Dance of the Maenad: Dionysian Mysteries

Dance of the Maenad: Dionysian Mysteries April 15, 2019

A Mystery, in a pagan sense, is a ritual that is not shared beyond participants, because the true meaning is something that can’t be put into words, only experienced.

The most well known of the secret rituals in Ancient Greece were the Eleusinian Mysteries, performed by the cult of Demeter and Persephone in Eleusis in their honor. But Dionysus, too, had his mysteries. And while they can’t be defined, naturally, they most likely relate to the state of blissful enlightenment that comes with the ecstasy of total surrender and release. Highly ritualized ecstatic magic is his thing.

Image provided by the author.

But who taught Dionysus magic?

According to Apollodorus (iii. 5. § 1.) he visited Phygris – now western Turkey – to be purified of the Madness Hera had cursed him with. Once he was healed by Kybele (also called Rhea), he learned the orgiastic initiatory rites.

From Euripides Bacchae 120ff:

“The Korybantes [of Kybele] with triple helmet invented for me in their caves this circle [the castanet], covered with stretched hide; and in their excited revelry they mingled it with the sweet-voiced breath of Phrygian pipes and handed it over to mother Rhea, resounding with the sweet songs of the Bakkhai; nearby, raving Satyroi were fulfilling the rites of the mother goddess, and they joined it to the dances of the biennial festivals (trieteris), in which Dionysos rejoices.”

Drums, pipes, dance, songs, sex. These are things intrinsic to ecstatic magic, therefore intrinsic to Dionysus.

Eventually he took all that he’d learned on the road to Thrace and beyond. He was one of many to be mentored by the centaur Chiron:

“Dionysos was loved by Kheiron (Chiron), from whom he learned chants and dances, the bacchic rites and initiations.”

Dionysos and Ariadne, photo by Jastrow via Wikimedia.

His role as a god of intoxication was to inspire, and that included inspiring visions or other oracular abilities. While the Oracle of Delphi is primarily associated with Apollo, Dionysus had his finger in that pie too. (Euripides Bacchae 300), and in Thrace (a pretty significant region of devotees) he had an oracle of his own (Pausanias. ix. 30. § 5.)  Think of it this way: have you ever been really drunk and had a startling moment of clarity that changes your entire thought process? Like that, but more undeniably psychic. Alcohol and other intoxicants encourage you to let your guard down, which makes you more susceptible to oracular insight.

Control must be surrendered to fully know the Ecstatic Mysteries. Letting go, as hard as it is in such a stressful and emotionally unsafe world, is the only way ecstasy can flow through us.


A Ritual For Ecstasis and Dionysus Mystes

It’s recommended that you put out an offering for Dionysus first- wine, honey, a candle, incense, or any combination thereof are solid places to start, but feel free to get weird. Personally I recommend listening to Dead Can Dance’s Dionysus album.

You should do this somewhere you can dance, and ideally with a fire of some sort.

Become present in your body by closing your eyes and bringing your attention to your other senses.

What do you hear?

What do you smell?

Feel your breath and follow it in and out.

Focus on your feet, then your calves; let your awareness travel up your body, up through your tailbone, your spine. Feel the energy flowing into you from the earth and out through your hands.

How does it feel?

Relax all the tension from your body. Consciously soften the knots in your neck, in your back, in your shoulders.

Release, fully.

We call to the Liberator.

Imagine that before you is a bridge.

Imagine that all of your burdens and insecurities and self doubt are tangible and in your hands. Perhaps what they look like is significant. Perhaps not.

Throw them over the edge of the bridge.

Continue to the other side, lighter and with a freer mind. From the banks of the river the bridge crosses, there is forest. You smell fire. You follow a trail of broken underbrush and the occasional footprint. You walk through the forest, aware of the entities and spirits weaving through the trees. Music rides the breeze from the end of the trail. You are nearing the bonfire, a circle beaten down around it from years and years of dancing. There is a sourceless laughter, so full of mirth it causes something to bubble up inside your chest.

Image provided by the author.

There is a tone, a sound deep inside you. It resonates in your bones.

Echo it aloud. Let it come from your core.

Release all the tension from your body. Allow yourself to loosen, to sway, to move.

Stomp the earth, yell, laugh, sing, hum, dance, trance; cast aside your inhibitions. Exist only in this moment.

Join the dance of the Bacchae.

About Hannah Savage
Hannah is an eclectic pagan devoted to Dionysus. Her practice is primarily focused on ecstatic trance, ritual, faery walking, and deity worship. She lives in Wisconsin with her ball python, Tehiri. Hannah is heavily inspired by the work of Brian Froud and her time spent living in Iceland. You can read more about the author here.
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