Dionysus: Echoes of an Ancient Future

Ahead of advaya's upcoming online course: Dionysus: Rave, Ritual and Revolution, we speak with curator and host Chiara Baldini all about Dionysus. We dove into the mythology, history and culture around Dionysus, one of the most intriguing deities of Western culture. The god of fertility, dance, vegetation, wild nature, ambiguity and egalitarianism sounds like the perfect match who will not disappoint us with the gifts of his mysteries. What role did ecstatic practices play in his rituals? Who were his followers and what were the reactions of the Greek and Roman authorities to their unruliness? What are the pre-patriarchal elements of these practices and what can we learn from them today?

Ruby Reed (advaya): In this webinar, we're going to be diving into the mythology, history and culture of the multifaceted Dionysus. Dionysus is the god of ecstasy, fertility, dance, vegetation, wild nature, ambiguity, egalitarianism, ritual sexuality, theatre, queerness, madness, dance, revolution—the list goes on—as well as the Dionysian cults. We're going to be looking at the role of sacred rituals and devotion to the more-than-human, what Dionysus can teach us about pre-patriarchal systems, shamanism and the role of women, and why this was important at the sociopolitical level, and we will end by looking at how all of this relates to transformation within social structure, equality and oppression.

And this, as I mentioned before, is an introduction to the course starting next week on the 5th of March. And so we're just going to pepper through and touch on many of the different topics that are featured in the course, but it's really an invitation to join us and to sign up, and also to ask questions to Chiara.

Chiara Baldini: So welcome, everyone, thank you for taking your time to join this webinar, to join us, and to talk about these topics. And before we start, I would actually like to call for a moment of silence, to bring to our awareness, the suffering of all the people that are in war right now.

Thank you for that. And it is my wish, and it is my prayer that this course is one more little step, towards a culture, maybe a global culture, where there is no space for war, no matter how long it might take, may there be a time where conflicts are not leading into wars. So thank you.

Ruby Reed (advaya): Yes, thank you, Chiara, for inviting us to that reflection, and for everyone else who has just joined us, to begin this conversation, which I'm really, really, really excited to be holding, and sharing with everyone here. So I would love to kick off, Chiara, if you could just tell us about the process that brought you to where you are now, in this research... Like as I mentioned, 20 years, since 2004, when you first began, what made you start this inquiry? What has it looked like over that two decades? Where are you now? And then that can take us into some of the themes.

Chiara Baldini: Yeah, so... it's always a pleasure for me to speak about the beginning because it was so unusual, so serendipitous, in a way. So it was 2004, I was 29. And I was in the dance floor of Boom Festival in Portugal. I'm smiling because Ruby doesn't know this. And so yeah, I was already going to festivals and really interested in this culture. But Boom festival was like the biggest I've ever been to, and I spent my first night there. It was a night full of insights and visions and a lot of different emotions. And I realised that that experience sharing the collective altered state of consciousness, in a way was creating a bond among people that was stronger than anything I had experienced until then. I had been to peace demonstrations in 2003, there was the war in Iraq. And I went to many peace demonstrations back then, I went to different kinds of community events, but the power of connection and togetherness and oneness that I felt in that dance floor that night, I had never felt it before, and I was completely overwhelmed. And so in the morning, when I found my friend again, because I had lost her, I told her, You need to remind me that I need to research how we got here. Like, what is this? Is this something new? Or is this a new way of doing something old, something that we've been doing before, and this is just how it's manifesting right now?

And I had a degree in English linguistics, I was not a historian or an anthropologist, nothing of that. But then very slowly, book after book, in a very random way, we could say book lead into book, I started this journey, without having also a goal of where I was gonna get... you know, 'I'm gonna speak' and 'I'm gonna write a book'—I didn't think in these terms, I was just very curious. And then as I started putting information together, I was really keen to give back this information to the people that were going to festivals. Because I was thinking that this would help them to frame or contextualise an experience that is difficult to bring back home, once we go back to our 'normal lives'. And so I think it was 2008. So, four years later, I gave my first presentation, I was terrified, I couldn't even hear what I was saying. It was in liminal village in the cultural area of Boom festival. And I was completely overwhelmed. I was just part of a panel. So I was just speaking for like 15 minutes, but I was totally terrified. But then again, I started meeting more people, more researchers that gave me space, and that trusted me, and trusted the research. And so I started writing, for anthologies. And then my first presentation in a psychedelic conference was Breaking Convention 2013, in Greenwich University in London. And so yeah, this is how it started.

