You recently published what is, I believe, your fifth book, Ecstatic. Can you tell us a little about it?
Ecstatic is the fifth book I’ve published through Nysa Press. Prior to that I edited a number of devotional anthologies for Bibliotheca Alexandrina and back around 2005 I released a collection of essays called A Temple of Words, which is something of a collector’s item since only about 150 copies were ever made and it’s been out of print for a while now.
Ecstatic is different from all the stuff I’ve done previously, however, since it’s focused entirely on the god Dionysos. I realized that my 20th anniversary with him was coming up and I wanted to celebrate that in a special way. So I gathered together everything I’d ever written about him – essays, poetry, hymns, rituals, short stories and lots of other stuff as well – and when all was said and done I had almost 600 pages worth of material. Honestly I had no idea that I’d been so prolific until I started compiling the book. I hadn’t read some of this stuff for a decade or longer, and neither had anyone else since a few of the pieces had originally seen publication in small newsletters or local magazines, been posted to now-defunct e-mail groups or were offerings to online temples that had closed down years ago. Of course not everything in the book is recycled material – I wrote about a quarter of it in the months leading up to publication so there’s stuff that no one else has ever set eyes on. The explanation of the Dionysian divination system, for instance. I’ve talked a lot about this over the years but I’ve never really shared the specifics with anyone else. However you’ll be able to read a full account of how it works with instructions on how to create your own leaves in Ecstatic!
You have been a priest of Dionysos for decades now. Can you share a little about what drew you to that God and how you got started on this path?
Although I’ve been passionately devoted to Dionysos since my early teens I wouldn’t say that I’ve served him in anything like a priestly capacity for more than six or seven years. Even then that’s kind of stretching things since I dragged my feet a bit and was really uncomfortable with the implications of that title and had to put my life in order before I could really heed his call and do the work he’s asked of me.
As for what initially drew me to him? Gods, it’s difficult to think back that far, to a time when I didn’t know him and didn’t feel this intense love for him. I mean I had this powerful attraction to Dionysos even before I fully figured out who he was. I spent a couple years exploring a bunch of different religions and mythological figures who bore certain similarities to Dionysos, and before that, in adolescence, I had a series of dreams and visionary encounters which had a strong impact on me, even though it’d be years until I was able to trace them back to their proper source. So really, he’s been with me for as long as I can remember and all of my most important memories from high school on have been intertwined with Dionysos.
Where did that longing come from? What about him does it for me? Well, a couple of the pieces in the collection deal with that, but honestly it’s kind of like trying to explain why you like certain foods but not others or how come sex is so much fun. It just is! And for me everything that I love about life, about being alive, is tied up with my god. He stirs up the life-force within us, makes everything more intense and animated. When he’s around colors are sharper, sensations are stronger, everything is full of meaning and all the fears, doubts, inhibitions and mental junk falls by the wayside. It’s not always pleasant, this Dionysian abundance: emotions in particular get heightened to an almost unbearable level. But even then you ache to feel more, to experience everything that life has in store for you.
What exactly do you do in your worship of Dionysos? Tell us a little about your practice.
Well, to begin with, I keep a series of festivals in his honor – about 25 or so dispersed throughout the year. Some of these I celebrate with my partner, while others are kept solely between him and me. Very infrequently we’ll include others in our revels, though I’ve also helped lead rituals attended by something along the lines of a hundred and fifty people. You encounter very different sides of him depending on how many people you worship with. Aside from that I’ve got two holy days set aside for him each month, one that is devoted purely to devotional activities and one on which I do trance-possession oracular work with him on behalf of the community. There’s also a lot of spontaneous ritual whenever I feel moved to thank him or draw closer to him, and lots of small devotional activities that I wouldn’t necessarily consider actual ritual. For instance I wear a ring as a token of my priesthood and relationship with him; every time that I put that on I stop and think about him, what he means to me, what he wants of me, and what I need to do to live the Dionysian life to the fullest. Similarly I never drink a drop of alcohol without first saying a brief prayer and thinking about him throughout. Excluding the ecstatic and possession stuff I do with Dionysos, most of my worship routine is fairly standard. Processions, offerings, libations, prayers, dancing, spending time communing with the god, etc. Different thematic activities are added on the various festival dates, but I doubt you really want a run-down on all the stuff I do. A lot of it got covered in the book, anyway.
How does this ancient God relate to the modern era?
