52:08 Dionysus, Lord of Life
This wonderful wine bowl from the mid-sixth-century BCE shows Dionysus as the Lord of Life, the originary matrix from which life springs. He is nestled in the heart of the Tree of Life, or flanked by a symmetrical pair of trees or vines, which are ornamented by a grasshopper, birds, and a serpent (visible as a meandering line under the crown of the left trunk).
Dionysus, or Bacchus, is a complex divinity associated with transgression and the mediation of opposites, as well as ecstasy, frenzy, and epiphany. The legendary rites associated with his worship deal in surrender to enthusiasm and the unconscious.
An Orphic hymn to Dionysus, beautifully translated by Athanassakis and Wolkow in their The Orphic Hymns, reads as follows:
I call upon loud-roaring,
primeval, two-natured lord,
savage, ineffable, secretive,
two-horned and two-shaped,
warlike, howling, pure.
You take raw flesh in triennial feasts,
wrapped in foliage, decked with grape clusters,
immortal god sired by Zeus
when he mated with Persephone
in unspeakable union.
Hearken to my voice, O blessed one,
you and your fair-girdled nurses,
breathe on me in a spirit of perfect kindness.
Dionysus was worshiped by mystery cults in which worshipers identified his divine nature with themselves. Dionysus, alone of the Greek gods, took possession of revelers during their rites – this practice bequeathed us the English word enthusiasm, derived from the Greek enthousiasmos, meaning “possessed by a god.”
Images of Dionysus made popular adornments for the interior of wine bowls such as this. The image would have become visible as wine was drained throughout the course of a symposium. It’s truly an ingenious use of imagery – as intoxication dawned, it was amplified into its cosmic sense by the gradual epiphany of the deity.
In its depths, this epiphany is of a type with the core mythological image of deity as the ultimate ground of life and consciousness, antecedent to the pairs of opposites by which phenomenal reality is always structured by conceptual awareness. So we have the deity residing within the heart of life itself, a Tree of Life branching forth into duality.
In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche interpreted the character of Dionysian consciousness as the creative impulse which transcends the principium individuationis, the individuating principle that divides and orders experience into a sensible collection of distinct impressions and ideas. Prior that cognitive act of differentiation and ordering lies a buzzing, blooming confusion that is ineffable, but closer to the heart of life. The creative overflow of the Dionysian frenzy and rupture violates boundaries, and exposes an underlying unity between consciousness and nature.
No doubt Dylan Thomas had something like this in mind when wrote:
The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.
In her Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, which remains one of the most thought-provoking and insightful essays on ancient Greek religious culture, Jane Ellen Harrison noted the lack of religious feeling and awe that attended the Olympian Gods in the post-Homeric world of classical Athenian Greece, in the time of Pericles and the great tragedians.
As man grew more civilized, his image, mirrored in the gods, grew more beautiful and pari passu the worship he offered to these gods advanced from ‘aversion’ to ‘tendance’. But all along we have been conscious that something was lacking, that even these exquisite presentations of the Nymphs and the Graces, the Mother and the Daughter, are really rather human than divine, and their ritual, whether of ignorant and cruel ‘aversion’ or of the genial ‘tendance,’ was scarcely in our sense religious. These perfect Olympians and even those gracious Earth-goddesses are not really Lords over man’s life who made them, they are not even ghosts to beckon and threaten, they are lovely dreams, they are the playthings of his happy childhood, and when full-grown he comes to face realities, from kindly sentiment he lets them lie unburied in the lumber-rooms of this life.
Just when Apollo, Artemis, Athene, nay even Zeus himself, were losing touch with life and reality, fading and dying of their own luminous perfection, there came into Greece a new religious impulse, an impulse really religious, the mysticism that is embodied for us in the two names of Dionysus and Orpheus. (363-4).
