All That We Are

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dionysus-birthing-AltamuraMemory, the Immortal Heart, and the Sea

“I am a son of Earth and starry sky. I am parched with thirst and am dying; but quickly grant me cold water from the Lake of Memory to drink.” — (Fritz Graf and Sarah Iles Johnston, Ritual Texts for the Afterlife: Orpheus and the Bacchic Gold Tablets)

In the Orphic tradition, water can sustain memory, or wash it away. We might also infer that the moisture in a person was understood to support, in some way, the ability to remember, or the immortality of the soul. When torn away from the body, the part of you that remembers needs something more than dry air to sustain itself. That part of you, the Ancient Greeks believed, lived in your heart.

Clement, Exhortation to the Greeks 2. 15 (trans. Butterworth) (Greek Christian rhetoric C2nd A.D.) : 
“[The early Christian writer Clement describes the mythos of the Orphic and Samothrakian Mysteries:] The [Orphic] Mysteries (Mysteria) of Dionysos are of a perfectly savage characters. He was yet a child, and the Kouretes (Curetes) were dancing around him with warlike movement, when the Titanes stealthily drew near. First they beguiled him with childish toys, and then,–these very Titanes–tore him to pieces, though he was but an infant.


Now Athena made off with the heart of Dionysos, and received the name Pallas from its palpitating (pallein). But the Titanes, they who tore him to pieces, placed a cauldron upon a tripod, and casting the limbs of Dionysos into it first boiled them down; then, piercing them with spits, they ‘held them over Hephaistos [the fire].’

Interestingly, that heart, from which Dionysos regenerated, was made into a potion, according to some versions of the mythology, for Semele to drink. In other myths, Zeus ate the heart of Zagreus before lying with Semele. The blood of that heart, then, joined with his own humors, and became the seed with which Semele was impregnated. Humors, of course, are the waters of the body.

Nonnus, Dionysiaca 24. 43 ff : 
“[The Indian river Hydaspes, set on fire by Dionysos, cries out for mercy:] ‘The stream you have crossed is no stranger to your name for I have washed another Dionysos in my bath, with the same name as the younger Bromios, when Kronion [Zeus] entrusted Zagreos to the care of my nursing Nymphai; why, you have the whole shape of Zagreus. Grant this favour then, although so long after, to him from whom you are sprung; for you came from the heart of that first born Dionysos, so celebrated.’”

The water remembers.  

If you want to define immortality as being eternally remembered, or better still, the ability to eternally remember yourself, then the waters of memory, perhaps all water, is tied up with immortality. Water, the Sea, ruled by the Moon, or the unconscious mind, represents the unconscious, imperishable aspect of our being which remembers unconsciously, all of the things we have ever done, or will ever do.

Blood partakes of that water. Is it so surprising that rituals, in the Greek Magical Papyri, which call for blood, speak of the circumstances of death? The blood, which is the water of the heart, remembers those circumstances. Wine, which shares its likeness, also shares the dual quality of creating, “memorable occasions,” or helping us to, “forget.” Blood, wine and water are one in the domain of the Sea.



Life, Breath and Air

Breath is life. The Greek word, “Pneuma,” meant not only breath, to the ancient Greeks, but was evidence to life. Similarly, “Psukhei,” from which we derive the modern word, “Psyche,” was considered to be the vital principle (i.e., life itself), making these two words synonyms. Psuchei also meant, “spirit,” and the word, “Barupsukhos” means something like, “dispirited,” “dejected,” or maybe even “cowardly.”

Whereas the water represents eternal memory, even the immortal soul, Air, to the Ancient Greeks, especially breath, was tied up in the animal soul, or a person’s gusto.


00s-skeletonEarth and Bone

After both breath and moisture have completely departed, all that is left is dust and bone, and those rightly belong to the Earth. The Earth, the land, stone, or bones, can symbolically represent our physical legacy. It is the stuff which we indelibly leave behind after we die, be it hotdogs and coke-caps, a stone monument, or even an intellectual legacy which permanently endures in one form or another.

This is yet another way to think of the Land, Sky and Sea, ruled by the Three Great Kings, but also, it forms the foundation for the devotional ritual which I have promised Hermes I will write. When we think about our vows, our pledges, or what of ourselves we give to those we love, or our deities (however those two things intersect for you .. I know that Hermes is firmly inside of the “people I love” circle, with nothing of him outside of it.), we need to think of what we are, and what we have, in the first place, to give.



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