But it has always been something that I've been doing on the side of everything else that I was doing. I'm also a DJ. And then I became the curator of the cultural area of Boom, a few years later, I think I started in 2014 as a curator, I started working in 2010 as an assistant. And so it was this very slow process, that brought me all the way here, actually. And I'm super grateful, because this is the first time that I can put all the information together in this sequence that we created for this course, really creating a storyline, like a narrative, going from ancient times until the Roman Empire. And it's a great opportunity for me to really see what it looks like when it's all together, and also to have the feedback of the people, this is a co-creation, because also now I actually started a PhD, to bring this research within an academic frame, because also I was a bit tired of being by myself, in this, or not having the support of people that knew more than me, and that could guide me. And so I'm in the process of achieving the PhD. And so this course is material that's going to be the core of my dissertation, so whoever will join will also help me in this process of understanding what are the strong points, where do I need to be more clear, where are the points that it doesn't make much sense... So I also don't approach this course as someone who knows everything, or who has all the answers, but I like to do this work in progress and to I'm really looking forward to hear the feedback of the people.

Ruby Reed (advaya): Thank you, Chiara. I love thinking about work around history and culture, as like, an excavation. And that's one of the themes that I've heard you speak about a little bit. It's like, how can looking at the past help to shine a light on where we are now, in the present, and into the future? And when you're talking about that first initial dance floor experience through psychedelic trance. And it's like, somehow intuitively tuning into that ancient cult, archetypal presence, which has been still carried through millennia of oppression, but is still very much alive, and how can that be utilised in the right way? And that perhaps clarifies a little bit, the subtitle, which is Ritual, Rave and Revolution. Because I realised, actually, it's probably not so obvious that that's what that subtitle is in reference to. And so perhaps we can set the scene a little bit more, like, who was Dionysus? Or who is Dionysus? What is he known for?

Chiara Baldini: Yeah, and actually, Dionysus is the first one I went to, after that night in the Boom festival, because I had some memories from school, about Dionysus being a crazy God or someone, an archetype that would be connected to frenzied dances and excess and wine... this is what I remembered, I had like a vague memory, and also because they don't talk so much about Dionysus anyway, in school—I am from Italy, so I did schools here in Italy. And we did study classical Greece and Rome. And it was just a reference. And so I started with Dionysus, and I started finding all this information about him that made him much more than what I thought he was. And so yeah, we start... like most of the people know him, as the god of wine. And this can be a bit problematic, for me, at least, also to be speaking about the god of wine. Because actually, I don't want in any way to promote use of alcohol. Actually, I personally don't drink alcohol so much, like tiny sometimes.. I live in... right now I am in Tuscany. So I'm surrounded, imagine me surrounded with vineyards everywhere, talking about the god of wine.

And actually, with time, I learned that wine was ceremonial wine—it's not our wine. And it was not used in the same way that we use it today. And actually, ceremonial wine very often was like a solution, like an alcoholic solution in which to mix a bunch of other things. So what would be drank in rituals would be a mix, that alcohol is the base, but then there is a lot of other plants and fungi—I never know how to say this word properly, fungi? Mushrooms... And some of these herbs would be psychotropic, so would increase the quality of wine in inducing an altered state of consciousness. But some other plants would be... there would also be honey, or fermented honey. So it would also be something to modify the taste according to their taste back then... which I don't know if we would find tasty, these days. But so, ceremonial wine is different. And the way that they would use the ceremonial wine is different. And also, this association to wine is like a later association to Dionysus, it's more typical of the Hellenistic and the Roman times. Actually, originally, Dionysus is a vegetation God.

And so what does it mean? It means that it's connected to this archetype of the dying and resurrecting gods, and there's many of them in the Mediterranean area. Osiris is another one of them. The mysteries of Isis and Osiris is connected to this, but also the mysteries of Eleusis. I'm mentioning... these are the mystery religions. The mysteries of Eleusis that turns around Demeter and Persephone... Persephone also goes underground and then comes back. So these are all mythologies that are connected to a time, researchers believe, to the Neolithic... so the beginning of agriculture, where people started to understand these life cycles of plants, and the miracle of a plant that died and then the seed brings it back up. And it was thanks to this regeneration of life, of plant life, that people could survive. So for them, and this is also connected to the fertility rituals... For them, this was a fundamental part of their life, to be able to celebrate, to honour and to propitiate, through rituals, the possibility for plants to regenerate themselves, and then for humans to feel part of these cycles of death and rebirth, death and rebirth, these infinite cycles of death and rebirth. So Dionysus comes as a God, that is connected to all this mythological matrix, we would say, of the Mediterranean area.

