In the Luminous Abysses:
Shamanism, trance and ecstasy in ancient Greece
Translated by Olga Faccani.
Note: This essay is an excerpt from the book “In the Luminous Abysses: Shamanism, Trance and Ecstasy in Ancient Greece” (Feltrinelli 2021, by kind permission of the publisher, Feltrinelli). Where necessary for clarity, minor additions and clarifications have been made within the text and supplemented in footnotes..
This essay juxtaposes the dominant modern rationality with the shamanic, oracular, and ecstatic traditions of Greek antiquity, particularly through the concept of Noûs. Intended by Greek philosophers from Parmenides, Heraclitus, and Plato to Plutarch and the Neoplatonists as the ‘eye of the soul,’ Noûs is understood as an intellect or deep intuition that unifies the individual with the cosmos. The text underscores Dionysian rituals, the pivotal roles of female spiritual figures, and Apollonian shamanism, and in doing so, it prompts questions about how we orient ourselves toward what is rational and irrational. By drawing from the insights of historical philosophers and sages, Tonelli calls for a re-engagement with spiritual disciplines that foster collective cosmic awareness. This engagement is posited as crucial for the evolution of enlightened societies, rooted in their sapiential and shamanic heritage, thereby reorienting our perspectives and understanding of knowledge and wisdom.
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In our age – marked by the triumph of technology and science, increasingly welded in a pairing that exalts the dimension of functional rationality – a splitting of interiority is already taking place, and this splitting is destined to grow exponentially with the cybernetic revolution that is being intensified in our everyday experience. This revolution forces – and will increasingly force – humans to empower “mechanical thinking,” that is, a reductive and segmented lógos (reason), deprived of its cosmic breath, to the entire disadvantage of what Jung called Soul, and what the Greeks called Noûs (intellect). In other words, in the West and in the rest of the world subjected to the Western model, there has been, throughout history and in the collective mind, a gradual “organ-theft”: that is, an anthropological castration of humanity, or an amputation of the deepest center of individuals that connects them to the secret harmony of the cosmos. This has occurred through the silencing, or caricaturing, or ghettoization of all mystical, initiatory, sapiential experiences that are well rooted in our Greek and Magno-Graecian West [Endnote 1], itself originally connected with the Eurasian shamanic and sapiential substratum.
In this consists the untimely relevance of the shamanic, mystical and sapiential experiences; this essay attempts to offer a quick summary of these experiences to readers who are not content with a polymathic excursion into the anthropology of the ancient world, but who rather aim to grasp the luminous and numinous summits and abysses of mystical and shamanic experiences. Our spiritual fathers and mothers knew how to elicit these abysses – both through ecstatic flashes and thunderbolts, and through mystical and initiatory vertigo – and knew how to condense them into the highest voices of Wisdom, from Pythagoras, to Heraclitus, to Empedocles, to Parmenides, and other male and female philosophers from antiquity.
Although very few names of female shamanesses and women of wisdom have come down to us (to name the best known ones: Diotima, Socrates’ teacher on the matters of eros (love), and Sappho, both an Orphic poetess and a spiritual leader of a thiasus [Endnote 2] consecrated to Aphrodite), we have conspicuous evidence of female initiatory circles (the Bacchae, shamanesses of Dionysus, and the Pythias, prophetic Delphic shamanesses), and of sacred festivals dedicated to female deities and officiated predominantly by women, such as the Aphrodisias, the Agrionias (celebrated by the Bacchae), the Aleae and Arrephoriae in honor of Athena, the Antephoriae, dedicated to Demeter and Persephone, the Artemisias, the Carias and the Brauroniae dedicated to Artemis, the Koree and Demetree dedicated to Kore and Demeter, and so on. All this evidence harks back to a great shamanic and sapiential matriarchal tradition predating patriarchy, according to studies by Bachofen, and Maria Gimbutas, and more recently by Heide Goettner-Abendroth and Ingrid Straube [Endnote 3].
For the Greeks, the noûs – already in Parmenides, Heraclitus, Empedocles, and then in Aristotle, Plato, and still later in Plutarch, the Chaldaean Oracles, and in Neoplatonism – is a deep intuition, the “eye of the soul,” the fulcrum of individual interiority that connects and recomposes everything in the Great One [Endnote 4]. The noûs is the sapiential distillation of experiences – and not of mere intellectual journeys – but of shamanic, meditative, contemplative experiences that involve blood and feelings, thoughts and emotions, broadening the boundaries of the self and of the psycho-bodily organism (the place of principium individuationis, the principle of individuation) until the organism overflows, through Dionysian trance and Apollonian ékstasis, into a Beyond that represents the deep interiority of the individual spilling over into the deep “cosmicity” of the same: oceanic consciousness, a place where the individual coincides with the One, or rather where the Absolute that is in the individual is ipso facto the Absolute that is in the One, and which is called the One, for nothing can be preached of the Absolute.
Shamanism and the experiences of trance and ecstasy of ancient Greece aim to reach this state of consciousness, as do ancient Greek music and dance and poetry, with varying degrees of intensity, and with different approaches.
