Unmasking Dionysus: history, culture and legacy

Ahead of advaya's upcoming online course: Dionysus: Rave, Ritual and Revolution, we speak with curator and host Chiara Baldini all about Dionysus. What is the cultural and social context that the god, also known as Bacchus, comes from? Weaving stories from pre-patriarchal, goddess-worshipping archaic civilisations, to the Roman empire and the Bacchanalia's clamorous and illegal arrival and disruption of it, to interrogating the possibilities of the traces of Dionysus' legacy today, this lively conversation promises an informative introduction into the queer, rambunctious, complex figure of Dionysus.

Tammy (advaya): Welcome everyone to this recorded conversation ahead of the course, Dionysus: Rave, Ritual and Revolution, that is starting on advaya, in March 2024. We are recording this in 2023. So hello to the future and to the future beings who will be attending this course and listening to this recording. I am really honoured and excited to be in conversation today with Chiara Baldini, who is the curator and the host of this wonderful and very exciting course. I'm going to say a little bit about it, but we will be chatting in more detail about this course.

But just to kind of give you a sense of what this course is about: this Dionysus course looks at a cultural lineage contextualised within Western culture, specifically Mediterranean indigeneity. We will be focusing on the figure of Dionysus, otherwise known as Bacchus, the god of vegetation, fermentation, fertility, sex, ecstasy, wine, theater, queerness, love, dance, madness and revolution—among other things. But he, they? He? They? I think, you know, whatever pronouns you would like to use, Dionysus is an incredible figure, lots to dive into. And this course addresses a yearning that a lot of us share, for contact with the elemental forces of nature, while also looking at a pre-patriarchal belief system—that's a period of history that predates patriarchy as we know it today, in which the greater power is that of giving and nurturing life rather than taking it, which is the paradigm that we are in now. And so this course also is contextualised in that sort of understanding of ritual, healing, and also very interestingly about paradox and ambiguity, which is very relevant to the times that we live in. And also a time in which, coming together and forming sort of connections beyond various types of boundaries.

There's really a lot that I could go into, and we will be going into during this conversation, but just to give you a sense of what it is about, that is the course in brief. And it is currently as we are speaking in the works, so we have yet to put it on the website. But by the time you're watching this, it will be on the website. So I'm inviting you, as you're watching this now to hop onto the website advaya.life, to find this course and go into the description of each week's content, as well as more about Chiara. And so, speaking of that, Chiara, I'd love for you to introduce yourself briefly. I'm sure there's so much you could say. But also introducing your research and creative and academic practice that culminated in this course, like why you decided to start researching into all of this to begin with, where the interest comes from, and how it led you to this point of curating this course with us.

Chiara Baldini: Thank you very much. Welcome, everyone. Let me start by saying how excited I am to have the opportunity to do this course because I've been doing this research on Dionysus, but more generally, on mystery religions in Greek and Roman times, how we use techniques to alter consciousness in the West, specifically in southern Europe. I've been doing this research for almost 20 years. And this is the first time I give a course. I've been giving many presentations, writing essays, and speaking to so many people, I even did a video about it. But this is the first time I give a full course. I can organise all my information in a chronological way, and see how it all flows, and what brings to what, so I'm just so excited to have this opportunity. I thank advaya so much for it.

And yeah, something about myself. So I am Italian, from Florence. I am near Florence right now. And so I start usually by saying that I'm an independent researcher, but actually I want to change and say, first of all, I'm a raver, and I'm a DJ. And then I'm a researcher. I'm also a cultural curator. And so, yeah, everything for me started by going to raves, in my 20s. And that's where, very spontaneously, I started researching because the experiences I was having, of communal dancing, collective liberation on the dance floor, they were so powerful, and somehow revolutionary, because they were able to unite people in a way that I had never experienced in any other context. I've been to peace demonstrations, different kinds of activism, but the dance floor gave me something that these other experiences were not giving me, even if they were important experiences, and they can be parallel to raving, I see. So yeah, after these strong experiences in the dance floor, I started reflecting on: is this something new? Or is this a new way of doing something old? And in that case, what is it that we were doing for probably a long period of time? And is it something that we were doing also in the Western culture? The same Western culture that removed itself so much, from the honouring of the ecstatic experience, of recognising its power, its potential and being able to make the best of it, like, in a way the Greeks were able to do, as I discovered later. So very spontaneously, very slow, even. I was not obsessed of like, figuring things out, I just went from one book to the other very slowly, very organically. And my degree was in English Linguistics. So I was not a historian or an anthropologist. And I say this because sometimes we get an inspiration to follow a thread. And my suggestion is that we do it, no matter what our idea of where we're going, because in that time, I had no idea where I was going with this, I was just really satisfying a very personal, unexpected interest, and impulse.

