret, drug-taking ritual. The mushroom being passed between Persephone and Demeter in the Eleusis fresco looks more like the 'liberty bell' - Psilocybe semilanceata. As Dionysus was also associated closely with both goddesses and specifically with Eleusis one can postulate a common ritual sacrament.
In his written dialogues Plato records that Socrates, who left no writings of his own, gave the name pharmakon (both "remedy" and "poison" in Greek) to writing. The metaphor concerns writing's pharmaceutical nature: it expands memory, yet breeds dependency on writing implements, just as we today depend more and more on electronic calculators and television with its adrenalin toxicity.
But hallucinogenic fungi are much older temptations. They worked their strange magic on our fruit-foraging primate and pre-primate mammalian ancestors before anyone was in a condition to discuss it. Because fungi feed on animal feces (and corpses), their interest often lies in making a rapid tour through the animal digestive tract; they entice animals to eat them but the spores and even the hyphae may resist digestion (Margulis and Sagan).
Hallucinogenic fungi, such as Psilocybe mexicana, put a strange twist on the ancient relationship between mammals and fungi. Gordon Wasson has suggested that the "apple" Eve plucks from the Tree of Knowledge in the biblical Garden of Eden is actually a mistranslation of the word for an hallucinogenic fungus. The Catholic rite of the Eucharist, the flesh of God as mere wafer, may have originated in pre-Christian initiation ceremonies involving the ingestion of hallucinogenic fungi. (Margulis and Sagan, Allegro 1971). An internationally renowned pioneer in the field of ethnomycology, the scholarly Wasson and his wife, Valentine, sought mushrooms in remote villages in Mexico during the mid 1950s. Their experiences helped spark the psychedelic movement of the 1960s and beyond.
Graves in his second edition of Greek Myths (1960) suggests the wild autumnal feast of the Ambrosia where the Centaurs worshipped Dionysus involved either amanita muscaria or a psilocybin-bearing mushroom such as paneolus papilionaceus, however this species is believed to be inactive (Stamets 1996). Schultes mentions that the wine of Bacchanals was often adulterated with the juice of nightshade, citing the fact that the maenads dilated their eyes and threw themselves into the arms of male worshippers or with 'flaming eyes' fell upon men to tear them apart and eat them (Schultes and Hofmann 1979 88). It has also been suggested that a hallucinogenic strain of ergot fungus growing on Greek wild grasses could have provided the basis of the grain stalk of the Eleusinian Mysteries in a more clement form of intoxication than the toxic forms that infecting rye that later caused epidemics of madness and St. Anthony's fire in medieval Europe.
Nietzsche, in his Birth of Tragedy, traced the Dionysiac orgies back to the "influences of the narcotic potion of which all primitive men and peoples speak in hymns" or to the emotions which awaken with "the powerful imminence of spring which permeates all of nature with its joy. As the emotions are intensified, the subjective element disappears completely into self-forgetfulness."
But wine is also a psychotropic which reveals to "the most headstrong the greatness of the tender-eyed, dancing, and exultant god who is at the same time the most powerful conqueror and the hero with the greatest triumphs. Dionysus alone has the power, with wine's magic, to bend the will of the implacable" (Otto).
He who begets something which is alive must dive down into the primeval depths in which the forces of life dwell. And when he rises to the surface, there is a gleam of madness.
In its most penetrating depth, the myth of Dionysus is the myth of the raging disintegration of the mystical altered state. It is in this sense and not in the sense of the blood of the redeemer that the living Eucharist, and not the blood of the redeemer gains its true significance. And it is through this understanding that the physical violence shared by Christianity and the Dionysus cult in history can finally attain its meaning in the voyage of the mind to the roots of death in letting go completely by loosing the bands of order and entering, like Orpheus, Dionysus, Persephone, Inanna and Jesus the living world of the ego-death the living experience of the Bardo. To achieve this requires just the shattering of the world of order the the chaos of the unfettered mystical state that attends the rebirth of the soul in new life.
In the art of prophecy, madness is represented as secret knowledge. Plutarch explicitly says that in the opinion of "the ancients" Dionysus played a large part in prophecy. According to Herodotus, " there was an oracle of Dionysus in Thrace with a prophetess, as in Delphi."
