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Meet the Minoans: Dionysos
In the interest of giving equal time to both sides of the Minoan pantheon, I’m going to alternate between goddesses and gods in the Meet the Minoans series. Up this time: Dionysos, god of passion and parties. At least, that’s how most modern folks see him, but he’s actually far more complicated than that. Let’s take a look.
First of all, the symbols usually associated with Dionysos tend to be, shall we say, less than civilized. He is often depicted dressed in leopard skins (or panther skins, the panther being the melanistic or black leopard), accompanied by leopards or riding in a chariot pulled by them. His staff is the thyrsos, a fennel stalk wound round with ivy and topped with a pine cone. If he’s not in the mood to wrap the ivy around the handle of the thyrsos, he wears it on his head as a crown. He hangs out in the wild woods and caves with satyrs and maenads who like to have wild sex and tear baby animals apart with their bare hands so they can eat them raw. Not exactly a city boy, if you see what I mean.
Vineyards may be fairly civilized enterprises, but the grape harvest and winemaking are ancient sacred activities with a wild side. And wine brings on that most Dionysiac of states, drunkenness and uncontrolled passion, both joy and rage. In a ritual setting this amounts to sacred madness and ecstasy. A couple of interesting tidbits: Dionysos is the original miracle-worker who turned water into wine. And wine was used to represent his blood in Dionysiac ceremonies.
A deity of conjoined opposites, he represents the non-rational aspects of the human psyche at both ends of the spectrum, the god-like parts within us as well as our deepest animal nature. In other words, he exists beyond the bounds of the civilized world. But there is far more to him than just simple wildness. He is, ultimately, a shamanic god whose purpose is to help us break through the boundaries of the ordinary in order to experience the numinous. One clue that he’s more than just a pretty face: his many pretty faces. The legends tell of him showing up as a young man, an old man, a girl, a goat or a serpent. Very shamanic, that kind of shape-shifting.
Dionysos is called ‘the twice-born’ – in every version of the myths, he has at least two, and sometimes more, births, but these weren’t always conventional out-of-the-mama events. As the Greeks had it, he was the son of Zeus and a female figure, either a human woman or a goddess such as Persephone or Demeter. Diodorus Siculus said the Cretan version of the story is that he was born of Persephone/Kore who is a virgin (i.e., young and unmarried) goddess.
But Dionysos was also torn apart and then put back together again, a typical description of shamanic rebirth in tales around the world. (The dismemberment happens in his form as Zagreus; he’ll get a full post to himself soon.) Sometimes Rhea reassembles the torn-apart bits of Dionysos for him to be reborn; sometimes the parts are boiled before he is put back together again. He is also depicted simply traveling to the Underworld, where he stays for three nights before returning. Aristophanes’ play The Frogs has him traveling to the land of the dead to bring back a poet (Aeschylus) so he can revive Athens’ cultural life. In other words, if you want ‘born again,’ Dionysos is your guy. Joseph Campbell calls him ‘the ever-dying, ever-living god of bread and wine.’
Dionysos was born at Winter Solstice, a particularly sacred time in ancient Crete which is still the occasion of his festival in some regions. The modern Kukeri festival in Italy, Romania, Serbia, Bulgaria and Spain can be traced to ancient Dionysiac festivals and is a UNESCO protected cultural heritage event that occurs every January. According to some versions of Dionysos’ story, a star appeared atop a fir tree (remember the pine cone on top of the thyrsus?) at the moment of his birth. Whenever I see a Christmas tree, Dionysos is one of a multi-layered group of deities I think of. As with so many deities and pantheons, there is a great deal of overlap and echo/reflection among the gods. To me, it’s part of the multi-dimensional web that connects them (and us) all.
Hidden in a cave (Mt. Dikte on Crete was one location attached to this facet of his story) Dionysos was nursed by the Minoan goat-goddess Amalthea. Those goat-kids the maenads tear apart and feast on are symbols of the god himself, a type of frenzied communion. The maenads celebrated their relationship with Dionysos by figuratively or, sometimes, literally whipping themselves (and each other) into an intoxicated frenzy, dancing, screaming, and participating in the aforementioned feasting on animals they have torn apart with their bare hands. They dressed in animal skins and carried the thyrsus, just like their god. This kind of frenzy puts a person in a different state of mind, allowing them to communicate with the Otherworld – the gods, the ancestors. In other words, it’s a shamanic trance state. Drink, drugs, music, drumming, dancing, and similar activities are all traditional paths to shamanic trancework
You can see the Dionysian connection with Minoan religious practice in the maenads’ handling of snakes; sometimes they even draped them around their necks and wore them like jewelry. They sported not just ivy wreaths but also helmets in the form of bull heads. The snake-handling part makes me think of the famous Minoan female figurines holding snakes. I have the sneaking suspicion those little statues represent priestesses of Dionysos. In that case, the women would be ritually possessed by Ariadne and would work with the snakes as the embodiment of her consort, the Underworld aspect of Dionysos. A human-form goddess with the animal form of her consort was a common way to depict deities in the ancient world.
Ariadne…there’s another connection with Crete. Most people are familiar with the story of how she helped Theseus find his way out of the Labyrinth. Fewer people have heard about Dionysos discovering Ariadne on the Mediterranean island of Naxos, where Theseus supposedly abandoned her on his way back to Greece. In some versions of the tale, Dionysos tells Theseus to leave Ariadne so he (Dionysos) can have her, but I view this as a bit of apology on the part of the mainland Greeks, who didn’t want to depict their culture-hero Theseus as a cad. Regardless, Ariadne and Dionysos were partners – a divine pair.
Dionysos is mentioned by name in the Linear B tablets; I suspect the Greeks discovered him on Crete and liked him enough to import him into their pantheon. He’s the youngest of the Olympian gods but one of the oldest deities from Crete. Shamanic practice predates more ‘civilized’ religious traditions, so we can be pretty sure Dionysos will take us right back to the beginning. And that’s a good place to start.
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