THE COMMENTARY GAZETTE
A STUDY OF DIONYSUS: THE SPIRITUAL FORM OF FIRE AND DEW
Writers on mythology speak habitually of the religion of the Greeks. In thus speaking, they are really using a misleading expression, and should speak rather of religions; each race and class of Greeks–the Dorians, the people of the coast, the fishers–having had a religion of its own, conceived of the objects that came nearest to it and were most in its thoughts, and the resulting usages and ideas never having come to have a precisely harmonized system, after the analogy of some other religions. The religion of Dionysus is the religion of people who pass their lives among the vines. As the religion of Demeter carries us back to the cornfields and farmsteads of Greece, and places us, in fancy, among a primitive race, in the furrow and beside the granary; so the religion of Dionysus carries us back to its vineyards, and is a monument of the ways and thoughts of people whose days go by beside the winepress, and under the green and purple shadows, and whose material happiness depends on the crop of grapes. For them the thought of Dionysus and his circle, a little Olympus outside the greater, covered the whole of life, and was a complete religion, a sacred representation or interpretation of the whole human experience, modified by the special limitations, the special privileges of insight or suggestion, incident to their peculiar mode of existence.
Now, if the reader wishes to understand what the scope of the religion of Dionysus was to the Greeks who lived in it, all it represented to them by way of one clearly conceived yet complex symbol, let him reflect what the loss would be if all the effect and expression drawn from the imagery of the vine and the cup fell out of the whole body of existing poetry; how many fascinating trains of reflexion, what colour and substance would therewith have been deducted from it, filled as it is, apart from the more awful associations of the Christian ritual, apart from Galahad’s cup, with all the various symbolism of the fruit of the vine. That supposed loss is but an imperfect measure of all that the name of Dionysus recalled to the Greek mind, under a single imaginable form, an outward body of flesh presented to the senses, and comprehending, as its animating soul, a whole world of thoughts, surmises, greater and less experiences.
The student of the comparative science of religions finds in the religion of Dionysus one of many modes of that primitive tree-worship which, growing out of some universal instinctive belief that trees and flowers are indeed habitations of living spirits, is found almost everywhere in the earlier stages of civilization, enshrined in legend or custom, often graceful enough, as if the delicate beauty of the object of worship had effectually taken hold on the fancy of the worshipper. Shelley’s Sensitive Plant shows in what mists of poetical reverie such feeling may still float about a mind full of modern lights, the feeling we too have of a life in the green world, always ready to assert its claim over our sympathetic fancies. Who has not at moments felt the scruple, which is with us always regarding animal life, following the signs of animation further still, till one almost hesitates to pluck out the little soul of flower or leaf?
And in so graceful a faith the Greeks had their share; what was crude and inane in it becoming, in the atmosphere of their energetic, imaginative intelligence, refined and humanized. The oak-grove of Dodona, the seat of their most venerable oracle, did but perpetuate the fancy that the sounds of the wind in the trees may be, for certain prepared and chosen ears, intelligible voices; they could believe in the transmigration of souls into mulberry and laurel, mint and hyacinth; and the dainty Metamorphoses of Ovid are but a fossilized form of one morsel here and there, from a whole world of transformation, with which their nimble fancy was perpetually playing. “Together with them,” says the Homeric hymn to Aphrodite, of the Hamadryads, the nymphs which animate the forest trees, “with them, at the moment of their birth, grew up out of the soil, oak-tree or pine, fair, flourishing among the mountains. And when at last the appointed hour of their death has come, first of all, those fair trees are dried up; the bark perishes from around them, and the branches fall away; and therewith the soul of them deserts the light of the sun.”
These then are the nurses of the vine, bracing it with interchange of sun and shade. They bathe, they dance, they sing songs of enchantment, so that those who seem oddly in love with nature, and strange among their fellows, are still said to be nympholeptic; above all, they are weavers or spinsters, spinning or weaving with airiest fingers, and subtlest, many-coloured threads, the foliage of the trees, the petals of flowers, the skins of the fruit, the long thin stalks on which the poplar leaves are set so lightly that Homer compares to them, in their constant motion, the maids who sit spinning in the house of Alcinous. The nymphs of Naxos, where the grape-skin is darkest, weave for him a purple robe. Only, the ivy is never transformed, is visible as natural ivy to the last, pressing the dark outline of its leaves close upon the firm, white, quite human flesh of the god’s forehead.
