Dionysus / Yehuda Abramovitch

Unlike the language of a canonic text, that of the myth is the language of the soul, and every poet, storyteller or anyone, when coming to tell and to depict an archetypal pattern will choose to describe what is available to him or what is conceivable to him. The more complex the archetypal pattern, the more diverse and colorful the stories will be, and every image depicted will point to a different aspect of the archetypal experience. There is nothing like the Dionysian experience to demonstrate this point due to its intensity and complexity, and mainly due to its overpowering energies.

Some examples.

When coming to describe the Dionysian experience, Nietzsche stressed the ecstatic experience, the exaggeration, the barbarian aspects, the Titanic one and even the criminal aspects. Some will stress the suffering, the intoxication, but the power of life as well, and the instinctual experience. Kereny will stress the wine and nature’s power of growth and revival (with emphasis mainly on vegetation). Others will describe the child-god or (maybe the god-child), others will discuss the connection of Dionysus to Hades, his connection to death or maybe to the desire of dying (known also as Tanatophilia), the connection to mysteries or maybe to the cult of souls.  Walter Otto stressed the madness, the frenzied atmosphere but the capacity to heal as well. The meaning of that is that Dionysus is the god who holds life and death united. It is interesting to point out regarding this aspect, that Walter Otto claims that madness is sent to non-believers, to those who deny the Dionysian experience, but never to those who accept and submit to the god. It is interesting to note in this respect, that Plato in Phaedo, quoting Socrates, advocates the existence of two kinds of madness, one connected and expressing disease and another connected to liberation from conventions.

Still, others will describe the irresistible-irrational phenomena in connection with this archetype, others will describe the experience of freedom, of joy, these moments when one forgets oneself and allows oneself to be. Others will describe the god of the festivals, the wine again, and the agricultural fests.  Today it is tempting to connect Dionysus to this quickly expanding culture of big parties/festivals based on loud/noisy music, hallucinogenic drugs and dancing till exhaustion and loss of senses.

It is customary to believe that three gifts were given to man in connection to fertility: wheat – the gift of Demeter, olives – the gift of Athena, and vine – the gift of Dionysus (Bacchus of the Romans). Still others will talk about bisexuality in connection with the Dionysian experience, about sexuality which is liberated from conventions, from gender, liberated from “correctness” or social acceptance. Others will stress the company, the band (thiasos), i.e. the god who will never appear alone but will always be surrounded by company. Others will describe the god of youth, the youngest god in the pantheon.

When Jung refers to Nietzsche on Dionysus he refers to Dionysus the first –Zagreus, and he stressed the dismemberment, the danger of dismantling and the suffering aspects of the experience. Nevertheless, loyal to his way, Dionysus at the same time is to be seen as a symbol of reintegration of divine materials, of reintegration of a torn spirit (a spirit which has undergone fragmentation). Still referring to Nietzsche he discussed the fear of the god’s punishment and in other places he connects Dionysus to certain attributes of Wotan.

When James Hillman refers to the Dionysian experience he refers to an initiation to the archetypal experience of the body. In other words through Dionysus one comes to awareness and consciousness of the body and the emotions imprinted in it.  Maybe from here follows an explanation to why Dionysus is the most suppressed god in modern western civilization.

All this explains why speaking about this suppressed god is no less than an adventure.

Dionysus is the god of wine, of madness and of tragedy and it is no less than a psychological adventure to try to find rational explanations to the emotional phenomena, to the irrationality, to those experiences beyond words all of which are included in the Dionysian experience. Maybe because of this nature of the experience, because of the distance from ego consciousness, because of the non- verbal connection to bodily sensations, the way to Dionysus is the way to “The Shadow”.  Maybe due to its complexity we never exhaust the depth of its symbolic meaning. Dionysus remains the most suppressed god and yet the non-suppressible one. On one hand the carrier of joy and on the other the carrier of endless bitterness and suffering. On one hand the god carrier of gifts and riches and on the other the one who awakens the most cannibalistic fears. He remains the one who offers ecstasy and spiritual awakenings and at the same time the only god in whose nature madness is inherent.

Let us begin to look at how Dionysus was depicted.

