Carried Away

I suppose it is appropriate that I am writing this on the Agrionia, a festival of Dionysian wildness and barbarity (where madness is both plague and plague’s cure) which has the following aition or origin story, as recounted by Pseudo-Apollodoros:

Proitos had daughters, Lysippe, Iphinoe, and Iphianassa, by Stheneboea. When these damsels were grown up they went mad, according to Hesiod because they would not accept the rites of Dionysos, but according to Akusilaos, because they disparaged the wooden image of Hera. In their madness they roamed over the whole Argive land, and afterwards, passing through Arcadia and the Peloponnese, they ran through the desert in the most disorderly fashion. But Melampos, son of Amythaon by Idomene, daughter of Abas, being a seer and the first to devise the cure by means of drugs and purifications, promised to cure the maidens if he should receive the third part of the sovereignty. When Proitos refused to pay so high a fee for the cure, the maidens raved more than ever, and besides that, the other women raved with them; for they also abandoned their houses, destroyed their own children, and flocked to the desert. Not until the evil had reached a very high pitch did Proitos consent to pay the stipulated fee, and Melampos promised to effect a cure whenever his brother Bias should receive just so much land as himself. Fearing that, if the cure were delayed, yet more would be demanded of him, Proitos agreed to let the physician proceed on these terms. So Melampos, taking with him the most stalwart of the young men, chased the women in a bevy from the mountains to Sicyon with shouts and a sort of frenzied dance. In the pursuit Iphinoe, the eldest of the daughters, expired; but the others were lucky enough to be purified and so to recover their wits. Proitos gave them in marriage to Melampos and Bias, and afterwards begat a son, Megapenthes. (Bibliotheka 2.2-3.1)

There is a lot of fruit for digestion in this passage about Dionysos’ savage Blackfoot surrogate winning a kingdom and wives for himself and his foolish brother through cunning and mastery of ecstatic rites, healing songs and drugs, particularly when compared to similar archaic ceremonies found among the Slavic tribes of Russia and the Ukraine, as related in the Chronicle of Pseudo-Nestor:

The Drevlians lived like beasts; they killed one another, they fed on things unclean; no marriage took place amongst them, but they captured young girls on the banks of rivers; the Radimich, the Viatich, and the Sever had the same customs. They lived in forests, like other wild animals, they ate everything unclean, and shameful things occurred amongst them between fathers and daughters-in-law. Marriages were unknown to them, but games were held in the outskirts of villages; they met at these games for dancing and every kind of diabolic amusement, and there they captured their wives, each man the one he had covenanted with. They had generally two or three wives.

In Marriage among the Early Slavs, Maksim Kovalevsky observes:

They speak of the existence of certain yearly festivals at which great licence prevailed. According to the last-named author, such meetings were regularly held on the borders of the State of Novgorod on the banks of rivers, resembling, in that particular, the annual festivals mentioned by Nestor. Not later than the beginning of the sixteenth century, they were complained by the clergy of the State of Pscov. It was at that time monk Pamphil drew up his letter to the Governor of the State, admonishing him to put an end to these annual gatherings, since their only result was the corruption of the young women and girls. According to the author just cited, the meetings took place, as a rule, the day before the festival of St. John the Baptist, which, in pagan times, was that of a divinity known by the name of Jarilo, corresponding to the Priapus of the Greeks. Half a century later the new ecclesiastical code, compiled by an assembly of divines convened in Moscow by the Czar Ivan the Terrible, took effectual measures for abolishing every vestige of paganism; amongst them, the yearly festivals held on Christmas Day, on the day of the baptism of Our Lord, and on St. John the Baptist, commonly called Midsummer Day. A general feature of all these festivals, according to the code, was the prevalence of the promiscuous intercourse of the sexes. How far the clergy succeeded in suppressing these yearly meetings, which had been regularly held for centuries before on the banks of rivers, we cannot precisely say, although the fact of their occasional occurrence, even in modern times, does not tend to prove their complete abolition. More than once have I had an opportunity of being present at these nightly meetings, held at the end of June, in commemoration of a heathen divinity. They usually take place close to a river or pond; large fires are lighted, and over them young couples, bachelors and unmarried girls, jump barefoot. I have never found any trace of licentiousness; but there is no doubt that cases of licence used to occur, though seldom in our time. That a few centuries ago they were very frequent has been lately proved by some curious documents preserved in the archives of some of the provincial ecclesiastical councils, particularly in those existing in the government of Kharkov. According to these documents, the local clergy were engaged in constant warfare with the shameful licentiousness which prevailed at the evening assemblies of the peasants, and more than once the clergy succeeded in inducing the authorities of the village to dissolve the assemblies by force. The priests were often wounded, and obliged to seek refuge in the houses of the village elders from the stones with which they were pelted. These evening assemblies are known to the people of Great Russia under the name of Posidelki, and to the Little Russians by that of Vechernitzi.