In its earliest form, then, the religion of Dionysus presents us with the most graceful phase of this graceful worship, occupying a place between the ruder fancies of half-civilized people concerning life in flower or tree, and the dreamy after-fancies of the poet of the Sensitive Plant. He is the soul of the individual vine, first; the young vine at the house-door of the newly married, for instance, as the vine-grower stoops over it, coaxing and nursing it, like a pet animal or a little child; afterwards, the soul of the whole species, the spirit of fire and dew, alive and leaping in a thousand vines, as the higher intelligence, brooding more deeply over things, pursues, in thought, the generation of sweetness and strength in the veins of the tree, the transformation of water into wine, little by little; noting all the influences upon it of the heaven above and the earth beneath; and shadowing forth, in each pause of the process, an intervening person–what is to us but the secret chemistry of nature being to them the mediation of living spirits. So they passed on to think of Dionysus (naming him at last from the brightness of the sky and the moisture of the earth) not merely as the soul of the vine, but of all that life in flowing things of which the vine is the symbol, because its most emphatic example. At Delos he bears a son, from whom in turn spring the three mysterious sisters Oeno, Spermo, and Elais, who, dwelling in the island, exercise respectively the gifts of turning all things at will into oil, and corn, and wine.
In the Bacchae of Euripides, he gives his followers, by miracle, honey and milk, and the water gushes for them from the smitten rock. He comes at last to have a scope equal to that of Demeter, a realm as wide and mysterious as hers; the whole productive power of the earth is in him, and the explanation of its annual change. As some embody their intuitions of that power in corn, so others in wine. He is the dispenser of the earth’s hidden wealth, giver of riches through the vine, as Demeter through the grain. And as Demeter sends the airy, dainty-wheeled and dainty-winged spirit of Triptolemus to bear her gifts abroad on all winds, so Dionysus goes on his eastern journey, with its many intricate adventures, on which he carries his gifts to every people.
A little Olympus outside the greater, I said, of Dionysus and his companions; he is the center of a cycle, the hierarchy of the creatures of water and sunlight in many degrees; and that fantastic system of tree-worship places round him, not the fondly whispering spirits of the more graceful inhabitants of woodland only, the nymphs of the poplar and the pine, but the whole satyr circle, intervening between the headship of the vine and the mere earth, the grosser, less human spirits, incorporate and made visible, of the more coarse and sluggish sorts of vegetable strength, the fig, the reed, the ineradicable weed-things which will attach themselves, climbing about the vine-poles, or seeking the sun between the hot stones. For as Dionysus, the spiritual form of the vine, is of the highest human type, so the fig-tree and the reed have animal souls, mistakable in the thoughts of a later, imperfectly remembering age, for mere abstractions of animal nature; Snub-nose, and Sweet wine, and Silenus, the oldest of them all, so old that he has come to have the gift of prophecy.
Quite different from them in origin and intent, but confused with them in form, are those other companions of Dionysus, Pan and his children. Home-spun dream of simple people, and like them in the uneventful tenour of his existence, he has almost no story; he is but a presence; the spiritual form of Arcadia, and the ways of human life there; the reflexion, in sacred image or ideal, of its flocks, and orchards, and wild honey; the dangers of its hunters; its weariness in noonday heat; its children, agile as the goats they tend, who run, in their picturesque rags, across the solitary wanderer’s path, to startle him, in the unfamiliar upper places; it’s one adornment and solace being the dance to the homely shepherd’s pipe, cut by Pan first from the sedges of the brook Molpeia.
Breathing of remote nature, the sense of which is so profound in the Homeric hymn to Pan, the pines, the foldings of the hills, the leaping streams, the strange echoings and dying of sound on the heights, “the bird, which among the petals of many-flowered spring, pouring out a dirge, sends forth her honey-voiced song,” “the crocus and the hyacinth disorderly mixed in the deep grass”-things which the religion of Dionysus loves–Pan joins the company of the Satyrs.
