“From the earliest times man has experienced in the face with the penetrating eyes the truest manifestation of anthropomorphic or theriomorphic beings. This manifestation is sustained by the mask, which is that much more effective because it is nothing but surface. Because of this, it acts as the strongest symbol of presence. Its eyes, which stare straight ahead, cannot be avoided; its face, with its inexorable immobility, is quite different from other images which seem ready to move, to turn, to step back. Here there is nothing but encounter, from which there is no withdrawal – and immovable, spell-binding antipode. This must be our point of departure for understanding that the mask, which was always a sacred object, could be also put over a human face to depict the god or spirit who appears.
And yet this explains the significance of only half the phenomenon of the mask. The mask is pure confrontation – an antipode, and nothing else. It has no reverse side - “Spirits have no back,” the people say. It has nothing which might transcend this mighty moment of confrontation. It has, in other words, no complete existence either. It is the symbol and the manifestation of that which is simultaneously there and not there: that which is excruciating near, that which is completely absent – both in one reality...”
“No suffering, no ardent desire of the human soul speaks forth from out of this excitement, but the universal truth of Dionysus, the primal phenomenon of duality, the incarnate presence of that which is remote, the shattering encounter with the irrevocable, the fraternal confluence of life and death.
This duality has its symbol in the mask.
True, there have been other masked dances in the past, and there still are today. But what must remain in them as anticipation or as indication, emanates as reality from the depths in which Dionysus holds sway. Here we have not only the spectral presence of demonic beings of nature and the dead. The whole splendor of that which has been submerged draws imperatively near at the same time that it is lost in eternity. The wearer of the mask is seized by sublimity and dignity of those who are no more. He is himself and yet someone else. Madness has touched him – something of the mystery of the mad god, something of the spirit of the dual being who lives in the mask and whose most recent descendant is the actor.
This spirit of madness in which the miracle of immediate presence becomes an event was the spirit which breathed new life into the tragic mythos and had it reappear in a form which manifested its high seriousness and majesty more over-whelmingly than any which had come before. And so Dionysus made his appearance at a time of his choosing in the spiritual world of the Greeks, too, and his coming was so shattering that if still affects us today.” - Walter F. Otto, Dionysus: Myth and Cult (1923)
Some time ago, I asked one of my mentors what he thought the ultimate goal of Dionysian magick was. His response was that the individual pursuing such ecstatic experiences was attempting to “wear the same face.” While in every day consciousness, we maintain and facilitate a “respectable mask,” which is not our true selves. While intoxicated (physically or simply in trance), we encounter the Truth of the God as he (or it) is approaches. In vino veritas, is but one part of the equation. The rest is integration of that truth - that intoxicated joy - into everyday, conscious reality.
I've been thinking about that response for a long time, and reading Otto's comments on masks (taken from the sixth, and then the final chapter: pages 90 and 210 respectively) makes me contemplate those same thoughts. If the two masks: the mask of the self immersed in the moment of the God, and the mask of false identity worn during everyday awareness end up completely entwined, what happens?
Do I end up a mystic after all, or do I simply continue life as I have, grinning ear to ear because I've discovered the key to recovering joy?
I have no idea. But, hell, it's worth a shot, either way.