The Feast of the Senses
In a way you can see the evolution of my spiritual life and practice through the essays that first appeared on my Sannion’s Sanctuary website many years ago. My first attempts at ritual and articulating the theology that shaped it was still very much indebted to Wiccan-influenced neo-paganism. Then came the ultra conservative “do things exactly as the ancients did; innovation is nothing but creeping incipient fluffyism” reconstructionist phase. Then, slowly, as I gained more experience and my relationship with Dionysos deepened and matured, the lines started to blur, my stances grew softer, I became more interested in free-flowing ecstatic types of ritual, and the yardstick by which I felt things ought to be judged was first whether an action was pleasing to the gods, and secondly whether it contributed to effective worship on the part of the individual. Today I maintain that those two points are what matter most; the rest, while important in their own way, are just window-dressing that adds to the experience.
So, to bring it back to the original question, what would I suggest to someone who is just getting started? After all, ‘do what the gods find pleasing and what works for you’ is hardly very helpful when you haven’t figured that out yet and are actually taking your first steps down this path. The best recommendation that I have at the moment is something that I have taken to calling the Feast of the Senses. By now you’re probably asking, “What is this Feast of the Senses thing that he keeps mentioning? I’ve never heard of it before. Is it something ancient?”
The answer to that is twofold: yes, you have heard of it before, I just gave it a swanky new name – and no, it is completely modern and this is the first time that I have written about it. A contradiction, you say? Why yes, indeed it is – and you’d better get used to that kind of thing if you’re going to have any kind of relationship with Dithyrambos.
You see, the Feast of the Senses is pretty much your average devotional ritual – just stripped down to its barest essentials. While in its present form it is geared towards initiating a relationship with Dionysos, it’s the sort of thing that can be used for pretty much any deity, with only slight modifications. In fact, I have been using it in my devotions for quite some time without realizing that that’s what I was doing – nor was I alone in this. I have seen a number of other folks from traditions as diverse as Heathenry, Wicca, Thelema, Feri, Saivitism, and Hellenismos perform very similar types of ritual. And it makes sense – although our gods and the core practices of our traditions may differ, the human brain is pretty much hard-wired the same way for most people, and the point of this exercise is to use that wiring to apprehend divinity around us. The Feast of the Senses is precisely that: a celebration of the divine through our various senses, using our thoughts, taste, touch, scent, sight, hearing, and more numinous faculties to perceive the divine and draw us into its mysterious presence.
Too many people these days approach ritual through Protestant Christian eyes. (Thankfully Catholic and Orthodox rituals usually contain an element of theatricality and a sense of the holiness embedded in actions and words, something that tends to make Protestants very uncomfortable.) Many – both Christians and Neopagans – believe that it is sufficient to recite a couple phrases, go through rote actions, and the whole time remain as passive spectators, their minds and spirits entirely untouched by what they’re doing. It’s all in the head, mechanical and intellectual. They’re bored most of the time – and what’s worse, they’re probably boring the gods to tears with their worship. As a Dionysian, you should never settle for this kind of thing. Your worship of the god should be awful, meaning something that stirs your deepest emotions and culminates in a sense of profound awe before divinity. You should worship him with your whole being – mind, spirit, and body. Your worship should engage all of your senses. In the words of Abramelin the Mage, you should enflame your spirit with prayer. Think about that for a moment.
If you’re just reading something off of a script and doing these robotic actions, you’re not really there; you’re trapped in ego-awareness, and your soul cannot commune with the divine. Our senses are like the bridge which allows us to cross over to other worlds, to move from here to there, to close the distance between ourselves, our mind on the one hand, and our soul and the divine on the other. These are tools which broaden our awareness and ground us in a true sense of being. They flip the switch in our brains which triggers ecstatic states.
