2. He had once been subservient to the Moon-goddess Semele (see 14. 5) – also called Thyone, or Cotytto (see 3. 1) – and the destined victim of her orgies. His being reared as a girl, as Achilles also was (see 160. 5), recalls the Cretan custom of keeping boys ‘in darkness’ (scotioi), that is to say, in the women’s quarters, until puberty. One of his titles was Dendrites, ‘tree-youth’, and the Spring Festival, when the trees suddenly burst into leaf and the whole world is intoxicated with desire, celebrated his emancipation. He is described as a horned child in order not to particularize the horns, which were goat’s, stag’s, bull’s, or ram’s according to the place of his worship. When Apollodorus says that he was disguised as a kid to save him from the wrath of Hera – ‘Eriphus’ (‘kid’) was one of his titles (Hesychius sub Eriphos) – this refers to the Cretan cult of Dionysus-Zagreus, the wild goat with the enormous horns. Virgil (Georgics ii. 380–84) wrongly explains that the goat was the animal most commonly sacrificed to Dionysus ‘because goats injure the vine by gnawing it.’ Dionysus as a stag is Learchus, whom Athamas killed when driven mad by Hera. In Thrace he was a white bull. But in Arcadia Hermes disguised him as a ram, because the Arcadians were shepherds, and the Sun was entering the Ram at their Spring Festival. The Hyades (‘rain-makers’) into whose charge he gave Dionysus, were renamed ‘the tall’, ‘the lame’, ‘the passionate’, ‘the roaring’, and ‘the raging’ Ones, to describe his ceremonies. Hesiod (quoted by Theon: On Aratus 171) records the Hyades’ earlier names as Phaesyle (? ‘filtered light’), Coronis (‘crow’), Cleia (‘famous’), Phaeo (‘dim’), and Eudore (‘generous’); and Hyginus’s list (Poetis Astronomy ii. 21) is somewhat similar. Nysus means ‘lame’, and in these beer orgies on the mountain the sacred king seems to have hobbled like a partridge – as in the Canaanite Spring Festival called the Pesach (‘hobbling’ – see 23. 1). But that Macris fed Dionysus on honey, and that the Maenads used ivy-twined fir-branches as thyrsi, records an earlier form of intoxicant: spruce-beer, laced with ivy, and sweetened with mead. Mead was ‘nectar’, brewed from fermented honey, which the gods continued to drink in the Homeric Olympus.
3. J. E. Harrison, who first pointed out (Prolegomena ch. viii) that Dionysus the Wine-god is a late superimposition on Dionysus the Beer-god also called Sabazius, suggests that tragedy may be derived not from tragos, ‘a goat’, as Virgil suggests (loc. cit.), but from tragos, ‘spelt’ – a grain used in Athens for beer-brewing. She adds that, in early vase-paintings, horse-men, not goat-men, are pictured as Dionysus’s companions; and that his grape-basket is, at first, a winnowing fan. In fact, the Libyan or Cretan goat was associated with wine; the Helladic horse with beer and nectar. Thus Lycurgus, who opposes the later Dionysus, is torn to pieces by wild horses – priestesses of the Mare-headed goddess which was the fate of the earlier Dionysus. Lycurgus’s story has been confused by the irrelevant account of the curse that overtook his land after the murder of Dryas (‘oak’); Dryas was the oak-king, annually killed. The trimming of his extremities served to keep his ghost at bay (see 153. b and 171. i), and the wanton felling of a sacred oak carried the death penalty. Cotytto was the name of the goddess in whose honour the Edonian Rites were performed (Strabo: x. 3. 16).
4. Dionysus had epiphanies as Lion, Bull, and Serpent, because these were Calendar emblems of the tripartite year (see 31. 7; 75. 2, and 123. 1). He was born in winter as a serpent (hence his serpent crown); became a lion in the spring; and was killed and devoured as a bull, goat, or stag at midsummer. These were his transformations when the Titans set on him (see 30. a). Among the Orchomenans a panther seems to have taken the serpent’s place. His Mysteries resembled Osiris’s; hence his visit to Egypt.
