Only if you lose yourself can you find yourself? This is the message of the eternal orgy of spring. Is Dionysus really the god of rock n’ roll?
The god, superhuman power, force of nature,call him what you like, known to ancient Greece as Dionysus was an interloper in the serene band of Olympians. Although Zeus and Hera, Apollo, Aphrodite, Hermes, and the rest of the immortals had recognizably human passions and failings, there was always something respectable about them. They had impeccably non-human pedigrees going to back to such comfortable abstractions as Time, Darkness and Chaos. Dionysus broke into the club like a “nouveau riche” cad.
Homer mentions Dionysus as an ominous figure stirring up trouble in Thrace, a wild and barbarous country to the north of Greece. Worse still, Dionysus was only half divine. Zeus, in one of his many unions with mortals, slept with the daughter of King Cadmus, Semele. Most of Zeus’s illegitimate children became gods or demi-gods, but the child of Zeus and Semele became Dionysus, the god of wine, who could tame snakes, make the earth spout milk and honey, and force mothers to tear their sons limb from limb.
Dionysus was a worker of miracles, but the greatest miracle of all was his survival. When Semele found she was with child, she prayed to see the child’s father face to face. Zeus warned her that it was dangerous. Semele insisted. Zeus granted her prayer and the pregnant Semele was incinerated along with her bridal chamber in a blast of lightning. But Dionysus lived. Zeus snatched him out of his mother’s womb and carried him to Olympus, where he spent the rest of his prenatal life in Zeus’s thigh.
Robert Christgau: The music whose spirit Nietzsche thought uniquely worthy of the Greeks was that of his soon-repudiated beau ideal Wagner. But Apollo-versus-Dionysus has since been taken up by Stravinsky, Britten, and most prominently Richard Strauss–whose greatest hit was named after Nietzsche’s signature Also Sprach Zarathustra–as well as analyses of Beethoven, Liszt, Bizet, on and on. It surfaces frequently in jazz commentary too. So rock has competition for the wine-bringer. …But Beatles Stones Velvets Zep Patti Ramones Pistols Nirvana PJ Harvey Smashing Pumpkins–hell, why not? Tori Amos likes to throw the word around. Phish’s corporate arm is called Dionysian Productions. LA’s Dionysus Records has been purveying “the finest in Garage – Surf – Rockabilly – Exotica – and more” since 1984.
…Rock’s champion Dionysian, however, is that egotistical degraded existentialist idiot Jim Morrison, dubbed Bozo Dionysus by either Lester Bangs or Lester Bangs’s headline writer. Morrison is said to have named his band during a bull session about The Birth of Tragedy. And in Arnold Shaw’s The Rock Revolution, he sums up the history he gleaned at UCLA: “In its origin, the Greek theatre was a band of worshippers, dancing and singing on a threshing floor at the crucial agricultural seasons. Then, one day, a possessed person leaped out of the crowd and started imitating a god.” This is a little garbled, but its dancing and singing and leaping and god act are clearly where rock’s Dionysian claims reside–all evoke a Doors concert better than a performance of Also Sprach Zarathustra. Yet here’s the odd thing. Not only do both Morrison and Nietzsche, with their intense commitments to different kinds of music, validate that commitment by reference to literature, but neither bothers to guess how the original Dionysian music might have sounded or, really, functioned. …Read More:http://www.robertchristgau.com/xg/music/dionysus-emp.php a
Thus the Greeks came to speak of Dionysus as “twice born” , once from mother and the other from father. It seems plausible that what the village storytellers who circulated the legend meant was that Dionysus found temporary shelter not in Zeus’s thigh but in his genital sac.For humankind, a second birth is a mystic regeneration of the self; for nature, it is the simple fact of spring.
The festivals of Dionysus span the months of December to mid-March. In December the harvest lies locked in barns; the seeds are stored in the frozen earth; the grape juice is bottled. But the dead of winter is very much alive. Under the snow the seeds put down green shoots; the wine ferments. The earth is at work in its sleep. The force that keeps it alive and shakes it into green wakefulness in the spring is Dionysus.
