Thursday, 17 July 2014

The La Tène religion of the Celtic elite ― part 7: The Dionysian

Dionysos on a coin of Mende, Macedon
Image courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group Inc.
Yesterday, I said that there was significance in  Paolo Veronese's choice of using a similar composition for The Wedding Feast at Cana that had been used, most notably by da Vinci, in The Last Supper. The latter painting had been copied or adapted frequently by Veronese's time and without controversy. One of Veronese's versions, however, brought the artist unwelcome attention from the Inquisition who had complained about the extra details. They were unconcerned about The Wedding Feast at Cana, presumably because the event, itself, had no more religious significance to them than any other wedding. Veronese knew otherwise. Anyone who has attended a wedding feast will have noticed that the place of honor is reserved for the bride and groom, and not a guest. Christ had not yet become that famous and his changing of the water to wine was his first miracle. Yet he is portrayed, not only in the central position, but as a model of serenity contrasting with the activity around him. Veronese might have blown it: in his explanation to the Inquisition he said "We painters use the same license as poets and madmen", but perhaps he knew that their orthodoxy prevented them from seeing that significance, as well. Just as in modern times the religious criticisms toward the Jesuit scholar Teilhard de Chardin had been dismissed by Henri de Lubac with the words: "We need not concern ourselves with a number of detractors of Teilhard, in whom emotion has blunted intelligence".

We can even see the real significance of the wedding at Cana in Christ's own words. When Mary had told him there was no wine, he told his mother: "Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come." Biblical scholars have seen the Dionysian connection in the event, but Christ's word's have been given various interpretations, but I think that it shows that the transformation of water to wine is out of order. In the Dionysian rites, the wedding is post mortem. The symbolism of water to wine, not only matches the evolutionary usage of the situla from well-bucket to that of a vessel to transport the wine to the country for the women's rite, but also the resurrection of Dionysos Zagreus from the animal divinity to the god of the vine. [Aside: it is times like this when I greatly miss my late wife, Carin Perron, as we had many great theological and mythological discussions over the years and being Messianic she was more than familiar with early Christianity (prior to the Council of Nicea). Under her nom de plume, Jesse Ancona (which referred to a gessoed panel, and reflected her interest, too, in Renaissance art) she wrote much, but a lot of it has been lost. One person has gone so far as to call her "the Buddha of her time". She would have loved to have discussed this subject. I have been using her Bible for the above passage from John. As a "heathen" I did not have my own copy]

For those unfamiliar with the myth of Dionysos Zagreus, here is Nonnus' version from the Dionysiaca, 6. (The later tellings of myths include far more detail as they incorporate many different regional syncretisms ― Zagreus being a separate god in his own right. For example, compare Ovid's Meleager and the Calydonian Boar with what Homer had to say about Meleagros in the Iliad):
“By the fierce resentment of implacable Hera, the Titans cunningly smeared their round faces with disguising chalk, and while he contemplated his changeling countenance reflected in a mirror they destroyed him with an infernal knife. There where his limbs had been cut piecemeal by the Titan steel, the end of his life was the beginning of a new life as Dionysos.
“He appeared in another shape, and changed into many forms: now young like crafty Kronides shaking the aegis-cape, now as ancient Kronos heavy-kneed, pouring rain. Sometimes he was a curiously formed baby, sometimes like a mad youth with the flower of the first down marking his rounded chin with black. Again, a mimic lion he uttered a horrible roar in furious rage from a wild snarling throat, as he lifted a neck shadowed by a thick mane, marking his body on both sides with the self-striking whip of a tail which flickered about over his hairy back. Next, he left the shape of a lion’s looks and let out a ringing neigh, now like an unbroken horse that lifts his neck on high to shake out the imperious tooth of the bit, and rubbing, whitened his cheek with hoary foam. Sometimes he poured out a whistling hiss from his mouth, a curling horned serpent covered with scales, darting out his tongue from his gaping throat, and leaping upon the grim head of some Titan encircled his neck in snaky spiral coils. Then he left the shape of the restless crawler and became a tiger with gay stripes on his body; or again like a bull emitting a counterfeit roar from his mouth he butted the Titans with sharp horn.
“So he fought for his life, until Hera with jealous throat bellowed harshly through the air – that heavy-resentful step-mother! And the gates of Olympos rattled in echo to her jealous throat from high heaven. Then the bold bull collapsed: the murderers each eager for his turn with the knife chopped piecemeal the bull-shaped Dionysos”.
After shapeshifting into various human forms and animals, Dionysos is slain by the Titans in his bull-form. The image is tripled in accordance with Pythagorean tenets. Note the Dionysian-identifying use of the ivy leaves between the bulls and between their legs. Plate from the Gundestrup cauldron, circa 275-200 BC (my revised dating). The vessel was made in northern Italy by Thracian silversmiths, probably for either the Senones (as commanders-in-chief of the Gaulish forces) or for Ambiani troops who were serving in the defence of Taras with Pyrrhus (Hooker, forthcoming).
This plate is often said to be a "bull-sacrifice", but numismatists familiar with Greek coin iconography might well ask why there are no garlands on the bull's horns. The Pythagorean origin (Brewer,1898) of Celtic triplism (Miranda Green, 1989) seems unattributed. (Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable is still easy to obtain, and it is very useful. My nicely bound 1978 edition cost me only $12 at a second-hand bookshop).

