Before I begin I must make a disclaimer; I do not consider myself a member of the Thiasos of the Starry Bull, nor do I consider myself a Dionysian. I am before all else a devotee of Pan, and am therefore leery to step too deeply into a body of practices centered around another God. Nevertheless, I feel called to celebrate the Feast of the Dionysian Kings (a few days late, but better than never!), venerating in particular a spirit in my own pantheon who (barely) counts as a Dionysian King. (You’ll see how later, I promise!) I also feel called to share his story and my own understanding of him with the Thiasos in case there are others who wish to honor him. His name is Marsyas. (I pronounce it “mar-SEE-ass” but I believe “MAR-see-ass” is also appropriate.)
The story of Marsyas originates on the Anatolian peninsula where there was in ancient times a river named after him which flowed into the Meander river. According to legend Marsyas is a satyr, which immediately associates him with Dionysos and Pan. His association with Pan is particularly deep because he, like Pan, finds himself in a musical competition with Apollo. The wager in this particular competition is a little different though; whoever wins this competition can do whatever they wish with the body of the other. The homoerotic subtext of this is clear, I hope. Marsyas yearns to have his way with beautiful Apollo, and yet he loses the competition in all the ways that Pan lost the same competition. Apollo can sing while playing and play his instrument upside-down, neither of which Marsyas can accomplish.
When Marsyas loses this competition, Apollo takes him, ties him to a tree and flays his skin from his body. The flowing of his blood gives birth to the river that bares his name, and in ancient times travelers could go to a cave at the source of the river and see the hide of Marsyas still hung where Apollo left it. Both in antiquity and now many interpret this story as a warning against hubris, and it is. This is what happens when you forget your place and attempt to be an equal of a God. I, however, also see a being who yearned for the touch of a God and was torn open by it. I see an ally in the work of learning devotional and ecstatic practice, particularly those devotional and ecstatic practices that we modern folk call “ordeal work.” I see glimpses of Panic-Dionysian-Apollonian Mysteries which I cannot begin to understand. And so I honor this spirit, not exactly sure what he has to teach me.
At this point you are probably asking yourself, “Yeah, but what makes him a Dionysian King?” That’s a great question! Let me begin by quoting theoi.com:
In the fora of ancient cities there was frequently placed a statue of Marsyas, with one hand erect, in token, according to Servius, of the freedom of the state, since Marsyas was a minister of Bacchus, the god of liberty. (Serv. in Aen. iv. 528.) It seems more likely that the statue, standing in the place where justice was administered, was intended to hold forth an example of the severe punishment of arrogant presumption. (Böttiger, Kleine Schriften, vol. i. p. 28.)
So we see Marsyas’ statue both representing a warning against hubris and a symbol of liberty. In Rome he was particularly associated with the welfare and liberty of the lower classes. During the reign of Augustus (who worked hard to identify himself with Apollo), his daughter Julia held midnight assemblies in the Roman forum to protest her father’s rule and in these protests crowned the statue of Marsyas as her king. And so, Marsyas joins the rankes of the Dionysian Kings. I invite you if you feel so called to join me in the veneration of this satyr. In closing I have a short prayer written for Marsyas:
Blessed are you Marsyas, holy Fool.
You who were opened by the touch of a God,
Bless us who yearn to touch the Gods.
Teach us to endure the work of ecstasy
And lead us away from the path of hubris.
Matthew Gerlach is a Greco-Roman polytheist devoted primarily to Pan, living in the Detroit metro and learning his way around the Great Lakes region.