Because the Truth is in His Eyes – “A Canticle of Bacchus” by Witter Bynner

The following poem is a lovely and insightful tribute to Dionysos/Bacchus (and Silenus) by the great gay poet Witter Bynner (who is also my favorite translator of the Tang Dynasty poets  [Li Po, Tu Fu, Wang Wei, etc.] and the Tao Teh Ching).  The rhyme may at first seem a bit too sing-song-y for an early 20th-century modernist like Bynner, but I think you’ll see it works perfectly to capture this charming, light-hearted and yet also quite profound scene of “The most beloved boy / Who ever danced among the leaves /Of elemental joy”.  I love that Silenus makes a toast to Socrates, and the clever incorporation of “Auld Lang Song” by Robert Burns as an appropriate drinking song/folk song for the modern characters to honor “the merry god of vine-leaves”.  If you don’t have time to read the whole thing, at least have a look at the incredible speech by Bacchus (which I’ve marked in bold below), in which Bacchus asserts that he is the apple on the Tree of Knowledge, equating himself with choice, freedom, and free will in general.  Enjoy!

I am a godly companion,
A touchstone and a test,
And who chooses with the other gods
Bacchus — chooses best.
For what is life itself but wine,
And what am I but life?

[p.s. If you like this and want to enjoy many, many, many other literary representations of Dionysos throughout the ages, please go check out Sannion’s wonderful blog, Eternal Bacchus: Dionysos from the end of antiquity to the present.]

****************************

A Canticle of Bacchus
by Witter Bynner

(The First and Second Cantors stand at either side of the stage. Bacchus enters, concealing with a vine-draped arm all of his face below the eyes)

The First Cantor
Why hide your face with vines, lad?
Why stand mysterious?
Show your face and tell us why
And what you want of us.
I wonder if I know you, lad.
I’ve seen your eyes before.
There s a glow in them as genial
As an opening door
With a yellow light behind it
And a handshake and a song
And a welcome to a fellowship
Where happy folk belong.
I wonder why your presence,
Half-hidden, seems to be
The reaching of the redwoods,
The slipping of the sea
And the swaying of the heart of wine
Within the heart of me.
Lad, are you the merry god
Of vine-leaves?

Bacchus (showing his face)
I am he.
Though not so merry nowadays
As I dared to be
In the days of Alexander,
I am Bacchus, I am he
Whom young men choose, old wives chastise
And solemn men abhor,
Because the truth is in my eyes,
Because my mother bore
A light and easy soothsayer,
Natural and wild,
Fierce and happy as the sun,
When Bacchus was her child.
I stole the grapes from her other hand,
She pretended not to look,
And the heat of my fingers turned them to wine
And that was the milk I took,
Till I grew and flourished and became
The most beloved boy
Who ever danced among the leaves
Of elemental joy.
And everybody laughed my name
And pulse was never quicker
Than when the unforbidden hills
Blessed the world with liquor
And everybody drank it
And everybody knew
Festival-hymns and holiday-tunes . . .

The First Cantor
Here are singers too!
“For he’s a jolly good fellow—”
Sing to him — all of you!

The Company (singing and concluding)
“For he’s a jolly good fellow,
Which nobody can deny.”

Bacchus
And how can a jolly good fellow
Bear to say good-bye?
O let me pledge you in a drink
Before I hide my face!

The Second Cantor (refusing the proffered cup)
No, thank you. You have earned too well
Your measure of disgrace.

Bacchus
And who are you who will not drink?

Silenus (entering eagerly)
By the gods, I’ll take his cup!

The First Cantor
He s a tale-telling teetotaller.

Silenus
A meddler and a pup!

The Second Cantor (to Bacchus, indicating Silenus)
Look well at him, if you wonder why
I spurn what you propose —
At the purple viney pattern
Of the veining of his nose!
He followed you and the dryads,
He dreamed a dream in his youth,
And his house has tumbled about him
In ashes — that’s the truth!

Silenus
What do I want of houses
While a cave holds off a storm?
And what do I want of a hearthstone
While there’s wine to keep me warm?

The Second Cantor
You had a wife who pleaded,
With children at her knees!

