Some background on the Toys of Dionysos
It is impossible to say when, exactly, myths of Dionysos’ sparagmós began to circulate in ancient Greece – though judging by their wide dispersal and the archaic nature of the rites associated with them, one can safely assume that they had a fairly early origin. The myths varied in where they were located, how the deed was done, who the instigators were, the age of the god at the time it happened and their attributed meaning, but all agree that he suffered something terrible – just like the grape that is torn from the vine and crushed to make wine or the forest creature that’s hunted down and rent apart by his frenzied devotees, Dionysos was killed and savagely dismembered.
One strand of this myth became attached to the Thracian shaman Orpheus and those who composed inspired verse in his famous name. However this version did not leap fully-formed from the prophetic head of Orpheus – indeed we can carefully trace its historical accretions. For instance, it was in the fifth century BCE that the name of “Titans” was first attached to Dionysos’ assailants by Onomokritos, an Athenian chresmologue who was caught forging oracles of Mousaios and spent some time as an exile at the Persian court. (Pausanias, Description of Greece 8.37.5; Herodotos, The Histories 7.6) And mankind rising from the ash of the Titans who were blasted by Zeus’ lightning-bolt – you don’t get all of those threads tied together until the Neoplatonic scholar Olympiodoros in the sixth century CE, close to a thousand years later. And the only one to call the tragic child “Zagreus” was the 5th century CE poet Nonnos of Panopolis – ironic since most people, myself included until fairly recently, tend to favor this name when discussing the myth, even though its proposed derivation from za agrios “the Great Hunter” or from zagre a “pit for the capture of live animals” (Hesychios s.v.) seems an improbable epiklesis for an infant, divine or otherwise.
It is harder to pinpoint when the Toys of Dionysos came into the picture. Our earliest definitive reference to them is the Gurôb Papyrus which has been confidently dated to the third century BCE. This text, a fragmentary script for some kind of Bacchic Orphic ceremony (most likely an initiation) found in Egypt, reads:
Accept ye my great offering as the payment for my lawless fathers.
Save me, great Brimo …
and Demeter and Rhea …
and the armed Kouretes: let us … and we will make fine sacrifices.
A ram and a he-goat … boundless gifts.
… and by the law of the river …
Taking of the goat … let him eat the rest of the meat …
Let no uninitiated look on!
Prayer of the …
I call on … Eubouleus, and I call the Maenads who cry Euoi …
You having parched with thirst … the friends of the feast …
And let us call upon the Queen of the broad Earth,
Grant the blessings of Demeter and Pallas unto us.
O Eubouleus, Erikepaios, save me! Phanes!
Hurler of Lightning!
THERE IS ONE DIONYSOS.
Tokens … god through the bosom.
Having drunk … ass cowboy …
Password: up and down to the … and what has been given to you.
Consume it, put it into the basket …
… cone, bull-roarer, knucklebones, mirror.
Dating from the reign of the Makedonian pharaoh Ptolemy Philopator, the Gurôb Papyrus is thought to be one of the hieroi logoi he ordered collected and brought to the capital in his royal edict:
Those in the country districts who impart initiation into the mysteries of Dionysos are to come down by river to Alexandria, those residing not farther than Naucratis within 10 days after the promulgation of this decree, those beyond Naucratis within 20 days, and register themselves before Aristoboulos at the registry office within 3 days of the day of their arrival, and they shall immediately declare from whom they have received the rites for three generations back and give in the Sacred Discourse sealed, each man writing upon his copy his own name. (Berlin Papyrus 11774, verso)
Coincidentally – or perhaps not, since scholars hypothesize that the project was undertaken in Alexandria – around this time an effort was made to collect and systematize the various Orphic pseudepigrapha that had been circulating since at least the fifth or fourth centuries BCE when members of the school of Pythagoras (the founder included) are credited with forging them. Containing cosmological, mythological, ritual poems and other texts, this work was known as The Rhapsodies in 24 Books and is the primary means by which Orphic lore was transmitted in late antiquity. It almost certainly contained an account of the Toys and their symbolic meaning.
Clement of Alexandria (150-215 CE) (first of the Christians to deserve the designation philosophos) is our next witness, and in the second book of his Protreptikos Pros Hellenas (or Exhortation to the Greeks) he expressly attributes them to a poem by Orpheus:
The mysteries of Dionysos are wholly inhuman; for they say that the Curetes danced around his cradle clashing their weapons, and the Titans having come upon them by stealth, and having beguiled him with childish toys, these very Titans tore him limb from limb when but a child, as the bard of this mystery, the Thracian Orpheus, says:
“Kōnos and rhombos and a doll with bending limbs and beautiful golden apples from the clear-voiced Hesperides.”
And so it is not useless to put forth for censure the useless symbola of your rite: knuckle-bone, ball, top, apples, bull-roarer, mirror, wool.
Athene, to resume our account, having abstracted the heart of Dionysos received the name Pallas from its palpitating (pallein). And the Titans who had torn him limb from limb, setting a caldron on a tripod, and throwing into it the members of Dionysos, first boiled them down, and then fixing them on spits, “held them over the fire.” But Zeus having appeared, since he was a god, having speedily perceived the savour of the pieces of flesh that were being cooked,–that savour which your gods agree to have assigned to them as their perquisite, assails the Titans with his thunderbolt, and consigns the members of Dionysos to his son Apollo to be interred. And he – for he did not disobey Zeus – bore the dismembered corpse to Parnassos, and there deposited it.
