Dionysos’s origins, like any god whose story has been retold for thousands of years are multiple and sometimes contradictory. His story begins, however, not at the beginning of time, but the beginning of light.
Origins: The Birth of the Indestructible Life Force
According to Anne Wroe, Orpheus taught that Dionysos was another name for Phanes. Phanes was also a god that Jung encountered in the active imagination, as he sought a deep god-image that could help heal the splits he felt existed in the traditional Christian image of God the Father as a being a male god of pure goodness. Phanes is an undifferentiated solar unity, containing all gods, all genders, all the force of all the Suns
Dionysos personifies the primordial Sun, hatching into a dark world. It is energy, fire, light . Imagine the birth of the first star, 13-14 Billion years ago. The scientific account goes like this – After the big bang, for a long time, there was nothing, except hydrogen and helium atoms. Over time, superdense darkness and matter grew denser and denser into a thick, slimy, grey cloud. From this superdense grey cloud the first Sun finally exploded – a Blue Sun, that grew from a small egg to a supergiant size in a mere 10,000 years. It gave birth to more matter, and more stars.
This is our cosmic parent. So, When we find the words:
“I am a child of the Earth and the Starry Heavens”
￼ written on the tomb of a 4th Century Italian Orphic worshipper, or Joni Mitchell singing “We are stardust, we are golden”, we still hold, even within a strict scientific account to be literally true.
Remarkably Orpheus told a story of the origins of the universe that agrees to a large extent with the scientific view. Orphic texts said that after the Universe began, for a long time, there was only time, and a dull grey matter, a kind of slimy ether. Time reached into this aether and shaped and formed an Egg – the Orphic Egg. This egg became magically fertile and from it’s grey shell burst forth Phanes – primordial light. Bisexual and Animal – Lion, Bull, Man, Woman. The mythos of this account lives in the scientific one just as our mythos lives within our seemingly rational world views.
A Poetic Basis of Mind
The post-Jungian psychologist James Hillman spoke of a “poetic basis of mind.” He meant that the mind imagines before it does anything else, often without realising it. It imagines within the strict parameters of scientific inquiry. It imagines using vast speculations of dreams, poetic or visionary experience. We have become so accustomed to thinking of “imaginary” as meaning “not real” that to say to a scientist that they are imagining their work seems like an insult.
However, if imagination is a part of reality rather than separate from it, then this imagining can be precise and rigorous. One consequence of a poetic basis of mind is the idea that there are different aspects or parts of a person. Jung called these “complexes” and thought of them as subpersonalities that live within the individual’s psyche. For this reason, Hillman said that to find meaning we should not just think when we are conflicted not so much “why?” or “how?” but also “who?” Who is in control of these thoughts? Who is it that is thinking or feeling this way. When we relate to another, we might think, which part of another person is driving their speech, their beliefs?
Into the Imaginal
Hillman took inspiration from Henry Corbin, whose work on the careful philosophy of visionary Sufi mystics led him to coin the term “Imaginal.” Using the word “Imaginal” frames what happens when imagination takes place as a place to visit and a way of seeing, rather than an act of whimsy, or a deviation from reality.
The imaginal is not an act of subjective escapism, but a gateway to a the deeper dreaming nature that we have become systematically alienated from. The gift of the imaginal is to see the primordial Blue Sun as both Phanes – Lion, Bull, God – and as an explosion of helium and hydrogen. Our double vision can encompass this movement between paradigms, as the birth of that light is also the birth of consciousness; of the seed of thought, the germ of reflection, the precursor to the body.
The Dreaming Body
Mythic ecology allows participants to immerse themselves in this poetic basis of mind. Art therapist and poet Steve Thorp calls this “ecologising” – the act of working together mythic, ecological and personal narratives into a something that reconnects the individual to their deep ecology. The worship of Dionysos was worship of nature’s capacity for regeneration. Dionysos is the indestructible life force. A green god. ER Dodds, in his introduction to “the Bachae” suggests that in the worship of Dionysos there was an emphasis on the value of entering into trance states, in which there was an experience of primal unity, one that united life, death and rebirth. Dodds references ancient texts that speak of women wrapping snakes in their hair on the slopes of Mt Kithairon, of the unity of hunter and hunted in sacrifice, of a strange collective peace descending on participants as they sink into the ecological as well as a wild savagery.
