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DIONYSOS is included in the pantheons of the majority of Greek cities and is present at such very early festivals as the Apaturia, the festival of the phratries, and the Anthesteria, that of new wine and the assembly of the dead. The youngest of the Olympian gods, he is somewhat insecure about his divine identity because he was conceived in the womb of a mortal woman, Semele. His semidivine status may account for his consistent interest in mortals and wine drinkers. As the god of masks, Dionysos appears in many forms, but he most loves to disguise himself as a god of the city, posing as a political deity and expressing absolute power. He appears in this form at Teos, where the city and the territory are consecrated to him and where he has a magnificent temple. In the town of Heraia in Arcadia, one of the two Dionysian temples is reserved for Dionysos the Citizen (Dionysos Polites). In Patras, where he is promoted to the rank of tyrant and given the title of Aisymnetes, he is the magistrate in charge of giving every person his rightful share. His political career begins in the seventh century on the island of Lesbos. Here he appears alongside Zeus and Hera in the common sanctuary as the god who is an "eater of raw flesh" (Alcaeus, Fragment 129). Thus the keystone of this political and religious edifice is Dionysos's subversive character, expressed in his rejection of the sacrificial system of eating food that is cooked according to the proper order (roasted then boiled) in favor of omophagia, the desire to eat raw flesh. The most extreme form of omophagia is allelophagia, in which men devour one another, becoming like wild beasts and ferocious animals. Such behavior allows them to escape from the human condition: it is a way of getting outside oneself by imitating those animals least subject to domestication.

It is at Delphi, in the great pan-Hellenic sanctuary of the eighth century, that Dionysos presents the full extent of his influence. In partnership with Apollo, the most ambitious god in the pantheon, Semele's son dominates not only the assemblies of local gods but also the whole course of Greek religion. Although he is originally from Thebes, Dionysos can be found in two parts of Delphi: in the heights of Mount Parnassus, where the members of the Thyiads, "the agitated ones," gather every other year in the Corycian cavern to honor him in the secret liturgy of the trietēris ("triennial festival"); and in the sanctuary of the Pythia, in a tombcradle beside the golden statue of Apollo, where he waits in mortal slumber until his servants come to wake him and where the Pure Ones, the priests of Apollo, privately offer sacrifice to him. At Delphi, Dionysos holds himself aloof from the giving of oracles, whereas in other sanctuaries oracles are closely connected with him. But this is because at Delphi he forms, together with Apollo, one of a pair of forces who are alternative poles in a system open to all of the altars or sanctuaries they share. Apollo has his Dionysian side, just as Dionysos presents more than one Apollonian aspect. The close connection between them at Delphi is the culmination of all the alliances that link them together at other places and in other ways.

Dionysos and Apollo are particularly joined in Orphic thought and its theogonic discourse, which was wholly at variance with the official dogma of Hesiod's theology. The religious system of the city and of the world, Hesiod's theology categorically rejected the way of life advocated by followers of Orpheus, who renounced the world and sought to be saved by returning to the primordial unity that preceded diversity. In the succession of divine ages described in the Orphic theogony, Dionysos is at once the last ruler and the first. In the last age he appears in the guise of the child who is lured by the Titans with toysa spinning top, a devilish rhombus, and a mirrorand then slaughtered and devoured after being first boiled and then roasted (in breach of the normal order of the sacrificial ceremony). In being torn apart, scattered abroad, and broken into seven pieces, Dionysos experiences for himself the effects of the utmost differentiation, in accord with the process that began after the first age under the aegis of Phanes-Metis, another name for Dionysos. The primordial god of the perfect Unity, Phanes-Metis comes back at the end in order to return things once again to the beginning. In this scenario Apollo, even at Delphi, plays a role in the odyssey of Dionysos. Apollo buries the remains of Dionysos's murdered body at the foot of Mount Parnassus; shares the sovereignty of the oracle with Night, the primordial power; and, finally, becomes the Sun, the greatest of the gods even to Orpheus himself, rising to the summit of Mount Pangaeus in Dionysos's Thracian kingdom.

The success of Dionysos in Orphic theology reveals more than his ability to appear as the youngest of the Olympians and the oldest of the ancient gods. It demonstrates too his mystical calling, his natural tendency to rule over mysteries. In Ephesus, in the late sixth century, the philosopher Heraclitus denounced those who prowl in the night, in particular "magi, Bacchants, and mystics." It is sacrilegious, according to Heraclitus, for people to be initiated into what they dare to call mysteries. From the discoveries at Olbia on the shores of the Black Sea, we now believe that Dionysos first appears as the initiator in the sixth century, long before a Scythian king had enrolled in the band of Bacchus (Gr., Bakchos) in this same city, where he was fond of going for the aesthetic pleasure of living à la grecque even to the extent of becoming a follower of Dionysos. This initiation was already known to King Scylas (Herodotos, 4.79), who had already begun preparations for it when a prodigy occurred: his palace of white marble, struck by lightning, was reduced to ashes. Nonetheless Scylas went ahead with the initiation ceremony, during which he publicly played the Bacchant, staggering through the town with a band of revelers.