And so he's also a God of ritual madness, or telestic mania, as Plato calls it, because he would be celebrated in rituals that involved dances, drinking psychotropic brews, and possibly also sexuality. So he's also the God of sexual pleasure, of dance. And probably, we will speak about this also later, but he's also the god of theatre. This will come later in the classical time in Greece. And we will have a lesson just about that. Why is Dionysus and these ecstatic rituals connected to theatre? What is the connection, because it's not so obvious, if you don't really think about it. And I don't want to say too much, because also I would like people to come and then to get the full story. So I'm just giving hints here and there, a few clues, so he's the god of theatre, very important, not just as an experience of the people going to theatre, but also as an institution, like some sort of civic religion, that was very helpful for the Athenians in the fifth century BC, to create their identity and to create a bond among them.

But then he's also the god of ambiguity and paradox. We never know if he's gonna drive us insane, or make us more sane, or if through his rituals, we're going to become animals or gods. Are we more civilised, or are we really like, in an animalistic state? Like all of these opposites, with Dionysus, find a new way to merge and to transcend these dualities. And so as a follow up from that, he's also the god of fluidity—in terms of gender identity, sexual orientation. So, you know, now we say he's a queer god, or some people say he is a queer god. And I will also mention that, and we will understand more about that, because also his rituals will be spaces where these experimentations and this freedom of expressions would be very encouraged, which is a benefit often for the people participating, but could also be a problem for the people criticising the rituals, because already, it was the kind of culture in classical times and in Hellenistic times, it was a very patriarchal culture, especially after, in Roman times. And so already, Dionysus was not really part of the official Olympian pantheon. But at the same time, he was foundational for Greek culture. And so for example, we have him in the corner of the Parthenon Frieze, that now is in the British Museum, Ruby! So maybe one day we'll go back to Athens, but now he's there in the British Museum, as part of the Parthenon Frieze, so something that was very important for the Athenians. So it was always like a bit problematic to have Dionysus around, but at the same time, it was problematic not to have Dionysus around, not to honour him as a god. And so that's why I think he is such a special character, such an intriguing character.

Ruby Reed (advaya): I was reflecting on this idea of the vegetal god, like a god of transformation, and of death, and rebirth, and the cultural significance of that during times of transformation and change, and the role of the trickster within that when you're saying about how he's there, but he's not always wanted to be there, and that kind of invitation that he sounds like he represents, which is to look beyond a worldview, that is a presupposed worldview, to kind of see with your eyes, to open your eyes to the fullness of reality, to see something you don't expect, and so the threat that that then has on an established way of being or a way of seeing, and so through that, the potential that it has in times of stasis, that we could say now we're in a time of stasis, of fragmentation. And so that... what a powerful symbol and archetype, that that is, I would love to learn a little bit more, and you mentioned pre-patriarchal elements of Dionysus, and the cult of Dionysus. And I'd love to just tease out a little bit more around those pre-patriarchal elements around Dionysus as a pre-patriarchal god and how he's linked to pre-patriarchal cultures.

Chiara Baldini: Yeah, so that's why he was such a weird god in the Greek times. Because also, if we think about the other gods, we have Zeus and Hermes, Apollo, they are more framed within the patriarchal way, you know, like the patriarchal male archetype, let's say... and Dionysus is the odd one out, he is the one that defies a bit all these rules of patriarchy, not just the fluidity in terms of gender identity and sexual orientation... He's the kind of god that both women and men would be attracted to. And he would be very loved by women, and there's different reasons for these. And also the connection to this Neolithic mythology of regeneration and life cycles of plants... These are all elements that make him stand out, because he comes from previous times. So he's probably the most ancient one of the Olympian gods, if we call him an Olympian god, I don't know if he would like it.

