Ecstatic: For Dionysos, A Book Review

It took me about half a year to read all of this huge compendium of all things Dionysian by H. Jeremiah Lewis, better known as Sannion. It’s that kind of work, a banquet of essays, resources, stories and lots of poetry celebrating this marvelous, very multi-faceted god. In his introduction, he writes of the original thesauros, not the book of synonyms, but a room where the offerings of a god were placed in ancient Greek temples. He says this book is his own thesauros to the god to whom he has been long dedicated.  I agree that reading this book can give the feeling of entering such a treasure room and looking around and learning much from its offerings.

Sannion gives the basics of how to do ritual for Dionysos, the myths, the festivals… I appreciate the humor throughout that leavens this work, something so often missing in matters religious. Some highlights include, “The Feast of the Senses” (the simplicity of devotion with music, fruit, wine,  and the devotee’s senses fully engaged);  excellent resources on the three day and very complex festival of Anthesteria, including how to celebrate this holiday as a solitary; there are also extensive essays on the various symbols of Dionysos, and the gods of the Greek pantheon who relate to him in various ways. Sannion makes a good point that even if one is devoted pretty much to one god only that in a polytheistic viewpoint that god is entwined with others, even when a relationship seems largely hostile (like Hera). Several essays focus on the particularities and peculiarities of the deity as worshiped in Egypt in the Alexandrian context, and of his syncretism with Osiris. There’s also an extensive essay comparing Dionysos and Christ; there’s a surprising amount of common ground between these two deities and their mythologies. For those interested in divination Sannion relates how he developed a revealed system of Dionysian divination called The Leaves of the Tree of Dionysos and gives an introduction to use of this new method. Insightful discussion of sacred madness is found in “Cleansing the Doors of Perception”, wherein he quotes Socrates, “our greatest blessing come to us by way of madness.” Sannion writes, “the madness he is speaking of is telestic, initiatory and prophetic madness, where one is lifted out of their normal self and filled with something higher, diviner.” This is enthusiasm in its original sense, as well as ecstasy. Dionysos is a prophetic god, and although this is often forgotten, shared the Oracle of Delphi with Apollo, inhabiting it in the winter months. In the “Queerness of Dionysos” Lewis explores territory ranging from the god’s male lovers like the satyr Ampelos who in one myth was the origin of wine, to the god’s love of women and championship for their liberation and on to his androgyny and transgendered/genderqueer aspects to use contemporary terminology.

House of Dionysos mosaic, Pella, late 4th cent. BCE

Readers will also find essays on the Lampteria festival, another on the frequent emphasis on Dionysos as a child (Greek and Roman gods are usually portrayed as adults) in “Wild Child Full of Grace”, an essay on Nonnos of Panoplis and his late Dionysian epic, and an interesting piece on the ritual cry: Io euoi, among many other offerings. The book is full of personal experiences including a nympholepsy on the McKenzie river, a river in Oregon where the author had experience of the nymphs. There’s even an amusing anecdote about geese in a local park and the primal Dionysian behavior they exhibited as they rushed toward him.

Then there is a whole volume’s worth of the author’s poetry. Some of the poems I especially enjoyed were “Fragments of an Initiate”; “Tarentella”, whose content is about the more recent Italian tarantula-oriented dance which derives from Dionysian worship; “My Life in the Labyrinth”; “The Oracle of Ptolemy Philopator”, in the voice of the Ptolemaic king; the wonderful “Burst of Drunken Poetry”; “Alexandria 1910” whose content is about the early 20th century queer poet Constantine Cavafy cruising a beautiful boy in a café in an oppressive era. There is also the “The Satyrs’ Life for Me”, where we hear the point of view of a satyr. Something often ignored is that the uninhibited celebration, including what many call ‘promiscuity’ can be a sacred lifeway (which is revealed traditionally in comedy). In this manner is also “Sotadean Verse” and Hymn to Priapus” about a god who is often maligned. One thing that often distorts modern views of the classical past is that the bias of most renowned ancient writers is that of an elite, who from the evidence of graffiti, inscriptions, literature, artworks and so on, was at odds with that of the populace at large. Think the negative attitudes toward sex and the body that are found in Plato and played such a prominent later place in western culture.