Despite the reservations of some scholars, first and foremost of Coulian – who prefers to speak of hiatromancers, that is, of solitary ecstatic individuals linked to Apollo Hyperboreus [Endnote 5] – about the existence of a Greek shamanism, it seems appropriate, following the scholarship of Dodds, to not only use this term in relation to figures such as Empedocles, Abaris, Aristeas (very close to shamanism in the strict sense); but also to connect it to the category of shamanism (intended in the broader sense), to the experiences of the One, or of oceanic consciousness, which appear in Parmenides and in Greek Wisdom generally, as well as in divinatory practices, such as Dionysian dance and music, and pre-Hippocratic holistic forms of healing, officiated by “magicians, purifiers, charlatans, and wanderers,” in the psycho-magic therapies implemented at Epidaurus and in the musical therapies of the Coribanti, not to mention the meditation and concentration therapies (anamnesis, cave incubation, diaphragmatic breathing, silence) of the Pythagoreans [Endnote 6].
Pythagoreanism was distinguished by its explicit recourse to spiritual practices, from the discipline of silence imposed on neophytes during the first years of apprenticeship in the school – also declined as an individual exercise that fosters self-knowledge – to incubation in caves in order to perfect the concentration that enhances the capacity for anámnesis, that is, the faculty to recall to the mirror of memory both the daily events of life and, further back, metaphysically and deeper, the chain of successive reincarnations.
See for a masterful definition of unitary or oceanic consciousness, Parmenides’ fragment (28B 4 DK) devoted to noûs:
Look at how, in the same way, distant things
are firmly close in intuition:
For you will not manage to separate what is
from being connected with what is,
neither whether it is completely dispersed everywhere in the cosmos,
nor whether it is brought together.
J. P. Vernant, a French structuralist scholar certainly not rooted in mysticism, pointed out a connection between Greek shamanism and ancient Pythagoreanism, and between the Greek sages and philosophers and the shamans of the civilizations of northern Asia. He also pointed to the subsequent transition, in the pólis, the Greek city state, from the figure of the shaman to that of the philosopher. Thus, in archaic Greece, already at the time of Empedocles, as well as in more recent times, there existed a whole universe of mystical experiences that we can, with a broad use of the term, trace back to the dimension of shamanism, which was widespread throughout the terrestrial orb in antiquity, and which to this day survives almost intact in Mongolia and the Latin Americas, and in other marginal areas of the so-called civilization, and which in the East has been absorbed into Tibetan Buddhism (thus pre-existing Bön shamanism), Taoism, and yoga.
Everywhere, from India to China, Tibet, Africa, the Americas, Australia to Europe, in the dawn of civilization, even before the emergence of writing, the figures of the shaman and shamaness appear, men and women of the spirit, male and female mediators between the visible and the invisible on behalf of the community, male and female healers, experts in medicines and enchantments, spiritual guides.
Shamanism is not a religion, but a set of practices and beliefs that gravitate around various ecstasy techniques, ceremonies, and rituals that foster direct contact with supernatural essences, for the purpose of benefiting individuals and the community, which the shaman or shamaness is a part of: the shaman, always beneficent, is a medicine man [Endnote 7], who diagnoses illnesses with the help of spirits, and, thanks to their aid, promotes healing, flying with the astral body to other dimensions to recover the soul of the sick person stolen by unfavorable entities; or, if the sick person has suffered intrusion by a spirit, the shaman works to free the sick person from the intruder, with the help of spirits, which often have the form of animals, or of ancestors. The shaman is also capable of divining the future, accompanying, as a psychopomp [Endnote 8], the deceased to the afterlife, magically propitiating the successful outcome of hunting, and overseeing sacrificial rites.
“The contact between the shaman and the supernatural, the upper world, is made possible by the axis mundi (literally: the axis of the world), represented at times by a mountain, at times by a tree or a ladder, which connects the three overlapping layers that composed the universe: at the bottom is hell, in the middle is earth, at the top is heaven. […] Contact with the otherworldly is made possible by the alternative condition of consciousness, the trance, which is elicited by the sound of the drum, or by psychotropic substances, and which allows both the transfer of consciousness into the astral body (often in the form of a bird), and the communication with helper spirits who give the shaman the necessary information. […] Those who are present during the shamanic session become well aware of the shaman’s immersion, and of the gradual absorption of his consciousness into ecstasy. The sound of the drum, the chanting, the invocation of spirits marks the first ecstatic level; the imaginary actions of the shaman characterize the light ecstasy; finally, the stupor and catalepsy characterize the last phase of the shamanic trance.” [Endnote 9]
Shamans become shamans through a process of self-initiation and initiation, which is very demanding, as it involves a breakdown of the ordinary Ego and the acquisition of the ability to handle states of dissociation and possession that threaten the psychological equilibrium. Often, in southern Siberia for example, the shamanic mission is inherited and passed down to individuals who show signs of a particular sensitivity from childhood or adolescence, or who go through conditions of illness and isolation that allow them to obtain a vision of the Beyond. While on this path, aspiring shamans are assisted by the invisible spirits of their ancestors and of Nature, with whom they often have an erotic-type relationship.
Among the Yakuts [Endnote 10], the spirits lead the shaman’s soul into the lower and higher worlds and give it instructions, sometimes on a sacred mountain or on the branches of a shamanic tree. Initiation involves the symbolic psycho-bodily dismemberment of the shamans, for which we also find an ancient Greek counterpart, in the mythological sparagmós (“dismemberment”) of Dionysus. We also find an Egyptian counterpart in the myth of Osiris and in astral travel (flights of the subtle body, to reach the spirits who preside over disease or hunting, and who can exert their influence on the lives of men). In order to communicate with spirits, the aspiring shaman learns from the elders the secret language to converse with them, particularly the language of animals, which are fundamental helpers that guide shamans in the underworld.