So his tradition is very ancient. In fact, there is Dionysus in Greece, but there is other gods in other cultures, because he is connected to these very ancient times. And for example, I also want to connect to the same archetype in Hindu tradition that is Shiva. So some people know about this, some people don't know, there is many similarities between Shiva and Dionysus, not just as ecstatic gods connected to psychotropic brews, and living on the margins of society, attracting followers—a band of followers that is generally made of, let's say, margins of society, and being a bit scary, because he represents wilderness and the breaking of the laws of civilisation. So this is an archetype that is very ancient. And so when we talk about very ancient, and we talk about the Neolithic, and we talk about 6000, 5000, 4000 BC. And this is a time when, according to some researchers, and usually I refer back to Marija Gimbutas—or Gimbutas, actually, I just learned, I should say, who was a Lithuanian archaeologist, who did most of her work in the 70s, 80s, 90s.

And she was the one to say that in Europe—in Central Eastern Europe, specifically—there was this cultural complex, so not just one culture, but different cultures that really flourished in those times, in a way that even they created settlements, like big settlements, so they lived together for thousands of years, couple of thousands of years, let's say, specifically, Old Europe, in a peaceful way, rather peaceful, rather egalitarian, with a big focus on art, the art that we have from these cultures is just beyond belief. And yeah, so she hypothesised that... also after finding thousands of what are called goddess figurines—thousands, not hundreds. And you all have seen them, because also they can date back also to the Palaeolithic, to 20,000 years, 30,000 years ago. And so this... Are they goddesses? What does it mean? Was there a goddess? Were there many goddesses reflecting each other? What would the goddess be about? What does she represent? Why was it so important to represent her so abundant? The abundance of life, the fact that she is the mother of everything, not just humans, but also animals and everything that lives, and even what doesn't live. And so the goddess of life and death and regeneration...

So there are these theories, about these pre-patriarchal times when society was more complex than bands of hunter gatherers, let's say, and it was still possible to organise life in a non-patriarchal way. After the Neolithic was shifted into the Bronze Age, this is the times that is considered of the First Civilisations. So we have the Hittites, the Sumerians, the Babylonians, the Egyptians, and these are all cultures that in this shift from living in simple... let's say less complex, organisational ways, they built monumental buildings, they had writing, and they also had, all of them, an army or an elite of warriors, and there was this power-over dynamic, regulating all the relationships, where there was an elite that was imposing their will on the people under them. And in fact, all these beautiful, monumental buildings that we see from these civilisations, they were all built by slaves. So it was already a kind of society that was based on domination, and also domination of other cultures, and war, to compete over territory. So, the Bronze Age is a time of war. Except for one place, apparently, in the Aegean, the island of Crete, that is right in the middle of the Aegean. So it was not like in the margin, or in the corner, it was right between Egypt and the Middle East, and Europe—what we call now Europe.

And so they were traders, they were wealthy, they built palaces, but there is no trace of the kind of iconography, power-over images, images of powerful men killing their enemies, which are very normal in every other palace, anywhere in those times. And so the Minoans are kind of... they're called, like a beautiful anomaly, something that doesn't fit with everything else. And so, there is a lot of amazing images of nature, so a very intimate connection with nature, a lot of images of women in power position, a lot of images of bare-breasted priestesses. And so, we don't know for sure how they were organised, but it does pose a lot of questions that other civilisations don't pose. They had a writing, it's considered, so far, the first writing system in what is now the European territory. It's Linear A, which has not been translated yet. So we don't know a lot about them. But we have a lot of images. And in the first class, I'm going to show a lot of this art, to really also just let people feel the spirit of these people, and how different they are.

And we have the name Dionysus appearing for the first time, on Crete, in the 13th century BC. So already from the Minoans, this was Mycenaean time, and I will explain more about this, but Mycenaeans are a more patriarchal culture, they have images of war and armies, and the Mycenaean culture is the culture of the Homeric poems. So the Iliad, the Odyssey—this is Mycenaean culture. So it's a lot about warriors and pride of the guy that win all the wars. And so, in this transition between Minoan and Mycenaean, we have something very ancient that was probably this vegetation God, that was part of a mythology connected to the goddess of Minoan Crete. And this God started becoming more and more famous, let's say, than the goddess. And so Dionysus is kind of like the son of the Minoan goddess, and how he was transferred into Mycenaean culture first, and then Greek culture a few centuries later. So he comes from this... I mean, the Greek version of him comes from this kind of context, a context that might not be patriarchal.

