Appear as a bull or many-headed serpent or raging lion to see.
–Chorus, Euripides’ Bakkhai
I have a confession to make: I almost never “see” Dionysos as human-shaped. (I suspect the same could be said for a few of our number!)
I can look at anthropomorphic images of Dionysos and say, “Yes, this looks like Dionysos.” Something in the feel of an image, something feral, seductive and gentle and yet immensely powerful, mad, and dangerous, will tip me off that it’s “Him.”
But in my deeper moments of ecstasis, it’s not a shape like mine that I see. It’s teeth, dripping blood, the rest of the face and body hidden in thick ivy and grapevines. It’s the Apis Bull, shining in gold and lapis or made of a galaxy of blue-white stars. Blindingly brilliant, immensely regal and exuberant in power, but never human. These have been the strongest visual experiences I’ve had of Dionysos.
It seems that animals and Dionysos are intricately tied–so much so that animals are almost always a part of Dionysos’ miracles, and emblematic of the apotheosis of the Dionysian Dead. We see this with Akoites and the Tyrrhenian pirates who captured Dionysos: when the pirates threatened Dionysos with physical harm, He made wild animals appear on the ship and drive the pirates off into the water. Only the helmsman, Akoites, was saved, because he alone could see that Dionysos was a God. (At Akoites’ behest, Dionysos turned the pirates into dolphins instead of letting them drown.)
Dionysos’ mainades hunted animals while armed only with thyrsoi and the raving ecstasy brought on by their God. When they captured their quarry, be it a wild deer or domesticated ox, they ripped it apart with their bare hands and ate the flesh raw, imitating Dionysos-Zagreus’ death at the hands of the Titans (and other mythical deaths). They knew that the animal they tore apart was inhabited by the Bull-God Himself, who gave up His life to ensure a deep, visceral unity with His worshippers. (We see a similar tearing-apart and consumption of symbolic blood with the process of crushing grapes to make wine, but that’s not nearly as dramatic and intriguing and terrifying, is it? Unless you’re a grape, I suppose.) The mainades could also nurture, though: just as the nymphs of Mount Nysa nursed the wild young Dionysos, the mainades could hold young wild beasts to their breasts and let them give suck.
Even with myths that ostensibly have little in them about animals, animals are always present on the sidelines: with Ariadne, there’s the looming specter of Her brother the Minotaur, the bull-headed son of Pasiphaë and the Cretan Bull. (Coindentally, I’m sure, the Minotaur was given the name Asterion, “Starry One.”) With Erigone, Dionysos’ beloved in Athens, there’s the dog Maera that led Erigone to her father’s corpse and helped set in motion the chain: Erigone’s suicide, the suicide of the young girls of Attica, the Delphic proclamation that Erigone, her father Ikarios, and Maera should receive heroic cultus, and the commemoration of her death during the Anthesteria.
Dionysos is shown riding leopards and asses; He is shown with bull horns and goat-footed followers; He bellows and stomps like a Bull, and in Egyptian mythology, He is associated with Osiris (whose member was, uh, swallowed by a fish, leading to some interesting taboos on seafood for Osiris’ priests). There is nowhere Dionysos goes where animals do not follow, appear, and even interact.
Our Animal Festival starts up on Wednesday. What animals do you see (or “see”) when you honor the Starry Bull? You may be fortunate enough to live near animals that have classic associations with Him, like bulls, donkeys, or even leopards. Like me, you may live in an area never colonized by the ancient Hellenes (even if there’s good evidence for Dionysos’ advent), and may have to find local associations for Him. Perhaps you see His nocturnal wanderings in the puma’s pawprint, coated by dew in the morning mud. Perhaps you see His stomping, Bull-footed dance in herds of bison. Maybe you hear His ecstatic cry of “Io, Evohe” in the call of a jaguar at night. You might even see His labyrinth in the winding designs of a spider’s web or in the story of a young girl, transformed into a deer, whose blood stained the white grapes red.
I have a challenge for you, Thiastai. Show your devotion to the Starry Bull and celebrate your local Dionysian creatures this week. Find out what one of them is, and make a mask of that animal. Wear the mask in your prayers during the Festival, or in your celebrations if you have a more elaborate celebration. Post a picture of your mask to the Facebook group, or send it in to us and we’ll post it to the Boukoleon.
And when you wear it, be prepared…you may see the God as the animal you have chosen.
Or you might see the God and His followers through the eyes of the beast itself.