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Image: The Women of Amphissa

Notes on the Mænads and Ecstatic Dance
by M. Isidora Forrest

Dear web-surfing Bacchant,
The following are my notes for a talk on "The Mænads and Ecstatic Dance" that served as a preparation for a night of ritual and trance dance at a Dionysia in our area. Please don't get frustrated if they are sketchy; as I said, they're notes. Also, in many cases, as it was an informal oral presentation for non-scholars, I didn't give attributions. Make of them what you will, and may He bless you always with sweet wine.


Appear, appear, whatso Thy shape or name.
O Mountain Bull,
Snake of a Hundred Heads,
Lion of the Burning Flame!
O God, Beast, Mystery, come!
Fill soul and flesh with Thy mystic power.
O God Whose gifts are joy and union of soul in dancing!

Mænads as Goddesses/Nymphs

All human Bacchants are imitating the original Goddess Mænads --- the nymphs who reared the young God and ran with the grown one.

Powers of Mænads:
As nurses, the Mænads awakened the infant Dionysos from His sleep, probably with hymns --- perhaps with the Dithyramb, which usually told the tale of the God's birth.

The Mænads are called nurses and foster mothers --- they not only nurse and mother the young God, but young animals in the forest as well.

Mænads called Nursing Nymphs in Homer and Sophocles. They are, in fact, the Mothers. In The Bacchæ it is the young human mothers who leave their babes who go to the mountain. As Mothers, They have the power to make the Earth bloom and the wild animals come to Them.

They also have the power of prophecy. The Bee Priestesses on Parnassos, the Thriæ, the 'nymphs of Parnassos,' which may also be connected with the Mænads, are prophetesses. Like Dionysos, they too rave in holy madness to speak the hidden truths.

Before the arrival of the worship of Dionysos, there was already ecstatic dance in Greece. Notably in the worship of the Nymphs. So Nymphs and ecstatic dance were connected before the worship of Dionysos.

Dangerous Mænads

To a large degree, what is said of the Mænads is true of Dionysos and vice versa. We will return to this idea of the Mænadic identification with the God again and again in this short discussion.

Like Dionysos, the Mænads are nurturing and life stirring. Like Him, they are also dangerous! Mænads are said to be omophagios, eaters of raw flesh, just as Dionysos Himself is.

The Chorus in The Bacchæ says, "There's a brute wildness in the fennel wands."

The Mænads spring on animals to tear them apart as beasts of prey --- notably panthers. In The Bacchæ, Agave, the leader of the Mænads, compares the Mænads to hunting dogs and to hunters.

In an ancient tale by Oppian, he tells that Dionysos turned the Mænads into panthers before they attacked Pentheus.

Philostratus says that the panther leaps as gracefully and lightly as a Bacchant. In a Roman mosaic of His panther, the animal appears to be a leopard, complete with spots. The panther offers the combination of grace & beauty contrasted with bloody fierceness that is seen in the Mænads.

In one surviving ancient image, a Mænad carries a panther for rending, so in a way, she prepares to tear herself, just as Dionysos is torn. This is one more identification between the Mænads and the God.

One of the legends told about the origins of the Sphinx (the dangerous man-eating woman-lion) is that she was once a Mænad --- one of the original Theban woman whom Dionysos drove mad.

In the myth about the daughters of Minyas who refused to honor the God, were driven mad and rent one of the women's own children, the mad women are finally driven out of town, transformed by Hermes into owls and bats --- night's creatures and night's predators. Like female predators throughout the animal world, the Mænads are scary.

Ancient playwrights sometimes even compare Dionysos and his woman to the wild procession of the dead --- like the Wild Hunt.


The human version of the Goddess-Nymph Mænads were the many groups of ecstatic women who, according to Plutarch, 'are mad in honor of Dionysos.'

There were many names for these groups of ecstatic women:
Phoibades is the feminine plural of Phoibas as in Phoibos Apollon and it relates to the beauty of holiness. Greeks called ritually pure, holy things phoebic. So these are shining, holy, pure women. Kassandra in the Iliad is a Phoibas of Gaia --- who refuses Phoibos Apollon Who consequently ruins her.

Meanings for some of the other names are things like Mad One, Rushing One, Inspired One, Raging One... poets have called Artemis by some of these names as well.

