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Notebook

Notebook, 1993-

ANCIENT GREEK CULTURE

Dionysos

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Dionysos [Bacchus] was the offspring of Zeus and a mortal Semele, the Theban daughter of King Cadmus. God primarily of the vine and of wine, but also of agriculture, and patron of the theater, Dionysos was the most popular god of the ancient Greeks and at the same time the strongest and most difficult and unpredictable in his actions and deeds. Concerning his origins there is a variety of opinions. Some maintain that he is a genuine Greek creation [from Thrace] while others say that he came from the East, Phyrgia, or perhaps even India. According to the Greek story, Dionysos was born in very unusual circumstances. Semele was loved by Zeus and at the instigation of the possessive and jealous Hera prayed Zeus to visit her in all the splendour of a god. This he did and she was consumed by his lightning. But Zeus rescued her unborn child from the ashes and placed him in his thigh for three months to complete the gestation period. Hera pursued her vengeance on the child and well into his manhood whereupon she drove him mad. In this state of frenzy, he visited many lands distributing the vine to man and teaching him the art of wine-making. In Phrygia he met Cybele and was inducted into her mysteries. Thereafter he returned to Thrace, having at long last been cured of the madness, where he clashed with king Lycurgos [p. 37] who forced him out of Thrace after binding his band of Bacchi and Satyrs in chains. But Dionysos exacted his revenge on the king by striking him with a madness by which he slew his son. The god next moved on to Boeotia. There king Pentheus of Thebes refused to recognize his divinity with the result that Pentheus was torn to pieces by his mother Agave who was struck with madness by the god. The same fate awaited those who throughout the world dared to oppose his worship which was in the nature of an orgiastic ritual. To his followers his worship was an uninterrupted series of festive days in which pandemonium reigned and often terminated in orgies in which women for the most part participated. But Dionysos was not limited to expelling unhappiness from the hearts of men and making them oblivious to their daily cares through imbibing. He was also a benevolent deity, for he secured peace and the well-being of his worshippers with rich yields of the fields, for he was the inventor of the plough and was the first to yoke the oxen. He was also the patron of the weak and the persecuted and helped to bring harmonious relationships between people. It is from his worship that the Greek theater was born, and very aptly does the title of the god of poetry and music befit him. Dionysian worship which originated in Thrace grew apace in Boeotia. In the city in which it is believed the god was born, there was no sanctuary. His festival was held every three years, called the "Trieterica", on the slopes of Cithaeron, always after the setting of the sun and by torchlight, and by women alone. The votaries were crowned with ivy leaves, their hair was disheveled, they held staffs entwined in vine or ivy, and beating drums ran about and danced in an ecstatic state calling upon the god to present himself. But the finest celebrations in honour of Dionysos were held in Attica. These were the Great or Urban Dionysia and the Lesser Dionysia. The Great Dionysia were divided into the Anthesteria, and the Lenaea, and the Urban Dionysia when tragedy and comedies were presented in his honour. Dionysos was always accompanied by a large band or troupe made up of Maenads or Bacchae, Satyrs, Seilinoi, and Pan. The Bacchae were the nymphs who looked after Dionysos when he was an infant on Mt. Nysa. They were clad in fawn skins, crowned with leaves of the vine and held staffs entwined with ivy leaves and vines, just as the god himself. They beat their cymbals with fervour and shrieked hysterically. The mania of the Maenads would in years reach a high pitch to the point where they would tear animals apart and consume them raw or some times tear apart humans as in the case of Orpheus. On their tours, the band was accompanied by goats, snakes, and panthers. Dionysos was known by other names among which were Bacchus, Bromios, Dendrites, Eleutheres, and others. With the passage of time, the worship of Dionysos assumed a mystical nature and was based mostly in the faith of an intellectual reawakening and in human participation in the divine nature [the Orphic sect based on the legend of Dionysos Zagreus]. Those who participated in these orgiastic rites believed they were seized by the god himself and had become one with him [mystical enthusiasm according to Plato] and had also some eschatological beliefs connected with the same deity. See also Orphism.

Great centers of Dionysian worship outside of Athens existed in more ancient times in Thrace, in Orchomenos of Boeotia, and in Delphi where festivals were held under various names according to the area. The worship of Dionysos became general in the whole of Greece after the 6th Century B.C. [p. 38]

The symbols of Dionysos were numerous. In the animal kingdom his favourite was the bull which he often rode and many times assumed the shape of, the panther, lion, tiger, and the lynx. Of the domesticated beasts, he was fond of the donkey, the swine, the kid, dog, and the hare, and of the insects, the honey bee. His main symbol was the thyrsos which was to Dionysos what the caduceus was to Hermes. The thyrsos passed through various stages of depiction, until it evolved into a pine-nut on a staff entwined by leaves of the lotus, vine, or ivy, sometimes bedecked with ribbons. [pp. 37-39]

[Kyriazis, Constantine D. Eternal Greece. Translated by Harry T. Hionides. A Chat Publication.]