That such bacchanals were carried out in the name of Ivan Kupala is hardly surprising considering the account of him in Matthew 3:1-12:

In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:

A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
“Prepare the way for the Lord,
   make straight paths for him.”

John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the spirit of holiness and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

The oracular severed head of the Baptizer John was not just worn by Jarilo and Dionysos’ son Priapos, but by the Maskengott himself:

If we add to this horror the ecstatic rapture, which rises up out of the same collapse of the principium individuationis from the innermost depths of human beings, yes, from the innermost depths of nature, then we have a glimpse into the essence of the Dionysian, which is presented to us most closely through the analogy to intoxication.

Either through the influence of narcotic drink, of which all primitive men and peoples speak, or through the powerful coming on of spring, which drives joyfully through all of nature, that Dionysian excitement arises. As its power increases, the subjective fades into complete forgetfulness of self. In the German Middle Ages under the same power of Dionysus constantly growing hordes waltzed from place to place, singing and dancing. In that St. John’s and St. Vitus’s dancing we recognize the Bacchic chorus of the Greeks once again, and its precursors in Asia Minor, right back to Babylon and the orgiastic Sacaea.

There are men who, from a lack of experience or out of apathy, turn mockingly away from such phenomena as from a “sickness of the people,” with a sense of their own health and filled with pity. These poor people naturally do not have any sense of how deathly and ghost–like this very “Health” of theirs sounds, when the glowing life of the Dionysian throng roars past them.  Under the magic of the Dionysian, not only does the bond between man and man lock itself in place once more, but also nature itself, no matter how alienated, hostile, or subjugated, rejoices again in her festival of reconciliation with her prodigal son, man. The earth freely offers up her gifts, and the beasts of prey from the rocks and the desert approach in peace. The wagon of Dionysus is covered with flowers and wreaths. Under his yoke stride panthers and tigers.

If someone were to transform Beethoven’s Ode to Joy into a painting and not restrain his imagination when millions of people sink dramatically into the dust, then we could come close to the Dionysian. Now is the slave a free man, now all the stiff, hostile barriers break apart, those things which necessity and arbitrary power or “saucy fashion” have established between men. Now, with the gospel of world harmony, every man feels himself not only united with his neighbor, reconciled and fused together, but also as if the veil of Maya has been ripped apart, with only scraps fluttering around before the mysterious. Singing and dancing, man expresses himself as a member of a higher unity. He has forgotten how to walk and talk and is on the verge of flying up into the air as he dances. The enchantment speaks out in his gestures. Just as the animals speak and the earth gives milk and honey, so now something supernatural echoes out of him. He feels himself a god. He now moves in a lofty ecstasy, as he saw the gods move in his dream. The man is no longer an artist. He has become a work of art. The artistic power of all of nature, the rhapsodic satisfaction of the primordial unity, reveals itself here in the intoxicated performance. The finest clay, the most expensive marble — man — is here worked and chiseled, and the cry of the Eleusinian mysteries rings out to the chisel blows of the Dionysian world artist: “Do you fall down, you millions? World, do you have a sense of your creator?” (Friedrich Nietzsche, Prose Hymn to Dionysus from The Birth of Tragedy)