“The culmination of the transitional stage is ecstatic initiation, the experience through which the candidate becomes aware that the spirits are transforming him or her into a shaman. The visions of ecstatic initiation center on the themes of death and resurrection, of the tearing of the shamanic candidate by the spirits and his or her re-composition and investiture of supernatural powers, of the ultimate transformation into a shaman capable of seeing and hearing.” [Endnote 11]
Of this extended and almost universally diffused spiritual experience, which takes different forms while holding firm some fundamental constants (entrusted to oral communication and ritual practices), remain very clear traces in the written works of some of the major Greek Wise men, particularly in the poems Katharmói and Physiká of Empedocles.
In these poems we find the wise man’s announcement of his own role as a prophet-shaman and thaumaturge, endowed with all kinds of powers (which also bring to mind the Eastern siddhi tradition) [Endnote 12].
And thou shalt learn all the drugs that are a defense against ills and old age; since for thee alone will I accomplish all this. Thou shalt arrest the violence of the weariless winds that arise to sweep the earth and waste the fields; and again, when thou so desirest, thou shalt bring back their blasts in return. Thou shalt cause for men a seasonable drought after the dark rains, and again thou shalt change the summer drought for streams that feed the trees as they pour down from the sky. And thou shalt bring back from Hades the life of a dead man. (Fragment 31 B 110 DK)
O friends, who inhabit the great town looking down on the yellow rock of Akragas, up by the citadel, busy in goodly works, harbors of honor for the stranger, men unskilled in meanness, all hail. I go about among you an immortal god, no mortal now, honored among all as is meet, crowned with fillets and flowery garlands. Straightway, whenever I enter with these in my train, both men and women, into the flourishing towns, is reverence done me; they go after me in countless throngs; asking of me what is the way to gain; some desiring oracles, while some, who for many a weary day have been pierced by the grievous pangs of all manner of sickness, beg to hear from me the word of healing. (Fragment 31 B112 DK)
At the origins of Greek thought, shamanism, poetry, and wisdom are intertwined in the figure and work of Empedocles, freed from the interpretations that tend to reduce him to a babbling precursor of the philosophy of Nature, and rather restored to his authentic nature – as a Knower, shaman, healer, poet, inquirer of Origins and Nature (Physikós).
Prominent among the events that helped project an aura of legend over the life of Empedocles were his freeing a city from a plague epidemic; the resuscitation of a woman who had not been breathing for thirty days; and the pacification, achieved through poetry and music, of a young man who had become maddened after his father was condemned to death.
The journey of the initiate in the proem of Parmenides’ Perì Phýseos can also be considered shamanic in a broad sense, as well as ecstatic:
The steeds that bear me carried me as far as ever my heart
Desired, since they brought me and set me on the renowned
Way of the goddess, who with her own hands conducts the man
who knows through all things. On what way was I borne
along; for on it did the wise steeds carry me, drawing my car,
and maidens showed the way. And the axle, glowing in the socket –
for it was urged round by the whirling wheels at each
end – gave forth a sound as of a pipe, when the daughters of the
Sun, hasting to convey me into the light, threw back their veils
from off their faces and left the abode of Night.
There are the gates of the ways of Night and Day, fitted
above with a lintel and below with a threshold of stone. They
themselves, high in the air, are closed by mighty doors, and
Avenging Justice keeps the keys that open them. Her did
the maidens entreat with gentle words and skillfully persuade
to unfasten without demur the bolted bars from the gates.
Then, when the doors were thrown back,
they disclosed a widening, when their brazen
hinges swung backwards in the
sockets fastened with rivets and nails. Straight through them,
on the broad way, did the maidens guide the horses and the car,
and the goddess greeted me kindly, and took my right hand
in hers, and spoke to me these words: –
“Welcome, noble youth, that comest to my abode on the car
that bears thee tended by immortal charioteers! It is no ill
chance, but justice and right that has sent thee forth to travel
on this way. Far, indeed, does it lie from the beaten track of
men! Meet it is that thou should learn all things, as well
the unshaken heart of persuasive truth, as the opinions of
mortals in which is no true belief at all. Yet none the less
shalt thou learn of these things also, since thou must judge
approvedly of the things that seem to men as thou goest
through all things in thy journey.”
Beginning in 1993, M. L. West, in his Early Greek Philosophy and the Orient, had focused on the connection between Greek Wisdom and Eastern Wisdom in Heraclitus, and had traced the conspicuous connections between the spirituality of the Wise men (the so-called Pre-Socratics) and similar Eastern traditions of shamans, which also showed a connection between Wisdom of the East and Wisdom of the West. In Early Greek Philosophy and the Orient, M. L. West writes: “Do the hallucinations of the shamans in Siberia or in the Altai have any actual relation to Greek myth? I think so. There is reason to believe that, in classical times, shamanic practices and ideologies spread across the northern territories of Indo-European tribes, from northwestern India and Bactria to Scythia and Thrace.” (West, EGPO, p. 146).