And so after some years, I started giving presentations, because I started putting together enough information to see okay, this is going somewhere. And I really wanted to give back mainly at the beginning to the ravers—some information that could help them to make sense of this strong, groundbreaking, life-changing experiences. And so I started giving presentations in festivals, and then I moved into psychedelic conferences. And at the same time, I started also my career as a cultural curator, especially with Boom Festival in Portugal. It's a very big, very well-known psytrance party, psytrance festival. And I had the honour to lead the cultural area there, at the beginning as an assistant, and then I became the main curator. And my work there went from 2010 until 2023. This year was my last one. And so that taught me a lot about psychedelic culture. And it allowed me to go deeper into also this parallel research that I was doing all alone, this art. I also worked for Fusion festival in Germany, also as the cultural curator, which also broadened my horizon because psytrance is more dedicated towards psychedelic culture, sustainability, spirituality, while Fusion festival is another lineage of countercultural festivals. And they are more, let's say politically engaged. So I started having all of these inputs, which also translated in my perspectives in the lens that I use to make my research. At the same time, I co-curated an anthology called Psychedelic Mysteries of the Feminine. So also, this line of feminist research has been accompanying me over the years. And so it's an anthology that you can find online, it's very beautiful, because it's a collection of voices of women, but also men, we really tried to have as much diversity as we could, in those years—we started in 2014. And then it was released in 2019, just before the pandemic. And so you find there many different perspectives on the relationship between the feminine principle and altered states of consciousness in general, so not just about psychedelics, but also different techniques, different traditions, medicine traditions, and other methods to reach altered states. So including natural experiences of altered states, including, for example, giving birth as a psychedelic experience, because you're so flooded—they tell me, because I don't have children—with the chemicals in your brain, natural chemicals in your brain, and how does that influence your perception and your consciousness. So this was just an example to point to the variety of topics of this book.

And then in 2021, finally, everything aligned in my life to start a PhD. This is something I always wanted to do, I always wanted to bring something that was very spontaneous, very individual, very guided by my own intuition into some kind of framing and context that would allow me to bring what I do to its next level, I really wanted to be supported in bringing this as far as I could. And I'm talking about my research on what I call the evolution of the ecstatic cult in the West, which is also part of what I will bring in this course with advaya. So I started this PhD with the California Institute of Integral Studies in 2021, I am a bit more than halfway through the courses. In a couple of years, I will start my dissertation, I'm extremely excited. And in a way, this course is going to help me to organise my ideas, in preparation of my dissertation, so anyone who will join will participate in this process of helping me to create the best dissertation that I can. And so all of this information that will be shared will also be in the book that I hope I will publish after I obtain my PhD. So... I didn't say much about my career as DJ, my DJ name is CLANDESTINA. And you can also find me on SoundCloud, so you will probably get the link to it. And this is something that has accompanied me also for most of my life, my passion for music. And sometimes I was really noticing that there is not enough women behind the decks and even other gender identities, specifically in the psytrance culture that has been my nest, my family for so many years. And so, you know, I always loved music, and I thought it was also my duty to start DJing and I started quite late. I'm 48 now, I started in my late 30s. And I just love it and this is something that brings me so much joy and I just keep on doing it, I hope until I die. It's one of my propositions that I want to be a DJ no matter how old I am. An old woman DJ. It's one of my... Yeah, it's in my bucket list. I guess. So this is me.

Tammy (advaya): Oh, thank you so much for that incredible introduction. It gives me so much context to the course actually, and makes a lot of sense, you really pull together all of the threads from your various, I would say, like life side quests, I guess, in the journey towards this course, like weaving everything that came before into this.

In this conversation, I really want to unpack and introduce the very complex figure that is Dionysus. And that's where we will begin. But I think, maybe some important context to Dionysus will be in order, because as you go in the course, you don't start with Dionysus, but you go into it with the rituals that were offered prior to his existence in honour of his mother, who is otherwise known as the Earth or Snake Goddess of the Minoans of Crete. And really interestingly, for people who are listening who don't know, that was the first, possibly the only non-patriarchal civilisation among all the archaic civilisations, which is, I think a lot of people wouldn't know that actually. And so I would love for you to explain, or introduce, I think it's hard to pull apart everything in brief, but maybe introducing that, paint us a picture of what was happening at the time, and then how Dionysus came into the picture. And specifically, I would love for you to also unravel a little bit of the idea of pre-patriarchal cultures in the West, and pre-gendered cultures as well because, you know, when you describe Dionysus, you say, in quotes, a "male" god. So there's a lot of blurring of distinctions, and I would love to talk a little bit about early queerness, and also the early celebration and existence of women, before patriarchy. Yeah, so lots to go into there, but would love for you to respond to that as you wish.

Chiara Baldini: Yes, thank you for that. So, yeah, we're gonna start in the course, the first session is going to be about Minoan culture from ancient Crete. So Crete is this big island in the South of Greece. It's part of the Greek islands, and it's most southern one. So for you to get a moment to locate, for everyone to see what we're talking about. This big, long island in the South of Greece. So the Minoan culture flourished there, like the peak was more or less between 1900 BC and 1450 BC. So it's a long time ago, it's about 4000 years ago. And it's about 1000 years before classic Greece. So when we think of the beginning of Western civilisation with classical Greece, we are doing a disservice to the Minoans, because the Minoans came way before and they were an archaic civilisation, so it means that it's already a kind of social organisation that goes beyond the tribal... and enter... So we call civilisation, an organisation of people that includes the building of monumental structures, that requires the coordination of a lot of people, the use of writing, the use of some kind of state administration, centralised state administration. And yeah, usually, when this transition happens from the tribal to the archaic civilisation, what happened in 99% of the cases, and I'm talking about the Egyptians, the Sumerians, the Hittites, the Babylonians, I'm just talking now about this area of the Mediterranean basin, where we're focusing our attention. Of course, there's other civilisations in many other places, even more or less arising in these times.