There is so much going on all the time that we’re totally oblivious to. Right now you’re reading this text – and that’s probably all that exists for you. But what about the feel of the paper in your hand, or the chair beneath your butt, or the floor beneath your feet? What about the way your clothes rub against your skin as you move? Or the temperature of the air on your exposed skin? Can you still taste the remnant of your last meal or the drink you just took on your tongue? Is there music playing in the background, or the sound of your neighbors walking down the hall outside your room? Can you smell the faint, lingering scent of detergent on your clothes? Can you feel the blood flowing through your veins or the beating of your heart in your chest?
If you’re like most people, until I pointed these things out the answer was probably no. And in some situations that’s okay. If you were perfectly aware of everything going on at all levels while you were on a crowded bus you’d go insane from stimulation overload. But there are situations where this deepening of awareness is of paramount importance, and one of those situations is unquestionably when we stand before our god in worship.
Good ritual should awaken you on all of these levels and stimulate your whole being. That’s why we use the props of ritual in the first place. The Neoplatonists believed that certain divine sympathies existed between physical things and the divinities, and that different things were connected to different divinities. Thus each god had certain scents, certain words, certain images, certain sounds, and certain mental associations which they did not necessarily share with other divinities. These were the ways that spiritual beings manifested within the material realm. And by focusing their awareness on them and manipulating these subtle connections – the divine imprint of the gods in material substances – the theurgist could affect deeper communication with the gods.
That is the key to the Feast of the Senses. It is attuning ourselves to the spirit of Dionysos by focusing on the material items which possess a divine sympathy with the god and are the vehicles through which his spirit manifests itself in the material or mundane world. Just as these items allow Dionysos to descend into this world, by following the threads back to their source we can experience a deep communion or mingling of our souls with his through the height of religious ecstasy which the Greeks called enthousiasmos.
(For more on the theoretical principles that this practice is based on, I would direct the reader to consult Porphyry’s On Images and Iamblichos’ On the Mysteries.)
Before one celebrates the Feast of the Senses a good deal of preparation is called for.
To begin with, one must cultivate a proper mindset. True, the point of the Feast is the full engagement of the senses and an outward focusing of them. There are very little to no spoken parts; no active memorization or recitation. The point is to feel and sense and explore the presence of divinity through material substances. The intellect takes a backseat position and is subordinated to the bodily senses. But it has its role to play within the Feast – it is brought into harmony or alignment with the other senses and used to heighten their power and direct them towards divinity. The intellect associates things, drawing parallels between objects that it considers similar. Thus when we smell a familiar perfume, an image of a long-forgotten loved one may instantly arise within our mind, conjured by the intellect because of the association it has fabricated between the two. This is the primary function of the mind and intellect within the Feast. And to ensure that it can perform this role in the optimal manner, it must be properly fed and programmed before the Feast begins.
Think of the mind as a sponge which absorbs all of the information that passes through it, fed by our senses. It stores that information as memories until the will calls upon it and seeks to access those memories or draw parallels. In order to have an effective Feast, one must make sure that the mind is full of Dionysian information.
Thus, in the time leading up to your celebration of the Feast immerse yourself as fully in the world of Dionysos as possible. Read everything that you can find on his mythology, history, cult, symbols, and the experiences of his modern followers. It doesn’t matter if you’ve read this stuff before – throw yourself into it with complete gusto, cramming your brain with the information until it’s ready to burst. Don’t worry about retaining the information or making sense of it. In fact, it’s better if you don’t – because then it isn’t being filtered by the ego-intellect, but bypasses those cognitive centers and heads straight for the memory banks of your brain, which will make it easier for you to form random associations during the Feast. Read every chance you get: on your way into work, on your lunch break, during any leisure hours you may have, and especially right before you turn in for the night, since in your tired state there will be more of a chance that the information will sink in.
