DIONYSUS, ‘The Twice Born’

Socrates describes qualitatively different kinds of ‘divine madness.’ Dionysus is the patron of ‘ritual madness’, which has four main functions= the first is wine as celebration and feasting that brings people to a state of conviviality, though it can also produce rage; the second is rituals involving uninhibited music and dancing which brings people to a state of trance-like spiritual and physical ‘organismic relief’ from all types of confinement; the third is the theatre, comedy and tragedy, which evolved from ritual and brings people to a state of catharsis; the fourth is death followed by rebirth.

The early Christian tradition used Dionysus as an ikon of Christ.

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Dionysus is arguably the most contradictory, and mysterious, of all the Greek manifestations of divinity. In reality, he was not Greek. He came from Thrace, and beyond there from Asia. He was recognized in Macedonia long before the Greeks admitted him. Homer is mostly hostile to Dionysus.. Dionysus challenges the whole Hellenistic ‘set up’ of the gods and goddesses of Mount Olympos. That he has a divine father and a human mother makes him a friend of humanity in some way impossible to the aloof Olympian deities. Yet he threatens human over-organization, falsity, artifice, and human self-manacling. To those respectable and smug, Dionysus brings terror; to those down trodden and disreputable, Dionysus brings a new and incomprehensible encouragement.

Name= “a runner in the woods.” Or, something to do with ‘trees’– maybe Dionysus is actually the mythological World Tree uniting the otherworld of spirit with this world of matter, space, time.

Karl Kereni equated Dionysus with Life, or ‘Zoe’ in Greek. In his last book, he called Dionysus “the image of INDESTRUCTIBLE LIFE.” The ‘Life Force.’ This Life Force is paradoxical. The most ‘alive’ Force of Life does not avoid death, and simply continue unabated; rather, this life in Dionysus embraces death, is killed and dismembered, torn apart, eaten up by titanic forces, and then comes alive again [reconfigured from his still beating heart].

Hence, Dionysus is ‘a dying god’ who is resurrected. Dionysus is Life-Death-Rebirth. He is ‘born again’, or as his title put it, The Twice Born.

Some scholars say Dionysus has two origins, which are entirely distinct.

[1] Wine as the fertility of nature= REVELRY. Celebrate life, at some other level beyond its petty concerns and endless constraints, in order to get free of all self-conscious fears, and so as to throw off every day cares.. Freedom from inhibitions that deaden life= sterile, stale, stunted life. Freedom from all that imprisons life, stopping its flow, reducing its potency, injuring its vitality, destroying its élan. Wine is called by one commentator ‘the medicine for misery.’ Life gets trapped in a prison house of small and crippling preoccupations and worries. Drunkenness, understood spiritually, is the attempt to ‘let go’ of all that diminishing of the life in us, so life can relax, expand, flow more freely again. Wine tells us life is good, against all the facts and figures that say otherwise, but its goodness is not easy to remember when so many factors contrive to corral the life force. We do not experience the full ‘force’ of life; we are half dead, more like zombies. An example of a Dionysically alive person, drunk on Life, intoxicated with Life, thus with a huge Life Force pulsing in him, was Zorba the Greek. In effect, no normal fetters can hold Dionysus. If you welcome his medicine for life reduced to a puny force, he gives you joy. If you disrespect his healing, you get his rage.

[2] The Mystery Religions= Ecstasy or personal delivery from the ‘everyday world’ through physical and spiritual RELEASE. An altered state of consciousness in which the person is possessed by a greater power. Dionysus entered into people, and at these times, the man becomes greater than himself, and becomes able to do works which otherwise he could never do. Getting into ‘Flow’ is Dionysic. Trance is Dionysic.

Whatever scholars may say, [1] and [2] seem necessary parts of a whole..

Through wine and revelry, and through religious ecstasy generated in wild rituals of music and dancing held at night, in uninhabited forests, mortals achieve a spiritual contact with Dionysus. The god enters them; they became not just like him, modelled upon him, but they are possessed and empowered by him. They became Dionysus. This was foreign to the Olympian gods and goddesses, who were always above and superior to mortals..

Therefore, Dionysus was the spark of divinity in the earth, in life, in the body.. Even when our life dies, and our body is ashes, a spark of the divine remains.. Dionysus signifies rebirth, because something divine indwells the earth itself, the body itself, life itself. THIS IS WHY LIFE IS INDESTRUCTIBLE.. Not because life is so wild, in drives and urges and impulses, compared with the puny reason. Only because the divine indwells the created and creaturely is it true that there is a Life Indestructible.. Dionysus transgresses the strict boundary between immortal/immortality and mortal/mortality.

Thus his ‘orgiastic release’ is two-fold= it frees us of material chains that blot out divinity, by granting a direct experience of divinely brought ‘freedom’, but it does not destroy the material, on the contrary, it indwells it and hence this release honours the flesh. The flesh is burnt away, like the melting wax of a candle, yet in another equally important sense, this is a transformation of bodily matter. Matter as prison is ‘broken free from’, we are released; but we remain in the body, yet a body transfigured by the taste it has been granted of divinity. Orgiastic release celebrates a different body, a body alive with Spirit; not the deadening, cramped body of restriction.

