Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Personal Mythology: Dionysus, Maenads, continued

Here are some more thoughts I jotted down about Dionysus today, which concludes the first drafts of my personal myth series.

 The common association with Dionysus is with wine. This is usually what most people think when you say "Dionysus" to them. "Ah, the God of wine," they often say, as if this explains anything at all. There is some validity to this association; certainly a state of "divine intoxication" that exists outside of all social boundaries is the entrance-point to his realm. However, though wine was his sacrament in some Grecian traditions, this association is hammered home more firmly in the form of the Roman Bacchus. Dionysus, especially the "proto-Dionysus" forms of Zagreuss, Bromeus, and many other similar outsider divinities originating in the Mediterranean and Asia Minor, all shared sacramental drinks of fermented honey and other grains. This may seem incidental but it isn't. The individual symbols that make up a complex, a God, a Symbol, are all multifaceted, and they are all entrance points into the entire network. Let's look at just a few before making some generalizations about the symbol itself, and turning to personal experience.
    Honey comes up in several places in reference to Dionysus. The pine-cone tipped wands that the bacchante (women of Dionysus) carry drip honey. It can be fermented into a drink, and it is also a curiously effective emulsion for making elixirs with hallucinogenic properties. (There is much argument about to what extent hallucinogens factored into the various historic examples of generally Dionysian rituals.) Honey itself was often considered to originate from a form of fermentation out of death,
"According to Virgil, Aristaois sacrificed four bulls and four cows. He let their bodies lie for nine days; then bees swarmed from their entrails which had become liquid. Here the number four certainly has cosmic significance. It corresponds to the four cardinal points. ... The animal is transformed into a sack containing its own liquids. After four weeks and ten days- roughly forty days, as in the traditional brewing of mead- grapelike clusters of bees fill the hut. ... The natural phenomenon ushering in the great festival for the early rising of Sirius ... an awakening of bees from a dead animal." (Kerenyi, Pg. 41, Dionysus: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life.) 
    Mythologically, honey is the sweetness of life, a nourishing source, which is derived as a result of death and rebirth. It may be facile to point out that alcoholic libations are also called "spirits," especially without an analysis of the etymology of the term, but on its surface it nevertheless seems appropriate. (That it is essentially regurgitated nectar, bee vomit, is also somewhat amusing but seems less mythologically significant. Just like the fact that much can be said about the mythological significance of the moon,but the moon is essentially a large, cold hunk of rock. These two things may or may not have bearing on each other, depending on whether the physical reality has an immediate bearing on the psychological reality of a thing.)
    I also developed a mythological fascination with bees; those familiar with my works will recognize this readily. When I was working on the first draft of Join My Cult!, I randomly happened upon Wax: Or How I Learned Television From The Bees. This is a very bizarre pseudo-documentary that mythologizes bees and beekeeping through a rather schizophrenic lens. I had already been taken in by the image of the hive, many agents acting independently yet, secretly, operating in tandem, but this movie only further pushed me into the realms of absurd lunacy as I continued through that literary experiment. The hive, the honey, and the directional sense of these curious creatures all seemed magical to me, and like the other disparate symbols of Dionysus, have appeared and re-appeared throughout my lives as what seem like separate metaphors until I realize, again and again, that they are all tied together through this central or mono-mythical figure, Dionysus.  

    The color purple is also often associated with him. One common association with the color purple is that it is the color of royalty, ostensibly because the dyes were especially expensive, and so only nobility could afford it. Something could be made of this, but it doesn't strike me as especially poignant in regard to Dionysus. More readily apparent is that purple is the fusion of red and blue. Red, a warm, active color associated with the element of fire, blue, a cool, passive color associated with water.
    One interpretation of the hexagram symbol is that it is the conjunction of two triangles, one downward facing, and one upward. This is an alchemical idea. The upward facing triangle is that of the flame, consuming matter, transforming it into a gaseous (spiritual) state. The downward triangle is condensation, the process of distillation of gaseous (spiritual) states into more material ones. Water takes the form of what holds it. Fire transforms. At their point of union, you might say, is purple. The upward facing triangle moves from many to one, and the downward facing triangle moves from one to many. Thus we have, in simple symbolic form, a glyph of the spiritual hero's journey, or what is sometimes mythologized as "going up upon the mountain," (the mystical path), and the return, ideally with knowledge or transformation attained by the journey. (Many have spent much time and effort trying to update old alchemical ideas with modern science. I suppose there may be some value in this; obviously modern science evolved in part out of alchemy, and the mythological impulse isn't that different from the scientific in a nascent sense. However, I am prone to interpret symbols psychologically, and then there's little concern about how they factor into the empirical world, except through the intermediary of our minds and experience.)
    Karl Kerenyi explores many of these symbols quite thoroughly in his work Dionysus: Archetypal Image Of Indestructible Life. It is not my intention to repeat his scholastic efforts in these directions; I suggest you investigate that book if you would like a more thorough historical analysis of these symbols. Instead, let's look at a couple generalizations that might best encompass the whole of a very dynamic, complex symbol.