So in here, all of these other civilisations also became patriarchal, which means that in order to enforce this kind of order and organisation, they created a hierarchy, where on top there were always this kind of a cast of warriors, and the warriors, and the political power and the religious power, and the economical power was all in these hands, of this elite of warriors, priests, slash leaders, political leaders. And so in the Minoan times, this doesn't seem to be the case. And it's such a unique case where we don't have depictions of war, we don't have depiction of political leaders, of religious leaders; we just have depictions of priestesses and goddesses. There is some male iconography, but the amount of it... it's extremely small, compared to the amount of iconography depicting females. And this led many researchers to really question what was happening in Minoan Crete, because it's very different. Also, the fact that all the different places like cities around the whole island didn't have walls protecting them. So it seems like it was a relatively peaceful civilisation. They were not fighting against each other. They were actually having communal feasting together, organising big celebrations together. And yeah, so what was happening there? Also, the Goddesses are represented very often with their breasts showing, and this is something we don't see anywhere else. And we still haven't seen it yet. Also as a sign, not so much of something connected to eroticism, which is how we are now, in full-on patriarchy, used to consider exposed breasts, but this was a sign of the power to give and nurture life, so this is something that you mentioned before.

And this is something that the writer, researcher Riane Eisler, in her book, The Chalice and the Blade, that is one of those seminal books from the 80s, on Goddess culture, pre-patriarchal cultures, different forms of cultural paradigms that are not the patriarchal one, that's what she says. These pre-patriarchal cultural paradigms, where cultures honouring the power to give and nurture life as the main power, as the biggest, strongest power that we should honour, respect and celebrate. And so, they were full on civilisation, they had these huge palaces, the biggest one was the one of Knossos. And the first paved the road is the road that connects the palace to the sea, the first paved road in the territory that we now call Europe. Of course, Europe didn't exist back then. The first writing was Linear A, the first-ever writing that we know of in the land that now we call Europe. It's not deciphered yet. I don't know if it will ever be because it's only hundreds of examples that we have of it, not thousands. And it's really a pre-Indo-European, a non-Indo-European language, so we don't have references for that. And so, I don't know if with AI... I'm still wondering if AI would do anything good, could support in deciphering these ancient languages, but we know, as I said, that they were worshipping this Goddess of Nature, the Mountain Goddess, the Snake Goddess. We have these figurines with this women, bare-breasted, snakes in the hand, cat on top of the head. And, yeah, it's such a different kind of image of a female deity that we are used to.

And these celebrations were also in line with the celebration of the cycles of the agricultural year. So these people were traders on the sea, but also supporting themselves with agriculture. They were emerging from the Neolithic. And the age that we are referring to, for the Minoan culture, is the Bronze Age. So they were using bronze, so the beginning of the use of metal, but they were just emerging from the Neolithic times, and Neolithic times are times of the development of agriculture and religiously the development of fertility cults, in honour of the cycles of nature. Because of that people could survive. Because of plants growing again every year after they have gone underground during the winter. So these mythologies of vegetation gods and goddesses that go underground and then come back in the spring that we will see... They're like a blueprint for fertility cults, and they take the shape of different deities with different names in the Mediterranean basin. And we will see this also in the session dedicated to mystery religions—that's how later they were called. But they are all coming from these fertility cults of the Neolithic times, which were still present in bronze age Crete. And these rituals were often ecstatic, they would often include techniques, ingestion of mind-altering substances, also we have some evidence of that in Crete, and I will go deeper into that in the course...

Dance, over repetitive beats, over long periods of time. This is a technique used everywhere in the world, in sacred contexts, to reach this state of union with everything, this state of going beyond yourself and to feel part of the forces that govern our bodies, the bodies of the animal, and the plants. Everything is governed by these elemental forces of the universe. And through these techniques, one could reach this state, where visions are possible, we can download information. And often in Minoan iconography, we see these epiphanies, these apparition of the Goddess come in, and we see like this small version of the Goddess, like this beautiful woman, bare-breasted also, long skirt, appearing to people that are dancing. We see these very small seals, images, because they were using seals that they press into clay. We find hundreds of these seals. They were using for administration, but they were coming from images, the kind of images we don't usually associate with administration. It's very interesting. Probably they were connected to different clans, or even connected to a special experience that the person carrying that ring—because often the seals were in rings—that special experience that that person experienced in their life. We don't know. There's many different options like theories.

But so what I wanted to say... We have all these images of epiphanies, and people dancing, and people holding plants that are psychotropic... and a lot of drinking vessels, drinking cups, of different shapes and forms... The most beautiful... The Minoans were incredible artists creating artifacts that still now are so beautiful, even to our modern taste. And once they were discovered, they have even inspired so many modern artists. And so all these drinking vessels, the beauty of them and the mastery in creating them, they were exported everywhere, in the Aegean Sea, all the way to Egypt. Because, you know... For me, the beauty and the mastery that they would put in creating them reveals also the importance that they would give in what they were holding, these drinking vessels... and in the ceremonies of drinking... and what they were drinking was not just 'wine', as we call it. And we have to understand that since the beginning of wine, wine was always mixed with something else. And it was sometimes just water. But in the case of celebrations, in the rituals, it would always be mixed with other psychotropic plants, and barks and seeds and mushrooms, and fermented honey, also for taste, and sometimes even mixed with fermented barley, which is beer. Sometimes they would make a mix of everything. And depending on the ritual, depending on the age, on the period, depending on the different groups organising the rituals, we would have different recipes. So there's also that. It's not one recipe, one size fits all, it was different.