Dionysus is the ‘protector’ of the foreigner, the outsider, the mistrusted stranger= because he is seen in this exact way, as the dangerous intruder, during his travels. He goes as far as India, converting every place he visits to his religion, or fighting all those kings and other ‘dignitaries’ who mock. Dionysus sends madness to those who cling to reason, denying he is a god, and therefore denying the Dionysic mystery= that the earth, the body, life itself, can be deified by the indwelling within it of divinity. The genuine Dionysic ecstasy, or intoxication, demonstrates and celebrates that mystery, that Orphic Mystery, that central theme of the so-called Mystery Schools. “The kingdom of heaven is inside you” is a wholly Dionysic statement..

Dionysus is a god of ‘epiphany’= ‘the god that comes.’ Dionysus polymorphously unites divine, human, animal, because he appears in all modes. Whereas the Olympians are cold, forbidding, and distant, Dionysus lived with mortals, and concentrated on the earthly.. Olympic gods required temples, but Dionysus had no temple, and was worshipped in woods and remote uncivilized mountains.

Dionysic religion is about INCARNATION OF SPIRIT IN LIFE, in matter, in body, in natural process; it is not just about letting the innate ‘natural’ energies run free, by over-throwing rigid form/order/structure in order to achieve this. That is what Apollo versus Dionysus became in the modern West. Western Reductionism= Apollo personifies the cerebral aspects of humanity, Dionysus personifies humanity’s libido and its gratification.

PARADOX of ‘LIFE’= Dionysus is both grape vine and poison ivy. The grape vine itself must be severely cut back, and lay dormant in winter, before blossoming in spring. The Dionysic Festival is in spring time, but it emerges from the dying of the winter..

Not surprisingly, therefore, Dionysus was a communicant between the living and the dead; there is much focus in his mythologies on the dead. He was almost unique in being able to descend into Hades, the Land of the Dead= he did this to bring his dead mother Semele back to life. He was loved by women, because he is so obviously the spiritual enemy of patriarchy. He married Ariadne, the Cretan princess who had saved Theseus but then had been abandoned by him..

The maenads were themselves paradoxical as ‘wild women’= though they ate animals raw, as part of Dionysic ritual, they also suckled animals on their own breasts. They banged their fronds on the ground, and springs of water, milk, honey, wine, poured forth. An entire subtext of revolt against Hellenism’s upgrading of men – more celestial — and downgrading of women – too earthy — is tacit in such symbols.

In bringing divinity to mortal flesh, Dionysus is the advocate of the ‘common man.’ Where Apollo promotes the elite aristocratic individual, Dionysus comes to the gathering of the many. He favours the ordinary people in their nearness to the ground with its robust acceptance of life in the raw, and in their collective humanity.

Thus Dionysus is always ready to help ordinary people in need. But if you are one of the high and mighty who disrespects the sacred mystery he brings, the divine madness in which the divine enters the created and creaturely [the high coming down to the lowly], then he punishes you with ordinary human madness, real psychosis. In short, if you accuse Dionysic religious ecstasy of being ‘merely’ frenzy, obsession, mania, hysteria, then Dionysus sends that psychotic state to you, and you enact terrible crimes, not realizing what you are doing. Neither his revelry from wine, nor his trance from ritual madness, create destructive outbursts of untamed drives; but if that is all you see in these expanded states of the life force, then that is what you get sent upon your too narrow head.

For those too attached to ego control, and too given to order as the inhibition of energy, Dionysus just appears as everything chaotic, dangerous, unexpected. Yet the hyper controlled are the ones who go mad as a hatter, becoming what they fear. Ironically, it is the hyper up tight who become the only ones guilty of acting out the mad energy they so condemn in ‘unrestrained’ people.

Dionysus was known as, The Liberator. Only two deities had this title in ancient Greece= Eros and Dionysus. Apollo was never called by this name, nor were any of the other Olympian gods and goddesses.

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But the West has reduced Apollo merely to ethics and reason, ‘shaping’ things from above them; Dionysus is reduced to the productive, overflowing and mesmerizing power of nature which ‘carries man away’ from his law abiding mode of living, by overcoming his culturally conditioned resistances. This does no justice either to the ancient Apollo, or to the ancient Dionysus, but it is especially misleading about Dionysus. Once the divine spirit disappears, first from nature, then from human nature, the result is inevitably a paltry opposition in human psychology between constructed order as opposed to spontaneous energy, conscious design versus unconscious instinct, ‘civilized’ versus ‘natural.’ Nietzsche fell into this trap. Nietzsche on Apollo= “..that measured limitation, that freedom from the wilder emotions, that philosophical calmness of the sculptor god” [‘The Birth of Tragedy’, p 25]. Nietzsche on Dionysus= “Let us imagine.. the ecstatic tone of the Dionysian festival sounded in ever more luring and bewitching strains, ..how in these strains all the ‘undueness’ of nature, in joy, in sorrow.. became audible..” [ibid, p 41].

