Why is the Starry Bull strain of Bacchic Orphism so horrific?
No one contests that Starry Bull mythology is horrific. Its central figure is a God who was torn apart as an infant or a young man in his prime, and this deed was performed either by the divine figures who had been appointed to guard him or the women most devoted to him. This God goes on to suffer madness and mockery and many of his closest circle are violently persecuted. His prophets are imprisoned, tortured and torn to pieces. Many of his women are suicides, with hanging being the commonest cause of death. He brings healing, release and justice to the victims of unthinkably terrible crimes. He leads his retinue of frenzied Spirits in the hunt and rules a portion of hell.
This is the stuff of nightmares. Who in their right mind would worship such a God? And for that matter how can one claim that this is an accurate portrayal of Dionysos, the mirthful lord of wine and freedom?
It isn’t meant to be.
The Starry Bull tradition is a modern expression of a strain of Bacchic Orphism, itself but one of the many forms that the religion of Dionysos took in antiquity. This influences both the choice of source material that we draw upon and even more importantly how that material is interpreted. At no time do we deny that there are other faces which the god may show his devotees, nor that there are other avenues which open unto him. On the contrary, the beliefs and practices which shape the Starry Bull tradition are best seen as supplementary to more conventional forms of religiosity, with the tension between them a necessary component.
Let me explain what I mean by way of an example. Meet Hermagenes, son of Dolion of the Oineis tribe, a fairly average middle child born into a moderately well-off family in the Athens of Demetrios Poliorketes. Considering the tumultuous times he finds himself in, Hermagenes is not an ambitious man and uses the leisure provided by his father’s estate to devote himself primarily to religious and social endeavors. Not only does he maintain cultus for the Gods of his household and honor his illustrious ancestors as he was raised from infancy to do, but unlike a lot of his contemporaries he devotes himself to the Gods and heroes of his deme and phyle. He has an important role in several of the larger civic festivals, belongs to a couple religious guilds and observes their calendars of monthly sacrifices, has served as choregos and gymnasiarch in the past, visits a specialist in Orphic rites once a month for purifications, attends lectures in Platonic theology at the Academy, and goes to the various temples strewn throughout his city when the need arises. He has made pilgrimage to Delphi, Eleusis and Samothrace, and also received initiation into the mysteries of Meter, Pan, Sabazios and two separate Bacchic cults.
All of these various threads, together, weave the tapestry of Hermagenes’ religious life. No one of them is more important than the others, though each provide him with different benefits and make different demands on his time, resources and mental energy.
Ideally things should be no different today. An adherent of the Starry Bull tradition is free to honor as many other Gods and Spirits as they are called to, and even to honor the members of our loose pantheon in different forms and through different ways alongside their Starry Bull practice. This is not just permitted, it is strongly encouraged.
After all, this tradition was never intended to be all things for all people. We have carved off a small portion of that which is Dionysian for our own and intend to explore it to the fullest. It is a fragment and cannot provide you with all you need for a full and rich religious life any more than eating only grapes and figs will lead to a whole and healthy existence.
Our piece is bloody and trembling, and that’s why it’s ours.
You see, we aren’t well. No one in this fucked up society is, but unlike the majority we recognize this all-important fact about ourselves. We each come to this path with different ailments of different degrees of severity but our common bond is madness.
Madness that can be cured by the God, and madness that is sent by him. All the greatest blessings of the Gods may arrive by way of madness, but madness will also destroy you if you let it. And so we learn to dance with our madness. Instead of hiding from it, locking it away, suppressing it until it morphs into something far more dangerous, we let it out to play, try it on like a costume, see all the beautiful and ugly things it has to show us about the world, and about ourselves.
In a walnut shell, that’s what the Starry Bull tradition is. It’s giving yourself permission to go a little mad sometimes, to look at things through insane eyes.
Why? Isn’t madness bad for individuals and communities?
Sure, but so is not making space for madness. In fact, far more social ills stem from repression than cutting loose.
Think about how much we lose by being divided and in conflict with ourselves.