The hymn which Philodamus of Skarpheia composed for Delphi in the middle of the fourth century tells us that all of the immortals danced at the birth of Dionysus. Semele, herself, during her pregnancy, was supposedly seized by an irrepressible desire to dance,l and whenever she heard the sound of a flute, she had to dance; and the child in her womb danced, too.
What is the reason for this tremendous excitement, this deep trance? The world man knows, in which he has settled himself so securely that world is no more. The turbulence has swept it away. Everything has been transformed. The primeval world has stepped into the foreground, the depths of reality have been opened, the elemental forms of everything that is creative, everything that is destructive, have arisen, bringing with them infinite rapture and infinite terror. The innocent picture of a well- ordered routine world has been shattered by their coming, and they bring with them no illusions or fantasies but truth - a truth that brings on madness.
Rocks split open, and streams of water gush forth. Everything that has been locked up is released. The alien and the hostile unite in miraculous harmony. Age-old laws have suddenly lost their power, and even the dimensions of time and space are no longer valid.
As a prisoner of the Tyrrhenian pirates, his knots kept untying of their own accord. When thye still refuse to release him, Dionysus suddenly transforms the mast and the oars into snakes. Wine suddenly streams forth on the ship of the pirates who take Dionysus along with them. Flute music fills the ship. Vines with swelling grapes wind themselves around the sails, ivy grows around the mast, and wreaths hang down from the tholepins. Delicious wine flows around the ship. Finally he turns himself into a fierce lion and the pirates jump into the sea in terror to become dolphins.
Dionysus' own ship is rocked by waves of bacchantic sound. On its exterior hang resounding bronze cymbals so that the god is not forced to continue his voyage in silence even when his satyrs are deep in a drunken sleep.
"The earth flows with milk, flows with wine, flows with the nectar of bees. And there is a vapor in the air as of Syrian frankincense If they want milk, they scratch up the ground with their fingers and draw up the milky fluid. . They gird themselves with snakes and give suck to fawns and wolf cubs as if they were infants at the breast. Fire does not burn them. No weapon of iron can wound them, and the snakes harmlessly lick up the sweat from their heated cheeks. Fierce bulls fall to the ground, victims to numberless, tearing female hand and sturdy trees are torn up by the roots" (Otto).
Miracles of this type also announce the imminence of the god to the daughters of Minyas, who reject Dionysus and remain true to their household duties and their husbands, until Dionysus, having warned them as a woman to heed him, incites them with the sharpest goad of his madness, startled suddenly by invisible drums, flutes, and cymbals, and see the ivy and grape vines of the god hanging down miraculously from their looms, wine and milk trickling down from the ceiling of their chamber. He now appears as a lion, a bull and a panther driving them insane.
The same miracle which calls forth nourishing streams from the hard and the rigid also bursts chains asunder, causes walls to fall in ruins. Dionysus is the "liberator" In the Bacchae of Euripides, the maenads who have been thrown into prison at the king's command are suddenly free again. The chains dropped from their feet of their own accord, and the locked doors swung open untouched by any hand. To open that which has been locked away is also to reveal the invisible and the future. Dionysus, himself, is a prophet, and the bacchic revel is filled with the spirit of prophecy.
The public cult festivals were also witnesses of the marvels of this transformed world. In many places the epiphany of Dionysus was accompanied by wondrous streams of wine. Grape vines bloomed and ripened on one and the same day. . As Sophocles tells us in his Thyestes, on Euboea one could watch the holy vine grow green in the early morning. By noon the grapes were already forming, they grew heavy and dark in color, and by evening the ripe fruit could be cut down, and the drink could be mixed. Euphorion knew of a festival of Dionysus in Achaean Aigai in which the sacred vines bloomed and ripened during the cult dances of the chorus so that already by evening considerable quantities of wine could be pressed . This was a miracle which commanded serious belief, a miracle which Sophocles and Euripides considered worthy of their praise.
