Antinous for Everybody

I worship a dead gay teenager and you can too

Archive for the tag “dionysus”

POEM: A hymn for the winter solstice

The longest night, the shortest day
Each year it comes and goes its way
The bleak midwinter blest with feasts
To joy the greatest and the least

The newborn light becomes a boy
His mother’s pride, the whole world’s joy
The gods immortal come to earth
In mortal flesh for mortal mirth

Here Jesus sleeps with ox and ass
As one by one the shepherds pass
To worship him the angels sang
On whom the coming centuries hang

Antinous puts on the crown
That Dionysus handed down
Of ivy, grape, and fragrant pine
And bids us to the feast with wine

While Hercules, the victor strong,
Cries, “Io, Io!” with the throng
And Angerona has the right
To keep us silent for a night

So let us keep our flames alight
Through shortest day and longest night
And hold each other, heart and hand,
Till spring spreads forth throughout the land.


Hymn to Dionysus VI: Mirror

I am afraid of you, Dionysus, for I am afraid of myself.
I am afraid of your anger, for I myself am deeply angry.
I am afraid of your lust, for my own lust seems boundless.
I am afraid of your masks, for I hide my own truth constantly.
I am afraid of your wine, for it blurs my anxious mind.
I am afraid of your chains, for when you break them, you destroy,
and I have wanted to destroy and clutched my chains instead.
I am afraid of your freedom, for what will I do if I am free?
I am afraid of your love, for you loved both Pentheus and Ariadne.
Yet if I love a god, how can I empty that vessel?
Can my thirst be too great for you, Dionysus?
You only smile and offer me the cup.

Hymn to Dionysus V: Not a tame lion


Ben Whishaw as Dionysus in the Almeida production of The Bakkhai, 2015

He comes from somewhere else, at a time when he is unlooked-for.
He doesn’t wear the right clothes; his hair is too long or too short,
his walk is too butch or too femme. Women love him, but men
know better than to trust him; women crowd around him, but
right-thinking men back away. He smells of women’s perfume
and new leather and animal fur. He takes drugs and sings
lewd songs and women are always at his feet. He has no
permanent address, no stable job, no steady girlfriend.
He carries a club, or is that a parasol, or is it a stage prop,
or is it a weapon? He smiles too much; he doesn’t smile enough;
he doesn’t make sense, isn’t predictable, why won’t he follow
the rules? Rules keep us safe, and you are whatever makes us
feel unsafe, God of Nysa, stranger from far away. You are
sex to the prude, violence to the upright, drugs to the sober,
dance to the rigid, theatre to the boss man, religion to the atheist.
Yet you are also chastity, gentleness, mindfulness, stillness,
silence, and the closed mouth that has tasted the Mysteries.
Bull-horned, bull-footed, complicated god, no one is safe from you.

Hymn to Dionysus IV: Thyrsos


Take a stalk of fennel, tall enough to bear with pride.
Wind it about in one direction with ivy, ever green.
Wind it about in the other direction with grapevines,
which stiffen as they dry.
Crown it with a pine cone, bristling with hidden seeds.
Adorn it with ribbons, splash it with wine,
honor it with kisses, water it with tears or blood or come.
Carry it, wave it, shake it for attention,
lean on it when weary, pray to it when alone.
Sleep with it beside the bed, near to hand.
Watch it grow in your dreams; see it cast its shadow
over your life, spread its roots into every place.
Find the god waiting there, by his sacred tree,
the thyrsos: Dionysus, Bakkhos, Liber, euoi, euoi!

Hymn to Dionysus III: Forthspringing

IMG_20150319_071615The shoot thrusts up from the earth as the days lengthen,
and your dead creep forth, wandering the roads in search of new wine.
The mushroom springs up in the shit, in the shade, where the rain fell,
bearing its gift of flavor, or intoxication, or illumination, or death.
The phallus springs up, hidden, kept secret, wrapped up,
behind closed doors, under covers, searching blindly
for a place to root itself. In your rites, Bakkheios,
we raise the phallus proudly, for everyone to see;
we dare the intoxication for the illumination; we pour
the wine for the wandering dead, drink deep, sleep late.
May it be so, lord, may your rites be welcomed in the city,
may your gifts be treasured as they turn us topsy-turvy,
may the way be clear for the secrets to come forth,
and show themselves, and be known, and then,
like seeds beneath the snow, to hide themselves again.

