February 19, 2014

I shall set free my hair and wear a fawn skin

This is my piece which appeared in Crossing the River: An Anthology In Honor of Sacred Journeys. I wanted to give it a while after the book came out before I published it here, but here it is at last.

This is the dead time, the mad time, the empty time, the parched time. The time when my own mind turns against me, and all I want a deep dark cave with a trickle from one of the great rivers at the back of it, or the sweet release of shedding everything of the daily world to run wild in the night.

In Greece, the dead time, the time when nothing grows and Persephone reigns beside her husband in Erebos, is the summer. Grain is planted when the autumn rains begin, and harvested in the spring when the rising heat turns the barley heads to gold. The idea of her time in the Underworld being winter didn't come about until people in more northerly climes began telling the story, because of course for them, winter was the dead time.

I grew up in Florida, where summers were either hot and very dry, with wildfires and smoke and the parching sun; or hot and wet, with mosquitoes, sometimes disease-bearing, breeding in the stinking standing water, and hurricanes. As a child, of course, either sort of summer just meant not going to school and splashing under the sprinkler, in somebody's pool, or in the ocean. The only difference was how much sunscreen versus how much bug repellent, how much smoke versus how much wind.

But as I got older, summers got worse and worse.

I have bipolar disorder. High school was when it started getting serious, although I wouldn't be diagnosed until college. And that's when summers started to get bad. I spent as much time as possible hiding from the sun, staying in the air conditioning, swimming only at night. And year by year, it got worse, until I spent five or six months a year desperately depressed, feeling stretched thin and dried out. (In Florida, summer runs May through October.)

Somewhere in there, as I become more deeply involved in the worship of Hekate, I discovered that summer was the time when nothing grew in Greece… and suddenly, things made much more sense to me. I had never even put it together before, that summers were so bad, that the heat and the light were doing this to me, that this happened every year. August was always the worst, when it got so bad that everything had an unreal, dream-like quality, a play watched in a cloudy mirror, everything at two removes and out of reach.

As I came to terms with my bipolar, I also began to worship Dionysos as god of divine madness. It helped me come to terms with it, not only that it would always be a part of my life, but that I needed to treat it. Divine madness, I came to learn, must be sacred in the most etymologically literal sense: it must be set aside, it must be something taken out of the daily world, like the space within a Circle. I could not live there all the time, and I could not let it rule my life, not if I had ways to control it.

I moved away from Florida, to Seattle, where summer retreated to less time and less heat, and I could set aside the madness more cleanly. There's more light, and my sleep cycle flips around almost completely, and for days on end I curl up in my light-blocked, air-conditioned bedroom, leaving it only when I must. But those days are fewer, and the span in which they happen is narrower.

In the dog days of summer comes Hekate's time, and then sometimes I spend days in a light trance, where everything has more meaning, and every choice leaves ripples. I walk her white roads under the sun, and her silver roads under the moon, and her secret roads when the moon shines not at all, and while all of that is often true in my service to her, August is when I am most aware of it, that I am hers.

But Dionysos remains, and as I study him more, I understand better his connection to Persephone and the seasonal cycle, and I make ritual sense of my disorder. And the journey he sets me on, that he invites me to join him on, is very different.

Dionysos has always been connected to Persephone, although today, as most people reduce the myths and the old stories to those found in Hamilton and Bullfinch, we have lost much of that connection. It's still there, though, if you go back to original sources.

Once, there were two Dionysoi, and the elder was called Zagreus or Euboleos.

Conceived when Zeus visited Persephone before her marriage in the form of a mighty serpent, Zagreus was set upon Zeus' high throne with thunderbolts for playthings and weapons. The Titans (urged on by Hera in her jealousy) stole in upon him and dismembered him with knives, though he fought valiantly. Athene carried his heart to Zeus, who made from it a liqueur and gave it to Semele, princess of Thebes, who became pregnant with the next incarnation of Dionysos, and was inspired by Hera to beg a boon of Zeus, and that boon was to see him in his true form and glory. She died of it, and Zeus rescued the demi-divine fetus of Dionysos and sewed it into his own thigh, to give birth to him yet a third time, now fully a god.

Or else the Dionysoi were called Dimetor, of two mothers, and their births were separate and unrelated, and Zagreus, the elder, still died, and his deeds were attributed to the younger, and they were worshipped as one.

