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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One thought on “Ecstatic: For Dionysos, A Book Review

  1. Pingback: Things have been crazy « The House of Vines

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