From a historical point of view “The existence of an Eastern trade route is confirmed by the findings of products of Greek-Scythian handicrafts (especially mirrors) along the Don, the Volga and in the Ural region. The Ural region was also, since prehistoric times, a commercial bridge with the East and China. The region of the Orgimpei (a population with Mongolian features, who lived in Baskiria, between Belaja and the Urals) constituted a caravan junction: Scythians and Greeks could buy gold from the Arimaspians, as well as perhaps Chinese silk, attested as early as the fifth century in Athens. In exchange, in addition to handicrafts, the Greeks could offer, for example, wine and salt. A branch of the commercial route likely originated from Olbia, and connected to other trading routes, particularly from the mouth of the river Don.” [Endnote 13].
Dodds, in his 2018 book, The Greeks and the Irrational, argues in favor of a contact between Greek shamanism and Nordic shamanism:
“It could perhaps be argued that shamanistic behavior is inherent in the human psychophysical make-up, and that therefore something similar can be attested among the Greeks, independently from foreign influences. But three objections can be brought against this thesis: (a) such behavior begins to be attested among the Greeks when the Black Sea opens to Greek colonization, not before; (b) of the earliest known ‘shamans,’ one is Scythian (Abari), the other is a Greek who had visited Scythia (Aristea); (c) there exist concrete connections between ancient Greek-Scythian and modern Siberian shamanism, sufficient to make the hypothesis of a mere convergence rather unlikely: for example, the cases of shamans’ sex changes in Scythia and Siberia.” (Dodds, GI, p. 210).
It is worth mentioning that Herodotus, in Book IV of his Histories, speaks of the Enarei, the Scythian hermaphrodites, a sort of transsexual shamans, who practiced divination after receiving it as a gift from Aphrodite.
Moreover, the Scythians were well-connected in the Archaic period with Hellenic mythology and epic, as we can see from their portraits in one of the most extraordinary pottery finds, the François Vase, from the VI century B.C., in which the Scythian warriors Euthymachos, Kimerios, and Toxamis appear alongside Greek heroes in the scene of hunting of a Caledonian boar. In addition, Anacarsi, who lived in the VI century B.C. and is often counted among the Seven Wise men, was a Scythian devoted to the orgiastic cult of the Great Mother, and, according to sources, was in close contact with Greece.
Lastly, Herodotus, in Book IV of his Histories, tells us that on the sacred island of Delos people celebrated the cult of two pairs of maidens, Hyperoche and Laodice, and Arge and Opi, who were said to have come bearing gifts, swaddled in wheat straw, from the Hyperborean people. However, since after the first voyage none of the maidens and their companions had returned, they decided to have the gifts reach Delos through a kind of relay race that started from their mysterious moors and, crossing the Scythian lands, passed by Dodona, the Maliaco Gulf, Caristo, which was the southernmost city of Euboea, the island of Tenos, and finally reached Delos.
P. Kingsley, in his 2010 book A Story Waiting to Pierce You, made an important contribution by reconstructing, through an innovative reconnaissance of the figure of Abaris Hyperboreus, the connection between Mongol shamanism and Magna Graecia Pythagoreanism, and between Eastern and Western wisdom.
This well-established connection has been missed or silenced by scholars, academic and otherwise, because the reinterpretation of Greek wisdom in light of its profound affinity with Eastern wisdom compels a renewed look: there is much East in our West – particularly Greek and Magno-Graecian – and vice versa, as well as in our cultural and spiritual DNA. This recovered proximity compels us to read Greek and Magno-Graecian Wisdom under a new light, for we must free the sophoí (Wise men) from interpretative patterns that reduce them to proto-philosophers or intellectual mystics. Rather, they were the holders and communicators of enlightened states of consciousness, surely supported in their practice by meditative and shamanic rituals, just as it was the case, and it still is today, in the great Eastern traditions (Buddhist, Hindu, Tibetan, Taoist, and so on).
In this way, we can do justice not only to historical and cultural truths but also to the marvelous human experiment of transcending the “all too human” condition through spiritual disciplines and transcendental fulgurations of different stages of consciousness – an experiment that was attempted and accomplished at the dawn of civilization. This experiment still shines a hopeful light as the only possible means of recomposing the integrity of humans and enabling the realization of conscious, solidary, and enlightened societies, sooner or later.
For more on this topic, we can also turn to a formidable archaeological find that was catalogued in 1954 in the Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum Deutschland, but that has been silenced until now, with rare exceptions. At the turn of the V-IV centuries B.C., well before the expedition of Alexander the Great to the Indies (which is usually considered the starting point for the exploration and integration of Eastern culture and spirituality), a painter, in all probability named Dolon, masterfully painted, in a realistic yet caricatured style, the image of a Mongol warrior, probably a mercenary. The context is that of the city of Taranto, at the time of the Pythagorean philosopher Archita, a friend of Plato, a Pythagorean sage, musician, mathematician, and arithmo-geometrician, a pupil of Philolaus and Eurytus, who was also the military commander and political leader of the flourishing Taranto in the V-IV centuries B.C. This finding is of exceptional importance in proving irrefutably both the cultural, commercial, and (as I have been arguing for at least thirty years) spiritual relationship between Greece, Magna Graecia, and the East, and the Eurasian origins of our civilization. Such origins are already ascertained even in the absence of this evidence, but, thanks to it, they become apparent even to those in the philological and philosophical community who refuse to see or hear.
