(BEING CONTINUED FROM 7/01/14)
12.20 The Passion Drama of the Dying God
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.
12.22 A Continuing Christian Festival to Dionysus
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.
12.23 Orpheus and Dionysus
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).
12.24 Dionysus and the Mysteries of Eleusis
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).
“Happy is he who, having seen those rites goes below the hollow earth;
for he knows the end of life and knows its god-sent beginning”
Pindar (Mylonas 285).
Fig 12.21: Triptolemus (Campbell)
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”.
Eleusis, where the dread Queen and Maid
Cherish the mystic rites,
Rites they to none betray,
Ere on his lips is laid
Secrecy’s golden key.
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).
Fig 12.22: Plutus and Demeter (Campbell Occident)
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).