The wild spirit of the dreadful, which mocks all laws and institutions, reveals itself in the pandemonium and deathly silence which accompany the approaching and imminent god. The pandemonium is a genuine symbol of religious ecstasy, overpowering all natural and habitual sense perceptions. The Dreadful suddenly springs into being. And, at its greatest intensity, it is as if the insane din were in reality the profoundest of silences. There are other deities, too, above all Artemis, called by Homer the Lady of Clamours. But none of them takes such joy in a stupefying din as does Dionysus "the roarer." accompanied by his bellowing, shrill-sounding instruments.
The wild uproar fades to a numbed silence - each forms of the Nameless, which shatters all composure. The maenad, whose shrill exultation we think we have just heard, frightens us with her rigid stare, the reflection of the horror which drives her mad.
Aeschylus, in the Edonias, has given us a picture of the wild tumult of the Thracian orgy. According to him, the sound of the flute excited madness. Madness dwells in the surge of clanging, shrieking, and pealing sounds; it dwells also in silence. The women who follow Dionysus get their name, maenades, from this madness. Possessed by it, they rush off, whirl madly in circles, or stand still, as if turned into stone.
But the splendor of the god, to whom all of the treasure rooms of the world have been opened, is overcast suddenly by a profound darkness. Behind the enraptured truth there looms another truth which brings on horror and catches up the dancers in a madness which is no longer sweet but somber. This is represented in the myth, first of all, by the motif of severe persecution.
He rips the ones he has affected out of their wifely decency and morality and mates them with the mysteries and madnesses of the chaos of night. The destruction of his mother is followed by suffering, bitter distress, and violent death for all who become involved, including his maenads and the god himself. The character of the savage god and the dangerous wildness of his female chorus also found their expression in the fate of the arrogant and the inquisitive who eavesdropped or broke in on the mysterious rites, such as Pentheus, who meets the fate of dismemberment in the Lenai of Theocritus.
But the myths deal in the last analysis with the fortunes of the god himself, and of his divine attendants. They are the ones who are excited to madness by him. They are the ones who in such a madness tear their defenseless victims apart, and it is they who are hounded, struck down, and who, like the god himself, perish (Otto).
In this way the myth and the cult present the suffering and dying Dionysus, but eclipsed by that of the young victor. Dionysus entered the world as a conqueror. With the strength of a lion he wrestles with and defeats the giants, forces his way into the most distant lands and becomes the divine archetypal hero, sometimes misinterpreted as the skirmishes between the entering cult of Dionysus and the guardians of the old religion.
Only because Dionysus, himself, is not merely the enraptured one but also the terrible one, has the terrible demanded him as its victim. That sinister truth which creates madness shows its horrible face in his actions no less than in his sufferings. The most celebrated myth of his destruction has him suffer as Zagreus, the "great hunter," the same fate inherent in his appalling actions. The "hunter" is himself is himself rent.
Thus death encroaches upon the realm of the god, who is extolled as "the joyful one" and the "giver of riches". In fact, his realm actually becomes the realm of death, for this like Anthesteria, the spring festival of Dionysus, was a festival of the dead. Dionysus, himself, is a suffering, dying god who must succumb to the violence of terrible enemies in the midst of the glory of his youthful greatness. His grave was in Delphi, in the Holy of Holies. Like him, the women who had raised him and had played his ecstatic games with him all met violent deaths as well.
Tradition shows Dionysus visiting or residing in the world of the dead. He is the dying and resurrecting God who also went below to bring his mother, Semele, back. According to Orphic Hymns, he himself grew up in Persephone's home, and sleeps in the house of Persephone in the intervals before his reappearances. He leads his nocturnal dances by torchlight. Heraclitus says "Hades and Dionysus, for whom they go mad and rage, are one and the same." Like the frozen silence of the maenads, the spirits of the dead are "di silentes".
At the center of the cults and myths of Dionysus stand the forms of the frenzied deity and the women, swept along by his wildness, who have taken in the newborn child, have reared him and are, therefore, called his nurses. At certain festivals, rites of pursuit are performed which can have a gory outcome, and the idea of tragic destruction emerges extremely clearly in several of the legends and practices. This essential of the Dionysiac religion is so well-known to the Iliad that it can be presented there in all of its details.