5. Hera’s hatred of Dionysus and his wine-cup, like the hostility shown by Pentheus and Perseus, reflects conservative opposition to the ritual use of wine and to the extravagant Maenad fashion, which had spread from Thrace to Athens, Corinth, Sicyon, Delphi, and other civilized cities. Eventually, in the late seventh and early sixth centuries B.C., Periander, tyrant of Corinth, Cleisthenes, tyrant of Sicyon, and Peisistratus, tyrant of Athens, deciding to approve the cult, founded official Dionysiac feasts. Thereupon Dionysus and his vine were held to have been accepted in Heaven – he ousted Hestia from her position as one of the Twelve Olympians at the close of the fifth century B.C. – though some gods continued to exact ‘sober sacrifices’. But, although one of the recently deciphered tablets from Nestor’s palace at Pylus shows that he had divine status even in the thirteenth century B.C., Dionysus never really ceased to be a demi-god, and the tomb of his annual resurrection continued to be shown at Delphi (Plutarch: On Isis and Osiris 35), where the priests regarded Apollo as his immortal part (see 28. 3). The story of his rebirth from Zeus’s thigh, as the Hittite god of the Winds had been born from Kumabi’s (see 6. 6), repudiates his original matriarchal setting. Ritual rebirth from a man was a well-known Jewish adoption ceremony (Ruth iii. 9), a Hittite borrowing.
6. Dionysus voyaged in a new-moon boat, and the story of his conflict with the pirates seems to have been based on the same icon which gave rise to the legend of Noah and the beasts in the Ark: the lion, serpent, and other creatures are his seasonal epiphanies. Dionysus is, in fact, Deucalion (see 38. 3). The Laconians of Brasiae preserved an uncanonical account of his birth: how Cadmus shut Semele and her child in an ark, which drifted to Brasiae, where Semele died and was buried, and how Ino reared Dionysus (Pausanias: iii. 24. 3).
7. Pharos, a small island off the Nile Delta, on the shore of which Proteus went through the same transformations as Dionysus (see 169. a), had the greatest harbour of Bronze Age Europe (see 39. 2 and 169. 6). It was the depôt for traders from Crete, Asia Minor, the Aegean Islands, Greece, and Palestine. From here the vine cult will have spread in every direction. The account of Dionysus’s campaign in Libya may record military aid sent to the Garamantians by their Greek allies (see 3. 3); that of his Indian campaign has been taken for a fanciful history of Alexander’s drunken progress to the Indus, but is earlier in date and records the eastward spread of the vine. Dionysus’s visit to Phrygia, where Rhea initiated him, suggests that the Greek rites of Dionysus as Sabazius, or Bromius, were of Phrygian origin.
8. The Corona Borealis, Ariadne’s bridal chaplet, was also called ‘the Cretan Crown’. She was the Cretan Moon-goddess, and her vinous children by Dionysus – Oenopion, Thoas, Staphylus, Tauropolus, Latromis, and Euanthes – were the eponymous ancestors of Helladic tribes living in Chios, Lemnos, the Thracian Chersonese, and beyond (see 98. o). Because the vine cult reached Greece and the Aegean by way of Crete – oinos, ‘wine’, is a Cretan word – Dionysus has been confused with Cretan Zagreus, who was similarly torn to pieces at birth (see 30. a).
9. Agave, mother of Pentheus, is the Moon-goddess who ruled the beer revels. The tearing to pieces of Hippasus by the three sisters, who are the Triple-goddess as Nymph, is paralleled in the Welsh tale of Pwyll Prince of Dyffed where, on May Eve, Rhiannon, a corruption of Rigantona (‘great queen’), devours a foal who is really her son Pryderi (‘anxiety’). Poseidon was also eaten in the form of a foal by his father Cronus; but probably in an earlier version by his mother Rhea (see 7. g). The meaning of the myth is that the ancient rite in which mare-headed Maenads tore the annual boy victim – Sabazius, Bromius, or whatever he was called – to pieces and ate him raw, was superseded by the more orderly Dionysian revels; the change being signalized by the killing of a foal instead of the usual boy.
10. The pomegranate which sprouted from Dionysus’s blood was also the tree of Tammuz-Adonis-Rimmon; its ripe fruit splits open like a wound and shows the red seeds inside. It symbolizes death and the promise of resurrection when held in the hand of the goddess Hera or Persephone (see 24. 11).
11. Dionysus’s rescue of Semele, renamed Thyone (‘raging queen’), has been deduced from pictures of a ceremonial held at Athens on the dancing floor dedicated to the Wild Women. There to the sound of singing, piping, and dancing, and with the
scattering of flower petals from baskets, a priest summoned Semele to emerge from an omphalos, or artificial mound, and come attended by ‘the spirit of Spring’, the young Dionysus (Pindar: Fragment 75. 3). At Delphi a similar ascension ceremony conducted wholly by women was called the Herois, or ‘feast of the heroine’ (Plutarch: Greek Questions 12; Aristophanes: Frogs 373–96, with scholiast). Still another may be presumed in Artemis’s temple at Troezen. The Moon-goddess, it must be remembered, had three different aspects – in the words of John Skelton:
Diana in the leaves green;
Luna who so bright doth sheen;
Persephone in Hell.
