On Lampteria

The days are getting shorter and the nights colder. There’s frost on the windows most mornings and fog that doesn’t really burn off until mid-day or later. Dead, fire-hued leaves litter the ground, often concealing patches of oddly-shaped mushrooms that weren’t there the day before and will be completely gone the day after tomorrow. The squirrels in the park are plumping up. Crows congregate in the skeletal branches of trees. Spiders are an increasingly rare sight. And most of the flowers have closed in upon themselves or hunkered down beneath the earth to wait out the chill, wet months. When winter comes to my city it will not be as drastic as in other places. The little bit of snow we’re likely to get won’t last for more than a couple days at most. Because of the constant rains the trees go back to green after the brief red and yellow interlude, and everything – branches, rocks, the sidewalk, slow-moving creatures – get covered in a thin coating of moss, soft as an animal’s pelt. But in the time between fall’s end and the winter rains, you feel death and stillness all about. The air is thick with the smell of damp soil and decaying leaves. The branches of the vine are empty, little more than barren twigs. You can’t help but wonder if they’ll ever bear fruit again.

It’s time for Lampteria.

For me this festival is all about heat. The heat of our bodies after climbing to the top of the butte. The heat of the bull-roarer as it spins, making its eerie, otherworldly sound. The heat of our breath as we speak the ancient words of longing and invocation. The heat of the wine as it passes into our bellies. The heat of the God as his spirit moves through us. The heat of the fire as we light the candles in the dark. The heat that drives us on madly through the city streets, pouring out cups of wine on behalf of the community. The heat of the spicy food we share at the close of the festival. And other kinds of heat.

The heat reminds us of what is truly important: life, comfort, love and all the blessings of Dionysos. But we appreciate them more for being out in the cold and the dark this night. Before you can have Lenaia there must be Lampteria, as surely as there can be no Dawn without darkest Night. 

And each land must celebrate Lampteria in its own local way. 

For instance while visiting the city of Pellene in Achaia the periegete Pausanias encountered:

a sanctuary of Dionysos surnamed Lampteros (Torch). In his honor they celebrate a festival called the Lampteria (Feast of Torches), when they bring by night firebrands into the sanctuary, and set up bowls of wine throughout the whole city. (Description of Greece 7.27.3)

While in Sikyon he witnessed:

After the theater is a temple of Dionysos. The God is of gold and ivory, and by his side are Bakchai of white marble. These women they say are sacred to Dionysos and maddened by his inspiration. The Sikyonians have also some images which are kept secret. These one night in each year they carry to the temple of Dionysos from what they call the Kosmeterion (Tiring-room), and they do so with lighted torches and native hymns. The first of these is named Bakcheios, set up by king Androdamas, the son of Phlias, son of Dionysos, and this is followed by the one called Lysios, brought from Thebes by the Theban Phanes at the command of the Pythian priestess. (2.7.5-6)

The theater Pausanias mentions is significant since the original was built by Kleisthenes as part of his civic reforms:

Besides other honors paid to king Adrastos by the Sikyonians, they celebrated his lamentable fate with tragic choruses in honor not of Dionysos, but him. Kleisthenes, however, took the choruses from Adrastos and gave them back to Dionysos. (Herodotos, Histories 5.67)

Elsewhere we find Dionysian Torch-feasts at Rome:

The men, as though seized with madness and with frenzied distortions of their bodies, shrieked out prophecies; the matrons, dressed as Bacchae, their hair dishevelled, rushed down to the Tiber with burning torches, plunged them into the water, and drew them out again, the flame undiminished, as they were made of sulphur mixed with lime. (Livy, History of Rome 39.14)

And Parnassos:

Surrounded by the light of torches, he stands high on the twin summits of Parnassos, while the Corycian nymphs dance around as Bacchantes, and the waters of Castalia sound from the depths below. Up there in the snow and winter darkness Dionysos rules in the long night, while troops of maenads swarm around him, himself the choir leader for the dance of the stars and quick of hearing for every sound in the waster of the night. (Sophokles, Choral ode from Antigone)