When was the last time you played with finger paints? When was the last time you sang or danced, regardless of who might be around? When was the last time you ate something just because it tasted good and fuck the calories? When was the last time you just walked or drove in a random direction, with nowhere particular to be? When was the last time you plaited a flower crown or hugged a tree? When was the last time you cried at a movie? When was the last time you screamed or broke something because you were angry – or even better, when you weren’t? When was the last time you felt truly alive?
Judging by the prevalence of zombies and convention-breaking anti-heroes in pop culture, I’m guessing not for a while. These tropes wouldn’t have the appeal they do if folks were living vital and authentic lives. But that’s really hard to do at the dawn of the 21st century in the West. From the cradle we’re bombarded with messages carefully crafted to keep us complacent, conformist, unhappy, and striving to meet impossible and contradictory standards that wouldn’t even be fulfilling if we could. And the really fucked up thing is that this conditioning is so pervasive and runs so deep within us that even if you choose not to buy into it and are a pretty introspective and conscientious soul you’ve still got issues in need of working out. Some of them are just part and parcel of the human condition. Hell, even chimps have anxiety disorders.
And that’s why the Starry Bull tradition is such a horror show.
This shit’s buried deep, deep down inside us and if you want to root it out you’re going to need more than to just lie on some dude’s couch and talk at him for an hour.
Terror, hunger, savagery, disgust – real primal emotions that get the heart racing and blood pumping – these things help you step out of your small, conditioned self and cleanse the wounds of ages past. You must descend into the abyss if you would attain catharsis; then and only then are you able to rise up in wholeness and joy. There is no true freedom that you have not suffered for.
And yet there’s something else, a subtler and in some ways more important process that goes along with this. The reconciliation of opposites, through which we discover the true nature of things, ourselves included. A small portion of man rises above the surface, like the barest tip of the iceberg – and he mistakes this for his personality. All the dreams and fears and fantasies and cravings that he does not associate with himself, considers unreal, unacceptable, inconsequential and does his damndest to lock up and never let see the light of day – those things don’t just go away. They become twisted, sick or withered to nothing.
Either he becomes psychically impotent or lashes out unexpectedly, irrationally and violently, destroying all he’s worked so hard to build up. Why? Because he cannot reconcile his notions of himself as a “good” person with the monstrous urges he feels, because he’s running from the pain and disappointment in his past. And he rips apart the whole world in the same fashion, seeing things as pure and filthy, desirable and repugnant, heavenly and diabolical, rational and mad.
Most things are not one or the other – they’re both, and more, and our horrible mythology forces us to confront that artificial dichotomy and every other false notion we’ve got rattling around in our heads.
Like that the world’s fair and nothing bad ever happens to good people.
Our God was ripped to bloody shreds and the ones who loved him most did it!
Fucking let that sink in for a second – even the Gods can suffer affliction. Makes what you’re going through kinda small potatoes, huh? And yet here’s the great part. The God who has suffered most in this tragic fucking universe wants only for us to be happy. To him, what you’re going through isn’t tiny and irrelevant. He suffers through it along with you, and rejoices in your triumph.
That’s why we focus so much on gruesome and bizarre stories of violence, madness and sex. We do not flinch from seeing the worst in our Gods and Spirits because they have earned our trust and our devotion and what’s more because we are driven by passionate longing to know them in their entirety, without judgment or expectation. And if you can look at a God with that kind of pure, unconditional love what’s stopping you from seeing yourself that way too? From that comes the most important freedom – the freedom to truly be you. Once you know who you are and what you’re capable of you can wear any mask you want and reveal only select portions of yourself to the world as the situation requires without the risk of losing yourself or becoming what you pretend.
But not everyone needs that, or needs it all the time. The Starry Bull tradition makes no exclusive demands – indeed, for every story we put forth, we put forth another in contradistinction to it. And another, and another. Because it’s the story behind the stories and the way those stories are told that defines our tradition. Understanding comes through comparison, which necessitates something other than the Starry Bull. Which is why most of our members are involved in numerous other communities and religious traditions as well.
If all of that doesn’t make sense, don’t worry, it wasn’t meant for you. If it does, you probably should worry as you’re on your way to becoming one of us.
Who are you?
Why, you’re a mix of mud and stars, with blood of the Titans in your veins, a devotee of the mad God. And don’t you ever forget it.