Christgau: And although recent archaeological finds indicate deep Greek origins for the god, in post-archaic Greece he was universally believed to be an outsider–perhaps from Thrace, which we call Bulgaria, or Lydia or Phrygia in Asia Minor. Dionysus gathers around himself such a complicated entourage of tales and histories that ass-covering contemporary scholars find it convenient to subsume them all under the heading “god of paradox” . Half human, half divine, he’s the bringer of madness and the deliverer from madness, lord of masks and maenads, of the underworld and raw meat au jus; he’s the phallus god who turned femme and lost his beard. And always Dionysus is the god of wine….
…Leaving out lots of good stuff, that’s the Dionysus of myth. In varying versions–only one of which, the Pentheus story Euripides and later Rene Girard made so much of, involved human sacrifice, and only one of which, the myth of Dionysus Zagreus that Nietzsche appropriated, has Christian overtones of divine suffering and rebirth–the Dionysus of myth was the god called upon in cult and celebrated in festival. Unfortunately, even more than most cults, the cult of Dionysus was exceedingly secretive. Palmer’s man Daniélou defeats this inconvenience by positing that Dionysus was an essentially unchanged descendant of Shiva, whose jism-jetting erections are amply documented. But most settle for second-hand evidence by skeptical or hostile sources scattered over a thousand-year period. Here’s Livy in Rome: “When wine, lascivious discourse, night, and the intercourse of the sexes had extinguished every sentiment of modesty, then debaucheries of every kind began to be practiced, as every person found at hand that sort of enjoyment to which he was disposed by the passion predominant in his nature.” Although “the beating of cymbals and drums” is as musicological as Livy gets, Palmer would go for that. Read More:http://www.robertchristgau.com/xg/music/dionysus-emp.php
To aid him in his task, Zeuss gave Dionysus a train of followers, called maenads or bacchae. They were usually women; they played flutes, pounded on drums and tambourines, and danced. Maenads wore the delicate skins of young deer; in their hands they carried pine branches and ivy leaves, and snakes coiled in their hair. In the spring they drank the new wine, the blood-red juice of Dionysus that makes men mad. Sometimes Dionysus himself appeared as a bull god, crowned with horns; the bull and goat, with their unflagging phallic power , were his sacrificial beasts.
Notwithstanding his elevation to Olympus, Dionysus was anything but an aristocratic sky-god. He was rather an earth-deity, a god of the peasantry. Though his father was Zeus, the sky- and rain-god, his mother was of the earth earthy. Dionysian mythology named her Semele, the daughter of Cadmus, founder of Thebes, and this name betrays her real significance as a personification of the earth (cf. Nova Zembla, “new earth”). In the Hope collection there is a vase painting representing the youthful Dionysus rising out of an earth mound–the vase-painter thus emphasizing the earth-born nature of the god….
…But Semele, the god’s earth-mother, was not only the fertile earth of springtime absorbing the warm showers of the sky and naturally productive; in local legend at Thebes see was represented as the thunder-smitten earth also. For Hera in her jealousy had craftily persuaded Semele to ask her lover to prove his deity by appearing in all his power and glory as god of heaven. Zeus acceded to her request appearing to her armed with all his terrors, destroyed her with his lightnings. Even as the mother was dying, however, Zeus rescued their unborn child from her tortured body.
In birth-bowers new did Zeus Cronion
Receive his scion;
For hid in a cleft of his thigh,
By the gold clasps knit, did he lie
Safe hidden from Hera’s eye
Till the Fates’ day came.
Lucian, in his usual satirical vein, made the most of his opportunity to parody this mythological theme. Thus, in popular legend the earth-born Dionysus, the son of Semele, was himself represented as a twice-born deity. He was dithyrambus, which for the Greeks meant “he who entered life by a double door.” In this peculiarly artificial sense he was Dionysus, the son of Zeus, as his name suggests.
Quite naturally this son of earth and sky functioned as the personification of vegetable life. As such he was a yearly divinity, who came and went with the seasons. His experience in relation to men was characterized by recurrent theophanies and recessions as the life of nature died and revived year after year. Plutarch noted among various peoples this characteristic conception of Dionysus:
“The Phrygians think that the god is asleep in the winter and is awake in summer, and at one season they celebrate with Bacchic rites his goings to bed and at the other his risings up. And the Paphlagonians allege that in the winter he is bound down and imprisoned and in the spring he is stirred up and let loose.” Read More:http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/pr/pr05.htm