Amongst them, they give their names to insolence and mockery, and the finer sorts of malice, to unmeaning and ridiculous fear. But the best spirits have found in them also a certain human pathos, as in displaced beings, coming even nearer to most men, in their very roughness, than the noble and delicate person of the vine; dubious creatures, half-way between the animal and human kinds, speculating wistfully on their being, because not wholly understanding themselves and their place in nature; as the animals seem always to have this expression to some noticeable degree in the presence of man. In the later school of Attic sculpture they are treated with more and more of refinement, till in some happy moment Praxiteles conceived a model, often repeated, which concentrates this sentiment of true humour concerning them; a model of dainty natural ease in posture, but with the legs slightly crossed, as only lowly-bred gods are used to carry them, and with some puzzled trouble of youth, you might wish for a moment to smoothe away, puckering the forehead a little, between the pointed ears, on which the goodly hair of his animal strength grows low. Little by little, the signs of brute nature are subordinated, or disappear; and at last, Robetta, a humble Italian engraver of the fifteenth century, entering into the Greek fancy because it belongs to all ages, has expressed it in its most exquisite form, in a design of Ceres and her children, of whom their mother is no longer afraid, as in the Homeric hymn to Pan. The puck-noses have grown delicate, so that, with Plato’s infatuated lover, you may call them winsome, if you please; and no one would wish those hairy little shanks away, with which one of the small Pans walks at her side, grasping her skirt stoutly; while the other, the sick or weary one, rides in the arms of Ceres herself, who in graceful Italian dress, and decked airily with fruit and corn, steps across a country of cut sheaves, pressing it closely to her, with a child’s peevish trouble in its face, and its small goat-legs and tiny hoofs folded over together, precisely after the manner of a little child.
There is one element in the conception of Dionysus, which his connection with the satyrs, Marsyas being one of them, and with Pan, from whom the flute passed to all the shepherds of Theocritus, alike illustrates, his interest, namely, in one of the great species of music. One form of that wilder vegetation, of which the Satyr race is the soul made visible, is the reed, which the creature plucks and trims into musical pipes. And as Apollo inspires and rules over all the music of strings, so Dionysus inspires and rules over all the music of the reed, the water-plant, in which the ideas of water and of vegetable life are brought close together, natural property, therefore, of the spirit of life in the green sap. I said that the religion of Dionysus was, for those who lived in it, a complete religion, a complete sacred representation and interpretation of the whole of life; and as, in his relation to the vine, he fills for them the place of Demeter, is the life of the earth through the grape as she through the grain, so, in this other phase of his being, in his relation to the reed, he fills for them the place of Apollo; he is the inherent cause of music and poetry; he inspires; he explains the phenomena of enthusiasm, as distinguished by Plato in the Phaedrus, the secrets of possession by a higher and more energetic spirit than one’s own, the gift of self-revelation, of passing out of oneself through words, tones, gestures. A winged Dionysus, venerated at Amyclae, was perhaps meant to represent him thus, as the god of enthusiasm, of the rising up on those spiritual wings, of which also we hear something in the Phaedrus of Plato.
The artists of the Renaissance occupied themselves much with the person and the story of Dionysus; and Michelangelo, in a work still remaining in Florence, in which he essayed with success to produce a thing which should pass with the critics for a piece of ancient sculpture, has represented him in the fullness, as it seems, of this enthusiasm, an image of delighted, entire surrender to transporting dreams. And this is no subtle after-thought of a later age, but true to certain finer movements of old Greek sentiment, though it may seem to have waited for the hand of Michelangelo before it attained complete realization. The head of Ion leans, as they recline at the banquet, on the shoulder of Charmides; he mutters in his sleep of things seen therein, but awakes as the flute-players enter, whom Charmides has hired for his birthday supper. The soul of Callias, who sits on the other side of Charmides, flashes out; he counterfeits, with life-like gesture, the personal tricks of friend or foe; or the things he could never utter before, he finds words for now; the secrets of life are on his lips. It is in this loosening of the lips and heart, strictly, that Dionysus is the Deliverer, Eleutherios; and of such enthusiasm, or ecstasy, is, in a certain sense, an older patron than Apollo himself. Even at Delphi, the centre of Greek inspiration and of the religion of Apollo, his claim always maintained itself; and signs are not wanting that Apollo was but a later comer there. There, under his later reign, hard by the golden image of Apollo himself, near the sacred tripod on which the Pythia sat to prophesy, was to be seen a strange object–a sort of coffin or cinerary urn with the inscription, “Here lieth the body of Dionysus, the son of Semele.” The pediment of the great temple was divided between them–Apollo with the nine Muses on that side, Dionysus, with perhaps three times three Graces, on this. A third of the whole year was held sacred to him; the four winter months were the months of Dionysus; and in the shrine of Apollo itself he was worshipped with almost equal devotion.