Hymn to Dionysus II: God of Masks


From a mural in Hadrian’s Villa at Tibur


Dionysus, you are the giver of many gifts to mortals,
but not least of them the mask. There is a mask
that grins and lies, and there is a mask
that tells the truth. There is the mask
of the revel-song, and there is the mask
of the goat’s lament. There is the mask
the actor puts on to play the appointed role,
and there is the mask that is the actor
whom you wear to walk among us.

The mask is hollow, but the god within it
is real. O Dionysus, grant me to wear the mask
when I must; grant me to honor those who wear it,
for they are your servants and prophets; grant me
to see through the false mask, the lying mask,
over the hollow soul, and call upon you to free us,
O god of tragedy, comedy, travesty, life, death, truth.

Hymn to Dionysus I

k12-1dionysosHail, Dionysus! To you, the son of many mothers and the child of no father,
I turn my attention now. Even Zeus was your mother, cradling you in his thigh,
Zeus the lover and destroyer of your mother, earthly Semele, who became
heavenly Thyone, the raving queen. You freed her from the underworld
and exalted her to the stars, and you exalted your bride, too, Ariadne
of the labyrinth. So you always treat those who worship and honor you,
exalting the senses, exalting the spirit, making humans greater than mortal,
while you cast down those who reject you, who refuse your joyous dance.

You bear many names and bring many stories when you come dancing,
Dionysus, Bacchus, Liber, Bromios, Lyaios, Kissios, Anthion, Zagreus.
You deck your hair with grape vines or ivy or spring flowers; you carry
the thyrsos tipped with a pine cone and trailing vegetation. Sometimes
you come as Father Liber, bearded, bull-strong, and crowned with horns;
sometimes you are the pretty boy, the effeminate stranger, hair in ringlets,
eyes outlined with kohl. You are never more dangerous than when
you seem vulnerable, never more kind than when you are fierce,
O rule-breaking god, noise-maker, breath-taker. I welcome you
and your jug of wine, your prowling beasts, your star-crowned wife,
all your mothers and lovers, your labyrinthine stories, your masks and dances,
your songs and trances, I welcome you, god who has danced around my life
ever since I was a child, hail, Dionysus, hail, Dionysus, hail, Dionysus!

The Day of the Mysteries: To Persephone

For generations now this mystery has been lost
that we long for: A Mother. Her Daughter.
The grain. The fruit. A cry in the night.
A light in the darkness. And a child, a boy.
Your mother’s son, or yours?

Daughter of the grain, wife of the shadows,
queen and savioress, your face is my mirror.
I am my mother’s daughter and my daughter’s
mother, my husband’s wife, my father’s duty.
I am my self, none other, agatha tyche, divine
juno, sovereign queen.

I pray to Persephone, daughter of the Mother,
queen of the underworld, goddess in two worlds.
I pray to Demeter, mother of an only daughter,
giver of the grain, the old woman who grieved.
And I pray to Iakkhos, the mysterious Child,
Son of two Mothers, Dionysus, Bacchus, Antinous.

A cry in the night. A light in the darkness. The grain.
The fruit. A mirror held by two goddesses. A boy,
a mortal, a god. Demophoon in the fire,
Triptolemus in the field, Antinous with a spear.
The mystery we have longed for. The whole
world holds its breath. The sacred way is opened.

Ben Whishaw with waist-length hair in a yellow frock

A fannish friend of mine just gave herself an enormous, enviable treat for her birthday: She went to London for a few days and, while she was there, she saw The Bakkhai at the Almeida Theatre, with Ben Whishaw as Dionysos and Bertie Carvel as Pentheus. 

I’ve only been a fan of Whishaw for a couple of years; after seeing him in the last Bond movie, Skyfall, as a youthful new Q, I was stunned by his work in the short-lived show The Hour and by his performance as Richard II for the BBC’s Hollow Crown series. Whishaw is a talented actor whose lithe, wispy, unpredictable character makes him a prime choice to play the god who won’t perform masculinity; I wish I could see this production myself.