But what we need to know is that this wine was psychotropic. So it's not about getting drunk, it's more. It's about receiving visions, it's about getting high in a way that goes beyond getting drunk. So we know all of this. And we know that the male figure was often associated even in Minoan iconography, with a deity that dies, and is reborn: is a vegetation god. So this thing of dying and being reborn, this would be the role of the male deity. While the female deity, the goddess, is nature or existence—that was never born and will never die. These two concepts, in some Asian... or now I'm thinking about Hindu, actually, culture. You have Atman and Brahman, and one is existence that was never born and will never die. And the other, I think it's Atman, is a reflection of it. It's like the drop, and Brahman is the ocean. And so this drop dissolves, and is formed again, and then dissolves and comes out, again, out of existence. And so it's two different aspects of life or existence. So now we're going deeply into ontology and something existential, but that's how they would represent... the way that they understood reality.

So the goddess is usually represented bigger in Minoan iconography. But you also have this male god that is very beautiful, that is very seductive, and his fertility power is strong, because it's thanks to him also, that everything gets fertile, that nature gets fertile. And so, nature gets impregnated by these male gods, and we can have more children, we can have more plants, we can have more life. And thanks to this, we can keep on existing. And so, often, fertility rituals, fertility gods are about that—just this power of life to reproduce itself, more life and more life, and the abundance of it. The abundance of the seeds that one life has, for example, was such a sign of this abundance of life. And now I go back to Neolithic fertility rituals, when we look at those female figurines that are often very abundant in their shapes—that's abundance of life, to give life, and to create more life. Thanks to this power, people could survive and it was seen as a gift, as something to be extremely grateful for, it was not for granted, like sometimes we take it now, that we have lost this sense of gratitude towards this abundance of life. And so yeah, Dionysus is said to be born on Crete, even if very similar archetypes to Dionysus are born in other places in the Mediterranean Basin, but even Shiva himself, in India, he's an archetype that is very similar to Dionysus. Maybe I will say more about that in the course.

And so the first time that we find his name is from a Linear B tablet from Crete, but coming from the 1300s BC. So this is already the time when Minoan culture is... We still don't know what happened there... The Mycenaean culture that came right after, and in the 1300s BC was already Mycenaean culture... This culture was much more like any other civilisation, with a lot of warrior iconography, pictures of powerful men in charge, burials with a lot of burial goods, to really emphasise the power of this person in life. In Minoan art, you just have nature and goddesses and priestesses dancing, octopuses and dolphins and blue monkeys and griffins, and all of these incredibly beautiful—and erotic, actually—depictions, and later, with Mycenaean transition, you will have images that are much more stylised? In the sense, like rigid, a bit like Egyptian art, but also Sumerian art. It's much more rigid. It's not like, flowing. And there is the octopus test, they say. Look at an octopus designed by the Minoans and an octopus designed by the Mycenaeans, and you see the difference in this like very organic, very, almost chaotic and erotic version of the octopus of the Minoans. And with the Mycenaeans you have something very symmetrical and stylised... so it's a different spirit, of the people.

And so... but Linear B, that is the writing of the Mycenaeans, was deciphered. So we could read the tablets, because it's already an Indo-European language. And Indo-European language is what we all speak in Europe, and with the European languages also colonising many other places, Indo-European languages are the ones that are most spoken everywhere in the world right now. Because Latin languages, Germanic languages, it's all Indo-European. And so Linear B is one of the first Indo-European languages that we could decipher. While Linear A—not deciphered, not Indo-European, we have no idea, what those words meant. Sometimes they can figure out the syllables and the sound of the syllables, but we don't know what they mean. We need some kind of Rosetta Stone that helped us to decipher the hieroglyphs. And so we have the name of Dionysus in a Linear B tablet, 1300s BC in Crete. So we have a big pointer to Dionysus being one vegetation god, the son of this goddess of the mountain, of snakes, this chthonic goddess of the Earth, and Dionysus representing her son-lover, these were always defined the son slash lover, and the vegetation gods, the very sexually active gods. And also there is the mythology of the Labyrinth and Ariadne being saved by Dionysus. We will go a bit more into this also in the course.

I also don't want to make this answering to too long, which is what I think I did. So maybe, let's just say there was this amazing culture in Crete, we will learn more about it, I will show a lot of images, a lot of art, a lot of frescoes and jewelry, and fabrics, garments... we will see a lot visually, and we will get a feeling of it. And then we will understand how Dionysus come out of this incredible pre-patriarchal culture.

Tammy (advaya): No, I think it was a brilliant, long answer. I love long answers. And a really great introduction to what pre-patriarchal cultures could look like. And it was such a vivid picture you painted. The idea of the iconography just looking super different, moving from something fluid to something stylised, paints such a clear picture of what came before, and makes it so real because I think in the imagination of people who haven't studied pre-patriarchal cultures, it's just so hard to imagine something that's not what we see today. Speaking from, of course, the Western perspective, because clearly, there's a lot of differences between the West and not the West. But within, I think, Western culture, it is hard to imagine that. So painting that picture was really useful, and also gives great context to Dionysus. And also, the idea of him being a son-lover is really interesting. I'm sure we'll go into it a lot, but very rich idea; I think it would be really interesting to go into the sort of relationships that existed at the time between men and women, between families, and between communities. And I'm sure we'll unpack a lot of that during the course.

