My name is Sannion. I came by it through an accident back in 1999, but I no longer believe that there was anything at all accidental in my naming.
The latest confirmation came while flipping through a book on the decipherment of Linear B. The reason why I picked up this hefty tome – which I doubt had been checked out of the library for decades, as there was a thick coating of dust on it – is because it contained a translation of what may be the earliest reference to Sannion in Greek or any other language.
You see, I am named after a shepherd who lived at Pylos during the Mycenaean era. I first found out about him in Carl Kerenyi’s Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life. When I initially read Kerenyi’s book I completely misunderstood the paragraph where he talks about Sannion. I assumed that this was an epithet belonging to Dionysos in his role as a phallic deity, and that the farmer had simply been named after him.
Early in 1999 I purchased my first computer and set it up so that I could access the internet. Not knowing any better – it was ’99 after all – I got an account with AOL, and since one of the primary reasons that I had acquired the computer was so that I could participate in the Hellenic community, which was primarily centered around newsgroups and e-mail lists at the time, I wanted my screen-name to reflect my devotion to Dionysos. I tried a dozen or so different Dionysian handles and all of them were already taken. Ditto with a variety of epithets and allonyms, until I was starting to despair that I’d have to settle for SexyBeast69 or something equally atrocious. Then the name “Sannion” came unbidden into my mind, I tried it out, and sure enough no one else had taken it.
For the first couple months I considered it merely a screen-name, having dispensed with religious names altogether while still a Wiccan. (That was largely due to saddling myself with something so asinine that it shames me to contemplate it to this day: there are less than five people in the world who ever knew my Wiccan name, and I’ve sworn all of them to secrecy.) However, even though I continued to sign my e-mails “H. Jeremiah Lewis” people insisted on referring to me and thinking of me as Sannion.
This troubled me a bit at the time, since it is generally not considered good form in Greek religion to name a person directly after a deity, seeing as it invites unfavorable comparisons and all. Theophorics that adapted a name and were intended to honor the God (such as Herodotos “Gift of Hera” or Pythogeneia “descended from [Apollon] Pythios”) were not only acceptable but quite commonplace in antiquity – but you almost never find someone straight out named Zeus or Ares. What could I do? The name had stuck by that point, and I doubted that people would go along with it even if I went through all of the trouble of acquiring a new screen-name and updating my e-mail lists, etc. On the other hand, did I really want to go around presumptuously claiming the name of the God as my own? Well, it occurred to me that before I took any drastic action I should make certain that the name was, in fact, problematic and so I cracked open Kerenyi and to my intense surprise and gratitude I read the following on page 71:
“The prehistory of comedy in Greece includes Phales, a divine figure who was carried about in processions in honor of Dionysos and celebrated in song as his friend and companion. The phallus, exciting image of excited zoë, has often been termed a ‘fertility symbol.’ This extreme abstraction misses the concrete character of the object carried about in wooden replica. A live snake never produces the effect of a mere symbol, nor did this image, even if women and young girls looked upon it with chaste reverence. Phallagogiai and phallophoriai, as the festive processions with great phalli were called, are nowhere to be seen in the art of the Minoans and Mycenaeans. Whether Phales occurs among their proper names, as Michael Ventris at first believed, is not certain, but other, similar names are attested with certainty. For example a shepherd in Pylos was named sa- ni-io, probably ‘Sannion’, a word with the meaning of ‘Phales’ while at Knossos we find si-ra-no ‘Silanos’, a name given to the phallic, half-animal, half-human beings, the sileni, companions of Dionysos imitated in Greece by human dancers.”
He provides the following footnote for Sannion:
“Pylos An 5.6 and Cn 4.3. See O. Landau, Mykenisch-griechische Personennamen, p. 189 on Sannion aidoion.”
Then on page 73 he further adds:
“In the Egyptian processions that Herodotos compares with the Greek phallophoriai the women carried such statues, which were themselves immobile and moved only their disproportionately large phalli. This was done by means of a mechanism built into the figures. The name ‘Sannion’ expresses this motion: translated, it signifies ‘the wagging one’ from the Greek sainein.”