The religion of Dionysus takes us back, then, into that old Greek life of the vineyards, as we see it on many painted vases, with much there as we should find it now, as we see it in Bennozzo Gozzoli’s mediaeval fresco of the Invention of Wine in the Campo Santo at Pisa-the family of Noah presented among all the circumstances of a Tuscan vineyard, around the press from which the first wine is flowing, a painted idyll, with its vintage colours still opulent in decay, and not without its solemn touch of biblical symbolism. For differences, we detect in that primitive life, and under that Greek sky, a nimbler play of fancy, lightly and unsuspiciously investing all things with personal aspect and incident, and a certain mystical apprehension, now almost departed, of unseen powers beyond the material veil of things, corresponding to the exceptional vigour and variety of the Greek organization. This peasant life lies, in unhistorical time, behind the definite forms with which poetry and a refined priesthood afterwards clothed the religion of Dionysus; and the mere scenery and circumstances of the vineyard have determined many things in its development. The noise of the vineyard still sounds in some of his epithets, perhaps in his best-known name–Iacchus, Bacchus.
The masks suspended on base or cornice, so familiar an ornament in later Greek architecture, are the little faces hanging from the vines, and moving in the wind, to scare the birds. That garland of ivy, the aesthetic value of which is so great in the later imagery of Dionysus and his descendants, the leaves of which, floating from his hair, become so noble in the hands of Titian and Tintoret, was actually worn on the head for coolness; his earliest and most sacred images were wrought in the wood of the vine. The people of the vineyard had their feast, the little or country Dionysia, which still lived on, side by side with the greater ceremonies of a later time, celebrated in December, the time of the storing of the new wine. It was then that the potters’ fair came, calpis and amphora, together with lamps against the winter, laid out in order for the choice of buyers; for Keramus, the Greek Vase, is a son of Dionysus, of wine and of Athene, who teaches men all serviceable and decorative art.
Then the goat was killed, and its blood poured out at the root of the vines; and Dionysus literally drank the blood of goats; and, being Greeks, with quick and mobile sympathies, deisidaimones, “superstitious,” or rather “susceptible of religious impressions,” some among them, remembering those departed since last year, add yet a little more, and a little wine and water for the dead also; brooding how the sense of these things might pass below the roots, to spirits hungry and thirsty, perhaps, in their shadowy homes. But the gaiety, that gaiety which Aristophanes in the Acharnians has depicted with so many vivid touches, as a thing of which civil war had deprived the villages of Attica, preponderates over the grave. The travelling country show comes round with its puppets; even the slaves have their holiday; the mirth becomes excessive; they hide their faces under grotesque masks of bark, or stain them with wine-lees, or potters’ crimson even, like the old rude idols painted red; and carry in midnight procession such rough symbols of the productive force of nature as the women and children had best not look upon; which will be frowned upon, and refine themselves, or disappear, in the feasts of cultivated Athens.