Something which Nietzsche knew from personal experience, as Carl Gustav Jung relates in Wotan from Essays on Contemporary Events:

In the dithyramb known as Ariadne’s Lament, Nietzsche is completely the victim of the hunter-god:

Stretched out, shuddering,
Like a half-dead thing whose feet are warmed,
Shaken by unknown fevers,
Shivering with piercing icy frost arrows,
Hunted by thee, O thought,
Unutterable! Veiled! horrible one!
Thou huntsman behind the cloud.
Struck down by thy lightning bolt,
Thou mocking eye that stares at me from the dark!
Thus I lie.
Writhing, twisting, tormented
With all eternal tortures,
By thee, cruel huntsman,
Thou unknown — God!

This remarkable image of the hunter-god is not a mere dithyrambic figure of speech but is based on an experience which Nietzsche had when he was fifteen years old, at Pforta. It is described in a book by Nietzsche’s sister, Elizabeth Foerster-Nietzsche. As he was wandering about in a gloomy wood at night, he was terrified by a “blood-curdling shriek from a neighbouring lunatic asylum,” and soon afterwards he came face to face with a huntsman whose “features were wild and uncanny.” Setting his whistle to his lips “in a valley surrounded by wild scrub,” the huntsman “blew such a shrill blast” that Nietzsche lost consciousness — but woke up again in Pforta. It was a nightmare.

Later in his life the Leader of la Caccia Selvaggia caught up with the philosopher in Northern Italy, with cataclysmic results:

In Turin on 3rd January, 1889, Friedrich Nietzsche steps out of the doorway of number six, Via Carlo Alberto. Not far from him, the driver of a hansom cab is having trouble with a stubborn horse. Despite all his urging, the horse refuses to move, whereupon the driver loses his patience and takes his whip to it. Nietzsche comes up to the throng and puts an end to the brutal scene, throwing his arms around the horse’s neck, sobbing. His landlord takes him home, he lies motionless and silent for two days on a divan until he mutters the obligatory last words, and lives for another ten years, silent and demented, cared for by his mother and sisters. We do not know what happened to the horse. (Béla Tarr, introduction to A torinói ló)

While convalescing in an Italian madhouse Nietzsche wrote numerous letters such as this one to Cosima Wagner, wife of his former friend Richard:

To Princess Ariadne, My Beloved.

It is a mere prejudice that I am a human being. Yet I have often enough dwelled among human beings and I know the things human beings experience, from the lowest to the highest. Among the Hindus I was Buddha, in Greece Dionysus – Alexander and Caesar were incarnations of me, as well as the poet of Shakespeare, Lord Bacon. Most recently I was Voltaire and Napoleon, perhaps also Richard Wagner … However I now come as Dionysus victorious, who will prepare a great festival on Earth … Not as though I had much time … the Heavens rejoice to see me here … I also hung on the cross …

Ariadne, I love you!

– Dionysus

Or this one to Franz and Ida Overbeck:

Although you have so far demonstrated little faith in my ability to pay, I yet hope to demonstrate that I am somebody who pays his debts – for example, to you. I am just having all the anti-Semites shot.

– Dionysus

Dionysonietzsche also generously offered to give the Classics scholar (and author of Psyche: The Cult of Souls and the Belief in Immortality among the Greeks) Erwin Rhode apotheosis and a gaggle of goddess-concubines:

To my growly bear Erwin …

At the risk of enraging you once again by my blindness as regards Monsieur Taine, who formerly composed the Vedas, I hereby deign to transpose you to the gods, with the most beloved goddesses at your side.

– Dionysus

To my knowledge no one has reported seeing Erwin “growly bear” Rhodes on Olympos so he likely turned him down.