Thus, although Sannion was a name with a very ancient and strong Dionysian connection, it was not, as I had mistakenly assumed, an alternate title for my God. This meant that I was free to use it without any religious qualms, and I have proudly borne it in his honor ever since. However, until recently I knew nothing more about my predecessor than what Kerenyi had provided in those brief passages. All of the other Sannions that I have been able to track down information on possess certain character traits and have eerily similar themes running through their lives, though they are separated by a couple thousand years. And to make things even weirder that same pattern can be found in my life as well.
This original Sannion, however, had always seemed like something of an exception to me. Granted, I didn’t know anything about him other than that he was a shepherd but shepherds for the most part strike me as solid, reliable and decent folk. As you shall see shortly, those are not the qualities which a Sannion normally possesses.
And, apparently, neither did this Sannion. Because that document – Pylos An 5.6 – is a list drawn up by the manager of a large estate who is writing to his superior about a group of people that had run off, abandoning their posts and stealing property. Yup, the original Sannion was a right bastard, a lazy derelict sticking it to the man – just like the rest of us!
In fact, one of the next Sannions chronologically speaking also was a runaway, as Demosthenes remarks in his 21st Oration:
“There is, as you know, a man called Sannion who directs tragic choruses. He was convicted of not doing military service and has suffered for it.”
This is interesting because a surprising number of Sannions have a connection to either the theater or Dionysos. For instance, Sannion the son of Megakles (SEG 43.767), who lived in the Thrakian Chersonesos during the early Hellenistic era, was a prominent citizen of his town and the burial stelai of several generations of his family have come to light. His wife was named Mendiko, which is taken as a theophoric honoring Bendis (the letters B and M tend to get swapped out in the local dialect) whose cult was closely allied with that of Dionysos and Sabazios and involved ecstatic dances, trance possession and torchlit processions at night. The fondness of Sannion’s family for Dionysos went far beyond that – he named his sons Dionysios and Apollonios, with Dionysios recurring several times down through the generations.
The most recent editors of the Sannion family stelai gave an interpretation of the name which was novel to me. They derived it from the Greek word saino which means “to fawn upon; flattery” and suggested it was a derogatory term for a sycophant. The sukophantes was a servile position in the court of Greek monarchs; he was a toady and yes-man whose job it was to praise everything the king said and provide entertainment – usually of a low and vulgar nature. In fact the word derives from sukon (“fig”) and phaino (“I show, demonstrate”), referring to “showing the fig,” a gesture made by sticking the thumb between the first two fingers which has certain obvious sexual connotations. In other words he was a court jester. This is interesting for reasons that will become apparent momentarily; I also find it interesting, of course, because of my great fondness for the Ptolemaic Dynasty. You wouldn’t be far off the mark if you called me the Ptolemies’ sycophant.
Speaking of intense love, the next Sannion that we are considering was the boyfriend of none other than Sokrates! In fact, Sokrates was so enamored of him that he could tell what was happening to Sannion even when great distance separated them, as Plato records in Theages 129d:
“Sokrates: And moreover, in regard to the Sicilian business, many will tell you what I said about the destruction of the army. As to bygones, you may hear from those who know: but there is an opportunity now of testing the worth of what the daimonion says. For as the handsome Sannion was setting out on campaign with Thrasyllos on an expedition bound for Ephesos and Ionia, I received a sign. I accordingly expect him to be either killed or brought very near it, and I have great fears for our force as a whole.”
This Sannion must have lived up to the phallic potential of our name to have so powerfully ensnared the heart of that old Seilenos-faced philosopher – a man who was otherwise capable of chastely resisting the charms of Alkibiades even when they slept together under the same blanket.