In the Iliad, Diomedes speaks of the destiny which no man who fights gods can escape. He mentions the mighty Lycurgus, King of Thrace, who opposed Dionysis and his supporters in battle, pursued the "nurses" of the raging Dionysus, so that they, beaten unmercifully by his terrible weapon, let their holy objects fall to the ground. Dionysus, himself beaten, fled into the sea in fright, where Thetis, a previous consort of Zeus, received the trembling god fondly in the watery depths in which he is at home, and from which he is called forth at regular intervals in cult. Lycurgus is driven mad by Rhea, cutting his son down with an axe thinking he is a vine causing all Thrace to become barren. He is struck blind and his own Edonians tear him apart with horses on Mount Pangaeum (Grave 1958, Willis, Otto).
At the festival of the Agrionia "provocation to savagery" in Orchomenos, the women devotees asked riddles until the priest of Dionysus pursued them with a sword and struck down all whom he could reach, metering justice upon the daughters of Minyas, who refused to worship the deity. The spirit of Dionysus then came upon them with marvels and terrors. In the madness which seized them, they developed a violent lust for human flesh and cast lots for their little boys. The lot fell on Leucippe's little son, who was then torn into pieces by the three. The gruesome savagery of these women, who had been previously so virtuous and motherly, appears here as a punishment inflicted upon them by a scorned and neglected god.
The Lenai of Theocritus tells us that the three sisters, one of them his mother, dismembered the unfortunate one Pentheus the grandson of Cadmus, who had driven them mad with his prying curiosity. Procne, together with her sister, similarly kills her own little son and serves him up to her father, whereupon the two are hunted down with a sword or an axe on the day when an orgiastic festival of Dionysus takes place. At the biennial festival of Dionysus celebrated at Arcadian Alea, called the Skiereia, women were similarly flogged .
Even those who welcome him may meet a sticky fate. In Athens, in the age of King Phaidon, Dionysus was received by Icarius and gave the city wine in gratitude. When the people felt the effects they thought they had been poisoned and killed Icarius. When the king's daughter Erigone found him and hung herself a plague broke out which ceased only when a festival was established to honour each of them.
The god punishes by revealing the absolute terror of his reality. And this terror attacks innocent victims, too - in fact, it constantly threatens to make a victim of the god himself. According to Nonnus, Aura, too, the beloved of Dionysus, killed one of her new-born children and devoured it. Like the mothers, so the foster-mothers. It is already said of the daughters of Lamos, the first foster-mothers of the new-born Dionysus, that they would have torn the child into pieces in their madness had he not been snatched away in time by Hermes and given over to Ino. Ino, herself, Dionysus' mother's sister, and another daughter of Cadmus who had reared the divine child, is said to have killed her own infant son, Melikertes, in a fit of madness. This son of Ino's was worshipped on the island of Tenedos as Palaimon, and since children were sacrificed to him, he was called the "child-killer"
On the island of Chios, where the women were seized by a Bacchic madness, a man was torn into pieces to honor Dionysus Omadios, the bestial deity who feeds on raw flesh. The same is said of Tenedos. . Buskins were put on a new-born calf whose mother was given the treatment of a woman who had just given birth to a child, and then it was slaughtered with an axe. But the slaughterer who had struck the fatal blow with the axe had to flee under a shower of stones to the sea. The buskins make it plain who the victim was really meant to be: Dionysus, himself, who, the myth tells us, as a regal child was torn to pieces by the Titans.
Yet, in everything which has come down to us about Dionysus and his cults, we find nowhere the intimation that his flesh might have been eaten by a society which wanted to appropriate his divine power.
We have seen how the women mothered fawns and young wolves and gave them the milk from their breasts. But here, too, the sweet madness of overflowing tenderness does not continue long but suddenly reverses itself and becomes a destructive frenzy. The dancers appear with young animals in their hands, tear them into pieces, and swing the bloody members through the air. In the Bacchae of Euripides they pounce on a herd of cattle, fell the most powerful animals among them, and tear them limb from limb.
The bloodthirstiness of the maenads is the bloodthirstiness of the god himself who "storms down from the raging choral dance, dressed in the holy deerskin, . greedily lusting for raw flesh to devour." (Otto). According to Oppian, he already delighted, as a child, in tearing kids into pieces and bringing them back to life again. Like their master, the maenads, too, pounce on their victims to devour their flesh raw.