“The body is precisely the site of metamorphosis” – David Abrams, eco-philospher
At the “Haunted Evaporations” workshop, we re-enacted the story of Dionysos. No contemporary workshop can re-create the religious structures of a lost age. Nor would this be a desirable aim. The aim is not to revive the worship old gods, but to find the places their absence suggests. To find the symbols, the language we have no words for within our own psyche and culture and give them space to re-animate how we live now. Within our own bodies, we hold the same capacity for entering the deep spell breaking trance that allows us to find subtle connections to our ecological roots. Participants come together to form a temporary psychological container. They do this by agreeing to the norms of the workshop, by paying for a place to be hired and for a facilitator to hold the space, by setting time aside from the everyday, by meeting each other creatively, sharing ideas and by sharing a little of their own story. Within the workshop there is an emphasis on embodiment as a primary vehicle for ecologising, and psychologising. This is acting, really, not as a character study, so much as a way of finding within the body the impulses that lead to creative expression.
Eco-philosopher David Abrams writes “the body is precisely the site of metamorphosis.” The expressive body, with in sensual nature, meets with other people and the living world that is experiences, and that is how it transforms, through this contact. This primary experience of Being is often relegated to an unimportant or secondary fact in our intellectualised culture. The body is the site for participating with living mythic ecology.
The negative road – the ecological self as an unblocking.
It’s not always easy to categorise exactly what Dionysos is “god of”. I think it is best to think of gods as personifications of certain forces in the world. If Dionysos personifies one thing, it is the indestructible life force, that Dylan Thomas called “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower”. He is associated with nature, theatre, trance, intoxication, madness, liberation, sexuality and the primal unity.
The Ancient Greeks drew him as a beautiful young man in a fawnskin dress, often surrounded by women and satyrs. The Jungian writer Marian Aguilar describes Dionysos as the archetypal image of a female fantasy of a partner. Despite his feminity and his association with rituals of sexual excess, and intoxication, he is said to be faithful to his partner, Ariadne. Perhaps, it might be simplest to say that he represents what it means to “come to life”; to be a part of and contribute to the regenerative potential within nature and ourselves.
In our workshop, vocal and movement exercises expand our creative range beyond our everyday sense of self. They take inspiration from the dramaturgist Jerzy Grotowski, who called them “exercise plastiques.” By repeating certain archetypal physical patterns, a part of the psyche can be unblocked, and something numinous can emerge.
Grotowski developed a rigorous psycho-physical approach to drama based intensely on the experience of the actor within the workshop. He coined the term “organic improvisation” to describe how actors, through carefully liberating their voice and bodies, can undo blocks and allow creativity to flow from a greater source. He called it a “via negativa” – that is to say the creative is a question of the removal of blocks more than it is the learning of a particular technique. The “plastiques” which are small psycho-physical images for participants to experiment with, to help unblock and to give the participants some tools to enter the heart of the workshop.￼ Dionysos:god of theatre and nature
This idea of the creative as an “unblocking” – a “via negativa” also corresponds to our earlier question about who we are as humans in relation to the greater Beauty of the ecological. When we unblock our life force, then we can be a part of the greater beauty, the zoe, because we participate in it’s goals. It is a way of entering into those Dionysian states where that life force, hidden by the everyday becomes tangible. The theatre was sacred to Dionysos. Telling stories is a way of participating in the indestructible life force.
Dionysos and Ariadne – The Bull and the Labyrinth.
The mythologist Kerenyi places Dionysos’s origins on Crete at the birth of the Western world in it’s Minoan origins. Dionysos as Bull- symbol of the life force lies at the heart of the labyrinth at Knossos when the Minoan culture flourished between 2,000-1,110BC. Stretching further back in time, right to the edge of what we know, deep in the caves of Chauvet, past the flickering images of animals that flock, fight or mate, right at the back is the image of a man-bull dated to perhaps 20,000 BC.
￼ The bull man leans near a female Venus, painted onto a pendulous stone. The image speaks to me of the Dionysian – a powerful force that links man and woman to the animal world, bound up with creativity, sexuality and transformation. It lies at the end of a labyrinth of caves. Cretan mythology seems highly matrifocal – that is to say it is mostly dominated by goddess images. Reference to the “lady of the labyrinth”, Ariadne, whose name means “most holy”, have been found amongst the ruins of Minoan Crete, 5,000 years ago.
The Story of Dionysos – from cosmic sun to human being.
Dionysos-Ariadne is a part of the primordial Blue Sun of physics, the cosmic Phanes of Orpheus. The Greeks saw the formation of the world as a series of separations – Heaven/Earth, Night/Day Form/Chaos. These eventually lead to the deity- the deus or Zeus, who after defeating his child-swallowing father (Kronos or Time), goes onto perform a remarkable act of swallowing himself. He swallows Phanes, takes him inside himself. This is the source of the divine spark in all the gods. It arises in none so clearly as Dionysos. It is Dionysos’s strange fate to be both the oldest and youngest of the gods – his own father. He is always central to yet outside of the established order.
