The Rambling Writer Returns to Greece, Part 25: The Two Faces of Dionysos

My fascination with the Greek god of ecstatic revelry, Dionysos, has only grown as I research and write more about my near-future healer Ariadne and her connection to ancient powers. After I visited the Korykeion Cave near Delphi, where the god’s followers celebrated his rites (and even earlier, those of an Earth goddess), I reread two translations of “The Bacchantes.” The tragedy by Euripides graphically portrays the paradox of this god of sensual pleasures who can incite horrific violence if disrespected.

NOTE: Since my 4-month backpacking trip around Greece too many years ago, I had been longing to return to this magical land of myth, history, and dramatic landscapes. I recently made a fabulous 3-week return trip there, to research additional settings for my novel-in-progress, THE ARIADNE DISCONNECT. My first post in the new series, on September 30, gives an overview of my rambles with my husband Thor from Athens to the islands of Rhodes, Santorini, and Naxos, and finally a pilgrimage to the ancient center of the world at Delphi. Again, I make no claim to be an historian, but am reflecting on various sources and my own experiences.

As I described in my series post #24 (March 17), the Korykeion (or Corycian) Cave high in the foothills of Mount Parnassos has been a ritual site since Neolithic times, with many artifacts uncovered suggesting worship of an Earth/fertility goddess. When Dionysos, a fairly late addition to the Olympic deities, arrived from the Middle East, he became associated with similar attributes of seasonal renewal and fertility. Here, in the soaring first chamber of the cavern labyrinths, pilgrims are clearly still holding ritual celebrations with a fire ring. 

Thor and I saw recent offerings left in a niche of the stone pillar to the left, including a wand similar to the garlanded thyrsus carried by Dionysos and his acolytes, the maenads or Bacchantes.

The great gift that Dionysos brought to humankind was the grape vine and the ability to make wine. In the writings of several scholars of ancient Greek and Roman life, I’ve seen the opinion that wine and other intoxicants were treasured as a way to at least temporarily escape the rigors of life that for most common people included grinding labor and poverty, as well as war and disease. The cult of Dionysos welcomed everyone, especially all those marginalized by the ruling aristocrats — even slaves, foreigners, and women enjoyed equality and spiritual elevation during the celebrations. At Delphi, the god Apollo ruled with logic and reason for most of the year (after he had killed the original earth deity there, the Pythia). But Dionysos ruled there  during the winter months, and his more earthy aspects appealed to the “common folk.” The truce between the two powers — Apollo’s somewhat detached intellectual control and artistry; and Dionysos’s release of passions and mysterious creativity — produced the balance sought by the Greek ideal of human development.

Interestingly, Dionysos often embodies in himself a duality or balance of opposing forces. He is sometimes referred to as a “hermaphrodite deity,” with aspects of both male and female, unlike most of the Olympian male gods who are portrayed as very masculine. This marble statue from the Athens Museum of Archaeology is one of my favorites. Dionysos, with somewhat feminized features, enjoys a festive moment with his grape vines and wine vessel, along with his frequent companion, a lusty satyr, and also Cupid, infant deity of love. This is the gentle face of Dionysos, one that invites us to join him in celebrating the pleasures of life and nature.

The gentle “summer” Dionysos had his home on the fertile green island of Naxos, where the original Ariadne was abandoned by Theseus after she had helped him slay the monstrous Minotaur at the heart of the Cretan labyrinth. Dionysos found Ariadne there and married her, and the happy couple raised a large family.

This was the Dionysos allied with visions of fruitfulness and sensual pleasure. Thor and I, when hiking on Naxos, found welcome pockets of shady greenery among the sun-baked hills. Below is the gateway to Paradise Cafe, a rustic oasis beneath ancient olive and plane trees, where the elderly proprietess offered olives, wine, and honey, among other treats:

This fruitful aspect of Dionysos and his women worshippers is praised by the chorus in the early part of Euripides’s “The Bacchantes”:

“Then streams the earth with milk, yea, streams with wine and nectar of the bee, and through the air dim perfume steams of  Syrian frankincense; and He, our leader, from his thyrsus spray a torchlight tosses high and higher, a torchlight like a beacon-fire, to waken all that faint and stray; and sets them leaping as he sings, his tresses rippling to the sky, and deep beneath the Maenad cry his proud voice rings: ‘Come, O ye Bacchae, come!’”   