Dionysos riding a panther, pebble mosaic from the house of the Lion Hunt at Pella, Macedonia, c. 300 BC. 'The panther leaps as gracefully as a Bacchant, and this is the reason the god loves him so.' [Philostratus]



'Pour, Bacchus! the


Retrieve the loss of me and
    mine!

Vine for vine be antidote,
    And the rape requite the lote!

haste to cure the old despair, -

Reason in Nature's lotus

    drenched,

The memory of ages quenched.'

[Ralph Waldo Emerson]


We are an Apollonian people living in an Apollonian civilization. Or so we think until Dionysos rises from the depths and tears the Apollonian order asunder. Dionysos, or Bacchus as he was known among both the Greeks and the Romans, is the last god to enter Olympos. Hesiod only briefly alludes to him, Homer does not admit him at all, and only Euripides, the most modern of Greek poets, deals fully with him--in his last play. 'Too late you have learned to know me', Euripides makes the god cry in the Bacchae, 'When the knowledge was wanted, you had it not.' The myths of Dionysos are dominated by an initial fierce resistance to the god, in the same way that we refuse to recognize the wild forces in us until we are overwhelmed by their power.

Our civilization has for centuries been in collision with the Dionysian elements in man. As early as 186 BC the Roman Senate issued a proclamation which suppressed all Bacchic societies throughout Italy as a conspiracy against the state. And since then we have been banishing the Dionysian forces in us to the depths of our psychic hinterland as a conspiracy against reason and Apollonian control, against 'noble simplicity and quiet grandeur'.

But as the chorus in the Bacchae proclaims, 'The gods are cunning: they lie in wait a long march of time to trap the impious.' The Dionysian revolt began in the 19th c. with Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy. Freud followed by throwing a glaring light on the darkness suppressed in our unconscious. And Jung established the 'Dionysian' as a basic structure of our psyche. What had been regarded as inferior, hysterical, unbridled and dangerous aspects of life, to be dissected and tamed, began to be seen as vital parts of ourselves, to be brought into consciousness. The god's myths and modern history and psychology tell the same story: however hard we [p. 97] oppose, suppress or resist him, Dionysos is invincible.

'The Bull, the underground Dionysian power, has been unleashed', warned Kazantzakis in The Odyssey, echoing the wise Tiresias' warning to the king of Thebes: 'This new divinity whom you ridicule--words cannot describe how great will be his power throughout Hellas . . . . Listen to me . . . . Do not presume that mere power has influence with men. Do not be wise in your diseased imagination. Welcome the god to the land, pour libations, wreathe your head, revel.'

A late Homeric Hymn in honour of the god tells a story that is a beautiful symbol both of the god's mystery and of his destructiveness when we attempt to imprison and suppress him. 'What I remember now is Dionysos, son of glorious Semele, how he appeared by the sand of any empty sea, how it was far out, on a promontory, how he was like a young man, an adolescent. His dark hair was beautiful, it blew all around him, and over his shoulder, the strong shoulders, he held a purple cloak. Suddenly, pirates appeared, Tyrrhenians, they came on the wine sea sturdily in their ship and they came fast. A wicket fate drove them on. They saw him, they nodded to each other, they leaped out and grabbed him, they pulled him into their boat jumping for joy! They thought he was the son of one of Zeus' favourite kings; they wanted to tie him up hard. The ropes wouldn't hold. Willow ropes, they fell right off him, off arms and legs. He smiled at them, motionless, in his dark eyes.

