June 23, 2010

In search of Dionysos. Reassessing a Dionysian context in early Rome

This is the title of a recent dissertation by Carina Håkansson which can be downloaded here. The abstract:
In the present study the possibility of an early appearance of the god Dionysos and his sphere in archaic Rome, in the decades around 500 BC, will be examined.

In early scholarship, rooted in the 19th century, the phenomenon of Dionysian ecstatic rites, cults, and satyr-plays in Roman society was denied. According to that view and the subsequent tradition in religious studies, such cultic activities were not present in Rome. Furthermore, due to Christian presuppositions, religion could scarcely be connected with sexual activities and bawdy behaviour, and as this is one fundamental quality in Dionysian cultic activities, it was reason enough for neglect and rejection of the thought of Dionysian cult as religion proper, on the whole. These preconceptions have long prevailed and formed the foundation for research in Roman religious studies. Scholars in various disciplines now challenge these ideas.

The theoretical framework in this multidisciplinary study focuses on an intercontextual methodology and will have the approach of a case study. The starting point is thus to make a reassessment of the evidence at hand. The importance of the iconographic material is brought forward, beside the literary and epigraphic sources. Finds from the Greek and Etruscan areas supply a comparative perspective since Rome hardly can be seen as an isolated entity. It is suggested that ideas and values travelled rather freely in the area. Parallel Dionysian phenomena are known in the cultural spheres influencing Rome. Dionysos’ visual manifestations are in focus as well as Dionysos’ possible revelation in early Rome and plausible relation to the god Liber. Moreover, the diverse aspects of the satyrs as part of the Dionysian sphere are treated and an attempt is made to explain the satyr in a religious context. Liminality is a central feature when satyrs are concerned, and their function as a symbol of inversion of order is considered. Arguments are given for a strong connection between ritual and performance, thus indicating a cultic origin of performances in Rome, and for an early appearance of Dionysos and his thiasos.


  1. Nice you mention. I began reading the other day (was mentioned elsewhere, Archeology in Europe probably) but haven't finished yet.

    It's interesting to notice that the Christian Church did not only persecute gladiatorial plays but every other sign of Ta Theia, including theater.

    It's potentially an interesting potential link with the "witches' religion" that came to light in Early Modernity under inquisitorial persecutions in the Western Europe.

  2. Studying Greco-Roman religion is like studying a dead language that has left written records: there are ancient written records and artifacts concerning Greco-Roman religion, but no living practiser to touch and feel it and grasp it, it is just unreachable... forever.

  3. I am of course considering practisers of neo-Greco-Roman religious movements as - inevitably - very bad copies of the real thing. Unless we have a direct connection to the ancient Greco-Roman world (which we cannot have without a time machine), we cannot grasp their religion and culture.

  4. From the wiki page:


    "In intoxication, physical or spiritual, the initiate recovers an intensity of feeling which prudence had destroyed; he finds the world full of delight and beauty, and his imagination is suddenly liberated from the prison of everyday preoccupations. The Bacchic ritual produced what was called 'enthusiasm', which means etymologically having the god enter the worshipper, who believed that he became one with the god." (Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy).

  5. This supports a theory in which Italic languages and associated cultural markers arrive as a single package on the Italian Peninsula close to time to the legendary date for the founding of Rome by Romulus in the Iron Age.

    If saytr symbolism is part of the Italic cultural package, it was likely part of the Celtic cultural package as well, as the Italic and Celtic languages are two of the most closely related in the Indo-European family and cultural traces clearly associated with Italic and Celtic cultures appear at around the same time in Europe.

    This suggests the use of saytr symbolism as one way to classify the culture sphere to which non-literate cultures belonged (as the Etruscan case indicates, some societies, however, borrowed much of the culture but not the associated languages -- religion changes more easily than language).

    In particular, IRRC, there are very ancient and early traces of saytr like symbolism and artifacts in the British Isles. Date those traces and you date that appearance of the influence of that cultural sphere in Britain, and you link that cultural sphere all the way back to the Aegean and Italian branches of that cultural sphere.


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