Dionysus, God of trance
One cannot understand Dionysus without confronting the enigma of his mirror [Endnote 14].
One does not understand Dionysus if one separates contact and detachment.
Truth and appearance.
The mask and what it conceals.
The relative and the Absolute.
The good and the bad.
The beautiful and the ugly.
The high and the low.
The divine and the human.
The light and the shadow.
The material and the spirit.
The masculine and the feminine.
The eternal and the temporary.
The hunter and the prey.
Life and death…
And, even then, it will turn out that Dionysus cannot be understood, for he eludes thought.
He dwells in the abysses of the unconscious and in the oceanic vertigoes of the beyond-thought.
Dionysus is a mystical god, inexplicable by reason and only touched by intuition.
That is why we begin with Dionysus.
One cannot understand Dionysus without looking at Shiva. And vice versa. This is because Dionysus comes from the East, but especially because, like Shiva, his Wisdom passes through the destruction and re-composition of the Ego, with the pain of laceration and detachment that comes from crossing the stormy sea of páthos (suffering), arriving on the bright shores of máthos (experience), without ever forgetting the oceanic voice of the ever-tumultuous sea of thymós (soul).
Dionysus is the god of trance and of transgressing the limits of the ordinary ego and institutional morality, through predominantly collective experiences: the Bacchae are shamanesses consecrated to the male-female god, who, in Euripides’ eponymous tragedy, compose the maddened and violent horde that runs across the slopes of Mount Cytheron. The Bacchic horde reaches sophrosýne (which is the capacity for restraint, balance, wisdom) through the omnipotent and magical exaltation of trance, and through the catharsis of ritual dismemberment and homophagy (feeding on the raw flesh of animals as symbolic assimilation of the god Dionysus).
One cannot understand Dionysus if one does not understand – in addition to his association with altered states of consciousness on the part of the actors – the initiatory spirit of Greek tragedy, of which he is the presiding god, exemplified by the quintessential words dedicated by the Chorus of Old Argives to Zeus in Aeschylus’ ancient Greek tragedy Agamemnon:
Whoever willingly sings a victory song for Zeus,
he shall gain wisdom altogether,
Zeus, who sets mortals on the path to understanding,
Zeus, who has established as a fixed law that
“wisdom comes by suffering.” (Aesch., Ag., 174-178)
Greek tragedy is a perfect example of a journey that involves traversing life, its folly, its shadows, and its luminous outbursts, and that centers on the páthos, suffering, in its utmost openness. The audience can experience Greek tragedy from a privileged position of contemplation (théatron comes from the ancient Greek verb theáomai, “to gaze with an open mouth,” with wonder and spirit of openness), at once empathetic and detached, that leads to sophrosýne (a combination of moderation, self-control, and temperance), a virtue celebrated by the Chorus in the most violent and Dionysian of tragedies, Euripides’ Bacchae:
is a source of wisdom,
accepting no excuses
when the affairs of the gods are concerned,
and not to exceed the limit of the human
this is a life that is free from pain.
I do not envy knowledge.
I aspire to other goals, great, splendid,
† a life that tends to the good †,
purity and devotion, night and day,
rejecting customs that offend justice,
and to pay honor to the gods. (Eur., Bacch., 1002-1010)
Greek tragedy is a “profanation of the Mysteries,” those that were celebrated at Eleusis, because it puts on stage – exoterically [Endnote 15] and on a different level, for the Greek people – the journey of descent to the Underworld that at Eleusis was embodied by Persephone. In Greek tragedy, this journey is witnessed by the theómenoi (meaning “contemplators,” what we now call “spectators,” after the ritual and initiatory dimension of the théatron has been lost in bourgeois and avant-garde theater, with few exceptions), and allows them to sink into the vertigoes of conflict, madness, and the Shadow (in tragedies such as Oedipus the King), that is, into the Underworld of the individual and collective psyche, to ultimately generate awareness-knowledge (máthos).
Dionysus is profoundly connected to tragedy because tragedy is the quintessential place of trance, and because the actor always embodies the other from himself, and therefore emerges from his Ego to put on the mask of an Other, fictitious but always real in the moment he is embodied. This alteration is characterized by the use of costume and mask, as is still the case today in the Japanese Theater of No and other forms of ritual and popular theater.
Moreover, Dionysus is the god of the mask, which in many ritualistic and festive contexts represents an epiphany, because the mask always refers back to something else concealed behind and within its appearance, and thus to a constitutive ambiguity: Dionysus is both animal and God, male and female, young and old, sweet and cruel, and, in the mirror myth, Absolute and appearance. At the same time, the mask also refers back to Dionysus’ underworld dimension, which associates him with Hades.
Dionysus is also a healer and prophet, like Apollo, the god against whom Dionysus is contrasted, as expressed by Nietzsche’s formidable insight in The Birth of Tragedy: the páthos and irrational side of life are set against the harmonic measure of art, in a creative collision from which the tragic work is born. Giorgio Colli’s scholarly work rectifies this view, recognizing Dionysus as mirroring the Delphic god Apollo, for Dionysus also presents Apollonian and contemplative traits (such as the mirror), in the same way that Apollo is associated with trance (a Dionysian characteristic), in the sphere of divination.