And the context where... I also want to say this, when we think about patriarchal and non-patriarchal societies, I like to mention the difference between worshipping the power that gives and nurtures life, versus worshipping the power that takes life. So we are still in a culture that worships the power to take life. That's why we invest as a culture, as different states, so much of our resources into weapons and army and military. So much money goes in that. And the biggest, the strongest state, nation, is the one that has the biggest army. We are still completely in this value system. And so, to think about these other possibilities, is an exercise to think about what does it look like, a society where you actually worship the power to give and nurture life. And nurturing life can be done by everyone. It's not a gender thing. And when we talk about nourishing life, it's not just humans, or even not just animals, either. It's everything! It's life on the planet. So, you see, this is a distinction made by Riane Eisler, in The Chalice and The Blade, maybe some of you read it, it's a very famous book. And when I read it, it just stuck to me, that okay, this is a good way to understand it, I think.

Ruby Reed (advaya): Totally. Thank you Chiara. Riane Eisler has had a huge impact on advaya and the explorations that we've been taking as well. But I actually hadn't heard that comparison, so specifically around culture that worships the power that takes away or gives life. So thank you for bringing that. We've been talking about pre-patriarchal culture. What we haven't spoken about so much yet is the role of women, and the role of women... with Dionysus, like obviously, maenads are very well known, and often in a derogatory way, frenzied, mad women. And someone in the chat has also asked a question around the relationship between Kali, Shiva, I guess, which could be in relationship to Dionysus' maenads, so it'd be nice if you also touched on that question. And obviously, the course is spanning hundreds of years. So we can't make really easy generalisations about the role of women in Dionysus, but it'd be great if you could share a little bit on that archetypally, but also in a historical way.

Chiara Baldini: Yeah, so this is one of my favourite topics. There is this book, Psychedelic Mysteries of the Feminine, I co-curated it. And my chapter that I wrote here was about the role of women in the cult of Dionysus, and I've been presenting a lot about this. So yeah, it's quite unusual to have a male god that is so connected to a following of women. And there's different perspectives on this. The fact is that their most archaic form of his cult already in Greek time, so in the archaic period of Greek history, 7th, 8th century BC, there seem to have been these bands of women celebrating Dionysus by themselves on mountaintops in the winter. So this is something that... there's theories... are they mythological beings, are they real beings? They are also real beings, and in a way, what they did was also turned into a legend. Because also what they did... we don't know from them, we only know through men... because they would not write. We have very few fragments from Sappho, I'm gonna mention it. But we don't have much written directly from women. So this would be a very archaic form of the cult of Dionysus. They would run on top of the mountains, and they would do what women do on top of the mountains, which would be to use this shamanic drum, the frame drum, and they would be the experts of music, trance music making. And they would be the experts also of trance dance.

So they would not be like crazy women that just get high by themselves on the mountains—they would know exactly what to do, to enter into this altered state of consciousness that would result in being possessed by Dionysus himself, which is in a way, we could see it as being possessed by life energy itself, because Dionysus, in his vegetation aspects... he represents this power of plants, to push themselves out of the seeds, you know, life's own power to be alive, and to reproduce itself, more and more. And so this feeling of enthusiasmus, or enthousiasmos, as the Greek say: to be possessed by this feeling of enthousiasmos would be a religious experience for them. So to get really high and really like feeling it, and being enthusiastic, and transcending, and maybe even leaving the body, and maybe even receiving visions and insights, and all of that, would be a religious experience. And here we connect to rave, because raving is that. And actually, Dionysus' other name is Bacchus, and Bacchus come from the word that means to revel. So Bacchus means the raver. So to go there, and to practice these kind of techniques would be a way to be entered by Dionysus.

And this is probably connected to shamanic rituals coming from Minoan times and coming from pre-Minoan times... These shamanic rituals, shamanic techniques, we hear about them, they can look many different ways. And the fact that it would be connected to women, it could be connected to the fact that women are seen as foundational in the shift from hunter gatherers to farmers, because they would be the gatherers, in the hunter gatherers. Generally, there is no strict rules like in patriarchy, but: generally, the women would be the experts of plants, how you plant them, how you cook them, the ones that are used for healing. This is something that is connected to women for a long time. And so this power of women to propitiate the plants to grow, and to harvest them and to know which one to use in ritual context. This is one of the reasons why the maenads were still dancing. And we have also examples in Minoan culture of women dancing, of women rituals connected to fertility. So the whole synchronisation of women's body with the moon and the importance of the moon for the life cycles of plants. So you see, it's much more connected to plants, and to these kind of mythologies and practices than actually the fact that he's a male god.