Having been chopped to pieces by the Titans, Dionysos was boiled in a cauldron as a prelude to being placed on spits, roasted and eaten. Zeus managed to rescue his heart and from this he made a potion that he gave to the moon-goddess Semele. This made her pregnant and she gave birth to the second-born Dionysos. This time, he was the God of the Vine. The spread of Dionysianism had its repercussions, and I believe that the changes in the Passover rites before that spread (Deuteronomy XVI, 7th cent BC) and afterward (Exodus XII, mid 6th cent BC), seems, specifically, to forbid any ritual reenactment of the Titan's feast: The later version would not allow this: it could not be a bull, it has to be a lamb; we cannot cut it up for it has to be whole and complete; the meat cannot come into contact with water so we cannot boil it; we must make sure that if we do not eat all of it, then what is left must be burnt afterward. If we did not eat it all, perhaps we might leave the heart and Zeus could use this to affect the resurrection of Dionysos. Resurrection was not part of Judaism at that time and did not appear in Biblical texts until the Book of Daniel in the mid second century B.C. When one died, the soul died as well. The time of the writing of Exodus was the same time that the Dionysian cults were spreading throughout the Mediterranean.

Yet, psychologically, the Exodus is a form of resurrection which might be favorably compared with the Orpheus' return from the Underworld, or with Theseus' escape from the Labyrinth. I will have occasion to return to these themes later in this series.

The Dionysian theme of Zagreus also had profound psychological impact to both Nietzsche and to Jung, and why should it not? Mythology is psychology. In the spring of 1935, Jung wrote the following passage in a footnote in Psychology and Alchemy:
 “… what did Dionysus mean to Nietzsche? What he says about it must be taken seriously; what it did to him still more so. There can be no doubt that he knew in the preliminary stages of his fatal illness, that the dismal fate of Zagreus was reserved for him. Dionysus is the abyss of impassioned dissolution, where all human distinctions are merged in the animal divinity of the primordial psyche – a blissful and terrible experience. Humanity, huddling behind the walls of its culture, believes it has escaped this experience, until it succeeds in letting loose another orgy of bloodshed. All well-meaning people are amazed when this happens and blame high finance, the armaments industry, the Jews, or the Freemasons.”
Nietzsche set up a chain reaction with regard to Dionysos – he influenced W. F. Otto who published Dionysos: Mythos und Kultus, Frankfurt, 1933, and Otto’s writings, in turn influenced Carl Kerényi whose monumental Dionysos – Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life was translated into English from Kerényi’s original German manuscript in 1976, three years after its author’s death. Kerényi and Jung were close friends and Jung acknowledged the important role that Kerényi played in his own assimilation of mythology into psychology.

Kerényi discusses Nietzsche and Otto in the preface of his manuscript, but the Introduction to that book is in the form of an essay: Finite and Infinite Life in the Greek Language where the two Greek words for life, bios (ßíoς) and zoë (ξωή)are discussed. No account that I could give here would do credit to this essay which should be read in full, but a brief description of the two forms is essential. Bios is the individual life, starting at birth and ending at death. It has been incorporated into the English word ‘biology’. This is the finite life. Zoë is also incorporated into an English word: ‘zoology’ but it loses its real meaning, completely, here. Jung comes closer in describing the “animal divinity of the primordial psyche” with regard to Dionysos, but zoë is really infinite life. Perhaps Nietzsche was only able to comprehend this, through his religion of atheism, as entirely materialistic whereby life could only continue through genetics and could only be expressed by any human being through the Dionysian intoxication and frenzy where Apollonian individuality was lost, something closer to Jung’s “mass mind’ or “collective consciousness” he alludes to in the second part of his quote. This is the unthinking, and most often destructive, mind of the mob ― swept along by its irrational passions in a waking nightmare of horror, insanity and destruction.