Usually he would appear as a youth, with a youthful body, somehow feminine or better said not well determined, usually with long hair in which bunches of grapes  are wreathed. Yet, sometimes he would appear as an old bearded man, a bit drunk usually; always carrying in his hand the “thirsos”, this miracle making pine stick. Usually naked or covered with a panther fur (the animal with which he is identified) usually with a wine goblet in his hand and a garland of ivy (the plant with which he is identified) on his head, always accompanied by maenads and satyrs and very often his venerated teacher Saelenus is on his side.

It is Interesting to note that his native place is claimed by many cities in Greece, and there is an old Spartan legend telling that after birth he was put in a chest and carried with the waves, and thus reached their shores and grew among them.

 Dionysus will always be the one coming from far away, coming and leaving unexpectedly, everybody feels his presence but he would never settle down. He would remain a wandering god, forever in search of a home and of recognition, both of which he will never find. He is a different god, and that is why he will symbolize ”the other” forever. He will break the silence and violate the calm, will erupt like a disease and disappear again. On one hand he is the god closest to man, “gets into your bones” and yet he is the most distant and the most incomprehensible of gods. His experience reminds us of the elusive feelings buried in the body and trying to come to consciousness through him. Dionysus as the god of theatre, and of tragedy connects the actor to his body and makes possible the non- verbal communication.

Let us follow the god’s revelations.

First Encounter:

  It all began with Zeus’ desire to father the perfect heir. The old Orphic legend tells us that in line with this desire Zeus with Persephone gave birth to the first Dionysus – Zagreus. He is the one who was designated from birth to rule the world. But the Titans got furious, they seduced the child god with toys and with sweets and when he came close they fell upon him, tore him to pieces, dismembered him and devoured his body and limbs. Only his heart they did not find, and it was later discovered by Athene. She was the one who found his still beating heart, brought it to the father who swallowed (incorporated) it and thus something from the attributes of Zagreus became an attribute of the Father. These new attributes, as we will see, will be transferred to Dionysus the second.  But first the Titans had to be punished and the wrath of Zeus fell upon them, lightenings were thrown and they burnt to ashes. It is from these ashes, so goes the Orphic legend, that man was created and thus in man a spark of the divine element is included through the Dionysian material while man’s earthly character emanates from the Titanic materials.

A few words to describe what these earthly elements originating in Titanic legacy mean. Titanism in the eyes of the classic world means excess, extremism, everything that distances man from the right measure, from restraint, from “the gold standard” of behaviour which was so highly viewed by the Greeks.  But not only that. These earthly element includes manipulations, lack of integrity, destructiveness, treachery, materialism, and many other characteristics typical to man’s nature.  Yet, on the other hand, and through Prometeus, this Titanic legacy includes also curiosity, rebelliousness, hope, science and technology and many other human attributes. Common to all these characteristics inherited from the Titanic nature is a lack of self- knowledge and introspection and a lack of connection to the Numinous. Here again Jung adds that this Titanic Dismemberment should be seen as an initiation to adult life as well. There is no childhood without trauma, Jung claims, and destruction of innocence is necessary for transition to adulthood.

Second Encounter:

Zeus falls in love with Semele, one of Cadmus’s daughters and she returns his love. Fruit of this love is a pregnancy that reveals the forbidden love to jealous Hera. In her jealousy, disguised as an old woman she approaches Semele and advises her to persuade Zeus to prove his love by revealing himself as he reveals himself to his wife – to Hera. Semele listens, gets convinced and seduced, she attracts from her lover this promise, and when he, bound to his promise shows himself in his shining divine glory Semele is burnt to ashes (as we know, no mortal human can look at the sight of a god- only the image as depicted in a statue is available to human eyes). Zeus extracts the baby from the cremated body of his beloved and places him in a pocket that he creates in his thigh, and so carries the pregnancy to its successful end.

And so, from the beginning, the god comes to this world through a traumatic birth, and without a mother. He was probably given to an aunt (mother’s sister Ino) to raise him. They say Hermes introduced him to wise old Silenus who will accompany him from now on forever.