And a cow herder from the mountains reports to Pentheus, the king who has denounced Dionysos, of the wonders he has seen, when spying on the women resting in the forest after their celebrations:

“O’er their shoulders first they shed their tresses, and caught up the fallen fold of mantles where some clasp had loosened hold, and girt the dappled fawn-skins in with long quick snakes that hissed and writhed with quivering tongue. And one a young fawn held, and one a wild wolf cub, and fed them with white milk, and smiled in love, young mothers with a mother’s breast and babes at home forgotten. Then they pressed wreathed ivy round their brows, and oaken sprays and flowering bryony. And one would raise her wand and smite the rock, and straight a jet of quick bright water came. Another set her thyrsus in the bosomed earth, and there was red wine that the God sent up to her, a darkling fountain. And if any lips sought whiter draughts, with dipping fingertips they pressed the sod, and gushing from the ground came springs of milk. And reed-wands ivy-crowned ran with sweet honey, drop by drop.”

 [translations by Gianluca Ruffini]

This depiction of the dancing maenads of Dionysos, in the Delphi museum, was part of the tall Acanthus Column that supported a marble copy of the original egg-shaped omphalos stone marking the center of the Greek world. (The original omphalos was located at the spot in Delphi where Apollo is said to have slain the Pythia.)

This drawing of the entire column reveals its shape resembling the sacred, phallic thyrsus wand of Dionysos and his maenads:

Again reflecting his dual aspects, Dionysos was somewhat of a rebel and creator of creative chaos to shake up the established order of society. But he also became respected by the establishment, which eventually regularized rituals to honor him. Establishing sanctioned festivals and rituals may have been an effort to minimize the damage of some of the wild, drunken revelry that sometimes apparently led to property damage, attacks on domestic and wild animals, and sexual abandon. Dionysos became honored as the patron god of dramatics and the theater, where public performances of tragedies and comedies led to catharsis (release) of deep and sometimes disturbing emotions.

The open-air theater at Delphi, appropriately set below the wild, rocky crags that were his territory, was dedicated to Dionysos.

Every two years, the Thyiads, young women devotees of the god, would travel from Athens to meet up with their sister celebrants at Delphi to take part in the Dionysian Festival. A mysterious ceremony held by a priestess would honor the seasonal rebirth of the vines empowered by Dionysos. There would have been performances in the theater, then the celebrants would partake of wine (and possibly other intoxicants), dancing to the dithyramb (a passionate chorus of praise), flutes, and  drums. They would then embody the legendary maenads, the companions of the god, as they joined a torchlit procession up into the foothills of Mount Parnassos. Carrying their ivy-wrapped thyrsus wands, they would join masked male celebrants dressed as satyrs, Pans, and drunken Sileni. Here is a figurine of a rowdy Silenus, suggesting the mood of the revels:

Heading toward the Korykeian Cave, stopping to dance and drink more wine to renew their ecstatic states, the celebrants eventually began a chase to capture some wild creature and tear it to pieces. Drinking the blood and eating the raw flesh became a communion with the god immanent in all of nature. The climactic events often led to sexual couplings allowed to transcend the usual rules.

The chaos of such worship was what drew the ire of King Pentheus in “The Bacchantes.” When Dionysos arrives in his kingdom in disguise as a human devotee, inspiring the women to leave their homes and worship the god, Pentheus has him arrested. He insults the god and then decides to go up onto the mountain to spy on the women in their celebrations, which are forbidden to men. Because he has refused many entreaties to honor Dionysos and the natural powers he wields, and then violates the sanctity of the rituals, Pentheus is subjected to terrible punishment by the angry god. Dionysos (alternately named Bacchios) possesses the women with a violent frenzy to attack the invader of their forest glen:

“But she, with lips a-foam and eyes that run like leaping fire, with thoughts that ne’er should be on earth, possessed by Bacchios utterly, stays not nor hears. Round his left arm she put both hands, set hard against his side her foot, drew… and the shoulder severed! Not by might of arm, but easily as the God made light her hand’s essay. And at the other side was Ino rending; and the torn flesh cried, and on Autonoe pressed, and all the crowed of ravening arms. Yea, all the air was loud with groans that faded into sobbing breath, dim shrieks, and joy, and triumph-cries of death. And here was borne a severed arm, and there a hunter’s booted foot; white bones lay bare with rending, and swift hands ensanguined tossed as in sport the flesh of Pentheus dead.”