When you’re not reading, reflect on what you’ve read. Think about his myths and the various levels of interpretation that they afford. Map out all of his epithets and associations and figure out which ones go with which – and try to determine why these things are associated with him. Try to follow the threads of his cults and associations as they develop over time and across wide geographical distribution. Figure out which of the conclusions in the books or articles you’ve read are just the speculations of the assorted authors and which are supported by actual historical fact and your own past experiences with the god. Personalize all of this by figuring out what this random information means to you, what it says about the god and how he might conceivably act in your life based on that. See if any patterns emerge about a consistent Dionysian ethos. (Are there certain behaviors which seem to find favor with the god and others which might incur his displeasure? Are there certain activities that recur which you should begin implementing in your life?) Above all think about who Dionysos is, what all these stories, ideas, and images can tell you about his nature – and how he may have revealed himself to you in the past, whether you were aware of it or not.
Next, think about the things associated with him. Track them down and set them up in a shrine for the god. Pile up as many representations as you can: his animals, his plants, certain stones, or colors, or just random items that remind you of him. A cheap way to acquire these (especially when you’re just starting off) is to print pictures found online. Spend some time doing image searches for relevant keywords: all of the items related to him, all of the variant spellings of his name, anything you can think of linked to the god, however small, remote or improbable. Either set these up on their own, or else turn them into a collage or use them in some other art project.
Also, start compiling a playlist of Dionysian music. Consider ambient, darkwave music such as Vas, Dead Can Dance, Natacha Atlas, and Juno Reactor. Consider rock music like the Doors, Faith No More, System of a Down, and even Prince. Consider Classical music, world music (especially Greek, Armenian, Middle Eastern, and Sufi chants), or techno music. Include songs about freedom, wine, sex, and the other things associated with him. It doesn’t have to make sense or even be something that another person would equate with the god – it just has to remind you of him, for whatever reason. Hell, if Country and Western or Polka reminds you of Dionysos, make a collection of those songs! Put all of this music together and listen to it often, so that it soaks into your brain and begins to have strong Dionysian associations for you, even when you hear those songs in completely random settings.
Another thing that you can do in preparation for your celebration of the Feast is to go where the god is. Spend time outdoors: in your garden, in a park, out in the woods or a nearby hill or mountain. Go to theaters, movie houses, and clubs, or stroll abandoned city streets late at night. Go for long walks, letting your mind wander and keeping an eye out for signs of the god’s presence around you. Maybe you’ll run across one of his sacred images, or see a random poster or billboard that has something relevant to say to you, or maybe you’ll feel the god’s numinous presence stirring in the trees around you or causing the fruit to ripen and the flowers to unfold. Remember, as Thales said, all things are full of gods – and sometimes the gods like to play hide and seek with us. As you go about your journeys, think about why people associate these places with Dionysos. What special qualities do they possess that suggest his epiphanies and parousia or presence? Do you feel his presence more fully in one place over another – and if so, why do you think this is the case?
At this point your mind should be properly prepared to celebrate the Feast of the Senses. Now, a word is in order before we proceed to describe it. The Feast is not intended to replace regular formal devotional or religious rituals. Those things have a power all their own, and there is great utility in their outward focus. The Feast is meant to supplement that kind of practice, to deepen it and help one more fully experience the presence of the god. But if this is the only type of ritual you perform, you’ll be missing out on a great deal. For one thing, there is a danger of it becoming too internalized, your relationship one of thoughts and feelings as opposed to concrete actions. The gifts that the gods bestow on us are material – as should be the acts of thanksgiving that we return to them. Those traditional methods have also been proven to work effectively over the millennia of Greek religious practice. To ignore that successful track record seems hardly desirable, besides which, their long duration show that the gods clearly find these forms pleasing – and isn’t that the whole purpose of religious ritual in the first place, to make the gods happy? But innovation is not a bad thing, and there is nothing antithetical within the Feast to traditional practice. In fact, when the two forms are united they can be incredibly powerful.
