My Own Dionysian King

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.

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10 comments

  1. Very interesting! I have a book on the art motif of Marsyas in Italy, and on Etruscan artifacts, which I haven’t read yet (I got it in 2010 while at Kalamazoo, at a particularly fortuitous used bookseller)…perhaps I should get on it, then! 😉

    1. That sounds intriguing to me, particularly since it is Italic/Etruscan and so much of the Thiasos’ focus is already on the Italian peninsula. Let me know if you find anything particularly enlightening in it!

  2. thanks for this. the story of marsyas causes me ongoing angst. i’m always trying to figure out ways of unpacking it, and this is a good angle.
    khairete
    suz

    1. You’re welcome!

      I’m interested in hearing more about your ongoing angst with his story. It is a deeply disconcerting tale, and can be interpreted as showing Apollo as cruel and petty. When I first thought I might be called to honor Marsyas as a spirit I was concerned about potentially siding with an “enemy of Apollo” and what that might mean. The longer I sit with the story though the more I see Apollo as an initiator figure.

      In general I am interested in the way the actions of Gods in (particularly Greek) mythology are characterized as “wrathful punishments.” Often when I go deeper there are local variants or different interpretations of the myths where the actions of the Gods are not characterized that way.

      1. Yes…that accords with how Artemis slew Aktaion, but he’s honored as a hero in some places, so apparently his disastrous knowledge/sight was not necessarily thought bad by everyone. (Or, alternatively, being Dionysos’ cousin had some perks, as it did with pretty much all of his cousins otherwise…!)

      2. hi matt, yes, the angst comes about from how hard it is to reconcile apollon’s actions with those of a god i consider (a minority opinion, i know) to be entirely good. i try not to be overly literal in my readings of myth, but sometimes it’s hard to get around bits that are this visceral and dive deeper.
        todd jackson gave an interesting perspective years ago when i was trying to unpack this one. i’m paraphrasing madly (it’s been a while!), but it was something along the lines of apollon saying ‘oh, well done, old chap! of course you’re not in my class, but for a mortal, you really did a bang-up job! so, you want to progress, and make the leap to get closer to me? let’s see, we could start by removing a layer of that which makes you so mortal. wait. what? that hurts? oh………’
        i’m with you, i don’t accept the usual interpretation of ‘wrathful punishment.’ certainly not in this case.
        khairete
        suz

      1. That could suggest, thus, that the greatest artists have the thinnest, or most non-existent, skins, then…!?! I don’t know if I love that idea or should puke…though sometimes that’s not a bad thing. 😉

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