My Dionysian Festival Cycle
When I made this post a few months ago, sharing a ton of information on Dionysian festivals both ancient and modern, I declined to discuss my own ritual cycle for Him, with the reasoning that it’s something I’ve developed over decades and wouldn’t be useful to someone else just copying it wholesale, because it reflects my (constantly evolving) personal relationship with the god. I still feel that is true, to a degree. However. Today I was reading Sannion’s very important post on the restoration of the Mysteries, and he says:
“We who stand before the gods now are in a precarious position. We do not have firm traditions to stand on, and nothing to pass down to our children and those who come after them but a few meager handfuls of fragments we’ve salvaged from the dirt. We don’t even have our songs and dances.
It is our duty to rediscover them and fashion new ones in honor of the gods. Take the best that we were given and make something better out of it to pass on.
This is work that each and every one of us can have a hand in. Rituals are repeated actions. Find what works for your gods and spirits and then do that again. And again. And again. And again. And again. Until you’ve built up a tradition and can teach others to do it. All of this, together, creates the religion and from this will emerge our collective mysteries – mysteries for this place and age.”
I think about this sometimes – what I can pass on to the next generation, how I can help His worship continue on strongly. I don’t have a ritual group and probably never will. I don’t have an in-person community with whom to share the festivals I’ve developed in a hands-on, meaningful way. But I have this blog, this way of reaching potentially dozens, if not more, far-flung Dionysians who might be looking for inspiration in their desire to honor our god.
So, I’m going to talk just a little about my Dionysian festival cycle (it may seem long, but I am leaving out a lot of private stuff and just hitting on some of the key points). I encourage anyone interested to resist just copying what I’m describing. Think about the motivations behind the festivals, and then apply the same sorts of formulae to your own practice. Make it work for you, and for your own relationship with Him. And remember that it is always a work in progress. While repeated actions make ritual impactful, there is not only room for spontaneity, but you can always change, remove or add a festival entirely, if need be. Ask the god what He wants from you. Pay attention to how well the rituals seem to go over, and adjust accordingly. Don’t be afraid to try something new, or stop doing something that no longer feels right.
While I do plenty of smaller rituals and spontaneous devotion throughout the year, I keep nine major festivals for Dionysos, which fit into a pattern (though there are actually ten, two of which alternate from year to year). Classifying them as “major,” by the way, has nothing to do with how long the rituals take or how much money is spent or anything like that – in fact a couple of these are relatively brief and humble. But these are the festivals that constitute His cycle as He’s shown it to me; each is significant and necessary regardless of how big it seems on the outside. There is no official beginning or end to this cycle, so I’ll just start at the beginning of the calendar year, since it happens to also make sense on a spiritual level too. (One last note – when I say “we” in the descriptions, I am talking about Sannion and myself – he has co-developed most of these with me over the last 7+ years and participates in all of them except the two Yarilo festivals. However, I will only be discussing my own thoughts about each festival.)
LENAIA (Gamelion 12 – usually around late January)
Several of my festivals are inspired by ancient ones, though I would not consider any of them full reconstructions. Lenaia is a tricky festival historically because scholars disagree a bit on why it was done and some of the details. To me, it is about “re-awakening” or drawing-up Dionysos from His time in the underworld, so that He may begin bringing the vegetation with Him. It is sort of a prelude to Anthesteria – when He will still have a chthonic aspect – but this is just the first hint of anabasis. There are two crucial elements to this. One is the assembling of the liknon – a traditional element of ancient Dionysian ritual, although there is some disagreement as to when it was used in ritual. Because it mimics the cradle of the infant Dionysos, I feel it is appropriate for Lenaia, as the god is fresh and new as He emerges from below. (By the way, this festival makes sense in our climate because late January really is when we see the first beginnings of spring – in another area I might move it to a later date.) The liknon was originally a threshing sieve, but lacking one of those, I use a sort of cradle-shaped basket. It is filled with fruits like a cornucopia, along with a clay phallus, and then veiled so that profane eyes do not see it. At sunrise, we carry it up the hill to a reservoir near my house (just because we tried it one year and it seemed the appropriate place for this). Once there, I unveil the liknon, and then the second important element occurs: I sing up Dionysos. I do this by intoning the names of several of His epithets, to a certain tune. He pointed me to this practice several years ago in a fairly direct oracle; I’m not going to share the exact epithets or tune, because those feel more like a private Mystery, but one could easily come up with one’s own. I put as much power into this as I can, drawing Him up with my voice as the sun rises. After that, we pop open some sparkling white wine as a libation (we hit upon this two years ago – the explosive nature of opening the bottle seems rather appropriate with all the phallic imagery involved). We also share phallic-shaped cakes (an ancient part of this festival, and easy to do by using a baking pan I picked up at an adult store).