Nietzsche’s letter is strangely reminiscent of the coke and schizophrenia fueled ramblings found in science-fiction author and Neoplatonic scholar Philip K. Dick’s Exegesis:

The Immortal One was known to the Greeks as Dionysos; to the Jews as Elijah; to the Christians as Jesus. He moves on when each human host dies, and thus is never killed or caught. Hence Jesus on the cross said, ‘Eli, Eli, lama Sabachthani,’ to which some of those present correctly said, ‘The man is calling on Elijah.’ Elijah had left him and he died alone.

Dionysus inspired the counterculture’s overthrow of Nixon. And inspired VALIS in 2-3-74. The joy God-King Felix. The injury done Felix Buckman (the death of Alys) symbolizes the mortal blow to soon be struck at the tyranny by Dionysus.

Then when I was slipped the hit of STP in ’74 it was Dionysus I saw: the grapevines growing up around the figure of the Catholic priest, my little icon of the saint. And all the pranks, games and riddles (e.g., re Erasmus). Hence I heard the word dithyramb-the dance of Dionysus.

I do discuss Dionysus in VALIS, but he has occluded me with Christian material-a diversion that I fell for-until I reread Tears tonight; Dionysus caused me to see all that I saw in 3-74; it was his magic-it wasn’t really Christ and God; Dionysus can take any form-he fooled me. Of course, now that VALIS is in print, Dionysus lets me see the truth; since it doesn’t matter.

The final part of this quote by Dick reminds me of the dawning horror with which Jane Ellen Harrison came to realize that Dionysos had co-opted her book Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion:

It’s rather dreadful, the whole centre of gravity of the book has shifted. It began as a treatise on Keres with a supplementary notice on Dionysus. It is ending as a screed on Dionysus with an introductory talk about Keres. Whose fault is that? (Letter to Gilbert Murray circa 1900)

It shouldn’t have been too surprising. Dionysos is both the God of Ghosts:

… they roam together – the night-walkers, the magicians, the Bakchai, the Lenai, the participants in mysteries full of unholy rites. Their processions and phallic hymns would be disgraceful exhibitions if it wasn’t for the fact that they are done in honor of Dionysos – that Dionysos who is the same as Haides; it is in his honor that they rave madly and hold their revels. (Herakleitos, Fragments 76-77)

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 fire-breathing stars
and quick of hearing for every sound of the night.

(Sophokles, Choral Ode from Antigone)

During this night, it is said, about the middle of it, while the city was quiet and depressed through fear and expectation of what was coming, suddenly certain harmonious sounds from all sorts of instruments were heard, and the shouting of a throng which none could see, accompanied by cries of Bacchic revelry and Satyric leapings, as if a troop of revelers, making a great tumult, were going forth from the city; and their course seemed to lie about through the middle of it toward the outer gate which faced the enemy, at which point the tumult became loudest and then dashed out. (Plutarch, Life of Antony 75)

The waves rock me in a cradle,
the Dionysian festival of flowers
is being celebrated in the heavens,
and the stars are falling.
The mind no longer inquires, it dances
enwreathed with night as with ivy.
I am free at last, and I am alone
like a saint bound naked to the wheel
who in his nostrils feels
the myrrh of Paradise.
The planks of my boat creak
and by its side the constellations sparkle.
If you are not worthy, you will die.
Keep vigil! The celestial system is crumbling,
its harmony was unbearable.
Keep vigil! The land has let loose
her dogs upon me.

