Drunk, the Bacchae rushed to the victims, skinning them with their bare hands, ripping their limbs off, and searching their internal organs. Their hands sticky with blood, they behead the unfortunate one who fell under the blows of sacred madness.
The Bacchanalians indeed represent, in the ancient Dionysian religion, a wild, extreme phenomenon. It is about getting drunk, taking part in nature’s orgy, and fully engaging in delirium and all its consequences.
It is in delirium that the metamorphosis can take place. There are several kinds of them.
The one of Harmony and Cadmos is spectacular. Snake scales gradually cover the body. First the feet, then the legs, then the hips, then the sex metamorphoses into sizzling, hideous snakes. Finally, the whole rest of the body is affected by this monstrous mutation.
The Dionysian religion is not a quiet one. Its followers are not immune to some degree of terror, of psychological or physical shock. But it is this metamorphosis that is the essential moment, after the wine of intoxication and the sharing of the members of the sacrificed victim.
Philostratus the Elder describes it this way: « Here are the choirs of the Bacchae, the stones dripping with wine, the grapes distilling the nectar, the clods of earth all shining with the brilliance of milk, here is the ivy with its creeping stem, the snakes raising their heads, the thyrsuses and the trees from which honey escapes drop by drop.
Behold this fir tree lying on the ground, its fall is the work of women violently agitated by Dionysus; by shaking it, the Bacchae made it fall with Pentheus whom they take for a lion; behold, they tear their prey, the aunts detach their hands, the mother drags her son by the hair (…)
Harmony and Cadmos are present. Already the lower extremities, from the thighs, are transformed into snakes, everything disappears under the scales from the feet to the hips; the metamorphosis spreads to the upper parts. Harmony and Cadmos are struck with horror; they kiss each other, as if, by this embrace, they had to stop their bodies in its flight and save at least what they still have left of the human form. »
From the point of view of comparative anthropology, it is tempting to consider possible analogies with other religions.
There are undoubtedly in the depths of human memory some ancient and indelible memories of ancient sacrifices, that will not be easily wiped away.
We could see for instance in the Bacchanals a distant analogy or an obscure link with the sacrifice of Christ, and the consumption of his blood and flesh shared among the faithful.
Of course, the sacrifice of Christ as celebrated by the Church is not an evolved, intellectualized version of an eminently wilder, more barbaric sacrificial paradigm, once celebrated in the name of the God Dionysus, in memory of his bloody and burning birth.
But it is nevertheless possible to see in it elements of analogy, and anthropological similarities, if only in the consumption of Christ’s « flesh » and « blood » by his disciples, at the height of communion.
The human mind, from age to age, has shown itself capable of designing paradigms that open universes, that play on all values, not to abolish them, but to guarantee the possibility of their continuing metamorphosis.
The Dionysian religion once incarnated one of these paradigms, and secretly continues to do so, metaphorically speaking, in the unconscious depths of humankind.
It is tempting to reflect on how Dionysian ideas may be embodied today in the excesses of contemporary humanity, and how they continue their secret life in our blind and thoughtless »modernity ».
Bloody human body parts scattered all over political crime scenes (resulting from targeted assassinations or downed civilian airplanes) continue to be regularly presented – in prime time – to worldwide audiences…