Saturday, February 4, 2012

Dionysian Mysteries

La Jeunesse de Bacchus- William Bouguereau, 19th c.
We are all familiar with the traditional image of Bacchus as a drunken, pudgy, older man but this is actually a later tradition of the European Renaissance. Dionysus has actually gone through many phases from the bearded patriarch to an effeminate youth. In later Europe he was painted as a chubby trickster in the same fashion of his brother Cupid.
Antinous as Dionysus-  Roman, Vatican
The Mystery Cult of Dionysus actually allowed many different types of marginalized groups in society to mix together in revelry: men & women, slaves & aristocrats, Greeks & barbarians all found common ground in the great social equalizer- WINE.

Mystery religions in Greece usually had hidden meanings in their rituals and had secret initiations that revealed the true nature of their religion. The Mysteries of Dionysus held the hidden meaning of life and death through the symbol of the vine. The grapes would grow through its life cycle (the living, youthful god) and be harvested (symbolically die) and turned into wine (resurrected) and then imbibed in "communion" with the god (the same way that Christians have "communion").

The affect of wine was viewed as physical possession of the god, who was not only a god of the cycle of life, death, and resurrection, but also the god of madness, frenzy, and abandon. Wine and its contents also became a symbol of masculine "liquid fertility" as fertilizing seminal fluid. Other substances like honey, which was also mixed with wine, became part of this association.

Dionysus' other attributes included ivy and goats. Ivy was thought to counteract drunkenness because it blooms in the winter instead of the summer. The goat (and therefore its horns) symbolized Dionysus because they trimmed the grape vine, and wineskins were made out of goats' flesh.
Dionysus is also associated with many other gods and cults: Zeus, Zagreus (a sort of proto-Dionysus), Sabazios (a Phrygian-Thracian god), Orpheus (whose cult borrowed many things from Dionysus'), and later Christianity. One of the most parallel deities is Osiris in the Egyptian pantheon. Osiris was also the god of male fertility, wine, resurrection, and had a mystery cult similar to that of Dionysus. During Osiris' festivals they would have "sprouting Osirises" much like modern Chia Pets that symbolized the symbolic renewal of life as well as some phallic imagry. Passion plays at his festivals also were the precursors to the later dramatic festivals associated with Dionysus' public cult in Greece.

Sprout Mold in the form of Osiris
Dionysus's Mystery Cult finally included trance-like ritual that functioned much like a modern-day rave. Initiates would drink wine to facilitate spirit possession, play instruments with rhythmic beats that stimulated brain waves along with dancing that would combine to transport the initiates into a spiritual state. This type of ritual can also been found in other religions such as African Voodoo. The ultimate message was not just drunken revelry, but metaphors for the cycle of life-death-rebirth of both the body and the spirit.
Ankh Wedja Seneb
(Life Prosperity Health)

Leif Lauderdale

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