"light will win over darkness, life will win over death" Ukranian president Zelensky's speech to the European parliament, March 3rd, 2022
A few days ago, the Ukranian president gave a very powerful and emotional speech to the European parliament, asking the European Union to intervene and help Ukraine. He ended his speech by saying that light will win over darkness and life over death.
I have been really emotional during the past week, after Russia invaded Ukraine. Zelensky's courageous efforts to save his country have been remarkable and his speech was really moving.
His words made me think how the struggle of light vs darkness, of life vs death and the hope that light and life would finally prevail, is deeply engrained in the human psyche. Older civilisations tried to conquer their fears by celebrating life and its rebirth by participating in rituals and festivals. In the ancient Greek polytheistic world, people worshipped Dionysos, the god of wine, ecstasy, festivities and theatre, celebrating the resurrection life.
Dionysos in mythology
According to the ancient Greek mythology, Dionysos was a child born out of wedlock: he was the son of Zeus and princess Semele of Thebes. Zeus' wife Hera got really jealous when she found out about her husband's secret love affair. Zeus was so madly in love with Semele that swore by the waters of lake Styx that he would do anything that Semele asked him. Hera tricked Semele by disguising as an old woman and convinced her that if she wanted to be sure that Zeus was in love with her , she should ask him to appear in front of her in his full splendour: as the King of Heaven and Lord of the Thunderbolt. When Zeus was asked by Semele to appear in his full splendour, the glory of his burning light burnt Semele who was pregnant to Dionysos. Zeus took the child and hid him in his thigh.This is where where Dionysos was born after two months. Trying to save the child from his wife's rage, Zeus gave baby Dionysos to Hermes who took him to Nysa, a cave located somewhere in the near East where he was raised and protected by the nymphs.
This is how Dionysos was saved in his early days. However, Hera never really forgot about her husband's illegitimate child. At Hera's orders, the Titans seized Dionysos: they whitened their faces with chalk and like spirits of the dead emerging from the Underworld, they approached and captured the child when he was playing. They tore him into seven pieces that they afterwards boiled in a cauldron. Where his blood fell, a pomegranate tree sprung out. His grandmother Rhea rescued his pieces and reconstituted Dionysos who was reborn. Under Zeus' orders Dionysos was rescued by Persephone, and was taken to King Athamas of Orchomenus and his wife Ino, who raised the child in the women's quarter's disguised as a girl to be saved from Hera's rage (Graves, 1960; Kerenyi 2006)
Dionysos, the god of Metamorphosis (transformation)
Carl Kerenyi (1897-1973) a famous professor of Classical philology, ancient history and history of religions viewed Dionysos as the archetypal image of indestructible life. Dionysos endured several calamities, he died and was reborn. I tend to call him the god of Metamorphosis, meaning transformation in Greek. Not only did he transform in different animals, but he was also disguised as a girl to escape the rage of Hera in his teenage years.
Moreover, Dionysos was identified with the vine tree which transforms during its life cycle. Dionysos was born out of fire (see previous section) and nursed by rain with the nymphs; in a similar way, the vine tree needs the sun to ripen the grapes and water to keep the plant alive (Hamilton, 2017, p. 52). This is how from a very early age Dionysos was identified as the God of the Vine; he taught the culture of the vine and its properties to people. The vine tree 'dies' during the winter and 'resurrects' in spring; after the grapes were ripe in August, they were squashed in order to produce the must.The must was placed in half-buried earthenware pots and during fermentation, the must transformed into wine. When humans consumed this divine drink they could tranform.
The followers of Dionysos were the Satyrs who were half-men and half-goats (see figure 1) and the Maenads or Bacchantes who were women frenzied with wine who would wander in the forests devouring the flesh of wild animals, according to ancient Greek mythology (Hamilton, 2017, pp.54-55)
When the cult of Dionysos was accepted in his birth place, in Thebes, he entered the city accompanied by a group of women who were dancing and singing holding ivy-wreathed wands (see figure 2).
Both Satyrs and Meanads belonged to another sphere, the mythological world; however, the half-beast aspect to the Satyrs and the frenzy aspect of the Meanads enabled the initiated to the Dionysian festivals to 'transform' spiritually into wild animals, to liberate themselves and "rediscover" their animal instincts. Scholars argue that there were "situations where satyrs blended with the anonymous dancers of the present time, that is to say, where dancers behaved like satyrs, presented themselves as satyrs, and perhaps felt they were satyrs" (Isler-Kerenyi, 2015, p. 4). Another element of Metamorphosis was allowed to actors who were playing different roles during the theatrical contests organised during the Great Dionysis. But this would be the theme of another post in the future!)