Although there were a few allusions here and there in the interim, the next author to give a full account of them was Arnobius of Sicca, who left behind a promising career as a rhetorician in African Numidia to become a Christian apologist during the contentious reign of Diocletian. His book Adversus gentes (Against the Nations) has this to say regarding the Toys:
But those other Bacchanalia also we refuse to proclaim, in which there is revealed and taught to the initiated a secret not to be spoken; how Liber, when taken up with boyish sports, was torn asunder by the Titans; how he was cut up limb by limb by them also, and thrown into pots that he might be cooked; how Jupiter, allured by the sweet savour, rushed unbidden to the meal, and discovering what had been done, overwhelmed the revellers with his terrible thunder, and hurled them to the lowest part of Tartarus. As evidence and proof of which, the Thracian bard handed down in his poems: knuckle-bones, mirror, spinning tops, spinning wheels, and round balls, and golden apples taken from the Hesperides. (5.19)
And our final source is the Christian astrologer Iulius Firmicus Maternus, a Sicilian of Rome’s senatorial class who flourished during the reigns of Constantine the Great and his successors and whose De errore profanarum religionum (On the error of profane religions) states:
Liber was the son of Jove, a king of Crete. Considering that he was born out of wedlock, his father’s attentions to him were excessive. The wife of Jove, whose name was Juno, was filled with a stepmother’s anger and sought in every way by guile to bring about the death of the child. Now the father was setting out on a journey, and because he knew of the concealed displeasure of his wife, and in order to prevent her from acting treacherously in her fury, he entrusted the care of his son to guards who in his opinion were to be trusted. Juno, being thus given an opportune moment for her crime, and with fuel added to her rage through the circumstance that the father had on his departure handed over to the boy his throne and his sceptre, first of all corrupted the guardians with royal payments and gifts, then stationed her followers, called Titans, in the inner part of the palace, and with the aid of rattles and a mirror of ingenious workmanship so distracted his childish mind that he left his royal seat and was brought to the place of ambush, led there by the irrational impulse of childhood. (6)
That’s it. The myth as we know it rests on four sources – three of which are hostile outsiders to the Bacchic Orphic mysteries. If they are all relying on the same single source – such as the 24 Rhapsodies – they are doing so poorly. Not only do they disagree on essential details of the myth but their lists of Toys are all different, each author leaving out or including items which their fellows do not.
To be fair, I think that’s because they weren’t relying on the same single source and the Dionysian and Orphic individuals they got their information from didn’t feel obligated to adhere to a canonical list in the first place.
The Toys – as reminders of Dionysos’ suffering and what they themselves had gone through during initiation, as well as other symbolic associations the items were laden with – were indeed deeply important to these individuals, but since teletai were communicated via itinerant religious specialists or through small, autonomous groups with unique lineages, legitimacy was often gained through having an idiosyncratic – and therefore more true than one’s neighbors’ – interpretation of things. The ancient Greeks were just as competitive in religion as they were in all other aspects of life, remember. Most of them wouldn’t know what the hell you were talking about if you read passages from Thomas Bullfinch or Edith Hamilton at them.
We know that the Toys were important from the initiates’ own testimony.
Consider what Apuleius (of Golden Ass fame) related during his trial for ensorcelling the affections of a rich widow, proof of which was supposedly the strange tchotchkes he kept around his domicile:
I have been initiated into various of the Greek mysteries, and preserve with the utmost care certain emblems and mementoes of my initiation with which the priests presented me. There is nothing abnormal or unheard of in this. Those of you here present who have been initiated into the mysteries of Father Liber alone, know what you keep hidden at home, safe from all profane touch and the object of your silent veneration. But I, as I have said, moved by my religious fervour and my desire to know the truth, have learned mysteries of many a kind, rites in great number, and diverse ceremonies […] Could anyone who has any idea of religion still find it strange that a man initiated in so many divine mysteries should keep at home some tokens of recognition of the cults and should wrap them in linen cloth, the purest veil for sacred objects? For wool, the excrescence of an inert body extracted from a sheep, is already a profane garment in the prescriptions of Orpheus and Pythagoras. (Apologia 55-56)
The word Apuleius uses to describe these “tokens” is crepundia (toys or trinkets) a term we will be discussing more fully momentarily.