Aside: connection between Artemis and Dionysos. Only ones to have thiasos; roaming wild in the forests and mountains with Nymphs; fierceness; dance.

For a long time there was much scholarly discussion that the Mænads were entirely mythic and not real, since Greek men would not have let Greek women out of the house like that. Now opinion is that, indeed, there were real Mænads. So let's talk about them... for we are heirs tonight to their tradition.

Pompeian Mænad fresco An Orphic Hymn describes the Mænads as 'the beauteously girt ones" and says that they shout the cry of joy and excite the choruses to dance.

According to Pausanias, the Thyiades stopped at Panopeus to dance on their way to Parnassos and from this it was known as 'the place of beautiful dances.'

Often the month in which the women rave in a particular town or area is named for them. The Thyiades raved in the month of Thyios.

Plutarch is the one who tells the tale of the frozen Thyiades on Parnassos. (The women of Amphissa) Mænads caught in unexpected snow storm on the mountain. Had to be rescued --- their garments frozen stiff as a board. They were quite real.

Another Mænad tale: related in Plutarch's essay On the Heroism of Women.

The Women of Amphissa: the thiasos of Thyiades, exhausted after their oreibasia, inadvertently wandered into a town that was at war. Because the town was full of soldiers, the women of the town thought some of the Mænads might be molested, so they formed a circle around them to guard them through the night, letting the holy Mænads sleep where they lay. In the morning, they fed the Mænads and escorted them back to the woods in safety.

Other evidence of real Priestesses: when a lightning strike exploded a tree in a particular village, an image of Dionysos was revealed inside. The town sent to Delphi to see what to do. Apollo said to build temples (He always says that) and send to Thebes for three Mænads from a certain family. The Mænads names were Kosko, Baubo, and Thettale. They taught the rites to the people in the area and founded three thiasoi.

Pentheus confirms that the Mænads were considered Priestesses as he jeers, "Our women go creeping off this way and that to lonely places and give themselves to lecherous men. They are Mænad Priestesses, if you please!"

As mythic Mænads had connection with the sacred Dionysiac animals, so did the human Mænads:

Mænads by another name, the Lapsistiai, wore bull horns in imitation of the Bullfoot God. Others, the Protides, moo-ed as cows. Nonnos in The Dionysiaka, reports that Semele, while pregnant with the Bull God, would moo whenever She heard a bull low.

Mænads often seen carrying and wearing serpents in vase paintings.

It was said that when Zeus bore Dionysos, He wreathed His head with snakes and so this is why the Mænads catch wild snakes, nurse them --- to tame them --- and then wind them around their heads.

Snakes have always been potent creatures throughout the world. The same goes in Greece. Athena had Her serpents --- as did most Earth connected Deities. The Python at Delphi is an Earth spirit --- and is sometimes shown spiraled around the omphalos, the center of the world. So did Asklepios, the healer. Snakes often connected with fertility and the harvest. There is a beautiful vase which shows a grape harvesting scene in which Maiden Snakes are shown carrying baskets full of grapes.

So, the carrying of snakes in Dionysos cult was probably another symbol of growth and change.

Nonnus tells that Mænads wound snakes around their waists beneath their clothes so that they would be protected from rape even if they slept. For the Mænads are chaste --- they are for the Love of Divine Ecstasy only. Even in the Bacchæ the chastity of the Mænads is emphasized. They chase off would-be rapists with thyrsos, torches, and snakes.

A tale told of the mother of Alexander the Great, Olympias: that she carried out the ecstatic rites in a very barbarous manner, introducing huge tame serpents into the rites that would creep in and out of the ivy and wrap themselves around the thyrsoi of the women and 'frightening the men out of their senses.'

Just as the Pythia chewed Apollo's laurel leaves, the Bacchant women chewed ivy leaves. (Note: not a good idea. They're toxic!!)

The connection with sacred animal and plant forms is reinforced by evidence for tattooing in Dionysos worship as seen on painted vases. According to this evidence, we might suspect that female worshippers were tattooed with a fawn and male worshippers with an ivy leaf.

Mænads and Prophecy

Plutarch tells us that 'the ancients' thought that Dionysos had a lot to do with prophecy. In The Bacchæ, Dionysos is called Mantic (Prophetic). Herodotus says that in Thrace there was a shrine with a prophetic prophetess of Dionysos, as there was for Apollo at Delphi. Euripides calls Dionysos the Prophet of the Thracians.