Silenus
My wife was like Xantippe,
Who scolded Socrates
When he went the way of drinking men
With Alcibiades —
When he went the way of thinking men
And dodged the homely pot,
As I have dodged the missiles
Of the whole confounded lot.
Sir, can you quote me wisdom
From men who never tipple
That has made a stir in the world like his?
No, sir — not a ripple! —
So here’s to poets, philosophers,
By all the seven seas,
Greek, Roman, Gallic, British, Dutch
And Persian and Chinese!
Though it double me rheumatic —
Here’s to Socrates!

Bacchus
You it is, with disregard
Of measure and time and place,
Who have brought on both of us this day
Of exile and disgrace,
Yet, Silenus, you’re forgiven,
For I’d rather live in a hut
Away from all my friends but you
Than have had you learn to shut
A virtuous mouth like a trap for birds
And a fist like a purse for squeeze —
You’ve an open mouth and hand and heart,
And they have none of these.

The Second Cantor
Are you meaning me?

Bacchus
Yes, even you,
Too careful to be bold.
Before you take a step, you look,
Before you’re young, you’re old.
Before you think in your own terms,
You think in other people’s
And stilt your life as orderly
As pulpits and as steeples.
What can the ocean mean to you,
Draining the shore,
And the wind that drinks the redwoods
And waves its arms for more,
And the dogs that romp in the flowers,
And the cats that sing in the alleys,
And the skylarks in the zenith,
And the waterfalls in the valleys?
In this happy, crooked, drunken world
How you can bid us go
As dry as dust and as straight as a corpse
To a graveyard, I don’t know.

The Second Cantor
Do the dogs and the cats and the skylarks
Need booze to make them gay?

Silenus
What about cats and catnip?

Bacchus
Men need more than they! . . .
O the fruit of the tree of knowledge
Was a liquor on the tree —
And when they chose the apple,
Adam and Eve chose me!
And the children of Jehovah,
As well as the children of Zeus,
Were the better for their knowledge
When the godhead turned them loose.
For there’s nothing so sure as freedom
To make the heart rejoice.
The happiness of manhood,
The guerdon of life — is choice!
And a road that is rough is smoother,
So be it the road you choose,
Than a smooth road chosen for you
Where what you win you lose . . .
I am a godly companion,
A touchstone and a test,
And who chooses with the other gods
Bacchus — chooses best.
For what is life itself but wine,
And what am I but life?
And they who cut our kinship
Use a deadly knife.
And even he who, reckless,
Comes too close to a god
Is wiser than he who numbers his bones
To fertilize the sod . . .
Hear the truth from Bacchus —
My blood is spring in the veins,
And he who would deny the spring
Shall perish for his pains . . .

Silenus
There s a place in the woods where wild apples grow
And the feet of young Bacchus shall tread them,
And if venturers find us, they’ll ask us when they go
What nectar it is we have fed them.
We shall hew a rock-hollow and seal it with clay
And mark it with Bacchus’s fillet —
Wild honey and attar of roses and hay
Shall sweeten our wine and distill it.

Bacchus (moving slowly away with Silenus)
There where the sun sets, winey in the mountains,
There where the moon uplifts her frosty cup,
Bacchus shall come and free the merry fountains
And drink the winter down and the springtide up.
And a welcome shall well there for fortunate companions,
From Silenus or from Bacchus, whichever you prefer.
We shall crown you and lead you through the wildgrape canyons
And comfort you with apples and laugh at the cur
Who would harry at your heels and snarl the woods about you,
We shall hear him faintly barking beyond the happy peaks.
Exile is sweet when fools are left without you
And the wild wine of wisdom is the color in your cheeks.
You may learn there of nature, as Bacchus has learned,
How hemlock is deadlier than grapes are to quaff,
Or if you never find us, or have left us and returned,
You still shall hear us echoing the sound of your laugh . . .

So remember us and praise us, though the time be long,
And sing a song of other days when Bacchus came and went.
And so the heart of Bacchus shall be happy in your song
And the foot of Bacchus steal within your tent.
For you who once have known me never can forget me.
Your other friends are mortal, Bacchus is divine.
Now for a little while evil days beset me . . .
But sing me into exile “for auld lang syne”!

