Sunday, 27 January 2008


Athenian girl being pushed on a swing
Now it is the day of the Festival of the Vintage and we are in a small town a few miles outside Athens. (We’re back in Ancient Greece, later in the same year of 393 A.H. (After Homer). Aristophanes’ Frogs was so well received at its first showing in the Lenaia festival that it was performed a second time, at the Great Dionysia.) Girls are being pushed on swings and libations poured to the shepherd Ikarios, first to receive the gift of wine. Nearby we hear a young boy who is standing holding his grandmother’s hand and watching his sister being pushed on a swing. “Yeya, when was the first Festival of the Vintage?” he asks the benevolent old woman. “That was when King Aristaeus (“The Best”) came back to his kingdom on Ceos from the Oracle at Delphi having consulted his father Apollo. He came back and found the three herdsman from Attica who had killed Ikarios, and he brought them to justice, then he raised a shrine to Ikarios to honour him for sharing the gift of wine, and then he organised the first Festival of the Vintage.” “When will I taste wine, Yeya?” “Today, little one!” “But Yeya, who was King Aristaeus?” “Well, little one, they say his mother was a water nymph called Cyrene. But when he was just a little child, younger even than you, Aristaeus was given into the care of a group of myrtle nymphs and he was fed on nectar and ambrosia by Mother Earth. These fairies of the myrtle bushes taught young Aristaeus useful arts such as how to make cheese from milk, to keep bees and to cultivate the olive, but winemaking was still unknown.”
“And, why did the three herdsman kill Ikarios?”
Dionysos and Ikarios

“Well, Ikarios received from Dionysos the wonderful gift of wine. But it has to be used sensibly. Moderation in all things. Ikarios used to ride around the countryside of Attica carrying wine skins to share the drink with the people, and teach them the Dionysian dances. But this was before people had learnt to mix neat wine with water, and there were some shepherds who drank much too much, which is never a good thing, little one. Some friends of these drunken shepherds met them and did not understand what was happening, and thought they had been poisoned, and attacked Ikarios who, unfortunately, died as a result. Don’t act rashly because appearances can be deceptive. When the drunken shepherds sobered up the killers realised what they had done, and they buried the body under a certain pine tree and left the scene of the crime hoping not to be found out. But no crimes go hidden from the eyes of the Furies, as you shall hear in a moment. Seeing what had happened to his friend, Dionysos arranged with Zeus for the image of Ikarios to be set into the stars as Bo├Âtes, the Ideal Shepherd, and put Ikarios’ daughter Erigone next to him as Virgo, and raised their dog Maira into the stars also as Canis Minor, honouring her for having found the place where the shepherd was buried. Ikarios was reborn at the same time at the foot of the pine tree as a vine that wound its way up around the trees' trunk in true Dionysian fashion.”
“Oh. But why did Dionysos chose to give the gift of wine to Ikarios?”
“Well, as I said before, King Aristaeus shared with people the arts he had learnt from the myrtle nymphs, but these didn’t include making wine. Aristaeus was initiated into the Mysteries of Chiron the wise centaur in his mountain cave. Whether it was because of the wisdom he learnt from Chiron, or because his father was an immortal, when he grew to manhood Aristaeus became king of the island of Ceos. He married Autonoe and together they had a daughter called Macris, a nymph like her grandmother.”
“Kala! Well done little one, that’s right. So, when Macris was old enough she joined a group of nymphs called the Hyades, and they were to receive an amazing child into their care, for the great god Dionysos had decided to have an incarnation in Greece.”

“The plant realm rejoiced when this child was born, and he was brought up in a cave by these nurses, and fed on honey. As the child grew up along came a jolly fellow with more than a little horse blood in his veins, who became Dionysos' mentor. His name was Silenus and he rode on a mule. His chops were often bespattered with the juice of myrtles and others of the berries of the hedgerow upon which he loved to feast.