Much earlier the Roman imperator Marcus Antonius (like Ptolemy Philopator a “Neos Dionysos” or mortal incarnation of the god) had his playthings too, as Sokrates the Rhodian related in the third book of his History of the Civil War:
Antony himself, when he was staying at Athens, a short time after this, prepared a very superb scaffold to spread over the theatre, covered with green wood such as is seen in the caves sacred to Dionysos; and from this scaffold he suspended drums and fawn-skins, and all the other toys which one names in connection with Dionysos, and then sat there with his friends, getting drunk from daybreak, a band of musicians, whom he had sent for from Italy, playing to him all the time, and all the Greeks around being collected to see the sight. (As quoted in Athenaios’ Deipnosophistai 4.29)
The Toys were immensely popular in Southern Italy, appearing frequently on cups, vases and other ritual items:
A good many Italiote choes show the same pictures as the Attic ones. Youths pouring a libation on an altar from an ornamented chous; a boy with a painted chous and an obelias-cake (reminding one of a streptos), standing near a table; a youth sitting near an altar; youth crowned with feathers or spikes holding out a garland; – all these pictures bring us into a well-known sphere. A jug-race is depicted on an Italiote chous. A boy juggling with three balls, using only one hand, surpasses the skill of the Attic ball-player; hence his conceited attitude, reminding one of a circus-acrobat. Is a rattle or a streptos-cake depicted here? Neither is unfamiliar to us. The rhombos or inyx is shown on many Attic vases, but not on Attic choes: it occurs on this Lucanian chous. The chthonic connection of the chous is proved by the siren approaching a sacrificial altar. The chous was used in the cult at a tomb. […] Very remarkable is the marriage of Dionysos on an Italiote vase, where the young bridegroom is represented with short horns. No Attic vase alludes so clearly to the god, whose wedding was celebrated in the Boukoleion, the bull-stable. Some of the Italiote pictures are equivalent to the theatrical scenes on Attic choes: travesty of Herakles, seen pilfering chous and omphalos-cake from a woman at the Anthesteria; a farce of masked actors on a luxuriously decorated chous; the results of over-eating; a scene at a fair: phlyakes on a merry-go-round to the accompaniment of the flute. Other subjects are a boy hastening to the revel; a single head; women holding mirrors and birds. (Richard Hamilton, Choes and Anthesteria 50-51)
A funerary gold leaf from Thessalian Pherae dating from around 300 BCE bears the following inscription, attesting the eschatological import of the Toys:
Send me to the thiasoi of the mystai: I have the ritual objects of Bakchios and the rites of Demeter Chthonia and of the Mountain Mother. (OF 493c)
And in a similarly Bacchic-Eleusinian syncretic milieu, several of the Toys are mentioned alongside other mystic tokens by Epiphanios:
And how many mysteries and rites do the Greeks have? As the women who go to the megara and those who celebrate the Thesmophoria are different between themselves, so many other things are different: the mysteries of Deo and Pherephatta at Eleusis, and shameful actions in the sanctuaries there, nakednesses of women, to put it politely, drums and cakes, a bull-roarer and a basket, worked wool and cymbals, and kykeon prepared in the beaker. (Exposition on the Faith 10)
Nor was this the only mystery tradition that received a Bacchic Orphic infusion – Dionysos was identified with the Samothracian deities, as both Clement of Alexandria:
If you wish to inspect the orgies of the Corybantes, then know that, having killed their third brother, they covered the head of the dead body with a purple cloth, crowned it, and carrying it on the point of a spear, buried it under the roots of Olympus. These mysteries are, in short, murders and funerals. And the priests of these rites, who are called kings of the sacred rites by those whose business it is to name them, give additional strangeness to the tragic occurrence, by forbidding parsley with the roots from being placed on the table, for they think that parsley grew from the Corybantic blood that flowed forth; just as the women, in celebrating the Thesmophoria, abstain from eating the seeds of the pomegranate which have fallen on the ground, from the idea that pomegranates sprang from the drops of the blood of Dionysos. Those Corybantes also they call Cabiric; and the ceremony itself they announce as the Cabiric mystery. For those two identical fratricides, having abstracted the box in which the phallos of Bacchus was deposited, took it to Etruria–dealers in honourable wares truly. They lived there as exiles, employing themselves in communicating the precious teaching of their superstition, and presenting phallic symbols and the box for the Tyrrhenians to worship. And some will have it, not improbably, that for this reason Dionysos was called Attis, because he was mutilated. And what is surprising at the Tyrrhenians, who were barbarians, being thus initiated into these foul indignities, when among the Athenians, and in the whole of Greece–I blush to say it–the shameful legend about Demeter holds its ground?
and the author of the Orphic Argonautika attest:
Then, I sang, of the race of powerful Brimo, and the destructive acts of the Giants, who spilled their gloomy seed from the sky begetting the men of old, whence came forth mortal stock, which resides throughout the boundless world. And I sang of the service of Zeus, and of the cult of the Mother and how wandering in the mountains of Kybele she conceived the girl Persephone by the unconquerable son of Kronos, and of the renowned tearing of Kasmeilos by Herakles [the Daktyl], and of the sacred oath of Idaeus, and of the immense oak of the Korybantes, and of the wanderings of Demeter, her great sorrow for Persephone, and her lawgiving. And also I sang of the splendid gift of the Kabeiroi, and the silent oracles of Night about Lord Bacchus, and of the sea of Samothrace and of Cyprus, and of the love of Aphrodite for Adonis. And I sang of the rites of Praxidike and the mountain nights of Athela, and of the lamentations of Egypt, and of the holy offerings to Osiris.
And in their shrine at Thebes, as W. K. C. Guthrie relates, his Toys were discovered in plentiful numbers:
Among the heaps of votive offerings found in the shrine were a number of objects, some in bronze and some in clay, which are unmistakably spinning-tops, and yet others in the form of knucklebones. Although these are the most striking examples, there are others too whose identification as playthings is scarcely more doubtful, tiny cups and jugs and glass beads. A list of dedicated objects has also come to light, and includes four knucklebones, a top and a whip. (Orpheus and Greek Religion page 125)
At Imbros (another holy site of the Kabeiroi) a late inscription mentions a Lord Kasmeilos in the company of five Titans (IG XII 8.74). Here, too, toys were found.