The festival of Anthesteria
It was at this time of year, the end of winter-beginning of spring when the ancient Greeks celebrated one of the greatest and oldest festivals of Dionysos.This was the Anthesteria organised during the Anthesterion month (the month when flowers start to blossom; from the ancient Greek verb anthein meaning to flower) which coincides with the end of February-beginning of March in our calendars (Overbeck B. and Overeck M. 2005; Kerenyi 1996) .This was the time when they tried the gleukos, the first wine of the year; the wine was not fully fermented but still quite intoxicating (Kerenyi 1996, p.293). Wine was actually harvested between August-October and the ancient Athenians had the first taste during the rural Dionysian festivals organised in December. However, wine needed the cold temperatures of January for its final clearing. Since Nonvember, Dionysos was called by the Athenians (through the organisation of various Dionysian festivals) and finally made his entrance during the Anthesteria. He emerged from the underworld among the women of Athens, who mixed the wine with water before the start of the festival (see figure 2).
Songs called dithyrambs were sung for the honour of Dionysos. One of the dithyrambs of an unknown author survived until today:
When the divine fields of motley flowers
In the shady grove receive with open arms
The Bacchic dances performed by tender virgins
(extracted from Kerenyi, 1996. p.301)
On the first day of the festival called pithoigia since they were opening the pithoi, that is the large earthenware jars half buried in the earth where wine was fermented. Everyone was allowed to drink wine, including slaves. The Athenians organised symposia (wine-drinking gatherings) and the atmosphere was quite merry (see figure 3). The Athenians would celebrate the joy and rebirth of life. But life is part of the same cycle with death; on the festival that celebrated life and the rebirth of nature, the Athenians would remember their dead. The smell of the wine of the open pithoi attracted the souls of the underworld that emerged on the earth like Dionysos.
The second day of the festival was the most important day and was called Choes , taking its name from the 'wine-pitchers'. The day was characterised by the presence of ghosts and the organisation of symposia in every Athenian house. The new members of the family, three year old children, would receive their drinking cups and they would participate in the symposium for their first time. The whole family, the new members together with the souls of their dead that have emerged from the underworld would all be present. After dinner, the Athenian families would take flower wreaths and drinking cups and start a nocturnal procession to offer them at the sanctuary of Dionysos in the swamps, south of the Acropolis hill. The third day was the Chytroi or 'Day of the pots'. Ghosts were driven out of the earth back to the underworld. Apart from Dionysos, this day was also dedicated to Hermes who was taking the souls back to the underworld. People would leave food vegetables and seeds) in the opened pots for the spirits of the dead (Kerenyi, 1996, pp.301-304). With their heads full of wine and their bellies full of food, the spirits would be taken to the swamps escorted by the Athenian people.
The carnival in Greece today
Some of the elements of this ancient civilisation infiltrated into the Byzantine world and are still present today. Between Christmas and Easter, just before the start of Lent, people in Greece celebrate the carnival period. It lasts nearly three weeks during which people dress up , go to parties and dance. The carnival period is usually celebrated in late February/ early March during the transition from winter to spring. Like in ancient times people do not forget their dead; when the carnival period starts people take offerings for their dead to the church on the Psychosavvato or Saturday of Souls. People make a special dish named kollyva which is made of boiled wheat and other cereals, seeds, such as pomegranate, nuts and spices.
Towards the end of the carnival period, many towns around Greece organise carnival parades like in other parts of the world such as in Rio de Janeiro, in Venice etc.The most famous ones are the carnival of Patras, Xanthi and Rethymno. But the one which has a stonger Dionysian element is the one at the island of Naxos, the largest island of the Cyclades. The cult of Dionysos was very prominent on this island in ancientl times. According to the ancient Greek mythology, , Dionysos rescued Ariadne who was abandoned by Theseus at the island of Naxos after she helped him escape the labyrinth in Crete. Dionysos fell in love with Semele and when she died he crowned her and placed her among the stars. During the last weekend of the carnival period, people in Naxos organise a nocturnal dance parade with torches. People whiten their faces and wear white garments, dancing around the streets and the little alleys of one of the most beautiful islands of the Cyclades.You can have an idea of the nocturnal parade in the video below:
Lets hope that the light of the Dionysian spirit will prevail over darkness in these crucial moments for humankind,
Bruit Zaidman L. & Schmitt Pantel P. (1992), Religion in the ancient Greek city, transl. from French by Paul Cartledge, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge and New York.
Graves, R. (1960), The Greek myths, Penguin Books: London
Hamilton, E. (2017), Mythology: Timeless tales of Gods and Heroes, Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers: New York.
Isler-Kerenyi, C. (2015), Dionysos in Classical Athens: An understanding through Images, Brill: Leiden and Boston
Kerenyi, C. (1996) , DIONYSOS: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life, trans. from German by Ralph Manheim, Princeton University Press: Princeton, New Jersey
Kerenyi, C. (2006), The Gods of the Greeks, Thames and Hudson: London
Overbeck, B. & Overbeck, M. (2005), Dionysos and his world: the fascination of precious gems, The Hadjimichalis Estate: Athens