Well, Dionysos is paradoxical in the extreme. While he is unquestionably one of the oldest gods known to humanity – there’s a theory that traces civilization back to the cultivation of the vine – he’s also an intensely modern god, continually reborn and relevant for each successive age. In fact pretty much from the Mycenaean era on the poets and artists of every generation have felt compelled to extol his virtues. It’s especially amusing because a lot of the best Dionysian literature was actually produced by people who ostensibly considered themselves Christian. I mean Nonnos of Panopolis was a Bishop; Claudian, Ausonius, Dioscuros and other early Byzantine authors mixed praise of Dionysos with paeans to Christ; Dionysian imagery and portraiture can be found in cathedrals and illustrating missals; de Camões made him a protagonist in his epic on the Christianization of India and so on and so forth up to the present time where C. S. Lewis inserts him as a character in his Narnia books. It’s really quite astounding the vitality he’s had just since the decline of Classical Paganism – I mean, we’re not even talking about all the instances where there were outbursts of revived Dionysian worship. Not just stuff like Tarantism and Anasternaria and Sufism where there’s a certain affinity and perhaps even curious parallels but Dionysos isn’t directly invoked. No, I’m talking about councils condemning people for dressing up like satyrs and mainades and making offerings to Dionysos well into the 10th and 13th centuries. I was just reading about a Byzantine emperor who got himself in trouble for staging a Dionysian pageant – granted, that was largely because he had his actor buddy dress up like the Patriarch of Constantinople, complete with official regalia and sitting on the papal throne, and even worse the pseudo-Patriarch farted in the face of the emperor’s mother, whom he despised. But the apparent lapse into Dionysian worship added injury to insult and led to the emperor being deposed. Fascinating and little known stuff, even among scholarly circles. One of the books I plan to write at some point is a history of Dionysos from Late Antiquity up to Jim Morrison and beyond.
You founded the group Neos Alexandria, but have since moved away from it. Can readers of Ecstatic expect any information on Dionysos as he specifically relates to Alexandria and Hellenistic Egypt?
Oh, quite a bit actually. I didn’t stop being a Greco-Egyptian polytheist when I left Neos Alexandria. Even now, when other elements are a more dominant part of my spiritual make-up, a good deal of how I see the world and relate to the gods is undeniably Greco-Egyptian. And that is nowhere as manifest as it is with regard to Dionysos. I’m fascinated by his relationship with the Ptolemaic dynasty and how that influenced the popular conception of him for centuries to come. In fact, a lot of the stuff that we think of as quintessentially Dionysian really only comes to the surface during the Hellenistic era. You can find allusions to it before then, of course, especially if you know where to look – but other elements were more dominant or cultural factors lessened their expression. I really doubt that most people today would recognize the Dionysos of Classical Athens. Euripides’ play The Bakchai which has had such a huge impact on how we think of him – was written during his stay at the Makedonian court and reflects highly localized cultic conceptions which he emphasized to draw contrasts with the more familiar, tamer Athenian version of the god and his votaries. It’s that version of the god which the Ptolemies carried with them back into Egypt, his mythical homeland, and what happened after is a fascinating tale deserving its own book. About a fifth of the essays in Ecstatic deal with the Greco-Egyptian version of Dionysos in one way or another, and that’s about what you’ll find in the poetry and stories sections as well.
Where can readers get the book?
Initially just through Createspace.com – however, about a week later it’ll be up on Amazon and all of their affiliates, meaning that most online booksellers will be able to stock it. I’ve also talked with a couple different stores who have expressed interest in carrying it. If you want your local book store to have it – especially if it’s of a Pagan/Metaphysical nature – send them my information and I’ll make a deal with them!
Any other books/projects in the works? Weren’t you at one point going to write one about the Ptolemies and why you worship them? That’s a subject I would be very interested in hearing about!
Oh, bunches. As I mentioned I’d like to write a complete book – not just a collection of previously published material – on late survivals of Dionysian worship. I’ve also toyed with writing a Dionysian novel and a primer on local-focus polytheism. Then there’s the book on contemporary hero cultus for the Ptolemies, and I’ve also got a new anthology in the works of non-Dionysian material I’ve written since From the Satyr’s Mouth went to press. (A significant portion of that will include material on the Ptolemies: in fact, there’s so much of it that I’ve considered just hiving that off and doing a devotional anthology focused entirely on them.) And then there are the less practical ideas that may never see the light of day. However, all of that stuff is kind of going onto the back-burner since I really want to focus on promoting Ecstatic for the time being. I’d like to do some public readings, discussion groups, workshops, classes and related activities to help get the word out locally, and similar things for an online audience. So, I’m going to be a busy boy for the foreseeable future!
H. Jeremiah Lewis, perhaps better known by his religious name Sannion, is a writer and a passionate devotee of the god Dionysos. Everything else about him is subject to periodic change. He currently resides in Eugene, Oregon. You can find his blog and other Nysa Press books at http://thehouseofvines.com/. Ecstatic is available here.