This is the second part of my report-back from the Many Gods West conference in Olympia, Washington. In it I’d like to give my reactions to two rituals I attended at the conference: one presented by the Bakcheion, the other by River Devora and Rynn Fox.
Ritual for Διόνυσος Βακχεῖος
The first of these was the rite for Διόνυσος Βακχεῖος (a name I shall hereafter transcribe in Latin letters as Dionysus Baccheus, with apologies to the Bakcheion—I’m an old fuddy-duddy about such things!). As far as I can recall (there was some drinking involved), the ritual’s structure could hardly have been simpler: a purification of the attendees was followed by some chants, gifts, and prayers, following which we shared in the god’s vinific bounty and danced. And yet I’ve rarely experienced a more satisfying ritual. The music, the dress of the participants, the décor and lighting—all were calculated to evoke a deep sympathy with the god himself, as well as with Ariadne and with Semele, the numinous presence of whom was palpable.
You may mock me, if you will, as a softy and a romantic, but I really love the story of Ariadne and, as warm as my feelings are towards Bacchus, I find Ariadne somehow more inviting or compatible to my sentiments. I felt the same at this ritual. Dionysus Baccheus was the god principally honoured, and yet it was Ariadne whom I felt most keenly there. Euhoe to the both of them! It was wonderful to spend time with them.
Two of the songs chosen were in Turkish, and I could pick out many words or sentences without being able to follow the lyrics straight through. The sound, in both cases, was very much on the mark, though I was dismayed to hear that one of the songs recited the shahadah in the refrain. This is the Islamic declaration of faith, which I find troubling in its assertion that the gods do not exist with the exception of Allah. As PSVL remarked, however, “Well, sure, there’s no god but Allah in this song!” It’s probably a sign of my lack of imagination that I’d probably have played nothing but Daemonia Nymphe for an hour—at it was, I was happy to hear at least one track of theirs (“Nemesis Rhamnousia”, if I’m not mistaken), and there may have been others I didn’t pick up on.
I’d also like to thank the Bakcheion for providing really delicious wine for the occasion. They must have been at some expense to keep the attendees well-plied with the divine nectar, but their outlay was deeply appreciated. I noticed one vintage of the name of Phebus—Bacchus and Phœbus, together at last? 😉
I was interested to hear in the speech by Theanos Thrax, on which I’ll say more in the final instalment of my report-back, that Dionysus Baccheus represents a regional manifestation of the god specific to southern Italy, in which context (though not necessarily in others) Dionysus and Bacchus are one and the same. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were this Italian Dionysus that Latin writers had in mind when they wrote of an undifferentiated Bacchus-who-is-Dionysus—the conception of the god that would go mainstream, as it were, in Western discourse from classical times onward. Of course, syncretism is full of complexity, and some of these very same writers also had a different conception of Dionysus-as-Osiris and of Bacchus-as-Liber-Pater—both of whom were distinct in cult practice as well as in symbolism, to a fair degree, from Dionysus Baccheus.
By the way, these Western conceptions of Dionysus and Bacchus are of interest from the Gaulish perspective for a variety of reasons. While votive inscriptions to Bacchus or Dionysus are comparatively rare in Gaul, Bacchic imagery is all over the place—particularly on funerary monuments. This implies an expectation among many people (at least in the social class wealthy enough to commission funerary sculpture) of a joyous afterlife presided over by Bacchus. Can people have had this expectation without having already established a devotional relationship with the god in life? Possibly. But my suspicion is that Bacchus was on people’s minds, and in their prayers, more often than we have documentary evidence of—he might, of course, have been honoured by libations of wine (and mead and ale?) even where there was no altar inscribed with his name. Bacchic imagery also influences the depictions of wine-related deities in Burgundy whose names are not definitely known, but who in some respects resemble Sucellus and Nantosuelta. And of course there is a small scattering of votive inscriptions to Liber Pater, as well as some Greek-language inscriptions in southern Gaul dedicated to Διόνυσος.
Reweaving the Fabric of Connection: the Matronæ ritual
If you’ve ever been to one of Coru Cathubodua’s public rituals, you’d see many elements that were familiar in this rite; nevertheless, the atmosphere and feel of the ritual for the Matronæ were, as you would expect, quite different. River Devora gave an introductory exposition that hinted at her depth of knowledge and interest in these divinities, but of course there was only time to scratch the surface. Then there were gifts of milk and prayers offered to the Matronæ, as well as to the spirits of the land and ancestors and others. The heart of the ritual, however, was oracular: River Devora invited the Matronæ to take possession of her and speak to us in her voice.
