Sunday, 10 August 2014

The Dionysian Apocalypse

We tend to think of 'the apocalypse' as a destructive, catastrophic event - a plague, a meteor strike, a nuclear war. Greek myth gives me an idea for a different model: apocalypse via deranged demigod.

"It was on Mount Nysa that Dionysus invented wine, for which he is chiefly celebrated. When he grew to manhood Hera recognized him as Zeus’s son, despite the effeminacy to which his education had reduced him, and drove him mad also. He went wandering all over the world, accompanied by his tutor Silenus and a wild army of Satyrs and Maenads, whose weapons were the ivy-twined staff tipped with a pine-cone, called the thyrsus, and swords and serpents and fear-imposing bullroarers. He sailed to Egypt, bringing the vine with him; and at Pharos King Proteus received him hospitably. Among the Libyans of the Nile Delta, opposite Pharos, were certain Amazon queens whom Dionysus invited to march with him against the Titans and restore King Ammon to the kingdom from which he had been expelled. Dionysus’s defeat of the Titans and restoration of King Ammon was the earliest of his many military successes. 
"He then turned east and made for India. Coming to the Euphrates, he was opposed by the King of Damascus, whom he flayed alive, but built a bridge across the river with ivy and vine; after which a tiger, sent by his father Zeus, helped him across the river Tigris. He reached India, having met with much opposition by the way, and conquered the whole country, which he taught the art of viniculture, also giving it laws and founding great cities. 
"On his return he was opposed by the Amazons, a horde of whom he chased as far as Ephesus. A few took sanctuary in the Temple of Artemis, where their descendants are still living; others fled to Samos, and Dionysus followed them in boats, killing so many that the battlefield is called Panhaema. Near Phloecus some of the elephants which he had brought from India died, and their bones are still pointed out. 
"Next, Dionysus returned to Europe by way of Phrygia, where his grandmother Rhea purified him of the many murders he had committed during his madness, and initiated him into her Mysteries. He then invaded Thrace; but no sooner had his people landed at the mouth of the river Strymon than Lycurgus, King of the Edonians, opposed them savagely with an ox-goad, and captured the entire army, except Dionysus himself, who plunged into the sea and took refuge in Thetis’s grotto. Rhea, vexed by this reverse, helped the prisoners to escape, and drove Lycurgus mad: he struck his own son Dryas dead with an axe, in the belief that he was cutting down a vine. Before recovering his senses he had begun to prune the corpse of its nose and ears, fingers and toes; and the whole land of Thrace grew barren in horror of his crime. When Dionysus, returning from the sea, announced that this barrenness would continue unless Lycurgus were put to death, the Edonians led him to Mount Pangaeum, where wild horses pulled his body apart. 
"Dionysus met with no further opposition in Thrace, but travelled on to his well-beloved Boeotia, where he visited Thebes, and invited the women to join his revels on Mount Cithaeron. Pentheus, King of Thebes, disliking Dionysus’s dissolute appearance, arrested him, together with all his Maenads, but went mad and, instead of shackling Dionysus, shackled a bull. The Maenads escaped again, and went raging out upon the mountain, where they tore calves in pieces. Pentheus attempted to stop them; but, inflamed by wine and religious ecstasy, they rent him limb from limb. His mother Agave led the riot, and it was she who wrenched off his head. 
"At Orchomenus the three daughters of Minyas, by name Alcithoë, Leucippe, and Arsippe, or Aristippe, or Arsinoë, refused to join in the revels, though Dionysus himself invited them, appearing in the form of a girl. He then changed his shape, becoming successively a lion, a bull, and a panther, and drove them insane. Leucippe offered her own son Hippasus as a sacrifice—he had been chosen by lot—and the three sisters, having torn him to pieces and devoured him, skimmed the mountains in a frenzy until at last Hermes changed them into birds, though some say that Dionysus changed them into bats. The murder of Hippasus is annually atoned at Orchomenus, in a feast called Agrionia (‘provocation to savagery’), when the women devotees pretend to seek Dionysus and then, having agreed that he must be away with the Muses, sit in a circle and ask riddles, until the priest of Dionysus rushes from his temple, with a sword, and kills the one whom he catches. 
"When all Boeotia had acknowledged Dionysus’s divinity, he made a tour of the Aegean Islands, spreading joy and terror wherever he went. Arriving at Icaria, he found that his ship was unseaworthy and hired another from certain Tyrrhenian sailors who claimed to be bound for Naxos. But they proved to be pirates and, unaware of godhead, steered for Asia, intending to sell him there as a slave. Dionysus made a vine grow from the deck and enfold the mast, he also turned the oars into serpents, and became a lion himself, filling the vessel with phantom beasts and filling it with sound of flutes, so that the terrified pirates leaped overboard and became dolphins. 
"It was at Naxos that Dionysus met the lovely Ariadne whom Theseus had deserted, and married her without delay. She bore him Oenopion, Thoas, Staphylus, Latromis, Euanthes, and Tauropolus. Later, he placed her bridal chaplet among the stars. 
"From Naxos he came to Argos and punished Perseus, who at fought opposed him and killed many of his followers, by inflicting a madness on the Argive women: they began devouring their own infants; until Perseus hastily admitted his error, and appeased Dionysus by building a temple in his honour. 
"Finally, having established his worship throughout the world Dionysus ascended to Heaven, and now sits at the right hand of Zeus as one of the Twelve Great Ones."
- From "Dionysus's Nature and Deeds", The Greek Myths, Robert Graves 