In the villages that surround Viza one of the capitals of ancient Thrace, there is still a Dionysian rite acted on the last week of Carnival. Two married men are chosen to act the principals for a four year period. They don masks and cloaks of goatskin. One carries a bow and the other a wooden phallus. Two unmarried boys dressed as girls play the part of brides. A man disguised as an old woman carries a mock baby which is supposed to be a seven-month child (like Dionysus's early delivery from Semele) born out of wedlock and begotten by an unknown father (a son of god). The child is paraded in a basket as 'he ofthe winnowing fan'. There is also a gypsy man and woman (Frazer 1890 7/25-9).
They first tour the community, collecting bread, eggs or money. The boys dance and the gypsies perform a mock hieros gamos. Afterwards on the village green they perform a pantomime in which the gypsies fashion an imaginary plough. The baby grows up very suddenly and clamours for meat and drink and a wife. The goat skins with the phallus takes one of the brides in a marriage, but is immeditely shot by the other's bow. His slayer feigns to skin him, with the dead man's wife lamenting across his prostrate body. There is a 'Christian' burial, but in the process, the dead man resurrects. This is followed by a second act in which the participants take it in turns to draw a real plough and scatter seed, while the community pray aloud for a fine and profitable harvest. The evening is spent celebrating on the proceeds.
In a similar rite at Kosti, a simlar goat-skinned king with two 'wives' and an emissary, collects offerings, distributes wine and seed and is finally stripped and thrown in the river.
Orpheus was a Thracian musician whose magical skill on the lyre enabled him to charm the trees, rivers, and stones, as well as wild beasts. He was the son of Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, and a Thracian river-god (some versions say Apollo). Orpheus married the nymph Eurydice, but she soon died, bitten on the heel by a snake. Her grieving husband followed her to the underworld and, by playing on his lyre, charmed the deities into releasing her. The one condition was that he should escort her back to the upper world without looking at her. He did look, however, and Eurydice disappeared.
Rejecting all women thereafter, Orpheus was torn to pieces by Thracian women; in one version, he was dismembered by Maenads at the urging of Dionysus, who resented Orpheus's advocacy of the worship of Apollo. Orpheus's singing head and lyre floated to Lesbos, where an oracle of Orpheus was established.
Some legends make Orpheus the founder of the Orphic mysteries and the author of the sacred texts of that cult. Orphism developed an elaborate cosmogony that focused on the killing and eating of Dionysus, son of Zeus, by the Titans, or Zeus's subsequent destruction of the Titans, from whose ashes arose the human race, part Dionysiac (divine and good) and part Titan (earthly and evil). Through initiation into the Orphic mysteries and by living an ascetic life of abstention from meat, wine, and sexual activity, individuals sought to suppress their earthly nature. Full liberation of the divine soul could be achieved only through a cycle of incarnations (Grollier).
There is a variety of circumstantial evidence linking the Eleusinian Mysteries also to Dionysus, despite the central role of the myth of Demeter and Persephone. This would be of interest because it would tie Dionysus as the god of altered states into all of the Greek mysteries.
The mysteries are widely believed to re-enact life, death and the underworld in the myth of Demeter's loss of Persephone (Kore) to the underworld, raped by Hades. She returns, but has eaten a pomegranate seed in the underworld so must come and go each season.
Stephanos states "mimhma tvn peri ton Dionuson", which has been widely taken to imply his involvement in the Lesser Mystries (Mylonas 241). Both the greater and lesser mysteries of Eleusis have been alleged to celebrate life of aspects of Dionysus (Graves 1948 157, 404) . Dionysus is spoken of by Pindar as the God "of the flowing locks who is enthroned beside Demeter" who Demetrios associates with the hospitable honours paid to Demeter and Dionysos (Mylonas 277). In the second marriage of the Eleusinian mysteries it is said "I have fitted what was in the drum to what was in the liknos. We know that there was a phallus in the liknos (representing Dionysus) and may assume that the drum contained a buskin, which when combined with the phallus represents the principle of fertilization as inthe stick-like objects protruding from the buskin in inscriptions from Egyptian and the Cypriot goddess Mari (Graves 357).
