Today I saw this article over at the shitshow that is Patheos. It’s utter nonsense. The “Polytheistic Movement” is still going strong. It was never about what was happening online. It was always people connecting, coming together to worship in real space. We’ve grown more discerning. After all, why bring people into your ritual spaces — spaces of necessity within one’s home–why waste time organizing conferences and expending yourself for people who will not stand behind you when you’re harassed and attacked online? There’s a ton of stuff going on, we’re just not inviting fence sitters like Beckett.
Tonight, as part of our work, my husband did the divination for our House for the entire year. I’m sharing that here for those who may find it helpful. Last year belonged to Idunna and I am so intensely grateful to Her for Her care. I believe that we are alive today, and reasonably healthy all things considered, because of Her. Hail to the Goddess of apples, the Gods’ delight. Hail Idunna.
This year’s div was to me, surprising. Here you go, for all my Northern Tradition readers:
The year belongs to: Baldr
Rune for the year: Berkana
January – Isa
February – Othala
March – Raido
April – Sowilo
May – Fehu
June – Hagalaz
July – Kenaz
August – Algiz
September – Laguz
October – Mannaz
November – Jera
December – Ehwaz
Today only, that is January 1 until 8pm EST, I am offering to do a very simple rune and card reading for folks. No questions. For those interested, I will pull a card/draw a rune, maybe include another system too and interpret and send you the results. I’m charging $15. You may paypal me at Krasskova at gmail.com but please also email me letting me know that you want a reading so I both know (sometimes paypal is really slow about sending notifications) and know where to email you.
If you don’t feel in need of a reading but would like to support my work, here is a new thing that I am trying (I’ve seen some authors whom I very much respect using it): Kofi – Buy me a Coffee, which you can do here if you’re so inclined. Either way, I enjoy my work and your support is greatly appreciated. 🙂
[For those of a more Bacchic bent, Sannion also divined for the Bakcheion. For those interested, that can be read here).
Also, for those interested, I have decided that my next novena book is going to be devoted to Idunna. I’m working on it slowly but surely and hope to have it finished by the summer solstice.
(The image above is a scribe working at his writing desk. Read more about medieval manuscripts and their construction here).
If you’ve been eyeing some of my books to add to your book hoard, RedWheelWeiser, the publisher behind three of my books (Modern Guide to Heathenry, Living Runes, and The Northern Tradition for the Solitary Practitioner is holding a sale (only for a limited time) for 30% Off all orders shipping within the continental United States.
Use coupon code: YULE30 at checkout.
Today marks the bookversary of my published book Runes: Theory and Practice originally released by New Page in 2009. Since then, New Page was acquired by Red Wheel Weiser Books, who re-released it under the new name of Living Runes: Theory and Practice of Norse Divination.
Living Runes provides a thorough examination of the Norse runes that will challenge the experienced rune worker to deepen his or her understanding of these mysteries.
The book begins with an explication of the story of Odin, the Norse god who won the runes by sacrificing himself on the World Tree. It continues by examining each of the individual runes in turn, both the Elder Futhark and the lesser-known Anglo-Saxon Futhorc. Each rune is studied not only from a historical viewpoint but also from the perspective of a modern practitioner. You will be introduced to the practice of galdr as well as the magical use of the runes and the proper way to sacrifice to them and read them for divination.
Most importantly, the book specifically addresses the runes as living spirits and provides guidance on developing a working relationship with these otherworldly allies.
Logging into my feed today, I saw this post by P.S.V.L. It’s rather cumbersome, but asks a very good question: should people of any/all genders be able to take part in the cultus for Deities when traditionally those Deities were venerated by only one gender. For instance, e mentions specifically the cultus of Bona Dea in Rome. She was traditionally honored only by women and harsh penalties befell any man known to have violated Her rites. There were other Deities as well: for instance, the Goddess Pudicitia was served only by married women. The rites of Mithras were, to my knowledge performed solely by men (Mithras was popular amongst soldiers and that was not a profession generally open to women, esp. in Rome. It would be an interesting thing to find out if He welcomes female soldiers today). So, in our modern day when gender roles or even our understanding of gender (rightly or wrongly) is not what our ancestors would have necessarily recognized, should gendered restrictions on a particular Deity’s veneration be removed?