(Pandeís Prevelákis, Barcarole)

And the God of Poets:


Being a poet, I love Bacchus more than all other Gods. The grape harvest has pleased me above everything. (Pierre de Ronsard, Épitre)

Indeed the two are quite intertwined:

To be cleansed of the body is the beginning of life for divine and thus blessed souls. For the Gods, whose attendants they are, they then know, not by worshipping statues and conjectures, but by gaining visible association with them. And free from the body and its diseases, souls observe the affairs of mortals, both when souls are filled with prophetic skill and when the oracular power sends Bacchic frenzy upon them. (Philostratus, On Heroes)

For there is something inherently creative about Bacchic frenzy:

For all good poets, epic as well as lyric, compose their beautiful poems not by art, but because they are inspired and possessed. And as the Corybantic revellers when they dance are not in their right mind, so the lyric poets are not in their right mind when they are composing their beautiful strains: but when falling under the power of music and metre they are inspired and possessed; like Bacchic maidens who draw milk and honey from the rivers when they are under the influence of Dionysos but not when they are in their right mind. And the soul of the lyric poet does the same, as they themselves say; for they tell us that they bring songs from honeyed fountains, culling them out of the gardens and dells of the Muses; they, like the bees, winging their way from flower to flower. And this is true. For the poet is a light and winged and holy thing, and there is no invention in him until he has been inspired and is out of his senses, and the mind is no longer in him: when he has not attained to this state, he is powerless and is unable to utter his oracles. (Plato, Ion 533e-534b)

But their procedure is like Bacchic frenzy – like the leap of a man mad, or possessed – the attainment of a goal without running the race, a passing beyond reason without the previous exercise of reasoning. For the sacred matter (contemplation) is not like attention belonging to knowledge, or an outlet of mind, nor is it like one thing in one place and another in another. On the contrary – to compare small and greater – it is like Aristotle’s view that men being initiated have not a lesson to learn, but an experience to undergo and a condition into which they must be brought, while they are becoming fit for revelation. (Synesios, Dio 1133)

For there was a feeling as if taking hold of the God and of clearly perceiving that he himself had come, of being midway between sleeping and waking, of wanting to look, of struggling against his departure too soon; of having applied one’s ears and hearing some things as in a dream, some waking; hair stood straight, tears flowed in joy; the burden of understanding seemed light. What man is able to put these things into words? Yet if he is one of those who have undergone initiation, he knows and is familiar with them. (Aelius Aristides, Oration 48.32)

Dionysian frenzy blurs all boundaries including the civilized and wild, familiar and strange, male and female, individual and collective, the living and the dead – and even that between fiction and reality, as Erynn Kim writes rapturously in Dionysus as Metaphor: Defining the Dionysus of the Homeric Hymns

In Hymn 7, however, the poet does not introduce the epithet first. Instead, the narrator describes how the transformed Dionysus roars loudly (μέγα δ᾿ ἔβραχεν, “he roared loudly,” l.45), and then reveals himself with the epithet ἐρίβρομος (“loud-roarer,” l.56). Unlike the other two Hymns in which the poet explains the epithets associated with Dionysus, Hymn 7 presents Dionysus the character showing how his story provides the folk etymology for his epithet. In this way, the folk etymology in Hymn 7 works on a metapoetic level. The poet is no longer alone in recognizing the function of the hymn as a way to folk etymologize a formulaic phrase. Dionysus transcends the barrier between poet and character to explain the epithet. Thus, Dionysus not only conquers the sailors but also controls the text itself by subsuming the voice of the poet. Dionysus’ dominance over the text can be seen in the illusion of the sea turning into wine, a phenomenon that would certainly lead the audience to think back to the epithet οἴνοπα πόντον “wine-dark” in line 7. The “wine-dark sea” is an utterly commonplace formula in epic poetry and is not associated with the god Dionysus in particular. The epithet “wine-dark” refers to the color of the sea and has parallels in other Near Eastern traditions. In Hymn 7, however, Dionysus takes the epithet and makes it his own. Dionysus is metaphor in two senses: he is metaphor in that he uses illusion to make sense of the literal facts about his person, but he is also metaphor in that the literal experience of the poem brings to life figurative textual formulae. The narrative persona acts as a bridge between the poet and Dionysus the character, muting the poet’s power to provide explicit explanations of formulae and instead allowing Dionysus to transcend the text and take over the poet’s voice. His power is all-consuming; he is metaphor personified, and the text, structured as metaphor, mirrors this. The shape of the poem is the shape of Dionysus; Dionysus is in the poem but is also the poem itself. On a macro level, Dionysus’ power as metaphor overtakes the structure of the text. On a micro level, it overtakes the formulae of the text. Thus, Hymn 7 is a poem about Dionysus’ power, a “mental possession” that begins with the very first action of the poem, the poet’s remembrance. Introducing the poem with the word μνήσομαι in line 2, the poet begins the hymn with a root derived from Proto-Indo-European *men–  “think,” a poetic and religious root associated with singing and mental activity. Thus, from the very beginning, the poet not only yields to the narrator but also surrenders himself to Dionysus, who comes to life in the text and as the text.