The Bacchæ chorus says: "And this God is a prophet. The Bacchic ecstasy and frenzy hold a strong prophetic element. When He fills irresistibly a human body, He gives those so possessed the power to foretell the future." So oracular trance is certainly a strong possibility if not the main theme of the Mænadic dance.

Mænads and Semele

In connection with the rites of Dionysos, the ecstatic women also celebrated Earth Goddess rites for Semele. She is apparently another of the Goddesses Who were turned into women --- but the rites certainly point to a Goddess.

Plutarch tells us of secret rites of the Delphic Thyiades called the Herois. He says that the Thyiades are the ones that really know what they're about, but from the rites that are openly performed one may conjecture that it is a 'Return of Semele.'

This is a Return and Uprising of Spring energy --- much like the Return of Kore, Persephone at Eleusis. The feminine fertility mysteries. Nonnos (playwright) presents Semele as being the model of the Bacchants. So it may be that the Mænads saw themselves as Semele or as a holy cow in relation to Dionysos' bull.

This is often shown on vase paintings as a female figure literally rising out of the ground --- She is Gaia, Kore, and often Semele. Semele is acknowledged by scholars as a Thracian-Phrygian form of Gaia.

There is even one of the young Dionysos, son of the Earth Mother, i.e., the fruits of the Earth, rising out of the ground as well. To Her Semele, He is Semeleios --- He of the Earth.

Sometimes the grown Dionysos is shown with His mother Semele as God and Goddess --- so we have here the Lover-Son idea. The Goddess's consort is both son and lover.

Of the Rites of Semele in Athens, Pindar writes: "Then, then are flung over the immortal Earth, lovely petals of pansies, and roses are in our hair; and voices of song are loud among the pipes, the dancing floors are loud with the calling of crowned Semele."

A Pindar fragment of this same sort of ceremony connects Apollo with Dionysos: "to Apollo's grove, nurse of wreaths and feasts, where oft by the shadowed omphalos of Earth the maidens of Delphi beat the ground with swift feet, as they sing of the son of Leto."

The opposition of Apollo and Dionysos may not originally be as much as Nietzsche would have us believe.

Gifts of the Mother

Other reasons to connect Dionysos with His Mother: remember that the Mother, like Her Earth-Born son, can also bring Divine madness: Kybele and Hera.

The Bacchæ's Chorus tells us that the timbrel, the flat drum, of Dionysos comes from the Mother --- that is, Kybele. Dionysos' connection with the Mother and with His Mother Semele and with females in general point to the OLD religion of Mother and Child.

Perhaps we have another connection with the ancient Mountain Mother Goddess in the fact that the Mænads are led by the Son of the Goddess to the mountains in order to hold their rites.

Wine also connected: the playwright Aeschylus calls wine 'the Wild Mother' and Euripides calls it, 'the fiery drink of the Black Mother.' Probably a reference to lightning-blasted Semele. Even with a male Deity as God of Wine, wine itself is still connected to the Mother, the Earth from which the vine (the God) grows.


In Plato's Phædrus, Socrates is made to say that "our greatest blessings come to us by way of madness." By this he means the Divine type, the inspiration of a Deity --- not the kind from mental illness which was shameful in Plato's day. The madness from the inspiration of Dionysos he calls Telestic Madness, or Ritual Madness. Divine freedom from Dionysos Lysios, Dionysos Liberator. (Other types of madness are: Poetic, Erotic, and Mantic.)

Plato's theory of the relationship between music and trance is the most ancient one we have. Theory expressed in Phædrus and Timæus. He says Telestic madness also has an initiatory aspect.

It is only in Telestic madness that we see the 'signs' of possession trance: head flung back, arched body. Only those in a state of Telestic madness dance as well. Amnesia is often a characteristic of Telestic --- and also Mantic, or oracular ---madness.

Words used to speak about the ecstatic state, such as experienced by Mænads: Telestic and the word teletai has to do with ritual and Mystery rites. Rites are teletai. Often rites involve invocation of the power of Deity to manifest: either in person or in a talismanic object such as a statue.

It may well be that the teletai of the Mænads were to invoke the manifestation of the God --- within themselves... so that they would experience enthusiasmos (where "enthusiasm" comes from) or be entheos, "engodded."