In fact the Toys were so important that other Bacchic myths, having nothing to do with sparagmós, were devised to explain their presence in cult:
Mystis also nursed the god after her mistress’s breast, watching by the side of Lyaios with sleepless eyes. The clever handmaid taught him the art that bears her name, the mystic rites of Dionysos in the night. She prepared the unsleeping worship for Lyaios, she first shook the rattle, and clanged the swinging cymbals with the resounding double bronze; she first kindled the nightdancing torch to a flame, and cried Euion to sleepless Dionysos; she first plucked the curving growth of ivy-clusters, and tied her flowing hair with a wreath of vine; she alone entwined the thyrsos with purple ivy, and wedged on the top of the clusters an iron spike, covered with leaves that it might not scratch Bakchos. She thought of fitting plates of bronze over the naked breast, and fawnskins over the hips. She taught Dionysos to play with the mystical casket teeming with sacred things of worship, and to use them as his childish toys. She first fastened about her body a belt of braided vipers, where a serpent coiling round the belt on both sides with encircling bonds was twisted into a snaky knot. (Nonnos, Dionysiaka 9.111-131)
The myth of Dionysos’ dismemberment could mean very different things to different people. Sometimes even the same individual could read radically divergent things into it.
For example, to Plutarch the myth was both an aition (explanatory tale) of cosmic plurality:
As for the passage and distribution into waves and water, and earth, and stars, and nascent plants and animals, they hint at the actual change undergone as a rending and dismemberment, but name the god himself Dionysos or Zagreus or Nyktelios or Isodaites. Deaths too and vanishings do they construct, passages out of life and new births, all riddles and tales to match the changes mentioned. So they sing to Dionysos dithyrambic strains, charged with sufferings and a change wherein are wanderings and dismemberment. (On the E at Delphi)
As well as confirmation of the Pythagorean doxai (doctrines) of vegetarianism and metampsychosis (transmigration of souls):
For Empedokles says allegorically that souls, paying the penalty for murders and the eating of flesh and cannibalism, are imprisoned in mortal bodies. However, it seems that this account is even older, for the legendary suffering of dismemberment told about Dionysos and the outrages of the Titans on him, and their punishment and their being blasted with lightning after having tasted of the blood, this is all a myth, in its hidden inner meaning, about reincarnation. For that in us which is irrational and disorderly and violent and not divine but demonic, the ancients used the name, “Titans,” and the myth is about being punished and paying the penalty. (De Esu Carnium 1.996b-c)
Contemporary scholars have come up with a number of theories about what this myth “originally meant.”
For some it was all about the “cuisine of sacrifice,” to borrow a phrase from Marcel Detienne, whose Dionysos mis à mort (Dionysos Slain) explores the ancient Greeks’ notions of savage and civilized forms of ritualized animal butchery, with special attention paid to the sparagmós of Dionysos. In the versions of the myth found in Clement and Nonnos, the crime of the Titans isn’t just their murder and cannibalistic feast but how the young bovine god was prepared – first they boil the pieces of Dionysos’ flesh and then roast them on skewers, which is a complete inversion of the normal procedure (first barbeque, then stew) and thus represents the triumph of barbarity over civilization. Detienne viewed the Orphics as a bunch of teetotaling vegan proto-Protestants who vehemently rejected the structures of the polis, most especially when they intersected with religion. Thus he saw this myth as a means of casting aspersion on the whole sacrament of animal slaughter. Despite the fact that there’s scarcely any evidence to suggest that vegetarianism was a common Orphic trait and Orpheus himself is represented as participating in numerous animal sacrifices, including one that strongly resembles Nonnos’ portrayal of the myth:
The Titans cunningly smeared their round faces with disguising chalk (titanos), and while he contemplated his changeling countenance reflected in a mirror they crept upon him clutching an infernal knife. [Dionysos transforms into various animals] or again like a bull emitting a terrifying roar from his mouth he butted the Titans with sharp horn. And the gates of Olympos rattled in echo and finally the bold bull collapsed: the murderers each eager for his turn with the knife chopt piecemeal the bull-shaped Dionysos. (Dionysiaka 6.155 ff)
And I say to you, beloved Mousaios, son of Antiophemos, he ordered me to prepare quickly for an appropriate sacrifice. And so I built an altar of excellent oak on the shore, and putting on a robe, I offered service to the gods on behalf of the men. And then I slit the throat of an enormous bull, bending back the head to the gods, cutting up the fresh meat and pouring the blood around the fire. After I laid the heart on broken cakes, I made a libation of oil and sheep’s milk. I then ordered the heroes to spread round the victim, thrusting their spears and their swords furnished with handles into the victim, and into the hide and the viscera shining in my hands. And I set up in the middle a vessel containing kykeon, the sacred drink of water and barley, which I carefully mixed, the first nourishing offering to Demeter. Then came the blood of the bull, and salty sea-water. I ordered the crew wreathed with crowns of olive leaves. Then filling up a golden vessel with kykeon by my hands, I divided it by rank so that every man could have a sip of the powerful drink. I asked Jason to order a dry pine torch to be placed beneath, and with swift motion the divine flame ascended. (Orphic Argonautika)
For other scholars – most notably E. R. Dodds in The Greeks and the Irrational and M. L. West in The Orphic Poems – this myth is seen as evidence of a shamanic current within early Hellenic religion, usually thought to be transmitted through contact with the Thracians or their neighbors the Scythians. Although highly critical of applying spiritual and cultural terminology that originated among Siberian and Asian populations to the Greeks, and skeptical that such things existed among the Scythians, Anna S. Kuznetsova in her study Shamanism and the Orphic Tradition came up with four criteria for comparison, the first two of which are directly relevant to our myth:
“Divine election” of a shaman. Still a child, the future shaman usually sees various spirits in his dreams, who try to contact or hurt him, and various animals, who aid him. This child (almost exclusively a boy) is withdrawn into himself, sleepy, non sociable, likes to walk alone in the forest, and is noted for his ‘shamanistic illness’ (epilepsy and hallucinations). The elder shaman chooses him and starts to introduce him into the sacred tradition. He then prepares the neophyte for initiation (Novik, 1984:197).