Can I just pause for a moment and remark that (a) this kind of encounter is extraordinarily powerful and valuable, and (b) I’m very glad it’s not me getting possessed. To everything, no doubt, there is a season, but right now I feel like undertaking this type of spirit work would scare the living bejesus out of me. But no doubt this is why people spend years and years honing their ability to do precisely this, and to do so safely. And I’m extremely grateful that we have such people in our community. (Hark: ’tis the voice of the laity that speaks!)
And so, Matrona appeared. Matrona spoke. She commented a bit on the ways of the world and the interesting fact that there were so many people gathered there to worship her (imagine!). We offered consecrated pennies to carry our wishes to her (interestingly, through the agency of Abraham Lincoln … whom, by the way, I consider a hero in the religious as well as the vernacular sense). To some of us she gave individual advice. I was lucky enough to get two pieces of such advice (brief as they were, I aim to take them to heart). The first was when she was recommending we pray to her on a piece of string or yarn, tying and untying it. As she remarked, “As long as there has been string, there has been string magic.” Then she pointed at several of us, saying, “You especially can benefit from this.” I was one.
And this is something we can carry forward out of the ritual into the realm of our daily (or at least ongoing) devotions: Before an image of the Matronæ, or just focusing on such an image in our minds, we can pray to her while tying and untying knots into a length of yarn or string. What a lovely meditation! The soft yarn reminding us of a motherly goddess’ touch, the smoothness and the tangle of the knot coming and going as they do through life in an endless cycle.
Another of Matrona’s remarks struck me. Earlier she had been referring to all of us present as “children”, but at one point in the ritual, she observed, with a different tone of voice, “There should be children.” Oh, right. A ritual for mother-goddesses is in fact the perfect opportunity to bring children forward to receive her blessings—who knew? Yet I don’t think there was anybody under 16 at the ritual.
The other piece of advice I got from Matrona individually was in answer to my unspoken questions, conveyed (through Father Abraham on the penny)—How shall I honour you? What shall I write about you? How would you like to be made known? The subtext to these questions is that I’ve long been wanting to engage more closely with the Matronæ in a devotional way, and that I also have an unfinished page for her to put on http://www.deomercurio.be but still some ways from completion. Her answer? “You need to listen to the old oracles.” Like many another oracle, this raises so many questions, and is susceptible to so many interpretations, that I fear I’ll bollocks it up and not know how until it’s too late. And maybe that’s the point. (You know, learning from mistakes, etc.) Still, if you’d like to offer an interpretation, I’d be glad to hear it in the comments section or an email!
I should mention the chant to the Matronæ, which is something else we can carry forward with us from this ritual. If memory serves, this went, “Ladies of victory, Matrona, / Mothers of the tribe, Matrona, / To you we sing, Matrona; / To you we sing, Matrona.” I must never have heard Rynn Fox sing before—her voice is stunning. (Does she sing professionally I wonder?) In any case, her song was a worthy tribute to the Matronæ, and I was happy to have the chance to join in. In the interests of pious linguistic geekery, I offer the following Gaulish back-translation of the chant in question:
Boudeis rîganâs, Mâtronâs
Toutiâs mâteres, Mâtronâs
| : Suos uediîmos, Mâtronâs : |
Both boudeis and toutiâs feature that lovely diphthong ou that you find in Gaulish words and that Latin and Greek writers didn’t quite know what to do with (spelling variants include o, ou, eu, οου, ωυ). The way I cut this with Occam’s razor, I suggest the sound is probably quite close to a long o spoken with a southern English/BBC accent. Instead of “to you we sing”, I have “we pray to you” since this lets us use an attested verb and grammatical structure (from the Chamalières lead tablet: andediion uediiumi diiiuion risun artiu mapon arueriiatin—I can’t help singing the Eluveitie song “Dessumiis Luge” in my mind as I type that!). By the way, if you’re singing this chant by yourself, the last line can go Suos uedîû(mî), Mâtronâs (the mî is optional, but kind of nice if you can fit it in).
In other news, there was also an unanticipated priestly initiation transpiring in part of the room. These things happen sometimes! I won’t scoop the story, in case the initiate in question wants to blog about the event, but the details that I have heard are rather remarkable.