Dionysos (Bacchus): the archetypal image of indestructible life. God of wine, theater, ecstasy, ritual madness
Dionysos who has been with us on the earth in the temperate regions of the earth since the beginning of last Autumn is taking his annual leave.
There were more representations in Greece (Magna Graecia) and in Italy of Dionysos in ancient times than of any other god.
In cultures so god-besotted, this is saying something.
The more the god’s cult expanded, the more kinds of followers associated with him: sileni, bacchantes, satyrs, maenads, niads, fauns, nymphs.
Two Fauns carrying a child, thought to be Bacchus, in a basket, 1513-1515, engraving. Marcantonio Raimondi, c. 1480-c.1530, Italian. Philadelphia Art Museum
And the ubiquity of the god undoubtedly has to do with this: Dionysos represents the mystery of the life and death of all organic matter: that life is an unbroken chain of being linking all organic matter. It is indestructible and it is fed by the death of that matter as that matter cycles, in their individual instances, from life to death.
Our lives exist in a continuum with that of all other life. Our experience of this life force, however, is interpreted and interrupted by our consciousness and our egos as individual, differentiated, special; and our deaths a catastrophe.
Dionysos seated on a panther skin with a lion. Both animals were sacred to him. Roman Imperial period, restored in the 17th century in Italy. Museum of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
Bacchus seated on a panther and carrying grapes. Marble. This figure is Roman, 1st-2nd CE and was extensively restored by Francois Duquesnoy, 1597-1643, Flemish. Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
Christianity brought new ideas unknown to the Ancients: incarnation, resurrection, life everlasting.
The experience of the indestructibility of life as expressed by Dionysos is an experience and a knowledge reached by individuals about their own lives and about life. This experience is incompatible with the central orchestration of belief and religious life as practiced by mainstream Christianity.
I knew from quite young that there were things I was not told. The Dionysos idea was among these. He did not fit into a conventional Christian upbringing. In fact, he did not exist.
A satyr abducting a bacchante, 1790s, terracotta. Claude Michel (called Clodion), 1738-1814, French. Philadelphia Art Museum
This omission has not been helpful to me because, even if some of the Olympians have passed completely out of our world, those which are archetypal images are not among them. Dionysos is one of these.
The emphasis on the promise of life everlasting – which is a matter of faith – without any mention of Dionysos and his rituals of accommodation to the real cycles of life and death of all organic matter was a disservice to us.
Called and not called, the god is present (oracle of Apollo at Delphi).
Nor is it that we do not know about this with our minds. Now. Kind of.
Bacchus and Nymph with a Child and Grapes, terracotta, c. 1790-1800. Claude Michel (called Clodion), 1738-1814, French. Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
It is that there was not- and in the main is not to this day – a process of emotional and spiritual accommodation to this cycle which governs us and all of life.
No human grief is less than any other human grief. But it is that the Ancients had an emotional adaptation to the reality of death that our ‘Christian’ civilizations do not have where death remains one of the great taboo subjects. Sorrow also. I regret this.
Looking about at the ecological peril to our world and at the degree to which we are expected to blind ourselves to horrors of all kinds, at the rampant addictions and psychosomatic dramas in our societies, I take it that it is to our peril that we have ignored him.
Dionysius, oil on canvas, 1949. Barnett Newman, 1905-1970, American. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Ecstasies and ritual madness in its communal Dionysian form passed from the West with Christianity. They exist still where shamans still survive. The practice of ritual madness might be useful in our mad and denatured world on its way to ecological disaster for everyone and economic disaster for a significant group of us.
Perhaps it is no surprise that Sigmund Freud, 1858-1939 , the founder of psychoanalysis and a pre-eminent interpreter of the human condition, requested that the urn in which his ashes lie be painted with Dionysian scenes.