The Company (singing, as Bacchus and Silenus leave them)
“Should auld acquaintance be forgot
“And never brought to mind,
“Should auld acquaintance be forgot
“And the days of auld lang syne?”

(Even the Second Cantor joining, with a cup)
“For auld lang syne, my boys,
“For auld lang syne,
“We’ll take a cup and drink it up,
“To the days of auld lang syne.”

I am a . . . Pacific Northwest Polytheist.

This is my second post in the “I Am Series,” in which I intend to discuss the often contradictory terms I’ve used to describe myself on my About Me page.

So what is a Pacific Northwest Polytheist?  I first encountered this term, as well as a related idea – Local Focus Polytheism – on two of my favorite blogs:  The House of Vines and A Forest Door.  In fact, I believe the term was coined by Sannion and Dver . . . (though I should probably check with them to confirm).  I have included some links to their thoughts on the subject below.  The basic idea is that, as polytheists who believe in many gods and other divine beings, we should pay attention to the landscape around us and honor the local spirits and powers that inhabit the sacred places in which we live.  This concept appears in most pagan/polytheist/indigenous cultures, including ancient Greece.  Even a cursory reading of the writer Pausanias will provide countless examples of the many local nymphs, rivers, mountains, and heroes/heroines honored by the ancients, and these divine beings varied widely from one locality to the next.

Which is one reason I have always tried to honor the local spirits of the land in every place I’ve lived.  When we lived in Paris, for example, Sequona (the goddess of the River Seine) was especially important to us.  But the Pacific Northwest has been a constant and significant part of my identity.  I was born in Portland, Oregon and I mostly grew up in Spokane, Washington.  My mother is an incredibly gifted artist, and she supported us by selling her work at arts & crafts fairs throughout the Northwest, so much of my childhood was spent traveling all over the region.  We went camping or on trips to the coast every summer, and my grandfather took me fishing in countless lakes.  And on my 18th birthday I moved to Seattle, where I came of age by attending the Great Books program at Seattle University.  In my senior year, on the second day of the current millennium, I met my beloved husband Wildstar, who was born and raised in Washington himself.  We moved to Paris, France (where we lived off and on for about five years), and then to Los Angeles, where we spent six years focused on our careers.  But I always longed for home.  I longed for evergreens and rain and the Cascades and the Salish Sea.

There was one sweltering L.A. day in August . . . I was wearing a suit and tie and waiting for a bus in the San Fernando Valley.  The bus was 45 minutes late.  The asphalt was steaming, the smog was suffocating, and there wasn’t an inch of shade.  I was reading a lovely little book called The Pacific Northwest Reader, in which my best friend Pandora had recently published an essay.  Pandora wrote the following lines (in reference to our freshman year outdoor orientation retreat): “We went on nature walks and had meditation time, and with each new foray I found something different.  Leaves the size of my face, curtains of moss the most vibrant green you could dream of, spiderwebs laden with dew that made them visible for yards in every direction.  Everything was so dense and lush—especially compared to the harsh, bright-light desert I had called home a week before—that my brain went a little haywire.  Part of me wanted to walk right into the forest, lie down on a mossy rock, and watch the animals, insects, and sky until I, too, was covered with green.  Another part of me, the atavistic self-preserving part, kept to the well-worn paths for fear of being swallowed whole by the wildness of it all.”  Reading those beautiful words, my memories and love of the Northwest came flooding back upon me.  And the contrast to my own life at that moment was staggering, overwhelming.  It was time for a change.  Six months later we were living here in our Arcadian cabin nestled in the woods on top of a mountain, in an idyllic pastoral setting we affectionately call Oread Island.  And Pandora’s words were the catalyst that brought us home.

There’s much more I could say, but first I want to direct your attention to some fantastic posts on the subject of Pacific Northwest Polytheism/Local Focus Polytheism.  In fact, the following three blogs were my primary inspiration for creating the blog you are reading today, and I would like to take this moment to personally thank Dver at A Forest Door, Sannion at The House of Vines, and P. Sufenas Virius Lupus at Aedicula Antinoi for the amazing and inspiring work they do.  Go read their blogs and buy all their books!  Each of these talented individuals has a completely unique spiritual perspective and style, and their writings are filled with beauty and wisdom.  In my humble opinion, their books should be required reading for anyone who calls themselves a pagan and/or a polytheist.