The helmsman saw this, he immediately cried out, he screamed out to his men: "You fools! What powerful god is this whom you've seized, whom you've tied up? Not even our ship, sturdy as it is, not even our ship can carry him . . . . Don't tie his hands or he'll be angry, he'll draw terrible winds to us, he'll bring us a big storm!" That's what he said. The captain, however, in a bitter voice, roared back: 'You fool, look at the wind! Grab the rope, draw the sail. We men will take care of him . . . . '

He said this, then he fixed the mast and the sail of the ship. And a wind began to blow into the sail. And then they stretched the rigging. Suddenly, wonderful things appeared to them. First of all, wine broke out, babbling, bubbling over their speedy black ship, it was sweet, it was fragrant, its odour was divine. Every sailor who saw it was terrified. Suddenly, a vine sprang up, on each side, to the very top of the sail. And grapes, all over, clung to it. And a dark ivy coiled the mast, it blossomed with flowers and yielded pleasing fruit. Suddenly, all the oar-locks became garlands. When they saw this they cried to the helmsman then and there to steer their ship to land. But the god became a lion, an awful lion high up on the ship, and he roared at them terribly. And then, in their midst, he put a bear, a bear with a furry neck, and it made gestures. It threatened, and the lion, on the high deck, scowled down. Everybody fled to the stern, they panicked, they ran to the helmsman, because [p. 99] the head of the helmsman was cool. But the lion, suddenly, leaped up, it seized the captain! They all wanted to escape such a doom when they saw it. They all jumped ship into the sea, they jumped into the divine sea. They became dolphins. As for the helmsman, he was saved: the god pitied him, he made him very rich, and told him this: 'Courage, divine Hecator, I like you. I am Dionysos the ear-splitter. My mother, Cadmaean Semele, had me when she slept with Zeus.'

The god who destroys those who try to hold him in bondage is also the benevolent god who rewards with life and abundance those who recognize his divinity and his power. The miracles on the pirates' ships are similar to the miracles accompanying the god's epiphany at his festivals and proclaiming the god's presence in his myths. Wine streams forth, vines with swelling grapes appear, ivy grows, honey trickles down, water or milk gushes forth. The mystery which calls forth nourishing or intoxicating streams is the same mystery which slits rocks, bursts chains asunder and causes walls to crumble. Dionysos is the god of ecstasy, dance and song; he is also Lysios 'the loosener', 'the liberator'. He brings plasticity and flexibility into what is rigid and hard; he frees us from old bondages; he dissolves old claims; he lifts the age-old barriers which conceal the invisible and the infinite. And the infinite vitality that had been locked away wells up from the depths like the milk, honey and wine that spurt forth from the earth. 'The world man knows, the world in which he has settled himself so securely and smugly--that world is no more. The turbulence which accompanied the arrival of Dionysos has swept it away. Everything has been transformed. But it has not been transformed into a charming fairy story or into an ingenuous child's paradise. 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.' It is a truth that brings joy, liberation, renewal, but also madness.

The double nature of the god was symbolized in the double nature of wine which was the gift the god of intoxicated delight gave to men. Countless myths tell of the power, the magic of wine which conquered 'even the Centaurs'. Yet in the same drink which has in it 'the power to free, to comfort and to bring bliss, there slumbers also the madness of the god of horror'. In the Laws, Plato, recognizing the double nature of wine, seeks to limit its dangers by prescribing its use according to age: 'In the first place, we shall absolutely prohibit the taste of wine to boys under [p. 100] eighteen. We shall tell them they must have too much concern for the passionate temperament of youth to feed the fire of body or soul with a further current of fire before they address themselves to the labours of life. In the next, while we permit a moderate use of wine to men under thirty, we shall absolutely forbid carousing and free potations. But when a man is verging on the forties, we shall tell him, after he has finished banqueting at the general table, to invoke the gods, and more particularly to ask the presence of Dionysos in the sacrament and pastime of advancing years--I mean the wine cup--which he bestowed on us for a comfortable medicine against the dryness of old age, that we might renew our youth, and our harsher mood be melted to softness by forgetfulness of our heaviness, as iron is melted in the furnace, and so made more tractable. To begin with, in that mood, any man would be ready, would he not, to render his song--or, as we have so often called it, his spell--with more spirit and less bashfulness.

Song and dance, 'with more spirit and less bashfulness', were such primary expressions of Dionysian emotion that he is said to have sung and danced already as a baby in his mother's womb. The reed-pipe, the drums and the cymbols are all instruments of the god, accompanying the dance of his Maenads. 'He who knows the power of the dance dwells in God', Jelaluddin Rumi, a founder of the Dervishes, has said, and Dionysian dancing springs from the same source as the dancing of the Whirling Dervishes and the Jewish Hasidim, the Siberian Shaman and Shiva the Cosmic Dancer. In its highest expression, the aim of the dance is not to induce a trance, it is not ecstasy and release, but a mystic communion with the divine. 'When your body is spinning', the Dervishes say, 'there is a completely still point in the [p. 1 04] centre. When you dance, all the stars and the planets, and the endless universes dance around that still point. The heavens respond; and invisible kingdoms join in the dance.'