But I think kind of switching gears into a little bit of a different angle of the course. I think something that strikes me really strongly from the course description, and also from your brilliant video essay, The Politics of Ecstasy, the video essay is incredible. And a very strong sort of theme that comes out from the essay is the idea of empire, and how it plays into the cult of Dionysus. Specifically, I would love to talk about the story that you paint in that video essay, about the Roman Empire versus the cult of Bacchus or the cult of Dionysus. And so you describe in the essay, that it had spread with astonishing swiftness, the new rituals had propagated spontaneously without official approval. Thus, Bacchus, the god of ecstasy, wine, and wild nature had made his illegal, yet clamorous arrival at the very heart of empire. And you also shared that this spread among the lower classes, which I think is very interesting. And I don't want to reveal too much about that story, but I would love for you to give us a little bit of a telling of how that came about, like how exactly that cult ambushed the Roman Empire and emerged out of the blue, and what was the repression that followed that is very typical to empire, that we even see today. Which kind of shows you how relevant still, this sort of story is, and offers us a lot of, I guess, hope, or an alternative lens through which we can view the repression of empire that still continues today, through the cult of Dionysus that emerged at the heart of it.

Chiara Baldini: Yes. So this is a jump. We were in the Minoan Crete, the beginning of the cult of Dionysus, this ecstatic cult with these very wild rituals, in a way, but the kind of wilderness, that actually when you share it in a good container, this craziness, this getting out of yourself, but when this is done within a good container, a good framing, a good group holding it, a tradition supporting you, this can actually create a strong bond between the people... sharing the intensity, the vulnerability of it. So this is one of the lines that I follow, all across the evolution of this cult. And so, yeah, this cult was unusual, let's say, within the patriarchal context, because after we leave Minoan Crete, we enter fully into patriarchy. So even during the classical Hellenistic phase of Greek culture, it's a very interesting time, because it's pre-Christian, but we're still Pagan. So we're still Pagan, and it's fully patriarchal. So in the cult of Dionysus, women had a strong role, an important role. And this is a clue of the fact that it was coming from a pre-patriarchal paradigm. So women were priestesses, of Dionysus, at the very beginning of the archaic part of the cult in Greece. There were even rituals that were for women only, only women could participate—the Maenads. And we will also talk about them.

So women had this a big role—could initiate men, these spaces of initiation were open to everyone, slaves could access them, foreigners, which means in Greece, people that were not citizens of the cities, could come from other places. Usually, people coming from outside didn't have the same rights as the citizens of the place. For example, in Athens, only male Athenian citizens could vote and participate to the public life. Women couldn't. And of course, slaves and immigrants couldn't. So Dionysian rituals are both attractive to the folk, to the people, but also, in many cases, to the elites. And sometimes there is mingling of these different social provenances, how would you say... like social belongings. So they would also be spaces where people of different gender identities and sexual orientations could really find their own space.

Because Dionysus himself, as you mentioned before, we could say these days, he's a non-binary god. He's always defined as somewhere between a female and a male. And he's beautiful and soft in skin. And sometimes, even in Euripides' tragedy—The Bacchae—we will also mention the story of The Bacchae... But just to say, at some point, the king of Thebes is very worried, because Dionysus is spreading his rituals everywhere, and women are going on top of the mountains. And when he sees Dionysus, he says, Where is this sissy coming from? And sissy is this very British, I think, term, the translator used, but to say that to a male patriarchal figure like the king of Thebes, Dionysus looks like this kind of like feminised guy that you cannot really put in a specific category, because that's another characteristic of patriarchy, to create these categories that are very strict: a woman is a woman, because she's this and this and that. A man is a man because he's this and this and that. And there's nothing in between. So already, Greek times, and much more in Roman times, these categories had to be respected.

So Dionysian rituals were places to break all these boundaries, and break the rules, and just put very different kinds of people together, create a space of deep transformation, vulnerability... And so they were threatening to the order of a very militaristic, hierarchical, misogynist, homophobic society, as that of Rome. So when the cult was exported into Rome—because all the Greek pantheon of gods was exported into Rome, there were some local deities as well, and there were even foreign deities coming from other parts of the ancient world, but—many of the Greek gods were imported into the Roman Pantheon. So for example, Zeus became Jupiter. And so Dionysus became Bacchus. And Bacchus means the reveler. And sometimes I translate it as the raver, because also raving is reveling, it's the same root of meaning. And so the cult spread in Rome, without being authorised by the Senate.

And Rome was tolerant towards different cults. They understood that this was a way to keep the people in peace. Because it was a very cosmopolitan, we would say, setting, with a lot of people. We're talking about the second century BC. There were—apparently—up to a million people, it was huge! With people coming from everywhere. And so usually, foreign cults, they were okay, but they had to be authorised by the Senate. This was not the case of Dionysus, of Bacchus by then. It spread, especially in lower classes, slaves and immigrants coming from different places, and people were just doing their revelries, organising different private associations, organising their own initiations, and being really loud at night, creating quite a lot of clamour. And because of the differences in belief and value system, that the Bacchantes had, Bacchantes, the followers of Bacchus. The fact that all the rules were turned upside down: women could initiate men into the cult... this was not possible in the Roman Empire. This was an upturning of the rules. And this started to become threatening, and people in the Senate started to be very scared of the consequences, because the amount of people that were starting to join these celebrations were many, and they started to reach also members of the elite.