Posts from Dver at A Forest Door:

Deepening Reconstructionism Locally

Land Spirits

Delphi and Cascadia

Posts from Sannion at The House of Vines:

Changes

Local Focus Polytheism and Cultural Appropriation

Honoring the Kings of Alexandria on the shores of the Willamette

Weird and wonderful Oregon

Posts from P. Sufenas Virius Lupus at Aedicula Antinoi:

Earth Day must be every day to be worthwhile…

River Gods and Antinous Observance

Gone Hikin’ and Photos from Yesterday (High Points Around Fidalgo Island)

Other Pacific Northwest Polytheism Resources:

Pacific Northwest Polytheism page from Wildivine.org: An excellent resource from Sannion and Dver.

John Michael Greer on A Pacific Northwest Ogham

A Gallery of Northwest Petroglyphs: Shamanic Art of the Pacific Northwest.  A petroglyph here on the island led me to discover the goddess Tsagaglalal (aka She-Who-Watches).  I will have much more to say about her in a future post.

So what does Pacific Northwest Polytheism mean to me?  I had planned to write a short essay on the subject, but after a long hike in the woods yesterday, I decided I would leave you with three pagan reveries instead.  The following three poems/passages/reveries were written at various points last year, our first year back in the Pacific Northwest after the six hectic, career-focused years we spent in Los Angeles.  These reveries are an attempt to convey in words my deep love for this region and my spiritual connection to this beautiful land.

Three Pacific Northwest Pagan Reveries

Looking at Canada from Oread Isle

Scattered rocks and shells across the sand.
Crashing waves, a cosmic rhythm.
Crystal sky adorned with a vortex-wisp of gossamer clouds.
Bright sun burning, yet I recline in shadow upon a plastic chair.
The sound of sea-spray, sparkles of sunlight flashing from the wave-crests.
Enchantment.
Beauty overflowing, almost too painful to gaze upon directly.
A light wind refreshes.
A speedboat and two kayaks glide past.
A lone sailboat in the distance.
There is a border here . . . a border between nations.
But the cosmic rhythm of crashing waves,
the refreshing light wind,
the burning sun,
the crystal sky and vortex-wisp of gossamer clouds,
make all such borders meaningless.
Two crows glide past.
A lone plane soars in the distance.
Crashing waves,
the sound of sea-spray,
sunlight flashing from the wave-crests.
Enchantment. 

6/26/11

A Forest Quest – The Mountain Trail

Hiking deep into the woods, deep into the embrace of Grandmother Earth and up to the top of the mountain.  The first part is the hardest.  We sweat, we toil, we verge on despair, yet we trudge on, onward and upward.  Earlier, Brother Hawk guided us here, and yesterday a wedded pair of bald eagles circled the quiet lake while we toasted to our anniversary.  Last night, Jupiter was brighter than ever before, the Seven Sisters were smiling, and we were dazzled by three shooting stars.  But now, it is hot.  We sweat and we toil as we trudge onward and upward, deeper into the woods, higher up the mountain.

We stop at a sacred grove.  Three giant tree stumps, elegantly crowned with plumes of growing fern.  They resemble three distinguished matrons, wearing their newest fashionable hats to court.  Or three stately high priestesses with elaborate headgear, presiding over a secret woodland rite.  After pouring a libation to the sacred grove, the scale upward becomes slightly less difficult and the songbirds serenade us on our journey.  Moss-covered arboreal denizens begin to take shape, dazzling us with an array of emerald forms:  snakes and ships and caves, ogres and trolls and imps, vibrant old jesters, solemn queens, orgies of satyrs, battalions of jousting centaurs, wild gangs of grimacing gorgons, a row of sleek beardless youths poised for a race, pairs and groups of lovers locked in the throes of passion, mothers giving birth, a nurse trunk with a full-grown adult tree sprouting forth, two trees entwined, two trees spooning, two trees with clasping hands or clasped embrace, a titanic glove holding a spear, a surrealist series of crutches propping up a diagonal temple frame, trees with deep roots whose trunks are precariously, improbably positioned over pathways, families and schools and entire tribes of trees of every shape.  Then we notice mushrooms clustered like mussels or stacked like bookshelves or layered in pockets.  Fungus growths like beehives, beaded necklaces, dried seed-pods.  A distant goldfinch catches my eye and I look up with my binoculars, only to see a wondrous treasure:  a tree oozing trickles of golden sap – not mere amber – but lustrous, shimmering, metallic and glittering like gold.  I bow in reverence and silently we move on.