Identification with the God through dance: THIS IDEA IS COMPLETELY COMMON IN TRANCE POSSESSION THROUGHOUT THE WORLD. The Greek verb baccheuein, used of the Bacchants means 'acting like Bacchus.'

Entheos is the word used of the mantic Sibyl. It is also used of poets when composing. Only complete possession leads to the ability to prophesy.

Pythia's possession: Read description from Arcana Mundi.

It is not always good to be entheos --- in the Hippolytus, Phædra contemplates suicide and the Chorus asks if she is entheos, led astray by some Deity. Madness is also punishment for some offense against a Deity --- as if often the case with Dionysos.

Katokoche is possession. Katechomenos is possessed. Mainomenos is enmaddened and may be said both of humans and Deities. Theoleptos is 'seized by the God.' Theophoretoi is being 'carried by the God.' Epipnoia is inspiration. To be ekphron is 'out of one's senses' --- the effect of inspiration.

Euripides describes the coming of Dionysos into a person: the God "in His fullness floods" the human body of the one He possesses.

Plato describes the Bacchants as ekphrones, out of their senses, and says that it is the combined action of music and dance that restores them to their senses so that they are emphrones.

Here is an important bit of info: trance dancing RESTORES the Mænads. Takes them from the dangerous madness to a gentler, Divine madness.

The dance turns unproductive madness into initiatory, Telestic madness.

The dance and ritual cries (Io Evohe!) were not the cause of unhealthy madness, but its cure. There is a tale of Melampus who healed the madness of the Argive women with 'ritual cries and a kind of possessed dancing.'

As trance dancing restores the Mænads to their senses, according to Plato, trance possession (becoming entheos), correctly done, can also relieve the faults of wrongs done against the Deities. Humans can be healed of diseases or woes by rites --- discovered through divinatory trance. These curative rites usually involve purifications --- and entrancement. These things "securing for him who was correctly entranced and possessed release from troubles."

Ghost dancing also cures Nooksack Native American dancers of sickness --- it even serves to socialize people who have stepped outside the bounds of their society. Parents with wild teenagers often have them initiated into the dance in order to curb them.

Plato believed that movement was healing and health-provoking since movement has a connection with the Divine part of us which in turn reflects the revolutions of the Universe.

Could we then say that the dance of the Mænads is a dance of the Cosmos?

Plato also thought that susceptibility to trance to be from fright or from some ancient fault in the lineage of a family; hereditary madness. This susceptibility supposedly indicated a weakness in the soul or a defective disposition, although he contradicts himself on this. The mantically possessed are not considered to be faulted. The telestically possessed he was ambivalent on --- it could be both a sickness and the cure for sickness.

Plato mentions 'correct' possession which implies incorrect possession. Correct would have been ritualized rather than not. The Mænads probably used their rites and dances to correctly entrance themselves.

In the Ion, Plato describes how ecstatic dancers like the Mænads and Korybantes find their dance: "they have a sharp ear for one tune only, the one which belongs to the God by Whom they are possessed, and to that tune they respond freely in gesture and speech, while they ignore all others."

Ghost dancing among the Nooksack Indians of the NW is very similar --- only it is the individual's personal Song that the dancers are hearing and responding to and this Song is also tied to a personal Spirit. Perhaps we could say that it is the Song of the individual's Higher Self or Holy Guardian Angel.


In the play Edonians, Aeschylus describes music of Dionysian worshippers like this:
One on the fair-turned pipe fulfils
His song, with the warble of fingered trills
The soul to frenzy awakening.
From another the brazen cymbals ring.
The shawm blares out, but beneath is the moan
Of the bull-voiced mimes, unseen, unknown,
And in deep diapason the shuddering sound
Of drums, like thunder, beneath the ground.

Oreibasia --- is the running and dancing in the mountains.

In the wild, mountain dance of the Mænads there is a desire to return to nature that perhaps we too feel. The Chorus of Mænads describe the freedom and intoxication of the night and nature, the leaping like fawns, the leaping like the Hunted, a joy and a fear.

