Thursday, August 14, 2008
The Search for Dionysus
True gods, as many philosophers have pointed out, inspire Terror as well as Love and Awe. We tend to romanticise our Gods, especially in art, and our desire to bring them closer to our hearts can minimise their power to some extent.
Dionysius, Dionysus, Dionysus, Bacchos, Bacchus, Iacchus... whatever the spelling or even the name, he remains the most mysterious of gods, with a bad reputation to rival that of Lucifer.
I personally believe that the cult of Dionysus is connected to that of Cybele and Attis, but every religion shares roots both obvious and obscure with religions in the past.
Where most 'classical' gods either are male or female, Dionysus is neither or both at certain points. Classical gods often assume animal forms, but Dionysus apparently assumed female, male and eunuch form in turns. He is the 'twice-born' god, torn to pieces as an infant by the Titans and then reborn. He is a God born both from a female (Semele) and from a male (Zeus). In every land where he was worshipped, he was a foreign god, an arrival rather than a God who was a native of some kind. One could argue therefore that he was the one true God in ages when most Gods were deified humans. Dionysus may have been born of a mortal woman in the person of Semele but his paternity never was anything but divine. He is the son of Fire, the Lightning Bolt that incinerated his mother.
One of the most popular associations of the god Dionysus is with the grapevine and wine. Like Odhinn much later, Dionysus is the 'god of ecstacy' but those who assume that the actual focus of the spiritual power is wine are mistaken. The grapevine is a symbol of life and rebirth. The cluster of grapes represents the seeds of life as does the pomegranate. The vine must be cut back in order to live again. As Christ had to die in order to be reborn, so did Dionysus.
To go one step further, I personally see Christ as a successor to the ancient cult of Attis and Dionysus rather than a logical conclusion to the Judaic religion. That is why Christianity is so universal. It embodies all the ancient mysteries, and the essential pivotal sacrifice of life for death and death for life.
It would be simplistic, however, to view Dionysus as nothing more than the spiritual ancestor of Christ. The chaotic, unstoppable power of Nature is absent in Christianity but was very much a part of the Dionysian system.
One of my favourite portraits as a young girl was a portrait of Bacchus by Carvaggio. The boy is handsome, intoxicated and indisputably decadent but now when I look at that portrait, I see quite clearly that he is a boy and not a god. He may be striving to follow the god but I think it is far more likely that some very human man or woman is seducing him with wine...
Perhaps the reason that Bacchus or Dionysus fascinates me so much is his lethal combination of beauty and intent to kill. His kiss IS the kiss of death. In addition, to be twice-born means that one has died at least once or in this god's case, been ripped from the womb and robbed of life at least once. There is murder in his birthing.
I have to admit that I shrink from Terror and I never liked the genre of 'Horror' in film or in literature but if I am honest in my determination to pursue undiluted truth in religion, I have to embrace the form of the god in his/her aspect of pure Terror as well as Beauty. That is where I recognise every 'mystery cult' as being true to the Divine far more than any religious platform that seeks to cushion or otherwise veil the aspect of the god that speaks of death without the intervention of any romantic ideal.
The Goddess Hel, it is said, was half beauty and half decay. One side of her face was beautiful beyond the beauty known to any mortal but the other side of her face writhed with maggots and worms. I would imagine that the real face of Dionysus likewise would be unspeakably terrible. One would be confronted not by a wine-flushed young lad whose eyes hint only of languor but one incited by a degree of blood-lust that would render him/her capable of tearing animal and human flesh apart with his/her bare hands.
There are those who claim to embrace the 'Dionysian philosophy' by immersing themselves completely in a life of sexual profligacy but I think the alleged sexual component is part of the sometimes deliberate philosophical misdirection that accompanies any mystery religion. Some of this may have been deliberate but our contemporary misunderstanding of Dionysus is due to vitriolic Christian propaganda as well.
As with many of the ancient mystery religions, much of the literary evidence that remains was written by enemies rather than proponents. Apuleius, writing about the mysteries of Isis, is an exception here. Even Apuleius, attempting to illuminate the glory of Isis, was forced to keep silent about many of the vital mysteries of that faith. The combination of enforced secrecy and clerical hostility means that little can be gleaned at this point from literary sources. Archaeological evidence may be less bias in its physical form, but archaeology, like history, ultimately is recreated by the interpretations of 'experts'.
If, however, sex is not the true centre of Dionysus, why would sex be so much a part of his rituals? He has been called the 'god of Ecstacy' but the Divine in any manifestation is Lord/Lady of Ecstacy. Ecstacy is not physical gratification but a state in which one transcends all physical and emotional limitations.
