Thursday, May 17, 2012

Olympias and the cult of Dionysus


Alexander’s mother Olympias was a passionate devotee of Dionysiac rites. Dionysus was a popular deity, most of his followers being women. Imitating the maenads of mythology they engaged in riotous, ecstatic dancing on mountains, and performed ceremonies which involved the rending of flesh—even human flesh.

Plutarch tells us that Olympias, was "wont to have great tame serpents about her, which sometimes creeping out of the ivy in the mystic fans, sometimes winding themselves about the sacred spears, and the women's chaplets, made a spectacle which men could not look upon without terror".

Their name maenad literally translates as "raving ones". Maenads of legend were known as wild, insane women inspired by Dionysus to ecstatic frenzy; involving violence, bloodletting, sexual activity, self-intoxication, and mutilation. They were usually pictured as crowned with vine leaves, clothed in fawnskins and carrying the thyrsus rod, dancing with wild abandon. These entranced women, wandered through the forests and hills and joined night processions to the mountains in order to kill animals and eat their flesh raw – supposedly a kind of ritual communion, since they believed god to be present in the victim.

Dionysus is a god of vegetation, the vine, the grape, and the making and drinking of wine; the exhilaration and release that wine can bring. He represents "the coursing of blood through the veins and the throbbing intoxication of nature and of sex. Essential to his worship was a spiritual release through music and dance".

Dionysos was a god of extremes and a breaker of boundaries. He has been described as "a god who liberates his followers through an act of possession, thereby enabling access to realms of sacred ecstasy. Crashing through the tightly drawn lines that divide the human from the animal and the divine".

The Dionysian Mysteries are said to have begun as an ancient initiation society, centred on a primeval nature god apparently associated with horned animals, serpents and solitary predators (primarily big cats). The rites were based on a seasonal death-rebirth theme and on spirit possession. Spirit possession involved liberation from the constraints of civilisation and its rules an escape from the socialized personality and ego either into an ecstatic, primal state.

Dionysus also was considered to embody both feminine and masculine challenging gender norms. For the Greeks the masculine, rational, and heroic to be equated with the good and true. Dionysos was seen as dangerous and subversive influence being “emotional and disorderly, a god of madness and shape-shifting" (how postmodern!) - all feminine attributes which “real” man could not be allowed to possess. “He was a strange god, and a god of the periphery - edging on the dark and unknown. The periphery, the uncivilized, was the realm of women and beasts and barbarians; hence his companions were maenads and satyrs.”

Possessed by Dionysos, women were seen to become "even more irrational, passionate and wild. Liberated by the god, they abandoned their chaste behavior and wifely duties and danced madly through the forests, defying all social restraints". Worshipers in the Dionysiac cult were promised resurrection after an initiation that included suffering and a mystical marriage with the god. "The secret initiation rites for young women included: reading from a sacred text, purification, the flagellation of the initiate, ecstatic dancing, the revealing of the sacred phallus and finally, the reward of a mystical marriage to the god".

The Dionysiac cult spread over the Graeco-Roman world as far east as India in the wake of the conquests of Alexander the Great. It was Alexander who brought the cult of Dionysos with him as he crossed over the east to ancient Bactria, modern Afghanistan, and as far east as the Indus valley. When the Macedonian Greeks reached India under Alexander and his heirs, they claimed Dionysos had gone ahead of them, in the form of a local deity known to us as Shiva. Bactrian coins were minted with both gods on either side.

When Alexander conquered the area known today as Nuristan, he found that the inhabitants made wine and ivy sacred to Dionysos grew there. Alexander decided that he had stumbled on a sanctuary of Dionysus founded by the god on his wanderings. Alexander sacrificed to Dionysus and some of his officers, wearing ivy garlands, became possessed by the god.

Author: magicmountain


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