There are two observations here, one historical and one psychological. The historical claim, which goes back to Herodotus, is that Dionysus was a late arrival who entered the Greek cultural landscape from outside, perhaps from Egypt, where his worship resembles the cult of Osiris (Histories, 2.81), or Thrace (Histories, 5.7). We must reject this hypothesis, for we now know that Dionysus was attested in Bronze Age Linear B tablets from Pylos. His cult worship may have been practiced in Greece and Minoan Crete as early as 1500 BCE (see, for example, Walter Burkert’s Greek Religion, 161 ff.).
The psychological observation remains persuasive. The classical Greek mind may have venerated the Homeric deities, but it regarded the mystery cults of Dionysus with the proper sense of awe – the mysterium tremendum of Rudolf Otto – that characterizes a genuine and deeply-felt religious experience.
The symbolism in this painted vase is of great interest to the comparativist. Writing of the cosmic tree in his classic study of Shamanism, Mircea Eliade observes the wide distribution of the Tree of Life motif, and especially of the importance of the cosmological tree associated with the eagle and the snake, which is found throughout central and northern Asia, and may ultimately derive from the Orient (Shamanism; Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, pp. 272-3).
Dionysus is strongly associated with the bull – see, for example, the Orphic Hymn quoted above. The worship of mystery gods associated with epiphany, as well as with the serpent and the tree, is widely known throughout Asia, the Near East, and the Mediterranean of the Bronze and Iron Age.
For example, Dionysus has frequently been compared to the Hindu god Shiva, the great yogi deity frequently paired with Nandi the bull, his yana or mount. Shiva is likewise associated with the bull, the moon, the serpent, and the recognition of one’s own consciousness as the non-dual ground of life.
In a previous post we looked at an interesting depiction of Shiva as a uniting sign who mediated pairs of opposites, and who was figured as the base of the cosmic tree – in that case, the bodhi tree, the tree of illumination under which the Buddha sat when he awoke to his own cosmic Buddha consciousness.
These related sets of symbols begin to form clusters of associations that we can recognize. We see a set of deities linked to the bull, the cosmic tree, and the non-dual ground from which life and death emerge.
That these images were formulated in a common geographical zone of trade, conquest, and cultural exchange cannot be overlooked. These two panels show below, for example, are drawn from a superb painted terracotta from Bactria in the third century CE, now at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. We see Zeus on the left, and Shiva on the right.
In looking at the Lord of Life associated with epiphany and the cosmic tree, we would of course be remiss in neglecting the obvious influence of all this on Christianity. In the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, written in the first century CE, Jesus clearly occupies the comparable role of an initiatory figure who directs his disciples to recognize their own divinity. Take, for example:
Jesus said, “If your leaders say to you, ‘Look, the kingdom is in heaven,’ then the birds of the heaven will proceed you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather the kingdom is inside you and it is outside you.
“When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you dwell in poverty, and you are poverty.” (Gospel of Thomas 3-4, from The Nag Hammadi Scriptures, Meyer et al., 2007).
The teachings of Jesus as presented by Thomas, so Indian in religious character, probably deserve their own post at some point. In the apocryphal Acts of Thomas, we are in fact told that Thomas traveled to India and taught there. Not only that, but when Portuguese missionaries traveled to India in the 16th century, they discovered to their amazement a native Christian tradition there, and its representatives claimed it was established by Thomas. The San Thome Basilica was built over the traditional tomb of Thomas in Chennai, and may be visited to this day.
Elaine Pagels makes a fascinating argument that the Gospel of John was largely a polemic against the Gospel of Thomas, and was highly successful in excluding it from the canon. John, after all, is the only gospel to include the story of “doubting Thomas,” which appears to be a caricature of the Thomistic doctrine that individuals can have direct experience of divinity, unmediated by Christ. Hence Doubting Thomas had to see Christ’s wounds for himself, in order to believe.
Within the canonical gospels, it is almost too obvious to point out that the Cross is the Tree of Life from which springs forth the wine of eternal life. In John 15 we have “I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.”