Thursday, September 29, 2005

Letter to Dionysos

This is a letter to my son, now he is 16 and starting his A levels, which include Drama, about the coincidences linking his name to the original Dionysos...

Dear Dion

I've just discovered this, which is really interesting.

Did you know that in ancient Greece, in Athens there was an annual drama event called the City Dionysia?

Playwrights would submit plays, competing against each other. Winners of this event included Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes.

The City Dionysia was celebrated during the Greek month Elaphebolion (spanning parts of our March-April - which includes your birthday!) by the whole federation of Attic states in the sacred precinct of Dionysus, which contained temples and sacrificial altars as well as the theater, at the foot of the Acropolis.

During the classical period, this festival lasted several days and included several types of performance, all of which were also competitions for important civic honor and prizes (many aspects of Athenian society were highly competitive).

The City Dionysia was under the direction of one of the principal magistrates, the archon eponymos.

During the summer, playwrights wishing to present plays in the following year would apply to the archon for a chorus by offering descriptions of their projected plays; the archon would then choose the three who would be allowed to compete.

Each playwright would be assigned a choregos (sponsor) from among the wealthy citizens who would pay all the expenses of costumes, masks, and training the chorus. Each choregos and playwright would recruit a chorus of young Athenian citizens (originally 12, later 15); chorusmen were not professionals and required rigorous training to learn the songs and dances for the four plays they would perform.

Besides writing the plays, the playwright composed music, choreographed the choral dances, and frequently served as chief trainer for the chorus.

The archon assigned each playwright a principal actor (the protagonist), as well as a second and third actor. These actors were professionals and were paid by the state; by the latter part of the fifth century the actors also competed for a state prize.

Shortly before the City Dionysia began, the archon held a Proagon, - a sort of advertisement for the plays to be performed. Each tragedian appeared with his choregos, actors, and chorus and presented the titles and brief plot summaries of the four plays he would present at the festival.

The judging of the dramatic competitions was very much in keeping with the general methods of Athenian democratic government—any citizen should be able to participate, not just specialists, and the principles of the lottery and random selection played a significant role (giving the gods a chance to participate?).

An urn from each of the 10 tribes contained the names of citizens eligible to serve as judges; to prevent bribery, one name was drawn from each urn at the start of the festival. Each of the 10 judges wrote down three names on a tablet in the order of his selection, and the 10 tablets were placed in a container.

On the last day of the festival, 5 of the tablets were randomly chosen, and these determined the winner. Great prestige was attached to a first prize victory; there was of course a "cast party” where actors celebrated their victory.

The Bacchae is unfortunately not the Greek play you're studying! But it tells you a lot about the Greek cult of Dionysos.

Dionysos, especially under the Lydian name of Bacchus, became known as primarily a god of wine in later tradition, but in the fifth century B.C. this was only one of his functions.

He is a god of nature in all its vegetable and animal abundance. Dionysos is associated with ivy and also with the oak and fir tree (so that's why you live in the Welsh hills surrounded by pine trees and an ivy grows up the front of our house - we didn't plant it, it came!).

One of his animal manifestations is that of a bull and Bromios `roaring', a cult title used frequently in the Bacchae, may refer to his association with the bull and also the lion, although some connect this title with his lightning-struck mother. (Your mother wasn't struck by lightning but was nearly killed by a hurricane).

Snakes, which were entwined in the hair of Dionysos' maenads, are another example of his connection with the animal world as is his own and his maenads' (his female fans) attire made of fawnskin. The maenads' involvement with nature was also symbolized by a cane of fennel called a thrysos, which they carried.

Maybe you should collect the fennel seeds from the plant in our garden - they're nearly ready.

The Chorus consists of female worshipers of Dionysos called Bacchae, whose name is derived from Bacchus, the Lydian name of the god.

Female devotees of the god are often referred to as maenads (from the Greek verb mainesthai `to be mad') and also as bacchant[e]s.

In the Bacchae there are references to the story of Semele's death by Zeus's lightning, his rescue of the baby Dionysos from his mother's womb, and the sewing of the baby into his own thigh in place of a womb to conceal Dionysus from Hera (which mirrors your premature birth and insertion into an incubator - see previous blog).

The primary rite of Dionysiac religion is that of ecstatic mountain dancing. The culmination of this rite was an ecstatic frenzy in which the dancers tore apart and devoured raw an animal such as a goat or a fawn.

These two acts are called sparagmos `tearing' and omophagia `act of eating raw flesh'.

The rite of omophagia was seen as a communion with the god in that the worshiper consumed a part of raw nature which was identified with Dionysos himself (this is one reason the Romans later chose the Dionysiac religion to be a rival to Christianity, with its ritual of eating the God's flesh - communion).

The primitive rites of sparagmos and omophagia were still practiced in various areas in the fifth century. But at Athens Dionysos was a much tamer god.

