I’ve focused a lot on the connection of the drum to the mother archetype, her heartbeat, and to women. Dionysos, the god of women, is associated with drums through his maenads and his symbol of a beating heart; Dionysos also resonates as the archetype of the body’s life force. Layne Redmond describes the ecstatic chanting, dancing and drumming connected to the rituals of Dionysos:
“In the ancient world, prayer was an active, trance-inducing combination of chanting, music and dance, and initiates often danced the sacred spiral into the labyrinth. The classic labyrinth is a single path meant for meditative circling. To enter it is to experience a ritual death; to escape from it is to be resurrected. The danced line into the labyrinth was a sacred path into the inner realm of knowing. Dancers holding a rope signifying Ariadne’s thread (that allows participants to find their way in and out of the maze) followed a leader into the labyrinth, spiraling right to left, the direction of death. At the center they turned, dancing out in the direction of evolution and birth, all to the driving rhythms of the frame drums.” (Drum Magazine 2000)
While studying Greek tragedy in grad school, my interest gravitated to the lineage of Dionysos and how he related to the deities and mortals closest to him. Through my research I became increasingly intrigued with Dionysos’ life story and the events that morphed him from a beautiful, youthful man into a full-fledged cult god. He is the vulnerable infant, the terrifying lion, the devoted lover to both men and women, the giver of gifts, the ecstatic god of wine, and the tragic, dismembered hero. His archetypal energy is fluid and Protean; difficult to hold on to, impossible to confine.
Greek mythology may appear to be solid and static; like carved Doric columns or marble statues, the deities seem to be frozen in time. The gods and goddesses evolved and changed over thousands of years to become the images they were to 5th century B.C. Greeks, and they are continually being re-imagined into new forms today. Where Dionysos is concerned, movement, especially coming and going, is a recurring theme in his mythology. “Of the gods that can be encountered throughout Greece, Dionysos is the least sedentary. Nowhere is he at home” (Detienne 1). He never rests on the earthly plane because his work is never done; as times change, as technology advances, his cycle of death and rebirth continues unabated.
Dionysos does not seek a place of resolution, at least not in the Apollonian sense of the word, which is related to the concept of harmonia––a wholeness, or oneness that is the ultimate conclusion of bringing opposing qualities into a harmonic convergence. Dionysos longs for the dynamic ambiguity of the relationships and dialogues of life, not for the resolution of conflict. The myth of Dionysos is intimately tied to the myth of ensouling relationship as well as wildness within civilization, He represents souls coming together, in the midst of ambiguity, to revel in life and feel the ecstasy of divine love. If Dionysos, As the ruler of the heart, ceases his beating drums, the soul withers and dies. The genre of Greek tragedy dramatizes the struggles of mortals, and how the gods and goddesses intervene in constructive and destructive ways. The stories are paths to exploring and exploiting ambiguities, presenting rather than resolving contradictions and Dionysos is the god that is the raw substance of the ancient Greek theatre and the tragedy genre itself.
During the short, 70-year span of tragedy, the upheaval in Greece was so great as to inspire poets, such as Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, to write about the tensions and contradictions that were present in their everyday lives; some of their plays were performed at the annual Dionysia in Athens. In this time period Athenians were embroiled in the Peloponnesian War and suffered a great plague––a vaguely familiar scene that is happening concurrently in many parts of the world. It is intriguing to see how present-day America sets the stage for a contemporary Bacchae.
Dionysos, as the archetype of the invisible and numinous power of music, blurs out the boundaries of class and gender structures and roles. He connects man to man (or woman to man, or woman to woman) and man to nature through ecstatic ritual, dance and trance possession. The turning away from conventions and the ego facilitates a deep release from societal rules, convictions and in turn fosters connection to the collective unconscious, numinous realm. For some this can be heaven, and for others it can turn into an inescapable hell. As frightening as the unknown, strange territory roamed by Dionysos is, the purpose of uniting with the god in ritual is to realize that all of humanity beats with one heart.
“Now that the gospel of universal harmony is sounded, each individual becomes not only reconciled to his fellow but actually at one with him…” (Nietzsche 23)
Entering into the labyrinth of Dionysos is a rich endeavor fraught with danger. Many of my colleagues warned, “Don’t spend too much time in the underworld with Dionysos, you might get stuck.” Even C.G. Jung seemed to lock up the entrance to his domain while studying Nietzsche; “the more deeply Jung entered into Nietzsche, the more he was dissuaded from the Dionysian” (Hillman 154). Jung sensed the pathology emanating from Nietzsche’s writing–a depressive, degenerative, destructive cycle. Experiencing and focusing on the suffering, the pathos, of ourselves and the world may be depressing yet soul-awakening. James Hillman confirms this thought when he says “…through Dionysus, we may find depression a refuge from the excessive demands of the ruling will” (Hillman 40).
We can run away from Dionysos or scorn him or try to lock him up (as Pentheus does) through repression of our deepest soul urges, inviting the truly dangerous and destructive into our lives. For this running from is a rejection of our own embodied soul; the cold fires of logos can imprison if we decide to remain in the Apollonian extreme. Dionysos entreats us to feel his beating heart, his eros, within our own bodies: “the heart muscle is like an internal maenad in the body of the possessed, constantly leaping within” (Detienne 59). As the Homeric Hymn to Dionysos reminds us, dismembering and re-membering are cyclical processes of eros; a bringing together of what we can no longer push aside, or run away from. For all divine relationships, and the sublime in music and in nature, are found in the heart of Ariadne’s labyrinth and in the beating chest of Dionysos.
Be good to us,
you girl-crazy goat–
we, the poets,
and end our singing
and it’s impossible without you,
without remembering you
we can’t remember our sacred song.