Third Encounter:

Actually this will be the first revelation of the god.  First a few words of explanation about the Dionysian revelation i.e. the constellation of an archetypal Dionysian experience. This experience would be a mystical one, as if the person involved is possessed by the god, it is a bodily experience felt through the senses, it may be submission to an ecstatic experience, it may be enriching and it can be devastating as well. It is an inexplicable experience “from the outside” (an objectively explicable experience would be an Apollonic experience). The experience would be of strong emotions, of irrationality; its expression can be translated to an orgy, to a festival or to other events of intense joy. Usually we are distant from such strong emotions which herald the presence of Dionysus. Patriarchal consciousness is keeping us distant from similar strong experiences which flood the ego with emotions and are perceived through strong body feelings. We can therefore claim as well that Dionysus is a god of the body and the body is too often repressed in western civilization, we can also claim Dionysus resides in the body and awaits his revelation through feelings.

Dionysus makes his first appearance at the court of Lycurgus, king of Thrace and demands recognition. In line with his nature, he appears as he usually does: surrounded by nymphs/maenads/ women, his appearance is a boyish one, probably exaggerated, maybe not well defined on the masculine/feminine continuum. In other words his appearances are as far as can be from the Greek male hero image. Lycurgus humiliates him, does not recognize his divinity, despises him, kills his followers and even threatens the god himself.

The inexperienced god-child gets scarred and runs away, he escapes and hides in the depth of the ocean where he finds rescue and defence in the bosom of Tetis, goddess of the depths, and stays there for nine years. The psychological way to understand this move would be that after this first attempt to emerge into the external world a second traumatization takes place and the young god withdrew into his internal world for further growth, maturation and enrichment with internal images only to reemerge stronger, more mature and ready to face the external world in due time.  And Dionysus returns, and when he returns he casts a spell on Lycurgus, he makes him mad. Lycurgus in his madness perceives his sons as grapevines to be pruned, he cuts their hands and legs and by so doing kills them with his sword. That would only be the first stage of the god’s revenge. Soon afterwards the god restores Lycurgus’ sanity just for the purpose that he sees and understands his doings, and that is still not sufficient! Soon afterwards the country is destroyed .When the townspeople go to seek advice from the oracle they receive the response that the country would only flourish again after the death of the king. With this message Lycurgus’ countrymen bind him and leave him on the top of a distant mountain where under Dionysus’ order horses will tear him (dismember) him to pieces.

And so, from the beginning, from his first encounter with humans we are faced with the vindictiveness of the god and with his attacks on those who deny him.

Fourth Encounter:

The wandering god appears from nowhere and asks for hospitality at the house of the farmer Ikarius. He is welcomed at the farmer’s house, offered generous hospitality and the two of them spend a few nice days together. At the farewell Dionysus teaches the farmer the secrets of growing the vine and of wine making and thus makes the good farmer happy.  Soon afterwards the generous Ikarius feels the urge to share his divine gift and richess with fellow men and embarks to spread the knowledge. He wanders all over the Mediterranean teaching the new art until one night when he is hosted by a group of shepherds, they abuse the new discovery, get drunk, and a drunken fight breaks out. In this drunken fight good Ikarius is killed (and some say he was torn to pieces by the shepherds’ dogs).  I.E. we are faced with a new aspect: Dionysus and wine, or maybe the wine as the way to the god. Wine which may lead to a transcendental experience and at the same time to a severe, may be fatal intoxication. And so, on one hand alcohol (or maybe drugs) may show the way to spiritual elevation and at the same time may lead to tragedy, to addiction and to violence.

On another perspective we are also acquainted with repression of this complexity in periods of prohibition or of extreme puritanism and with the frequency of violence and criminality which follow.

Fifth Encounter:

Kidnapping by pirates.

After the successful encounter with Ikarius, Dionysus wanders on a distant beach, a strong, handsome and attractive young boy. A foreign ship has dropped anchor and the sailors (pirates) are mistaken to believe they have met a prince; a son of a local king who if kidnapped will be worth a high ransom. And Dionysus is abducted, taken by force and bound to the mast of the ship which sets sail for the sea. Dionysus is amused at first; he even cooperates, but after a while has enough and tries to free himself with no success but then suddenly the mast and the whole body of the ship are covered by vine and ivy bushes and wine flows everywhere. The sailors (the pirates) panic and try to return to shore but they do not make it on time and the young abducted man soon becomes a panther and then a lion and a turtle and immediately a panther again until the sailors lose their minds, get mad and jump and drown in the surrounding ocean.