Of the whole story of Dionysus, it was the episode of his marriage with Ariadne about which ancient art concerned itself oftenest, and with most effect. Here, although the antiquarian may still detect circumstances which link the persons and incidents of the legend with the mystical life of the earth, as symbols of its annual change, yet the merely human interest of the story has prevailed over its earlier significance; the spiritual form of fire and dew has become a romantic lover. And as a story of romantic love, fullest perhaps of all the motives of classic legend of the pride of life, it survived with undiminished interest to a later world, two of the greatest masters of Italian painting having poured their whole power into it; Titian with greater space of ingathered shore and mountain, and solemn foliage, and fiery animal life; Tintoret with profounder luxury of delight in the nearness to each other, and imminent embrace, of glorious bodily presences; and both alike with consummate beauty of physical form. Hardly less humanized is the Theban legend of Dionysus, the legend of his birth from Semele, which, out of the entire body of tradition concerning him, was accepted as central by the Athenian imagination. For the people of Attica, he comes from Boeotia, a country of northern marsh and mist, but from whose somber, black marble towns came also the vine, the musical reed cut from its sedges, and the worship of the Graces, always so closely connected with the religion of Dionysus. “At Thebes alone,” says Sophocles, “mortal women bear immortal gods.” His mother is the daughter of Cadmus, himself marked out by many curious circumstances as the close kinsman of the earth, to which he all but returns at last, as the serpent, in his old age, attesting some closer sense lingering there of the affinity of man with the dust from whence he came.
Semele, an old Greek word, as it seems, for the surface of the earth, the daughter of Cadmus, beloved by Zeus, desires to see her lover in the glory with which he is seen by the immortal Hera. He appears to her in lightning. But the mortal may not behold him and live. Semele gives premature birth to the child Dionysus; whom, to preserve it from the jealousy of Hera, Zeus hides in a part of his thigh, the child returning into the loins of its father, whence in due time it is born again. Yet in this fantastic story, hardly less than in the legend of Ariadne, the story of Dionysus has become a story of human persons, with human fortunes, and even more intimately human appeal to sympathy; so that Euripides, pre-eminent as a poet of pathos, finds in it a subject altogether to his mind. All the interest now turns on the development of its points of moral or sentimental significance; the love of the immortal for the mortal, the presumption of the daughter of man who desires to see the divine form as it is; on the fact that not without loss of sight, or life itself, can man look upon it. The travail of nature has been transformed into the pangs of the human mother; and the poet dwells much on the pathetic incident of death in childbirth, making Dionysus, as Callimachus calls him, a seven months’ child, cast out among its enemies, motherless. And as a consequence of this human interest, the legend attaches itself, as in an actual history, to definite sacred objects and places, the venerable relic of the wooden image which fell into the chamber of Semele with the lightning-flash, and which the piety of a later age covered with plates of brass; the Ivy-Fountain near Thebes, the water of which was so wonderfully bright and sweet to drink, where the nymphs bathed the new-born child; the grave of Semele, in a sacred enclosure grown with ancient vines, where some volcanic heat or flame was perhaps actually traceable, near the lightning-struck ruins of her supposed abode.
Yet, though the mystical body of the earth is forgotten in the human anguish of the mother of Dionysus, the sense of his essence of fire and dew still lingers in his most sacred name, as the son of Semele, Dithyrambus. We speak of a certain wild music in words or rhythm as dithyrambic, like the dithyrambus, that is, the wild choral-singing of the worshippers of Dionysus. But Dithyrambus seems to have been, in the first instance, the name, not of the hymn, but of the god to whom the hymn is sung; and, through a tangle of curious etymological speculations as to the precise derivation of this name, one thing seems clearly visible, that it commemorates, namely, the double birth of the vine-god; that he is born once and again; his birth, first of fire, and afterwards of dew; the two dangers that beset him; his victory over two enemies, the capricious, excessive heats and colds of spring.
BIRTH OF FIRE
He is pyrogens’, then, fire-born, the son of lightning; lightning being to light, as regards concentration, what wine is to the other strengths of the earth. And who that has rested a hand on the glittering silex of a vineyard slope in August, where the pale globes of sweetness are lying, does not feel this? It is out of the bitter salts of a smitten, volcanic soil that it comes up with the most curious virtues. The mother faints and is parched up by the heat which brings the child to the birth; and it pierces through, a wonder of freshness, drawing its everlasting green and typical coolness out of the midst of the ashes; its own stem becoming at last like a tangled mass of tortured metal. In thinking of Dionysus, then, as fire-born, the Greeks apprehend and embody the sentiment, the poetry, of all tender things which grow out of a hard soil, or in any sense blossom before the leaf, like the little mezereon-plant of English gardens, with its pale-purple, wine-scented flowers upon the leafless twigs in February, or like the almond-trees of Tuscany, or Aaron’s rod that budded, or the staff in the hand of the Pope when Tannhauser’s repentance is accepted.