I would say no. Or rather I would say not without a damned good reason; and people’s comfort, modern values, sense of entitlement, or well-meaning desire for equity are not good enough reasons to destroy a cultus. There’s a rule with ritual and I think this holds true with respect to cultus as well: “don’t change it if you don’t understand why it’s there or what it’s purpose is with respect to the whole.” Without knowing, and really comprehending *why* a rule exists with respect to gendered cultus, it approaches hubris to simply discard such restrictions. Now, Gods are more than capable of making Their wishes known and there are on very rare occasions, exceptions. P.S.V.L. notes this when e writes:
“Though men were not supposed to enter Bona Dea’s sanctuary, exceptions could be made, especially if the Goddess Herself expressed such a desire for the exception to be made. Since She was associated with prophecy, such an utterance from one of Her designated functionaries would probably be obtainable in a ready manner. What we see here is an important difference that needs to be understood (and, in my view, respected). Any person can have a cultus to any Deity, and if the Deity either specifically allows or forbids it in a given individual’s case (and divination can always be done to find out if this is the case!), then such directives should be followed, in my view; but without such explicit proscriptions or prohibitions, anyone and everyone should be able to simply offer to, praise, and carry out other devotional acts with any and every Deity, no matter the genders of the Deities or the genders of the devotees.”
I would, for the most part agree with this. However, these are exceptions, not the rule, and exceptions are rare. I think it’s very easy to be so eager to consider oneself an exception that one doesn’t go through all the requisite and respectful steps to determine the Deity’s will, but rather puts one’s own desire ahead of that will. Likewise, I think diviners have to be very careful about allowing their own values and preconceptions to influence their results. I don’t think a person’s self-identification is enough of a reason to override such prohibitions, not without clear assent from the Deity in question. (Easy enough to get via divination–I recall asking about this once from a Lukumi elder, and he said that before initiation, divination would be done for trans people—for everyone but I was specifically asking about transfolk. That divination would determine whether a person would perform certain ritual prostrations in the male or female form. The result was up to the Orishas. I suspect each House handles this differently but in the end, the decision should be up to the Holy Powers, who made us as we are, rather than our modern iteration of Manichaeism writ large). Here I disagree with P.S.V.L who writes:
“ if the grounds for exclusion are a matter of identity, then the self-identification of the people involved should be what determines that identity’s validity…”
I do think there is a difference between a Deity’s Mysteries and personal devotion, the latter of which should not be affected by any such prohibitions. We are free to pray as we pray after all. There’s a difference between having a personal devotion to a Deity and celebrating the Mysteries of that Deity and that’s the line at which prayer, discernment, and divination must occur, the former two by oneself and the latter by experts before any changes in protocol happen. Anyone who carries the Mysteries of a tradition or God, or to be honest, anyone who respects their Gods and wants to see proper restoration of Their cultus occur is charged with protecting Their rites and rituals.
As an aside, I am fascinated with the suggestion offered in the article that Bona Dea’s mysteries might be expanded to include abortion and also with the suggestion that this well may have been part of Her original area of expertise (in addition to other areas of relevance to fertile women). Yes, and yes. Knowing what I know of ancient Rome, this would not surprise me at all. Birth control and abortion were so widely practiced in ancient Rome that one plant, silphium, was so effective and popular that it went extinct from overuse and there were, especially during the Augustan period, serious concerns about declining birthrates. However, I digress.
Someone who is pious should not WANT to force his or her way into a cultus restricted by gender, and if that person is trans, I would think that the requirements of the God would take precedence over desire for human recognition as male or female—recognition happily given in every other area. But, as a line from the Book of the Dead that came up in recent div (unrelated to this topic) said, “we are not perfect but perfecting” and I think that holds true here. When in doubt divine, but also be willing to accept the answer. We’re not entitled after all to any Mystery of any God. We may, however, ask.
Unlike Christianity, we have options. It isn’t as though one Deity holds the key to all the Mysteries. We can go to another Deity or approach that Deity in a different form outside of those rites and if we’re unwilling to do this, but instead are yammering about how we should be granted access then the problem is our own arrogance, not the proscriptions. I have been barred from receiving the Mysteries of specific Gods that I love very much. I am free to honor the Deity in question (Dionysos) but I was barred from initiation because I am owned by Odin and initiation has soteriological consequences. I accepted the decree of the Gods because in the end, THEY get to decide and my obligation as a pious human being is fulfilling Their will. We are lucky that we have the option to do divination, to hear firsthand via oracle or div. what our Gods might want. Not every tradition allows its votaries direct access like that. It’s a blessing of being a polytheist. I think we should focus more on what we can do for our Gods and traditions and move with gratitude into devotion.