Music and dance come from the depths of life, and from the same elemental depths come also inspired art and prophecy. Here Dionysos is the enemy of rigid dignity and self-control, and man is on the threshold of madness. Plato says in Ion: 'As the worshipping Corybantes are not in their senses when they dance, so the lyric poets are not in their senses when they make these lovely lyric poems. No, when once they launch into harmony and rhythm, they are seized with the Bacchic transport, and are possessed - as the bacchants, when possessed, draw milk and honey from the rivers, but not when in their senses . . . . A poet is a light and winged thing, and holy, and never able to compose until he has become inspired, and is beside himself, and reason is no longer in him. So long as he has this in his possession, no man is able to make poetry or to chant in prophecy . . . . For not by art do they utter these, but by power divine . . . . It is not they who utter these precious revelations while their mind is not within them, but the god himself who speaks, and through them becomes articulate to us.'

Dionysos embodies this madness of the supreme moment of creation, of the enchanted moment when a man is flung out of his routine world, his settled thoughts and feelings, his ordered existence, and dives into the cosmic depths in which the forces of life dwell. 'This madness which is called Dionysos is no sickness, but a companion of life at its healthiest.' [p. 105]

In ancient Greece, it was the women whose lives were traditionally most confined who became the god's most enthusiastic worshippers. The god 'pricks them to leave their looms and shuttles'. Again and again in the god's myths we come across Argive women, Rhodian women, Athenian women, ripped loose from the humdrum, orderly activities of their domestic lives and, intoxicated by the god, being transformed into enraptured, manic dancers in the wilderness of the mountains. '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 hands, and sturdy trees are torn up by the roots with their combined effort.' Once again, we are confronted with the god's double nature: the bringer of liberation, ecstasy, inspiration and the most blessed deliverance is also the bringer of madness, violence, wildness, terror. He is known as the 'the roarer', 'the loud-shouter', 'the ear-splitter', but he is just as powerfully revealed in the fathomless silence as in the pandemonium that he stirs up. He appears as a bull, a bear, a lion, a panther, but he also transforms himself into a young girl, a tree, flowing water. The numinous feeling that he inspires shatters all order and composure and can lead either to the ecstatic experience of the divine or to hysteria and bloodthirsty destructiveness.

The outcome, the god's myths tell us, depends on the response of the established consciousness. In the Bacchae, the god is described as 'serene and dignified' until the blind rationalism of Pentheus, the king of Thebes, brings about the tragedy's manic destruction. 'Take to arms', is the king's response, but spears and armour are powerless against the elemental forces which Pentheus chokes off and resists and which Dionysos embodies and celebrates. The paradox baffles but cannot be evaded: enlightenment and destruction, life and death, are indissolubly linked.

The instinctual life-force that Dionysos represents is in perpetual opposition to all that is dead and petrified in us but remains bolstered by habit, inertia and fear. And the god will use every means to tame the forces that resist life - including the whip of madness, horror and destruction. Dionysos was the god of the theatre, and horror, whether in his myths or on stage, was used to evoke the emotional, instinctual levels of man's being - to move the soul. Emotions and thoughts previously pent up were released, and under the god's sway 'the unutterable could be spoken and the unthinkable could be staged'. What had been submerged could come to the surface in all its splendour and all its darkness, and the primordial human needs for [p. 106] communion and participation could find fulfillment.

Aristotle described the catharsis that takes place through tragedy as the purification and purging of the emotions of the spectator through his experience of pity and terror. And the choral songs [dithyrambs] and dark rites performed as part of the god's worship are the ritual origins of Greek and therefore of all Western tragedy.

The most powerful symbol of the god and his two-fold nature was the mask worn by the actors. The mask has since primitive times been a sacred object of awe. The wearer of the mask is himself - and yet he is not. He evokes the mystery of a dual reality where what we see is not what is, and what is transcends what we see. It is the spirit of Dionysos that confronts man through the penetrating eyes of the mask, shattering all the mind's certainties. 'The final secrets of existence and non-existence transfix mankind with monstrous eyes . . . . Here there is nothing but encounter, from which there is no withdrawal . . . . Because it is the god's nature to appear suddenly and with overwhelming might before mankind, the mask serves as his symbol and his incarnation in cult. The mask has no reverse side. 'Sprits have no backs', people say. It has nothing which might transcend the mighty moment of confrontation. 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.