Or perhaps there was only one Dionysos, born of Zeus and Semele, raised by the nymphs on Mount Nysa or Euboia or Naxos or Sparta, and he was Persephone's brother, and retrieved Semele from Persephone's underworld. He made Semele immortal, and named her Thyone, and set her amongst the stars, from which she came down to join him in his revels, a goddess of madness and joy. Or perhaps it was his wife Ariadne whom he rescued. Or both.

Or maybe Zagreus who became Dionysos was a chthonic god, and was the son of Hades and Persephone, and his rites and gifts came to mortals from under the earth, where Persephone was called the Mother of the Vine.

But always, always, Dionysos, elder or younger or only, is the son or the brother of Persephone, and always he visits her. Because madness, even divine madness, without transformation, is a trap, and journey with no ending, only endless whirling to the beat of drum and flute. But with Persephone's transformation and rebirth, the madness becomes a journey.

The journey through madness, which shucks off the burdens of everyday life and frees us (for Dionysos is called Eleuthereus, the Liberator) is a journey of dark as well as of light, and we may walk through Tartarus as easily as Elysium. While we journey, led by Dionysos Agyieus, Dionysos of the Ways, the path leads down as well as up, and we walk in the keeping of Persephone Chthonia, who knows the fear we feel when we begin to venture from daylight's paths, for that fear is a fear of oneself. If you do not know yourself when you drink the wine and pound the drum, you will come to know yourself as you travel down, and Persephone has sympathy with that. Through Persephone comes all transformation and all rebirth, as Dionysos himself was reborn, and so through the transformation of madness and the rebirth of recovery, she touches us and holds us.

Sacred madness can take us beyond trance and ritual into a place where meaning ends, and there is only being, only doing. Freed from the chains of the rational, we revel, unafraid of ourselves. We dance in the wilderness, where there are no roads, making our own roads where none can follow without madness.

To descend into madness without Dionysos of the Mysteries, madness that is not sacred, is to be lost, to be trapped on an annular path that never reaches Persephone, to be held back from the transformation and rebirth that she brings. That is the madness that comes from my body and my brain: a cage and a chain, not freedom. It is not set aside from my life, but infects it, as mold infects grapes, spoiling them for the pressing, so that I can take no joy from my life. The madness of my body becomes something to be endured and waited out, a stopping, not a journey, and from that place I call out to Dionysos for aid and release, to Persephone for transformation, to Hekate to light my way when I can see no road out. It is a slow heedless meandering off the paths of the known, away from what is loved, without noticing the growing errancy until it is too late, and I am lost, with no notion of where I am and no map to get home. If I am lucky, I can still hear the voices of my loved ones calling me home, of my gods telling me the way, and if I listen to them and trust them, and do as they say, I may yet come safely back. Or I may wander in the unrelieved and meaningless fog indefinitely, stagnating in my own mires, for years on end. I have gotten better at listening, better at noticing when my footsteps wander unintended. And sometimes, just sometimes, I can choose to dance in that place of concealing mists and brackish waters, and by doing so forge paths that bring me back closer to myself.

The sacred madness is a journey I take of my own will, down into the depths and up onto the heights. This madness is one that is chosen, a dance I must mean to begin, a deliberate step off the constrained paths of the familiar and the mundane I must take in order to travel the ways that do not exist until I have danced them. Through wine and song and dance I travel, moving through the madness as it moves through me, allowing it to change me, to rebirth me in a way that brings me back to my life fresh and renewed, able to take up my burdens again, remembering how to be free of the fear of myself. Every step, every note, every beat, every sip changes me a little more, becomes a drop in the rising tide of transformation, until it becomes a vast wave in which I do not drown, but on which I am lifted and by which I am purified. Through Persephone the Transformer I am reborn, and through Dionysos Soterios, the Savior who brings us recovery, I am returned to myself, my journey complete.

Returning to myself, I find that I am washed clean of the anxieties and fears that plagued me. They'll muddy me up again, soon enough. This journey was not to change them, but to change me. Being clean and free of them for this small time, I can choose how and when to pick them up again, how to arrange them in the pack on my back so they balance better and chafe less, as this journey ends and I return to my mundane journey, much refreshed. And so the cycle begins again, mundane world, madness and transformation and rebirth and return (a journey even the god has made), and then back to the mundane. But every one of those small cycles moves me further along the journey of finding balance with my bipolar disorder, making peace with it, as I must do again and again, as it, too, shifts and changes and transforms.