Dionysus is also the instigator of madness, associated with intoxication and flute playing. He triggers the mania of the Bacchae and of king Pentheus in Euripides’ tragedy the Bacchae, as well as the hallucinations of the Tyrrhenian pirates in the Homeric Hymn to Dionysus.
Finally, I will discuss two key symbols associated with Dionysus: the erect phallus and the mirror, symbols that represent Dionysus’ vastness and power. He is the god of life, of generation, of sexuality (of giving and receiving pleasure), both male and female. He is also the god of ecstasy, one that can be freely experienced by humans, and one that allows them to catch a glimpse of the experience of the One – the very glimpse that those who are initiated to the cult of Dionysus grasp in full through the erotic entanglement.
At the same time, Dionysus is the god of contemplative detachment, in the Orphic declension of the myth, culminating in the image of the mirror: “In antiquity the mirror was handed down by theologians as a symbol of acceptance of the fullness of the All. That is why some ancient traditions say that the god Hephaestus fabricated a mirror for Dionysus and that the god generated all plurality by looking into it and contemplating his own image in it” (Plat., Tim. 33b).
The Whole is the One, and the mirror symbolizes the “individual” noûs (mind) embracing the fullness of the One-Whole, because the noûs serves as both the intuitive function of the individual (who perceives the unity of all things in an inner spatial-temporal gaze) and the metaphysical backdrop that unifies all existence. In turn, Dionysus represents the Absolute that becomes manifold by fragmenting itself into a plurality of reflections or appearances that perpetually originate from it: “It rests by changing,” as Heraclitus put it (Heraclit. 22B 84a DK). In Plato’s work, we read that: “Dionysus, having placed his image in the mirror, followed it, and so was shattered in the All. But Apollo gathered him up and brought him back to life, for he is the purifying god and truly the savior of Dionysus, and for this reason he is celebrated as Dionysodótes [Endnote 16]” (Plat., Phaed. 67c O72).
By practicing inwardness, in a state of oceanic consciousness, the Wise man can recompose in the noûs the fragmented Dionysus, bringing together both Apollo and Dionysus, thus positioning himself between the absolute gaze of the divine and its varied reflections in the mirror of the world, or worlds. This practice can also be achieved through meditation.
The re-composition of the cosmic One into the inner One, and vice versa, is a source of joy, the same joy that was experienced during the Eleusinian mysteries and rites (because Dionysus is the secret god of Eleusis) and during the experience of the One by Parmenides, Empedocles, Heraclitus, Pythagoras, and all the Initiates who embodied a state between Wisdom and shamanism.
Oracles and Apollonian shamanism
“And we made four divisions of the divine madness, ascribing them to four gods, saying that prophecy was inspired by Apollo, the mystic madness by Dionysus, the poetic by the Muses, and the madness of love, inspired by Aphrodite and Eros, we said was the best.” (Plato, Phaedrus 265)
Lord Apollo is the god of the oracles. To him, more than to any other god or goddess, belongs the gaze into the depths of aión (metaphysical time), from which originates the world of chrónos (human time) and its chains of events that unfold according to the rhythm of Anánke (necessity), nailed down by the relations of cause and effect. Parmenides talks about the appearance of the visible world (what in Eastern mythology is called Maya), as the expression or manifestation of the invisible Absolute, connected to the “well-rounded Truth.”
The gift of prophecy arises from mania, that is, from a trance-like condition that allows one to transcend the limits of the ego and of the ordinary consciousness rooted in space and time, to open a gateway and make contact with the invisible Absolute that transcends space and time. In this metaphysical core, past, present and future are connected in an eternal “now,” Parmenides’ notion of nûn, which rips through the fabric of time and space.
The philosopher Heraclitus describes the Sibyl, a prophetess of Apollo, as “[a] frenzied mouth [that] utter[s] things not to be laughed at, unadorned and unperfumed, yet reaches to a thousand years with her voice by aid of the god.” The god speaks through a human medium, and the Voice can only be ambiguous, because it is of a dual nature, divine and human: as Heraclitus writes: “The oracle neither conceals, nor reveals, but indicates” (Heraclitus, 22B 92 DK).
Thus, the divinatory Voice does not speak, because it cannot speak, inasmuch as it is unspeakable, yet at the same time it does not conceal the root of things: divine oracles exist between the manifest and the hidden (encompassing present, past, and future), causing a challenge of knowledge to humans who possess human and liminal words, and who need prophets to interpret and communicate.