By trying to force your way into these restricted areas, you’re missing the opportunity to find Mysteries and rites and roles that are accessible to [insert your gender here]. You’re missing the opportunity to create another doorway through which the Gods you love may work. That’s a powerful thing, and a heavy responsibility to accept. It takes more integrity than trying to tear down established and productive traditions. Someone, by the way, might have wanted to mention this to the Catholics before the abattoir that was Vatican II. Traditions are meant to be nourished not picked apart into irrelevance.
Today is the anniversary of A Modern Guide to Heathenry: Lore, Celebrations & Mysteries of the Northern Tradition, first released on December 1, 2019 from my publisher Red Wheel / Weiser Books.
The book takes what I created in Exploring the Northern Tradition: A Guide to the Gods, Lore, Rites, and Celebrations from the Norse, German, and Anglo-Saxon Traditions (2005) as a foundation and significantly expanded upon it with more than 70,000 words of new material especially on devotional work, honoring the ancestors, and theological exegesis. It’s basically twice the word heft of its predecessor!
What the Back Copy Says:
An accessible yet in-depth guide to this increasingly popular pre-Christian religious tradition of Northern Europe
Heathenry, is one of the fastest growing polytheistic religious movements in the United States today. This book explores the cosmology, values, ethics, and rituals practiced by modern heathens.
In A Modern Guide to Heathenry readers will have the opportunity to explore the sacred stories of the various heathen gods like Odin, Frigga, Freya, and Thor and will be granted a look into the devotional practices of modern votaries. Blóts, the most common devotional rites, are examined in rich detail with examples given for personal use. Additionally, readers are introduced to the concept of wyrd, or fate, so integral to the heathen worldview.
Unlike many books on heathenry, this one is not denomination-specific, nor does it seek to overwhelm the reader with unfamiliar Anglo-Saxon or Norse terminology. For Pagans who wish to learn more about the Norse deities or those who are new to heathenry or who are simply interested in learning about this unique religion, A Modern Guide to Heathenry is the perfect introduction. Those who wish to deepen their own devotional practice will find this book helpful in their own work as well.
US, CANADA & UK ORDER LINKS
On this day in 2008, Northern Tradition for the Solitary Practitioner first released.
Northern Tradition for the Solitary Practitioner is not denomination-specific: rather, it seeks to provide an entry into interior practice for anyone involved in a branch of this broad family of traditions of the ancient Norse, Germanic, and Saxon peoples, using material suitable for the solitary, independent practitioner. Those outside of the Northern Tradition who wish to deepen their own devotional practice will find this book helpful in their own work, as well.
I received a really good question about devotion and the Gods a few days ago but this is the first opportunity that I’ve had to respond. This is a really good, basic theological question about why and how we view our Gods and I thought it deserved its own post so here y’all go.
P. asks: I’m wondering how, as a devotional Heathen, you envision/understand the gods especially because all we have of the Northern deities is the myths and like the Greek and Roman myths, they’re not very flattering sometimes. I was listening to a podcast you did like 3 years ago and you mention this as well, that the Greeks for example, have other material like the Neo-Platonists, or the Romans the Stoics, where the gods are discussed philosophically. Of course deities are not bound by human confines and I know what is meant by, say, siblings mating/marrying (that They are equals, etc) and a nature goddess being promiscuous but, perhaps I never had a new-age, free love mindset EVER, the lack of morality sometimes gets to me whilst reading the material. This is true for most myths of course, not just the Northern tradition. But AFAIK, those are the only material we have. And, on a similar note, the gods are usually so…mean, it’s difficult to like them (not all, obviously!) I’m not being frivolous, and I hope you don’t get this the wrong way, gods are gods and not besties obviously but to have a devotional relationship I feel like there needs to be some sort of affection?”
There are actually several good questions here so let me try to take them one by one and I’ll do my best.
I don’t believe the myths were ever meant to be taken either literally or as exempla of how to behave as human beings. I also detest the new age, free love crap fwiw. I find it morally and spiritually repugnant on every possible level, and there were Deities that I really struggled to honor for precisely that reason. Either the devotees that I had met were gross or Their stories presented a morality with which I simply could not accord. It took me many, many years of devotion and study to realize that the Deity is not confined nor even particularly well represented necessarily in His or Her stories (or by Their devotees!). The myths are not revealed scripture and they do not function as the unerring Word of God ™.
