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Wild Gods

A community honoring Artemis, Pan, and Dionysus

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Dionysus

a Dionysian entrancement

Last night I went to a Godspeed You! Black Emperor concert in Seattle. I’ve seen them four times now, each time at a different venue. The last show was at Showbox SoDo, which someone next to me who’d apparently also been at that show described as “a barn.” It definitely wasn’t the most evocative or intimate of spaces.

The Neptune theater in the U District is something else again. It’s smaller, for one thing, and has a mythology of its own: there’s the decor, with stained glass images of Poseidon and Amphitrite, and its salvation in part due to repeated showings of the <em>Rocky Horror Picture Show</em>, a Dionysian adventure if ever there was one. It’s a perfect venue for an ensemble like GY!BE, whose concerts one doesn’t so much listen to as experience. An acquaintance described it as going to church, and it’s a bit like that, or how I imagine it being if one’s church experience involves a sense of entranced transport.

I’d describe such an experience as Dionysian, myself: a full sensory immersion into something all-pervasive. GY!BE’s songs often begin softly, and more than once I got annoyed at people’s continuing conversations around me rather than engaging with the sound. Then the volume would rise, additional sonic layers would blanket the room, and soon it was both too loud and too entrancing for anyone to think of other distractions. It’s one of the few events I’ve been to recently where phones were rarely out except to take pictures. A few times I thought of leaving–it was, after all, a school night–but to do so before the music ended and the lights came up was unthinkable.

GY!BE don’t do things like stage banter or taking bows or even telling you what the names of the songs are. And yet they engage their audience fully. The song order builds a kind of collective tension that is then released at the show’s climax, and you can see how attentive the musicians are to one another and to the sound they’re creating. The film projected onto the screen at the rear of the stage has its own entrancing effect: you become aware that each film is a series of clips repeated over and over, yet it both holds your attention and isn’t so arresting that it distracts you from the music. There’s nothing orgiastic about it, and yet it consumes the senses and thereby entrains the mind. A GY!BE concert is about as Dionysian an experience as I’ve had without entheogens.

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Festival altar

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Altar to Orpheus and the Muses, Dionysus and Apollo. At Orpheus Descending festival, 2018.

revel altar

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Ritual altar for a Wild Gods revel, to Dionysus and Pan.

Dionysus

(caution: fast screen flickering)

Gjallarhorn, “Kokkovirsi”

Years ago I saw this band perform live (they don’t seem to have been active for about a decade). The album this song is on had just been released. The lead singer said the song was about women going up into the mountains at night to light bonfires and dance. Sounded pretty Bacchic to me. Or maybe Artemisian…She likes to dance, too.

Bacchae, Epiphany of Dionysus

Concluding track from a musical setting of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter by Vaxevaneris Stylianos Hephaestion. Io Dionysus

Tracking as a Devotional Act

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Tracks in snow near my house in Seattle, Jan. 2018

Engaging with the gods of the wild means engaging with wildlife, as a part of the natural world which is not human–though we as humans have no inherent separation from that world, even though we often act as though we do, there is nothing like an animal encounter to bring home both our kinship with these nonhuman intelligences, and the differences between us and them.

The ancient Greeks had a different relationship to wilderness than those of us who have grown up with it as a form of recreation do. There are reasons that Artemis patrols the liminal, Pan incites panic, and Dionysus’s entrance into the city from the wild mountains is a time of upheaval and terror as well as joy and celebration. We push back the wilderness for our own safety and comfort, but it will come in, as sure as a dandelion pushing up through a sidewalk or a squirrel invading your attic.

Wildlife are pursuing their own stories: food, shelter, reproduction, play. Seeing them at

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Mouse tracks in snow under a tree on Capitol Hill, Seattle, Jan. 2018

these pursuits is an unusual occurrence, one that few besides hunters, wildlife scientists, or determined backwoods adventurers experience. But in tracking, you can learn something of the stories that passed through a place before you came there.

Among other more practical reasons, this is why I study tracking. Realizing that the seemingly undisturbed landscape along the logging road or hiking trail is actually awash in activity is a humbling and eye-opening experience. The wild isn’t something that occurs out there. It’s going on all the time, all around us, in the most unlikely places. Knowing that an elk or a bobcat or a bear or even something as humble as a wood rat or a deer mouse was right here, perhaps just a few hours ago, brings home how we are not the only inhabitants of this world.

It’s not just for us, and it is of this that the gods of the wild remind us. Artemis is both

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Mink tracks, under a bridge over the Stillaguamish River, Stanwood, WA, Feb. 2018

hunter and steward; delighting in slaughter as the hymn says, but also concerned with sustenance and renewal. Thus a goddess of violent death is also a goddess of birth. Pan is the wild, the will toward life of all that is, both the deer mouse trying frantically to escape the coyote’s jaws, and the coyote in desperate need of this tiny meal. Dionysus is both our footsteps on the earth, and the mountain lion’s; He brings the wilderness into the city, and brings us out into the wild.

When next you are in the forest, stop and sit. Breathe. Imagine who else might have been here, as recently as a few hours or minutes ago. What sign did they leave of their passing? What sign will you leave behind you?

Dionysia

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Altar to Dionysus and Rhea, for a ritual of sacrifice and release. There was a burn ban on and we had to get creative with illumination. Hence the glowsticks.

Retreat, Advance

IMG_3487Last weekend, a group of us went into the woods by a river to be together, share friendship and camaraderie, and do ritual: in honor of Asteria/Brizo, who has made herself known to me recently, and of Dionysus, one of the gods of our cultus.

We danced, drank, played music, swam in the river, sat beneath the trees, cooked breakfast in the rain, and traded quizzical looks with scrub jays, chipmunks, and deer.

And then we came home to the news out of Charlottesville.

Retreats refresh the soul and provide the opportunity for the kind of private ritual that, as polytheists, we sometimes have trouble finding time and space for in our daily lives. But we do not believe that our gods are only to be found there; nor is that the only place for our work. Dionysus is a god of liberation, and that does not mean solely in the woods, or in the circle, or in the wine-soaked temple. It also means in the streets, and in our own hearts. America has a lot of work to do, not least in recognizing that our past isn’t really past, and that we have never come to terms with our history.

We have work to do.

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