Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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The Goat-Men of Syros



Lo, the fair beauty of earth,

from the depth of the winter arising...


On the island of Syros, the goat-men are dancing.


Achilles Among the Women


Syros, in the Aegean Sea, is perhaps best-known as the place where—in an attempt to avert his predicted, premature death in the Trojan War—the mother of Achilles hid her adolescent son, dressed as a girl, among the female companions of the king's daughter.

The ruse, though, was uncovered by the wily Odysseus, who—knowing full well that the Greeks would need the heroic efforts of the “best of Achaians,” whatever the cost—had laid out an array of mirrors and jewelry, with a lone sword among the display, as gifts for the women of the court.

Just then, an alarm was raised, as if the island were being attacked. Achilles threw off his veil, seized the sword, and rushed out to meet the supposed attackers. So his true nature was revealed, and his fate sealed.

But already the womb of the king's daughter had kindled, and so was born Neoptolemos, only-begotten son of godlike Achilles.



A Modern Dionysia


This week marks the third and final week of Apókries, Greek Carnival, a folk-festival that, while tied to the ecclesiastical calendar, has never—for obvious reasons—been fully countenanced by the Orthodox Church. As elsewhere, the celebration is characterized by immoderate eating and drinking, disguises, and public parades.

These days, secular Greeks tend to associate the wine-fueled festival with the god Dionysos, whose Greater Dionysia were also, in Classical times, celebrated in the Spring.

(I would hasten to add that, while there is no known historical connection between the ancient and modern festivals, one could certainly argue for a certain continuity of spirit between the two.)

But in Syros, it would seem, Aprokries is given to another god—or rather, goddess—altogether.


In the Lust of the Goat is the Glory of God”


Rocky Syros is an island of goats.

During the last week of Carnival, the young men of the island, masked in kid-skins, don furry black goat-herds' coats and goat-bells, and go out, wooden crooks in hand, to dance raucously in the streets.

The more vigorously that they dance, the louder the clatter of the goat-bells that they wear.



Awakening Persephone


The goat-men of Syros give us a key to understanding the meaning of a mysterious, if minor, topos of ancient Hellenic glyptic art.

On many vases, we find a curious scene: a well-dressed young woman rises from the ground, flanked by dancing satyrs.

In later painting, the figure is often reduced to a giant, well-coiffed female head, sometimes accompanied by dancing, but much smaller, satyrs, who frequently bear what appear to be mattocks.

(Later still, the scene is schematically reduced to female head with vegetation.)

Although, at first glance, the satyrs may appear to be attacking the head, in fact this is not so.

What we see here, in fact, is the Anodos of Kore: her Springtime arising from the Underworld. The mattocks of the satyrs have tilled for her the furrow that opens the way.


Call Her Spring


All over Europe, late Winter was (and is) traditionally met by raucous noise-making, and vigorous stomping dances, to awaken the sleeping Earth. The raw, male sexuality of the goat-men aids in the process, calling out to the deep inner urges of Her who is called Kore Persephone: the Maiden, the Nameless Bride. Call her, if you like, Spring.

Indeed, the Goat-men dance—still dance—all around the Mediterranean Sea and, in fact, across traditional Europe, most usually at the great seasonal festivals of the year.

As far east as what is now Pakistan, the Budálak—a young man in goatskins and horns—dances at the autumnal wine-festival of the Kalasha, the only Indo-European-speaking people who have practiced their traditional religion continuously since antiquity, to make the herds and women fertile for the year to come.


Whether or not the goat-men danced on the island of Syros in the days of Achilles, best of Achaians, we do not know. It is, perhaps, well to think that they did so then, as they still do now.

And lo: She rises.



Check out Anna Campion's evocative film, The Goat-Dance of Syros.

(But it's the pelvic thrust that really drives you insay-yay-yay-yay-yay-yane...)



Joy Coulentianou, The Goat-Dance of Syros (1977) Athens: Hermes Press








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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


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