I’ve been thinking about this lately, so I figured I’d write some of it down. Maybe you guys will find this as interesting as I do. Maybe you’ll just think I’m morbid.
I want to talk about the Maenads. Now, some of you are raising your fingers in the air, saying “Hey, I remember those from True Blood!” Some of you might know more about them than that, and might be saying “Aha! He’s talking about the crazed followers of Dionysus!”
True, and true. More than that, though, I wanted to write down a few stray thoughts I’ve been having about their rituals, especially the culmination of their rituals. Let’s go into more detail–bloody, gory detail.
So, Dionysian rituals were famous for being revels of complete abandon. In fact, that was sort of the point. There are lots of festivals dedicated to Dionysus, now, and they were varied. Before someone decides to flay me for leaving out the City Dionysia, or dithyrambs, or the fact that they were the origins of Greek tragedy, I know–but we’re not talking about all of that today. Though, I suppose my penchant for writing fiction has its origins in Dionysian ritual.
Give your thanks to Dionysus, you pitiful little mortals.
The Maenads were the crazed female followers of Dionysus, the priestesses of the god of the grapevine. They were known by the animal skins they wore, the wreaths in their hair, the fact that they danced barefoot, handled snakes (they got there first, Pentecostals), and the thyrsus–a rod wreathed in vines, and topped in leaves or pinecones.
The Maenads went up into the hills to perform wild rituals by the moonlight. In short, imagine a bunch of intoxicated, crazed women dancing until they’ve worked themselves–and everyone else–into a frenzy. The whole point was to reach something called ecstasis, a religious fervor so great that it sent everyone into a state of abandon. At the height of this fervor, an animal would be tossed into the center of the crowd.
There, it would be torn limb from limb by hand, and eaten raw by the frenzied mob.
This practice is called omophagia. Now, the weird thing about this practice is that it’s not exclusive to the worship of Dionysus–or his Roman counterpart, Bacchus–it actually turns up in different places all over the planet. In places where primitive tribes have been met with more advanced chroniclers, there have been rituals described that bear striking resemblance to those of the Maenads. Dancing crowds, intoxication, abandon, and at the height of the rituals, no matter the details–omophagia. In Divine Madness, there was a scene described in Africa where a ritual took place that bears such a startling resemblance to those of the Maenads that I had to read it twice. One horror story even mentioned a woman who, at the height of her religious fervor, tossed her baby into the crowd, where it was subsequently torn apart and devoured.
Most people regard the practice as having arisen from Dionysus’s birth myth–that he was ripped apart, but born again. But others believe that Dionysus was the representation of something older, something more ingrained into the human psyche. Dionysian rituals represented a return to the primitive, a regression to something more brutal. What strikes me as odd is how often the practice pops up in history, and throughout cultures who haven’t heard of one another. Does it serve some purpose in society–perhaps an evolutionary release valve of our more brutal instincts, like an ancient version of the Purge?
I’ve become really intrigued with Dionysus. His worship was so varied in scope, and so wild in its extremes. On one hand, you’ve got the origin of Greek tragedy, and a god who relishes in the heights of human creativity. On the other hand, frenzied mobs ripping apart animals with their bare hands and eating them raw–the depths of human depravity.
Another interesting aspect was how afraid the Romans were of the worship of Bacchus. They outlawed his cult, and sought out those who practiced the rituals. There are all sorts of wild stories about the worship of Dionysus/Bacchus. Alexander’s mother was apparently a follower of Dionysus, and there’s even a story that the wife of Spartacus was a priestess of Bacchus, though I’m not sure of the second’s credibility.
So, yeah. I just wanted to take some time to share these weird little thoughts with you. I really don’t know why.