Dionysus, and a Worm
I’m going to stick with one of the themes of my book – the return of the repressed – and my most compelling image: Dionysus, the Loosener.
What is the knocking? What is the knocking at the door in the night?
It is somebody wants to do us harm.
No, no, it is the three strange angels. Admit them, admit them.
– D. H. Lawrence
I am pregnant with murder.
The pains are coming faster now,
and not all your anesthetics
nor even my own screams
can stop them.
– Robin Morgan
From Chapter Four of my book:
The god is angry because he has been dishonored. The longer something has been repressed, the more insistent it is, the greater the resistance by centers of power (ruling elites) or of consciousness (the ego). This is why Dionysus has cast his spell on the women, why Pentheus fights him so absolutely, and why his destruction is so savage…Like Pentheus, we can ignore the appearance of an archetype. But it never totally disappears. It returns, charged with more energy, but manifesting in a more primitive way. What was a human impulse can become monstrous. Repressed diversity ultimately reappears as psychopathology, as madness at the gates.
And who is the agent of this return of the repressed? Dionysus, of course. In his literal form as alcohol he is Lusios, the Loosener, “destroyer of the household.” Lusios is related to analysis, which means setting free. A catalyst is a chemical agent that precipitates a process without itself being changed. The destruction of Pentheus’ palace represents Lusios shaking the foundations of identity (personal or collective).
Every night, every tavern and most dance venues are places where people go with the express intention, conscious or unconscious, of receiving permission from the God of madness and ecstasy to let go and let it all out. It can come out as joining the crowd at the ubiquitous TV set and cheering for the home team. More rarely, it can come out as truth-telling, spoken by those who otherwise cannot ignore their inhibitions.
Or it can come out in the release of pent-up violence. For some, the knowledge that others will likely intervene and “break up” a fight before it gets out of hand is part of the expectation that even the letting go can happen in a certain kind of safe or ritualized context.
Why is this “loosening” so tempting? Why do we crave release? Classicist E.R. Dodds explained that Dionysus “…enables you for a short time to stop being yourself…” He could lift the burden of individual responsibility from his devotees. In the process, their sense of being isolated egos dissolved.
The ecstatic mode of spirituality is both ancient and widespread. All Greek initiation festivals included dancing. Indigenous worship everywhere was bodily celebration, a dance of the entire community. In many African languages, the words for music and dance are identical. A Haitian proverb says, “White people go to church to speak about God. We dance in the temple and become God.”
If this need was so strong in pre-Classical Greece, how much more so in our day when religious fundamentalism, political fear mongering and the constraints of the corporate work environment herd us toward a mind-numbing conformism that we all know? No wonder we crave regular access to the local tavern as well as those occasional escapes to New Orleans, Las Vegas and Spring Break party towns.
Here I must confess to a certain naiveté. In much of my writing I’ve tended to see the return of the repressed as a good thing, as in liberated sexuality, as the return of the Goddess or as political revolution. And I still think that way – in the long run. But perhaps I’ve been ignoring my own text: What was a human impulse can become monstrous.
And one of the most welcome – and most dangerous – characteristics of demagogues from Stalin, Mussolini and Hitler to Reagan to the architects of the Rwandan and Armenian holocausts to Trump has been their ability to “lift the burden of individual responsibility” from their followers, to dissolve their isolated egos. It is to grant them permission to let out the dogs of their most repressed, violent fantasies that had previously been held in control by superficial notions such as goodness, fair play, tolerance, rationality, justice – and democracy.
For four hundred years, white American males have attempted to cover up the continual, massive evidence of their detached, racialized, genocidal violence with the story of their own goodness and innocence. Elites have always managed to keep the lid on the worst of our lesser natures, except of course for our regular wars on foreign ground and the race riots that inevitably follow them at home.
This gambit has generally worked, at least for the winners and those who identified with them.