How we approach the myths and center them in our minds matters. It matters because it sets the framework for engagement both devotionally and liturgically. These stories contain windows to the sacred but they aren’t sacred in and of themselves in the same way that a Christian might hold the New Testament sacred or a Muslim the Qu’ran (and we are primed in our culture to not only give precedence to the written word over other forms of tradition transmission but also to expect all sacred stories to function like such “scripture.”). The myths that we have are more pliable and I think they may point to different facets of our Gods’ personalities, or certain immutable lessons (like the danger of putting oneself above the Gods) but often storytellers wanted to tell a good story about human events that were shaped in part by their understanding of the power of the Gods to impact our lives (I’m thinking of the Iliad here). The same story can serve many different purposes. That doesn’t mean they aren’t doorways to the sacred, but they aren’t holy in and of themselves. Many story tellers including the poet or poets otherwise known as Homer, were soundly criticized by later philosophers for the way in which they presented the Gods in their writing. It was considered impious. I tend to think that in such cases it was more a nod to the ways in which the Gods are able to inspire us and act in the world. Also, Norse culture particularly was an oral culture. What we have written down, what we consider “lore,” i.e. the Eddas, Sagas, etc. is but a bare fraction of what actually existed. There are some serious lacunae. One can get glimpses in art and material culture of stories that we simply no longer have. In oral cultures like these, sacred things were not the types of things that would’ve been transmitted via the written word because to write it down traps and closes the circle of the narrative. It removes the possibility for future revelation.
When I read a myth about one of my Gods that rubs me the wrong way, I sit with it and look for the greater cosmological lesson (1). What does this say about the nature of my God? What does it say about how that God is able to act in the world, but most importantly, how does it reflect creation and the impetus and actions of our Gods therein. Quite often, there is something in these stories and their presentation of the Gods that hearkens back to the creation narrative. I’ve written about that here.
Are there any patterns that recur in the story? Where do things start to go awry? All of these are important textual markers for places that may serve as windows for something holy or for a mystery belonging to the Deity in question. Stories are never just stories if we’re reading theologically (2).
I think the highest form of interpretation is through the lens of devotion (not philosophy and certainly not recitation of lore) but one text that might be helpful is Sallustius’s “On the Gods and the World.” Sallustius was a friend of Emperor Julian, and this was written, if I’m not mistaken as sort of a primer of how to read poly-theologically. It’s not a bad place to begin. As he notes, the myths never happened and are always happening. That is the essence of Mystery.
I love the Gods. I believe that They are eternal creators of all the worlds, that They are good, essentially, ontologically *good*. I was thinking of this when my assistant Tove played this song for me and we had a long discussion about how *no one* is unloved by the Gods. That is the profundity of Their nature. They imagined us, willed us, crafted us into being. We are Theirs in ways we can barely imagine.
Tove, when I asked her, because we are sitting here discussing this, added, “Our Gods are ineffable and limitless, and the scariest thing is that They see the fullness of our potentiality and the closer we come to Them, the more we see that potentiality juxtaposed against the reality of who we are now. They love us in our whole form, including who we CAN Be and there’s a challenge there: how far can we stretch, how far can we grow. I believe They want, like all good parents, want us very much to grow. This is probably why people say it is a scary thing to be loved by a God. It forces one to be bigger, to be more.”
I have rarely if ever experienced a Deity being “mean.” At least, I’ve never experienced it as being mean just to be mean. Sometimes I have had a God or Goddess push me in some way beyond my limits, push me to the point of challenge and then one step farther. That is a good thing. It is only by pushing against our limits that we grow stronger. I have seen very wounded human souls incapable of experiencing the power of the Holy Ones save through the lens of their own terrible abuse. That is not something that the Gods did. That was a damaged soul unable to see divine love as anything other than terrible…and still something to be longed for jealously. Of course, I belong to Odin, the personification of ecstatic frenzy. His love is the tip of a spear penetrating the heart and it is glorious.
In devotion, the relationships we develop with our Holy Ones may start out in fumbling awkwardness but they grow. Like any relationship they grow in intimacy, in trust. That’s what is really key: trust. We learn to trust our Gods, to let Them in a little more, to go a few more faltering steps forward in devotion. “Affection” is too small, too weak a word for what the Gods are capable of evoking in our hearts. Their love is like the blood beating in our veins. It is like breath forcing itself into and out of our lungs again and again. It is all that sustains us, and all that challenges us to be more.