Dancing together may be considered ritual in its purest form. The Dithyramb, the characteristic song of Dionysos also refers to a dance. The Bacchæ Chorus sings "dithyrambic measure full of sufferings and metamorphoses." The Dithyramb was the song of the sufferings of Dionysos. Some scholars think that in the enactment of the Dithyramb is the origin of dramatic tragedy. The God Himself can also be called Dithyrambos.

In depictions of Mænads on 28 of the existent Mænadic vase paintings, the heads of the women show a strong backward bend. The same is true of entranced voodoo dancers, which one researcher has described as 'their heads are thrown weirdly back as if their necks were broken.'

They danced "with head tossed high to the dewy air." (from The Bacchæ)

Pentheus: "Inside while I was tossing my head up and down like a Bacchic dancer, I dislodged it from its place."

Cadmus and Tieresias comment that they will 'toss their grey heads' and 'drum the ground all night' with their thyrsos.

Pentheus wants to stop Dionysos' Priest from "drumming with his thyrsos, tossing his long hair."

"He will bring His whirling Mænads, with dancing and with feasts."

The heads of the Mænads are either bowed or thrown far backward.

In Greek ecstatic dance --- and generally throughout the world --- there are two aspects to the dance: freeform and figurative.

The freeform aspect involves spinning, swinging the arms, arching the back, and flinging the head back in the movement which according to the poet Pindar, in a dithyramb of his composing, is the movement "that dislocates the neck." As in other cultures, this may be meant to relate to the 'fury' or 'frenzy' of the God.

The other aspect is figurative --- that is symbolic or imitative of the Deity being danced. Plato tells us that to imitate "Nymphs, Pans, Silenoi, and Satyrs" by means of mime is the very essence of Bacchic dance. It would certainly make sense that Dionysos Himself is also imitated. In this way, the Bacchants were dancing Godforms and 'power animals' if you will.

Among the power animals they danced were the Bull, the Panther, the Lion & Lioness... we may also suppose the Snake since it, too is of the God.

There is a hand gesture mentioned by one of the scholars I consulted --- but I haven't been able to find a picture of it. He calls it 'the joined hand dance.' I get the impression it doesn't mean clasping hands with other dancers, but rather is some personal mudra...

The Satyr and Silenoi dance had several steps and aspects. Like the Mænads, they would bend deeply forward and backward, but they would also leap --- crouching on one leg, then launching themselves to fall upon the other one. They capered with the Mænads, and would sway their hips accompanied by angular arm movements.

The author believes that many of the dance steps did indeed have strong symbolic meaning and were learned just as the orisha and voudon dances are. Beyond the 'joined hand' gesture and the animal imitations, we do not know specifically what these gestures were. But since mime was a major aspect of Greek dance, it may be that the mime of the forms of the God were large parts of it.

Another aspect of the trance dance of the Mænads was, of course, the music. They used flute, drum, and timbrel or castinets, and cymbals. Plato considered that the flute, rather than the drums, were the instrument of possession. Aristotle and many of the major playwrights agreed with him that the melody of the flute was the carrier. Interesting isn't it?

In ecstatic Mænadic scenes on vases paintings, usually flute, tympanum, and castanets are shown. In tranquil scenes, the tympanum (drums) are not shown.

The aulos, the double flute, was the trance instrument par excellence among the Greeks. Entranced persons could be said to be en-aulized.

The flute gained a rather indecent reputation, probably from its ability to alter consciousness. It was the instrument of the lower classes, of women, the hetæra, of drunken young men at whorehouses. On the other hand, it also accompanied soldiers to war and war dances. So you have the old sex and violence connections.

Plato tells us that 'the Phrygian mode (of harmonies) makes men enthusiastic.' The Phrygian mode is passionate. Aristotle says liberating or kathartic melodies help to heal. The melodies are 'sacred.'

Aristotle says that the flute music should be used to purify the listener or dancer. Then it follows that possession by the God completes the formula and consecrates.

Other Cultures' Trance Dances

From the short survey I've done preparing to talk with you, it looks like trance dancing the world over is VERY similar to what we've just talked about with the Mænads --- swaying, especially with the head.

In the candomble when possession is long in coming, the priestesses or priests ring a bell very close to the dancer's ears. This is also done among the African Thonga with rattles, in Tibet with horns, and in Bali with singers. Perhaps it was done with the flute or castinets among the Bakchoi.