But sometime around 1975, and accelerating through the next generation, the jobs that gave them the good life and a sense of belonging disappeared. Credit, two-income families, fundamentalism and the vicarious thrills of celebrity culture and militarism carried them for one more generation until the credit maxed out. By the Obama years, it became increasingly difficult to conceal the fact that fewer and fewer white people (let alone people of color) could claim membership in the tribe. And we remember that in American mythology and theology, we hold to the crazy assumption that our suffering is our own fault, not that of a capitalistic system, that the only alternative to the winner/hero is the loser/victim.
The opioid epidemic controlled – and killed – millions of them in this generation. The rest were ready to explode, to turn their self-hatred upon some localized scapegoats. Their patience and their sense of self-control had been stretched as far as possible, and they yearned for the advent of a loosener who would grant them permission to dump it all out, to let slip the dogs of domestic war.
The dogs of international war will almost certainly follow.
I really regret that this seems to be the most relevant mythic image right now. We recall that Pentheus’ own mother and aunts lead the crazed maenads in murdering and dismembering him. With that image in mind, we note that 53% of white women voted for Trump, despite (or perhaps because of) his crude misogyny, and that, ironically, the most common targets of the public hated he let loose have been veiled women, the very image of repression.
The madness will dissipate; such eruptions always do. That is, until the pressure builds up again, or, as in Germany, the resulting destruction overwhelms even national mythologies of exceptionalism. Otherwise, myths do take a long time to change.
And what does this mean for those of us who aspire to being elders who might prepare younger people to step up and become leaders after this society crashes and burns? Are attempts at initiation rituals ultimately meaningless if they don’t involve the risk of showing the young their darkest potentials along with their brightest?
Meade suggests that we view Trump not simply as the problem, but more as a symptom of a greater illness and reminds us that the word crisis comes from a Greek word that refers to a turning point in a disease.
Thus, a genuine crisis signifies a change for better or for worse…The national crisis created by…a pathological presidency can become an opportunity to grow the character of the country and bring a deeper sense of human decency and national integrity.
Trump is a provocateur. But Jung said that the soul is teleological, always moving toward integration. Back to The Bacchae: We carelessly leave the gates unlocked for the Mystery to enter and do its destructive – and perhaps reconstructive – work. We see this when Pentheus orders his henchmen to find Dionysus:
Go, someone, this instant,
to the place where this prophet prophesies.
Pry it up with crowbars, heave it over,
upside down; demolish everything you see…
That will provoke him more than anything.
“Provoke” (from vocare, to call) is marvelously appropriate. At some level Pentheus can choose. He can invoke or evoke his own Dionysian nature, or he can innocently project it outwards, provoking its expression somewhere else. Dionysus says:
If I were you, I would offer him (myself, actually) a sacrifice, not rage and kick against necessity…Friend, you can still save the situation.
“If I were you,” indeed. The two cousins represent mirror opposites within the psyche. Pentheus, in his desperate machismo, speaks his last line before the spell is cast:
Bring my armor, someone.
And you (Dionysus) stop talking.
Now he has provoked the god, called him out, and declared his willingness to engage the mystery. Here a break in the poetic meter of the text occurs that emphasizes the significance of Pentheus’ fateful statement. When Dionysus responds with: “Ahhh…Wait! …Would you like to see their revels…?” he provokes Pentheus’ unconscious sexual voyeurism. Dionysus, masked as a priest, will send Pentheus to his destruction masked as a Maenad. After loosening the gates of the city, he loosens the boundaries of Pentheus’ sanity.
The repressed energies turn deadly. Pentheus might have humbled himself before this immense natural force that was willing to meet him halfway. The Loosener, who – if invited – would have helped his cousin drop his armor and relax, who would rather lie drunk among his maidens, now appears as the Lord of Death. Dionysus had come to refute lies told by his two aunts. Now they and Pentheus’ own mother destroy him. The three sisters, universal symbols of the Great Mother – her again – reveal her deadly features instead of her nurturing face.
What does it mean to be an archetypal story? One thing it means is that it lives in potential within each of us, and that each of us – each nation – may potentially enact it. But our contemporary loosener/provocateur can only permit us to show our worst potentials, not our better angels.
For the present, this means fully accepting the nauseating truth that Trump is us – that he embodies the dark side of a toxic, national mythology that exists in the psyche of every American, just as the Teutonic darkness dwelt in every German in 1933. And this brings me to a final, Nordic myth, the Lindworm.