- While one may argue that some myths like Homer were ancient fanfiction, I think the difference between then and now lies in the fact that the culture of Homeric Greece (to give one example of “mythology”) was infused with veneration of the Gods at every level. The tradition was deep and intergenerationally embedded. That is not the case now, quite the opposite. So much in our world is hostile to devotion of any sort, esp. media which often makes a mockery of it or puts humans above the Gods.
- For pre-Christian polytheists, religion was about devotion and engaging in some way with the Gods. Soteriological concerns were handled via mystery cultus, and building character, virtue, learning how to be a decent human being both by community nomoi but also in some cases philosophy. The myths aren’t examples of virtuous living for mortals because that’s not the correct place upon which to put that weight. That’s not the purpose of religion. Religion is about engaging properly with the Gods. Now, they can teach virtue by dint of teaching what is proper behavior, but it’s through custom, upbringing, and philosophy that one really developed those things…otherwise, the purpose of religion is subtly shifted in unhelpful ways. It goes from being about the Gods to being about us, humanity. It becomes vanity.
I’m posting this here, because it keeps getting taken down on Sannion’s blog and I want to discuss it.
For those Tumblr geniuses (*snorts*) who may not realize it, the problem with Hippolytus was not that he was asexual. The problem was that in honoring Artemis, he chose to grossly disrespect Aphrodite and Her gifts. It’s fine to be deeply devoted to one God, to live one’s life in accordance with one’s identity but that doesn’t mean we get free rein to show disrespect for the mysteries of a different Deity. Simple equation. don’t fuck it up.
Thehouseofvines.com’s original post, posted with permission:
The chaste woman will not be defiled by Bacchic rites
Written by thehouseofvines
Another older piece, but the themes are relevant so I’m reposting it.
So there’s a discussion playing out on Tumblr about whether all the Gods love all people which was started by someone’s comment that Aphrodite hates asexuals, based on a rather shallow reading of Euripides’ play Hippolytos. Not going to comment on any of that, though in passing someone remarked:
Also I think people forget about Dionysus?? Like he is the God of sex and wine. Although I don’t think he would out right smite them, but I think he’ll try to tempt them.
Which I will address, as it touches on something that I think a lot of people, including really smart and seriously devoted people, tend to overlook when it comes to him.
Dionysos is paradox.
Just about everything one can say about him is true, and it’s complete negation is also true.
This is something the Orphics of Olbia knew well when they wrote:
βίος. θάνατος. βίος. ἀλήθεια. Ζαγρεύς. Διόνυσος
Life. Death. Life. Truth. Zagreus. Dionysos.
εἰρήνη. πόλεμος. ἀλήθεια. ψεῦδος. Διόνυσος
Peace. War. Truth. Lie. Dionysos
Διόνυσος. ἀλήθεια. σῶμα. ψυχή
Dionysos. Truth. Body. Soul.
Dionysos is definitely about the sexy times, as evidenced by the giant imitation cocks people carried in his festivals which often turned into violent drunken orgies. His best friends are lusty satyrs and home-wrecking madwomen. He churns up erotic excitement and a lot of folks, particularly in Southern Italy, looked forward to carnal union with him in the afterlife. His own proclivities run the gamut from pretty boys and genderqueers to fairly straight-laced, heteronormative, monogamy.
That’s not paradox though.
In Euripides’ play The Bakchai Pentheus is obsessed with the idea that the Theban women have been led astray by the perverse stranger and are engaged in all sorts of lewd activities on the mountainside:
They creep off one by one
to lonely spots to have sex with men,
claiming they’re busy maenads worshipping.
But they rank Aphrodite, Goddess of sexual desire,
ahead of Bacchus their lord.
People say some stranger has arrived,
some wizard, a conjurer from the land of Lydia—
with sweet-smelling hair in golden ringlets
and Aphrodite’s charms in wine-dark eyes.
He hangs around the young girls day and night,
dangling in front of them his joyful mysteries.
If I catch him in this city, I’ll stop him.
He’ll make no more clatter with his thyrsos,
or wave his hair around. I’ll chop off his head,
slice it right from his body.
To which the aged Tieresias replies:
On women, where Aphrodite is concerned,
Dionysos will not enforce restraint
such modesty you must seek in nature,
where it already dwells. For any woman
whose character is chaste won’t be defiled
by Bacchic revelry.
Once Pentheus has the stranger (who is none other than Dionysos himself) in his possession he presses the point:
Well, stranger, I see this body of yours
is not unsuitable for women’s pleasure—
that’s why you’ve come to Thebes. As for your hair,
it’s long, which suggests that you’re no wrestler.