His worship was there channeled into more civilized forms, such as the Anthesteria , a spring wine festival, and, of course, the City Dionysia. The Athenians seem to have concentrated on the pleasanter and more civilized aspects of Dionysus as a god of wine and of dramatic performances.

Dionysiac worship was one of the mystery cults which flourished in ancient Greece alongside state religion. The word "mystery" refers to the fact that these cults required that their rites be kept secret from outsiders.

The Greeks called the rites of mystery cults orgia - `orgies', but this word did not have the connotation of sexual license which the word carries today. There were some, however, like Pentheus, who suspected that the ecstatic Dionysiac rites led to sexual immorality.

In the Bacchae Dionysiac ritual is consistently connected with joy and freedom. The Chorus sings of the happiness of Dionysiac worship on the mountainside. The celebration of the freedom from all the constraints of civilization is summed up in the Chorus's wild Dionysiac cry "Evohe" and also represented in the simile at the end of the parados which compares the dancing of a maenad to the leaping of a colt.

One more thing about Dionysus you should like. He is a also a god of illusion.

He demonstrates vividly his powers of illusion in the Bacchae. He deludes Pentheus by making the king 1. see him as a bull, 2. think that the palace was in flames and 3. think that a phantom Dionysos he was trying to stab was the god himself.

The god's ability to create illusions is one of Dionysos' traditional powers in myth and helps explain his connection with tragedy and comedy.

Drama is based on illusion: dramatic action and characters are artificial creations of the dramatist presented in order to give the illusion of reality. Thus, it is appropriate that the god of illusion presided over the City Dionysia, Athens' dramatic festival.

What could be more appropriate than that you are now studying drama and doing a directors' course?



Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Orpheus, Eurydice and Dionysos

Jean Cocteau's film Orphée is for me one of the greatest films of all time. The myth is wound into my life.

But it is problematic in the part of Eurydice, which suffers from the French idealisation of women, all those ridiculous Surrealist nudes, or relegation of women to support roles.

It's the only problem I have with it. It looks delicious, it's very well shot and edited for the time, and the script moves well. It's much better than the subsequent self-indulgent Blood of a Poet and The Testament of Orpheus. The romance of writing/being carried away by destiny/death/love and then transcending destiny, slays me!

When I first saw it in the 1978 I was inspired and wrote and later threw away a novel based on it. It was probably terrible, with odd chunks of inspired text, and a lot of morbidity, since its title was 'desire and misery' and contained some ideas later to turn up in my tv series and comics series Doc Chaos vol 2, such as the College of Unlimited Extacy, where our hero finds the road of excess leads to ... well, I think we can guess that!

If writing Orphée now I would make much more of Eurydice.

In the original, Eurydice while strolling through the grass with a group of Naiads, was bitten in the ankle by a serpent, which shot its poison into her body and killed her. The serpent thing is very symbolic and powerful.

The Maenads are Dionysos' followers. They use wine and ritual to follow the road of excess, which leads, as we know, to.... Well, they were Eurydice's girlgang, as in the film, and exact revenge on him for losing her a second time. Typical careless man. So there's a feminist thread in this myth.

The Maenads (who looked after the baby Dionysos when he came out of Zeus' thigh) also put a snake over their locks, for Zeus crowned Dionysos with snakes when he let him come out of his thigh.

In one version of the myth Orpheus' head fell into the sea and some say it was cast by the waves upon the island of Lesbos where the Lesbians buried it, and so the Lesbians have the reputation of being skilled in music.

Others say it went down a river, still singing, and where it landed an oracle - and the Orphic religion - was founded.

The Orphic religion was based on the Dionysian one, and based on "ecstasy" (ekstasis, "stepping out"). It was supposed that it was only when "out of the body" that the soul revealed its true nature. This needed a system of purifications and sacraments, unlike most Greek religion.

Unlike the Dionysians, they were controlled and strict vegetarians and ascetics - their total opposite. Body-denying Orphism is a variation of the same Dionysus religion which we associate with ecstatic orgies and the most physical and indulgent types of worship. But they share the same goal - destruction of the self and rebirth.

Eurydice is therefore a woman torn between her girlgang and a primitive, powerful and woman-centered way of life, and Orpheus, or a male-dominated, more disciplined way.

Dionysos was born twice, and so was used by Emperor Constantine as an 'official' religion of the empire in the 3rd C AD as a rival to Christianity, where the emphasis was on resurrection.

We didn't know this at first when we named our first son Dionysos in 1989. He was born in the 24th week of pregnancy - and so was also born twice - first into a 'male' environment [Zeus' thigh / humming life-support machines in Kings College hospital); then into my wife Zoe's care when leaving the hospital at proper full term (female / Maenads).

That he survived to be healthy is very unusual. But we are eternally thankful for it.