It is a fitting image for the god of the here and now, of overwhelming immediacy, who is at the same time the god of inexpressible distance, the god of eternity - the god who holds life and death together. As the only Olympian god to be born of a mortal mother. Dionysos is from the beginning more closely associated with death than any other god except Hades. His mother's death by the fire of Zeus' lighting-bolts while he was still in her womb and his second birth from the body of Zeus himself strengthen his connection to the mystery of life and death cemented together in an eternal unity. It is a connection which persists in all his myths as he thrusts men into a new life, overflowing with rapture and vitality - a life into which they can only be born by dying to their past and to everything they cling to for security, an inexhaustible life born of pain and death.

Nowhere do we see this more clearly and more movingly than in the myth of Dionysos and Ariadne, the woman whom the god of women chooses and to whom he remains eternally faithful - the only faithful husband among the amorous gods. But before Dionysos' beloved can be fully united with him in inexhaustible life and immortality, she must go through deep suffering and, in some versions of the myth, even death. In [p. 107] Monteverdi's opera Arianna, Arianna's Lament so caught the public's imagination that it became overnight the most popular piece of music of the moment. The Cretan princess, daughter of King Minos, wakes on a lonely beach on Naxos to discover that Theseus, the man whose life she has saved, has abandoned her.

Theseus had arrived in Crete as part of the Athenian tribute of seven men and seven women who were sent to Crete every nine years to be sacrificed to the Minotaur - the terrible monster that was half-bull and half-man. Theseus could only be saved and be free to return to Athens if he entered the Labyrinth and slew the Minotaur. All who had gone before him had perished, but Theseus, guided by the thread Ariadne had given him, was able to make his way in to the Labyrinth and come out of it alive and victorious. He left Crete, taking Ariadne with him, only to desert her on the first island where their shop put anchor for the night. He abandons her because, as Homer implies, she has to be abandoned. Her desertion by Theseus, by the mortal part of herself, is the necessary prelude to her relationship with Dionysos, who embodies the transcendent in her. 'At times we are pulled to an involvement with a human other as an escape from a connection with the transcendent, a connection with a prior claim on us that is somehow too much. We flee to the heroic mortal lover, escaping from the deeper experience . . . . At the moments when what Dionysos represents is more than we feel we can handle or stay in touch with, we turn our backs on it.' The prior claim of Dionysos, or the divine, is expressed in the myth in concrete terms: Ariadne was already Dionysos' beloved before she betrayed him for Theseus.

'I will never love again, and therefore in some sense I will never live again', cries the deserted Ariadne in Richard Strauss' opera. At the moment of her deepest despair, Dionysos is heard singing off-stage. She hails him as the longed-for messenger of death. But when he appears before her, she recognized in him her true lover for whom, transformed through her pain, she is now ready. The opera ends with a ravishing love duet; the myth ends with Ariadne's ascent to heaven in the god's chariot. Her suffering and lamentation are transformed into bliss in the god's arms.

Ariadne's thread is the symbolic counterpart of Dionysos' mask: it connects this world with the other, the outer with the inner, mortality with eternity. Ariadne's cult on Naxos, with its festivals of joy and of sorrow, captures the spirit of the god: sorrow, suffering, terror, even death, are all in the service of a greater life, liberated from rationalist limitations and conventional imprisonments. It is this greater life that Dionysos embodies--life in the round, forever coming into being, forever renewing itself, forever dying and being reborn. [p. 108]



"wine expands, unites, and says Yes: it brings the votary from the chill periphery of things to the radiant core: it makes him for the moment one with truth.' [William James] [p. 109]


Dancing girl on a plaque found in the theatre of Dionysos in Athens, Roman copy of a Greek original of 350-300 BC. 'I have instituted my dances and my mysteries, that my godhead might be manifest to mortals . . . . I have filled Thebes with the cries of exultant women; I have fitted the fawn-skin to their bodies and have put into their hands the militant thyrsus, entwined with ivy . . . . ' [Euripides, Bacchae]


The theatre at Side in Turkey, 2nd c. AD. 'The theatre of mythology - the stage, the players, and the audience - is the human being.' [Karl Kerényi]


Head of Dionysos on a silver coin of Naxos, 430-420 BC. It is a greater life, beyond conventions, inertia and fear, that Dionysos embodies - life in the round, forever coming into being, forever renewing itself, forever dying and being reborn . . . . Silenius, Dionysos' elderly and usually drunken companion, who had the ears and tail of a horse, on the reverse of the coin . . . . [p. 104]


Dionysos as a young man, Roman copy of a Greek original of the 4th c. BC.

'The praise of Bacchus then the


Of Bacchus ever fair, and ever
    Young . . . . '

[Dryden] [p. 100]


[Stassinopoulos, Arianna and Roloff Beny. The Gods of Greece. New York: Abrams. 1983.]




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