What Herodotos implies in his account of Scylas going through with the initiation (teletē ) is stated clearly in Euripides' The Bacchae in the voice of Dionysos. To Pentheus, who has failed to recognize his divinity and who will remain firmly entrenched in a ridiculous error, Dionysos, appearing as a stranger, recounts how the god introduced him to his rites, during which Dionysos watched him while he himself looked upon the god. In this mirror image, the initiation seems to denote an experience in which the Bacchant comes face to face with his god: he becomes as much a Bacchus as is Dionysos. The lord of the Bacchanalia refuses to reveal this experience to Pentheus; these are unspeakable things (arrēta ) that non-Bacchants may not know (1.472). At Cumae, in the fifth century, a similar formula prohibited entry to a Greek cemetery "save to those who have been initiated to Dionysos."

At Olbia and at Cumae, Dionysos obviously does not receive the official, public worship that so many cities practice during the winter months, when solemn processions are attended by the entire population. Sacred laws from Asia Minor clearly distinguish between regular sacrifices, in which a goat or even a large ox is offered to Dionysos in full view of the city, and more private ceremonies in which the priestess of Dionysos celebrates an initiation into the cult of the god who drives people mad, inciting men and women to raving lunacy. There is a difference between thuein and telein. The same holy law of the Miletians, in 276 bce, specifies that the rites of consecration (telestēria ) should be invested in the priestess, who can initiate people into Dionysos Bakcheios "in the city, in the country, or in the islands." These are the so-called trieteric mysteries, which take place every two years. At Miletus they were celebrated at the same time as the Feast of the Return, when the god, escorted by the priests and priestesses, came back and entered the town.

In more than 150 cities of Asia Minor and the islands, Dionysos appears in the guise of Bakcheios, the god of the bacchanalsthose who, like him, have become bakchoi. "Many are those who carry thyrsi; few are the Bacchants," according to a saying of the initiation masters quoted by Plato in his Phaedo (69c). To the initiate is reserved the experience of frenzy and possession, seeing the god face-to-face and sharing his madness and delirium. In the last golden tablet, a book of the dead unearthed at Vibo Valentia in Calabria in 1974, the titles mystic and bacchant are given to the chosen ones who go to the right, under the sign of memory, and take the sacred path that leads to the gods. Dionysos follows the same direction, from the sixth century on, to enter, via Iacchos, into the system of Eleusinian godsthe mysteries founded by Demeter on the fringes of Athens.

In connection with Dionysos the Initiatewho, under the name of Mustes, has a temple between Tegea and Argos (Pausanias, 8.54.5)we find esoteric practices and rules of secrecy. Near Mantinea, in a great ancient chamber known as the megaron, the honey companions (meliastai ) worship Dionysos, a neighbor of Black Aphrodite (Pausanias, 8.6.4). At Brysai, on the slopes of Mount Taigetos in Laconia, only women are permitted to view the statue of Dionysos, ensconced in an open-air sanctuary, and the sacrifices they perform are carried out in the greatest secrecy (Pausanias, 3.20.3). Males are also excluded on Lesbos, at Aigai, and on the island on the shores of the Atlantic described by Posidonius. The privilege of experiencing a private, face-to-face encounter with Dionysos or of being truly possessed by him is restricted to women, notwithstanding the violent objections of some modern-day feminists, who condemn the Dionysian interest in women as another way of oppressing them. The most unfortunate effect of this misinterpretation is to obscure the Dionysian union and its fundamental aspect: it is an individual allegiance that rejects kinship or feudal ties and, in the fluid form of the private thiasos, creates associations and communities independent of authority and outside the control of the state. If the mystical and mysterious side of Dionysos appears less clearly in the Athenian city-stateno doubt because the mystical pole there is called Eleusisstill it is a major component of Dionysianism in very many cities from the earliest times. Whether he resides in the center of town or camps on its outskirts, Dionysos is always the lord of dementia and of the ability to get outside oneself.

The popular tales of his coming and his manifestations describe, often in explicit terms, the favored modus operandi of Dionysos. It has to do with what the Greeks call the god's epidēmia: the tendency of a power to take up residence in one sanctuary and then switch to another temple and another country. Thus Apollo likes to spend the winter in the company of the Hyperboreans, making it possible for Dionysos to be "woken" by his priestesses, who proclaim his return. This is epidēmia in the sense of appearance or presence (parousia ) and not in the sense of contagion, which would suggest that Dionysos moves from one place to another like a contagious disease whose infectious source is located on foreign soil (in the country of the Thracians) and is responsible for the violent fevers that invade the healthy, vigorous body of the Hellenic nation. One need only peel the outer shell of legend from this picture, only recently revealed with the aid of a number of myths concerning Dionysian Thrace and the god's enemies, to uncover the reality of a very faithful history. The Dionysian parousia, as originally intended, presents two interlocking aspects. The god who comes is a foreigner and remains so, carrying within him the most unwavering strangeness.