BIRTH OF DEW
And his second birth is of the dew. The fire of which he was born would destroy him in his turn, as it withered up his mother; a second danger comes; from this the plant is protected by the influence of the cooling cloud, the lower part of his father the sky, in which it is wrapped and hidden, and of which it is born again, its second mother being, in some versions of the legend, Hye–the Dew. The nursery, where Zeus places it to be brought up, is a cave in Mount Nysa, sought by a misdirected ingenuity in many lands, but really, like the place of the carrying away of Persephone, a place of fantasy, the oozy place of springs in the hollow of the hillside, nowhere and everywhere, where the vine was “invented.” The nymphs of the trees overshadow it from above; the nymphs of the springs sustain it from below–the Hyades, those first leaping maenads, who, as the springs become rain-clouds, go up to heaven among the stars, and descend again, as dew or shower, upon it; so that the religion of Dionysus connects itself, not with tree-worship only, but also with ancient water-worship, the worship of the spiritual forms of springs and streams. To escape from his enemies Dionysus leaps into the sea, the original of all rain and springs, whence, in early summer, the women of Elis and Argos were wont to call him, with the singing of a hymn. And again, in thus commemorating Dionysus as born of the dew, the Greeks apprehend and embody the sentiment, the poetry, of water.
For not the heat only, but its solace–the freshness of the cup-this too was felt by those people of the vineyard, whom the prophet Melampus had taught to mix always their wine with water, and with whom the watering of the vines became a religious ceremony; the very dead, as they thought, drinking of and refreshed by the stream. And who that has ever felt the heat of a southern country does not know this poetry, the motive of the loveliest of all the works attributed to Giorgione, the Fete Champetre in the Louvre; the intense sensations, the subtle and far-reaching symbolisms, which, in these places, cling about the touch and sound and sight of it? Think of the darkness of the well in the breathless court, with the delicate ring of ferns kept alive just within the opening; of the sound of the fresh water flowing through the wooden pipes into the houses of Venice, on summer mornings; of the cry Acqua fresca! at Padua or Verona, when the people run to buy what they prize, in its rare purity, more than wine, bringing pleasures so full of exquisite appeal to the imagination, that, in these streets, the very beggars, one thinks, might exhaust all the philosophy of the epicurean.
Out of all these fancies comes the vine-growers’ god, the spiritual form of fire and dew. Beyond the famous representations of Dionysus in later art and poetry–the Bacchanals of Euripides, the statuary of the school of Praxiteles–a multitude of literary allusions and local customs carry us back to this world of vision unchecked by positive knowledge, in which the myth is begotten among a primitive people, as they wondered over the life of the thing their hands helped forward, till it became for them a kind of spirit, and their culture of it a kind of worship. Dionysus, as we see him in art and poetry, is the projected expression of the ways and dreams of this primitive people, brooded over and harmonised by the energetic Greek imagination; the religious imagination of the Greeks being, precisely, a unifying or identifying power, bringing together things naturally asunder, making, as it were, for the human body a soul of waters, for the human soul a body of flowers; welding into something like the identity of a human personality the whole range of man’s experiences of a given object, or series of objects–all their outward qualities, and the visible facts regarding them–all the hidden ordinances by which those facts and qualities hold of unseen forces, and have their roots in purely visionary places.
Dionysus came later than the other gods to the centers of Greek life; and, as a consequence of this, he is presented to us in an earlier stage of development than they; that element of natural fact which is the original essence of all mythology being more unmistakably impressed upon us here than in other myths. Not the least interesting point in the study of him is, that he illustrates very clearly, not only the earlier, but also a certain later influence of this element of natural fact, in the development of the gods of Greece.
TITLE: Greek Studies; a series of essays
BY: Walter Horatio Pater
CONTRIBUTOR: Cade Pomeraan
[Note: there is a wealth of information to be found in the above]