It flows across your cheeks that are most seductive.
You’ve a white skin, too. You’ve looked after it,
avoiding the sun’s rays by staying in the shade,
while with your beauty you chase Aphrodite.
Their exchange is like a tango, part duel and part dance of desire, with Dionysos cool, calm and collected the whole time as Pentheus becomes increasingly hysterical. At one point they are interrupted by the Messenger whom the king had sent out to spy on the women and what he reports is completely at variance with Pentheus’ lust-fueled delusions:
They were all asleep, bodies quite relaxed,
some leaning back on leafy boughs of pine,
others cradling heads on oak-leaf pillows,
resting on the ground—in all modesty.
They weren’t as you described—all drunk on wine
or on the music of their flutes, hunting
for Aphrodite in the woods alone.
Once she heard my men,
your mother stood up amid those Bacchae,
then called them to stir their limbs from sleep.
They rubbed refreshing sleep out of their eyes,
and stood up straight there—a marvelous sight,
to see such an orderly arrangement,
women young and old and still unmarried girls.
First, they let their hair loose down their shoulders,
tied up the fawn skins (some had untied the knots
to loosen up the chords). Then around those skins
they looped some snakes, who licked the women’s cheeks.
Some held young gazelles or wild wolf cubs
and fed them on their own white milk,
the ones who’d left behind at home a new-born child
whose breasts were still swollen full of milk.
They draped themselves with garlands from oak trees,
ivy and flowering yew. Then one of them,
taking a thyrsos, struck a rock with it,
and water gushed out, fresh as dew. Another,
using her thyrsos, scraped the ground. At once,
the God sent fountains of wine up from the spot.
All those who craved white milk to drink
just scratched the earth with their fingertips—
it came out in streams. From their ivy wands
thick sweet honey dripped. Oh, if you’d been there,
if you’d seen this, you’d come with reverence
to that God whom you criticize so much.
The eros that these women experience is not directed towards other humans, nor even to the God who has driven them frenzied from their homes, husbands and children – it is rather a transpersonal connection to nature and the beasts of the wild, with whom they feel a profound kinship. He has roused them from ordinary existence, lifted them out of the confines of their small and circumscribed identities, blurred the boundaries between them and all of creation, showed them that they are capable of being so much more than they ever dreamed of and given them the power to work miracles. They are filled with a lust for life and take animals, literally life embodied, to their breasts not for pleasure but to share the sustenance of their own life with them. They are imitating the primordial nymphs who had been the nurses and care-givers of the infant God when he was most vulnerable, as Diodoros Sikeliotes explicitly states:
Consequently in many Greek cities every other year Bacchic bands of women gather, and it is lawful for the maidens to carry the thyrsos and to join in the frenzied revelry, crying out ‘Euai!’ and honouring the God; while the matrons, forming in groups, offer sacrifices to the God and celebrate his mysteries and, in general, extol with hymns the presence of Dionysos, in this manner acting the parts of those who of old were the companions and nurses of the God. (Library of History 4.3.2-5)
Nor is this the only instance where we may observe such Dionysian chastity. There are numerous vases and other artistic representations of mainades fending off the unwanted sexual advances of satyrs with their thyrsoi, as well as thiasoi that were restricted to the female sex and sometimes even elderly women who were outside the domain of Aphrodite, such as in Italy:
Then Hispala gave an account of the origin of these rites. At first they were confined to women; no male was admitted, and they had three stated days in the year on which persons were initiated during the daytime, and matrons were chosen to act as priestesses. (Livy, History of Rome 39.13)
And at Athens:
