The winter Dionysia

The ancient Attic Greek festival known latterly as the ‘rural’ or ‘lesser’ Dionysia was celebrated – like Saturnalia and Christmas – just after the winter solstice in the second half of the Greek month of Poseidoneia which spanned December and January. The so-called ‘greater’ Dionysia festival, the Anthesteria, was a secondary development of the Greek city polities such as Athens and occurred a month or so later at the end of winter when the weather was finer. As befits its metropolitan status, it was a grander version of the rustic winter festival involving great public events, theatre, music and competitions as well as private celebrations of the Dionysian ‘mysteries’. None the less, it was otherwise effectively the same festival, its date transposed to enjoy better weather.

The ‘Rural Dionysia’ seems to have had many parallels with the Roman festival of Saturnalia which coincided with the roughly the same period, and which in the Christian era evolved into the ‘twelve days of Christmas’, culminating in the Feast of Epiphany – itself a festival almost certainly based upon the Dionysia, whose climax was the epiphany of the God Dionysus among the people. This brings us to an interesting confluence of deities: Poseidon (whose month it is), Saturn (Kronos, whose Roman name is based upon the Greek word for phallus: sâthe, as in satyr) and Dionysus.

The Dionysia – like the Saturnalia – was a time when classes came together in order to celebrate their shared origins in the natural world. Class distinctions were – to a degree – temporarily suspended and opportunities for public satire were made conducive by the wearing of masks and costumes by participants in the celebrations. It is believed that this festivity was the origin of the theatrical tradition for which Greece became so famous.

The god’s entourage at the Dionysia consisted of the male-gendered satyrs and the female maenads, although there was apparently a good deal of cross-dressing among the performers in some festivities. These accompanied the image of the god, which in its most rustic and ancient form was represented by a giant phallic pole of pine (a ‘xoanon’ image), coloured red and decorated, which was carried on a cart or on the shoulders of the phallophoroi. This made a ceremonial entry to the village or polis preceded by satyrs and maenads wearing animal skins (fawn and leopard, for example) wielding the thyrsus wand, and carrying cult objects such as jugs of wine, pithoi and krater vessels, plates of figs and a sacrificial goat.

The Dionysian ceremonial phallus and the 'Phallophorai' enters the polis. The act of the epiphanic procession had distinct sexual overtones.

The Dionysian ceremonial phallus and the ‘Phallophorai’ enters the polis. The act of the epiphanic procession had distinct sexual overtones.

The ithyphallic satyrs, sometimes darkened their faces with wine lees and engaging in ribald and ecstatic celebratory behaviour in honour of the god and the image of the phallus, which they wore a representation of apparently in the form of a codpiece with a leather erect penis attached to. Women (sometimes men) dressed as maenads or nymphs to complete the thiasos or retinue of the arriving god and took part in equally disinhibited behaviour and special ceremonies of their own. The maenads were a form of ‘bodyguard’ corps of the deity, and in mythology (and scandalous Roman reports) were sometimes portrayed as a maddened and frenzied bloodthirsty girl-mob who would rend and devour the flesh of men and animals. The ceremonial rending of the sacrificial goat, and even the eating of its raw flesh  may be behind this opinion.

Special songs (dithyrambs) were composed and sung and, naturally, wine was drunk and sacrifices offered to Dionysus, the god of sprouting vegetation and urgent returning nature. Group-experiences, comedy, humour and jollity were the order of the day and inhibitions were temporarily cast aside.

Origins of the Christmas Tree: The Pine and the Phallus:

The display of the phallus was an important symbolic aspect of the rites of the Dionysia, as well as being prominent in the equivalent Roman festival of Liberalia (held in March near to the spring equinox). Records (including the drinking vessel pictured above) speak of the giant decorated totemic phallic pole (made of the hewn erect trunk of an evergreen pine tree) which was paraded with the ‘coming’ of the god, accompanied by men dressed as satyrs with erect phalli attached to their costumes. A pole bearing the same image (carved from fig wood) was also sported by celebrants in the thiasos. The thyrsus wand depicted as carried by Dionysus as his symbolic weapon and badge of office was also brandished by the maenads and was itself also a depiction of the phallus: it was typically made of a pine cone mounted upon a staff, sometimes wreathed with ivy.

The pine tree was (like the vine and the fig) a totem plant of Dionysus. It evokes a similitude with the androgynous castrated Phrygian god Attis, who was likewise strongly associated in myth with the pine tree. Attis was consort of the great mother goddess Cybele, identified with Kronos’ wife Rhea in Greek mythology. Kronos, of course, castrated his father Ouranos. The pine is both evergreen and erect in habitus so is a fine metaphor for the phallus – its sticky sap a metaphor for semen.