ANTHESTERIA (Anthesterion 11-13, usually around mid-February)
This is another ancient festival, and a three-day one at that. I believe strongly that this should be kept as a three-day festival and not collapsed into one big ritual the way some people do today. Not only are there real-life spiritual forces at work throughout each day that can’t be rushed, but each phase needs to be fully experienced before moving on. I talk about the issue of timing, as well as go into detail on a number of elements of this festival, in an old post here. The first day, Pithoigia, is the opening of the new wine. The tradition we have developed is to take a long walk around the city, making a point to hit at least two local cemeteries. Along the way, we stop periodically (whenever it seems right or we’re near a holy place like the nearby creek), blow a long note on the hunting horn, and pour out a libation of red wine. The idea is to arouse and call forth the dead (who emerge for this period) both with sound and with the smell of sweet wine, like blood. We also collect any flowers we can find, since this is the festival of first flowers, and offer them on His shrine later. While we walk, we are in an altered state of mind (helped by the fact that we are sharing in the wine), and we talk about Dionysos and what’s going on during this holy time. The second day, Khoes, is a bit complicated. There are several parts to the ancient celebration, but not all of which are appropriate for every person. For instance, after a few years I decided to no longer participate in the silent drinking, steeped in miasma, because I take the part of the Basilinna at night in the holy union with Dionysos, and it began to feel contaminated. The only part we do together is to go to a nearby playground to use the swings (swinging being a traditional part of the festival), and we hang little dolls of girls in the trees in honor of Erigone. Lately we’ve been using this one park where the big tree is an elm, appropriate for its underworld connections (this is an example of how we try to make every single aspect of what we do meaningful and symbolic). On the third and final day, Khutroi, it is all about the dead spirits. I hang a satchel of buckthorn by the door (a conflation of the traditions to chew buckthorn and smear pitch on the door, neither of which I can do) in the morning. In the evening, we make a panspermia offering (a sort of grain stew) and leave it in the nearby marshes for Hermes and the dead, speaking the traditional phrase (in Greek) that ends the festival: Out you Keres, it is no longer Anthesteria.
YARILO’S DAY (June 4)
After Anthesteria, it goes a little quiet. There’s Liberalia on March 17, which Dionysos is involved in but which still feels like a minor holiday to me. There are often informal Bacchanalia as it gets warmer. But for the summer, the only two major festivals I do are for a very specific aspect of Dionysos, a syncretism with the Slavic god Yarilo. Now, to be honest I’m not 100% sure that I’m connecting with Yarilo, per se, at all here – as usual, it’s all about Dionysos to me. But since my early days as a pagan, He has come to me with this name during this time of year and it was always clear that I needed to honor this aspect of Him. The syncretization is not my own invention but a commonly held perception. This Yarilo-Dionysos is very much like Frazer’s Year-God – a vegetative deity that lives and dies with the grain. His traditional Slavic festival is on June 4, and this has oddly enough been one of my most consistent festivals over the past 15 years or so. I used to simply wear His colors (saffron and white), offer Him flowers, and have a sort of ritual picnic out in the sunshine with Him – along with some sweet white wine from a Slavic country. Lately, however, I have started making a corn dolly poppet of Yarilo on this day, which then sits on His shrine until the next festival, when it is ritually destroyed. One year I climbed to the highest point in the city in order to give this effigy a view of the fields planted for miles around.