Initiation. This period is difficult for the neophyte in physical and psychological terms and culminates in overcoming of the shamanistic illness (which is in some respects different from ordinary epilepsy). ‘Mastering’ his shamanistic illness, the future shaman is able to control the epileptic attacks. Visions which the neophyte sees are usually related with scenes of dismemberment of the initiate by the underworld spirits. They torture him and then cause his rebirth so that he comes back in a new body, already possessing unique abilities. These visions were not an exclusive privilege of shamans. Smiths among Siberian peoples, for instance, practiced a similar ritual of initiation.
Which leads us to the third strain of interpretation, namely that this myth represents a primitive rite of passage – specifically a passage out of childhood.
There is a lot to commend this particular theory – for instance, an epigram by Leonidas of Tarentum commemorates Philokles’ offering up the tokens of his childhood to Hermes, guide of souls, so that the god will lead him through the transition into adulthood – the beginning of a new life necessitating the death of the old:
This loud wood rattle, this silent ball,
Philokles gives Hermes these things.
The bone-dice he once loved, his top,
he renders up his childhood’s toys.
(Greek Anthology, 6.309)
Tokens, you will note, that perfectly mirror the Toys of Dionysos.
Toys play an important role in the rape of Kore-Persephone which is often thought to represent a similar transition from maidenhood to adult status, this time mediated through the rite of marriage. In Claudian’s late treatment of the myth a distraught Ceres comes back to the tower where she has entombed her daughter and set terrifying dragons to guard her, only to discover the girl missing, her toys pathetically discarded:
She weeps not nor bewails the ill; only kisses the loom and stifles her dumb complaints amid the threads, clasping to her bosom, as though it had been her child, the spindles her child’s hand had touched, the wool she had cast aside, and all the toys scattered in maiden sport. She scans the virgin bed, the deserted couch, and the chair where Proserpine had sat: even as a herd, whose drove the unexpected fury of an African lion or bands of marauding beasts have attacked, gazes in amaze at the vacant stall, and, too late returned, wanders through the emptied pastures, sadly calling to the unreplying steers. (De Raptu Proserpine 3.159-169)
Toys play a different and much more direct role, however, in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, where the as-yet-nameless Kore plays in a soft meadow and is attracted by a wonderfully beautiful narcissus, described as an athurma, “toy” (15-16) when:
In wonder she stretched out both hands to take the beautiful toy, and the wide earth opened up beneath her.
Commenting on this passage in The Toys of Dionysos, Olga Levaniouk writes:
She reaches with both hands for the flower, and her gesture is distinctly childish, almost infant-like, her attention suddenly absorbed by the “toy.” For Dionysos, too, the terrifying experience comes as he is playing with beautiful, wondrous things, and the word used by Clement for the toys is athurmata, the very word used of Kore’s narcissus in the Homeric Hymn.
While in this enraptured state, Kore is literally carried off, dragged to hell by its liege who is soon to become her lawfully wedded husband, their union sealed by the seeds of the pomegranate, fruit sacred to Hera and Aphrodite and the other goddesses of matrimony – an act which earns her a radiant name, Persephone.
The sacrifice of toys is found in other rites of womanhood, as another epigram from the Greek Anthology attests, this one honoring Timareta, a maiden (korê) who died before her marriage, but after she had dedicated her dolls to Artemis Limnatis:
Timareta before her wedding dedicated her tambour and her lovely ball and the hair-net that held her hair. Her dolls (korai), too, to Artemis of the Lake, a korê to a korê, as is fitting, and the clothing of the dolls. Daughter of Leto, do you place your hand over the girl Timareta and in purity may you preserve her purity. (6.280)
Abduction lies behind the myth of Dionysos’ Toys as well. You may recall that Apuleius referred to them as crepundia. Christopher Francese, in his book Ancient Rome in So Many Words, writes:
Crepundia derives from the verb meaning “to rattle” (crepare) and refers in the first instance to the metal charms jingled to try and calm fussing babies. From there crepundia comes to stand in as a symbol for early childhood itself. Unlike today, when such things are generally mass-produced, a Roman tot’s crepundia were homemade and individualized. They might be inscribed with the name of the mother or father, or include some distinctive figurines. Archaeologists have found bells, clappers, letters of ivory, children’s utensils for eating and drinking, and many other objects that served this purpose.