Zeus, falls in love with the mortal princess, Semele, the son that she bears him has the energy signature of Phanes- Dionysos. He is divine, yet mortal. However, the union of Semele and Zeus is cursed by Zeus’s wife Hera, who tricks Semele into making Zeus promise to reveal himself in his divine form. Semele makes him promise by placing his wrist into the River Styx and promising to do something for her. He agrees, and is horrified at her request, as he knows that the she cannot survive witnessing his divine form. There is often a suspicion involved in love, that it is too good to be true, that something is being masked. Here, what is masked is the intense archetypal power of the lightning god. Semele is incinerated by the sight of him. However, Zeus arranges for Hermes, the messenger god to save the child. Zeus has the child sown into his “thigh” (a euphemism for his testicles), gestating for the last 3 months of his development in this unusual womb of potency.
The child Dionysos is thus born, half mortal, and already an outcast and an orphan. He lives outside the Olympian order. He live at the margins, and has a message for civilisation, one that it does not want to hear.And this is the same today, where the embodied and imaginal aspects of nature have been cast out of our ways of knowing the world. Dionysos seems to live at the margins, in the small flowers that crack concrete. When an environmental message is heard, it is often heard in the language of statistics and numbers rather than the language of Dionysos. A Dionysian language tells the story of the life force from the inside, as it is the pattern of that life force whereever it is found.
Birth of Dionysos
The child Dionysos is brought up far from Mt Olympus on the remote rocky Island of Nyssa – but madness follows him – Hera’s curse – and the family of nymphs and dryads that have been tasked with bringing him up are sent mad, on the advent of his adolescence.
Dionysos wanders through Turkey and Syria, to Egypt, where he learns the secrets of life and death, and is initiated into the cult of divine energy and intoxication.
A personal experience of Dionysos
Mythic ecology creates a container for personal experience to connect to archetypal meanings.
When I was 18 , I went to University to study Philosophy. Alongside my studies, another kind of truth up for me at University – the truth of experience. It was a moment a sudden dilation of possibility, opportunity, consciousness freedom. I now might say I was initiated into the hidden mysteries of the Dionysian – outdoor parties, friendship, distortions and expansions of consciousness, the mysteries of nature as a living force.
It was the tail end of the rave scene, I’d missed the burning thrust of the free parties, ecstasy inspired communal raves that had peaked in the early 90’s but arrived in the tail wind of that storm. I sat in summer fields as the Sun came up, hearing the way the techno seemed to mirror the hum of the ragwort and grass as it grew. I went on explorations into the psychedelic recesses of the night with friends. I read Robert Anton Wilson’s Cosmic Trigger, Hesse’s Siddarta, and these books made sense to me. I felt I was living them.
These events for me, were like a kind of birth into a living cosmogeny. Now I might say, it was as if my own life had dilated, like the primordial Sun, that light that Orpheus called Phanes-Dionysos.The myth offers a sequence of events that range from the massive to the human scale, from the huge cosmic drama of the birth of primordial Phanes to the sufferings and redemptions of Dionysos as demi-god..
Dionysos travels to Egypt begins his approach to the indestructible life force through the personal experience of ecstasy. He learns how his body holds the deepest secrets of the green earth, of regeneration, kinship with the force that drives the blood through his veins. These secrets he learns in Egypt, from an initiated priest. However, the initiation into this cult of intoxication sends him mad.
Dark Night of the Soul
What does it mean that the nature god is outcast, and goes mad? The myth explores the problems of intoxication, or inflation.
My own personal Dionysian intiation was also an wave of experience was an initiation into what Thomas Moore calls “A dark night of the soul”. A friend with deep spiritual beliefs committed suicide. Another close friend began to experience psychosis that would lead to his long term mental health problems. I began to experience a sense of failure as the reality of my life began to fail to map onto the high spiritual aspirations I had accumulated. A “negative inflation” – a mirror image of the positive inflation I had experienced. I saw myself reflected in other people’s eyes, and took this as a cosmic sign of my failure to erase my ego.
I would shudder when candles flickered, seeing this as a message from a judgemental God revealing my own lack of composure and grace. I had faith, but lacked purpose or conviction. By the age of 22, I was ready to start to come down from the isolated and grand holy mountain i had constructed in the shrine of my own mind, and to begin to face the demons and shadows that had travelled with me as I built it.
