Many indigenous societies believed that the dead were always close by at the times of the greatest celebrations. The festivals of mid-winter, as well as the November first celebrations in the Celtic world, looked forward to the annual restoration of the world that would come in springtime. But the elders taught that renewal would be unlikely unless due attention were paid to that which must die, as well as to those who had already died and become ancestors, and those – like Dionysus – who had died and been reborn.
Certainly in repressive and feudal systems the political and religious elites have often understood the importance of allowing the common people to let off a little steam for a few days once a year. Jervis notes that “the symbolic inversion revealed the absurdity of a real one.”
But even today, the citizens of certain Greek towns such as Monoklissia celebrate a festival called the Gynaekokracia (“rule of the women”) in which the women and men trade their traditional roles for one day. Like all carnivals, it serves the two-fold purposes of releasing the tension produced by traditional repressive cultures and also re-affirming their rules, revitalizing the social order by reenacting its conception. Patricia Storace describes the scene: “The transvestism here is a social, even a political transvestism – the men are not just dressing like women, but being treated like women by women mocking men’s behavior.”
But the original carnival, the Anthesteria, was – or at it least recalled – something very significant from the more ancient past. Most important, for our purposes, the basilinna, the wife of the religious king of the city, or archon bassileus, engaged in a highly publicized, ritual copulation with Dionysus. The conventional scholarly explanation of this holiday is that, in addition to maintaining the social order, it celebrated and recapitulated the original marriage of Dionysus and Ariadne and was a fertility ritual intended to ensure good crops.
This may be accurate on a sociological level, but it is also undoubtedly true that many of the citizens were consciously re-enacting the hieros gamos, a mythic union that had its roots in the pre-patriarchal Minoan era. Why is this ritual marriage so meaningful? Karl Kerenyi wrote that just as Dionysus was the embodiment of zoe, “the archetypal image of indestructible life,” so Ariadne was “the archetypal reality of the bestowal of soul, of what makes a living creature an individual.” The union of this divine pair thus represented the “eternal passage of zoe into and through the genesis of living creatures.”
It was the sacred marriage of goddess and consort, or the inner king and queen who met each other in the sea of the unconscious. It was a reminder of the ultimate unity of opposites that lies behind the mask and the apparent dualities of the world.
The indigenous knowledge was still barely alive in classical Athens: the proximity of fertility and decomposition, of the goddess Persephone and her husband Hades (who was known as Ploutos, or “wealth”) – and also of Dionysus in his many roles of divine child, mature initiator and, as the perpetual “Other,” threat to the social order. The polytheistic imagination could still hold such paradox, even as the age of the rationalist philosophers approached and religion declined into literalism.
We cannot know what occurred when the queen met Dionysus, or what meaning the citizens saw in it. Whether she lay down with the king himself or a priest of Dionysus, or if either man was dressed and masked as the god, or whether their union was consummated literally, does not really concern us. The important thing, according to classicist Richard Seaford, is that there was an “…invasion of the royal household by a publicly escorted stranger who symbolically destroys its potential autonomy by having sex with the king archons’s wife.”
Dionysus Lusios – the “Loosener”– suddenly appeared at the head of a great procession, announcing his presence at the palace of the archon to claim the Queen for his own! And that night, all over Athens, men donned masks and impersonated the god at the doors of other men’s wives. For one night, everyone ignored the conventions of gender, class, fidelity and possessiveness. But soon after, in daylight, the citizens swept through the streets chasing the keres, the spirits of the dead, out of the city for another year.
Perhaps, just perhaps, we have here a partial record of an advanced urban civilization that recognized the absolute necessity of welcoming in the shadowy, wet, irrational, uncivilized stranger (xenos, the root of xenophobia, can mean both “stranger” and “guest”) along with the spirits of all those who had died unreconciled and ungrieved.
Perhaps the people hoped that their rituals might minimize the possibility of any violent eruption of the repressed energies that might topple the twin towers of religion and state. Perhaps they had reason to believe that, because of the ritual attention they paid to the Lord of the Darkness, there might not be an unintended, overwhelmingly destructive, literal return of the repressed, in the city or in their souls.
By the time of The Bacchae’s first performance (405 BC) Athens had been in a constant state of war with Sparta for over twenty-five years. Public life was characterized by rigid class and gender roles and the militaristic vigilance necessary to sustain an empire. Clearly, people felt deep tension and anxiety that institutions such as the Anthesteria and other occasional opportunities for release could only partially resolve.
Dionysus stood squarely at the center of this paradox, serving both the needs for release of the under-classes as well as pointing the way toward participation in the greater mysteries of the soul. And so, writes Arthur Evans, Dionysus represented the return of the repressed in several senses:
…return of the religious needs of the lower classes, return of the demands of the non-rational part of the self, and return of the (ancient) Minoan feeling for the living unity of nature. And so in return he threatened several repressors: the aristocracy of well-to-do male citizens, the domination of intellect over emotion, the alienated ethos of the city-state.
Perhaps the subtle balance between citizen, psyche and city – the world’s first experiment with democracy – could not have been expected to survive for long in such a world of slavery, misogyny and constant warfare. Eventually the repressed would return in the form of barbarians from without as well as demons from within.
Like Athens, the U.S. has been at war – in Afghanistan – for sixteen years, with no letup in sight. A unrepentant misogynist is President, and our class and racial hierarchies are as rigid as they were in 1860. Millions are self-medicating with opioids, and Facists march in the streets in a twisted parody of the ancient processions.
But the communal ritual of invoking and welcoming the spirits of madness, ancestry and the irrational remains an alternative, imaginative model for our American culture that is based so deeply on the denial of both madness and death.
Reviving such festivals in all their paradox of chaotic ecstasy mixed with deep sadness – holding the tension of the opposites – could be a first step in drawing back our obsessive national projection of the Other from gays, women, terrorists and people of color. Paying attention to Dionysus could be a step in awakening white America from its four centuries-long fantasy of innocence.