For some reason, I feel that we are missing a central piece of the Dionysian puzzle in terms of our comprehension of this ancient religion. Obviously, governments considered it antisocial and anarchistic to the point of outlawing it in Rome at one point... but was it really?
Nowadays, many 'alternative' lifestyles have taken their concept of 'Dionysian mystery' and made it a blanket for every type of sexual activity including general orgies, but that was NOT what Dionysus represented. It was carefully-planned, carefully-limited depravity and anarchy that was one of the cornerstones of the Dionysian mysteries.
Essentially, Dionysus represented another aspect of the 'Lord of Misrule' traditions where, at the end of a year, some one from the very lowest rung of society's ladder was crowned king and allowed to dictate to EVERY ONE for a few days.
Turning society upside down was the beginning of a general rite of purification and cleansing before one embarked upon a new year.
I think that the Dionysian mysteries in their orgiastic component were much the same. They did not occur constantly. In fact, in some societies, it has been argued that the rite occurred only once every TWO years.
Many societies embraced the concept of taboo. Most taboos were actions that were utterly forbidden most of the time BUT were allowed on a single ritual occasion. Whether it was cannibalism, incest, human sacrifice or the eating of pork, the forbidden actually was mandated at a specific time and place.
This is where the ancient reports of Jews eating pork by moonlight fit. Pork, forbidden in the Jewish religion, HAD to be consumed at a specific time and place, evidently, in one society at least. Sir James Frazer speaks of this at length in the Golden Bough.
Did Dionysian initiates murder human beings with their bare hands and teeth and consume the flesh raw? It is possible that 'The Bacchae', the play on which MOST of contemporary comprehension of Dionysian rites is based, was as much a piece of fictional sensationalism as 'TrueBlood' is now! Obviously, the audience who watched the play originally knew where fact ended and fiction began.
Ancient myths were morality tales as well as a mixture of religion, history and inventive drama. Certainly the death of Penthius has its basis historically AND religiously in the annual rites of Attis. Kings were sacrificed ritually on trees and indeed the crucifixion of Jesus Christ probably was a ritual act in an ancient tradition, rather than being something utterly new. That does NOT make the crucifixion of Christ LESS of a powerful mystery but MORE of one.
Did Bacchantes run wild in the sacred rite killing humans and animals with their bare hands and teeth and eating the flesh raw? That they consumed raw flesh is undeniable... in the rite that preceded the omophagia, the ritual sacrificial animal probably had to be torn rather than cut, probably with the aid of cords and ropes rather than the strength of bare hands. It may have begun with a ritual hanging much like the hanging of Attis or Odhinn.
These are but details that now are the subject only of conjecture but Frazer operated according to the most logical premise, that ALL myths and practices are derived from the same original source and by studying one in his age, the scholar could discover the basis of others lost in the obscurity of time.
So it is with the mysteries of Dionysus. The three elements that occur again and again in literature and visual representation are the oreibasia, the sparagmos and the omophagia. Mind you, this is only ONE of the mysteries but it appears to be the only one of interest to contemporary society. Others included the making of sacred wine and the feeding of it to the spirits. Oreibasia is the energetic dance to the heights of the mountains, rather like a marathon of long-distance running. That was the preliminary to the sparagmos or rending of the sacrifice into pieces in ritual fashion. The omophagia was the 'holy communion' rite in which the sacrificial raw flesh became the flesh of the god.
In contemporary Western society, however, it is the sexual aspect of the rite that has been embraced without reference to any of the mystical rituals that preceded it in the ancient religion.
Sexual depravity WAS a component of the Dionysian rite but only in combination with the other aspects of the tradition. There were specific days when these mysteries were enacted. It was NOT a general lifestyle.
As previously argued, I believe that the sexual licence was on a par with the 'Lord of Misrule' celebrations. In ancient Egypt, five days were set aside at the end of every year and dedicated to the god Set who represented the Lord of Misrule and Anarchy. The killing of Osiris actually is very similar to the sparagmos ritual. The body of Osiris was divided into a number of pieces and thrown into the Nile. In Egypt, however, the rending may have involved a ritual knife.
