Commentary on Hymn VI: To Antinous-Dionysus

Come, Antinous Dionysus! Antinous Epiphanes, come!
Come crowned with ivy and bring surcease of sorrow.
Come shaking and stamping your thyrsus and bring the joy of dance.
Come with amphorai of wine, with sweet grapes sprouting
from your wild curls, and bring laughter, intoxication, and release into sleep.
Come let us see you, let us hear you, be near you,
let us get close enough to touch you, embrace you and kiss you,
taste the wine of your mouth and smell the perfume of your hair.
O Antinous Dionysus, you may be kindly, you may be cruel,
you may be severe, you may be mirthful, but what you never are
is distant, and in your intimate closeness is my ecstasy.

The Braschi Antinous, now in the Vatican

After Osiris, the god with whom Antinous was soonest syncretised was Dionysus. The Greeks had long identified their Dionysus with Egypt’s Osiris; a position which I confess I don’t understand, but I know far less about the historic cult of Osiris than I do about the cult of Dionysus.

I may have already told the story, on this blog, of how I came to read The Bacchae for the first time. I was ten or twelve years old, I think, when I acquired three Norton anthologies from the used book table at a bazaar (by which I mean not a market in a Middle Eastern culture, but a fund-raising sale by a church or other organizations, featuring donations and homemade candies and baked goods). One anthology was short stories, one poetry, and one drama. I don’t remember for certain anything else that I read in those anthologies, but The Bacchae was in the blue one, the drama collection. I knew of Dionysus from reading about Greek mythology, so I dived in.

I don’t remember how I felt the first time I read it. I do know that I read it more than once. Possibly this explains something about me, or possibly it doesn’t. Dionysus is beautiful, alluring, seemingly helpless at the beginning of the play; by its end, he has had quite literally bloody revenge on his mortal maternal relatives, who doubted that Semele his mother could have been beloved of a god. Imagine Jesus coming down from the cross to punish Nazarene villagers who didn’t believe his mother conceived him without sex and crucifying his cousin instead.

Nevertheless, Dionysus is a beautiful, beloved, and alluring god, and The Bacchae is closer to HBO than to the Gospels. Euripides perhaps had some issues with the god of the theatre, the god of ecstasy as Arthur Evans calls him in his book of the same title, the god who offered freedom especially to women from the restraints of society. Intimacy and ecstasy are the hallmarks of his presence; liberation from madness, from mental illness, and from too much sanity and civilization; freedom to embrace one’s emotional, sensual, even animal nature; equality between the sexes, due honor to goddesses as well as gods (as he is often associated with Cybele and other Great Mother goddesses), and opportunity to love and have sex with the partner of one’s choice, as he indulged with both gods and mortals, women and men (and we will come back to some of those stories in other hymns).

These are all qualities which Antinous shares. He is very frequently depicted wearing a garland of ivy or one of grape leaves and clusters, both attributes of Dionysus. The Braschi Antinous, which is pictured above and is usually identified as Antinous-Dionysus or Antinous as Osiris-Dionysus, shows him wearing the grape garland and carrying a thyrsus, the staff of Dionysus and his worshipers. The plant-like object on top of his head may represent a lotus.

In writing this hymn, I did not hesitate to call to Antinous as Dionysus and ask him to come. Dionysus is always portrayed as the god who comes from somewhere else, bringing a challenging joy and disruption to everyday life. Even so Antinous came to me unlooked for, unexpected, and brought joy, ecstasy, and intimacy along with him.

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