Commentary on Hymn XI: To Antinous-Dionysus, Lover

Who but you is the Lover of all things, Antinous Dionysus?
Who but you has loved so many so intimately?
In mortal life you were the lover of Hadrian,
beloved of an emperor, and lover to your friends.
You have loved women, you who took Ariadne to be your bride;
you have loved men, you who boldly kept your promise to Prosymnus.
You have loved mortals, you who loved an emperor, a princess, a shepherd boy;
you have loved immortals, you who coupled with Aphrodite and Persephone.
Do you love any less the grape vine and the ivy
which you took for your own, or the leopard and the panther?
Did you not love even Pentheus and hope he would yield to your charms?
Shamelessly and without fear you have given and received the gift of Eros;
hopefully and without shame I praise you and pray you will share that gift with me.

Antinous is most famously the beloved of Hadrian; Dionysus is famously the lover of everyone. While he wedded Ariadne, there are numerous myths of his coupling with other mortals and with deities, as well. While Apollo has myths of passionate, emotional attachments to both men and women, Dionysus might fairly be described in the vernacular as Down to Fuck, although he also is reputed to be completely faithful to Ariadne.

The story of his encounter with Prosymnus is one of my favorite myths, for its combination of humor and pathos. While seeking a way into the Underworld in order to rescue his mother, and perhaps his bride as well, Dionysus encountered a young shepherd named Prosymnus who claimed to be able to show him an entrance. He offered the god this information in exchange for sexual favors. Dionysus promised to fulfill the bargain but pled haste; he would return to Prosymnus once he had carried out his rescue mission. Prosymnus accepted the terms and Dionysus went on his way.

Later, he did indeed seek out Prosymnus, only to find that the shepherd had died. (Was it an illness or an accident? Or had so much time passed in mortal reckoning that the young man had died of old age?) Dionysus, regretting the lost opportunity, went to Prosymnus’ grave and fulfilled his promise by inventing, and using, the first dildo. In my opinion, it is notable that a god would, even symbolically, bottom for a mortal.

Antinous Dionysus is a god without shame when it comes to Eros. I wished to celebrate that shamelessness and my feeling that he embodies the diversity and multiplicity of erotic experience, that it need not be limited to sexual experience or even attraction. Dionysus loves pleasure and the intensity of all the senses; he also lures both devotees and enemies with his erotic attractiveness. In The Bacchae he gives Pentheus a chance to respond as a devotee, a lover, a chance that Pentheus vehemently rejects. The young king’s downfall is his settled belief that what the maenads do must be shameful and his prurient desire to witness it without being involved. Dionysus always demands involvement and intimacy; it can be accepted as a blessing, or be resisted as an unwelcome fate, like the resistant Pentheus dying while dressed for the god’s rites.

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.