This Western dialectic of ‘Tame Form versus Wild Energy’ is false to the meaning of Dionysus, because it leaves out the divine spirit, the spark of divinity, which he plants in the wild, to change the tame.

The tame is really our human attempt to wall in our life to protect ourselves, and the premise of this walled or armoured state is that no divinity exists, and certainly no divinity exists who can enter us, changing and transforming our very physicality. The over controlled and over controlling King Penthius has no divinity in his experience; he has to be a tin pot god, trying to run the show, to ‘preserve’ himself. Thus he distrusts the titanic forces of nature, and of God, and their reflection in himself.

Tame Form versus Wild Energy is a division which King Penthius generates by virtue of having no link with God. Dionysus turns this split back on its author, forcing the rational people to taste the ever brewing frenzy in themselves they block off by being rational in the wrong way. The wrong order creates the wrong energy.. Dam the water wrongly and the water will inevitably break the dam, wrongly inundating the land, drowning everything in its path.. Dionysus opposes both sides of this very Western split. Dionysus is not the latter, which is merely the shadow of the former. Dionysus overturns the entire split.

The Way of ‘self-mastery’, symbolized by the monastery high up a treeless mountain near the sky, has its own validity..

However, falling in love with Life, and putting all your eggs in the basket of Life, not hoping in anything beyond Life, is where the Dionysic begins. You reject any spirit, or spirituality, denuded of Life. You reject ‘pure’ spirit, or spirituality, that can only operate beyond Life. Dionysus tells us, trust Life, stay with Life. Our future, his oracle tells us — Dionysus shared the Delphic Oracle with Apollo — is with Life.

The Dionysic Way, its yoga or yoke of discipline, is two-fold. [1] Immerse in Life, with all its vicissitudes. [2] Stay in it, see it through without withdrawing, however puzzling that we must drink in the bitter lemons and the sweet oranges. Life is alive in living and in dying, for Dionysic Life is twice-born, it travels from Life to Death to Rebirth. A three-fold series of steps. Like the Cross, Descent into Hell, Resurrection.

Wherever 3 is the sacred number, not 4, we are in the Daemonic.. Eros is 4, the Daemonic is 3. Dionysus is not just Life; not even just Life and Death, in polarity, as a yang-yin. Dionysus is Life, Death, Rebirth, Born Again, Twice Born.

Trust Life. Go with Life.

The Dionysic Mystery is therefore the substrate, the living substance, of the Christian Mystery. Not removal to heaven. Life alive, dead, resurrected, restored to the earth. Dionysus, like Christ, honoured women. This masculine fire is ‘through’ the feminine valley..

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The onrush of Life rises, ceases, returns, in time. Dionysus has no spaciousness filled by a plenitude of gifts, riches, colours, subtleties; Dionysus is the rhythm of Life in time. Life has the Dionysic vigour needed to sustain the long journey and battle down through all of time. The Life Force comes, goes, returns, in each moment of time.

Life is ‘right’ before any questions of right and wrong, of moral choice, ever arise. The Life in the body is deeply right, just as it is, without straining to become anything more. The pith and the juice of Life, deeply right. The marrow and the bone, the blood and the sweat, the tears and the belly laugh, deeply right. The spit and the smells and the excretions, deeply right. The breath that goes out and comes in, deeply right.

To doubt Life itself, to reject the pulsing Life, the throbbing membrane, the beating drum of the heart, is to injure the vehicle of existing. You need the vehicle before you can go anywhere with it, or do anything with it.

With Eros, the ego is subjected to transcendent forces in a network, like the stars in their kosmic dimensions bearing down upon the world and re-ordering its egoic separateness in a larger perspective of unity. With Dionysus, the ego is subjected to the body, and the ego’s pretense of being better than the body is ruthlessly attacked, the ego is humbled by the bodily life, made to surrender to the irrational rhythms, drowned in its fast flowing currents. The ego dies, swept away and consumed. This dying is to reconnect with the body and with the Life that fills it and passes through it, the Life it contains without being able to possess it.

The Dionysic is not mystical opening out, and up, but is the reverse ex-stasis, the ecstasy of contraction in time to the moment in time when Life is happening, and must happen again and again. This Life wells up from below, it has underworld roots; it is nailed to this exact patch of earth because it is here that the now of the pulsing, throbbing, drumming, heart takes its stand.

Dionysus, in Life, for the sake of Life.

Dionysus paves the way for the wine of Holy Communion which is at the same time Christ’s blood shed on the Cross.

Dionysus, blessed and accursed, for Life.

Dionysus, alive and killed, for Life.

Dionysus, flayed and reborn, for Life.

Dionysus, separated from himself to return all things to Life.

Dionysus, the paradox, the contradiction, of the reversal needed to plant Spirit in earth and earth in Spirit.

Dionysus, the anticipation of the dark Christ.