If orgasm were the goal, then castration could not have been the ultimate act of devotion and identification with the god. In fact, male castration is as fundamental to the cult of Dionysus as it was to the cult of Attis. Those who would like to think that dressing as a woman or acting like a woman are what is it all about are sadly mistaken. Not only castration but self-castration was at the very heart of dedication to Dionysus.
Central to the Dionysian myth is the tale of the innocent infant who is seduced by toys and who then is torn to pieces by the Titans. Nothing survives by his 'heart', making rebirth possible. The tale of a child who is torn to pieces by his 'nurses' does not lend itself to the portrait of a cult based on nothing more than casual sex... This is another reason why I feel that the contemporary popularity of Dionysus among homosexuals is based on misdirection. The 'god' they admire is not the REAL Dionysus.
Death and rebirth are at the heart of the true mystery and I only wish that something would be unearthed by archaeologists that would speak eloquently of some of the lacunae that we still have not been able to fill with knowledge.
The cult of Dionysus is not the only ancient religion that has been romanticised almost out of recognition by contemporary 'pagans'. The Druids are another. Here as well, the ancient emphasis on blood sacrifice has been disregarded in favour of a 'gentler' philosophy. Yet, death and blood sacrifice are the heart of any mystery religion. Excise the heart and you have nothing but an empty shell. It may be a beautiful shell but it lacks power and signficance.
In my view, though, the gods are not deceived easily and dressing a kid goat in boots to substitute its death for the death of a man cannot be effective. What kind of god would desire the death of an innocent creature in lieu of the human beings who profess to worship him/her? It is not BLOOD that is required but true sacrifice and by all accounts, a voluntary sacrifice. That is where the Christ represents the ultimate mystery sacrifice true to the precepts of every ancient mystery.
Whether bread and wine can be transmuted into flesh and blood is another matter. That would be transformation not substitution, and the motivation would be quite different from that of a devotee who seeks to circumvent the necessity of making his/her own sacrifice by offering an animal instead. In the rite of Communion, the worshippers seek to partake of the flesh and blood of the God, not to pretend that the flesh and blood offered is theirs. It is a vital distinction.
Many Christians would be outraged by any suggestion that Christ followed a path laid down by ancient universal mystery religions but I feel that this link actually makes Christianity more credible. If Christianity is based on a minor cult of a minor group of tribes such as the ancient Hebrews, it cannot be considered 'universal'. If, on the other hand, it is the logical descendant of a profound tradition that stretches back to the dawn of time, it is validated to some extent. I am not alone in making this statement. Joseph Campbell probably is the best known philosopher who declared as much in book after book, although he was not the first either to remark upon the link.
Sympathetic magic, of course, is one of the oldest forms of ritual in every religion and belief system, and the sacrifice of an animal instead of a man is a form of sympathetic magic. I am becoming convinced, however, that it dispenses with the very heart of the purpose of the sacrifice and in doing so, would render the sacrifice worthless.
I am not advocating human sacrifice but what I am beginning to believe is that there is no substitute for it. Moreoever, it must be self-sacrifice, not a ritual that places an unwilling human being at its centre to be butchered by others.
Writers throughout the ages have explored the sacrifice of Ibrahim/Abraham of his son and postulated different theories. In the tale, the sacrifice of the son ultimately is NOT required, but the willingness to make the sacrifice is pivotal to its validity. It therefore is not the blood that creates the power but the Will.
Placing your neck on the block in anticipation of the fall of the blade therefore would generate the greatest power in magical/spiritual terms.
In the case of Christ, following the same logic, it would not be the Crucifixion itself but his Willingness to suffer and die that would empower the rite. According to Islamic belief, Allah took him to Heaven before Death actually occurred. Those who link the death of Christ to ancient Judaic traditions would require his Blood in expiation of OUR sins but I cannot comprehend a true God actually finding any virtue in any creature's blood.
Many scientific as well as pseudo-scientific studies have been done to show that blood actually contains energy and that it therefore would be efficacious in magical and religious rituals. That may be true, but I submit that the vital energy is not contained in the blood itself but in the Terror and in the act of Submission to the prospect of Death.
Actual physical Death therefore is not a requirement. Initiations in most ancient mystery religions involved a ritual wherein the Initiate would prepare for Death, face it and then be 'reborn' without actually dying physically. It was that emotional and spiritual passage between Life and Death that generated Rebirth.
Contemporary rituals of 'Baptism' are intended as a form of Rebirth but too often lack the component of Terror and Submission to Death. Does it matter? I suppose the response would depend on what is being conferred by the Baptism. If it is simply membership in an organised religion, then it would not matter in the least. If it is a 'symbolic' ritual, then it would not signify either. If, however, the initiate desires to become 'one with the God', it would have to be a life-ending, life-changing, heart-stopping ritual in order to be efficacious.
This brings me to my ultimate question. How many of us would be willing to place ourselves at the mercy of Death in order to achieve spiritual Rebirth?