And also in the myth of Dionysus, be was raised by what were the precursors of the maenads. He was raised by women, because his mother died, I will tell the whole myth in the course, but yeah, the important part is that Zeus, his father, gave him to be raised by women. And so the fact that women were central to the cult of Dionysus was preserved all the way until the Roman times. And so if now, we jump to Roman times, and we talk about the Bacchanalia, that was the Roman version of the cult of Dionysus, we have, again, women that could initiate men, women that were priestesses, women that were defying the misogynist orders of the Roman society—where you could not have women on a higher level. So if you initiate a young man, you are hierarchically higher than him in a way. And so this reversal of hierarchy was not tolerated. And that's one of the reasons why, at some point, in 186 BC, there was the repression of the Bacchanalia and we have the speech of the consul, so a member of the Roman Senate, who speaks to the Roman Assembly to convince them to that we need to repress the Bacchanalia.

And one of the first things he says is—you know, he's telling about what kind of people go to the Bacchanalia and he says—first of all, there are women, and they are the source of this evil thing. So there is a recognition of the role that women played in this tradition for a long time. And so women as master or... let's say, experts of initiation, in many different levels, because it could be initiation into experiences of altered states, initiation into sexuality, because sexuality was part of these rituals, in different ways, in different kinds of rituals. So they are educators and religious experts. And this authority of women that is preserved by these rituals, like time capsules across all these centuries, in a time, it was preserved, even in times when already in Greek times women could barely leave their house. So democracy was democracy for men, in the sense that men could vote, and men could participate in the assemblies; women spent most of their time in the house. They had to control their bodies, so that they know that the children are their children, and not some other guys' children... this is one of the reasons... But society was already not a good place for women, but some rituals, and the Dionysian rituals are an example, were ways to preserve something ancient.

Ruby Reed (advaya): Thank you, Chiara. I wonder about that correlation between Kali, Shiva, Dionysus, is there any...? There's been lots of thumbs up on that question in the chat, and also questions about Aphrodite's relationship with Dionysus.

Chiara Baldini: So about Kali and Shiva... Actually, what I had read... So there is a book by Alain Daniélou, that is called Gods of Love and Ecstasy. And there you'll find a lot of references between Shiva and Dionysus, Gods of Love and Ecstasy. And I think there is some reference actually to Parvati, because Parvati is kind of like the companion of Shiva. And there is a connection to Ariadne that is also mythologically, a kind of companion to Dionysus, even if these are later mythologies, because also these gods are not gods that like companions... And they kind of had to be domesticated a bit, let's say. So I remember this connection to Parvati and Ariadne. But in terms of Kali, probably yes, in terms of female archetype of something wild, something untamed, someone that is free to express their emotions even in an expressive way, let's say. Yes, the maenads were those, because maenads were very scary for Greek men, and even for some Greek women, because Greek women were very concerned to be good girls, and to be seen, to be associated with the maenads that go by themselves in the forest was not a good thing for their reputation, even if this is pre-Christianity, so before the Virgin Mary—so still, there was a bit of recognition and honouring of an ancient tradition. They were aware that this is something old that we shouldn't just throw out of the window, but there was this very ambiguous relationship towards the wilderness of women, and the freedom of women, and so maybe Kali could be connected to that.

Ruby Reed (advaya): Thank you. There's another question also around the mystery schools and the relationship between Dionysus and mystery religions. And I was wondering also, that's one of the topics that we cover in the course, and I would love to understand a little better, what mystery religions reveal around Mediterranean indigeneity, and how both of those are defined in relationship to the course.

Chiara Baldini: Yeah, so mystery religions is the other area of research that I found really interesting, and I really delved into it. So we refer to mystery religions, usually, we refer to specific rituals that became popular, especially in the Hellenistic times, because the Hellenistic times, so we're talking about 300 BC, the times after Alexander the Great, there is the Netflix series on Alexander the Great, this is connected to the mystery religions. He went all the way to India, he even found some people that were shaivites, and recognised some Dionysian-like rituals there. They say, like Plutarch mentions this. So Alexander went all the way to India, and so there was this vast amount of territory, with so many different cultures, that for the first time, they were really connected in a strong way, more than ever before, and for the first time, there was some sort of international language that was Greek. So for the first time, people of very different cultures could speak with each other and could learn about each other's traditions, and there was no particular law about observing or practicing foreign cults. And so the mystery religions are also usually referred to as oriental religions. So religious practices coming from the near and far east, and also from Egypt, Egypt had a massive influence on Greek culture anyway.