One Sannion that certainly embraced his sex appeal was the former prostitute turned pimp in Terence’s famous play Adelphoi or The Brothers. He has only a bit part, but what a part it is! Terence actually chose this name for his crude hustler because sannio was the term for a stock character in ancient Roman comedy, which Cicero (De Oratore 2.61.251-52) described in the following manner:
“What can be so ridiculous as a sannio? We laugh at his grimaces, his mimicry of other people’s characters, his voice, in short, his whole person. I call him witty, not, however, in the way I should wish an orator to be witty, but only the mime. That is why this method, which makes people laugh, does not belong to us. I mean the peevishness, superstitiousness, suspiciousness, boastfulness, foolishness. Such characters are in themselves ridiculous: we jeer at their roles on the stage, we do not act them.”
According to Diodoros Siklelietos, this stock character was named after an actual person who won great renown for his acting ability:
“There was a certain Latin mime named Sannio, a buffoon with a wonderful gift for raising laughter. He was exceptional in this regard because he not only aroused laughter with his words, but even when silent, the slightest movement of his body would bring smiles to all who watched him.” (Library of History 37.12.1- 2)
He goes on to relate a fascinating story about Sannio’s involvement in local politics and how he used humor to save his city, but that goes beyond the bounds of this discussion so I won’t bother to quote the passage in full. I will note, however, that Sannio has had incredible vitality.
The name passed from ancient Rome into early Renaissance Italian commedia dell’arte where it became zanni, the origin of our English word zany. The zanni was a clown or buffoon, usually a slave or peasant who was lazy, gluttonous, arrogant and lecherous – but with a kind heart and generous nature that often ended up getting him into trouble. The most famous of all the zanni was Arlecchino who became the French Harlequin, followed closely by Pulcinella known to English audiences as Punch.
While most of the plays featuring zanni were absurdist and slapstick there could also be a radical counter-culture aspect to them: the zanni inverted social norms, dabbled in magic, viciously mocked the ecclesiastical authorities, expressed animistic views and broke the fourth wall by communicating directly with the audience, something the other stock characters generally avoided doing. The zanni Harlequin even led la maisnie Hellequin, a host of demonic spirits which hearkens back to Herla and his Wild Hunt. Further, the zanni frequently adopts various disguises throughout the play as part of the elaborate plot and counter-plot. Often these disguises have to do with the occult – he’ll dress up as a magician, a witch, a gypsy fortune-teller, an astrologer, an alchemist, an Egyptian or Saracen or something equally exotic and outlandish. He often boasts of his arcane knowledge, his prophetic dreams, his ability to commune with demons and nature spirits and to descend into hell at will. Some of the more interesting plays actually take place in the underworld.
One of my absolute favorites begins when the zanni Harlequin is visited in a dream by Mère Cardine, a beautiful but deceased ingénue whom Harlequin had lusted over in life. She implores him to rescue her from hell so Harlequin dons all of his paraphernalia – sack, belt, slapstick, mask and stage costume and then begins his journey into the underworld, eventually meeting Charon at the River Styx. As it says in the Histoire plaisante:
“Then Harlequin threw himself in the air, kissing Charon’s face, jumping lighter than a monkey on top of him, with two feet on his neck. With no support but his oar Charon tottered back and forth, trying not to fall over in his cruel boat. Not knowing that such a joyous man could exist, who stuck out his tongue and rolled his eyes around, Charon said, ‘Whoever you are, you’re so agreeable to me that I’m willing to take you across this terrifying passage, which I never like to do for those still alive. But you have brought such pleasure to my heart, that I have forgotten the dark shades, Lucifer’s palace, and the bloody harpies.’ Then Charon suddenly plied the oars and took him to the other side of the river. On their way Harlequin made thousands of gambols, jumps, leaps and hops – all going backwards. Viewing this Charon marveled at his technique, laughing so loudly that the river echoed. This set off a general alarm in hell, because laughter is never heard there, nor love, nor peace.”