YARILO’S FUNERAL (August 19)
This ritual is traditionally performed “at harvest time” which I know in many Slavic countries is late summer. I decided to place it on the date of the Roman Vinalia, just to have some extra meaning. All day I dress in mourning clothes and keep a subdued demeanor and atmosphere of mourning. The god of summer and growth and vegetation has died, so that we may live. I make a ritual procession at dusk with the shrouded Yarilo poppet, chanting a dirge that I got from the Carmina Gadelica, which mourns a king. Then I either drown, bury or burn the effigy, depending on what feels right that year. Last year, I added the making and burning of torches from dried mullein stalks, which may become a permanent accompaniment to the funeral.
ANTRONEIA or AGRIONIA (moveable date in September)
I mentioned before that one slot is alternately filled by two different festivals (making each of them trieteric, or every-other-year, an historical way of celebrating Dionysos’ festivals). Kickstarted by the funeral in August, this begins the chthonic set of His festivals. The Antroneia is for Dionysos of the Caves. We make a sort of pilgrimage to an area called the Lava Lands in central Oregon, where we explore several caves formed by ancient lava flows. I have a strong connection to volcanic Dionysos, and this is one of the ways I honor Him. Other than the trip itself, there is no specific ritual associated with this festival, we just do something devotional for Him in that place – it is the place itself that is the point. I also do something small but important on my own in a very small crawlspace within one of the caves, just big enough for me, my buffalo skin, and a drum or rattle. The Agrionia is fairly new so we’re still working it out. It takes place at night in the woods on the McKenzie River (which leads to the Lava Lands, so it’s still the same set of associations), and involves a shrine built around a buffalo skull, copious amounts of wine, a special chant whose structure was given to me in a dream, drumming and singing, magical herbs and sacred libations in the fire, and masks of gypsum like the Titans’, sacrificed to the god.
SKENIA (Puanepsion 9, sometime in October)
This festival is set on the date of the ancient Oskhophoria, which celebrated the grape harvest. It is centered around a sacred, royal banquet held at night, outdoors, for Dionysos-Haides and Persephone. We set up the meal under a skias, or canopy of leaves. There are local grapes, figs, pomegranates, root vegetables, decorations and candles, several bottles of local wine, images of the gods, and some kind of main dish. We eat a small portion ourselves, but lay out the bulk for Them. Last year I brought out my sacred drum and sang, which may become part of the tradition.
LAMPTERIA (Maimakterion 9, sometime in November)
This is an ancient Feast of Torches which was observed in the area of Parnassos in Greece, the main elements of which were to call the god with fire, and to set up bowls of wine throughout the town. We set the date to mark the beginning of Dionysos’ three month reign in Delphi. We climb the local butte and I swing the bullroarer several times to open the ritual. Then we walk down and all through the city, stopping periodically to drink, and set down paper cups of red wine, accompanied by a small candle (we used to use electric tealights but didn’t want to be littering plastic everywhere, so now we just light the candles for awhile and then blow them out to be safe; the wine however is left out). Earlier in the night, I sit down and draw on each of the nine cups we will leave, making art based on Dionysian epithets that Sannion chooses. It’s our small way of spreading His influence.
DIONYSOS OF THE DEPTHS (moveable date in early December)
Here we make a pilgrimage to the coast, and stand near the crashing waves honoring loud-roaring Dionysos. We blow the hunting horn to summon His presence, and pour red wine like blood down the sand and into the water. If I feel called to, I sometimes purify myself by immersing my whole body in the frigid ocean.
TURBE (December 31)
While the name for this festival (meaning “turbulent”) comes from an ancient rite for Dionysos and Pan, the main act of it actually derives from a modern Greek mumming tradition on the island of Skyros. I wear a version of the traditional geros costume, with fur mask and hood, and large brass bells arranged around my body, and carrying a crooked staff. I am led in this guise down a path – either by the holy river or the sacred creek – in order to bless the land and people for the coming year. While the original mumming is done at Carnival time in Greece, we set this on New Year’s Eve in order to take advantage of the communal energy that is raised in the culture at large.
And then we come back to Lenaia, and it begins all over again.
So for those of you who have read this far, now you have a better idea of how I honor Dionysos through festivals. Hopefully it will inspire other practices. I very much want to see His worship thrive and grow.