Sunday, February 3, 2013

Hic Svnt Liones

“But what a hunt that is! Killing is dismemberment, and with it, at the height of the frenzy, comes the devouring of raw flesh. “Dressed in the holy deer-skin, he hunts the blood of dying goats with a ravenous lust for raw flesh.” This is the song of the Euripidean chorus of Dionysus. Like their master, the maenads, too, pounce on their victims to devour their flesh raw. That no longer describes the hunter. That describes the beast of prey. And this is just what the epithet ὼμησιτής means to say, for it was to the god as the “eater of raw flesh,” that is to say, as a beast of prey that three Persian youths were sacrificed before the battle of Salamis. Elsewhere the word ὼμησιτής usually describes lions. But the other beasts of prey (wolves, eagles, vultures, and dogs) are characterized by it. When Hecuba in the Illiad calls Achilles this, she is comparing him to a merciless beast of prey...”
(P. 109)

 “His ability to transform himself into something else is stressed. He is the “god of two forms” (δίμορϕος), “the god of many forms” (πολνυειδήϛςς καὶ πολύμορϕος), “Appear as a bull, or as a many-headed dragon, or as a lion breathing fire!” This is the invocation of the chorus to Dionysus in Euripides' Bacchae. In the battle against the giants he was a lion. To the daughters of Minyas he appeared in the form of a young girl and suddenly changed into a bull, a lion, a panther. In Nonnus (who also tells of the many transformations of Zagreus in his battle with the Titans), the Indian Deriades complains of the impossibility of conquering him – Dionysus – because the πολυειδής (the many-formed one) was now a lion, a bull, a boar, a bear, a panther, a snake, and now a tree, fire, water.”
(P. 110)
Lover of Wine
The panther, as is well known, appears in descriptions of a later period as the favorite animal of Dionysus and is found with him in countless works of art. As Philostratus tells us, the panther leaps as gracefully and lightly as a Bacchant, and this is the reason the god loves him so. It was even maintained that he had a passionate love for wine. At the same time, however, it was because of his intractable savagery that he was compared with Dionysus. As the Gigantomachy can illustrate, the lion was already associated with Dionysus very early in history. In Homeric Hymn 7, Dionysus frightens the pirates who had captured him by having a lion appear. In Euripides, he himself is invoked to appear as a lion (see above), and it is as such that he appears to the daughters of Minyas, to their horror (see above). There are other references which could be made here: there is, for example, Dionysus Κεχηνώς on Samos, who is said to have received his shrine because of the gratitude and loyalty of a lion. Euphorion wrote a poem on the incident.

Usually it is said that the lion and the panther were not originally associated with Dionysus but entered his retinue by way of Asia Minor through contract with the cult of the Great Mother. But there were lions were on the Balkan peninsula itself even in later eras, and even if the panther was not indigenous there, it need not have become a member of the god's retinue because of external borrowings. It is very doubtful whether gods and cults were as ready to accommodate themselves to one another as moderns – to whom they have no serious import – like to imagine. As long as a god was still thought to exist, what he actually was had to determine whether he attracted or repelled this or that to his orbit. Whenever or however the worshipers of Dionysus got to know the panther, which was as beautiful as it was dangerous, its nature told them immediately that it was akin to Dionysus and had to belong to his realm. That is confirmed by the other beasts of prey, similar to the panther, who were associated with Dionysus earlier or later.
Ever since the Augustan Age, Roman writers, following of course, the Greek tradition, like to name the lynx as a beast of Dionysus. This animal had been native to Greece from a very early time and is still found there today. The panther or leopard, and the lynx (the tiger, too, is added in the references out of Roman literature) have that very thing in common which justifies comparing them in more than one respect with the nature and actions of the maenads. This makes itself felt the most in the panther, which was, after all, the most loyal attendant of the god. Of all the cats devoted to Dionysus, it was not only the most graceful and fascinating but also the most savage and bloodthirsty. The lightning-fast agility and perfect elegance of its movements, whose purpose is murder, exhibit the same union of beauty and fatal danger found in the mad women who accompany Dionysus. Their savagery, too, fascinates those who watch them, and yet it is the eruption of the dreadful impulse to pounce on the prey, tear it into pieces, and devour its flesh raw. We are told that the leopard and the lynx are the most murderous of all the larger beasts of prey. Many more victims must bleed to death under their teeth than would be needed for their sustenance. And when one hears that a female leopard which is suckling her young is the bloodthirstiest of all the carnivores, one cannot help thinking of the maenads who were also nursing mothers.
It is true that the world of the other gods are not without paradox. But none of these worlds is as disrupted by it as is the world of Dionysus. He, the nurturer and the god of rapture; he, the good who is forever praised as giver of wine which removes all sorrow and care, he the deliverer and healer (…), “the delight of the mortals” (…), “the god of many joys” (…), the “benefactor” (…), — this god who is the most delightful of all the gods is at the same time the most frightful. No single Greek god even approaches Dionysus in the horror of his epithets, which bear witness to a savagery which is absolutely without mercy. In fact, one must evoke the memory of the monstrous horror of eternal darkness to find anything at all comparable. He is called the “render of men” (…), “the eater of raw flesh” (…), “who delights in the sword and bloodshed.”...”*
(p. 111 – 113.)
- Walter F. Otto, Dionysus: Myth and Cult. (Chapter 9: “The Somber Madness.”)

* Some of the titles in Greek just got too goddamn tiresome to try and make sure I copied correctly. And I probably didn't do the initial ones correctly, either. But, you know what? I like that chapter, a lot.