The Initiation into Nature
Dionysos wanders in this state back through the Levant to Syria, where the earth goddess Rhea has her place of worship. She takes pity on him, and initiates him for a second time – into the cult of the earth. Thus healed and initiated, he finds his purpose and sets out for his home city to establish his own divine mission, which is to establish the worship of the indestructible life force. This finally leads him back to his partner, the Lady of the Labyrinth, Ariadne, abandoned by Theseus on Naxos on his way home from Crete and the Minotaur.
I took a role as a volunteer on a community farm, worked with adults with mental health problems there and in the community for the next 10 years. I entered Jungian analysis and trained to become a Dramatherapist, of learning to work with trauma and healing through that most Dionysian of institutions – the theatre. Here I learned about symbolic reality and how to differentiate it from literal reality, and about reclaiming the shadow. Valuable lessons.
My experiences of ”getting burned” by the archetype led me to seek a deeper understanding of nature – both human nature and nature, through gardening, working with suffering people in the community, entering therapy, training as a therapist. These all gave a structure, grounding and purpose to the grand energy I had felt. They gave me a sense of kinship with the world itself, one I had not had before. Humility, from humas, soil.
The Archetypal Experience within the deeply Personal
However, this is not just a personal story. On a larger scale, by casting out the immediate and messy connection of the divine experience of nature, in favour of the bright enlightenment of hyper rationality, we have created a madness within nature, a disordering and magnification of it’s effects. We have made it’s power greater and more erratic.
The only healing we can find is through an acceptance of the reality of the ecological, and doing this on all dimensions we can – through gardening, experience of nature, through activism, putting pressure on government, and through engaging our own creative abilities. This will need a bringing back of the visionary elements of Dionysos, of the grounded recovery of the soul, the feminine.
The mythic ecology workshop showed how different individuals find different themes to bring from the myth.
The creative force as an exiled spirit Dionsyos is exiled throughout the story. The creative can be exiled in our materialistic world, and the first place it is exiled is within ourselves. Often the creative is the thing most needed to find the mysterious power to keep going in our lives. If we can tell a story about our lives, we can withstand the problems. “The Egyptian priest” – the role of the holder of the mysteries, both scientific and creative. “Egypt” with it’s vast cosmology and cult of death has long been a place of the knowledge of life and death, of magic and knowledge of the deeper mysteries in the imagination. The Egyptian priest represents the structure knowledge and process that can inform and contain the deeper mysteries of nature. This structure and process is necessary to allow the transmission of knowledge to happen.
Ariadne -a the calm and grounding path through the wild labyrinth
Ariadne hears and enjoys the wild story and also respects her own nature as a listener. She does not try to be like him, but knows herself. She does not stand for all women, just as Dionysos does not stand for men. Rather, she stands for the archetype of the labyrinth and for herself. Her labyrinth has the capacity to contain the wildness of Dionysos himself as the suffering and reborn shaman, who finds a new and deeper purpose in his creativity. Their relationship, despite his sexuality is faithful. In her deeper form, she is a nature goddess in her own right. She holds an image of regeneration and her own story, of abandonment by the hero Theseus, not told here, leads her to this relationship with the indestructible life force.
The shadow of the “civilised world” of Hera.
Hera, originally a goddess of the home and hearth, banishes Dionysos. The sense here is that that the wilding that Dionysos does not fit in with everyday life. This is a very real tension in everyday life. Eventually this cast outness transforms this to a deeper music through the story, through his initiations into creativity and nature, and his union with Ariadne.
It was an such an enriching experience to hear a little of how each participant in our workshop made use of the myth of Dionysos- Ariadne. Each of you engaged with the story in your own way. With more time, we could have explored the personal and archetypal dimensions of the myth more.
The Orphic accounts of linka shattering cosmic event of the birth of great energy into a womb of dark matter and time. The myth, however, does more than offer a story of the origins of light. It also offers a pattern by which a human being might re-imagine their own connection with the greater beauty.
Through dramatic enactment, voice and movement exercises, and a deep listening to the places creativity and nature converge, mythic ecology offers a form of ritual theatre that reconnects the human to the deep impulses of life through story. At it’s heart is a vision of fiction as part of nature, as restorative, and of the imaginal’s place to do this.
To create a garden, to learn ecology, to support green charities, to advocate for nature, and participate in activism all offer ways to give something back.
But perhaps the biggest overarching thing is to find a way of living one’s own life as a part of the indestructible life force that I am calling Dionysos-Ariadne. The Bull-man and the Lady of the Labyrinth.
For that, we need to enter into the living reality of myth, to bring our own story to life. Not myth as a remnant of the ancient past, but myth as the vibrant substance of the living psyche, that visionary stuff that entangles us back to the greater beauty. And we need to do it now, more than ever.