It would be absurd to suggest that the Greeks had the same slant on Dionysos as did Nietzsche, and Kerényi makes a point of playing down the role of intoxication in his preface. He stresses, instead, the vegetative characteristic of the vine (Preface, p. xxiv,f.):
“... the theater, belonged to the domain of Dionysos. And of all the cultivated plants of antiquity, it is the vine that has survived most abundantly: it too was sacred to Dionysos and bore witness to his presence. I first had this impression in 1931, the year in which the idea for this book was born. At that time it came to me that any account of the Dionysian religion must put the main accent not on intoxication but on the quiet, powerful, vegetative element which ultimately engulfed even the ancient theaters, as at Cumae. The image of that theater became for me a guiding symbol; another such symbol was the atmosphere of the vine, as elusive as the scent of its blossom.”
When we look at the La Tène art of the Celts which borrows the vegetative elements from Greek art, like the running vine-scroll and the palmette, but not the figurative, we can see that the main influence was Dionysian. For some reason, this point has been missed by most observers of Celtic art. Perhaps this is due to the erroneous idea that prehistoric must also mean primitive and unsophisticated.. This Dionysian influence was not restricted to just decoration, but to the culture of wine itself and we see many imports of Greek and Etruscan vessels for the consumption of wine. La Tène art emerged after the Rhineland Celts communication with Italy and after the establishment of the Dionysian and orphic cults in Italy. Pythagoras had set up his school at Kroton in Italy, long before the emergence of the La Tène style.

In this light, calling La Tène merely an artistic style does it no justice and it should really be seen as a syncretistic development of the Greek mystery religions among the Celts. Such major artistic movements are rarely ever the emergence of a style without an accompanying philosophy that impacts far more than just the decorative arts. The vitality of  the style is fed, always, by the vitality of the accompanying philosophy and cannot exist in isolation from it.

The exuberance of early Celtic art cannot be favorably compared to the transition that was experienced by Nietzsche into his catatonic state. The concept of zoë as understood by the Greeks and adopted by the Celts would be closer to that of the Buddha-nature or the “clear-light” of Tantric Yoga as discussed by his Holiness the Dalai Lama in The Buddha Nature. We can thus see zoë as “unborn”, “uncreated” life that is at the core of all creatures. It is indestructible, infinite, something apart from the universe, but something that lies at its core. We could say that while we as individuals will die, that which looks out from our eyes that is apart from the psychophysical aggregates (as the Dalai Lama calls those parts of us that are not that “clear-light”) will not die and will always look out from other eyes. Nietzsche found no comfort in the identity of such a state.  Perhaps he saw only the insanity of the mass mind. It was, after all, witnessing an act of cruelty against a horse which plunged him into that state. He could not conceive of that which had never been born or created, his atheism would not allow it, so what was left to him was only the compulsive and not the infinite.

Both Jung and Campbell understood the phenomenal mythological knowledge of a very recent Celt, James Joyce, and both made mention of this passage in Ulysses:
" ... Are you a god or a doggone clod? If the second advent came to Coney Island are we ready? Florry Christ, Stephen Christ, Zoe Christ, Bloom Christ, Kitty Christ, Lynch Christ, it's up to you to sense that cosmic force. Have we cold feet about the cosmos? No. Be on the side of the angels. Be a prism. You have that something within, the higher self. You can rub shoulders with a Jesus, a Gautama, an Ingersoll. Are you all in this vibration? I say you are ... " (U414) 

Over a period of time, water was changed into wine as a religious metaphor for death and resurrection. In ancient northern Italy it took on a solid expression in the form of the vessel called the situla. Long before that, water had been the material of the Deep; the Celtic dubno. Alan Knight, in Primitive Christianity in Crisis, p.23 (my late wife's copy), describes the mystery cults in this light:
“The mystery cults were ancient religious traditions founded on the idea of human interaction with spirit. This does not mean spirituality in the modern sense, however. Before the great reformation [The emergence of the Mystery Religions in the 7th and 6th centuries B.C.], spirit generally meant the life force within nature, specifically the power of fertility. In the Near East, for example, fertility was closely associated with water. There was an ancient Babylonian mystery tradition in which it was believed that moisture retreated to a great underground abyss during the dry season. This abyss, known as the Deep, was the source of life-giving energy that sustains the world, and it was from here that the life-giving waters returned at the start of the wet season each year”

How much of what I write here was known by Paolo Veronese? We certainly know that the earliest works on alchemy and magic, together with many Gnostic texts had reached Italy by the fifteenth century, and that in the sixteenth century they were very popular with the intelligentsia. Even forgeries in strange code were being produced for the wealthy. Da Vinci  wrote some things backwards and these would not be easy to read by someone looking over his shoulder, who might also then report such to the Church (this was before the Inquisition). But Veronese was certainly referencing the Dionysian with his ""We painters use the same license as poets and madmen". I can almost see, in my mind, a faint smirk on his face, knowing that his words would be not be understood by the Inquisition, and knowing that his Wedding Feast at Cana had existed for ten years without inviting accusations of heresy.

Tomorrow, a description of my method (and perhaps a little more), and this, in addition to what I have written in this series, so far, should prepare you for the translation of the iconography of the La Tène religion as expressed in their art that will begin on Monday. Like Jung's studies of alchemy, and the time span of Druidic schooling, it has been twenty years in the making. But it takes about that time to be really proficient in such art.

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