Tag Archives: Dionysus

Dying-and-reborn gods, or are they?

Iridescent Dionysus by Laura Perry
Iridescent Dionysus by Laura Perry

Dying-and-reborn gods are a fixture in modern Pagan practice, embodying the cycles of life, death, and rebirth. Right now it’s Lammastide and many of us who celebrate this First Harvest in the modern eight-fold wheel of the year are symbolically sacrificing a grain god in our rituals, fully expecting that he’ll rise again with the springtime sprouting of next year’s crop.

That’s Dionysus up top of this post, another so-called dying-and-reborn god (DRG for short). Among other things, he’s the embodiment of the vine and its fruit, so he “dies” at the grape harvest each year (the Feast of Grapes as celebrated in Modern Minoan Paganism) and is reborn… well, it’s complicated, since Minoan religion added layer upon layer for centuries, just like the ancient Egyptians did. In Modern Minoan Paganism we celebrate his birth at the Winter Solstice but we also recognize his renewal with the sprouting of the first leaves on the grapevines in the spring.

The thing is, Dionysus is a god. Gods aren’t mortal so they can’t actually die.

You may have heard the quote from Epimenides, the semi-mythical Cretan philosopher-poet who supposedly lived during the 6th or 7th century BCE: “All Cretans are liars.” It’s referenced in the Christian Bible as a paradox (Epimenides is a Cretan and he said all Cretans are liars, so how can what he said be either true or false?) and that’s where a lot of people have heard it from, though it’s apparent that the original statement wasn’t intended as a paradox but a simple statement.

But here’s the thing: Epimenides is intricately linked with “Cretan Zeus” (that would be the Minoan Dionysus, the way the Hellenic Greeks referenced him). He supposedly became a prophet/oracle after sleeping in Rhea’s cave on Mt. Ida, the cave where Dionysus is born every Midwinter (well, one of them anyway!). This is a tidbit of Good Stuff that managed to make it down through the centuries, possibly a shadow of the practices that people undertook during Minoan times at the cave shrines on the island.

So why did Epimenides say all Cretans are liars? Because by his time (almost a millennium after the fall of the Minoan cities) the myths and stories about Dionysus and the rest of the Minoan pantheon had degenerated to the point that people took it literally when the story said Dionysus died. They interpreted the remains of the cave shrine as his tomb.

But gods aren’t mortal. They can’t die.

In modern western society, we have an example of a DRG whose myth has been taken literally: Jesus Christ. But how is it that he can actually die? By becoming mortal. That’s a special consideration, one that’s been argued back and forth for centuries by all kinds of religious scholars, and one I don’t care to take on.

My point is this: Dionysus doesn’t become mortal. John Barleycorn doesn’t become mortal. They’re not human. They don’t actually die, though of course the crops that symbolize them do (and for that, I’m grateful).

The DRGs don’t die; they DESCEND. They go down to the Underworld, awaiting the right time to rise again and start the cycle anew.

We’re mortal. We actually die. Though some of us can travel to the Underworld via shamanic journeys without dying, we don’t take our bodies with us on that trip. So the closest we can come to understanding the divine cycle, the up-and-down, the growing-giving-releasing of the DRG is by equating it to what we ourselves undergo, what we understand: dying and being reincarnated.

So technically, the DRGs don’t die. They can’t, and they don’t need to. But to us, it looks very much like that’s exactly what they do. And that’s fine. We’re mortals, watching immortals do something that we can only understand in part; three-dimensional beings doing their best to interpret the actions of heaven-knows-how-many-dimensional beings.

But what we can see, the part we’re able to understand, has meaning for us. It’s a reminder that it’s not a straight line, but a circle, a spiral… and that’s a gift indeed.

In the name of the bee,

And of the butterfly,

And of the breeze, amen.

Dionysus: God of many brews

x wine drinker

Dionysus is a popular god, for obvious reasons. At first glance, his rites look an awful lot like wild parties. And it’s true, one of the things he’s really good at is breaking down barriers and societal conventions. But the purpose behind all that mayhem isn’t simply to have a good time. There’s meant to be spiritual growth involved, believe it or not.

Most people know Dionysus as the god of wine. He’s associated specifically with this beverage, which people have brewed for millennia, and his death is celebrated at the time of the grape harvest. Yes, he’s one of those so-called dying-and-reborn gods, though I think it’s more accurate to say he descends to the Underworld and then returns later on.

