I’m sure many of you are familiar with Many Gods West*, the Polytheist gathering taking place early next month. Last year during my visit there I talked about Wicca as a polytheistic practice, this time around I’ll be leading a ritual in honor of Dionysus with my wife. I had no intention of going this year until asked by festival organizer Niki Whiting, long story short Ari and I head out to Washington at the crack of dawn next Friday.
Rituals for Dionysus are kind of old hat in my life, and I’ve lead a lot of them over the last fifteen years. Sometimes they were completely Hellenic in nature, and represented my attempt to piece together a public Dionysus ritual through academic sources. (During that process I intentionally didn’t look at the work of others attempting something similar, and was surprised to find that the attempts of others were similar to my own.) Often times though, they were Dionysian Jim Morrison rituals, where we honored the god through wine and the music of The Doors. I’m sure there are some purists horrified by the latter, but I’ve had supremely meaningful experiences with Dionysus when coupled with Morrison’s poetry.
I used to think of myself as somewhat of Hellenic Re-constructionist, but more accurately I’m probably a Hellenic Re-imaginist. I like being inspired by the past, but I’m certainly not wedded to it. I’ve always seen the worship of deity as a continual, organic, and ever expanding process. My conception of Dionysus has been directly influenced by modern ideas and images of the god. And as a believer in agency I have to assume that the continual evolution of Dionysus in poetry and art is something that he approves of. For me deity has never been a fixed thing. People change over the years, why not deity over the centuries?
One of my problems with strict Hellenic Re-construction is that it only captures a minute part of the deity being worshipped/honored. This is especially true of Dionysus who had both a public and a private cult. In Greek Religion, Walter Burkert writes about just how private (and unknown) worship of Dionysus could (and can) be:
“Dionysos is the god of the exceptional. As the individual gains in independence, the Dionysos cult becomes a vehicle for for the speration of private groups from the polis. Alongside public Dionysiac festivals there emerge private Dionysos mysteries. These are esoteric, they take place at night; access is through an individual initiation, telete . . . . In contrast to the mysteries of Demeter and the Great Gods, these mysteries are no longer bound to a fixed sanctuary with priesthoods linked to resident families; they make their appearance wherever adherents can be found. This presupposes a new social phenomenon of wandering priests who lay claim to a tradition of orgia transmitted in private succession. -Burkert, Greek Religion, page 291
The idea of a wandering Dionysiac priesthood is exciting, and yet also hints broadly at the unknown. We will never know much of what that priesthood taught or expressed; we will never know their Dionysus.
Over the centuries (and millennia) Dionysus has been worshipped (and by extension perhaps conceived or revealed) in a variety of different ways. To some of the Orphics he was the key to a true life beyond the grave, a view of Dionysus generally overlooked today. We have some idea of what went on in the Orphic (and Dionysian) mysteries, but they remain mostly mysterious. Part of why I like to think of myself as a Re-imaginist is because I love the idea of trying to recreate such thing, using historical sources as well as my own ideas. There’s no reason I too can’t be one of his wandering priests (all while knowing I don’t speak for him in any exclusive way).
The Christian Era was not especially kind to Dionysus and his kin, but they continued to exist within it, worshipped in form if not in deed. The Italian Renaissance brought the Gods of Olympus back to Earth (not that they ever really left) where they were used to articulate ideas that Christianity refused to express. (It’s hard to use Yahweh or Jesus to represent sexuality.) The love of Dionysus and Ariadne was again celebrated in art and poetry, and it was full of the joy and wonder that all who know love cherish. Lorenzo De Medici (1449-1492) wrote of them “burning for each other” and how their presence made others “full of happiness forever.”
It’s not worship in the Modern Pagan sense, but it does show the continual evolution and reinvention of the god. (Something that I believe he had a hand in.) He may not have had gotten his temples back in the year 1500 but he burned in people’s hearts even if they weren’t specifically uttering their prayers with his name upon their lips. Annibale Caracci’s (1560-1609) painting of their nuptials (above) has the title “The Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne,” and this period is also a part of his story even if it’s not quite as triumphant as we might like.
For me Dionysus has always been at his most triumphant in the music of the American rock band The Doors. I’ve been publicly chastised for this in public (and on this blog) but for me there’s nothing more primally-Pagan than the music of the Doors. Our attempts to recreate the music of Ancient Greece are fine and all, but they don’t resonate with me like the first Doors album, and why should they? I’m a child of the 20th Century, it’s insane to me to think that deity wouldn’t utilize modern means to get in touch with us. (And really if you were to ask me what a private Dionysus initiation sounded like I’d respond with The End by The Doors.)
I love experiencing my deities as they were worshipped in the past, but they most resonate with me because they inhabit many different worlds. They live in the past, present, and future. Modern conceptions of Dionysus are just as valid as those subscribed to 500 and 2500 years ago, and they all have something to teach us.
*Many Gods West, the most over-spoken about Pagan Festival Ever! Don’t worry, I make this joke with the organizers.