The ground levels as we ascend to the next stage of the trail, and the chorus of songbirds increases, punctuated only by the cackling laughter of the occasional woodpecker or the nearby rustling of a rabbit darting about the underbrush.  At last, we reach the look-out point and think we’re done.  The view is exquisite – islands upon islands upon islands, islands scattered like tea leaves, spaced like bits of sediment in the bottom of a wine-glass.  Distant, yet vaguely numberless, so many shapes and sizes and types, from gentrified upscale communities with multiple ferries, to lush unpopulated nature preserves with multiple faeries, to tiny specks of rock with sunbathing seals.  The cliffside is sheer, the sky is baby-blue with patches of fluffy clouds, the sea a green-blue, pale-blue hazel-grey.

We recline on a rock and read the posted map.  We think the quest is finished, but we’ve only reached the half-way point!  Where will the trail lead us?  To another look-out point?  To the mountain’s peak?  Or will it just suddenly stop in the middle of the wilderness?  We decide to press onward.  A grey rabbit scampers down the trail in front of us, like he was leading the way, only to be followed by a low-flying peregrine falcon, who dives down the path in hot pursuit.  Moments later we hear the ominous, baritone, almost helicopter-like sound of flapping wings as an enormous raven plunges down the same trail.  Rabbit and falcon and raven could not be wrong.  This must be the way.

Much later, we encounter a jagged rock formation that looks like the sculpted face of a stern and serious elderly man with a wild beard overgrown with moss.  It’s the face of the Old Man of the Mountain!  We pour a libation of water and utter a prayer of praise and respect to the wise and ancient king, the grizzled god of the mountain himself, the ancient son of Grandmother Earth, the hermit hidden in the woods, the solid force beneath our feet, the primeval power behind the entire experience.

Throughout the journey, there were moments of sheer aesthetic arrest from the sublime, transcendent beauty that permeated the entire landscape.  At one point we were both overcome with euphoria, a light-headed sensation accompanied by a burst of adrenaline and endorphins, possibly brought on by the combination of high altitude, intense physical exertion, and remarkably pure air.  Or perhaps it was just the overwhelming beauty and truth and wisdom and power and freedom and goodness of this sacred place.

It was a magickal three hours immersed in enchantment, and yet it also cemented the realization that my previous life in the so-called “real world” of a prosperous career in the big city was only a fragile illusion.  The higher reality is right here in these woods, on top of this island mountain with the trees and moss and mushrooms and rabbits and falcons and ravens.  Here with our fellow children and grandchildren of Grandmother Earth.

8/24/11 [Wildstar’s birthday]

The Perfect Gift

Vision of purple in my mind’s eye.
Vision of green, and the blue-grey sea.
A striped seashell from Father Poseidon,
a cackle of distant gulls,
the silver clink of beach stones underfoot,
steady pulse of wave-rhythm,
saltwater finger-tips and kelp-scent.
Islands cloaked in cloud-clusters,
the snaky tide scatters quivering jellyfish
and crab remnants across the rocky shore.
On a driftwood log beside my Beloved,
I pour a libation to the Lord of Waves,
while he discovers a jettisoned chopstick,
an ornately carved memento,
an exotic messenger from another land
who surely traveled far to greet us.
A light breeze whispers past,
my Beloved kisses my forehead
and I am perfectly happy,
completely in love,
and entirely at peace.
At peace with life,
at peace with the world,
at peace with the gods of this world,
at peace with the love that permeates this world,
the love that permeates all of existence . . .
I have found the Good.

9/18/11 [my birthday]

%d bloggers like this: