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Christmas with Dionysos

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

You’ve probably seen those memes that depict the many deities whose birthdays coincide with Christmas and whose attributes are startlingly similar to Jesus’. Please understand, I have no quarrel with Jesus, though I could do without some of his followers. He is one of a long line of gods who remind us that there is light within the darkness, that all cycles turn and renew, and that mindfulness and compassion go a long way toward curing the ills of this world. But he’s not the only one with those attributes, and in fact, he’s not the only one celebrated at this time of year, either, as you might have guessed.

Let me introduce you to another god who is born at Midwinter; perhaps you will enjoy his company as much as I do. He has much to teach, for those who have the patience to listen.

When you hear the name Dionysos, you probably think of an adult male figure (well-muscled, a bit hairy) cavorting with nymphs and getting everyone around him drunk and stoned. Yes, one of his aspects involves wild behavior and intoxicants, but that’s not all there is to him. He was once a tiny baby, born under very special circumstances. In fact, each year he becomes that tiny baby once again. Although a Thracian god was eventually imported into the Greek pantheon and combined with the Minoan deity to form a complex character called Dionysos, his aspect that we’re interested in began life on the island of Crete. This Dionysos is a shamanic god, a walker-between-the-worlds, and is possibly the oldest example of a fatherless divine child born at Midwinter, in a cave, surrounded by animals.

You see, the Minoan Dionysos is a child of the Winter Solstice. The earth-mother goddess Rhea, who has no consort, goes into labor in her cave on Mt. Dikte in Crete as the sun goes down on Midwinter Eve, working through the night to bring her gift to the world. She gives birth to him as dawn breaks on Midwinter morning.

His birth is witnessed by Rhea’s sister and alter-ego Amalthea, the goat-goddess, and when Rhea has to leave to attend to her responsibilities outside the cave, she gives her newborn son into Amalthea’s care, to nurse and protect him until it is safe for him to come out of hiding. In fact, he emerges from the cave full-grown at Midsummer, but that’s a story for another time. In the meantime the goat-goddess cares for Dionysos and gives him the connection with goats that will follow him into adulthood as he cavorts with the satyrs and spends his time in the forest with the wild god Pan.

In addition to the cave, Dionysos’ birth is also associated with the pine tree. I wrote earlier about the significance of trees at Winter Solstice and their connection with divine birth. Dionysos’ pinecone-tipped wand, the thyrsus, hints at the nature of the sacred birth tree that grew outside Rhea’s cave. The pine tree is especially important to Dionysos because it’s an evergreen; it reminds us that even though Dionysos dies every year in his shamanic form Zagreus as the blessed sacrifice, he is always born anew every Midwinter. In fact, in some regions he was later known as Dionysus Dendrites – Dionysos of the Tree – and certain trees were worshiped as stand-ins for the god.

Of course, Dionysos’ tree is the pillar at the center of the universe, down which he comes into this world at Winter Solstice (no chimneys for him!) and up which he travels into the Otherworld as he teaches and leads the shamanic priestesses and priests who are his followers. It is Dionysos who shows us the way when we practice scrying and other types of divination, and who reminds us that there is no end, only transformation.

So as you’re enjoying the Christmas trees that are such festive decorations this time of year, remember Dionysos in addition to the other deities the season conjures for you. And if you’ve a mind to, sit down quietly in a darkened room with the tree’s lights aglow, and picture yourself climbing up that tree to the star on top, which is the doorway to the Otherworld. Ask Dionysos if he’ll let you see through that doorway to the wonders beyond. If he says yes, you’ll receive a marvelous gift indeed.

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I'm an artist, writer, and lover of all things ancient and mysterious. The Minoans of Bronze Age Crete have been a passion of mine since a fateful art history class introduced me to the frescoes of Knossos back in high school. My first book was published in 2001; one of my most recent works is Labrys and Horns: An Introduction to Modern Minoan Paganism. I've also created a Minoan Tarot deck and a Minoan coloring book. When I'm not busy drawing and writing, you can find me in the garden or giving living history demonstrations at local historic sites.

Comments

  • Deborah Blake
    Deborah Blake Saturday, 27 December 2014

    Fabulous! I loved reading this. I hadn't heard this story before. Thanks for sharing it.

  • Laura Perry
    Laura Perry Sunday, 28 December 2014

    You're very welcome! Glad you enjoyed it.

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