So why wine? The Minoans also brewed beer (the goddess Rhea is associated with grain) and mead (honey is the purview of the Melissae, the ancestral bee-goddesses). But Rhea and the Melissae link to grain and honey, not necessarily to the brewed beverages. And that’s a clue to Dionysus’ secrets: All the brewed drinks are ultimately his.

So yes, he’s a god of wine, but ultimately, he’s a god of fermentation. And that’s a kind of magic.

I’ve been brewing wine for more than 20 years, and the process never ceases to amaze me. Can you imagine what it must have felt like, tens of thousands of years ago, to be that first person whose bowl of juicy grapes or cup of barley gruel sat out a little too long and, instead of going bad, turned into a tasty fizzy drink that made you feel lightheaded? A drink that made it that much easier to reach a state of ecstasy in ritual. At a Pagan gathering, I once had a jug of apple cider turn into “apple champagne” all by itself, with no intervention from me. That was some awesome natural magic.

Fermentation changes one substance into another. It’s a kind of transformation, from an ordinary material (grapes, grain, honey) into a unique and special one. In a sense, it’s the earliest type of alchemy.

It’s transformation that Dionysus is all about: changing us from our ordinary selves into something greater, more expanded, more luminous. Pushing us outside our preconceived notions, outside society’s set of rules for how we should think, feel, and experience the universe. Fermenting us from grapes into wine.

May you become the very finest wine of all.

In the name of the bee,

And of the butterfly,

And of the breeze, amen.

The Minoan Pantheon: Deities A-Plenty

La Pariesienne Evans

Most people have heard of Ariadne, Dionysus, and maybe the Minotaur, but there’s more to the Minoan pantheon than just those three. Here’s a quick rundown of the gods and goddesses we relate to in Modern Minoan Paganism.

Please note that, although Theseus is well known from the Greek version of the story of Ariadne, the Minotaur and the Labyrinth, he’s not a part of the Minoan pantheon. He’s a Greek culture hero (the Minoans weren’t Greek) whose purpose was to show the Minoans in a negative light. Many cultures have created this kind of propaganda via mythology. The Greeks aren’t alone by any means, and for all we know, the Minoans might have done it, too, though we can’t yet read their writings to be sure. Find out more about the origin and nature of the Theseus myth here.

Here’s the Minoan pantheon as we currently experience it within Modern Minoan Paganism. Some people focus on just one or two deities and some like a big party. 🙂 Whatever works for you is just fine.

Posidaeja – Grandmother Ocean who surrounds the beautiful island of Crete, one part of the Land/Sea/Sky goddess triplicity

Rhea – Mother Earth; her body is the island of Crete itself; her womb is the cave on Mt. Dikte (or maybe it’s the one on Mt. Ida – in fact, Ida may have been one of Rhea’s names). She’s the Land portion of the Land/Sea/Sky triplicity.

Ourania – Great Cosmic Mother-of-All, embodied in the starry night sky. She’s the third member of the Land/Sea/Sky triplicity.

Ariadne – Rhea’s daughter, Queen Bee, Lady of the Labyrinth. She figures prominently in the story behind the Minoan precursor to the Eleusinian Mysteries. You can find a lovely version of that tale in Charlene Spretnak’s book Lost Goddesses of Early Greece.

Dionysus – shamanic god of wine and other intoxicants that allow communication with the Underworld. All types of fermentation and hallucinogens are sacred to him, as are ecstatic states.

Zagreus – “The Dismembered One.” Shamanic bull-god who may be an aspect of Dionysus.

Ananke/Arachne – goddess of fate and destiny; possibly an aspect or “job title” of Ariadne.

The Melissae – ancestral bee spirits; Ariadne is their Queen

The Horned Ones – three pairs of animal deities that may go back as far as Neolithic Crete.