Semele was, in fact, another name for Core, or Persephone, and the ascension scene is painted on many Greek vases, some of which show Satyrs assisting the heroine’s emergence with mattocks; their presence indicates that this was a Pelasgian rite. What they disinterred was probably a corn-doll buried after the harvest and now found to be sprouting green. Core, of course, did not ascend to Heaven; she wandered about on earth with Demeter until the time came for her to return to the Underworld. But soon after the award of Olympic status to Dionysus the Assumption of his virgin-mother became dogmatic and, once a goddess, she was differentiated from Core, who continued heroine-like to ascend and descend.
12. The vine was the tenth tree of the sacral tree-year and its month corresponded with September, when the vintage feast took place. Ivy, the eleventh tree, corresponded with October, when the Maenads revelled and intoxicated themselves by chewing ivy leaves; and was important also because, like four other sacred trees – El’s prickly oak on which the cochineal insects fed, Phoroneus’s alder, and Dionysus’s own vine and pomegranate – it provided a red dye (see 52. 3). Theophilus, the Byzantine monk (Rugerus: On Handicrafts, ch. 98), says that ‘poets and artists loved ivy because of the secret powers it contained…one of which I will tell you. In March, when the sap rises, if you perforate the stems of ivy with an auger in a few places, a gummy liquid will exude which, when mixed with urine and boiled, turns a blood colour called “lake”, useful for painting and illumination.’ Red dye was used to colour the faces of male fertility images (Pausanias: ii. 2. 5), and of sacred kings (see 170. 11); at Rome this custom survived in the reddening of the triumphant general’s face. The general represented the god Mars, who was a Spring-Dionysus before he specialized as the Roman God of War, and who gave his name to the month of March. English kings still have their faces slightly rouged on State occasions to make them look healthy and prosperous. Moreover, Greek ivy, like the vine and plane-tree, has a five-pointed leaf, representing the creative hand of the Earth-goddess Rhea (see 53. a). The myrtle was a death tree (see 109. 4).
ORPHEUS, son of the Thracian King Oeagrus and the Muse Calliope, was the most famous poet and musician who ever lived. Apollo presented him with a lyre, and the Muses taught him its use, so that he not only enchanted wild beasts, but made the trees and rocks move from their places to follow the sound of his music. At Zone in Thrace a number of ancient mountain oaks are still standing in the pattern of one of his dances, just as he left them.1
b. After a visit to Egypt, Orpheus joined the Argonauts, with whom he sailed to Colchis, his music helping them to overcome many difficulties – and, on his return, married Eurydice, whom some called Agriope, and settled among the savage Cicones of Thrace.2
c. One day, near Tempe, in the valley of the river Peneius, Eurydice met Aristaeus, who tried to force her. She trod on a serpent as she fled, and died of its bite; but Orpheus boldly descended into Tartarus, hoping to fetch her back. He used the passage which opens at Aornum in Thesprotis and, on his arrival, not only charmed the ferryman Charon, the Dog Cerberus, and the three Judges of the Dead with his plaintive music, but temporarily suspended the tortures of the damned; and so far soothed the savage heart of Hades that he won leave to restore Eurydice to the upper world. Hades made a single condition: that Orpheus might not look behind him until she was safely back under the light of the sun. Eurydice followed Orpheus up through the dark passage, guided by the sounds of his lyre, and it was only when he reached the sunlight again that he turned to see whether she were still behind him, and so lost her for ever.3
d. When Dionysus invaded Thrace, Orpheus neglected to honour him, but taught other sacred mysteries and preached the evil of sacrificial murder to the men of Thrace, who listened reverently. Every morning he would rise to greet the dawn on the summit of Mount Pangaeum, preaching that Helius, whom he named Apollo, was the greatest of all gods. In vexation, Dionysus set the Maenads upon him at Deium in Macedonia. First waiting until their husbands had entered Apollo’s temple, where Orpheus served as priest, they seized the weapons stacked outside, burst in, murdered their husbands, and tore Orpheus limb from limb. His head they threw into the river Hebrus, but it floated, still singing, down to the sea, and was carried to the island of Lesbos.4