The divinatory mania (madness) can also be a shamanic trance and can transubstantiate the ordinary nature of the body. Iamblichus, a Syrian Neo-Platonic philosopher of Arabic origin of the III century AD, writes in his De Mysteriis Aegyptiorum (The Egyptian Mysteries):
You say that many, through enthusiasm and divine inspiration, predict future events, and that they are then in so wakeful a state, as even to energize according to sense, and yet they are not conscious of the state they are in, or at least, not so much as they were before. I wish, therefore, here to point out to you the signs by which those who are rightly possessed by the Gods may be known. For they either subject the whole of their life, as a vehicle or instrument to the inspiring Gods; or they exchange the human for the divine life; or they energize with their own proper life about divinity. But they neither energize according to sense, nor are in such a vigilant state as those who have their senses excited from sleep (for neither do they apprehend future events); nor are they moved as those are who energize according to impulse. Nor, again, are they conscious of the state they are in, neither as they were before, nor in any other way; nor, in short, do they convert to themselves their own intelligence, or exert any knowledge which is peculiarly their own. The greatest indication, however, of the truth of this is the following. Many, through divine inspiration, are not burned when fire is introduced to them, the inspiring influence preventing the fire from touching them. Many, also, though burned, do not apprehend that they are so, because they do not then live an animal life. And some, indeed, though transfixed with nails, do not perceive it; but others that are struck on the shoulders with axes, and others that have their arms cut with knives, are by no means conscious of what is done to them. Their energies, likewise, are not at all human. For inaccessible places become accessible to those that are divinely inspired; they are thrown into fire, and pass through fire, and over rivers, like the priest in Castabalis, without being injured. But from these things it is demonstrated, that those who energize enthusiastically are not conscious of the state they are in, and that they neither live a human nor an animal life, according to sense or impulse, but that they exchange this for a certain more divine life, by which they are inspired and perfectly possessed.
Closely connected to visions are dreams. And the dream can convey enigmatic prophecies, because it is rooted in the spatial-time Source of the One far more than the waking consciousness of the Ego: Aristotle used to say that in men the cognition of the gods arises from what happens to the soul, by the divinations that are manifested in dreams; when, in sleep, the soul is found to be by itself, it then recovers its own original and divine nature, prophesying the future.
Evidence of the great Greek divinatory and oracular tradition, rooted in female and male shamanism that predates writing, can be found in the characters that populate epic and tragedy, from the soothsayer Theoclmeno (who prophesizes the slaughter of the Proci in the Odyssey), to the hallucinated Cassandra of Aeschylus’ Oresteia, to the prophet Tiresias (who leads Oedipus to achieve self-knowledge in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King), to the tireless Cumaean Sibyl (who, having obtained the gift of infinite longevity from Apollo, crippled by old age, is consumed by her desire to die).
Not to mention Socrates, who is also characterized by traits traceable to shamanism in the broadest sense, who had within him the daímon as an inner oracle, a daímon that diverted him from doing what should not be done: Xenophon wrote that “Socrates spoke on the basis of his knowledge, and said that it was the daímon that gave him signs” [Endnote 17].
Although not strictly dedicated to divination of the future, but rather to establishing contact with the souls of the departed through cosmic visions, the oracle of Trophonius at Lebadea in Phocis, deserves special attention for the exceptional methods by which trance and ecstasy were provoked:
And the descent to the oracle unfolds as follows.  First in the course of the night two young boys from the city, about thirteen years of age, called Hérmai, lead him to the river Hercina, anoint him with oil and wash him. These are the ones who wash those who descend to the oracle and provide him with all other necessary services as attendants. Then by the priest <he is led> not to the oracle, but to two springs of water near one another.  Here he is to drink the water called the Water of Lete, so that he will forget all that he thought until then; and after this he is to drink another water, the water of Mnemosýne: thanks to this he will remember what he saw in the descent. After contemplating the statue that they say was carved by Daedalus, which is shown only to those who are about to go to Trophonius, and after honoring and pleading for it, he sets out for the oracle, dressed in a linen tunic with ribbons on the belt, with footwear typical of the place.  The oracle is located on the mountain above the forest. Around it is a circular base of white marble, the circumference of which is like that of the smallest of farmyards, and the height just under two cubits (one cubit is equal to 1.5 feet). On the base stand obelisks, made of bronze like the bands that hold them together. Between these obelisks a gate was built. Inside the enclosure an opening in the ground is revealed, not natural, but fabricated with art and perfect balance of proportions.  This construction is similar to an oven, almost four cubits in diameter; its depth could not be expected to reach more than eight cubits. No fixed ladder has been built that descends to the bottom, but when someone goes to Trophonius they provide him with a narrow, light ladder. Whoever descends faces an opening between the bottom and the wall of the building, two spans wide and, it seemed, a span high.  Those descending lie down on the bottom, carrying buns kneaded with honey, insert their feet inside the opening and enter it themselves, taking care that their knees are inside the gap. Immediately the rest of the body is dragged down, running behind the knees, as the greatest and swiftest of rivers might swallow a man in a whirlpool and conceal him in its depths. From this moment on those who have found themselves inside the inaccessible shrine learn about the future in a way that is not unique and the same for everyone, but there are those who see it and those who feel it… (Paus. XI 39, 6-11)
Thus writes Pausanias (Greek traveler and geographer of the second century AD) testifying that he experienced the oracle firsthand. Plutarch also adds more details, when he writes about Timarchus who went to question the oracle in order to learn about Socrates’ divine warnings:
Timarchus had a strong desire to know the power of Socrates’ daimonion – he was a spirited youth, who had just got his teeth into philosophy – and he descended into the cave of Trophonius, first performing the regular rituals of the oracle. He stayed down there two nights and a day; most people despaired of him, and his relations were already mourning, when he reappeared early in the morning, very cheerful, prostrated himself before the god and (as soon as he could escape the crowd) told us of many marvels he had seen and heard. He said that, after descending into the cave of the oracle, he first found himself in deep darkness. Then he prayed, and lay there for a long time, with no clear consciousness of whether he was awake or dreaming. It seemed to him however that there was a sudden noise and at the same time a blow on his head; the sutures of his skull opened and let his soul out. It left joyfully to blend into the pure, bright air, and seemed then first to relax at long last after its former confinement and become bigger than before, like a sail being unfurled. Then he dimly heard a kind of whirring going round and round above his head, making a pleasant sound. (Plut. De genio Socratis, 589f-592f.)