I wish now to call before you the sacred herald who waits upon the wife of the king, when she administers the oath to the Gerarai as they carry their baskets in front of the altar before they touch the victims, in order that you may hear the oath and the words that are pronounced, at least as far as it is permitted you to hear them; and that you may understand how august and holy and ancient the rites are. I live a holy life and am pure and unstained by all else that pollutes and by commerce with man and I will celebrate the feast of the wine God and the Iobacchic feast in honor of Dionysos in accordance with custom and at the appointed times. (Demosthenes, Against Neaira 74-78)
Interestingly, there were also thiasoi that excluded women (I.Kallatis 47) and men who abstained from sex in service to the God:
I, who never in my life experienced Kypris and was an enemy of wickedness, was taken as a companion (hetairos) by Bromios together with the Fates. Bromios has me as a fellow-initiate in his own dances. My name is Julianus, and I lived 18 years. My father was Julianus and my mother was Apphia. Having died, they honored me with the tomb and this inscribed monument. His step-father Asklepiades, his aunt Juliane, his maternal uncle Dionysios, Ammianos, and Stratoneikos honored him. Year 325 of the Sullan era, 12th of the month of Peritios. (TAM 5.477)
And in myth Dionysos helps bring sanity to a raging hermaphroditic deity by castrating hir:
In him there had been resistless might, and a fierceness of disposition beyond control, a lust made furious, and derived from both sexes. He violently plundered and laid waste; he scattered destruction wherever the ferocity of his disposition had led him; he regarded not Gods nor men, nor did he think anything more powerful than himself; he contemned earth, heaven, and the stars. Now, when it had been often considered in the councils of the Gods, by what means it might be possible either to weaken or to curb his audacity, Liber, the rest hanging back, takes upon himself this task. With the strongest wine he drugs a spring much resorted to by Acdestis where he had been wont to assuage the heat and burning thirst roused in him by sport and hunting. Hither runs Acdestis to drink when he felt the need; he gulps down the draught too greedily into his gaping veins. Overcome by what he is quite unaccustomed to, he is in consequence sent fast asleep. Liber is near the snare which he had set; over his foot he throws one end of a halter formed of hairs, woven together very skilfully; with the other end he lays hold of his privy members. When the fumes of the wine passed off, Acdestis starts up furiously, and his foot dragging the noose, by his own strength he robs himself of his sex; with the tearing asunder of these parts there is an immense flow of blood; both are carried off and swallowed up by the earth; from them there suddenly springs up, covered with fruit, a pomegranate tree. (Arnobius of Sicca, Against the Heathen 5.5-6)
A fate which Dionysos, himself, is said to have suffered as Clement of Alexandria’s Exhortation to the Greeks relates:
If you wish to inspect the orgies of the Corybantes, then know that, having killed their third brother, they covered the head of the dead body with a purple cloth, crowned it, and carrying it on the point of a spear, buried it under the roots of Olympus. These mysteries are, in short, murders and funerals. And the priests of these rites, who are called kings of the sacred rites by those whose business it is to name them, give additional strangeness to the tragic occurrence, by forbidding parsley with the roots from being placed on the table, for they think that parsley grew from the Corybantic blood that flowed forth; just as the women, in celebrating the Thesmophoria, abstain from eating the seeds of the pomegranate which have fallen on the ground, from the idea that pomegranates sprang from the drops of the blood of Dionysos. Those Corybantes also they call Cabiric; and the ceremony itself they announce as the Cabiric mystery. For those two identical fratricides, having abstracted the box in which the phallos of Bacchus was deposited, took it to Etruria–dealers in honourable wares truly. They lived there as exiles, employing themselves in communicating the precious teaching of their superstition, and presenting phallic symbols and the box for the Tyrrhenians to worship. And some will have it, not improbably, that for this reason Dionysos was called Attis, because he was mutilated. And what is surprising at the Tyrrhenians, who were barbarians, being thus initiated into these foul indignities, when among the Athenians, and in the whole of Greece–I blush to say it–the shameful legend about Demeter holds its ground?
