In my previous post I quoted John Taylor where he referenced chapter 5 of Dionysus: Myth and Cult by Walter Friedrich Otto. That chapter is titled “The God Who Comes”. It is about this distinctive characteristic of the god Dionysus — that, unlike other gods, he comes to mankind visibly, that is, “in the flesh”. That post pointed to a strong theological or religious meaning that such a “historic presence” promised for ongoing and future intimate relations (even entering into the persons of devotees now) in the cults of both Dionysus and Jesus.
For those who are too impatient to read that chapter online (it is available in its entirety on Google books) here are a few excerpts.
One could almost substitute “Jesus” and “Gospel of Mark’ or such for Dionysus and his narrative in the following discussion and one would continue to nod in assent with all that is said. Jesus is far from the violent figure towards humans that Dionysus is, but one reads commentaries on Mark speaking of the “violence” with which Jesus enters “history”, with his overpowering of demons and in other ways suddenly turning the world upside down. The same commentators speak of the urgency with which Jesus acts and demands responses from those he encounters.
The cult forms give us the clearest evidence of the violence with which he forces his way in — a violence which affects the myth so passionately. These forms present him as the god who comes, the god of epiphany, whose appearance is far more urgent, far more compelling than that of any other god.
He had disappeared, and now he will suddenly be here again.
Other gods, like Apollo, also go off into the distance and return. But only Dionysus disappears in an incomprehensible manner from the circle of his followers or is swallowed up in the deep. As surprising as is his coming, so is his going away. In the Agrionia festival in Chaeronea the women searched for him and returned finally with the tidings that he had fled to the Muses and lay concealed among them. According to the belief of the Argives, he had plunged into the lake of Lerna. That signified, at the same time, his plunge into the underworld. . . . An Orphic hymn says that he rested for two years in the sacred house of Persephone after his departure.
Gosh. Even Dionysus had variant and contradictory tales about his post-mortem existence. No wonder contradictory tales about the resurrection appearances of Jesus posed no problem when the pagans converted to Christianity. (Yes, yes, I am only being flippant. I know one can protest — if inclined — that the reasons for the differences have their own differences.)
And now the one who had disappeared was supposed to reappear suddenly with his tipsy look and his dazed smile, or he was supposed to burst forth out of the darkness in the form of a savage bull.
They were waiting for him — the choruses of women, true images of those higher beings, who followed Dionysus everywhere. In Elis it was the dancing chorus of “the sixteen women,” who invoked the god with the words: “Come, Lord Dionysus, attended by the Graces, into the holy temple of Elis, rushing into the temple with your bull’s hoof, venerable bull, venerable bull!”
Revelation 22:17, 20 “Come, Lord Jesus!” But disrespectful sceptics can’t allow thoughts of venerable bull to enter since Jesus is a ram.
They knew, in short, that the one who would appear would be a wild creature who would bring, through his demonic violence, a breathtaking excitement.
Mark’s Jesus is notably possessed by the spirit at the beginning of his gospel, and he never rests until his spirit leaves him on the cross. One must look to Paul’s letters and some indications in Acts to see evidence of spirit possession among early Christians.
In Athens he was invoked at the festival of the Lenaea, which got its name from the Lenai, a chorus of frenzied women worshippers of Dionysus, related to the Bacchae, maenads . . . . It must have been they, above all the others, who called to the god to come, similar to the “sixteen women” of Elis. “Summon the god!” was the cry of the daduchos in the night celebration . . . . In Argos, trumpets which had been concealed under the leaves of the thrysi were sounded when he was called up out of the lake of Lerna, and a sheep was lowered into the mysterious abyss for the warder of the gates . . . to release him.
Even so, at the sound of the trumpets those who are asleep in death shall awake . . . . The message of the risen god was heralded by women. No, no, I am not suggesting this proves that Christianity was some sort of mutation from Bacchic festivals. But it does say something, surely, about the wider culture from which the Christian narrative was born and first grew.
There were other myths that varied the way the god came to his followers from his long absence:
In wintertime on the heights of Parnassus the choruses of the Delphic and Attic thyiads employed an unusual method to call Dionysus to rise up, to appear among them and lead them madly over the mountain top. They awakened him as Liknites, as a child in the cradle. He had, therefore, just been born and not yet gained consciousness.