The Feast itself
One needs very few props to perform this ritual. Certainly no script of rehearsed lines, no elaborate costume, no ceremonial tools or complex offerings. The absolute requirements are very simple: yourself, your senses, and the god. Nothing else is needed, though there are a bunch of items that contribute to a more effective celebration of the Feast. Here are some suggested items:
Two glasses, one for you and one for the god
Incense or perfume
Representations or symbols of the god
A quiet, secluded place where you won’t be interrupted for the duration of your ritual
And that’s pretty much it! Of course, you can add whatever else you’d like to the mix – especially substituting different foods for the fruit or dressing in specific attire worn solely for him – but the point is, this is a very easy ritual to perform, and requires very little to do it.
So, to begin the ritual, set up your items. If you feel like doing some kind of purification or consecration of yourself and the space beforehand, you can – but it’s not necessary, especially if you’re doing this in a temple room or before your shrine for the god, which should already be properly dedicated to holy service. Make sure that you have a decent amount of time to perform the Feast in – at least 20 to 30 minutes, though it can take an hour or longer to perform it if you really get into the spirit of the ritual. You should be able to play music and make noise without fear of disturbing the people around you or being disturbed by them. This ritual can require intense concentration and focus so make sure the people you live with understand that and won’t be barging in on you in the middle of it. You will also need to be in near total darkness – the only light coming from the candle – and want to have space to dance and move about in.
Once all of these preliminary considerations have been taken care of and the space set up as you want it, take several deep breaths and center yourself. Relax as completely as you can, letting all mundane thoughts depart from your mind. Stand for a few moments, with your arms raised and stretched out. Let yourself just be in this receptive posture. Feel your legs holding you up. Feel your arms extended. Feel the breath circulating through your body. Feel yourself relaxing, but also aware that you are about to experience communion with Dionysos through your senses. Feel the desire for his presence stir within your soul. Call up from your memory any past experiences you’ve had with him. Try to remember exactly what that felt like. Conjure an image of the god within your mind, however you see him. Let other images flood your consciousness, his different faces and forms, the various objects and ideas associated with him, until you can almost feel him standing there beside you. Let the desire for him deepen within you, until you ache to reach out and touch him.
Then, call to him. Ask him to be there with you, to share this moment, this Feast with you, to reveal himself to you in all of his forms. Put all of the desire and longing that you possess for the god into your voice. Speak, confident that he can hear you. Feel the voice as it rises up from your chest, vibrating through your throat, caressing your lips as it leaves your mouth and spills out into the air surrounding you. Say whatever comes to your mind. It can be a full invocation, with as many of his epithets and the formulaic phrases of ritual as you can remember – or just his name, spoken aloud. A formal declaration of invitation or the inarticulate plea of a lover long separated, aching for union. It doesn’t matter what you say – only that you speak aloud.
Then light the incense or apply the perfume. Make sure that you have chosen a scent that is connected with him somehow, be it something that others recognize as belonging to him or just something that has always reminded you of the god personally. Pause. Breathe deeply. Be in the moment. Focus entirely on the scent wafting up and enfolding you. Really smell it. All of the subtle nuances. Does the scent have a shape and texture for you? What memories does it stir within your mind? Why do you think this scent is connected with him – and what does that say about who the god is? Remind yourself, over and over again, this is how the god smells. Feel him draw closer to you through this scent.
Now light the candle. Turn off all other lights. Explore the darkness around you. Can you see shapes through the shadows – or is everything pitch black? Is this the darkness of a cave, of night, the darkness out of which life emerged, and to which it must return; the darkness which lies like a shroud over the mysteries? Call to mind all of the epithets and associations that Dionysos has with darkness, night, shadows and concealment. Feel the darkness as deeply as you can. Plumb the depths of the great unknown. Is it comforting – or does it cause fear to rise up within you? Why? Remember this is where Dionysos is.