These trinkets bear more than a passing resemblance to the Toys of Dionysos, as Harry Thurston Peck (Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities) makes clear:
(τὰ σπάργανα). A generic term for children’s playthings, such as rattles, dolls, toy hatchets, swords, etc. The name is also given to objects of a similar description tied about the necks of children, either as amulets or for purposes of identification (Plaut. Mil. Glor. v. 6; Cist. iv. 1, 13; Rud. iv. 4; Oed. Tyr. 1035). Specimens of these are represented as worn on the neck of a child in a statue of the Museo PioClementino —viz., a half-moon (lunula) on the top of the right shoulder; then a double axe (securicula ancipes); next a bucket (situla argenteola); a sort of flower, not mentioned; a little sword (ensiculus aureolus); a little hand (manicula); then another half-moon; a dolphin (delphin), etc.
A footnote on Plaut. Rud. iv 4 reads:
These crepundia, “trinkets” or “toys,” seem to have been not unlike the amulets, or charms, in metal, of the present day. As kidnapping was in ancient times much more prevalent than now, these little articles, if carefully preserved by the child, might be the means of leading to the discovery of its parents; at the same time it may be justly asked how it came to pass that the kidnapper should allow such damning evidence of his villainy to remain in existence?
A good question, and one that brings us back to the myth of Dionysos’ dismemberment – which may not have been committed by the ancient ancestral spirits who had been cast into Tartaros, but rather by people much closer to home. The very ones who had been put in charge of protecting him – the Kouretes, Koyrbantes or Kaberoi. Nonnos, like Clement, portrays them as guardians of the infant Dionysos:
The goddess took care of him; and while he was yet a boy, she set him to drive a car drawn by ravening lions. Within that godwelcoming courtyard, the tripping Korybantes would surround Dionysos with their childcherishing dance, and clash their swords, and strike their shields with rebounding steel in alternate movements, to conceal the growing boyhood of Dionysos; and as the boy listened to the fostering noise of the shields he grew up under the care of the Korybantes like his father. (Dionysiaka 9.160 ff)
Earlier he had described their “childcherishing” dance thusly:
Already the bird of morning was cutting the air with loud cries; already the helmeted bands of desert-haunting Korybantes were beating on their shields in the Knossian dance, and leaping with rhythmic steps, and the oxhides thudded under the blows of the iron as they whirled them about in rivalry, while the double pipe made music, and quickened the dancers with its rollicking tune in time to the bounding steps. Aye, and the trees whispered, the rocks boomed, the forests held jubilee with their intelligent movings and shakings, and the Dryades did sing. Packs of bears joined the dance, skipping and wheeling face to face; lions with a roar from emulous throats mimicked the triumphant cry of the priests of the Kabeiroi, sane in their madness; the revelling pipes rang out a tune to honour of Hekate, divine friend of dogs, those single pipes, which the horn-polisher’s art invented in Kronos’s days. The noisy Korybantes with their ringing din awoke Kadmos early in the morning; the Sidonian seamen also with one accord, hearing the never-silent oxhide at dawn, rose from their rattling pebbly pallets and left the brine-beaten back of the shore. (3.61ff)
A less poetic but no less evocative account of them is provided by Strabo:
Pherekydes says that nine Kyrbantes were sprung from Apollon and Rhetia, and that they took up their abode in Samothrake; and that three Kabeiroi and three Nymphai called Kabeirides were the children of Kabeiro, the daughter of Proteus, and Hephaistos, and that sacred rites were instituted in honor of each triad. Demetrios of Skepsis says that it is probable that the Kouretes and the Korybantes were the same, being those who had been accepted as young men, or ‘youths,’ for the war-dance in connection with the holy rites of the Mother of the Gods, and also as korybantes from the fact that they ‘walked with a butting of their heads’ in a dancing way. These are called by the poet betarmones: ‘Come now, all ye that are the best betarmones of the Phaiakes.’ And because the Korybantes are inclined to dancing and to religious frenzy, we say of those who are stirred with frenzy that they are ‘korybantising.’
Several sources mention the “Titans” applying dust, chalk or ash to disguise their faces, which may have been what inspired Onomokritos to give them that name. Eustathius the Byzantine lexicographer writes:
We apply the word titanos in general to dust, in particular to what is called asbestos, which is the white fluffy substance in burnt stones. It is so called from the Titans in mythology, whom Zeus in the story smote with his thunderbolts and consumed to dust. For from them, the fine dust of stones which has crumbled from excessive heat, so to speak Titanic heat, is called titanic, as though a Titanic penalty had been accomplished upon it. And the ancients call dust and gypsum titanos.
Thus the Korybantes became Titans by applying titanos to their faces. Interesting parallels to the myth of Dionysos’ dismemberment are found in accounts of the rite of enthronismos which was found in the cults of Cybele, the Samothracian gods, the Koyrbantes, the Eleusinian mysteries and Bacchic Orphic groups. These select quotes should give you a sense of the salient features of this rite.
