Dionysus was the ancient Greek divine hypostasis of eternal returning life. Like the other Greek gods and goddesses he represented a divine aspect of the originating (Arche, ἀρχή) divinity, Zeus, manifesting through the earth and nature as a tendrilled, seeking, pushing, growing, enlivening spirit responsible for the bringing forth of the divine logos into nature and humanity. His was perhaps the most important of the pan-Hellenic religious cults whose great age and far reach hints at origins in Europe and the Near East beyond the mythological horizon of the Bronze Age. His worship was part of an initiatory mystery cult which looked not to the stars and the skies for its mysteries, but into the earth. In turn, these chthonic mysteries provided the mythology by which the heavens and their constellations were to become decorated – as if reflected in an enormous transformative mirror:
“…Tis true without lying, certain & most true.
That which is below is like that which is above & that which is above is like that which is below to do the miracles of one only thing
And as all things have been & arose from one by the mediation of one: so all things have their birth from this one thing by adaptation.
The Sun is its father, the moon its mother, the wind hath carried it in its belly, the earth is its nurse.
The father of all perfection in the whole world is here.
Its force or power is entire if it be converted into earth.
Separate thou the earth from the fire, the subtle from the gross sweetly with great industry.
It ascends from the earth to the heaven & again it descends to the earth & receives the force of things superior & inferior.
By this means you shall have the glory of the whole world
& thereby all obscurity shall fly from you.
Its force is above all force. For it vanquishes every subtle thing & penetrates every solid thing.
So was the world created.
From this are & do come admirable adaptations whereof the means (or process) is here in this. Hence I am called Hermes Trismegist, having the three parts of the philosophy of the whole world
That which I have said of the operation of the Sun is accomplished & ended… ”
(The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus trans. Isaac Newton, 17thC)
Although the passage above cannot be textually dated earlier than the 7th CE, it deals with motifs common to mystery religions much older than Hermeticism and the philosophical Alchemy of the Arab word…
The Dionysian Mirror:
The mirror held a special place in the mythology of Dionysus, who was a god of death and rebirth. Dionysus was therefore known as the ‘twice-born’ god whose first incarnation (Dionysus-Zagreus) was destroyed and who was subsequently returned to life in an act which granted him divine redeeming powers, albeit with a ministry confined largely to the ‘sublunary’ realms. In the myth as recounted at a late period by Nonnus in his 4th/5thC CE Dionysiaca, the god was born to Persephone and fathered by Zeus in the form of a dragon. At far-seeing Hera’s bequest, he was enraptured by the Titans with a mirror in which he saw his reflected countenance: so distracted, they rended his body and scattered the parts. The great epic poet of late antiquity, Nonnus of Persepolis, related the myth as follows:
“… Ah, maiden Persephoneia! You could not find how to escape your mating! No, a drakon was your mate, when Zeus changed his face and came, rolling in many a loving coil through the dark to the corner of the maiden’s chamber, and shaking his hairy chaps he lulled to sleep as he crept the eyes of those creatures of his own shape who guarded the door. He licked the girl’s form gently with wooing lips. By this marriage with the heavenly drakon, the womb of Persephone swelled with living fruit, and she bore Zagreus the horned baby, who by himself climbed upon the heavenly throne of Zeus and brandished lightning in his little hand, and newly born, lifted and carried thunderbolts in his tender fingers.
By the fierce resentment of implacable Hera, the Titanes cunningly smeared their round faces with disguising chalk, and while he contemplated his changeling countenance reflected in a mirror they destroyed him with an infernal knife. There where his limbs had been cut piecemeal by the Titan steel, the end of his life was the beginning of a new life as Dionysos. He appeared in another shape, and changed into many forms: now young like crafty Kronides [Zeus] shaking the aegis-cape, now as ancient Kronos heavy-kneed, pouring rain. Sometimes he was a curiously formed baby, sometimes like a mad youth with the flower of the first down marking his rounded chin with black. Again, a mimic lion he uttered a horrible roar in furious rage from a wild snarling throat, as he lifted a neck shadowed by a thick mane, marking his body on both sides with the self-striking whip of a tail which flickered about over his hairy back. Next, he left the shape of a lion’s looks and let out a ringing neigh, now like an unbroken horse that lifts his neck on high to shake out the imperious tooth of the bit, and rubbing, whitened his cheek with hoary foam. Sometimes he poured out a whistling hiss from his mouth, a curling horned serpent covered with scales, darting out his tongue from his gaping throat, and leaping upon the grim head of some Titan encircled his neck in snaky spiral coils. Then he left the shape of the restless crawler and became a tiger with gay stripes on his body; or again like a bull emitting a counterfeit roar from his mouth he butted the Titanes with sharp horn. So he fought for his life, until Hera with jealous throat bellowed harshly through the air–that heavy-resentful step-mother! And the gates of Olympos rattled in echo to her jealous throat from high heaven. Then the bold bull collapsed: the murderers each eager for his turn with the knife chopt piecemeal the bull-shaped Dionysos.
After the first Dionysos had been slaughtered, Father Zeus learnt the trick of the mirror with its reflected image. He attacked the mother of the Titanes [Gaia the Earth] with avenging brand, and shut up the murderers of horned Dionysos within the gate of Tartaros: the trees blazed, the hair of suffering Gaia was scorched with heat. He kindled the East: the dawnlands of Baktria blazed under blazing bolts, the Assyrian waves set afire the neighbouring Kaspion Sea and the Indian mountains, the Red Sea rolled billows of flame and warmed Arabian Nereus. The opposite West also fiery Zeus blasted with the thunderbolt in love for his child; and under the foot of Zephyros (the West Wind) the western brine half-burn spat out a shining stream; the Northern ridges–even the surface of the frozen Northern Sea bubbled and burned: under the clime of snowy Aigokeros the Southern corner boiled with hotter sparks. Now Okeanos poured rivers of tears from his watery eyes, a libation of suppliant prayer. Then Zeus clamed his wrath at the sight of the scorched earth; he pitied her, and wished to wash with water the ashes of ruin and the fiery wounds of the land. Then Rainy Zeus covered the whole sky with clouds and flooded all the earth…” (Dionysiaca, Book 6, Trans. W.H.D. Rouse)
Reading from Nonnus’ exegesis of Dionysian cult secrets, Zeus intended the ‘Orphic’ Younger Dionysus (‘Zagreus’) to be his successor and heir in Olympos (the high ethereal realm) but his destruction condemned him to the infernal realms, albeit with leaping ambition for the heights of the ethereal gods. Zeus burns the earth and sends a flood in his rage against the Titans – this myth is evidently part of the ‘Titanomachy’ sequence, which culminated in the overthrow of the Titans and monsters, and the incarceration of these within the Chthonic Abyss…
Nonnus appears to imply that Zeus actually used the mirror to cause the burning of Gaia, just as with the preceding sequence of the ‘image’ of Dionysus-Zagreus undergoing transfiguration at the moment of his demise, becoming at once Zeus, Kronos, a baby, a youth, a lion, a wild stallion, a serpent, a tiger and finally a sacrificial bull. It is somewhat akin to the breaking up of the mirror’s image, and the fluidity of this suggests that the mirror might even have been (perhaps unsurprisingly) of a watery or liquid nature in the Dionysian mysteries. The young god’s act of looking into the mirror is a first taste of death, in which its transformative potential is revealed as his image and body break apart and are dispersed. This has been interpreted as a process of undoing of the self experienced by initiates of the Dionysian mysteries. In Nonnus’ telling of the myth, Zeus burns and then floods the world in revenge for this act, setting the scene for renewal under a new refreshed order after the Titanomachy. Dionysus is reassembled and cared for on high mountain tops by the Nymphs. This myth resonates strongly with the Zoroastrian creation myth of the Bundahisihn in which all natural life emerges from the body of an ancient bull killed by beings of chaos.
Fresco from the ‘Villa of Mysteries’ at Pompeii, depicting Dionysian initiatory scenes. Here the youth appears to peer into a basin of liquid to see the reflection of the mask behind him. The image resonates strongly with the imagery later conjured by Nonnus in ‘Dionysiaca’.
Evidently, Nonnus’ account of the use of the mirror is based on an ancient myth as Clement of Alexandria (Exhortation to the Greeks – 2nd CE) commented on the use of the mirror in Orphic-Dionysian mystery cult, and it appears that the ‘Dionysian mirror’ was an important allegorical part of the cult. The appearance of numerous elaborately-decorated mirrors depicting mythological scenes in the graves of Etruscan nobles from the 6th-1stC BCE offers a fascinating yet poorly understood link to the mysterious role of the mirror in relation to the afterlife and its mysteries. Likewise, the shiny ‘Orphic’ gold tablets accompanying the dead in Romano-Greek tombs of the same period may hold a similar significance.
Dionysus (with Thyrsus), Semele and Apollo (with Laurel branch) depicted on an Etruscan funerary mirror.
A 4thC BCE ‘Orphic’ gold tablet, typically buried with a dead initiate of the Dionysian mysteries. The reflectivity of the tablet is broken up by the inscription….
Although the mirror as an object is infrequently depicted in relation to Dionysian imagery in ancient Greek and Greco-Roman imagery, one must remember that almost every such image depicts a dish or vessel containing the ‘blood’ of the god – wine. The reflectivity of this dark liquid cannot be understated, and it would seem quite probable that this was in fact the true ‘mirror’ of the Dionysian mysteries.
The wide shallow Greek drinking Kylix offered the perfect mirror-surface. The Dionysian imagery in this example shows a female and male devotee of the mysteries: a Maenad and the Satyr. The Maenads represented the destructive or conflict-inducing higher human nature (after jealous Hera), and the Satyrs the chaotic-intrusive wild cthonic/animalistic nature (after the Titans, represented by Kronus/Saturn)…
Mirrors and the Otherworld:
Mirrors offer an apparently inverted reflection of the light reflecting on them. The most basic mirror for humankind is experienced in the smooth surface of water or liquids, which was mimicked in the polishing of stones and metals to create functional mirrors. From the most ancient times until the present, mirror-surfaces have been used in the mantic/divinatory arts for ‘seeing’ beyond the mundane. The imperfections in the reflection offer re-interpretations of the source image, so divinatory mirrors are often imperfect reflective surfaces: bowls of water, tea leaves in the bottom of a cup, blood from a sacrificial animal etc being good examples.
There are a number of ancient superstitions about the dead and mirrors or reflections. The reversal of mirrors in the presence of the dead is one of these, linked to old European superstitions about the (un)dead having no reflection or shadow. Robert Kirk’s description of the beliefs about the dead and seers of spirits in 17thC Scottish Highlands (recorded in ‘Secret Commonwealth‘) says that the dead/departed spirits occupied a world which was an inversion or reflection of our own. This belief about the Otherworld appears on cursory inspection to have no connection to that of the ancient Greeks and Romans who are usually supposed to have believed that their dead to occupied the misty dank and dark recesses under the earth, or – if lucky – some far off fields beyond a river. The truth, however, is somewhat more complicated, and bound up in the pagan religious mysteries…
Death and the Chthonic realm:
“… For were it not Dionysus to whom they institute a procession and sing songs in honor of the pudenda, it would be the most shameful action. But Dionysus, in whose honor they rave in bacchic frenzy, and Hades are the same…” (Fragment of Heraclitus (5th BC), quoted by Clement of Alexandria 2nd CE)
The mythology and philosophy of the ancient world depicted the earth both as the source of life and decay, and the representation of elemental solidity – an antithesis of the most ethereal elements of fire and light. As the dead rotted away into the earth, leaving their stony bones as evidence, it is logical that it became associated with death, coldness and decay and thus a logical abode of the dead. Liquids poured upon the earth flowed and trickled downwards into its cavities, hence libations were the form of sacrifice appropriate to the chthonic deities and spirits. Death, entropy, chaos and disease were seen as originating or having their allotted place within the chthonic realm in Greco-Roman mythology. Indeed, the theogonies of 1st BCE Greek religion claimed that the Titans and monsters were consigned to Tartaros (in the traditions referred to as Titanomachy and Gigantomachy), which was said to be a void or boundless deep cavity below even the earth itself. As the forces of divine order occupied the heavenly position, so the forces of chaos and divine disorder occupied a similar state in a reflected state of opposition to that conceived of as ‘above’. Both states were seen as essential to create the balance of our ‘middle’ earth (i.e. – the ‘elemental’ or ‘sub-lunary’ world). In the light of this interpretation, it is better to think of the Greco-Roman conception of the dead occupying the ‘lower’ world for the initial part of their journey. The shady world of Hades can be thought of as merely an official ‘cover story’ for a more complicated belief system which involved the eternal soul’s travel to and from the extremities of the chaotic and the divine. Crossing into the chthonic/underground realm was a point of reflective transformation: where life became death, and ideas were reversed – as if in a ‘mirror’ state. The final ‘mirror’ of this state was the waters which sat in the earth’s deepest recesses into which they flowed, and from which they mysteriously returned…
Of course, we come across this mythologically in the subterranean pools, lakes and rivers which the heroes and gods who visit and return from Hades invariably encounter. These liminal waters also occur in the legends of heroes who visit far-off islands and encounter the monstrous, Tartarean creatures sired by the Titans: Medusa, the Graeae, the snake of the Garden of the Hesperides etc. This theme is common to the myths of the Celtic and German worlds of northern Europe and was in evidence at the time the Roman world encroached on these from the 4th BCE onwards….
Rebirth of Dionysus:
Some of the ‘Orphic’ myths of Dionysus have him re-assembled by Rhea after his dismemberment, after which he is fostered by the mountain nymphs – probably during the great flood sent by Zeus to cleanse the world after he took revenge upon the Titans. It is thus also very similar to the aquatic myth of Osiris and Isis from Egypt. Dionysus, like the waters and their mountain springs, streams and rivers, represented the root and branch of returning life. Like the mystery of the returning waters, he embodied the mysteries of returning nature…
The ‘underworld’ as an inversion of the ‘overworld’:
The pit of chaos or Tartaros, lying beyond the deeps of the earth and sea was the ancient Greek idea of ‘antimatter’, in opposition to the celestial light and order of the heavens. Of the sublunary world, the elements of water and earth partook of a greater part of the nature of this chaos, including the Titans, giants and monstrous beings. Likewise, air and fire partook of the more luminous properties of the higher nature of things in the heavens, including the gods. The ‘interface’ between these two aspects of perceived reality was a very liminal place in which ideas became inverted, and opposites found unity. The ‘underworld’ of Greco-Roman mythology should not be seen as a lower realm from which souls struggle up incrementally in order to return to the light, but as an exact mirror and equally valid version of the ‘celestial’ world. In other words: Zeus is Hades inverted, Poseidon is the synthesis of both. Dionysus was therefore, like Hermes and Apollon, a Daimon who unified these god-themes and manifested them in the mundane world.