e. Tearfully, the Muses collected his limbs and buried them at Leibethra, at the foot of Mount Olympus, where the nightingales now sing sweeter than anywhere else in the world. The Maenads had attempted to cleanse themselves of Orpheus’s blood in the river Helicorn; but the River-god dived under the ground and disappeared for the space of nearly four miles, emerging with a different name, the Baphyra. Thus he avoided becoming an accessory to the murder.5
f. It is said that Orpheus had condemned the Maenads’ promiscuity and preached homosexual love; Aphrodite was therefore no less angered than Dionysus. Her fellow-Olympians, however, could not agree that his murder had been justified, and Dionysus saved the Maenad’s lives by turning them into oak-trees, which remained rooted to the ground. The Thracian men who had survived the massacre decided to tattoo their wives as a warning against the murder of priests; and the custom survives to this day.6
g. As for Orpheus’s head: after being attacked by a jealous Lemnian serpent (which Apollo at once changed into a stone) it was laid to rest in a cave at Antissa, sacred to Dionysus. There it prophesied day and night until Apollo, finding that his oracles at Delphi, Gryneium, and Clarus were deserted, came and stood over the head, crying: ‘Cease from interference in my business; I have borne long enough with you and your singing!’ Thereupon the head fell silent.7 Orpheus’s lyre had likewise drifted to Lesbos and been laid up in a temple of Apollo, at whose intercession, and that of the Muses, the Lyre was placed in heaven as a Constellation.8
h. Some give a wholly different account of how Orpheus died: they say that Zeus killed him with a thunderbolt for divulging divine secrets. He had, indeed, instituted the Mysteries of Apollo in Thrace; those of Hecate in Aegina; and those of Subterrene Demeter at Sparta.9
1. Pindar: Pythian Odes iv. 176, with scholiast; Aeschylus: Agamemnon 1629–30; Euripides: Bacchae 561–4; Apollonius Rhodius: i. 28–31.
2. Diodorus Siculus: iv. 25; Hyginus: Fabula 164; Athenaeus: xiii. 7.
3. Hyginus: loc. cit.; Diodorus Siculus: loc. cit.; Pausanias: ix. 30. 3; Euripides: Alcestis 357, with scholiast.
4. Aristophanes: Frogs 1032; Ovid: Metamorphoses xi. 1–85; Conon: Narrations 45.
5. Aeschylus: Bassarids, quoted by Eratosthenes: Catasterismoi 24; Pausanias: ix. 30. 3–4.
6. Ovid: loc. cit.; Conon: loc. cit.; Plutarch: On the Slowness of Divine Vengeance 12.
7. Lucian: Against the Unlearned ii; Philostratus: Heroica v. 704; Life of Apollonius of Tyana iv. 14.
8. Lucian: loc. cit.; Eratosthenes: Catasterismoi 24; Hyginus: Poetic Astronomy ii. 7.
9. Pausanias: ix. 30. 3; ii. 30. 2; iii. 14. 5.
1. Orpheus’s singing head recalls that of the decapitated Alder-god Bran which, according to the Mabinogion, sang sweetly on the rock at Harlech in North Wales; a fable, perhaps, of funerary pipes made from alder-bark. Thus the name Orpheus, if it stands for ophruoeis, ‘on the river bank’, may be a title of Bran’s Greek counterpart, Phoroneus (see 57. 1), or Cronus, and refer to the alders ‘growing on the banks of’ the Peneius and other rivers. The nam
e of Orpheus’s father, Oeagrus (‘of the wild sorb-apple’), points to the same cult, since the sorb-apple (French = alisier) and the alder (Spanish = aliso) both bear the name of the pre-Hellenic River-goddess Halys, or Alys, or Elis, queen of the Elysian Islands, where Phoroneus, Cronus, and Orpheus went after death. Aornum is Avernus, an Italic variant of the Celtic Avalon (‘apple-tree island’ – see 31. 2).
2. Orpheus is said by Diodorus Siculus to have used the old thirteen-consonant alphabet; and the legend that he made the trees move and charmed wild beasts apparently refers to its sequence of seasonal trees and symbolic animals (see 52.3; 132.3 and 5). As sacred king he was struck by a thunderbolt – that is, killed with a double-axe – in an oak grove at the summer solstice, and then dismembered by the Maenads of the bull cult, like Zagreus (see 30. a); or of the stag cult, like Actaeon (see 22. i); the Maenads in fact, represented the Muses. In Classical Greece the practice of tattooing was confined to Thracians, and in a vase-painting of Orpheus’s murder a Maenad has a small stag tattooed on her forearm. This Orpheus did not come in conflict with the cult of Dionysus; he was Dionysus, and he played the rude alder-pipe, not the civilized lyre. Thus Proclus (Commentary on Plato’s Politics: p. 398) writes:
Orpheus, because he was the principal in the Dionysian rites, is said to have suffered the same fate as the god.
and Apollodorus (i. 3. 2) credits him with having invented the Mysteries of Dionysus.