Thursday, January 2, 2020

Dionysos, Miracles and Madwomen

In the search for miraculous phenomena we should visit the ancient cult of the Greek god Dionysos.  Nietzsche’s first book was about this god and the birth of tragedy. The very wild nature mysticism of Dionysos appealed to the young Nietzsche, no doubt bored by the pieties of his religious upbringing.
The cult of Dionysos was in fact a prolonged “Me Too Movement”; for the chief clientele, the god’s devoted base , were women. The new Dionysiac religion was a dance cult that attracted women disposed to cut loose from their ordinary reality, confined, tedious, and oppressed as it was. The sound of the flute was a call to uncoil and express themselves freely. And the ladies rocked!  All the pent up resentment triggered the nocturnal mountain dances that became increasingly frenzied.     

The peak of the dance rite was the point where the mostly women participants are in a state of ecstasis—completely out of their normal minds.  The group in an altered state makes possible an epiphany of Dionysos.  The ecstatic women, enthralled by the music and dance magic of Dionysos, acquire uncanny powers, physical and mental.  

Their behavior is weird and terrifying. With superhuman strength they tear trees up by their roots. They seize deer and leopards, rip them apart or suckle them. They are immune to fire and pain and poison, and will not be bound by chains. The rocks and the streams around them come to life and milk and honey commence gushing from the earth. Everything is unlocked, the hidden becomes manifest, the impossible rips into reality.

These orgies of ecstasy were ultimately healing rites.  The women were called maenads. Meaning something like ‘manically inspired.’      

Strange things happened during these collective frenzies. The following is a very early experiment in the parapsychology of religion.  The story is about what happened at a festival that celebrates a wine god and where wine is repeatedly said  to materialize during the festivals.  In one case, Walter Otto writes: “. . . three empty basins were put into a room in the presence of citizens and any foreigners who happened to be present.  The room was then locked and sealed, and anyone who wanted to could bring his own seal to add to the seal on the door.  On the next day the seals remained unbroken, but those entering the room found that the three basins had been filled with wine. Pausanias . . .  assures us that the citizens and the foreigners vouched under oath for the reliability of the report”.  This happened during the seasonal festivals of the wine god.  Otto continues:  “The most amazing miracle, however, was that of the so-called ‘one-day vines’ (ephemeroi ampeloi). These flowered and bore fruit in the course of a few hours during the festivals of the epiphany of the god.”

As for reactions to the Dionysiac Me Too Movement, conservatives found it problematic having to deal with ecstatic women dancers taking to the mountain trails, abandoning their normal subservient posts at home.  The more conservative Olympian religionists were not comfortable with a religion that encourages wives, mothers, and sisters to go out of their minds and perform miracles.  By Zeus! It’s all so utterly irregular!

Euripides’ great play was about this war between rationalistic male dominance and female rebels powered by a dance cult.  Called Bacchantes, it’s about Pentheus who wants to keep the maenads under control.  Much of the action consists of dialogue between Dionysos himself and Pentheus who argues that the maenads had no right to their socially disruptive and morally suspect ecstasies.  But Dionysos strongly disagrees; the god must be obeyed..

Pentheus attempts to spy on the maenads during their sacred dances; but they turn on him and tear him limb from limb.  This is capped by more tragic irony: one of the inspired madwomen who dismembers Pentheus is his own mother.

The cult of Dionysos began in the 8th century BCE and persisted in one form or another into the common era.  That long recurrent life of Dionysiac consciousness  served the needs of maenadic women whose creative potential was squelched to the point of exploding  

The question to ask today: how to liberate the miracle potential of women with maenadic dispositions? This seems like a topic for a new science of the future. Given the possibility of unleashing extraordinary transformations of nature, we should ask: are there enough maenads among us that can be enlisted in the attempt to accelerate human evolution?  Clearly, the dominant male shapers of civilization have bungled it, literally turning the planet into a hell on earth.  So perhaps the maenads of the world need at nightfall to scurry to the mountain top and dance with the god of indestructible life.  May they come back down the mountain and enlighten the spiritually retarded half of the species.

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