Now turn to the candle, a pool of light in the darkness. Draw close to it. Place your hand over the flame, as close as you can without getting burned. Feel the heat licking against your skin. Remember that Dionysos is in the light, just as much as he is in the darkness. Think about the warmth of the sun on your skin, the sun that gives life, coaxing the young buds to blossom on the branch. Feel Dionysos in the heat and warmth, as the source of life that moves through all the plants and animals. Let your mind wander back to a time when you felt flushed with that heat of life, full to bursting, intoxicated and alive. Let the heat stir within your body, spreading up from your loins, down from your cheeks, meeting at your heart which has begun to race with excitement at the dawning presence of the god. Lower your hand closer and closer to the flame, until it seems almost unbearable. Remember: this is what it feels like to be in the presence of the god – white hot, brilliantly intense, life ratcheted up to such a feverish pitch that any moment now it’s going to burst into an inferno…but it doesn’t. It holds its place, maintains its form, kept going at the peak of perfection, a dwarf star dancing in the infinite abyss.
Now, raise your eyes a little and take in the images on your shrine. Look at them as if you are seeing them for the very first time. Focus on each item individually, reflecting on its connection to the god, the role it has within his myths, his cult, his realm of influence. Then take a step back and see all of them together, forming an intricate collective whole, a tapestry or collage depicting the god. See the connections between the items, how the mask and the phallos, or the bull and the grapevine go together. Take in their contours, the colors that you can see in the shimmering glow of the candlelight. Watch the play of the flickering shadows upon their form. Focus on them with such deep concentration that the items appear almost alive to you. Can you see the panther’s chest heaving, its fur slick with sweat? Can you see the empty eye sockets of the silent mask gazing back at you, looking deep into your soul? Can you smell the grass and snow depicted in the picture of Mount Parnassos, hear the lilting pipes of the satyrs as they play their music for the dancing mainades? Can you see the spirit of Dionysos coursing through all of these things, moving gently beneath the surface? Remember: this is what the god looks like.
Now start the music you have prepared. You can either stand or sit comfortably while you listen. Let the sound wash over you, surrounding you, enfolding you in its rhythm, carrying you off to another world, a land of the imagination. Allow your thoughts to unfold as they will, seduced by the sounds of the music. How does this make you feel? What emotions does it unleash? What images does it conjure? Let the words dissolve into random sounds, without meaning or association, the human voice become just another instrument contributing to the melody and rhythm. Then, in time, listen for what the words have to say to you. They will come as disjointed messages, in promiscuous phrases taken out of context but meaningful for their randomness. You will hear things in them that you never have before, even though you’ve listened to the song a thousand times. You will understand things hidden in the song, things perhaps even its composer was not aware of. Feel the bass vibrate through your whole body. Feel the melody and rhythm move you, change you, draw hidden things out of you. Remember: this is what the god sounds like.
As you see fit, permit yourself to respond to the music with your body. Let it guide you, direct you, cause you to move as it wills. The sound corresponds to physical motion, it has its own movement and dance, and all of that lies trapped within you. Bring yourself into alignment with the music: give the invisible expression through your body. Sway gently to the music, as if you are being buffeted by a strong breeze. Let your head roll lazily about, your body swaying back and forth, your arms rising and falling of their own volition. At first do not be cognizant of dancing: simply move.
Feel the life stirring within you. All life possesses motion of some kind. All life, from the tiniest atom to the unfathomably large cosmos, is caught in perpetual motion, united in a single dance, the dance of creation, destruction and transformation, the dance of life in its countless forms. Join in that dance. Give expression to the movement within you, the motion of your soul, the motion of the music, the motion of life. Do not worry about moving properly. Do not concern yourself with whether you are a good dancer, whether your steps are elegant, beautiful, sexy. No one is there to judge you. No one is going to think you are a clumsy oaf. Dionysos demands only that we dance, not that we dance well. So just dance. Move. Be alive. Praise the god through your body. Celebrate your existence by participating in the dance. Let it take you where it will. Let your rational mind recede into the background. Have no thoughts except for movement, except for being one with your body and using it as a tool to give thanks to the god. Dance fast, dance slow, shake your head about wildly, stomp your feet, slide gracefully around the room, stay in one spot and spin, spin, spin until you’re ready to collapse in a dizzy pile of limbs. Go down on all fours and crawl about like a leopard or panther stalking its prey; slither on your belly like a serpent; thrust your pelvis out and hop around like a joyously lustful satyr; toss your head back wildly and contort your body however the god wills you to, giving yourself completely to him in the frenzy of mainadic dancing. Remember: this is how the god moves.