But my relationship with the play goes back a lot further than my fondness for Whishaw or my identification as a polytheist. I was a precocious and voracious reader as a child, as I am now, the sort of person who cannot stay away from a display of books. Every time my grandmother’s senior citizens club held a bazaar as a fundraiser, I came home with armfuls of books, literally. It was at one of those bazaars that I picked up the “condensed” version of Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede, a book which made a permanent impression on me; at another, I brought home three volumes of Norton anthologies, one prose, one poetry, and one drama.

I don’t remember anything I might have read in the poetry or essay volumes. But I was nine or ten years old, and I found The Bacchae, as it was spelled then, in the drama volume, and read it.

I’m not sure what I made of that play at such a young age. Looking back over four decades, I know now that being able to understand the words in some way and even explain a story does not mean grasping the meaning of it. Certainly there is much about Euripedes’ tragedy that I do not really comprehend even now. Yet the play made a deep impression on me, right next to Godden’s novel of cloistered nuns, reruns of Star Trek, my weekly exposure to the Prayer Book and the Hymnal. It was an encounter with Dionysus.

I encountered the god again as a teenager, browsing in a bookstore downtown that is long gone; I think the building itself might have recently been demolished to make room for something else. If memory serves, I ran into a rather odd acquaintance of mine, a priest of the Polish National Catholic Church who was a friend of my parish priest, and we had a strange stilted conversation. I went home that day with a book called The God of Ecstasy: Sex Roles and the Madness of Dionysus, by Arthur Evans.

Evans (not the same Arthur Evans who excavated the palace of Knossos on Crete) was writing primarily about same-sex, male-to-male relationships in Greek and Roman history, what was considered acceptable behavior and what was not. A goodly part of his argument was his own translation of The Bacchae, with photographs from a production he directed in San Francisco. The actor who played Dionysus was costumed as a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence, which is how I first learned of that order.

Thirty years later, I still have that book on my shelves. I haven’t touched it in years, but I read that version of the play over and over, poring over the pics–Dionysus as the coy Sister in a traditional wimple and veil, Dionysus as the manifest god, his body painted gold, his face revealed as a massive bull mask crowned with ivy.

For years I’ve admired Dionysus from afar, so to speak. I’ve admired him in fictional men who don’t play by gender rules. I’ve come back over and over to the story of Ariadne, abandoned by a hero, chosen by a god; it stands alongside the story of Persephone as one of the myths most significant to me. I’ve watched him from the corner of my eye the way the nerd girl in the teen movie watches the bad boy in the leather jacket, the curly-haired guy who smokes where he shouldn’t and is always surrounded by girls.

In the past year, I’ve honored Antinous as syncretized with Dionysus, with Apollon, and with Hermes, among many other gods (and in the company of quite a few goddesses). As I’ve grown closer to Antinous and made connections with other deities, I’ve also realized I want to get closer to Dionysus. I’m working up my nerve to go chat up the cool weird guy standing out in the rain, petting a stray dog, the boy in the leather jacket surrounded by pierced and tattooed girls, the hot lead singer in the band, the god I met when I was only a child. I might be grown up enough now to be his friend.


Theseus gave me two wedding cups
made from the horns of my dead brother
and that’s when I knew it would never work out
between us. He was my brother, you know.
Locked up in the labyrinth like the idiot child
in a home, like the junkie teenager left in rehab,
the embarrassment, the black sheep of the family.
A bull with hooves and horns. A boy’s intelligence
in his eyes, human emotions in his bellowing.
I thought perhaps he might follow the thread
out, once Theseus was dead.

I knew it would never work out, but I left
with Theseus because what else was I
to do? It’s not like my parents deserved
a dutiful daughter. My father thought to
cheat the gods; my mother thought to
cheat my father; it was all ruined, all
wrong. So I left with Theseus and pretended
to sleep while his men carried the supplies
on board, drew up the boats and then
the anchor, sailed away.

I woke at sunset and looked at the night sky.
That’s when he came out of the shadows
toward me, a slender figure limned in light.
He had ivy shoots and grape vines for a
crown, but the crown he offered me was
twined of stars. It glittered in his hand far
brighter than the stars above, if not as
brightly as the stars above. He smiled and
then I took his hand. “You remind me
of my brother,” I said, and smiled.

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