The nymphs who suckled him as a babe became his devotees once he grew and led them in their frenzies across the mountain.
So there were different mythical details, but the same mythical idea. In some places the god was worshiped as the one who sailed to them from across the sea, in others as the one who rose up from the lake, in others as a newborn babe who was about to suddenly open his divine eyes. In all of them there was the singing of hymns to Dionysus to invoke his presence.
The unique immediacy of his appearance is expressed in the general festivals by a series of special forms. Wheras the other gods, however exciting of their coming may have been (and Callimachus’ hymn gives us a famous example for Apollo), are invisible when they enter their temples on their feast days, Dionysus arrives in the flesh, i.e., in a plastic image. In Sicyon, one was not permitted to see the images of Dionysus Bakcheios and Lysios the whole year through. Only on one holy night were they brought into the temple. . . . In Athens the image of Dionysus was driven to his sanctuary in a ship on wheels. . . .
The strongest proof for the might and triumph of his coming is his marriage at Athens with the wife of the Archon Basileus.
Otto cites a number of ancient sources for this last detail, including Aristotle and Demosthenes:
The King occupied the building now known as the Boculium, near the Prytaneum, as may be seen from the fact that even to the present day the marriage of the King’s wife to Dionysus takes place there. (Aristotle — part 3 of Athenian Constitution)
[S]he entered where no other of the whole host of the Athenians enters save the wife of the king only; and she administered the oath to the venerable priestesses who preside over the sacrifices, and was given as bride to Dionysus. (Demosthenes, from Against Neaera)
He whom the women attend, he who always has a favorite at his side, stepped over the threshold of his earthly home and took possession of the mistress of that house. . . . That is something quite different from the sacred nuptials of a god and goddess celebrated in cult. There is absolutely no comparison. . . .
The sacred nuptials in Babylon and Egypt involved the woman being separated from all men and having to belong to the god in his temple.
The Athenian Basilinna, however, does not belong to Dionysus in this way. She is not a woman whom the god has chosen as his companion, as was the case in Babylon . . . . She is the wife of the distinguished official who has the name of king. Nor does she pay her respects to the god in his temple, but, on the contrary, he presents himself to her in the house of her husband, to make her his through his embrace. . . . Dionysus puts himself in the position of the king. He, the confidant of women, claims the queen in Athens, when he comes. This event is of such importance that it had necessarily to be preceded by a great public ceremony of the entry of the god . . .
Just as the appearances of Dionysus, in general, are different from those of the other gods because of their physical immediacy, so there is no precedent in the history of cult for the rite of sexual intercourse with the queen. This visit truly shows that he is the god who appears. In no other act of his epiphany is his nearness revealed with such impetuousness in taking possession.
We all know about the union of Christ and the church being symbolized in the Bible as a marriage. In my previous post I remarked on John Taylor’s observations that the Gospel of John appears to have several features that echo the famous play about Dionysus by Euripides (Bacchae). But there are some features of that gospel that Taylor did not address, but that do not wander far from the above theme of the god’s coming being epitomized sexually.
Jo-Ann Brant has studied certain novelistic features in the Gospel of John, some of which relate directly to sexuality. I have discussed some of her views in an earlier post, Novelistic Plot and Motifs in the Gospel of John. Three scenes in particular point to the author using sexual imagery and motifs to deliver his spiritual message:
- the playful flirting between Jesus and the married Samaritan woman at the well,
- the sensual scene of Mary anointing Jesus feet with costly nard,
- and Jesus’ finally fulfiling his mother’s wishes for his own wedding by substituting a death (a symbolic or spiritual marriage) for a literal marriage.
If these three descriptions of anything from that most spiritual of all gospels sound scandalous, then read Jo-Ann Brant’s work, or my blog post outlining it.
Brant does not associate these scenes with Dionysian themes. Not at least as far as I recall. I am mentioning them merely as a bit of free-association following on from Otto’s discussion of the cult of Dionysus, filtered through the associations of this with the Gospel of John in John Taylor’s discussion in Classics and the Bible. If you think it’s over the top to even mention this then you are entitled to ignore it. But maybe I should post a little more on the other associations between the Bacchae and the Gospel of John. They go well beyond the wine symbolism.
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