I.E. again we meet the capacity of metamorphoses and the severe punishment of those who deny the divinity of the god.

Sixth Encounter:

After the descent to the beach Dionysus embarks on another campaign: Surrounded by maenads and satyrs he sets out to conquer India. We do not face here a military operation or a kind of a military expedition like that of Alexander the Great’s, rather we see here of a long cross-borders journey till the limits of the world.

 Like Hermes, Dionysus too represents the borders and the crossing of the borders, but unlike Hermes, here, through Dionysus’ image we see a blurring of the borders in a drunken state of mind accompanied by loud music of drums and pipes and colours and everything for the purpose of spreading the voice of a new civilization. We meet again this elusive god who appears and disappears and his message of longing for distant lands and unknown landscapes. It is the same longing for new images, new discoveries, never to stand still.

Seventh Encounter:

The return from India brings Dionysus to meet and save abandoned Ariadne on the shores of the island of Naxos, a charged encounter, and one more paradox of the god of paradoxes. On one hand, the god who always appears surrounded by a bunch of followers, friends and fans (the thiasos), yet, on the other hand the making of the one and only monogamous god.

Ariadne –   daughter of Minos the mighty king of Crete and Pasiphae (actually the young sister of Semele), a woman with a sad personal story. And maybe, according to certain sources, Dionysus and Ariadne already had met as children and fallen in love and had been promised to marry. Maybe it was the same Dionysus who bestowed on Ariadne the “radiant crown – Corona Borealis”, the same crown Ariadne bestowed later on another lover, Theseus, to light up his way in the labyrinth when he set on his way to kill her brother the Minotaur. When Ariadne fell in love with Theseus, she helped him deceive her father and kill her brother and ran away with him on his way to Athens, but she was forgotten or maybe abandoned by her lover on the shores of Naxos. Maybe the premeditated punishment of Ariadne was double faceted, to be abandoned by her lover and to be abandoned on a deserted shore of a distant island. In her despair Ariadne tries to end her life and in the deepest of despair the voice of drums and pipes is heard; it is the joy and carnival of her first lover returning from distant lands and making his appearance (everything so beautifully described in Strauss’ opera Ariadne in Naxos).  The continuation of this encounter is not clear. Some claim they remained united forever. Yet others claim that Dionysus, helped by Artemis, killed Ariadne, as punishment for her double betrayal and she remained encaged forever in the star system “Corona Borealis” to shine her fate on coming generations

It is once more the god who appears unexpectedly in moments of despair (the one which is repressed, like the body is repressed, in our civilization). The god who suddenly appears and represents movement and salvation, it is the god who opens the way to a new sexuality – an introverted sexuality of feelings and emotions stemming from the body.  A sexuality of fantasy and unconscious images, sexuality different from the one represented by Aphrodite – an extravert, Titanic sexuality. And maybe here we find the connection to which Heraclitus pointed out, namely realizing that Dionysus and Hades may be the same one. We can thus understand why Dionysus is connected to depression and see him as being one of the gods who maintain an open connection and communication with the world of the dead.  Dionysus, the god who represents a passion for dying and for suffering, a passion which is not rarely expressed with the colors of eroticism.

Eighth Encounter:

This is the last encounter with Dionysus before his ascent to Olympus to take his place among the immortals. This last encounter is magnificently described by Euripides in “Bacchae”, and maybe here we have, in this encounter, a more sophisticated and exhaustive repetition of all his previous revelations with reparations for his first encounter with humans at Lycurgus’ court. Dionysus reveals himself at the court of king Penteus in Thebes. Thebes was founded years before by Cadmus, Dionysus’ grandfather, but Cadmus is old now and the city is run by his other grand-son, Penteus son of Agave, Semele’s sister (and so Dionysus’ cousin). Dionysus appears in his way: handsome, androgynous, a crown of ivy on his head, covered with the leopard fur and the magical thyrsus in his hand. This time he looks like a wandering, seductive, eastern monk, maybe a homosexual. He looks the very opposite of Penteus’ Titanic, earthly, heroic and combative character.  Moreover, the god appeared surrounded by women and not by heroes as expected, thus challenging once more the current social order.