In Madagascar, increased drum tempo is also used frequently to induce trance as are ritual shouts. We can certainly imagine both these as the drums of the Mountain Mother speak and the Bacchic shouts of Io Evohe!

Here an African ndöp ceremonial dancer's possession is described: there is a rapid extension and bending of the arms, in an oblique line to the axis of the body, and a violent swinging of the head up and down." This is more than reminiscent of the satyrs' arm movements and the Mænad's head toss.

Here is a seated trance movement from Tibet: while seated, swing the upper body rhythmically with a rotating movement left to right, rolling limply as if the body were only loosely attached to the trunk. Allow the head to roll along with the body.

Connection with music: often the dancer is thought to be interpreting the music. She is not dancing TO the music, rather she is Dancing the Music. The dance is meant to communicate a personal experience. In the case of Bacchic dance, we would likely be Dancing Dionysos or one of His animal apparitions.

A researcher has concluded that the Phrygian mode of flute playing was a diatonic mode with semitones. Can any musicians interpret??? Aristotle says Phrygian music is "music of the Asians" (today Middle Eastern).

In the ndöp, adept dancers perform mimed dances while the crisis-and-collapse type of dance is for neophytes. One learns how to handle it.

In one kind of Vietnamese trance dance, the dancer's Genii --- Higher Self? --- descends and then the dancer begins to turn side to side, head and body, slowly at first, then gaining speed. When the union is complete, particular dances are done: sword dance, flame dance, lion dance, etc.

It would make sense that the Mænadic dance could have been something like the Vietnamese dance: they become entheos, then dance the Godform whether as anthropomorphic or theriomorphic Deity.

In studying many, researchers have concluded that dance is a representation of the Deities --- sacred theatre --- but which is enacted for one's own experience and not for others. The others are there only to help you. In this way, very initiatory. And very appropriate to worship of Dionysos.

Arabian trance dancers --- whirling dervishes --- can undergo snakebite, sword cuts, and fire unharmed --- again, like the Mænads who emerge unharmed from the weapons of men.


Go side to side like your aerobics instructor would have you do. Not front to back. Quote Pindar and Pentheus. Pindar, in a dithyramb of his composing, is the movement "that dislocates the neck." Pentheus: "Inside while I was tossing my head up and down like a Bacchic dancer, I dislodged it from its place."

Take it slowly. You will have sore neck muscles if you do this. It's worth it. Just find a friend to rub them next day.

With a lot of tossing, you're disorienting your inner ear and can have some vertigo, giddiness... just lean against a tree or sit down till you recover sufficiently. Without wine this is much easier because there are no alien chemicals... just a purposively altered consciousness, which can be purposively UNaltered. This IS what you're going for. Just take it easy.

Like wine, this can be very altering to the consciousness. If you are uncomfortable with altered states of consciousness, DON'T DO THIS. Because I guarantee you WILL change your consciousness in about 30 seconds of head tossing.

There is nothing in these techniques that takes away your responsibility for your own trance. Just as if you were drinking wine, you are responsible for how much you drink --- and how far you take your trance.

If you feel you would like a little extra balance, use a centering meditation before you start. Invoke the highest form of Dionysos to guide your trance.

But always remember: YOU CAN CONTROL YOUR TRANCE. If you feel you're going too far, slow down, stop. GROUND with whatever method you normally use.

And remember --- the music and dance were used to CURE the Mænadic frenzy by inducing the Mænadic Divine trance. Let the rhythm rock your snake brain, let it charm you. Be pure of intent, invoke the Highest form of the God, and then trust Him.

If you're interested in some of the mechanisms of trance dance, I suggest Music and Trance by Gilbert Rouget, a lecturer in Ethnomusicology at University of Paris. He has reasonably convinced me that people who have studied and studied and studied the phenomenon of trance possession have not yet discovered the mechanism of the trance. Some say it's the disorientation of the inner ear, the 'driving' effects of the drums or bells or noise on the nervous system. He says none of these things completely explains the effect. All contribute, but none fully explain. I agree: because the one thing they never factor in is the one thing that the dancers themselves say IS the mechanism: and that is, the Deity.

Without the Divine participation, there is no Divine trance, only a kind of hypnosis. That's not what we're after. The Mænadic Dance is ritual and the effect comes from a combination of all the ritual factors --- from the music and movement to the spiritual state of the dancer and the grace of the God.

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