Is that you Dionysos?
When I first encountered my God in early adolescence I knew nothing about him beyond what he showed me through dreams, visions and direct communication. Later in my early teens when I sought to reconnect with him I didn’t have a whole lot to go on, especially since that initial revelation had faded to a dim and corrupt memory over time. I spent the next few years chasing his shadow through various religious and philosophical systems, attracted to a number of figures like Siva, Jesus, Odin, the Wiccan Horned God, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, etc. who bore a certain superficial similarity to that strange, earthy, sensual and mysterious deity I had encountered as a child. Although some were very close indeed, possessing many of the qualities that had initially drawn me to him, none proved a perfect match until I happened upon Dionysos himself through a series of not-so-random coincidences. The more I came to learn of this God’s history, mythology and cultus the more I came to realize that he and only he was my God. This, in turn, filled me with a yearning to know everything that I could about him from the past so that I would better understand who he is today.
And I have pursued that goal with a single-minded devotion that borders on the obsessive ever since. Oh, who am I kidding? I left the merely obsessive behind long ago! In the early days of my involvement in the online Hellenic polytheist community I earned a reputation as the king of sources for my encyclopedic knowledge of Dionysian lore and ability to come up with dozens of quotes on the spot on the most arcane of topics. Mind you, this was far more impressive in the days before theoi.com and the plentiful electronic databases of ancient literature that subsequent waves of Hellenic polytheists have had access to. Back in the day you actually had to read the corpus of Classical writings as well as all of the scholarly books and articles for yourself if you wanted to glean any significant information about the Gods and their religion. Somehow I managed to do this through the rather underwhelming Everett and Marysville public libraries and what I could find at Borders and Barnes&Noble. I still remember the excitement of finally laying my hands on a dog-eared set of Farnell’s Cults of the Greek States, long out of print at the time, which mysteriously showed up at the used book store where I worked.
But I digress.
My point is that when we hear the name Dionysos the first thing that occurs to most of us is that he is an ancient Greco-Roman deity. We know him through his myths. He is the son of the immortal Zeus and the mortal Semele. (Or Zeus and Persephone, or Zeus and Demeter, or Ammon and Rheia or so on and so forth, depending on which account you give priority to.) He was raised by the Nymphs and Satyrs on the distant mount Nysa, was pursued and tormented by the jealous Goddess Hera, released from madness by Kybele, traveled the earth teaching men his mysteries and the art of viticulture, redeemed and married Ariadne, brought his mother up out of Haides and accomplished many other fabulous deeds. Alongside this mythic conception of him there is also the Dionysos of cultus. The God of the winepress and the theater, the God who drives the women out of their homes to dance on the mountain and hunt the creatures of the forest, the God of Anthesteria, Lenaia, Oschophoria and the Bacchanalia, the God of Alexander the Great, the Ptolemies, the Attalids, and Marcus Antonius.
Herakleitos, Herodotos, Euripides, Aristophanes, Livy, Plutarch, Nonnos and numerous other poets, historians and philosophers have indelibly shaped our image of this God to the point where we are often not even conscious of our indebtedness to them. (To this list I would also add more contemporary voices such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Jane Ellen Harrison, Walter Otto, Carl Kerényi, Walter Burkert, Jim Morrison, Arthur Evans, and Donna Tartt.) Even those who have never bothered to crack open the books of these illustrious authors remain influenced by their conceptions since others have and that is reflected in the writing we produce and the casual conversations we have on the various websites, blogs, e-mail lists and forums that constitute the contemporary online Hellenic, Neopagan and Dionysian communities. This information may be picked up second or third hand (or even further removed) in an elaborate game of telephone, but it always goes back to the originals, whether credited or not.
Even when we have direct and personal encounters with the God in complete isolation from the community at large our experiences are often filtered through this body of tradition, this conglomerate of cultus, history, imagery, myth and literature. We find parallels between what we are experiencing and what came before. We fashion a mental picture of him from the words of others, their epithets, their stories. This does not diminish what we see and feel – rather it lends depth to it, gives it a greater resonance and vitality. Helps us to understand the immensity of this God, that he has been with us all this time and active in our world. He existed long before we came into being and will be here long after we shuffle off this mortal coil. In a very real sense this body of tradition is what makes him an immortal God and what’s more the specific God that he is – Dionysos and not, say, Odin or Cernunnos.
And yet I find it useful sometimes to temporarily strip all of this away, necessary though I recognize it to be for a true understanding of him, and to contemplate the Dionysos of my heart, the God I feel in the frenzy of worship. If everything that has ever been known about this God in the past were to suddenly vanish he would still exist and it would still be possible to encounter him. This, too, is what makes him a true and immortal God.
So what is this God, my personal Dionysos, like?
He is dark and strange, like a man and yet so very different from one. There is always something Other about him. Sometimes he appears young and beautiful, with a softness to his features that is almost feminine. Long-haired with sultry, pouting lips and skin like mocha, clothed in flowing, exotic and colorful fabrics. He is joyous and sensual, warm and inviting. But his eyes – there is something cold and unnerving about those eyes. They have seen too much of the world and the suffering it contains to belong to such a sweet and innocent face. Other times he has a countenance to match those eyes – wild and bearded, hard and whorled like the bark of an ancient tree. He wears no clothing but a verdant crown of ivy torn fresh from the earth and a heavy snake draped across his broad shoulders. He holds a bunch of plump grapes in his hands, squeezing them so that their juice stains his fingers. Large and savage cats recline at his feet eyeing you with lethal curiosity, but they will make no move unless he wills it. His smile is terrifying. And sometimes he is fat and jolly, laughing drunkenly at the absurd antics of his bestial companions while he gropes some busty maiden perched precariously on his knee.
Sometimes he doesn’t appear human at all. A masculine presence lurking in the trees, the quiet stillness of a dark, damp cave, thunder rolling across the heavens and a sudden shower of rain, a somber madness and the excited clamor of a dancing, screaming crowd, fire, bull, ecstasy. It is in such an impersonal form that I most often encounter him.
During ritual Dionysos usually comes across as a presence, a consciousness that gradually rises up around me, within me until it becomes difficult to tell where he begins and I end. I feel him along the periphery of my awareness at first, and I know it’s him by how everything is affected. He simultaneously heightens all of my senses and makes the world fluid and strange. The quality of light changes, becoming brighter and more intense. Sounds are distorted, as if I’m hearing them across a great distance. I feel a recklessness, a boldness take hold of me, freeing me to say and think and do things I would not ordinarily permit myself to. I become acutely aware of my body – the muscle and bone and blood beneath my skin, sometimes even the individual hairs on my head and he a divine breath flowing through me. I feel too full of him and may find it difficult to remain in place. Without even realizing it I will begin to sway or dance or be overcome by an urge to run around screaming at the top of my lungs. Other times the opposite happens. Something presses heavily upon me, as if the ground is holding me firm where I stand, as if I’m rooted deep, deep down below. Everything grows dark and still, the world outside of me disappearing in the silent gloom of the dead God. I become catatonic with no thoughts except for a dim awareness of the slow and steady rhythmic beating of the earth’s heart. Still other times it is as if too much has been poured into the cup of my mind, sending my thoughts spilling out in a wine-scented gush. My thoughts take on the form of his myths, his poetry and I experience it all as if it is happening to me though these things took place long, long ago. I am gripped by a fury to write, to get it all out on paper and it is everything I can do to keep up with the frenzy of his inspiration.
My experiences of him take many other forms as well – but this should suffice to give an impression of what it is like to feel the presence of this strange and wonderful God whom I know as Dionysos.