Delia Morgan explores this side of Dionysos in her powerful piece, The Ivied Rod: Gender and the Phallus in Dionysian Religion:
Nowhere is the paradox of Dionysos more dramatic than in the stark contrast between the god of the phallus and the ‘effeminate’ god of women. Ancient sources make frequent reference to Dionysos as ‘womanly’ or ‘not a real man’ (Evans, 20-21; Jameson, 45); they sometimes dress him in women’s clothing as well. Dionysos himself was never shown with an erection. This iconographic convention, along with the occasional reference to effeminacy or androgyny, has led to various theories seeking to drastically unman the god, as it were; some writers read into these details the idea that perhaps Dionysos himself was asexual (Jameson, 44), or even emasculated through castration (Kerenyi, 275-277, 285). Jameson, for example, in examining some of the mythic fragments dealing with Dionysos, has arrived at the idea of the wine god as weak, cowardly and asexual – all aspects which would support the charge of effeminacy. (Jameson, 50, 59-63). He cites the myth of Lycurgus, who drove the young god into the ocean with an ox-goad. Francois Lissarrague states: “Dionysos as depicted is scarcely sexed; he is never seen in an erect state or manipulating his phallus.” Another factor frequently cited as support for the effeminacy of Dionysos is his feminine appearance. Early iconography of Dionysos shows him as a youthful adult with long hair and a beard, exotically dressed in a long chiton and himation. Dionysos had to be feminine, for the same reason that he had to be foreign and bestial: he was Other, opposed by nature to the dearest values of Greek society. He was wet and wild, emotional and disorderly, a god of madness and shape-shifting. He could not be a ‘real man’ in the eyes of the Greeks because a real man could not be allowed to possess these attributes. 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; hence his companions were maenads and satyrs. His dangerous influence further exacerbated the problem with women: possessed by Dionysos, they became 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. By enhancing those qualities that were seen as the dark side of femininity, Dionysos himself could be seen as partaking of a female extreme; his nature was in some threatening ways even more feminine than that of an ordinary woman. The charge of effeminacy was not taken lightly in ancient Greece or Rome; there were social stigmas and sometimes civil penalties attached to the label. In Greece, a man earned a reputation as a ‘kinaidos,’ an effeminate man, through a penchant for taking a passive role in sexuality or through excessive unrestrained lust; he was not to be allowed to take leadership roles or any active public role in government. (Winkler, 176-178, 188-190) Given the seriousness of the accusation when directed against a man, what religious import could be read into the charge of effeminacy when directed against a god? Dionysos was the only major god to be spoken of in this way; he was thought by many to be a dangerous foreign import, although evidence points to his presence in the pantheon from the Mycenean era. He was seen as a subversive influence, who in his myths faced opposition by kings and led entire cities into chaos and revolt. His religion was always regarded with some fear and ambivalence, almost as a necessary evil.
This is something that I have experienced myself and discussed a while back in Chthonic Dionysos and the Saints of the True Vine:
This Dionysos is dark and still and somber, the quiet amid the storm, the masked pillar around which those filled with his frenzy dance and shout in ecstatic celebration. He is not completely immobile – his movements are just slow like the shoots of a plant triumphantly rising up through the soil, like the gradual formation of stalactites in a cave, like the procession of the stars through the heavens. The face of this Dionysos is always concealed in shadows, except for his eyes which are bright with the flames of madness and gaze into the depths of your soul and beyond. His voice echoes across a vast chasm even when he is nearer to you than your next heartbeat. There is an impenetrable denseness to his spirit, a gloom so black and so full of painful memories that even he has difficulty bearing its weight. He is ancient beyond all reckoning and yet remains unwearied by all that he has witnessed and experienced. His heart is fierce with love for the fragile and ephemeral things of this world, rejoicing and suffering along with them. He cannot turn his face away from them – he must witness it all, even if it makes him mad. And though part of him remains forever down in the caverns deep beneath the earth, another part extends upwards into our world, surrounded by an innumerable host. The lusty satyrs, the madwomen, the nymphs who nurse him and the dead who belong to him, an invisible troop of wild spirits that march unseen but clearly heard in his processions, who race through the fields and forests and city streets on certain especially dark nights in pursuit of the victims of the hunt.
Nothing about Dionysos is simple so we would do well to avoid the sort of simplifications one frequently finds in discussions about him on Tumblr
Affiliate Advertising Disclosure
I’ve been distracted by the start of the new school semester, and as a result I missed a few bookversaries in the last few days.
- September 6: By Scalpel and Blood, Herb and Healing Hands: A Novena to the Goddess Eir
- September 9: In Praise of Hermes
- September 10: Heart on Fire: A Novena for Loki
- September 10: Numinous Places
Which ones have you read? What was your favorite part?
“In Praise of Hermes” is a novena booklet to the Greek God Hermes. It provides an introduction about this God and nine days of prayers in His honor.
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“By Scalpel and Herb, Blood and Healing Hands” is a novena booklet to Eir, a Norse Goddess of Healing. It provides an introduction about this Goddess and nine days of prayers in Her honor.
Available on Amazon.
The God of fire, water, and everything in between. The God Who refuses to stay silent. The Trickster without Whom the lore would be far more boring. The Power Who challenges everyone, even the other Gods Themselves. Nine days of special devotion for Loki, including ritual suggestions, original prayers, a list of His sacred names, dedicated divination systems, and more.
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Numinous Places is a visual record of those places in which, over the past few years, my heart has unfolded. It’s a journey of how I learned to root myself and find joy in the world. It’s how I fell in love with places and their stories and learned to accept the spiritual nourishment such stories bring. It’s how I learned to reverence the spirits of places, animist that I am, and how I came to recognize their sustaining power.
Available on Amazon