And at Persepolis:

Alexander performed costly sacrifices to the Gods and entertained his friends bountifully. While they were feasting and the drinking was far advanced, a madness took possession of the minds of the intoxicated guests. At this point one of the women present, Thaïs by name and Attic by origin, said that for Alexander it would be the finest of all his feats in Asia if he joined them in a triumphal procession, set fire to the palaces, and permitted women’s hands in a minute to extinguish the famed accomplishments of the Persians. This was said to men who were still young and giddy with wine, and so, as would be expected, someone shouted out to form the komos and to light torches, and urged all to take vengeance for the destruction of the Greek temples. Others took up the cry and said that this was a deed worthy of Alexander alone. When the king had caught fire at their words, all leaped up from their couches and passed the word along to form a victory procession in honour of Dionysos. Promptly many torches were gathered. Female musicians were present at the banquet, so the king led them all out for the komos to the sound of voices and flutes and pipes, Thaïs the courtesan leading the whole performance. She was the first, after the king, to hurl her blazing torch into the palace. As the others all did the same, immediately the entire palace area was consumed, so great was the conflagration. It was most remarkable that the impious act of Xerxes, king of the Persians, against the acropolis at Athens should have been repaid in kind after many years by one woman, a citizen of the land which had suffered it, and in sport. (Diodoros Sikeliotis, Library of History 17.72.1-6)

As well as numerous other places. 

I’ve spoken much about Dionysos’ associations with fire, light, stars, the sun and the thunderbolt elsewhere but it seems appropriate here to emphasize the other side of the coin, the darkness out of which Dionysos shines on Lampteria. And this is very much his home. For instance, at Eleutherai  Dionysos was said to have appeared to the daughters of the king in the guise of a dark goat, after which he was called Melanaigis “He of the Black Goat Skin.” (Suida, s.v. Melan). Additionally, Dionysos was known as Chthonios or “He Who is Beneath the Earth” as well as Nyktelios “the Nocturnal One”, and Nyktipolos “The Night-Stalker.” Additionally, Polemon speaks of a Dionysos Morychos or “Dark Dionysos” worshipped at Syracuse – and that’s not even getting into the relationship between Phanes and Nyx.

Stop and really think about what’s being said here. 

Most modern people don’t understand what genuine darkness is actually like. We live in electrical cities and there’s always a light on somewhere: street lamps, television sets, signs in empty buildings, distant traffic, airplanes flying overhead. We have lived with all of this for so long that we hardly even notice it most of the time. Even if we happen to find ourselves out in the wilderness – and suddenly notice the stars shining more brightly since they don’t have to compete with the haze of light from our urban settings – we know that we will soon be back to civilization and surrounded by the comforting omnipresent electrical glow of our cities.

But things were different for the ancients. Darkness was total, all-consuming, and even the light from lamps and torches was fairly dim by comparison, centered in a single spot, a pool of illumination in the midst of eternal darkness. Think about what that darkness must have been like for them

During the day everything is distinct, separate. You can clearly see that this is this and that that, and navigate your way through the world of form easily. But when the darkness came – everything changed. It enveloped the world of creation, blurring things together in an undifferentiated mush of shadows and even darker shadows. You couldn’t see what lay before you – whether you were about to stumble over a rock or if a vicious creature lurked on the side of the road, preparing to tear your throat out. Nothing existed, for nothing could be seen. It was as if the world had been returned to its original primal state – a yawning chasm, chaos and emptiness, everything in a state of potentiality before the process of creation unfolded, as it would when the sun emerged once more and things became distinct, manifest, capable of being seen and navigated through. But until then there was the darkness – and the torch, which is not the enemy but the companion of the primordial dark. Indeed the torch merely draws attention to the devouring dark that surrounds it.

And that, too, is a face of our God.