And so these were all ancient traditions, again, we go there. So these were rituals that had at their core, some kind of technique to induce an altered state of consciousness. And that's why they became so popular, because they brought the gods very close to people, like a very intimate, direct, mystical relationship with the gods, because you would meet the gods in an altered state of consciousness. It would not be someone telling you, like a clergy, that is between you and the gods, explaining you what the gods are about. And it would be much more raw and emotional, than Olympian religion. So Olympian religion was a bit like, for some people, at least, the Christianity is today, like I relate to that, for example, we go to Mass and we don't come out transformed, we just pray and sing, but it's not a transformational experience. And these rituals were very transformational, like really crazy. There is a quotation, an ancient quotation that says, I came out of the mystery hall, feeling a stranger to myself. So that level of transformation that you would feel, and it's also because those were transformational times. And again, this kind of like strong, mystical, emotional, intimate experiences are sought after during times of transformation and crisis. It's as if you need to die and be reborn on a regular basis to keep up with everything that is changing around us.

And this is why psychedelic culture, but also Ayahuasca ceremonies, or other practices connected to other indigenous cultures, they come back now so strongly, we are again in this phase where we need this deeply transformational mystical spaces, where we can evolve or process our traumas, or get the insights that we need. So this is like the framing of the mysteries. We don't have much time now. But... so the Dionysian cult was one of the mystery religions together with the cult of Isis and Osiris coming from Egypt, but also the mysteries of Demeter and Persephone, Eleusis, we will have one class where half of the class will be about that, but also the cult of Kybele, and Attis from Anatolia, Kybele is the mother of gods, she's another big ancient goddess figure, connected also with Dionysus. So they're all related, these divinities. And they are reflections of the other. Even Plutarch, the Greek historian, he says, that, yeah, of course, Dionysus is Osiris. They knew themselves, all the similarities between these different gods. So yeah, it's a super interesting topic, the mystery religions.

Ruby Reed (advaya): Thank you, we don't have much time left. But I would love just to use the remainder of the call to explore the socio-political aspects of Dionysus, and really leading on from that question around the mystery religions, and what you were talking about in terms of mysticism, and direct connection with the divine, or direct connection with life force, in relation to dogma and ideology, and out of dogma and ideology comes oppression. And so then how, through these practices, or through this cult or this archetype, we can then have a transformative effect, and what Dionysus meant for socio-political structures of the time, whether in Athenian democracy, which you already touched on, or ancient Rome, and today.

Chiara Baldini: So that's a lot, for the few minutes that we have now... So, in terms of... because the socio-political aspect is very important for me, in this, when we talk about Dionysus, because being something that represents something other than patriarchy, he was always the alternative to patriarchy. And in a way, he represented some kind of counterculture, some kind of space where you could experiment different values and different ways of relating to each other. And also in this way, we see this in festivals too... this collective experiences of altered states of consciousness, they are leveling the differences. When you're high, it doesn't matter if you're rich, or if you're poor. If you're a foreigner, or an immigrant, or a local. If they're a man or a woman. You get into these spaces where these rules doesn't matter anymore. They're there, but they just don't matter. They're not so important. And so to have these kinds of spaces on one side did create a bond, the bond that I saw in Boom, that first night. They create the bond, and they give an experience of what it looks like when we don't have all of these structures, and this—who's more important than who, who's more dominant than who, so thanks to these experiences, and this way, also of organising among themselves, the associations that would organise the rituals—the rituals were organised by private associations called Thiasoi.

And so the way they organised themselves, they were already democratic, they were already egalitarian, more egalitarian, even, than Athenian democracy because women were part of it. And so they already had in their body, it was an embodied experience, to function in a more egalitarian way. So recently, I found research along these lines, that the Dionysian practices and the Thiasoi had a very important influence on imagining democracy at the beginning, in the fifth century, in Athens. And so Dionysus is the god that is kind of the Trickster that enters in the palace and wants to subvert the rules of the king. And we have this story also in The Bacchae, by Euripides, some of you maybe read it. And it's this—it's many things, but it's also this—confrontation between Dionysus and Pentheus, that is the warrior king, we would say, representing the patriarchal male archetype. And Dionysus is always there, making fun of him and then always showing him something different as an answer, than what he asked, and so Dionysus represents this defiance against tyranny, and against this absolute power-over structures. And so yeah, this space, of the rituals... a lot of things can happen.