Harlequin tours hell, gaining confidence as he overcomes each obstacle in turn eventually swaggering into the throne-room of Pluto whom he greets with carnivalesque imperiousness:
“‘Who are you,’ asked Pluto, ‘who comes so boldly into the hall of the dead?’ ‘I am, of course,’ responded Harlequin, ‘one who comes here to be the king and master of you and your henchmen. Look at this!’ Then, curving backwards, he made a leap of four feet in height; he did a Bergamask dance and he unfurled his tongue, clownishly giving a gay harangue. When Pluto and his henchmen heard him they felt care taken away from their hearts – their poisonous, mortal rancor flowed away. Grief and tears gave way to raucous laughter and Pluto, now completely happy, asked Harlequin if there was anything he could do to repay his kindness.”
Harlequin asks for Mère Cardine and Pluto agrees. However, like his predecessor Orpheus, Harlequin loses his beloved at the last instant – not from a glance backwards but rather because she drowns in a flood of urine released by Charon, who is enraged at Harlequin’s insolence and comedic hubris.
It is further speculated that the zanni Pulcinella/Punch received his distinctive form not because he was originally conceived of as a hunchback – but rather because he was the embodiment or personification of the phallos. Phallic marionettes like Punch were employed in the earliest worship of Dionysos, according to Herodotos (2.48ff), which was brought from Egypt to Greece by the prophet Melampos:
“The rest of the festival of Dionysos is observed by the Egyptians much as it is by the Greeks, except for the dances; but in place of the phallos they have invented the use of puppets two feet high moved by strings, the male member nodding and nearly as big as the rest of the body, which are carried about the villages by women; a flute-player goes ahead, the women follow behind singing of Dionysos. Why the male member is so large and is the only part of the body that moves, there is a sacred legend that explains. Now then, it seems to me that Melampos son of Amytheon was not ignorant of but was familiar with this sacrifice. For Melampos was the one who taught the Greeks the name of Dionysos and the way of sacrificing to him and the phallic procession; he did not exactly unveil the subject taking all its details into consideration, for the teachers who came after him made a fuller revelation; but it was from him that the Greeks learned to bear the phallos along in honor of Dionysos, and they got their present practice from his teaching. I say, then, that Melampos acquired the prophetic art, being a discerning man, and that, besides many other things which he learned from Egypt, he also taught the Greeks things concerning Dionysos, altering few of them; for I will not say that what is done in Egypt in connection with the God and what is done among the Greeks originated independently: for they would then be of an Hellenic character and not recently introduced.”
Not only does this have personal resonance for me because the phallic processions – after which I’m named – helped bridge the gap between Greece and Egypt – but Melampos’ name comes from melan (“black”) and pous (“foot”) and my father was an American Indian of the Blackfoot tribe.
So far I’ve only been discussing the name Sannion as it relates to the phallos (and Satyric comedy) but fairly early on I realized that it could be glossed in another way. After all, the penis isn’t the only part of a man that wags, now is it? There’s the tongue, source of speech and wisdom. This ties in with my role as a writer, an intellectual and a devotee of Hermes Logios, the inventor of language and magic who is the God that I am most devoted to after Dionysos. While I arrived at this understanding intuitively a while back I came across a passage in the Oneirocritica of Artemidoros that sort of confirms it and unites the two interpretations. It comes in a long digression (1.45) on the significance of dreaming about penises:
“The penis corresponds to one’s parents on the one hand because it has a relationship with the seed. It resembles children on the other hand in that it itself is the cause of children. It signifies a wife or a mistress, since it is made for sexual intercourse. It indicates brothers and all blood relatives since the interrelationship of the entire house depends upon the penis. It is a symbol of strength and physical vigor, since it is itself the cause of these qualities. That is why some people call the penis ‘one’s manhood.’ It corresponds to speech and education because the penis like speech is very fertile … Furthermore, the penis is also a sign of wealth and possessions because it alternately expands and contracts and because it is able to produce and to eliminate. It signifies secret plans in that the word medea is used to designate both plans and a penis. It indicates poverty, servitude, and bonds, because it is also called ‘the essential thing’ and is a symbol of necessity.”
I find it fascinating how these mysteries unfold and through their strange synchronicities reveal the guiding hands of the Gods in our lives.