Mylonas, attempts to discount the direct involvement of Dionysus at Eleusis in the face of a variety of circumstantial evidence, contending that the references above connecting Demeter and Dionysus refer only to 'resemblances' between their rites or their 'nearby location' in Athens as imported deities and not to Eleusis. He further contends that references to the hieros gamos such as Asterios' "Is not there the katabastion and the solemn meeting of the Hierophant and the priestess, each with the other alone; are not the torches then extinguished and the vast crowd believes that its salvation depends on what those two act in darkness?" (311-2) are merely Christian distortions based on inexperience. He likewise discounts the attribution of a similar incantation "rain - conceive" to Eleusis because it also appears on the edge of a well by the Dipylon gate of Athens "O Pan, O Men, be of good cheer, beautiful Nymphs, rain, conceive, overflow" on the basis that the mysteries were kept secret. Triptolemus, who is also prominent in Greek art is similarly dismissed from the Mysteries by Mylonas (269) for this same reason.
However these arguments are a two-edged sword as they discount all that is mentioned elsewhere, but as all direct knowledge of the mysteries was kept secret under pain of death, despite being witnessed for two millennia, no conclusion can then be drawn about any evidence at all. Mylonas thus admits: "We cannot know, at least we still do not know, what was the full content and meaning of the Mysteries of Demeter held at Eleusis".
Although Mylonas likewise denies the Iacchus, who led the procession to Eleusis had anything to do with Dionysus until Roman times as well as the references to the child Brimos, Campbell (1965 14) notes that Demeter's divine child Plutus on one plane of reference personifies the wealth of the earth, but in a broader sense is a counterpart of the god of mysteries, Dionysus. Triptolemus, Demeter and Persephone's foster-ling, an ancient sacred king, who brought the gift of grain into the world, and now reigns in the land of the dead provides another archetype (Campbell 1964 49).
The Hierophant or High Priest of the the cult of Demeter at Eleusis was from the family of the Eumolpids and held office for life. He was heironymous his name could not be pronounced. The High Priestess of Demeter (and Kore) lived at Eleusis in the 'Sacred House'. In sacred pageant, her role was so exhalted that occasionally she disputed with the hierophant the privilege and right of celebrating certian sacrifices (Mylonas 230-1). In addition there were priestesses who were called bees and, like nuns had no communion with men.
At the core of the Greater Mysteries was a smaller group of initiates to the epopteia, which has been subject to "the ingenious theory that these were mainly in honour of Dionysus" (Mylonas 275). Foucart considers that Dionysus should be considered as the God of the epopteia (Mylonas 276), which was variously associated with the ear of cut wheat (which Hippolytus also associated with Attis) and the phallus (Tertullian) which we have seen associated with Dionysus as well as other male fertility deities.
Mylonas suggests it could have been a sacred meal: "On the second night at the end of the celebration of the telete, the initiates would leave and the epoptai would remain for the culmination of the service. In a similar manner in the Christian ritual of the early centuries we find the catechumens asked to leave the church where the confessed Christians remained for the celebration of the mass; was this another of the many details of the indebtedness of Christianity to the Mysteries held at Eleusis?" (Mylonas 274). Lobeck amended Clement's "having done my task" to "having tasted thereof" in relation to the synthema or password which he identified with "the eating by the communicant of some sacred food which was preserved in the mystic cista, . probably with other cereals and fruits"
Clement notes "Are they not sesame cakes, cakes with many marvels, . and a serpent, the mystic sign of Dionysos Bassareus? Are they not also pomegranites, fig branches . ivy leaves, round cakes and poppies? In addition there are the un-utterable symbols of Ge-Themis, majoram, a lamp, a sword and a woman's comb?" [kteis - symbol of her genital organ] (Mylonas 274).
Clement also likens Christ, the bridegroom of the church as the Hierophant in the sacred mysteries "Oh truly sacred mysteries! Oh pure light! In the blaze of torches, I have an epoptic vision of heaven and of God. I become holy by initiation. The Lord is the Hierophant who reveals the mysteries . and commends them . to the Father's care, where he is guarded for ages to come" (Mylonas 274).