Dionysos, a son of Zeus, by the mortal Semele, (or, variously, either by the immortal Persephone or her mother, the goddess Demeter) whose cult was known as early as Mycenaean Crete, is the archetypal image in our Western civilization of the indestructible force of unending life. His cult spread with and is intimately related to viniculture which is thought to have originated on Crete.
The indestructible force of unending life: not of the promise of life after death. Not heaven or the Elysian fields or Hades. But life on this earth and in our universe. Life that we can see all around us. Indestructible and never-ending.
This image is on an Attic red figure kylix (a bowl) dating to 490 BCE in the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Dionysos is holding the thyrsus, stem of a fennel plant, the top a pine cone, the whole a symbol of fertility, prosperity and love of life; greeted ecstatically by a satyr.
Dionysos is a metaphysical reality which our Western civilization at its foundation encoded in him: life feeds life with its own death; and that life stream is indestructible.
Sardonyx cameo with a Bacchic group. Hellenistic or Earl Imperial Roman, 1st century BC to 1st century AD. Metropolitan Museum, New York
Despite the sensuality that is associated with the god, all the cavorting, fainting and swooning that goes on around him, I have never heard Dionysos referred to as a god that is beloved.
On the contrary, his followers drank heavily and took mind-altering substances and spent their time in Dionysian ecstasies. Out of their minds.
Vodka of fennel seeds and stalk.
Dionysos and his followers carried a thyrsus: a stalk of fennel sometimes tipped with the head of fennel and sometimes with a pine cone, and covered with ivy.
Inevitable because which of us wants to die even in such an essential program as the continuation of life itself? We want to go on and on living and enjoying ice cream. Chocolate fudge and triple malt whiskey and the fragrance of lilacs in bloom in April forever.
This is also why the mask is a manifestation of the god. He is the god of the dramatic arts. So difficult a message requires the greatest communication skills and art.
A terracotta theater mask, 2nd century CE, found in a burial site at Medinet-el Fayum (Arsinoe). All such masks were a manifestation of Dionysos. In Egypt, Dionysos was associated with Osiris, the god of rebirth. Museum of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
Naiad (water nymph) with tragic mask, c.1920, plaster painted green and white with evidence of gold leaf. Alexander Stirling Calder, 1870-1945. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
The god arrives on the surface of the earth in autumn when Apollo begins to withdraw and the light leaves earlier and earlier and the nights grow long.
It is Dionysos’ followers who siphon the colours out of the natural world. One day in late autumn, you look out of the window and the colors have gone.
Damp Autumn, 2001-2008, oil on wood and historic frame. Howard Hodgkin, 1932-2017, English. Promised gift to the Philadelphia Museum of Art
The god’s disciples distilled those colours into delicious alcoholic drinks to sustain them through the winter.
Dionysian liquors: brandy of Buddha Hand citron and orange, whiskey of blackberries and sorrel, vodka of American black walnut.
Dionysos has his way of signaling his arrival in Autumn: the eye marked on trees; the circle which is the sign of unending life; the trace of the hand of a woodland follower of the god; sometimes a ‘D’.
Trees in the park at Winterthur, Delaware in the autumn of 2016
There are the mushrooms also: psilocybin mushrooms in fabulous colours which appear in the damp of Autumn. Some are very big. All of them make you very happy:
Mushrooms which appeared in October 2016 in the park in Winterthur, Delaware. The big mushrooms are of wood and are for children as play companions.
There is a belief that the god is ugly, hirsute, fat, unkempt, noisy and obnoxious. This is not true. The god is very good looking and somewhat androgynous.
