Works, by Lucian

Dionysus, an Introductory Lecture

When Dionysus invaded India — for I may tell you a Bacchic legend, may I not? — it is recorded that the natives so underrated him that his approach only amused them at first; or rather, his rashness filled them with compassion; he would so soon be trampled to death by their elephants, if he took the field against them. Their scouts had doubtless given them amazing details about his army: the rank and file were frantic mad women crowned with ivy, clad in fawn-skins, with little pikes that had no steel about them, but were ivy-wreathed like themselves, and toy bucklers that tinkled at a touch; they took the tambourines for shields, you see; and then there were a few bumpkins among them, stark naked, who danced wildly, and had tails, and horns like a new-born kid’s.

Their general, who rode on a car drawn by panthers, was quite beardless, with not even a vestige of fluff on his face, had horns, was crowned with grape-clusters, his hair tied with a fillet, his cloak purple, and his shoes of gold. Of his lieutenants, one was short, thick-set, paunchy, and flat-nosed, with great upright ears; he trembled perpetually, leant upon a narthex-wand, rode mostly upon an ass, wore saffron to his superior’s purple, and was a very suitable general of division for him. The other was a half-human hybrid, with hairy legs, horns, and flowing beard, passionate and quick-tempered; with a reed-pipe in his left hand, and waving a crooked staff in his right, he skipped round and round the host, a terror to the women, who let their dishevelled tresses fly abroad as he came, with cries of Evoe — the name of their lord, guessed the scouts. Their flocks had suffered, they added, the young had been seized alive and torn piecemeal by the women; they ate raw flesh, it seemed.

All this was food for laughter, as well it might be, to the Indians and their king: Take the field? array their hosts against him? no, indeed; at worst they might match their women with his, if he still came on; for themselves such a victory would be a disgrace; a set of mad women, a general in a snood, a little old drunkard, a half-soldier, and a few naked dancers; why should they murder such a droll crew? However, when they heard how the God was wasting their land with fire, giving cities and citizens to the flames, burning their forests, and making one great conflagration of all India — for fire is the Bacchic instrument, Dionysus’s very birthright — then they lost no more time, but armed; they girthed, bitted, and castled their elephants, and out they marched; not that they had ceased to scorn; but now they were angry too, and in a hurry to crush this beardless warrior with all his host.

When the two armies came to sight of one another, the Indians drew up their elephants in front and advanced their phalanx; on the other side, Dionysus held the centre, Silenus led his right, and Pan his left wing; his colonels and captains were the satyrs, and the word for the day evoe. Straightway tambourines clattered, cymbals sounded to battle, a satyr blew the war-note on his horn, Silenus’s ass sent forth a martial bray, and the maenads leapt shrill-voiced on the foe, girt with serpents and baring now the steel of their thyrsus-heads. In a moment Indians and elephants turned and fled disordered, before even a missile could carry across; and the end was that they were smitten and led captive by the objects of their laughter; they had learnt the lesson that it is not safe to take the first report, and scorn an enemy of whom nothing is known.

But you wonder what all this is about — suspect me, possibly, of being only too fresh from the company of Bacchus. Perhaps the explanation, involving a comparison of myself with Gods, will only more convince you of my exalted or my drunken mood; it is, that ordinary people are affected by literary novelties (my own productions, for instance) much as the Indians were by that experience. They have an idea that literary satyr-dances, absurdities, pure farce, are to be expected from me, and, however they reach their conception of me, they incline to one of two attitudes. Some of them avoid my readings altogether, seeing no reason for climbing down from their elephants and paying attention to revelling women and skipping satyrs; others come with their preconceived idea, and when they find that the thyrsus-head has a steel point under it, they are too much startled by the surprise to venture approval. I confidently promise them, however, that if they will attend the rite repeatedly now as in days of yore, if my old boon-companions will call to mind the revels that once we shared, not be too shy of satyrs and Silenuses, and drink deep of the bowl I bring, the frenzy shall take hold upon them too, till their evoes vie with mine.

Well, they are free to listen or not; let them take their choice. Meanwhile, we are still in India, and I should like to give you another fact from that country, again a link between Dionysus and our business. In the territory of the Machlaeans, who occupy the left bank of the Indus right down to the sea, there is a grove, of no great size, but enclosed both round about and overhead, light being almost excluded by the profusion of ivy and vine. In it are three springs of fair pellucid water, called, one of them the satyrs’ well, the second Pan’s, and the other that of Silenus. The Indians enter this grove once a year at the festival of Dionysus, and taste the wells, not promiscuously, however, but according to age; the satyrs’ well is for the young, Pan’s for the middle-aged, and Silenus’s for those at my time of life.

What effect their draught produces on the children, what doings the men are spurred to, Pan-ridden, must not detain us; but the behaviour of the old under their water intoxication has its interest. As soon as one of them has drunk, and Silenus has possessed him, he falls dumb for a space like one in vinous lethargy; then on a sudden his voice is strong, his articulation clear, his intonation musical; from dead silence issues a stream of talk; the gag would scarce restrain him from incessant chatter; tale upon tale he reels you off. Yet all is sense and order withal; his words are as many, and find their place as well, as those ‘winter snowflakes’ of Homer’s orator. You may talk of his swan-song if you will, mindful of his years; but you must add that his chirping is quick and lively as the grasshopper’s, till evening comes; then the fit is past; he falls silent, and is his common self again. But the greatest wonder I have yet to tell: if he leave unfinished the tale he was upon, and the setting sun cut him short, then at his next year’s draught he will resume it where the inspiration of this year deserted him.

Gentlemen, I have been pointing Momus-like at my own foibles; I need not trouble you with the application; you can make out the resemblance for yourselves. But if you find me babbling, you know now what has loosed my tongue; and if there is shrewdness in any of my words, then to Silenus be the thanks.

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:49