The king and queen want a child, but cannot produce one. An old wise woman tells the queen that in order to conceive she must breathe her desires into a glass and place it on the ground. From that ground, two flowers will grow: one red, one white. The queen must eat the white flower; under no circumstances must she eat the red one. Then she will bear a healthy child. Of course, she eats the red flower too. She duly becomes pregnant, but gives birth to a black serpent, which she immediately flings in horror through the window and into the forest.
People act as if nothing has happened, and a healthy baby boy is soon born. But when the prince becomes a man, he meets his serpent brother again in the wood, and the huge black snake comes back into the kingdom to wreak terrible damage.
This strange and disturbing story suggests that what you exile will come back to bite you, three times as big and twice as angry. What you push away will eventually return, and you will have to deal with the consequences. But this version of return of the repressed offers a way out that The Bacchae doesn’t.
Paul Kingsnorth suggests that 2016 was
…the year the exiled serpent returned. Many things that were banned from the public conversation – many feelings, ideas and worldviews which were pushed under, thrown into the forest, deemed taboo, cast out of the public realm – have slithered back into the castle, angry at their rejection. Some people thought they were dead, but it doesn’t work like that. Dark twins can’t be destroyed; terms must be met, agreements made. The serpent must be accommodated…2016, from a small, localised perspective here in the wealthy democracies of the Western hemisphere, can look like the year that everything changed. But it isn’t, not really. This is not the year that the queen gave birth to the serpent, and it certainly isn’t the year that she first ate the flower. That happened a long time ago. This is the year that the serpent came back out of the forest and into the kingdom, and we got a look at its face. This is the year when we were finally forced to acknowledge what we have exiled…Our stories are cracking: the things we have pretended to believe about the world have turned out not to be true. And the serpent has a lot more damage to do yet…
What Kingsnorth is calling “the year of the snake” I’m calling the Dionysian Moment. The snakes – or the dogs, if you prefer – have heard the news. It’s open hunting season on all of America’s favorite scapegoats, and you don’t need a license.
In the story of the Lindworm, who saves the realm? Neither the King nor the Queen nor a macho hero. The worm (or dragon) demands to be wed before his royal younger brother can be married. Several noble maidens are offered as brides, but the worm eats them all. Finally, a shepherd’s daughter is given to the worm in marriage, seemingly yet another sacrifice, and what a sad ceremony they have. But the crone – that Great Mother again – has trained her, and she arrives wearing ten dresses in layers and carrying a curious collection of milk, lye and a whip.
In the bedroom, the worm tells her to remove her dress, but she insists he shed a skin for each dress she takes off. Eventually, nine Lindworm skins are lying on the floor, each covered with a dress. Nothing is left of him but an ugly mass of flesh. Then the girl seizes the whip, dips it in the lye, and whips him repeatedly. When he is finally cleansed she bathes him in the fresh milk, drags him onto the bed and embraces him and they fall asleep.
Next morning, the King and his courtiers enter the room, expecting to see the usual carnage. Instead, they discover the girl, fresh and rosy. Beside her lies not the Lindworm, but a handsome prince. They marry a second time, in a much grander fashion, a real celebration, and the younger brother also finds a royal bride. The Realm has been restored. Kingsnorth writes:
It is a young woman from the margin of the woods, who brings new weapons, and new cunning, into the court, and does the job which the owners of the kingdom had no idea how to do. But she does not kill the serpent. Instead, she reveals its true nature, and in doing so she changes it and everything around it. She forces the court to confront its past, and as a result, the serpent is enfolded again back into the kingdom.
A young woman.
What needs to be folded back into our kingdom? How many worms will crawl out from the sewers and shadows knowing they have permission to speak – and act out – the violence that the myth of American innocence refuses to acknowledge? How many demagogues need to arise before we listen to what they are saying? How many times do they need to up the ante until, exhausted, defenses down, we finally welcome them in, call upon the wisdom of the young and the feminine, offer to remove our own skins and submit to the inevitable chemical washing that might just trump the hatred?