“When the god is alone with the females the sexuality is not overt but latent, if we grant that the swirling dances of young and lovely superhuman women have sexual overtones. When the satyrs too are in the scene they show by their arousal and their behavior that they are not indifferent to their companions. By the second quarter of the fifth century t hey are usually no longer shown with erections and are generally less enthusiastically indecent in their actions. Perhaps it is worth remarking on what we all take for granted–there are only male satyrs. Even a detumescent satyr next to a woman or nymph embodies male sexuality.
The god, meanwhile, is never shown in art as involved in the satyrs’ sexual shenanigans. He may dance, he may drink, but he is never paired with or shown taking any interest in any of the female companions of his rout. He is not shown with an erection, but then the gods almost never are, except for a single goat-headed Pan chasing a shepherd boy and the semi-iconic pillars of Hermes we call herms, which are shown with phalli at the right height in the archaic and early classical periods.* What has not been remarked, as far as I know, is that before the change to a preference for a beardless Dionysus, the god’s member is rarely shown, even at rest, though examples can be found…[even] when he wears a shorter chiton his lions remain hidden.
But even though Dionysus, like all Greek gods, could be violent and dangerous, one suspects that the more characteristic images for the Greeks were the terrified Dionysus who takes refuge in the bosom of Thetis and the cowardly, if comic, figure who ‘gilds’ his elegant Ionic gown when confronted with the Hound of Hell in Aristophanes’ Frogs.
Two images may provide us with an appropriate conclusion: one is that of the embodiment of the epicene style of modern pop culture, the male leader of the pop group, who for all the violence of music, gestures, and words is neither traditionally masculine nor yet effeminate. To the established order he may be a threat but not to the adoring young, especially the young women. There is a fascination but also a certain horror about such a figure, who cannot be placed and straddles or crosses boundaries. The other image is that Dionysus in the Bacchae, who draws Pentheus over a boundary as the king is lead to make himself in to a bakkhe. In that play is the there not some of this chilling fascination about Dionysus, too, whose gender puzzles Pentheus and who moves quietly between the raucous world of the male and the female?”
*’…The aesthetic preference for the small penis must also have been a factor. The large penis and thus the phallus were comic and grotesque, inappropriate for beautiful and powerful gods….’
“Normally, in ritual, Dionysus as a god of communality draws women out of the household, inspiring them with a temporary, controlled resistance to public gender division. In this way he counters the two antithetical threats to the polis — offsetting excessive adherence to the household by bringing the women out from the their homes, and gender confusion by bringing them out for only a temporary, controlled period. Because he is honored by the while polis, Dionysus both presents a latent threat to the household and, if deprived of that honor, will destroy the gender division which the polis is based. Indeed, fi Dionysus is resisted, both threats are activated. Female adherence to the household is violently revised by a frenzy in which women leave their homes and even destroy their families. And this frenzy also endangers male control of the public sphere….”
“I will not, however, want to claim that maenadic omophagy is even a mythic of imaginative example of Dionsysiac sacramentalism, for the very reason that it is not sacrifice at all. Instead, it constitutes the inversion of normal sacrificial procedure, in which a domesticated (and not wild) animal is ritually selected (and not merely chanced upon), killed, systematically cut up (and not dismembered by force), and eaten cooked (and not raw). Maenadic sparagamos followed by omophagy thus stands in complete contradistinction to ordinary sacrifice and can thus be viewed as a kind of inverted character myth, setting for the way in which sacrifice should not take place, much as the account of the dismemberment of the young Dionysus by the Titans invert the original, paradigmatic division of the sacrificial victim by (another Titan) Prometheus.
Raw meat in these instances is to be associated with highly marginal, unusual, and infrequent situations of ritual exception and solution. One may compare the Hephaestia on Lemnos, a time of dissolution and exception, in which all fire is extinguished for nine days until new fire is brought from Delos.* During the exceptional period sacrifices continue to be performed without fire; there is thus no normal food (consumption of raw meat is actually not attested). So also in the case of maenadic sacrifice there is an infrequent (“trietetric,” i.e., every other year), periodic (though short-lived) ritual and commemorative regression to an aboriginal period in cultural history, with the mythical worshipers of Dionysus “regressively transformed into bestial predators.”
I suspect that if you asked a Theban of Delphic maenad if they performed sparagmos during their oreibasiai, the answer would have been, ‘No, but we used to do so. It’s just we don’t do that anymore. Other people, those people,” they might have said, “up there [Thracians, perhaps], still do it.” (The same is often said by one culture of another culture about cannibalism[…].)
*Philostratus Heroicus 67.7 (de Lannoy 1977): during the exceptional nine-day period ‘fid the ship brining new fire from Delos arrives before the funerary sacrifice are over, it may not be brought to anchor on Lemnos.’ Cf. Burkert 1983, 190-96, especially on the Dionysiac elements with further bibliography: ‘Sacrifice was clearly a part of the exceptional period at Lemnos, sacrifice without fire; so that one could eat at most only raw pieces of meat, burying the rest or throwing it intot he sea’ (193).
“Pelops was the son of Tantalos, said to be a child of Father Zeus and a favorite of the gods; such a favourite that they even invited him to their divine banquets of ambrosia and nectar and when eh invited them back, accepted. This was altogether too much for his sanity. He was beside himself with self-importance, promising his human friends that next time he was invited to Mount Olympos he would put aside a little of the gods’ food and drink and bring it back for them to taste, and asking them meanwhile to find hi the choicest foods and wines in Greece to set before the gods. He knew, of course, that the gods never touch human food or wine. They like us to offer them a prime ram or bull and to pour on the ground a libation of he costliest wine, but not for them to consume, only to demonstrate our love and esteem, our sense of gratitude for what earth gives us, our willingness to sacrifice the best things we have in their honour.
So when the twelve Olympian gods came to diinner at [Tantalos’s] place in Arcadia — that made thirteen at the table, including the host — Tantalos did not expect them to eat any of the twenty or thirty courses he provided, nor to drink any of the choice wines from Thasos and Chios, Rhodes and Cos, and nearby Nemea. What he did expect them to do, as each delectable dish was brought in and placed on the table with its aroma wafting around the hall, as each superlative wine was opened and poured into the mixing-bowl and then both dishes and wine removed untouched, was to appreciate his very special, very expensive sacrifice. And they did. They smiled and laughed and sniffed the wonderful scents of the wines and powerful aromas drifting round the hall from every sort of meat and game and fish and vegetable and herb. But [Tantalos’s] disastrous mistake was the piece de resistance. It was a huge casserole and Tantalos in his blind pride dared to set the gods a test. Could any of them, he asked, lifting the lid himself with a flourish so that the savour rose up in a rush with the steam, tell him what was in the casserole? A dreadful silence followed, but Tantalos thought it was only because they were flummoxed. He took a juicy piece of meat out of the pot and held it up for them to see. He even bit into it and chewed it with relish.”
See also: The gods don’t need your worship [essay]