And so that's where, even politically, that's where I want to go. Because this course is going to be focused, not just in the spiritual and religious component of these techniques to alter consciousness, and ecstatic experiences is a part of it, and the mythology, archetypes connected to it, but also the socio-political dimension of this cultural lineage. So, in the case of the repression of the Bacchanalia in ancient Rome, which happened in the second century BC, we really see how this culture coming possibly from ancient Neolithic, and even before lineages that were not patriarchal, how this culture started to really threaten and create a disruption in the status quo of the Roman Empire. So the Senate created a false scandal, fabricated this scandal... I don't go too deep in it in the video that you saw, because I had to keep it short. But in the course, I will go deeper also in the scandal that was created, like with this fake narrative of this slave woman that confessed that she had seen what was really happening in these rituals... Because the rituals were covered by secret. Also Dionysian mysteries in the classic and Hellenistic times they were covered by secret. So you go, you experience, but you don't talk about what happens there.

So in the Roman times, they say this woman finally confessed, and she said that the most horrible things are happening in the rituals. Of course, these people were not saints. So I'm not saying that anyone participating in the Dionysian rituals in Greece, in the Bacchanalia in Rome were all saints, and everything was always to the highest standard of integrity... Because we're human beings and we know human nature, how it is, but also to say that these rituals are the source of any criminal activity that has been happening in Rome—which is what the Senate says—this cannot be true. And we see this also in raves, you know, when every now and then, there is some politician that goes down that line of creating propaganda that wants to discredit the raves. It just happened last year here in Italy, at the hands of the first female Prime Minister! So you can see how everything is never black and white. And especially Dionysus is an ambiguous god. And Bacchus as well.

And the rites can be the source of healing, as they can also be sometimes, if you are in the wrong group, with space holders that don't have your interest... don't have your well being as part of their intention. Back then, as now, you have to navigate this ambiguity as best as you can, because even when you go into an Ayahuasca ceremony, even in the jungle held by the local indigenous people, it depends who you find. The integrity of the person, the emotional maturity of that person, holding the space... That can really determine the outcome of the experience, because these experiences base themselves on the fact that people's boundaries are low. And there is a high level of vulnerability. That's where change can happen, but that's also where trauma can happen. As we know. This is a little parenthesis that I open. So yeah, because this is about also psychedelics, for example. So, psychotropic substances... it's a tool. And then it's about how you use the tool. So they're not good or bad in itself, and can actually also be used by people with very different intentions, and very different belief systems, actually. We will go deeper into this, too.

But in the case, now back to the Bacchanalia. So the Roman Senate says that these rituals are places where every kind of crime happens, and you cannot trust them. And these people are forgers and abusers and criminals, which is not totally false, because as I said, we have to keep in mind this ambiguity, because this is what life and reality is about. But it's also not true, in the way that they portrayed it. And so we have the text of a speech that one of the representatives of the Senate gave to the Roman assembly. This is something very special, that was preserved by one of the Roman historians, Titus Livius. We have this, of course it's not word by word, because also Titus Livius wrote, I think, 200 years later, something like this. But we have a feeling still, of what kind of narrative was at play. And this representative of the Senate, speaking to the Roman assembly, he says, If I tell you how many they are, for sure, you're gonna get terrified, because there are many, but we're still in time to stop them before they take over. And of course, there is a lot of women and they are the source of this evil thing.

So this is like, patriarchy fighting against something that is different than itself. So, there is a lot of women that are the source of this evil thing. Then there is males—scarcely distinguishable from females. Queers. Do you think that these people would have the courage to take the sward, to fight to defend the chastity of your wives and children? So he says, There's a bunch of dancing freaks, a lot of women, and the women are corrupting the men, making them more feminine. And there's men engaging in homosexual activity. You think that these people can be good soldiers? So can the Bacchantes be soldiers? And so here we really see this contrast between two different cultural paradigms: one of war, because Roman society relied on the possibility of every man to be initiated into the army. It was an initiation, just as the initiation into the Bacchanalia. And the initiation age was the same. Right after puberty. So the Senate says, these are two different oaths of allegiance, they cannot be compatible. And that's true. These are two different cultural paradigms: one worshipping war, and the power to take life, and the other one worshipping the power to nurture life and power of life to reproduce itself, and fertility and abundance and all of that. And solidarity and equality. So this is something that, for me, is very important also to understand what's happening now, with the wars in different parts of the world, where young men that are dancing, in the case of what happened now recently, and men that need to be soldiers. And how do you... yeah, what do we do with those two different attitudes towards life? And how do we reclaim a different way to be? Different than the one that enforce a militaristic lifestyle, a militaristic culture?

So this is why I think we look into ancient history, not to just lock it into the past and think, ah, that's what happened a while ago. And that's something different, that's something that doesn't really influence or it can be a lesson or it can give a teaching to what's happening now. And I think no. This is something that still can influence, still has lessons, precious teachings, and it's so important to know about, and to even disagree about, because also, I'm going to explain that there is different perspectives, different interpretations of the evidence, I'm not gonna be like, fundamentalist about one interpretation, even regarding pre-patriarchal culture, goddess culture—it's very controversial. And there's different researchers giving different interpretations of the evidence. And we will have this dialogue, it's not a one way of thinking. I like to actually bring to light these different perspectives and different possibilities to interpret evidence so that people coming to the course can have their own ideas. But still, what is important is the reflection and the debate over what happened. This is something that I believe we all have to do even with our own life history. What happened when we were children? What happened when we were teenagers? How did that influence our life now? What did we learn? What can we do different?