But also, I want to say maybe as the last thing that... these were spaces that functioned like that, that created this egalitarian feeling, more egalitarian... Also, egalitarianism doesn't exist in absolute terms, but relatively egalitarian. Also, because of the values that informed them, because they were coming from these pre-patriarchal times—supposedly—so coming from times when we would worship the power to give life and to nurture life, and this reciprocal connection with nature, and this love, also, between people. The word love is mentioned a lot, in connection to the initiates in the Dionysian mysteries, they loved each other. There is an inscription that says that we commit, like a group of them, a thiasos, we commit to celebrate Dionysus together until we die. So there was this connection, and they each had nicknames, a bit like Playa names in Burning Man. So in the rituals, they would have a nickname, and there are some of these nicknames written that we found. So this way of being together in a loving way, in a very tolerant, very welcoming, very inclusive... This is because it would come from before, from this other culture.

Because if you just have the practices, so if you just get high, and you dance a lot, and you take something psychotropic, it really depends from your certain setting. So from the political, spiritual certain setting of the individuals and the group that enact those practices, your intentions matter, as we know. And we need to remember. And so the practices themselves are not enough to create a more just, a more egalitarian, more peace and love society, like the hippies used to think—they used to think that if they take psychedelics, if they put psychedelics in the gutter, or in the water system of a city, everybody turns into a hippie. No, because it depends on your belief and value systems, then these practices are non-specific amplifiers of what you already believe and what is the intention of the ritual. So we also know of shamanic practices that were done with very bad intentions and to manipulate people. And still today, we know that, for example, if we do an Ayahuasca ceremony, it depends on the people holding space, whether you will have a good outcome or not... Or, a big part of the outcome is that.

And so this is one part of the story that I'm reflecting on a lot in this past couple of years, it's a very new thing. I used to think, no, the practices is what we need. And actually, it's much more than that, and so that's also part of this whole story. And there was a mystery cult, the cult of Mithras, that was just for the Roman soldiers. So you know, to create a bond among the soldiers, so that they could war in a better way. So that's also where this ambiguity and paradox... We need to surf these waves of meaning, in a way that patriarchy usually likes to separate the good and the bad, and yeah, I have to say, I don't want to go into a tangent now. But yeah, the value system is important. The context is important. Not just the practices.

Ruby Reed (advaya): Thank you. I like the phrase that you used—non-specific amplifier. And I think that that wraps well, back to Riane Eisler, when she talks about going beyond the binary and that it's about ways of relating, rather than how things are done in themselves, or what things representing in themselves, because she uses the domination base for the partnership paradigm...

Chiara Baldini: But I wouldn't say... That expression is not mine! Non-specific amplifiers is by Stanislav Grof. Very famous person in the psychedelic scene.

Ruby Reed (advaya): So we should wrap up, there's so many more questions to ask. There's a couple more in the chat. And I have so many more as well. But just an invitation to everyone to join the course.

Thank you for coming now, for asking questions, and thank you so much, Chiara, for all of your time and energy and sharing your wisdom so generously. I'm really excited for the next six weeks ahead.

Chiara Baldini: Thank you, thank you, all of you. I wish I could see all of your faces, come to your houses every where. The fact that you're there listening to me makes such a big difference, to my everyday life... spending so much time on these books and papers. So thank you so much. You can contact me on Instagram, @iamalwayschiara is my handle. And yeah, you'll find it also throughout advaya, so I really, you know, if you have a burning question that we couldn't answer, you can reach me out there and I will answer and I hope to see you in the course.

Ruby Reed (advaya): Thank you, everyone.

Chiara Baldini: Thank you, Ruby.


Chiara Baldini

Chiara Baldini is a raver, researcher and freelance curator from Florence, Italy. She investigates the evolution of the ecstatic cult in the West, particularly in Minoan Crete, ancient Greece and Rome, contributing to anthologies, psychedelic conferences and festivals.

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Ruby Reed

Ruby co-founded Advaya in 2015 and Earthed in 2023. She is a community builder, curator, creator and lover of water fascinated by how we relate to the world around us.

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