Bacchus and Ariadne, Titian.

The book also has a group of short fictions (Sannion is multi-talented). “Running with  the Apis” is a particularly fascinating story about Marc Antony relating to Cleopatra his bizarre mystical encounter with the Apis Bull, a Dionysian initiation of sorts that he had running through the byways of late night Alexandria. There is also the “Hieros Logos of Isidorus”, which basically recounts the various myths of Dionysus, with some very interesting material therein, including lesser known ones like his healing from madness by Cybele/Rhea and her gift of asses to him. The ones that perhaps gripped me most as a story was a revelatory and compelling story of a modern Dionysian meeting a modern maenad in an American city, with whom he falls in love; a tale which is laced with some fair minded satire of the superficiality often found in the contemporary pagan scene in the US (the whole not taking seriously the deities invoked kind of thing). “The Bacchai 2005” is a hilarious rendering of the Pentheus legend in the Bush era, with yes, Bush Junior and Cheney as the tyrants attempting to thwart the Lord of Ecstasy. Ha!

Ecstatic: For Dionysos (Nysa Press) is an indispensable work for anyone drawn to Dionysos.

Io Euoi Dionysos!

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Assumption of Ganymede

Today, January 22nd, is a day associated with the Assumption of Ganymede by some traditions. Ganymede was a beautiful Trojan prince whom Zeus became enamored of and took (in eagle form) to Olympus where he became the divine cupbearer. It should be noted that in ancient societies the role  of cupbearer was an important one, whether male or female; this fact is often forgotten in our modern society, which generally considers service as lowly. Besides the homoerotic element, another interesting aspect of this myth is that of Zeus in the form of an eagle. I frequently have seen it stated that Greek gods are always in human form, but that is not always true. Dionysos with his horns, and of course Pan immediately spring to mind as well.

A poem I have written for Ganymede follows.

For Ganymede

A terrible beauty—

(More than mortals bear)

A rupture in the mundane.

A disturbing rapture,

A chasm through which whirls

The tempest of eagle talons.

A ripple in the storm: a brief

Sojourn on earth, then flight and

An eternity of service on Olympus.

Ganymede Abducted by the Eagle, Correggio. 1531.

El Polin: a Potent Spring

An integral part of any earth-based spirituality is learning about your local landscape, coming to know your place, orienting, if you will. Well, that’s probably an important factor in just about any religious system, but as pagans that means with our Land, among other things. Knowing one’s watershed is an ecological principle. I find looking for water sources like springs to be a good basic way to orient. In Classical tradition springs were associated with nymphs, in Celtic traditions often with local goddesses and sometimes gods; in other parts of the world the association may be male.

Recently my partner and I visited El Polin, a spring that lies near the first European settlement in San Francisco, namely the Presidio. I was so heartened to see the extensive progress of the restoration project that had taken place since my last visit. Although I once was skeptical o how the Presidio Trust would handle its mission, I am inspired by the overall restoration projects within the Presidio, which is a unique urban national park (part of Golden Gate NRA).

El Polin can be reached by trail from Inspiration Point, or from the Tennessee Hollow area. A large area has been stripped of exotic species and native plants set in. The tiny creek is running freely downhill and bunched up into several pools as well, down to the end of a street of former military housing. The air was full of birdsong, and the music of falling water. The old well has been cleaned up; it’s where people in the old Spanish/Mexican fort got their drinking water. A few golden poppies were already in bloom.

The water was believed during Spanish/Mexican times, and perhaps Native American (an Ohlone village had used the water for long ages) to bestow fertility. Indeed it was said that women who drank of it would bear twins, and men would get quite a boost to their virility. General Vallejo is his “Discorso Historica” of 1876 claimed that garrison wives bore evidence to this and gave number of children of various wives as being from 13 to 22. Hmm, such different tines—probably best not to drink from it now for those of child-bearing tendencies. Polin was the name for a type of huge wooden roller that was used for loading cannon and other cargo onto Spanish galleons. The appearance was phallic and was a slang word for penis. So El Polin could be thought of as a phallic spring!