“Before long Dionysos decided it was time to present the gift of wine to mortals, and so he waited to meet a worthy recipient. One day he was walking in the countryside of Attica outside Athens when he met the shepherd called Ikarios out looking after his sheep and goats. The shepherd was very friendly and hospitable, and gave Dionysos gifts of many kinds - milk, honey, different types of fruit. Aha, thought Dionysos, here’s just the sort of fellow who would really appreciate my gift. So Dionysos thanked him warmly and then told him that he had a gift of his own by which to reciprocate the shepherd's generosity. So don’t forget, Dionysos loves the countryside with its hillsides covered with thyme echoing to the rattle of the bells of the flocks and the din of the cicadas as much as he loves the city with its theatres dinner parties, and he likes honest country folk from the hills as much as sophisticated poets from in town. So, this is when Dionysos gave Ikarios a cup of wine, and the good shepherd was sent into rapture as the exquisite taste flowed over his tongue. Dionysos shared also the art of making this beverage, even the cultivation of the vine, and from this time on Ikarios would ride around the hills of Greece in his cart carrying wineskins and introducing the populace to this wonderful drink and to the winemaking process he had also learnt, together with the sacred ceremonies and festivals that went with it.”
“So Ikarios did all the hard work then, while Dionysos was relaxing on the cloud-pillows up in Olympus?”
“Heavens, don’t say such a thing! No, Dionysos went all the way to India and back via Egypt as well, spreading the arts of vine growing and winemaking. He picked up quite a following as he travelled. As well as his mentor Silenus who still travelled with him on his mule there was also the goat-legged Aegipan, "Goat Pan" and a group of satyrs, and also serpent-bearing women called Maenads who picked up in India the idea of clashing little cymbals as they followed behind the god. Even though the closest thing this band had to a weapon was the Dionysian staff wound with ivy or vine and topped with a pine-cone, the grape conquered all India, and then they turned for home, Dionysos leading the band of revellers in a chariot drawn by two leopards, followed by the serpent bearers, the satyrs, Silenus and the rest of the band. The train stopped a while in Persia where Dionysos grew his beard long and learned to wear it in the pointed Persian style. Then the went to Egypt and the maenads added the tambourine to their list of instruments. They almost got into trouble in Egypt when they got thirsty in the desert, but a ram appeared and lead them to the river in Thebes.”
“Where is India, Yeya?”
“Oh, it’s a long, long, long way away, little one.”
“But not if you are a god, though!”
“Well, maybe so, but it wasn’t plain sailing for Dionysos either. Shortly after he had arrived back in the Mediterranean he was wandering down on a beach when a band of pirates captured him and sailed off intending to sell him as a slave, not realizing he was a god. We must be hospitable to strangers, as Ikarios was, but also a little wary, especially little ones like you. But the story also shows how crime doesn’t pay. Dionysos made wild flute music sound in the air and wine flow on the deck, and he made a vine wind up around the mast and ivy twine into the rigging, and he made a roaring lion appear on the deck, causing the pirates to jump ship realising in mid leap that he was, after all, a god, and as they hit the water Dionysos felt compassion and turned them into dolphins so that at least they would not drown. Kidnapping someone to sell them as a slave is one of the most horrible crimes, but we may even feel some compassion for the worst of criminals, little one. Dionysos then took this ship with a vine wound around the mast as his own, and sailed to the island of Naxos.”
“I’ve seen a statue of him there!”
“Yes you have, that’s right. You were there with your father last autumn. And can you remember what happened when Dionysos arrived on Naxos?”
The little boy contorted his face in concentration.
“I can’t remember.”
“Well, a princess from Crete was wandering alone on a beach. Dionysos decided to approach her. At first she just heard the music in the woods inland, the flutes, cymbals and tambourines. She gazed into the dappled shade of the woodland and began to feel the presence of the arriving god. Then the foliage next to the beach began to shudder and suddenly there appeared the young wine god, ivy wreathing his temples, standing on the chariot drawn by the two leopards with the distinctive train of revellers following behind. Dionysos asked her to marry him, but she said she was already married. Don’t you know, said Dionysos, that a lot of mortals have two spouses, one from the land of mortals, and one from the landing of the Shining Ones?
“So she spoke to her family and everyone agreed it would do the island no harm to have this kind of affiliation with a god. And that is why we too, in Athens, have a special day every year when the wife of the Holy King of the city gets married to Dionysos as a second husband.”

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