They are doing just the same thing as those in the rite of the Korybantes do, when they perform the enthronement ceremony with the one who is about to be initiated. In that situation too there is some dancing and playing around, as you know if you have been initiated. (Plato, Euthydemos 277d)
Socrates: Do you want to know the truth of things divine, the way they really are?
Strepsiades: Why, yes, if it’s possible.
Soc: ….and to converse with the spirits in the clouds?
Strep: Without a doubt.
Soc: Then be seated on this sacred couch.
Strep: [sitting down]
I am seated.
Soc: Now take this chaplet.
Strep: Why a chaplet? Alas, Socrates! Would you sacrifice me like Athamas?
Soc: No, these are the rites of initiation.
Strep: And what is it I am to gain?
Soc: You’ll learn to be a clever talker, to rattle off a speech, to strain your words like flour. Just keep still.
[Socrates sprinkles flour all over Strepsiades.]
Strep: By Zeus! That’s no lie! Soon I shall be nothing but wheat-flour, if you powder me in that fashion.
Soc: Old man, be quiet. Listen to the prayer.
(Aristophanes, Nephelai 250-300)
On attaining manhood, you abetted your mother in her initiations and the other rituals, and read aloud from the cultic writings. At night, you mixed the libations, purified the initiates, and dressed them in fawnskins. You cleansed them off with clay and cornhusks, and raising them up from the purification, you led the chant, ‘The evil I flee, the better I find.’ And it was your pride that no one ever emitted that holy ululation so powerfully as yourself. I can well believe it! When you hear the stentorian tones of the orator, can you doubt that the ejaculations of the acolyte were simply magnificent? In the daylight, you led the fine thiasos through the streets, wearing their garlands of fennel and white poplar. You rubbed the fat-cheeked snakes and swung them above your head crying ‘Euoi Saboi’ and dancing to the tune of hues attes, attes hues. Old women hailed you ‘Leader’, ‘mysteries instructor’, ‘ivy-bearer’, ‘liknon carrier’, and the like. (Demosthenes, On the Crown 259-60)
So it is just as if someone were to initiate a man, Greek or barbarian, leading him into some mystic shrine overwhelming in its size and beauty. He would see many mystic spectacles and hear many such voices; light and darkness would appear to him in alternation, and a myriad other things would happen. Still more, just as they are accustomed to do in the ritual called enthronement, the initiators, having enthroned the initiands, dance in circles around them. Is it at all likely that this man would experience nothing in his soul and that he would not suspect that what was taking place was done with a wiser understanding and preparation? … Still more, if, not humans like the initiands, but immortal gods were initiating mortals, and night and day, both in the light and under the stars were, if it is right to speak so, literally dancing around them eternally. (Dio Chrysostom, Oration 12.33-34)
When the soul comes to the point of death, it suffers something like those who participate in the great initiations (teletai). Therefore the word teleutan closely resembles the word teleisthai just as the act of dying resembles the act of being initiated. At first there are wanderings and toilsome running about in circles and journeys through the dark over uncertain roads and culs de sacs; then, just before the end, there are all kinds of terrors, with shivering, trembling, sweating, and utter amazement. After this, a strange and wonderful light meets the wanderer; he is admitted into clean and verdant meadows, where he discerns gentle voices, and choric dances, and the majesty of holy sounds and sacred visions. Here the now fully initiated is free, and walks at liberty like a crowned and dedicated victim, joining in the revelry. (Plutarch, De Anima fragment preserved in Stobaios Florigelium 120)
This rite can be favorably compared with the Spartan Krypteia (Life of Lycurgus, 28, 3–7) and a similar Cretan institution described by Strabo in the 10th book of his Geography:
They have a peculiar custom in regard to love affairs, for they win the objects of their love, not by persuasion, but by abduction; the lover tells the friends of the boy three or four days beforehand that he is going to make the abduction; but for the friends to conceal the boy, or not to let him go forth by the appointed road, is indeed a most disgraceful thing, a confession, as it were, that the boy is unworthy to obtain such a lover; and when they meet, if the abductor is the boy’s equal or superior in rank or other respects, the friends pursue him and lay hold of him, though only in a very gentle way, thus satisfying the custom; and after that they cheerfully turn the boy over to him to lead away; if, however, the abductor is unworthy, they take the boy away from him. And the pursuit does not end until the boy is taken to the “Andreium” of his abductor. They regard as a worthy object of love, not the boy who is exceptionally handsome, but the boy who is exceptionally manly and decorous. After giving the boy presents, the abductor takes him away to any place in the country he wishes; and those who were present at the abduction follow after them, and after feasting and hunting with them for two months (for it is not permitted to detain the boy for a longer time), they return to the city. The boy is released after receiving as presents a military habit, an ox, and a drinking-cup (these are the gifts required by law), and other things so numerous and costly that the friends, on account of the number of the expenses, make contributions thereto. Now the boy sacrifices the ox to Zeus and feasts those who returned with him; and then he makes known the facts about his intimacy with his lover, whether, perchance, it has pleased him or not, the law allowing him this privilege in order that, if any force was applied to him at the time of the abduction, he might be able at this feast to avenge himself and be rid of the lover. It is disgraceful for those who are handsome in appearance or descendants of illustrious ancestors to fail to obtain lovers, the presumption being that their character is responsible for such a fate. But the parastathentes (for thus they call those who have been abducted) receive honors; for in both the dances and the races they have the positions of highest honor, and are allowed to dress in better clothes than the rest, that is, in the habit given them by their lovers; and not then only, but even after they have grown to manhood, they wear a distinctive dress, which is intended to make known the fact that each wearer has become kleinos, for they call the loved one “kleinos” and the lover “philetor.” So much for their customs in regard to love affairs.