The Greeks gave themselves a get-out by imagining Dionysus finally ascending to Heaven and leaving them alone. What if he never did? What if he and his cronies spent the rest of eternity roaming from place to place, driving everybody mad, turning them into animals, forcing them to kill and eat their own family members, and only giving them a modicum of relief if they devoted themselves to his worship?

It's not an apocalypse of blasted, barren wasteland, of mutants and zombies, or of Mad-Max style violent nomads racing across permanent deserts. It's an apocalypse of insanity and transmogrification, where you're never sure when Dionysus is going to show up with his satyrs and force you to eat your own grandma or turn you into a dolphin, and where civilization has turned cosmically deranged at the behest of a mad deity and his gang.

16 comments:

  1. you did read grant morrison's zenith comics?

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    1. I never read comics except Dilbert and sometimes Garfield. Is it famous or something?

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    2. It's a good series of comics which is talking about the exact same thing you are mentioning in your post above, give it a try :) p.s. love your work.

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  2. Yep. Scary stuff, when you think about it. I cast Dionysos as and infectious agent in a science fantasy Greek myth riff.

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    1. Cool idea! Robert Graves sort of heavily implies that the whole thing is just an extended metaphor for the introduction of wine into the Greek world. I'm sure that's something to do with it but the story is much more interesting and nuanced than that, and you can twist it in so many ways.

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  3. That's a really cool idea. Dionysus is pretty scary. I wrote my undergraduate honors thesis on how Dionysus occupied this weird place of being simultaneously Greek and not-Greek, and how all of the myths stress that he's this new god who showed up and started wrecking shit, but we have his name recorded in Linear B from Mycenaean times, so the idea that was popular for awhile, that his worship was introduced during the Orientalizing phase, doesn't work out.

    Anyway - yeah, Dionysus is scary. The world you present kind of reminds me of Tanith Lee's Flat Earth stories, so I can see that making for a pretty great swords and sorcery setting.

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    1. I'd never known much about the Flat Earth stories, but just had a look on wikipedia and they look interesting. I'll check them out.

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    2. There are some elements that I like less than others, but overall they present an interestingly dark and vaguely Middle Eastern S&S world. I'll be interested to hear what you think.

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  4. I'm also reminded of Lovecraft's short story "Nyarlathotep", in which the titular god is a Tesla-esque traveling scientist whose exhibitions destroy the minds of all those who witness them.

    "Men advised one another to see Nyarlathotep, and shuddered. And where Nyarlathotep went, rest vanished; for the small hours were rent with the screams of nightmare."

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    1. I see definite Lovecraftian overtones to the Dionysus myth, but more in the direction of Shub-Niggurath and the nature/fertility realm (also embodied in the ancient cults of Cybele and Attis). I see Nyarlathotep as more of the realm of science and the knowledge coveted by "civilized" man, and the horrors that underlie it, though all the shapeshifting is a arguably a good overlap with Dionysus as well. One could make the case that the Lovecraftian universe is all fundamentally a devouring chaos, and Nyarlathotep is simply that particular flavor of chaos that deceives humans into thinking that there is order and control to be had, the better to suck them in.

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    2. Another potentially relevant Lovecraft quote:

      then mankind would have become as the Great Old Ones; free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and revelling in joy. Then the liberated Old Ones would teach them new ways to shout and kill and revel and enjoy themselves, and all the earth would flame with a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom.

      from 'The Call of Cthulhu'.

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  5. apollo is his oposita and his dark side pretty bad country ruining stuff - gods are jerks constantly testing mortals with colamity

    zenith comic is pretty cool

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  6. I was introduced to this concept of dionysus when reading The Secret Histories. The main fear is not that dionysus and his gang will show up and make things fall apart, but that rationality itself will disapear, which is probably why the Romans tried to ban his worship.

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