When you are done dancing, pour yourself a glass of wine. Then pour a glass for Dionysos. Pause for a moment. Drink in the heady aroma of the wine. Let the smell surround you, intoxicate you, rouse your desire to drink it. Remember that this is how the god smells. Take a moment to look at the wine, dark like blood in the shadows, reflecting the light of the flickering candle flame. Think about what the wine symbolizes. That this is the blood and tears of the god, that his spirit dwells in it. Reflect on the myths of its invention, the stories of how he brought it to mankind. Contemplate its dual nature: a remedy for our sorrows, inspiring joy, light-heartedness, freedom and exuberant intoxication – but also that it is a dangerous poison, a madness-inducer that unlocks the chambers of the soul and unleashes whatever lies hidden within our hearts, be that a ferocious beast or a glorious angel. Remember that above all else, this is the thing most intimately connected with the god. He is the grape and the juice that is poured from it, after it is stomped and pressed and has undergone its manifold transformations. Remember that Dionysos is the wine and you are about to consume him. Thank him for his gift and then drink the wine.
Take a sip. Hold it in your mouth, letting it coat your tongue, tease your throat. What does it feel like? What does it taste like? Is it sweet, tart, warm, heady? Hold it there, fully in the moment, experiencing everything that this mouthful of wine has to teach you. Then swallow it, and feel the wine as it passes through your throat, as it enters your body, its warmth spreading out as it passes through you. Drink more, taking bigger, deeper sips. Have no thoughts except for those connected with the consumption of the wine. Can you feel the wine begin to take effect? Its heat spreading, your vision going clear or hazy, your limbs starting to feel loose, your head going fuzzy, your pulse quickening, sounds distorting, shadows deepening. Remember: this is what the god feels like inside you.
When you are ready, take up the fruit. Grapes. Pomegranates. Figs. Apples. Oranges. Whatever you have chosen; all fruit belongs to him, but each has its own qualities, and those qualities suggest different things about the god. Hold the fruit in your hands. Feel its weight, the texture of its skin, its hardness or softness in your palm. Roll it around, enjoying the touch of it against your skin. What color does it have in the darkness? In the candlelight? Explore everything about it without yet tasting it. Think about how this fruit is connected with the god, and what it can tell you about him. Then taste it. Hold it in your mouth, without yet chewing. Feel the texture against your tongue, the nuances of its taste. Then bite down, mindful of what it is like to feel your teeth tear into it, ripping it apart, releasing the juices to spill out over your lips. Does it feel good, primal, animalistic to consume its flesh? Relish the taste of it, the nourishment that it will bring to your body, the strengthening of your own life-force by partaking of the life that dwells within it. Remember that the god is present in the transference of that energy. This is his sacrament. This is what Dionysos tastes like. Enjoy it. Share it with him. Immerse yourself in the complete sensual pleasure of eating. Have no thoughts but this.
After that, you may do as you please. Eat more. Drink more. Listen to the music. Dance. Take in everything that surrounds you. Be present in the darkness. Let your thoughts go as they will, but focused on the god and all of the things connected to him. Think about him. Speak to him. Listen in case he has anything to say to you. But above all else, just be with him.
That is the Feast of the Senses. Through it you shall learn things about the god that you can never pick up solely by reading books and online articles. Above all, how to experience him and recognize him through the things that belong to him. The Feast can be done on its own or included within a more formal ritual framework. Celebrate the Feast often. Try always to feel his presence around you and use your senses to draw closer to him.