Britomartis/Diktynna – deer goddess, connected with Mt. Dikte, later also associated with the sea thanks to some linguistic confusion

Minelathos – the sacred stag, consort to Britomartis

Amalthea – goat-goddess associated with Dionysus and the Minocapros; sometimes described as Rhea’s sister or twin

Minocapros – the sacred goat, associated with Dionysus, consort to Amalthea

Europa – the great Moon-Cow whose milk spurted to create the Milky Way; generally considered to be a doublet (pair or twin) of Pasiphae

Minotauros – the sacred moon-bull, consort to Europa; also associated with the Labyrinth (but I promise, he’s not a monster)

Aega – goddess of the Aegean Sea

Helice – willow goddess; sister or twin of Rhea

Eileithyia – divine midwife; you can still visit her sacred cave near the north coast of Crete

Minos – triple Moon god, judge and protector of souls in the afterlife, healer

Daedalus – smith god; the Minoans were a Bronze Age culture so he would have overseen the smithing of bronze, silver, and gold, but not iron.

Asterion – name meaning ‘starry one’ and applied to several related figures in Minoan mythology: Minos’ father or foster-father (if he’s the father – and the Hellenic Zeus isn’t – then Asterion may be another name for Dionysus); the Minotaur (Karl Kerenyi supported this view); Europa’s consort (but apparently not the same as the Minotaur). It’s not clear whether any or all of these were originally the same figure in the Minoan pantheon.

So there you have it: plenty of choices. Obviously, there’s way more to these deities than just the few sentences I’ve offered here. So if any of these gods and goddesses call to you, it’s worth your time to answer that call. Sure, you can do some research, but what’s equally important is connecting with them directly yourself. Invite them into your sacred space, your rituals, your life. You’ll be the richer for it.

In the name of the bee,

And of the butterfly,

And of the breeze, amen.

Midwinter, Minoan Style

x-knossos-throne-room-3

Minoan civilization lasted for a solid thousand years. As you might expect, their religion changed over that long period. Like their trading partners the Egyptians, the Minoans added new layers over time, creating an extensive and complex religious system that spanned the agricultural cycle and the calendar year. One of the sacred festivals that came later in Minoan times is the Winter Solstice.

In the earliest times, the Minoans celebrated the New Year around the Autumn Equinox, the beginning of the agricultural cycle in the Mediterranean – the time of plowing the fields and planting the crops, which grow throughout the mild winters in that region and are harvested in the spring. But eventually the Winter Solstice became its own kind of secondary New Year celebration. Instead of celebrating the cycle of the green growing things, it celebrated the ending and beginning of the solar year, which was embodied by Dionysus as the solar year-king who was annually reborn at Midwinter.

Yes, I know, Dionysus was originally an ecstatic vine-god, the spirit of the grape and the wine as well as a psychopomp for his people. But as I mentioned, the Minoans added layer upon layer to their religious beliefs and practices over the centuries. So the vine-god who died each year at the grape harvest in the late summer wasn’t considered to conflict with his face as the solar year-king who was born each year at the Winter Solstice. These were just two different aspects of a complex god.

Let’s not forget the other half of the Midwinter story. For a baby to be born, there must be a mother. For the Minoans, this was their great mother goddess Rhea, who was the sacred spirit of the island of Crete itself – their Mother Earth who rose up out of Grandmother Ocean at the beginning of time. Rhea has both a sacred birthing tree (a fir or pine tree beneath which she gave birth, with a star appearing in the sky above it as the infant Dionysus entered the world – this is also Dionysus’ sacred tree) as well as a sacred cave where she gave birth and where she hid her infant to keep him safe. Her sister, the goat-goddess Amalthea, nursed him while the Kouretes (probably originally a Minoan priesthood of Dionysus) guarded the cave, danced for the baby, and drowned out the sound of his cries with the clashing of their spears on their shields.

The Minoans didn’t have TV or movies, and most people probably didn’t own any kind of reading material, so their experience of religion came from public rituals and Mystery plays at the big temple complexes as well as their own private devotions at their home shrines. A few lucky people would have been invited to the Knossos temple complex to witness the Winter Solstice ritual there each year. It turns out, that chair in the “Throne Room” isn’t a throne at all, but a sacred seat where a priestess sat, playing the part of the goddess in rituals at Midsummer and Midwinter. At Midwinter, that seat (which was originally painted red) became Rhea’s birthing chair. The Midwinter sunrise cast a natural, magical spotlight on it as the infant Dionysus was born. That must have been an amazing experience, to be allowed to witness that ritual.

So each year, when I celebrate the Winter Solstice, I view our family’s Christmas tree also as Rhea’s birthing tree. And I look forward to the rebirth of the year-king with the first glimmers of sunrise on Midwinter Morning.

In the name of the bee,

And of the butterfly,

And of the breeze, amen.