In other words, the myth is the aition for a ritual of manhood; after the boy is abducted by men disguised as frightening monsters he undergoes a series of ordeals and should he come through them victorious he will be permitted to take up his place in a warrior or hunter society and the armed dances it performed. Precisely such a scenario is described in Euripides’ Cretans:
Son of the Phoenician princess, child of Tyrian Europa and great Zeus, ruler over hundred-fortressed Crete—here am I, come from the sanctity of temples roofed with cut beam of our native wood, its true joints of cypress welded together with Chalybean axe and cement from the bull. Pure has my life been since the day when I became an initiate of Idaean Zeus. Where midnight Zagreus roves, I rove; I have endured his thunder-cry; fulfilled his red and bleeding feasts; held the Great Mother’s mountain flame; I am set free and named by name a Bakchos of the Mailed Priests. Having all-white garments, I flee the birth of mortals and, not nearing the place of corpses, I guard myself against the eating of ensouled flesh. (fragment 472)
The fourth theory proposed by scholars is that instead of a primitive transitional rite (which had mostly fallen out of use by the time that we start seeing accounts of the myth), the purpose of the story was to contextualize the experiences that initiates underwent after becoming identified with the deity through ecstasy and possession. In other words, a series of ritual acts they performed triggered a feeling of union with Dionysos, strengthened by the initiate suffering vicissitudes patterned after what the god had endured. This is outright stated by Harpocration:
Others use it in a more special sense, as for example when they speak of putting a coat of clay or pitch on those who are being initiated. In this ceremony they were mimetically enacting the myth told by some persons, in which the Titans, when they mutilated Dionysos, wore a coating of gypsum in order not to be identified. (Lexicon s.v. titanoi)
And strongly implied by Damascius:
Because the first Bacchus is Dionysos, possessed by the dance and the shout, by all movements of which he is the cause according to the Laws (II.672a5–d4) one who has consecrated himself to Dionysos, being similar to the god, takes part in his name as well. (Commentary on the Phaedrus 1.171)
This mimesis – a concept central to the tragic arts – can be found in the funerary gold leaf from Pelinna:
Now you have died and now you have been born, thrice blessed one, on this very day. Say to Persephone that Bakchios himself freed you. A bull you rushed to milk. Quickly, you rushed to milk. A ram you fell into milk. You have wine as your fortunate honor. And rites await you beneath the earth, just as the other blessed ones.
And the gold tablet from Thurii:
Rejoice at the experience! This you have never before experienced. You have become divine instead of mortal. You have fallen as a kid into milk. Hail, hail, as you travel on the right, through the Holy Meadow and Groves of Persephone.
Being bathed in the milk leads to renewal and palingenesis, as when Medeia chopped up the nurses of Dionysos and boiled them in her cauldron so that they would be rejuvenated:
Boiling in a bronze cauldron plants whose power she knew, obtained from diverse regions, she cooked the slain Aeson with warm herbs and restored him to his original vigor. When Father Liber noticed that Aeson’s old age had been expelled by Medea’s medicines, he entreated Medea to change his nurses back to the vigor of youth. Agreeing to his request, she established a pledge of eternal benefit with him by restoring his nurses to the vigor of youth by giving them same medicines that rejuvenated Aeson. (The Second Vatican Mythographer 137-38)
Either because it represents the Milky Way which the hero arises from as a fire-breathing star after baptism, or the fertility of a mother giving milk to her newborn young. That youthful vitality is the fuel that makes possible the transformations:
If any one asks who narrates this, then we shall quote the well-known senarian verse of a Tarentine poet which the ancients used to sing, ”Taurus draconem genuit, et taurum draco.” [“The bull begot the dragon, and the dragon a bull.”] (Arnobius of Sicca, Adversus Nationes 5.20)
Dionysos is a bull who regenerates himself as a snake. Always dying, always being born. Hence the epithet he bore in Naples and Campania:
In the performance of sacred rites a mysterious rule of religion ordains that the sun shall be called Apollo when it is in the upper hemisphere, that is to say, by day, and be held to be Dionysos, or Liber Pater, when it is in the lower hemisphere, that is to say, at night. Likewise, statues of Liber Pater represent him sometimes as a child and sometimes as a young man; again, as a man with a beard and also as an old man, as for example the statue of the god which the Greeks call Bassareus and Briseus, and that which in Campania the Neapolitans worship under the name Hebon. (Macrobius, Saturnalia Book 1.18.7-10)
Dionysos Hebon (the Youthful) was represented as a bull with a human head – the inverse of Asterion, the Minotaur. Before Dionysos is rent apart by the Titans he becomes entranced by staring at his reflection in a mirror: according to the Starry Bull tradition what he sees is himself in the Labyrinth.
Of course there’s no reason why all of these scholarly theories cannot be simultaneously true without necessarily exhausting the semantic possibility of the myth. It is all of these things and so very much more.