“The one who leads us, that one is Bromios.”
In Euripides’ Bakchai the God Dionysos addresses the audience in the prologue, explaining:
Yes, I’ve changed my form from God to man,
appearing here at these streams of Dirke,
sacred waters of Ismaros.
I’ve left the fabulously wealthy Lydia and Phrygia,
Persia’s sun-drenched plains, walled towns in Bactria.
I’ve moved across the bleak lands of the Medes,
fortunate Arabia and all of Asia.
Now, now I’ve come to Thebes, first city of Greeks,
having set those eastern lands dancing
in the mysteries I established,
making known to men my own divinity.
This is the kernel of the myth of the Neos Dionysos, and one of the recurring themes of the play which even more than other Greek tragedies was concerned with the mystery of identity, the phenomenon of doubling or parallelism and the point at which boundaries blur and discreet entities dissolve into one another in orgiastic ecstasy.
This is one of the oldest and most persistent elements of Dionysian worship, linking all of his seemingly disparate spheres together – God of intoxication, God of madness, God of theater, God of the collective, God of the dead, God of vegetation, God of kingship and culture. During the height of the revels a man apart from the crowd, whose job it is to direct their collective frenzy, stops being entirely himself and the God walks among his people in the flesh. This kind of intense identification with and possession by the God is very different from what the other participants in the rites experience – they are swept up in bacchic frenzy, lifted out of their ordinary selves and they may even experience intense communion with their God, but it is still fundamentally a relationship with an externalized Other. But for that one, his thoughts, his words, even the movements of his body are not entirely his own. Sometimes there is co-consciousness, where Dionysos is an intrusive power or intelligence that overshadows his own and sometimes there is merely the God and the man will wake later with no recollection of what transpired while he was out.
Obviously the Neos Dionysos has its roots in such an experience and yet it is as different from that as possession is from the mania of the crowd. To begin with possession is a temporary dislocation of consciousness while being a Neos Dionysos is a permanent state. Like Frankenstein’s monster the Neos Dionysos is a hybrid creature, fully God and fully man simultaneously, with the tension of balancing the extreme demands of each being what impels him on to greatness. (The pressure of doing so is also often what creates the fatal fracture in his personality that ultimately destroys him.) He may be this way from conception (for instance by coming from a distinguished royal line that claimed descent from Dionysos or his father may have been a strange, mysterious figure thought to be Dionysos in disguise) or through adoption (the God takes him over during a ritual and just never leaves) but one thing is certain, however it happened once the God is in his blood it warps his character so that he behaves like one acting out the tragic and triumphant myths of Dionysos through his life. Sometimes this occurs on a conscious level through staged acts and propaganda intended to create a parallel in the minds of others between oneself and Dionysos and sometimes it is more an overwhelming impulse and sequence of coincidental events which does this without any input or control on the part of the individual. Indeed they may fight bitterly against their fate, especially during the early phases of their career, and through resistance bring themselves more and more under the power of the archetype. Most often, however, it is a mixture of the two – carried along by currents not of their devising while responding to such as they feel the God himself would.
There is a significant social component – it’s not just that one believes oneself to be the God; there are plenty who wander the streets and halls of asylums with such delusions. Rather others must become convinced of this too.
Most of what a Neos Dionysos does, in fact, is centered on others. Not only is he a means by which a community may have a direct and physical experience of their God, but the exceptional power and abilities that come with the spirit of Dionysos are used for the betterment of one’s community. He is a radical agent of change and transformation, a culture-bringer, an establisher of peace and abundance, he is charismatic and good at getting people inspired and active in the betterment of their communities and blessings come mediated through his person. If he comes into his full potential he can manipulate weather, increase the fertility of the land, heal sickness and cleanse pollution, manipulate luck and through the sanctity of his person amplify the spiritual perception and efficacy of rites and prayer among those who fall into his orbit. He is part shaman, part king and part rockstar all rolled into one. Note that while many Neoi Dionysoi tend towards the ostentatious some quietly labor behind the scenes and often adopt a series of temporary disguises as their work requires.
Of course it’s not all fun and games, however important such things may be for the fulfillment of the role – the Neos Dionysos is born to die. Usually early and at the pinnacle of his power, just before the manifestation of his greatest triumph. Their death is tragic and all the more so for its necessity and the fact that the Neos Dionysos is aware of it beforehand and must willingly choose it, leaving behind all that he loves and has worked so hard for to become the sacrificial victim.
However that’s just the climax – he will have spent much of his life in suffering, tormented by passions greater than ordinary men feel and the burden of his potential, whether this is visible to others or his own private cross to bear. He will tend towards instability and exhaust himself in the pursuit of excess, especially of the sensual variety. No matter how carefully he plans, he’ll often trip himself up at the most important moments and then brood over his failures longer than he should. His temperament will vacillate between gentle generosity and cruel vindictiveness. No matter how old and seasoned he appears, there will be youthful impetuousness about him. He will be extremely wise and make incredibly stupid blunders. Though superficially charming with a large circle of friends and followers always around him, being on in the way required by his role taxes him greatly and he’ll often long for solitude. No matter how close his companions, there will always be a distance between him and them for it his burden to shoulder things they can never fully comprehend. He sees the world with other than mortal eyes and is denied the comforting fictions we all so willingly, so necessarily indulge in from time to time. He also knows that in his final moment none of them will be there for him, that he must face the gates of hell alone.
If this sounds a bit too much like Jesus Christ dressed up in fawnskin and ivy-crown consider Plutarch’s accounts of the lives of M. Antonius, Demetrios Poliorketes and Alexander of Makedon and you’ll note that all the details are there. Read a biography of John Wilmot, Friedrich Nietzsche or Jim Morrison. It’s the same story, told over and over again with slight variations. And Dionysos is the sole actor, changing his mask as need requires.