 He demands recognition and renewal of the connection to his divinity and Penteus gets furious. In the meantime the “Dionysian Epidemic” erupts in the city and it begins to spread in town. The god drives the minds of the women crazy and they begin to flee to the forests under his influence and to perform new and mysterious rituals. These rituals are religious and ecstatic; they induce transcendental states and madness too. During these ceremonies wild animals are caught, violently dismembered and the participants drink the blood, dance to the end of their senses, experience boundless sexual acts, drunkenness, and endless liberty. Penteus orders all this to stop but to no avail. Dionysus drives more and more women mad and men begin to join too. The “epidemic” quickly spreads and more and more Thebans, former Penteus’ obedient subjects, get to the forests to participate in this addictive experience and probably to happily lose momentarily their sanity. Seeing all this mess Penteus orders to arrest the provocateur. Loyal soldiers catch the god and try to incarcerate him in a stable, but when they try to lock the doors the walls fall down, the king’s palace is on fire and the soldiers panic and run away to hide. Few of them report to the king and describe breathtaking scenes taking place in the mountains. They tell their king about women breast feeding wild animals, of the whole land and nature celebrating and attending a carnival, about wolf living with lamb, and about springs of milk and honey. Yet, they continue, all this stops when uninvited guests, meaning soldiers, appear; in front of them the women become murderous furies and they tear the unhappy uninvited to pieces.

I.e. we have here an encounter between the “right measure” and “the other”, maybe between Greece and the East, between Dionysus and Penteus or even better, an encounter of society with the internal domain of drives which means in Jungian terms an encounter with “The Shadow”.  This encounter begins to shock Penteus, when he describes his encounter with Dionysus he says "I saw him see me”. And so Penteus starts asking himself questions, he begins to become curious about the nature of this god who can see to the depths. Maybe this curiosity of Penteus reflects the curiosity which awakens in many of us at first encounters with the depth of the psyche, with the repressed drives and with the feminine sides which escape the control of masculine consciousness.

Penteus decides he must witness everything with his own eyes and he disguises himself and sets out to witness the activities taking place on the mountain.But he is not alone; Euripides recounts that at a certain moment when the epidemic was already spreading, old wise Theresias came to town to visit his old friend Cadmus, both of them, curious to witness, or even eager to participate in the carnival, climbed to the mountain too.  This is not an accidental event, Dionysus is often perceived as a god of youth, but this is only a superficial perception of the Dionysian experience. With old Cadmus and Theresias participating in the Dionysian experience a new aspect of the god is illuminated; It is the Dionysian experience of old age. It is the body which was forgotten, repressed, or taken for granted in young age, as it often happens, which returns and claims its place and its centrality. As it often happens, the body reclaims its place in old age through pain and symptoms, but not only that.  The return of the libido from the external world and its concentration in the body in old age sharpens the feelings and the centrality of non-verbal emotions. The body returns and thus claims its central place, this is how we can understand Cadmus’ and Theresias’s desire to take part in the cult of the god. And back to Penteus. Disguised as a woman, he climbes a pine tree in the vicinity of the carnival and begins to watch. He sees his mother Agave dancing among the dancers, together with the god’s maenads, with the priestesses and all other mortals. Penteus, amazed and bewildered, witnesses his old mother’s breast feeding wild animals, he sees the boundless sexual activities, the liberty and the joy everywhere but then he is caught and accused of being a voyeur. Seeing him, the women, his mother included, become murderous and bloodthirsty, they pull him down from the tree and tear him to pieces (dismember) him, Penteus in his agony cries for help to his mother, he tries to reveal who he really is, her son, but to no avail; she is mad with fury and would not hear him. Then, when everything calms down, Cadmus with his gentleness and his sensitivity, slowly brings his daughter Agave back to her senses and she realizes the horror. I.e. we witness once more that submission to the experience constellated with the Dionysian archetype, a submission to strong overwhelming emotions, to losing control, to intoxication to moments of madness, these are the very phenomena which preserve sanity. Repression and resistance on the other hand, sticking to the Titanic way of life expose man to Dionysus’ fury, to madness and to bestial violence.

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