Grapes of Mirth

Growing up in a teetotaling family, when I first encountered Greek mythology I paid scant attention to Dionysus. Assuming him to be “just the god of wine,” I had no interest in the wares he was peddling. Of mythology itself there was no end of fascination, and many of the great classics have been toned down to Disney, or even more insipid, for the entertainment of children. What we often fail to appreciate is that this is religion. Mythology that does not address the very real human concerns of sex, intoxication, and false dealing is really of no help at all. If in doubt, read your Bible. (Not the children’s version.) When I came back to Greek mythology as an adult, it became clear that Dionysus differed from other gods in considerable ways. While teaching my mythology classes, I decided to read more about this intriguing god. Well, it was just like the Fates that I would get a new job before reading Walter Otto’s book, Dionysus, but the urge was still strong and I was glad I’d read it.

Otto wrote in the days of Frazer’s technique of comparing sometimes questionable sources, and yet he produced a masterful, and poetic study of Dionysus. What quickly becomes clear is that the popular association of Bacchus with wine is a gross oversimplification. Dionysus is the god of madness, of blurring distinctions, and of losing control. He is the most frequently represented god in Greek art because, like us, he sometimes loses it. Greek society is famed for its rationality and order. It is sometimes overlooked by the reasoning mind that creativity, emotion, wildness are part of the complexity of humanity. Dionysus is the god who understands the need to let go once in a while. This is not hedonism, nor is it debased. Bacchus represents the human in full form. He is the god who comes to humanity, the god of appearing. Dionysus, the friendly god.

In the early days of Christianity in the Greek world, many Greeks supposed that the Jesus preached to them was Dionysus (to the chagrin of many missionaries). The connections, however, are remarkable. Like Jesus Dionysus has a god for a father and a human for a mother. He lives a carefree life and is the god who actually comes down to live with people. He is a god who dies and who is resurrected. Like Jesus, he enjoyed a glass of Bordeaux every now and again. And his followers were fanatical. As Otto makes clear in his dated, but insightful, book, Dionysus left a deep imprint on culture itself that continues to affect us even today. Even if we’re teetotalers, we can appreciate the depth of character and the complex nature of a god like Bacchus. And if we’re honest we’ll admit that there are times when we just have to let it go.

Where Whoever Walked

No adequate explanation has ever been proffered for the human desire to be where more prominent individuals have been. In its religious guise this is generally called pilgrimage, and the faithful seek out locations where a besainted member of their faith tradition once trod, ate, slept, or died. Going to the place of the famous is a major motivation for the travel industry. We are driven to see what s/he saw, taste what s/he tasted, experience what s/he lived. Just to be there, and contemplate. No one person, however, is universally known by every individual world-wide, so who it is we follow varies widely. This sense hit me once again last night as my family undertook the rare treat of a live show at the Paper Mill Theater in Millburn. Although Hairspray is not the most profound of shows, it was exceptionally well done, and the images on the walls of the foyer reminded us of who had been here before.

The Paper Mill Playhouse, a place of transformation

The shotgun blast of emotions this experience created verges on the religious. There was a time when I too donned the greasepaint (hard to believe for those who’ve only known me with this two-decades worth of old-growth forest on my face), and I know it to be a transcendental experience. The clean-shaven face is a boundless canvas. My own experience was local and small-scale, and certainly not done for fame, but the transformation was palpable. I am sure that actors everywhere share this experience – the apotheosis of becoming someone else. This week in mythology class we discussed Dionysus, the god of such transformations (and theater). A god who travels, a god associated with place, it is easy to understand how Dionysus became so popular, with or without the wine.

An epiphany of Dionysus

Dionysus was the recipient of a mystery cult in antiquity, one that rivaled Christian inroads in the Roman Empire. You see, many people recognized the similarities of Dionysus and Jesus. Both were begotten in unusual ways by their father (the high god), and both were gods of epiphany. Both were gods who understood the human condition – having mortal mothers, who came to people where they were, and who transformed the ordinary into extraordinary. Both were associated with wine – Jesus’ first miracle at Cana showed his theological pedigree – and both had reputations for associating with the less desirable members of society. And yes, both offered resurrection, a means of overcoming the limitations of life itself. Perhaps that is why the rare pilgrimage to the theater is so transcendental. It is pilgrimage and apotheosis all in one. And that is more than most of us might ever hope to achieve, short of encountering Jesus, or Dionysus, himself along the way of our pilgrimages.

