Report-back on two rituals from Olympia (part II of III)

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.

Ariadne (Arlon)

Ariadne at Naxos. From a funerary monument at Orolaunum (modern-day Arlon in Belgium)

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.


Mænad depicted on a funerary monument from Orolaunum (Arlon).

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.

The August Mothers of Ainay

Bas-relief dedicated to the August Mothers at Ainay.

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 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 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.

About DeoMercurio

I’m a Gaulish polytheist, now back living in lands ceded by the Council of Three Fires after several years’ sojourn in Anatolia and in the land of the Senecas, with frequent travels to Gaul along the way. My grandfather’s family came from the area around Trier, and I identify closely with the Treveri in my religious practice.
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21 Responses to Report-back on two rituals from Olympia (part II of III)

  1. Filipa says:

    Very interesting!

  2. I seem to remember that there was an additional syllable in the repeated line of the song, to wit: “To you we do sing, Matrona.” It was a good song, though, and Rynn was a professional musician at one stage, and it shows! 🙂

    Thank you for writing this! I’m glad to read other people’s experiences of events that I was also present for…ya big softy. 😛 (Nothing wrong with that!)_

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  4. I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed with your report, but I didn’t expect to be moved by it. I can barely imagine how great it must have felt to be among people who worship all sorts of Gods an Goddesses, who’ve inserted themselves into so many cultures…
    And that part about the Mātronās… it really hit me. Is it okay if I join in on the use of tying and untying knots during prayers to them? You did mention “we”, but I’m not sure if you’re mentioning your readers your a group you may possibly belong to.
    Thanks for sharing!

    • DeoMercurio says:

      Thanks so much! I’m glad you find it interesting — and moving, as the whole weekend certainly was.
      Please do join in the tying and untying! It will be comforting to know others are doing the same thing, regardless of distance. 🙂 I should have said this more clearly, but I meant “we” to include any modern-day mortals who want to deepen their connection with these goddesses.
      Thanks again for your comment!

      • Great! I’m going to include that piece of information you got, in a revision of an article I’m currently writing. I’ve already shared your article on my page’s facebook, but I have no idea of what people will think once I actively suggest that we all could follow what the Mātronās suggested through River Devora.
        Personally, I’m quite skeptic of everything, but since the iconography does show at least one Mother holding a distaff, I think it’s excellent UPG (for the lack of a better term in cases of divine possession). 😀

  5. disirdottir says:

    Thanks for sharing your impressions of the Matronae ritual here! People have been raving about it, it’s nice to hear more detail from an attendee POV! 😉

  6. Dver says:

    Hello, I’m one of the priestesses from the Bakcheion ritual, and the one who designed the music playlist. You’ve got a good ear! Those pieces were actually from a recording of a Sufi ritual in Bosnia, which I had received from someone who lived over there. It’s true that the music is dedicated to a different (and monotheistic) god – however, I felt that the power of it, and the fact that it was from an actual ecstatic ritual, was more important a consideration in including it, as our goal was provoking ekstasis. Very glad you enjoyed the ritual!

    • DeoMercurio says:

      I certainly did enjoy the ritual — and what you’re saying about the sound and the atmosphere it helped create is absolutely true. If it’s any indication, I was dancing almost continuously and feeling very much in the ritual groove, whereas in the normal course of events I never dance. The other Turkish song I hadn’t heard before, but I could tell it was from the Alevi-Bektaşi milieu — very much “my people”, as it were, in the Turkish/Islamic context. 🙂 Well done, and thank you so much for helping put this ritual together!

  7. This was such a thoughtful and wonderful write-up; thank you so much for attending and for sharing your experiences with others. I am particularly pleased that you felt the presence of Ariadne during the ritual as she is so amazing and doesn’t receive nearly enough cultic honor in my opinion. I’m also glad the wine was to your liking – the virtue of τρυφἠ is nowhere better expressed than in the realm of religion, as the ancient Synapothanoumenoi held.

    • DeoMercurio says:

      She is amazing, isn’t she! Thanks so much for your comment, and for putting this together. At first I was in a bit of a daze after my Kalends ritual, but I didn’t want to miss it, and I’m really glad I didn’t. 🙂 Many blessings on you and your colleagues!

  8. riverdevora says:

    I’m so glad you enjoyed our ritual! It meant so much to me to be able to put it on at MGW. The string bits are for whomever feels called to the meditative practice, I think.

    And I *love* that you translated the chant into Gaulish! Do you mind if we use your translation in future ritual work? I’m happy to credit you if you tell me by which name you’d like to be called.

    • DeoMercurio says:

      Oh, are you kidding? I’d be delighted if you used it in future ritual work. I can be credited as Viducus Brigantici filius.

      And I’m so glad you did put the ritual on; it clearly struck a chord with lots of people (myself included, obviously!). 🙂 It was so nice to chat with you in the elevator as well. I’d love to pick your brain about these goddesses properly some time. And I’m really happy about the work you’re doing for and with them. 🙂

      Oh, back to the chant, in actually using it over the past few days/weeks, I’ve brought in some variations, so that the version I now mostly use is:

      Boudeis mâterês, Mâtronâs
      ‘Mothers of victory/gain, Matronæ’

      Toutiâs rîganâs, Mâtronâs
      ‘Queens of the tribe, Matronæ’

      Nemnalîû-mî Mâtronâs (and repeat)
      ‘I celebrate the Matronæ’

      This last line takes advantage of the fact that Mâtronâs is the same in the accusative and the vocative; somehow I find it, and the order of elements in the first two lines, a bit more euphonic. The word order possessor+possessed is unusual in Gaulish, but unambiguous and I think certainly permissible in a poetic/musical form. I ought to record an audio file… Can we upload those on WordPress?

      • riverdevora says:

        I would love to have a longer conversation with you about all this stuff, including actually hearing you pronounce the words properly (I’m better hearing than reading for stuff I don’t already know how to pronounce!). I don’t know if wordpress can upload audio files, but I imagine they probably can. Certainly, there’s the version of the story where you upload a video on youtube and then link to it :).

        I have been finally starting to write up some of my matronae research. My first matronae article is up on, and my second one will be coming out sometime soon. I’d be thrilled to hear what you think about those too!

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  10. How fascinating about the string, as the PIE word for string became the word for sorcery in Celtic and Germanic languages!

  11. Lol! It’s in Steel Bars, Sacred Waters’s magic section and Lugus and Odin section. In Germanic languages it became seidR. There’s a bunch of religious words about practices from about 4,000 years ago pre-Celtic language that are considered Celto-Germanic. Sacred grove, prophecy poet, string = magic, and the deities Nerthus/Njord, Macha, Badb, and a few others. The roots of the Celtic swine cult come from the North Sea Neolithic peoples. The linguistic studies that came out were so exciting, it made me grateful that the book was delayed! And the ton of papers on Iberian Celtic deities. Anyway, the Germanic connection with the Celts is so old and constant, it’s interesting.

    Back to killing parasites!

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