Benches hewn from logs have been set near the huge willow tree; the Park Service says the goal is for this site to be a place of outdoor education. It is also a great place for prayer and to listen to the voice of the waters for inspiration.

Cave Dreaming: Chauvet

Werner Herzog, director of some of my favorite films, such as Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Nosferatu the Vampyre, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, and Where the Green Ants Dream among many others, has made a fascinating documentary, entitled Cave of Forgotten Dreams, about the Upper Paleolithic cave Chauvet. Chauvet was only discovered in 1994 and is filled with astonishing paintings dating as far back as approximately 34,000 years ago, the oldest yet found in Europe.

 

Ice Age art is something that has made a deep impact on me ever since many years ago I visited the Cave of Altamira in northern Spain. There, after descending in the elevator shaft to the depth of the cavern, the guide pitched us into darkness so total that it was impossible to see my hand in front of my face. Then the light switch was flicked on, and in a magical theater bison, horses and other animals thundered out of a primal mythscape. I think we can see the matrix of the pagan imagination in such caves.

 

Herzog received rare permission to film in Chauvet, a place of very limited access, from the French government. The film starts with the crew trekking through a muddy countryside of vineyards and up to the cliff face in a rural part of southern France. The discoverers in 1994 found the cave by perceiving air of a different temperature emitting from a small aperture in the cliff. The main entrance of the cave was blocked off by a rockfall some 20,000 years ago. The film is chockfull of intriguing people including a parfumier who uses his highly refined olfactory sense to literally smell cave air. Once head of the parfumiers’ association, he now searches for new caves. It’s quite likely there remain undiscovered caves in this region.

 

A metal walkway has been constructed through the cave and archaeologists, scientists, and others visitors can only traverse the cavern upon its raised length and through the fascinating interior of huge stalactites, stalagmites, and bizarre mineral curtains. But the crew with cameras mounted on poles were able to film some generally hidden features, such as the enigmatic bull woman figure, that one of the scholars likens to a Picasso—the bull confronting woman in the labyrinth in the beginnings of the human imagination. Only the lower half of the woman is painted, suggesting to scholars that she is in erotic union with the bull, bringing to mind Pasiphae and the bull who fathered Asterion the Minotaur.

 

The cave is full of wonders like the group of horses staring down from unimaginable depths of time, expressive and startling in their portrayal as individual horses. There are rhinos in battle, a strange insect like being and other marvels…

The film also registers the passions of the scholars who study this cave; one of the archeologists was in the circus before he became an archeologist. He makes an intriguing observation about what possible mind constructs the artists might have had by doing comparisons with cultures that recently did rock or cave paintings. He mentions an Aboriginal site in Australia where an informant took an archeologist to a sacred rock art site and then set to touching up the artwork, which has probably been renewed periodically over a very long reach of time. When asked about his own role, he said he hadn’t done anything, his gist being that the spirits were re-painting, and he was their vehicle.

 

We can’t know their stories, but we can see the signs of mythos, of the numinous, of the imagination fully sprung to life in Chauvet, at a time when these Cro-Magnon people shared territory with Neanderthals. In the original cave mouth is a fresco of red dots. There are also many handprints, one of which shows a crooked little finger. The archeologists are excited to be able to detect an individual, and sure enough his work can be detected deeper within the cave.

 

The light of science, which has computer mapped every centimeter of Chauvet meets the night of myth, of mystery here; something that deeply resounds throughout this magical film. Herzog notes that often after a couple hours of filming, the palpable sense of the ancients became so strong that the crew felt like they were being watched and it would be a relief to emerge from the cave into the light of our world from the dark uncanny mythscape.

 

This wonderful film makes great viewing during this time of short days and long nights, mesmerizing with its sparks of dreams from the dawn of human culture and myth making.