So that we can imagine a different future and we're not just going into a default future, something that is already pre-determined by the culture that we live into, by the traumas that we have suffered in the past individually and collectively. So this is about the bigger conceptual framing of going back to the past and understanding the present and imagining different possible futures, so that we can choose the one that we want and not just fall into it.

So... I just wanted to see if there's anything I want to say about the repression of the Bacchanalia—yeah, the fact that they were repressed. So after the speech... The speech is longer, we will go deeper into it. After the speech, there was a new law made by the Senate, we have the copy of it, because before finding a copy in the 1700s in South Italy, while digging the foundations of a villa... There was only Titus Livius, the Roman historian writing about this episode of the repression of the Bacchanalia. Was it true? Was it invented? What was it about? Then we found the actual law called Senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus: saying it's forbidden to engage in any ritual activity connected to the honour of Bacchus, the temples have to be destroyed, the altars have to be destroyed. They don't forbid it completely, because they are aware that it's an ancient tradition coming from Greek culture, that was a culture that was kept... you know, it was a very honoured culture by the Romans. So they're very smart, they don't forbid it completely, they allow it under extremely strict conditions—which make it impossible.

A lot of people—according to Titus Livius, a lot of people were killed, many ran away, many committed suicide to escape the authorities, and there was such a flight from the city that it resulted in a depopulation. That's what Titus Livius say, like how many people were part of this movement, religious, but also political movement. So that was 186 BC. Of course, it didn't disappear. Of course, it continued, in a very underground way, for many centuries afterwards. All the way, we could say, maybe, the witch hunts in the modern Europe, 1500s, 1600s, maybe that's another episode where there was another huge mass suppression of people practising altered states of consciousness... people, especially women, knowing the power of plants for healing, but also for ceremonial use. And, yeah, we will also, at the end, reflect on how these practices have re-emerged more recently, in a spontaneous way.

Tammy (advaya): Thank you for sharing all of that, and summarising a lot of necessary context. And I think also leaving it as open question about where do we trace... how far it went underground, and where did it re-emerge? Was it the witch trials? I think that's so interesting, like linking those two together... I've never thought about that connection, but it makes so much sense that the repression and the vilification of women, of queer people, of the practicing of something that empire doesn't understand. I'm sure a lot of people will be very interested in that question, and hopefully very curious to come to the course to see where the origins of that came from, and tracing it back to a story that's much deeper.

So I think one of the really interesting parts of the course description is, and you acknowledged this during the video essay, as well, and you also said this, while you were speaking just now about the realistic view of the cult of Dionysus being a very deeply ambiguous tradition, and also where darkness is brought out into the light, light brings darkness out, vice versa, everyone is navigating uncertain terrain, and learning how to do that together, and just questioning the sureness and the certainty that comes with empire. And maybe that was why it was so threatening also, but I would love for you to talk a little bit, just a little bit, about that idea, about the ambiguity, and how that, I guess, is a very relevant question today as well, not just back then and looking in at this cult, but looking today as well, how we can draw lessons from it, yeah.

Chiara Baldini: Yeah. Yeah, I believe this point of paradox and ambiguity, ambivalence, is so foundational to understanding pre-patriarchal, cultural understandings of reality. Because as I said, with patriarchy, we lost a lot of this possibility of holding two truths that are contrasting, but as being able to hold them as equally valid. So for example, from the point of view of the ritual: once you are in an altered state of consciousness, also collectively, you can experience these states where you're not female, and you're not male, you're both. And you're not one only, and you're not an animal, and you're not a 'civilised person'. And you can be both. And you're not human, and you're not God, but you're both. And you're not from the city, and you're not from forest, and you're both. So this thing of being both-and, and not just either-or. These were very powerful experiences. Also one very important one: you're not sane, and you're not insane, you're both. Both-and. Not either-or. So this possibility of being both, and experiencing the ambivalence and ambiguity and the paradox of it, as a reality. This is something that I believe these rituals were trainings, to see reality as fundamentally ambiguous and paradoxical as it is, the nuances, the possibility to be in-between, as a comfort zone. Not as this space of being uncomfortable: like, I need to know: am I sane, or insane? Am I female or male? Am I an animal or a God? Can you be both and be okay with it?

So this reclaiming the possibility of being both-and. So, as I said, this is something that with this order, and this categorisation and the hierarchisation—if there is such a word of this—extremes: this is what patriarchy is all about. So there's male and female, [and] there's not just male and female, one is on top of the other. There is sane and insane, or 'normal' and 'abnormal', and one is on top of the other. And there is mind, and body, and one is on top of... And we know you know, when I'm saying these, I don't specify which one is on top, according to the patriarchal system, but we know, because we live still in this society. And there is rational and irrational, and guess who's on top? There's always something that has to be in a higher position, in a superior position. But nature teaches us that it's like a magmatic, erotic flow, in between these... what our mind defines as opposites, as categories, that are extreme of a spectrum. But what happens in the spectrum is so rich. And sometimes even there's much more activity in between the spectrum, than in the extremes, and the spectrum is not bidimensional. The spectrum is multidimensional. And this also is a connection to intersectionality.