We owe to Plutarch, in this same context, one of the most effective definitions of noûs:
Things are thus: every soul partakes of noûs (intellect), and none is devoid of lógos (thought) and noûs, but what is mixed in them with flesh and affections is altered, and because of pleasures and pains, turns to the lack of lógos. But they do not all mix in the same way, for some sink totally into the body and are completely upset and torn by affections for life, while others partly mix with the body, partly leave outside of it that which is purest in them and which is not dragged away, but as if floating on the surface, is in contact with the head of man, in the same way as a buoy that stands over someone who has plunged into the abyss: By standing around the soul, it sustains it and is not under the dominion of affections. That which is subject to movement and immersed in the body is called psyché, while that which has escaped corruption by most is called noûs, and they think it is within them, as are the images that appear in mirrors and are reflected by them; those who have right insight call it daimon, believing it to be external to them. (Plut. De genio Socratis, 589f.-592f.)
Here noûs is recognized as a higher spiritual organism, which, when cultivated through contemplative and meditative practices, enables humans to concretely transcend their all-too-human dimension and to traverse emotional storms and existential adversity with greater stability and serenity. This is precisely the challenge that the oracular, shamanic, sapiential tradition poses to humanity today: while humanity is, in its overwhelming majority, yoked to selfish psychism, the oracular and shamanic tradition prompts us to transcend individual experiences in order to reach a collective sensibility capable of addressing contemporary crises and issues.
* Abstract by Olga Faccani. We thank Enes Sütütemiz for proofreading the entire article.
1. Magna Graecia in antiquity referred to Southern Italy.
2. Ecstatic group of followers of Dionysus.
3. See H. Goettner-Abendroth, Matriarchal societies: studies on indigenous cultures of the world (Venice, 2013); Geschichte matriarchaler Gesellschaften und Entstehung des Pathriarchats, Band III: Westasien und Europa (Suttgart, 2019); I. Straube, Die Quellen der Philosophie sind Weiblich: vom Einfluss weiser Frauen auf die Anfänge der Philosophie, (Aachen, 2001); J. J. Bachofen, The Matriarchy (Turin, 1988; M. Gimbutas, The language of the Goddess (Venice, 1989).
4. Consider, for the Great One, the tò eón (literally: “that which exists”) of Parmenides and the hèn pánta (meaning: “all things are One, and the One is all things”) of Heraclitus 22B 50 DK.
5. In Greek mythology, the Hyperboreans were a mythical people who lived in the far northern part of the known world. The oldest myths portray them as the favorites of Apollo, and some ancient Greek writers regarded the Hyperboreans as the mythical founders of Apollo’s shrines at Delos and Delphi.
6. See I. P. Couliano, EE 20 ff.; Dodds GI 183-228. The “magicians, purifiers, charlatans and vagabonds” are the target of Hippocrates’ controversy in De morbo sacro, and are healers-soothsayers-magicians organized in brotherhoods, or itinerant doctors and purifiers (cf. also Plat., Resp. 364b-c; cf. D’Anna DS 61-66).
7. “Medicine man” appears in English in the original Italian text by Tonelli.
8. A psychopomp (ψυχοπομπός, psychopompós, literally meaning the ‘guide of souls’) is a creature (often a god) whose responsibility is to escort deceased souls from Earth to the afterlife. For example, the Greek god Hermes has strong chthonic, or underworld, associations, and in the mythical tradition he was a psychopomp, leader of souls along the road between the Under and the Upper world.
9. Marazzi TS: U. Marazzi (ed.), Texts of Siberian and Central Asian shamanism (Torino, 2009), pp. 9 ff.
10. Turkic ethnic group whose language belongs to the Siberian branch of the Turkic languages.
11. From: Marazzi TS: U. Marazzi (ed.), Texts of Siberian and Central Asian shamanism, (Torino, 2009), p. 17.
12. Siddhis (Sanskrit: सिद्धि siddhi, meaning fulfillment, accomplishment) are material, paranormal, supernatural, or otherwise magical powers, and abilities in Indian religions that are the products of yogic advancement through meditation and yoga.
13. Corcella-S. M. Medaglia-A. Fraschetti (eds.), Herodotus, Histories, (Milan, 1993).
14. In the mythology related to the ancient Greek mystery cult of Orphism, the Titans used a mirror to distract infant Dionysus’ attention from the powers which Zeus had granted him, and successfully kill him by dismembering his body, and boiling and eating his flesh. The goddess Athena saved Dionysus’ heart and sent it to Zeus, who sewed it into his thigh, from which Dionysus was reborn. In the mythology of Dionysus, the mirror represents the god’s connection to death and rebirth.
15. Exoterically, referring to knowledge or practices commonly taught or shared with broader audiences, as opposed to esoterically, referring to knowledge or practices that are not public or common.
16. Meaning: “giver of Dionysus.”
17. See Xenoph., Mir., 1-4.