Yet the opposite side of Dionysos, and his appearance vis-à-vis the other gods, is that he affirms through his disavowal that he is a god too strange, and too much a stranger, to be believable. In Greece, the stranger, as opposed to the "barbarian," belongs to the society of those who share the same blood, the same language, and the same gods, according to Herodotos's definition. Dionysos, indeed, is no barbarian god, even when his outrages smack of barbarism. Born in Thebes, in the town of Kadmos, he is a great god, the equal of Apollo, the oracular power known as Ismenios. Dionysos presents himself in his status as a foreigner in more than one of his Joyous Entrances. For example, at Patrae in Achaia (Pausanias, 7.19.79), Dionysos enters as an idol in a sealed chest, like a demon god classed as a foreigner, and is conveyed by an equally strange king, a prince stricken with madness for having looked at the face, the mask, of Dionysos. This strange team puts an end to an equally outlandish sacrifice in which the human blood of both sexes had to be shed, bringing forth a sickness (nosos ) in the land; the earth is diseased with punishment imposed by a cruel Artemis.

But the stranger who comes with Dionysos, instead of making himself a host and returning the gracious generosity seen in a feast like the Xenia, appears ungrateful to those who find him. The strangeness of Dionysos seems to imply that he cannot be recognized as a god at first sight. Thus he is obliged to offer a public demonstation of his divine power so that all people can see what a great god they have failed to acknowledge.

The appearance of Dionysos requires the revelation of Otherness through its exacting violence. There are those who do not know him and still slight him, doubters and those who neglect, scorn, or refuse to believe in or accept him. And there are those who are called on to persecute him, whom he has chosen to be his tormenters and thus the most striking witnesses to his parousia, once they have become his rightful victims. In Boeotia, in the city of Orchomenus, the daughters of King Minyas, absorbed in household tasks, pay no heed to Dionysos. But then the god, in the guise of a young girl, carefully encourages them to join in his mysteries. Suddenly, all three are entranced by Dionysos's metamorphosesthe girl disappears, and the god is a bull, a lion, a leopard. They watch in fascination as milk and nectar flow along the weaver's loom. Already they are caught in the web; wishing to honor the unknown god by offering sacrifice, they draw lots to see who will have the privilege of providing the chosen victim. The tragically elected Leucippe falls upon her own son and, with the help of her sisters, tears him to pieces in front of Dionysos (Antoninus Liberalis, Metamorphoses 10).

In Thrace, where Dionysos is also treated as a stranger, Lykurgos embodies the irreconcilable foe whose blindness compels the god, despite himself, to unleash the cruelest of deeds. Like a madman, Lykurgos brandishes his double ax, the pelekus, to kill Dionysos, not knowing that in Thessaly, at Pagasai, Dionysos is called the god of the ax, Pelekus. Lykurgos, hallucinating in his mania, turns the weapon back upon his own flesh and blood: he strikes down his children, whose living limbs, arms, and lopped-off legs appear to him as so many branches on a vine. This happens before the Edonians, incited by Dionysos, attempt to put an end to the fatal barrenness of their land by handing over their king to wild horses. The king is to be torn apart on Mount Pangaeus, where the oracle of Dionysos, like that at Delphi, will be erected. On its peak, Orpheus, the worshiper of the greatest of the gods, whom he names Apollo, is torn to pieces by Thracian women with a violence borrowed from Dionysos.

The stranger-god finds the full measure of his parousia in murderous frenzy, in the mania that leads to killing and to the spilled blood of a son torn apart by his mother, to children who are cut down alive by their father, and to father and daughter, such as Icarus and Erigone, losing their lives for lack of pure wine. Dionysos is truly himself only in unyielding madness, when the mania creates, through murder, a taint, a miasma, a sickness or pestilence. One must be cleansed of this stain; it is urgent to escape the plague, for in it appears the contagious power of those who fall into madness, which affects an entire town or even a whole country. In the mania of Dionysos is a taint that the god himself experiences in the course of his life (Apollodorus, Library 3.5.1). When he discovers the vine, Hera, his stepmother, breathes madness into Dionysos, dooming him to the wanderings of all madmen. Dionysos goes to Proteus, then to Cybele in Phrygia; at last he finds Rhea, who eases and puts an end to his nomadic delirium. Dionysos is purified, delivered from the taint of his madness. While with Rhea he learns the rites of his cult, and he receives from her his raiment, his Bacchus outfit, which he gives to Pentheus in The Bacchae.

The tales of his epiphany thus show how the worship of Dionysos, with its formalized mythology, establishes itself within the sphere of the purification called for by the insanity that the stranger carries. Dionysos the Purificator (Lysios) is the opposite side of the Bacchanal, the god who leads men and women astray in his frenzy. That he is a dual god is shown by his pairs of neighboring temples, at Thebes, at Corinth, and at Sicyon. The unclean madness that forms the basis of his cult is always part of him, however disciplined and civilized Dionysos may seem in the pantheons of cities unmindful of his fundamental wildness.


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Marcel Detienne (1987)

Translated from French by David M. Weeks
Revised Bibliography