(translation by Gianlucca Ruffini)

These are the violently possessed maenads that Peter Mitchell recalls in my novel THE ARIADNE CONNECTION when he’s imprisoned by the eco-terrorist women warriors who have denounced corporate and military patriarchy as destroying the natural world. The Corybantes (my own hybrid of the original maenads and the male warriors who protected the infant Dionysos) chain Peter in a goat pen on the mountain, taunting him with the prospect of an upcoming “ceremony” in the mountainside caverns:

“Where am I? Why are you keeping me here?”

She frowned. “We would have killed you, but we think you’re not one of the mercenaries invading our mountain. You were with Ariadne Demodakis?”

“That’s right.” They must not have found her.

“If we didn’t believe that, we would kill you now. Though she won’t need you when she joins us. We allow men only for the ceremonies.” A cryptic smile. Her head tilted toward his chest. “Did she give you that necklace?”

“I— Yes, she gave it to me.” He realized with annoyance he was touching the polished crystal again, and he dropped his hand onto the blanket. “What do you mean, when she joins you?” Corybantes, that was it, Ariadne had said that… last night?  He racked his brain. News clips hadn’t said much about them, really. But there was something.…

“No more questions.” Her eyes shifted uneasily from the pendant. “Take the food out and push the basket back. There’s pain medicine, too. Your leg is broken, so don’t think you can escape.”

He tossed the basket to her feet. She picked it up and backed to the doorway.

“How long are you going to keep me here? What do you want with me?”

“Rest. You’ll be questioned later.” She started to pull the door shut.

“Damn it, wait!  You can’t just—”

“We do what we will, what no man tells us.” She turned back to regard him impassively. “You look like strong stock. If you obey, we might let you recover to be crowned the vine king. To claim the throne and its pleasures for the rest of your life.”

“What?” His head was throbbing again. “Vine king? But you allow no men….”

Again the odd smile, before the door latched shut. “The vine king reigns only for one night.”

***

Peter’s worries only ratchet higher when he remembers what the ancient maenads did to their victims. He tries not to think about the spears, the knives, the teeth…. Literal and figurative storm clouds are gathering over Mount Parnassos.

And so we come back to the two faces, the paradox, of Dionysos. How can a god offer such an open welcome to all people, regardless of station, and provide such pleasures to be freely shared, but then turn so savagely upon anyone who does not give him the proper respect? I was troubled by this seeming contradiction, which of course many of the capricious Olympian deities display in their attributes and actions. Then came my “aha” moment: Dionysos IS Nature. Our natural world can be a gentle place of pleasures, as in a dream of dancing with the flowers and the animals. But if we ignore and flout the natural rules, we will suffer the violent consequences. Which are staring us all in the face with climate change caused by human arrogance in polluting our beautiful planet. Historic storms? Floods? Fires? Drought? Sea-level rise? Maybe it’s time we repent of our collective hubris and hasten to make amends to Nature. Can we rejoin Dionysos/Gaea/Nature in the Garden?

*****

You will now find The Rambling Writer’s blog posts here every Saturday. Sara’s latest novel from Book View Cafe is available in print and ebook: The Ariadne Connection.  It’s a near-future thriller set in the Greek islands. “Technology triggers a deadly new plague. Can a healer find the cure?”  The novel has received the Cygnus Award for Speculative Fiction. Sara has recently returned from a research trip in Greece and is back at work on the sequel, The Ariadne Disconnect. Sign up for her quarterly email newsletter at www.sarastamey.com

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The Rambling Writer Returns to Greece, Part 25: The Two Faces of Dionysos — 5 Comments

  1. Great pix, and troubling questions indeed.

    For those of old, who had not messed with climate, there were the vicious suddenness of quakes, and tsunami, and of course lightning strikes during thunder storms, parching famines, etc.

  2. What an interesting post! I am pleased that Naxos has such a venerable mythology. I loved it there.