Horror and Head-colds

Religion is such a pervasive vehicle for movies, whether disguised or blatant, that pointing out such connections might seem too easy. Finding these connections in horror movies is child’s play since religion constantly probes our deepest fears. Trying to get over a lingering head-cold and suffering from lack of sleep, I pulled out Ken Russell’s 1988 film, Lair of the White Worm. The film itself is not unlike a Nyquil dream, disjointed with sudden shifts of setting and context. The immediate connections with The Cult of the Cobra and Stuart Gordon’s Dagon – based on H. P. Lovecraft – were unexpected bonuses.

Through all of the B- special effects pulses a strong religion subtext. The crucifixion vision juxtaposed with Roman soldiers raping nuns was a dead giveaway. The supporting female characters bearing the names of Eve and Mary could not be more obvious. And the snake wrapped around a tree – is this Sunday School 101? Lacking the sophistication of Robin Hardy’s Wicker Man, Lair of the White Worm nevertheless does strike some similar religious chords. When archaeologist Angus Flint discovers a Roman temple dedicated to Dionin under a convent in England’s north-country, a mosaic of the great white dragon wrapped around a cross tells the viewers all they need to know.

Like Marduk, Baal, Yahweh, Zeus, and St. George, Lord James D’Ampton becomes the dragon-slayer. Chaoskampf (god slays dragon motif) is perhaps the most ancient form of religion, alongside the world-wide flood and dying gods returning to life. These archetypical images populate many films to the point of saturation and Lair of the White Worm is a treasure trove of them. The plot successfully invents an ancient deity, Dionin, whose name and cult have clear connections with that of Dionysus, himself a dying and rising god. This religion is in conflict with Christianity, and the film is opaque enough not to reveal the winner. I need to ponder this some more. In the meantime, I think I need another dose of Nyquil.

Take it with a dose of Nyquil

Paul Does the Classics

I first became aware of Greek mythology in fifth grade. My teacher in an industrial, rough and yet rural school, believed in the benefits of teaching aspiring drug addicts and laborers the stories of gods and heroes. I immediately adored the stories we heard and read. Raised in a religious household, however, I feared enjoying the tales of what were admittedly pagan gods after all, too much. In the educational topography of my youth, we were on the brink of this brave new electronic world we’ve entered, and mythology was not considered a terribly useful part of the curriculum after that. I left the gods behind. In a class on the Christian Scriptures in college, however, my instructor suggested we all go see Clash of the Titans (the 1981 version) for its appreciative (if a little hokey) presentation of the Greek world. I enjoyed the movie and even took a class in the literature department on mythology.

Over the years I have touched and gone on Greco-Roman mythology while specializing in the mythology of Ugarit. Now that I’m teaching a course on mythology, I’m going back to my classical roots and rereading the stories of times not quite so ancient as the fertile crescent civilizations’, but older than what is considered practical nowadays. While rereading Euripides’ play The Bacchae, the concentration of images, concepts, and actions that recur in the Bible stood out in chiaroscuro. Especially noticeable were references to Paul in the book of Acts.

Like Paul, Dionysus comes to be imprisoned. Not recognized as a divine figure, King Pentheus of Thebes locked him in chains until he could demonstrate that Dionysus is just the wild imaginary figure of repressed women. An earthquake, however, soon rattles the city and Dionysus emerges, chains shed, to the astonishment of Pentheus. The scene reads like Paul and Silas’ escape from jail in Philippi (Acts 16). Admittedly this could be coincidence. A few lines later, however, Dionysus, free from prison, tells Pentheus, “Don’t kick against the goad – a man against a god,” (Act 3, Paul Roche’s translation). Even so, Paul on his way to Damascus sees a vision of a god and is asked, “Why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads” (Acts 26.14). Perhaps Luke had read his Euripides?

Now I’m no scholar of the Christian Scriptures (although I have taught courses on them a time or two), but when obvious parallels exist it is incumbent upon modern readers to pay attention. The parallels of Dionysus and Jesus were evident to early Christians, so what I noticed was nothing new. When the followers of Dionysus, however, strike a rock with their sticks and water flows out, I wondered if Euripides had read his Torah!

Paul's bedtime reading