    As we see in even the most cursory glance at associated symbols -- such as the color purple -- Dionysus is a unifier of opposites, bridging apparent dualities. He is a mask worn by the undifferentiated world, the divine, unknowable world behind the material, behind the spiritual, behind all sensation or apprehension. In this aspect, he may appear paradoxical, even absurd. Form and function, rational and irrational, male and female, sacred and profane: all of these distinctions that we make become blurry, even irrelevant when viewed through this mask.
    If we were to express this nature succinctly, it would be easiest to say that he is patron of the chaos inherent in nature. This is an important distinction. You will recall that we have repeatedly referred to the "dark chaos" of nature as a female energy. We see it in the Enuma Elish as Tiamat. We have talked about how this chaos was tamed, reformed, made sensible, made useful to mankind. Dionysus is not that primordial energy, he is its patron. You might then say that the devotees of Dionysus, the "wild women" of the wood, the Bacchante, the Maenad, they are the ones who get to embody this force. This is quite an interesting reversal. The devotees, though in a sense they do the will of their Patron, they could also be called the true divinity. Dionysus is a God of women.
"With its sensuality and emphasis on sexual love, it presented a market affinity to the feminine nature, and its appeal was primarily to women; it was among women that it found its most loyal supporters, its most assiduous seervants, and their enthusiasm was the foundation of its power. Dionysus is a woman's god in the fullest sense of the word, the source of all woman's sensual and transcendent hopes, the center of her whole existence. It was to women that he was first revealed in his glory, and it was women who propogated his cult and brought about its triumph." (J. J. Bachofen, "Introduction" to the section on "Mother Right" in Myth, Religion, and Mother Right. pg. 101.) 
    There is one other point I'd like to make about Dionysus in general before moving on to my personal experience. As a patron of the natural order, there is no denial of the opposites that are contained in toto within nature. Duality is rendered through the "humanification," one might say, of nature. The pleasure and horror of material existence is emphasized, side-by-side, as part of the same experience; the chorus rejoices, the orgies are boundless, sometimes the sacrament is fermented grapes, barley or honey, and sometimes it is blood. (By now, I hope that you understand that these may be interpreted as metaphors on any number of levels. Yes, wine, mead, and even the bloody sacrifice have a historical and literal basis in the context of the Dionysus myth, but what these things mean is so much more important; even more important is what we make them mean within the context of our lives.) The Dionysian is and can only be experienced right now, not in a hereafter. Not once is it alluded to that Heaven is somewhere else. If ever there was a singular God representing the immanence of myth, it would be Dionysus.


  1. The origins of the Dionysian energy are quite fascinating and mysterious. While it is widely accepted that Dionysis was imported to Greece, where exactly he migrated from is not so clear cut. Some Greeks referring to Dionysis as Osiris while other tales point to Sabzios of Thrace.

    Sabazios was also associated with Zeus by the Greeks, an interesting parallel to Kataragama of Sri Lanka who may actually be the original version.

    Along with geographic origins the birth and family of Dionysis is also shrouded in mystery. Some claiming that Dionysis is a part of the Elusian trinity of Demeter, Persephone, and Iacchus - much like the Roman trinity of Ceres, Libera and Liberus. These stories hint at a much more complex and mysterious origin than the Greek stories provide...

  2. Quite right.

    Have you read the Kerenyi book? He gets into a lot of this...

  3. I've not yet read that though I am increasingly feeling I need to...

  4. I wouldn't exactly call it a riveting read - mostly. There are sections that are quite interesting, and for someone fascinated by Dionysus I suppose all of it is. But it's incredibly scholarly, with a focus very much on historical precedent, trends, etc. (As I say elsewhere this is an approach I value and appreciate, though it is not my preferred approach, and I think that on its own it risks misleading people about many things about myth-- which is why I'm working on the Immanence of Myth, in part. But none of that should detract from the value of thorough scholastic research as well.)

  5. The upward facing triangle moves from many to one, and the downward facing triangle moves from one to many. could this not also mean the union of man and woman and creation?

  6. I would agree with the latter (as such) though male & female were genetic conveniences that happened to occur on earth. We only know earth bios. It might just be a fluke, yknow? Not universal.



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