This brings me to the final piece of my puzzle which is the unattached phallus taken from Attis, from Dionysus and from Osiris. It figured largely in the women's rites behind closed doors while the men paraded outside in the city streets carrying huge phalli in procession. Although these mysteries were secret and therefore never committed to writing, there are sufficient hints in other mystery religions to argue that they involved an act of copulation with an artificial phallic member who represented the god. This did not constitute self-pleasuring in a casual, carnal sense but rather a transcendental religious experience wherein the women were visited by the god and achieved another state of consciousness.
Orgasm is another state of consciousness and by divorcing it from any mortal partner on this particular day, it probably allowed the women to achieve a truly spiritual experience of divine visitation. It was a SPECIAL rite, and it was restricted to one night. It was not a general invitation to what Roman Catholicism terms 'self-abuse' and indeed was the very opposite of self-abuse. It was not a solitary pleasure. It was a holy communion with the god from whom the twin rivers of life and death flowed.
The phallus was cut from the god himself and then became available to humankind. In a different mystery dedicated to the Earth Mother, a basket containing a mystery was uncovered and contained the phallus of the god. Dionysus is the 'green ear of corn harvested' and the liknon contained that 'green ear of corn' or phallus. Attis sacrificed his phallus to the Earth Mother Cybele. All of these mystery religions contain the same central potent symbol. It is the phallis. That is why there are museums in Europe crammed with phalli.
The liknon in fact is a winnowing fan. In the ancient epic poem describing the struggle between Baal and Mot, the Goddess after killing Mot (Lord of Death), places him in her winnowing fan and winnows his remains. This was a ritual enacted every seven years.
Mot in the ancient poem declares to Ba'al: 'Because of you I have experienced splitting with the sword, Because of you I have expeirenced burning with fire; Because of you, I have experienced grinding with millstones; Because of you, I have experienced winnowing with the basket; because of you, I have experienced sowing in the field; because of you, I have experienced scattering in the sea'... His remains ultimately are scattered and eaten by birds.
This is interesting for a number of reasons as it is a rite that is echoed in many future religions, including funeral practices in India and Tibet where a corpse must be cut into pieces and placed in a high place to be devoured by vultures. Although it has been argued that the 'death' of Mot is nothing more than a description of ancient agricultural practices of preparing and sowing seeds, it is far more, just as the rites of Dionysus involve far more than a method of making wine from grapes.
The most important 'part' of any male god is the phallus. It is the phallus that is placed in the winnowing fan or liknon and uncovered at the strategic moment in the sacred rite.
When I visited Malta, I saw both the ancient female goddess figures and the phalli carved of stone. They cannot be considered separate. Dionysus gives his manhood to the Earth and to humanity.
At the Last Supper, Christ dedicated his body and blood to humanity, clearly commanding his followers to eat of his body and drink of his blood. The sexual component of his life is shrouded in total mystery. It is possible that he deviated from the ancient tradition in that respect, but unlikely. His later disciples, especially Paul, who never even MET Jesus, were the ones who were consumed with the idea of 'chastity' and 'denial' to the point where they rewrote the religion and made sex synonymous with the devil.
This was nothing new either, as in the Orphic tradition, humanity was made both of the element of Earth (the dross of the Titans) and of the element of Heaven (pure). Get rid of the body and what remains is pure in the form of the soul...
In conclusion, Dionysus does NOT represent complete licence and sexual depravity or self-indulgence. He represented many different elements in the journeys between conception and resurrection, both the life-force and the death-force and his rituals, including those of the Bacchanals, were cyclic in nature. Any one who would like to think that by calling themselves followers of Dionysus, they are given total licence to commit any and every act under the sun and moon in the pursuit of mindless pleasure are sadly mistaken. The rites of Dionysus were sacred mysteries and were committed for the Earth and humanity, in the cause of fertility. They were as far from acts of 'self-abuse' as the Earth from the Sun.