Marble plaque found at Nemi, Italy. On the right is Dionysos. On the left a satyr. 1st century CE. Museum of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
This piece of marble sealed a burial niche in a tomb. The god Bacchus is on the left in a low chariot pulled by a centaur. The god is accompanied by satyrs and a lion and panther, sacred to the god. Late 2nd or 3rd century AD. Museum of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
A mask of Dionysos in his archaic form where he was always shown with long beard and long hair. Bronze, 1st century BCE-Ist century ACE. Thought to have been found in the sea off Mallorca, Spain Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
The maenads are among the few examples of self-actuated women in ancient times. The god’s cult was thought to have been spread and protected by women:
Marble relief of a dancing maenad, 27 BCE-14 CE: a Roman copy of a Greek relief which dates to 400 BCE. Metropolitan Museum, NY
Sardonyx cameos of maenads. British, 19th century. Museum of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
It is Silenus, the chief of the Dionysian band, the god’s tutor and his vintner, who is the ugly, ferocious one. Along with his band of happy drunks.
Silenus on a wineskin. A bronze reproduction of a figure made in Naples before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE. Museum of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.
Tin-glazed earthenware plate (maiolica) showing Silenus and Bacchic revelers with the arms of Isabella d’Este, 1524. Nicola di Gabriele Sbraghe, active 1520-1537/38, Italian. Robert Lehman Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
A painting related to Dionysian rites on a wall of a villa in Italy, 50 to 40 BCE. Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
Head of Silenus, 1st to 2nd century BCE. Marble. Museum of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
Worn out with drink and debauchery.
And the satyrs, half man, half horse are noisy and lecherous.
Marble statue of a young satyr turning to look at his tail. Roman version of the 1st or 2nd century AD of a Greek original of the 3rd century BC. Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
A maenad using her thyrsus to fight off the attentions of a satyr, c. 480 BC, a painting on an Attic red figure kylix in the collection of the Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich, Germany
Bronze statuette of a satyr carrying a wineskin and an inverted torch on the way to a Dionysian revel. Greek, 3rd to 2nd century BCE. Metropolitan Museum, New York
The goat-god Pan, half-man and half-goat, a half-brother of Dionysos, spent much of his time with Dionysos in revels. Marble, Roman, Imperial period. Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.
The god himself is handsome.
Which one of us would look at him twice, let alone have him persuade us that our deaths are necessary for life to continue, were he obnoxious and disorderly like Silenus?
Two views of Bacchus and a faun (half human, half goat), probably Milanese, c.1580-1600, bronze National Gallery of Art.
The god leaves the surface of the earth in Spring.
He withdraws as the sun grows brighter and the light stays later in the evening and Apollo prepares his arrival on the surface of the earth.
Apollo, the master of light and of everything rational and clear, and Dionysos do not overlap their time on the earth. They acknowledge each other at the change of season, Spring and Autumn.
In Autumn, Dionysos, whose arrival signals the plants to their winter transformation, first fills the landscape with the colours of the departing Apollo: yellows, golds.
Autumn, 2015 and 2016, in Delaware and Pennsylvania
And in Spring it is Apollo upon his return to the surface of the earth who enfolds the first flowers to emerge in Spring, Spring crocuses and Siberian squill, with Dionysian soft grey circles and rings the tall poplars, beginning to leaf, likewise with soft grey circles also.
Circles being the Dionysian symbol of indestructible life.
Spring crocus, February 2017, Winterthur, Delaware
Siberian squill, Winterthur Delaware, March 2017
Grey poplars, ringed, Winterthur, Delaware, March 2017
Apollo has arrived and Dionysos has gone with the arrival of the first bush to flower in the region of the world in which I live: forsythia. A bush dear to both gods.
Gold is a sign of Apollo.
But the form of forsythia is as as riotous as any Dionysian could want. Its branches and twigs grow any which way.
Forsythia, March 9 2017 at Winterthur, Delaware
The energies of Apollo and Dionysos, their personalities and ways of being are not compatible. They will not be together on the earth until our sun goes supernova on its way to becoming a brown star.
Then the life of all organic matter on earth will be done. Burned to a crisp. The earth also: perished into billions of smoke particles streaming out into the whorls of the Milky Way.
And life will continue, indestructible, in forms unknown to us mortals.
Ivy, grapes, fennel and the pine cone were associated with the god.