Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Review: Dionysus: Myth and Cult by Walter F. Otto

“Dionysus was the god of the most blessed ecstasy and the most enraptured love. But he was also the persecuted god, the suffering and dying god, and all whom he loved, all who attended him, had to share his tragic fate.”

This book been sitting on my shelf for years, and I was excited to finally make the commitment to read it this winter. I’m taking an on-line course on Dionysus, and figured now is as good as any other time to finally pick it up. What a good decision!

Over the years I’ve seen Dionysus: Myth and Cult referred to as the “Dionysian bible”, and it’s referenced all over in websites, encyclopedias, blogs, and other religious texts. There’s a reason why it’s so popular, and Walter F. Otto presents a text that is both academic and scholarly, but beautiful and inspirational. I’ve also read that he received criticism as a scholar because of the devotion and love he showed while putting together this book. I guess his colleagues accused him of being a Pagan. (oooohhhhh!) Some Christians have also attacked him for trying to revive Classical religion, which he just laughed at. But while Otto may not have been a Pagan, his works live on in the Pagan and Polytheist communities as approachable and accurate texts that continue to inspire and inform.

“It is only in the opposite of all agreement, in supreme tension, when the antitheses become wild and infinite, that the great mystery of oneness is proclaimed from the very depths of being. Nor is it just proclaimed. Oneness itself is revealed to Greek myth and cult as the deity who is mad – As Dionsyus.”

Written in 1960s, it reads a lot like James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, (which I've been 100 pages away from finishing for about 5 years...) but maybe a bit more interesting. I’m not sure if this is the nature of Classical or philological scholarly books or the nature of writing in the early half of the 20th century. This style of writing might bother some people, but I tend to like academically presented works rather than reading super fluffy new agey stuff all the time. My one complaint is that he uses a lot of Greek and Latin terminology and makes references to writers or other mythological figures who I’m not familiar with. This just meant I had to google some stuff or ask my husband, who is a bone fide expert on these things.

The first section of the book is a short survey of the nature of myth and cultus, which talks a lot about the practices of some of the ancient Greeks, as well as a fair amount of information regarding the study of ancient Greek cultus. This section was less about Dionysus or any other deities and more about theories and speculation regarding ancient Greek worship and the nature of religion.

“At the height of ecstasy all of these paradoxes suddenly unmask themselves and reveal their names to be Life and Death.”

The second section is about Dionysus, with 19 short chapters about his birth, his death, his friends, his madness, and his associations. Some of the sections got bogged down in academic jargon, but for the most part each chapter is a rich tapestry piecing together this and that about “The God Who Comes”. Otto spends a lot time talking about Dionysus’s maenads and nurses, because how can you have Dionysus without his maenad/nurses? And I was pleased to learn so much about these women, especially Ariadne, and to learn more about the Bacchanal experience which is really just so foreign to me (and still is).

I really enjoyed this book and I’m glad I waited until now to read it. It came at a good time in my life, and is a good resource for me to have in the future. I’m also going to keep my eyes open for other books by Otto, though he was a German philologist and unfortunately it doesn’t seem like a lot of his stuff has been translated into English. (and my German isn’t good enough to read this type of stuff.) But mostly I just loved how it seemed like Otto loved Dionysus, and that was just wonderful.

“And so Dionysus made his appearance at a time of his choosing in the spiritual world of the Greeks, too, and his coming was so shattering that it still affects us today.”


  1. I love how you are a SotV through and through! Dionysus and Ariadne - love them!

    1. absolutely! I remember when I was invited to dedicate and you guys asked "How do you feel about Dionysus?" and I was like "uh... sure?" and these days he and his lovely lady are both hugely active in my life. You guys sure set it all in motion!

      love then both so much! <3

      (love you, too!)