It appears that Dionysus was actually a god of the ‘sap’, ‘spirit’ or ‘essence’ stimulating life. Maximus of Tyre (perhaps commenting on the phallic totem pictured above) wrote in the 2ndC CE that:

“…the peasants honour Dionysos by planting in the field an uncultivated tree-trunk, a rustic statue…”

Plutarch  observed the contemporary belief that the god was a god of moisture – associated with life and vigour. One of the epithets of Dionysus was Dendrites – ‘of the trees’ – an indicator of his connection to branching life, and a metaphor of the familial tree of humanity. The tree was similarly a metaphor for rivers whose branching nature was morphologically similar. This links Dionysus to Poseidon who was god of waters – Okeanos (i.e. – the sea) being conceived of as a confluence of the world’s rivers.

Furthermore, the pine was a tree of the hot mountainside characterising the uplands of southern Europe, the Near and Middle East and North Africa. These wild places were a typical mythological resort of Dionysus and his retinue. The god’s birthplace was said to have been on a mountainside on the mythical Mount Nysa, nurtured by nymphs – the Hyades – whose stars form a cluster on the crown of the constellation of Taurus – the Starry Bull, representative of Asia and Europe’s wild Aurochs from which many of the world’s domestic cattle breeds are derived…

The mythical origins of mankind are often expressed in European folklore in the form of an ascent from oneness with the animal world. From the fables of Aesop (6thC BCE?) and further still into antiquity we see a tendency to illustrate the identity of humans with animals, just as in ancient Egyptian and Greek religion, the gods had a similar identity with the animal kingdom. Mythologically, the oneness occurs at the vanishing point characterised as the oldest period in a time without memory – a point firmly identifiable in ancient Greek mythology with Kronos, the Titans and Gigantes, and the ‘Golden Age’. This was an age when human heroes battled monsters in far-off realms and had no fixed era by historical reckoning, yet was typically used as a starting point in the reckoning of histories from the Classical period onwards.

This is the ancient, primal and even bestial ‘vanishing point’ which Dionysus (and humanity itself) appears to emerge from and to which the god mystically returns in his annual cycles of travel among humanity. Kronos (Saturn) and even Hades may represent his more distant self – forever marooned on the far shores of time at the limits of the great world-river Okeanos, or beyond in the shady realms of Elysium and Tartaros. These were all once believed to be linked by the earth’s waters. Indeed, this aquatic existence summons to us the identity of the third god in this apparent ancient triad: Poseidon, in whose lunar month the Greeks celebrated their oldest Dionysia.

Poseidon was the brother of Zeus and Hades, and together they formed a triumvirate who represented the dominion of the sea, the sky and the underworld respectively. Hades was celebrated as an important divine figure in the mystery religions, in particular the Eleusinian Mysteries – as the abductor and husband of Persephone (Kore), daughter of the goddess of the fruitful earth – Demeter. The seasonal drama of nature was said to depend on her annual passage into the underworld in the depths of winter when fruitfulness and vegetation dies back.

A curious identity exists between the gods Dionysus and Hades, hinted at by the ancient ‘Homeric Hymn to Demeter’ – a versified account of the Eleusinian myth. This states that Persephone was abducted in the ‘fields of Nysus’, from which Dionysus appears to get his name (‘God of Nysus’). Dionysus was said in other legends to have been raised on a place called Mount Nysus by the nymphs known as the Hyades, daughters of the Titan Atlas whose stars form the crown on the ‘Starry Bull’ constellation, Taurus. Pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus (5thC BCE) also stated that Hades and Dionysus were the same – a unification of opposites: One the god of indestructible quintessence of life and the other the lord of irresistible death, from which new life mystically arises through the fertilising processes of putrefaction. It is likely this was a key secret in the mysteries of Eleusis, and is part of a similar death<>life narrative encountered again in the story of Apollo slaying Python, and Perseus slaying Medusa. All such encounters occur in the murky Stygian regions – often characterised as lying in a misty place at the far reaches of Poseidon’s realm, characterised over all by the concept of the unifying waters – Okeanos.

The mysteries of life and death link in the cult of Dionysus, and remembered in the Roman Saturnalia: Both were eventually continued in the cult of Jesus Christ and ‘Christmas’. The traditions of dressing up as beast-men, collecting together to sing songs and enjoy the communal fantasy of theatre and dramatic entertainment, as well as the public expression of satire and comedy still mark Europe’s Christmas and Epiphany festivals. The Christmas Tree also has its origins in the Dionysia.

Chiron, the Centaurs and the Solar hunter-gods.

Chiron (Kheiron – ‘hand’) was the wise Centaur who plays the role of mentor-instructor to a number of youthful heroes of ancient Greek mythology. Unlike most Centaurs (whose nature was generally as excitable, wild and untameable as young stallions) he was often depicted in earlier Greek art with the full body of a man, having the torso and rear quarters of a horse coming from his back. This depiction is at odds with that usually associated with centaurs, who tend to be shown with all of their limbs being those of the horse:

Chiron the hunter-instructor: In his right hand he holds a youthful Achilles, and over his shoulder he carries a captured hare.

Chiron the hunter-instructor: In his right hand he holds a youthful Achilles, and over his shoulder he carries a captured hare.

Our earliest sources (eg – Hesiod c.8th-7thC BCE) suggest that Chiron was a son of Cronos (Chironos?) who was sired upon the Okeanid nymph Philyra of Mount Pelion in Thessaly. To quote the summaries on the fabulous

Hesiod, Theogony 1001 (trans. Evelyn-White) (Greek epic C8th or 7th B.C.) :
“Kheiron (Chiron) the son of Philyra.”

Eumelus of Corinth or Arctinus of Miletus, Titanomachia Frag 6 (from Scholiast on Apollonius Rhodius 1. 554) (trans. Evelyn-White) (Greek epic C7th or C6th B.C.) :
“The author of the War of the Giants (Gigantomakhia) says that Kronos (Cronus) took the shape of a horse and lay with Philyra, the daughter of Okeanos. Through this cause Kheiron (Chiron) was born a kentauros (centaur): his wife was Khariklo (Chariclo).”

The Okeanids were the nymphae daughters of primal Titan, Okeanos, who represented the waters just as Gaia represented the land/earth. For this reason, they represented aspects of Okeanos including rivers, clouds, lakes, streams and (as Naiades) springs of water. The Centaurs in general were supposed to have been the children of the cloud-nymph Nephele and were born on Mount Pelion. The horse-men of Greek mythology were associated with water, just as the legendary Pegasus had his name and origin derived from natural springs (Pegaoi). This origin of the divine-monstrous reflects medieval pagan tales from Scandinavia such as the legend of Sigurd and Fafnir: the dragon and his brothers also have chthonic-aquatic origins. The Greek myths show evidence of parallel colliding traditions: Tethys (wife of Okeanos) was supposed to be the mother of clouds, although not explicitly Nephele in the Olympian mythology. Readers might realise an etymological similarity between Philyra, Pelion, Nephele – even the semitic Nephilim might have similar origins, as might the 9thC CE Meresberg Incantation divinity called Phol, and even maybe the Macedonian kings who called themselves after the equine designation Phillip

The name itself, ‘Chiron’ or ‘Kheiron’ means ‘hand’ – that useful attribute which sets the average centaur aside from his equine relatives. The ‘Thracian Horseman’ god from the northern Aegaean, Sabazios, was also worshiped in Anatolian Phrygia and was associated with the slaying of dragons or serpents (a motif for the conquest of death and disease) and a hand was used as a votive effigy in his rites.

A 'Sabazios' votive hand - image from the British Museum.

A ‘Sabazios’ votive hand – image from the British Museum.

The Healing Hand:

Chiron was, by his name, the ‘hand’ that guided mythic heroes in their development. In Greek mythology, this included both Achilles (a warrior-hero-ancestor of both the Greeks and Romans) and Hercules/Herakles who was perhaps the most famous hero-forebear, who conquered the forces of chaos and monsters on behalf of mankind. As a ‘teacher-protector of the people’ a (demi) god such as Chiron was therefore (like his pupil) associated with healing and medicine, linking him in Greek mythology to the serpent-slaying solar god Apollo and his medical son Asklepios (a name which incorporates an old Indo-European word for ‘serpent’ or ‘fish’: ask/esk). Chiron taught Achilles about the eponymous wound-herb famous throughout Europe: the Achillea or Yarrow (Homer: Iliad), and was famed in myths for his skill with wild herbs. He therefore functioned as the primal empirical teacher for ancient Europeans of the Aegean.

Pliny the Elder, Natural History 7. 197 (trans. Rackham) (Roman encyclopedia 1stC CE) :
“[On inventions:] The science of herbs and drugs was discovered by Chiron the son of Saturnus [Kronos] and Philyra.”

As a son of Cronus (Saturn), Chiron was therefore a (half) brother of Zeus. The name of the Thracian/Phrygian god named ‘Sabazios’ might even be considered to be a derivation of ‘Salva Zeus’, meaning ‘Rescuer God’ or ‘Healer God’. Sabazios was more often affiliated with Dionysus in Greek thinking, albeit because the Greeks seem to have originally inherited the traditions of Dionysus AND Sabazios-Chiron from their northern barbarian neighbours – probably during the 2nd millennium BCE or maybe the early 1st millennium BCE. The ‘wild’ Kentauroi and the satyrs would certainly both certainly be considered fit partners for the ‘Bacchanal’ party of Dionysus, although developing perhaps from a separate tradition to that of the fauns and satyrs.

The ‘Horseman’ god known in Thrace and Phrygia Sabazios (later envisioned as St George killing the dragon) seems, as mentioned, to be in many ways equivalent to the solar dragon/snake-slayer god, Apollo of Delphi. In Greek myths, Apollo slew the ancient snake Python: symbol of putrefaction and death, the afterworld and regeneration, and hence he became associated with the sorcerous practice of divination, intended to call on the knowledge of the reincarnating dead once believed in across Europe. As the snake symbolises regeneration and rebirth, Apollo’s ‘dragon-slaying’ was a metaphor for conquering death, hence his primary role as both a god of prophecy and a god of healing.

Apollo was typically represented as an archer (his statue at Delphi probably depicted him holding a bow and arrows). He used his arrows to slay the death-serpent, Python, and its decaying body was probably supposed to give off the vapours which inspired the Delphic Pytheia with their visions and oracles from the Otherworld. Chiron was also depicted with the prey of a hunter – a branch from which dead hares were suspended, like ‘fruit’. His disciple, Hercules, inadvertently caused his death with his own poisoned arrows. The arrows of Apollo were probably considered as a means by which disease was conveyed – an ancient prefiguration of the north European belief in disease caused by the darts of fairies and elves, although it should be clear by now that Apollo was linked to another serpent-slaying healing god tradition originating among the barbarians, and linked to horses. The archer constellation of Sagittarius is most usually depicted as a centaur and mythologically it is linked to both Chiron and a character called Krotos, who was a horse-legged satyr who lived with the mysterious Muses on Mount Helicon. He, like Apollo, was said to have invented the bow, to be a hunter, and (in this case, rhythmical) music – Apollo was said to have invented the lyre. Mount Helicon in Boeotia in Greece had strong associations with horses, it being the site of the birth of Pegasus, who emerged from a well on its slopes. This suggests another proto-religious link between Apollo and an equine man-beast god, but there are certain other aspects to the Krotos myth which links with that of Zeus:

The Idaean Dactyloi:

The myth of Zeus being hidden on Mount Ida from his cannibalistic father Cronus is a key element to the story of the rise of the Olympian gods over the primeval Titans, and from its location to Crete, suggests Minoan origins. This act was done by Gaia (the Earth), also often cognate with Rhea (mother of the gods), who was known in Anatolia among the Phrygians as Cybele – the prophetic ‘mountain mother’, and officially venerated by the Romans after the second Punic wars as ‘Magna Mater‘ – the ‘great mother’. The guardians of infant Zeus were a band of curious characters called the Kouretes who would stamp their feet and clash their weapons in order to cover the thunderous cries of the young god-on-high, Zeus. This was also said to be the invention of rhythmic music, and the connection with the thunderous sound of horses’ hooves becomes suggested for the Mount Helicon mythology associated with horses. The Kouretes were also known as the ‘Daktyloi’ (‘fingers’) which links back to the name ‘Chiron’ (‘hand’) and the hand-symbol associated with the worship of Sabazios. Their rustic and ‘dextrous’ nature were emphasised in their traditions, and they had a fairly widespread cultic expression in religious ritual, being called by additional names such as ‘Korybantes‘ and ‘Kabeiroi‘ in various other traditions outside of Crete.  Hercules was sometimes considered one of them, and they were also linked to the invention of skills such as smithcraft (the clashing of metal on metal being an essential part of this). This links them to some notable north European mythology, which I have already discussed.

The Celtic horse coins:

The vast majority of the coinage produced among European Celtic tribes of the late Iron Age depicts the horse, often in conjunction with a solar wheel symbol. Although often explained away as crude copies of Greek coins, their symbolism goes much deeper than these and hints at many ancient religious secrets which the coming of Romanisation and Christianisation would increasingly obscure. The horse depicted seems highly likely to be a supra-regional god, and the existence of many coins depicting a centaur-like man-horse, a horse-like rider or a human rider seem to confirm this theory, which is worth considering in the light of the information I discussed above about the older Greek and Phrygian myths…

A centaur depicted on a coin of the semi-Romanised king Cunobelinos (1stC CE Britain)

A centaur depicted on a coin of the semi-Romanised king Cunobelinos (1stC CE Britain)

1stC BCE coin of the Venetii (Brittany) showing the horse-man. Definitely a wholly Celtic design!

1stC BCE coin of the Venetii (Brittany) showing the horse-man. Definitely a wholly Celtic design!

The Osisimi of Gaul (atC BCE) also produced many indigenous 'centaur' coins. Like those of the Venetii, they also depict many human heads attached to ?cords in the designs.

The Osisimi of Gaul (1stC BCE) also produced many indigenous ‘centaur’ coins. Like those of the Venetii, they also sometimes depicted human heads attached to ?cords in the designs.