There's so many different aspects to our identity that intersects themselves in this three-dimensional, fifth-dimensional kind of spectrum that we need to navigate and it's not easy. It's much easier to say there's black and white, and one is better than the other. That's so easy. But it's not real. So I think back in the day, people had a more felt sense of this complexity. Also you know, very ancient deities, they're never male or female, and they're never good or bad. They're both. Even the mountain goddess of the Minoans, she was giving life, very abundantly, but the volcano of Thera—that is Santorini, these days—destroyed everything, with this huge eruption, probably in the 1600s BC. So there was this ambiguity, as part of the way that they see life, generally, they found ways to be as comfortable as possible, in this ambiguity. Because for patriarchy, this ambiguity is uncomfortable. It's like now with trans people, it's so uncomfortable for some people to imagine that someone was a man, and now is a woman, or vice versa, or a non-binary person... this undefined: it's so uncomfortable for some people.

And I think that in the past, we knew how to sit in these multidirectional spaces where it's okay! You don't have to define and you don't have to categorise. And you can change! And one day, you're one thing, and the next day you're another thing. And it's okay. And you can be a woman, but have what is considered maybe 'male' characteristics and still consider yourself a woman! It's like, the complexity of nature, let's rediscover and reclaim this complexity. And let's, yeah, be suspicious of these easy and simple, bidimensional definitions of reality, because nature is much more than that. Short? Answer?

Tammy (advaya): Oh, gosh, thank you, short answer, but it doesn't take away from all of the richness in the answer as well. And I really appreciate that tackling that very vague question that I gave you, and it really opened up a huge can of worms, I guess, like the inability of people within modern culture to navigate that sort of multidirectional, multidimensional space. And you linking it to modern discourse, current discourse, gender discourse within our culture also just goes to show how relevant studying history is, and how alive a lot of these questions, a lot of these discussions and conversations that we're having today, it's all been thought of, and it's all been spoken about, it's all been felt already in history. And by unearthing all of this we can, I guess, find, 'answers', to the questions that we're having, at the moment, and we are grappling with, within modern culture. So yeah, I mean, I think that's a really good place to close. With a lot of questions, of course. And, yeah, Chiara, we really appreciate you sharing your wealth of knowledge with me. I feel like I learned so so much during this one conversation alone. And, I would love to direct people to read more about your work and about your research that is also available, a lot of the talks that you've done also is available online as well. So, if people want to check out more of your work before joining the course, I'm inviting people to do some Googling and exploring a little bit more of that work.

Yeah, I guess, I'm really excited for this course that's coming out, it weaves together so many of the threads that have come before... with advaya courses, we've had so many courses that cover, bits and pieces that are now being kind of weaved into your course, and it's such a beautiful continuation of the questions that we've been asking, and a beautiful emergence of a new inquiry that digs even more deeper into what we've been exploring already. I wonder if you want to close by leaving us with a parting thought or maybe like, if you want to direct people to specific things to read, or watch, in case they want to learn a little bit more before joining us on the course, or just an invitation... but I would love for you to close us off.

Chiara Baldini: Yes, so thank you, thank you. I start by thanking you, for this lively conversation, seeing you smiling and getting excited about what I was saying was very good, because it can be so weird to be in a room by myself, and just speak to the computer. So thank you for being there on the other side of the world, representing the possible participants to this course.

And I really want to tell the people that are wondering if they want to join that it's going to be an exciting ride, I can guarantee you. And I am really available for... also, not being in this position where what I say has to be the right thing to think or to feel, I really want people to come and engage in a dialogue with different perspectives, and let's question the things and let's look at the evidence, but what is the evidence? And so it's going to be a participatory space. And, yeah, I think we're going to look at something that is important to look at, in so many different levels. It's not just Dionysus, it's what he represents, or they represent—maybe one day, I'm going to be able to call him they... call them they. And let's talk about this! Should we start calling Dionysus a they? And let's also look at the power of psychotropic substances, psychedelics, or dancing. And what's the potential of it? It's something that can touch many people's lives right now. And we can learn so much about how these techniques and tools were used in the past. Let's look at ways to relate to our environment, to the power of it, to the aliveness of it, and to the fact that we are not distinguished from it—we are it. And these were traditions that allowed people to feel not separated from the environment and nature and its forces, but to be it, which is also so important right now with climate change, and needing to be able to enter into a completely different relationship, a participatory way of engaging with nature, than the one that has brought us to this place of near-catastrophe. So there's so many places in this knowledge, in this evidence, in this history, that can help us now. So again, it's not something about the past, it's something about the present. And it's something about the future.

So maybe that's where I leave [this]. And you can find my essays in the academia.edu platform where you find many essays from many researchers. You can find my past presentations on YouTube, just Googling my name, there is quite a few about Maenads and the role of women in the cult of Dionysus. And then, yeah, you can look at the book, the Psychedelic Mysteries of the Feminine. I have a chapter there, on the role of women in the cult of Dionysus, because this has been one of my main lines in this research. You can listen my music on SoundCloud, DJ CLANDESTINA, I will leave all of these links, so that you can just click on them. And yeah, I hope I'm gonna see all of you in the spring. I'm gonna take this month to prepare all the slideshows, to put all my latest information, that you don't find in my previous essays and my previous presentations. This is going to have a lot of new things that also I've learned in the course of my preparation in the PhD, so a lot of new perspectives and evidence. So yeah, that's it. I hope you have a good rest of the day. Thank you for being here, and I hope we will join forces, to rediscover all of these beautiful stories from the past.


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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Tammy Gan

Tammy (she/her) leads on content and storytelling at advaya.

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