This is why I relied so heavily on the works of German and Russian poets in my A Longing for Distant Places; it is also the explanation for why he so often keeps returning to that part of the world. As the inspired Swedish poet Carl Michael Bellman intuited, Dionysos is seeking his wife Fröja.

Or Freyja, as she appears in Snorri Sturluson:

Freyja is most gently born: she is wedded to the man named Óðr. Their daughter is Hnoss: she is so fair, that those things which are fair and precious are called hnossir. Óðr went away on long journeys, and Freyja weeps for him, and her tears are red gold. Freyja has many names, and this is the cause thereof: that she gave herself sundry names when she went out among unknown peoples seeking Óðr: she is called Mardöll and Hörn, Gefn, Sýr. Freyja had the necklace Brísingamen. She is also called Vanadís. (Gylfaginning 29)

There are only a few scattered references to Óðr in Eddic literature, and almost none outside it. Like Óðinn his name is thought to be derived from Proto-Germanic *wōð- or *wōþ- and is related to Gothic wôds (“raging”, “possessed”), Old High German wuot (“fury” “rage, to be insane”) the Anglo-Saxon words wód (“fury”, “rabies”) and wóð (“song”, “cry”, “voice”, “poetry”, “eloquence”) as well as Old Norse œði (“strong excitation, possession.”)

Regarding the concept of óðr Daniel McCoy writes:

Óðr is a power that overwhelms and infuses one’s being to its core, which ousts one’s mundane consciousness and turns one into a frenzied, ecstatic vessel for some mysterious, divine agency that is palpably present in the act. This could certainly happen in the realms of life with which we associate the relatively neutered modern English word “inspiration,” such as the arts and acts of clairvoyance, but it could also happen in cases where we wouldn’t typically use “inspiration,” such as scholarly writing, the fury of the warrior in the heat of battle, or insanity (and here we must bear in mind that ‘madness,’ to earlier peoples, did not mean loss of control; it meant control by Someone Else: inspiration or possession.)

Of course, if we were to use the word “inspiration” in its original sense – “to be under the immediate influence of a God” – then “inspiration” and óðr would effectively be synonymous. For the ancient Germanic peoples, inspiration, ecstasy, and states of heightened awareness and/or passion were divine gifts that always entailed the presence of the numinous. And isn’t this truer to our immediate experience of inspiration than the comparatively banal and trivialized view of inspiration that we tend to hold today? Virtually all great artists and thinkers have often, during their moments of greatest inspiration, felt themselves to be vessels for some mysterious power working through them, and over which they have little, if any, conscious control. In addition to recognizing this common felt experience in a very wide array of phenomena, the concept of óðr was a way of making this connection explicit rather than something one has to grope for words to express.

Furthermore, this meant that all inspired activities had an inherent sacredness, an inherent spiritual nature and importance. For someone who has ample experience of both inspiration and the presence of the divine, and has paid close attention to the character of these experiences, it should be evident that there is an immense degree of overlap between the two. Both involve a sense of being “seized” by something grand, fascinating, and often troubling, from the outside; they both partake to some degree of what the German philosopher of religion Rudolf Otto called the mysterium fascinans and mysterium tremendum in his classic 1917 work The Idea of the Holy.