Dionysos, Altered States, and Adaptogens

The goddess of the harvest has graciously bestowed two gifts upon us, (a) the fruit which pleases Dionysus so much, but which won’t keep, and (b) the produce which nature has made fit to store.”

Plato, Laws, trans. Saunders, 844d

A year or two ago, I started seeing something on my social media feed about something called “sober-curious,” a social movement filled with people who did not suffer from alcoholism, but noticed problems with their use of alcohol as a coping mechanism for living. Many of the people in that movement found that quitting mind-altering substances like alcohol (paradoxically) improved their quality of life. The reason they needed a movement was to have the social acceptance to quit using substances while cushioning themselves from peer pressure.

“Detail from Attic black-figure cup, or kylix, ca. end of 6th century BCE, by the Chiusi Painter depicting sileni (aka satyrs) and maenads in a grapevine, harvesting grapes into baskets.” Cdm Paris 320 n4. (2021, April 13). Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. Retrieved 23:39, May 22, 2021.

In polytheism, the world is filled with Gods, and Dionysos is the God most associated with drunkenness due to his history in Greece and beyond. He brings this gift that is at once soothing and destructive, the disruptiveness of its entry into societies frozen in myths that describe groups’ first encounters with wine. In the Orphic stories, and in the Platonic interpretation of them, his repertoire broadens out. Dionysos is divided by the Titans in a bloody, horrific killing; he is reborn from Semele; he ascends to Olympus changed.

The soul descends into generation, after the manner of Kore; she is scattered by generation, after the manner of Dionysus; like Prometheus and the Titans, she is bound to body. She frees herself by exercising the strength of Herakles; gathers herself together through the help of Apollo and the savior Athene, by truly purifying philosophy; and she elevates herself to the causes of her being with Demeter.”

Damascius, from his Phaedo commentary

We are formed of the Titanic ashes and the Bacchic body, holding both elements of division and procession (which the Titans symbolize) and of reunification (which is under Dionysos’ purview). In our century, it is interesting to look at the functions of wine — first, as a liberation from bonds and a sacred madness. The Athenian Stranger in Plato’s Laws also points to wine as the thing that helps adults over 30 cope, softening the rigidness of our minds.

So how shall we encourage them to be enthusiastic about singing? The first law we shall pass, surely, is this: children under the age of eighteen are to keep off wine entirely. We shall teach them that they must treat the violent tendencies of youth with due caution, and not pour fire on the fire already in their souls and bodies until they come to undertake the real work of life. Our second law will permit the young man under [b] thirty to take wine in moderation, but he must stop short of drunkenness and bibulous excesses. When he reaches his thirties, he should regale himself at the common meals, and invoke the gods; in particular, he should summon Dionysus to what is at once the play-time and the prayer-time of the old, which the god gave to mankind to help cure the crabbiness of age. This is the gift he gave us to make us young again: we forget our [c] peevishness, and our hard cast of mind becomes softer and grows more malleable, just like iron thrust in a fire. Surely any man who is brought into that frame of mind would be ready to sing his songs (that is ‘charms’, as we’ve called them often enough) with more enthusiasm and less embarrassment? I don’t mean in a large gathering of strangers, but in a comparatively small circle of friends.

Plato, Laws, trans. Saunders, 666a

It is this kind of passage that opens up some interesting questions about how we can think about Dionysos in 2021 — namely, how the function of liberation and the idea of a gift that makes people relax broadens beyond grapes and vines and into the myriad species of plant life. This brings me to the First Prayer to the Gods that I wrote earlier this year, which contains these lines for Dionysos:

now to Dionysos, the always-future king,
liberator of all, releaser of bonds and anxieties,
purifier of the mind, nurturer of life-easing plants.

In this prayer, I broadened out from just wine — instead, I wrote nurturer of life-easing plants. The reason is that there are many plant products apart from fermented fruits that provide life-easing qualities, and to speak for a moment about becoming as Godlike as possible (a Platonic thing), getting into a good state of mind is very helpful for doing the types of ritual and contemplative practices that rely on one-pointed focus. In my personal experience, this is a functional extension of Dionysos’ role that is meaningful in both a Platonizing and Hellenistic Syncretic Polytheistic sense. Demeter, as Plato says at 844d, nurtures the plants; Dionysos has named wine as one of these beloved plants due to its effects.

“Ancient attic-greek black-figure Eye-cup (Kylix) with Mask of Dionysus and Gorgon’s Head Medallion,” Group of Walters 48.42, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

I am one of the (rare?) people who never developed a taste for alcohol — although when I was younger, I certainly succumbed to peer pressure by choosing whichever cider seemed the most like fruit juice at conferences before I grew confident enough to just order water with a slice of lemon. Annually, I drink 2-3 small glasses of sweet wine during the three-day Anthesteria. The times I have tried to keep alcohol for drinking in my refrigerator due to feeling whimsical about fermented pears, a six-pack of cider tends to last a year. Broadening out from wine, I have never consumed cannabis, tobacco, or any other controlled substances. I looked on PubMed and saw that cannabis has paranoia side effects in some people with a genetic predisposition to anxiety (way too close to home), and its memory-related side effects alarmed me, so I will never use it. It doesn’t sound useful for my personal brain and mental health goals.

What I am into are some kinds of adaptogens — tulsi, ashwagandha, and other herbs — that have studied clinical effects on humans and that target things like stress and anxiety, but that do not have strong side effects or toxicity warnings. I have also recently started taking L-theanine, which shows promise in human studies when it comes to regulating some of the problems that arise in PTSD, anxiety, and depression, and my experience taking it matches expectations. People who function best while taking prescribed pharmaceutical therapeutics could also see their well-balanced medications operating in this supportive capacity, but that is beyond the scope of this blog post.

None of this is medical advice because I am not a doctor, but the important takeaway is that there are ways to establish sympathetic links to Dionysos that do not involve getting drunk or high. It is also important to investigate why painful states of mind arise in the first place and to attempt to solve them in whatever way is healthiest, either alone or with a professional therapist — the process of coming back together from division can sometimes be a steep climb, especially for those of us who sustained mental trauma as kids.

Perhaps we can use the passage from Plato to say that one of the disadvantages of life experience is that we can grow rigid, and uniting our fragmented natures back together requires suppleness and elasticity for the process to actually stick. The passage’s image of metal in fire drives the analogy home. Honestly, Dionysos never clicked for me until I started reading Plato — there’s just something about the way Plato and the philosophers of this school discuss the Gods that makes an understanding of each of them just open up, carried up by holy words — and I also started chanting something from an Oration written by Aristides that was recommended as a chant by people who worship Dionysos on the regular at about that time, too. There are plenty of ways to build an expanded state of consciousness without strong chemicals.

Finally, knowing that tulsi’s soothing impacts stem from the same source as those of wine itself makes it more meaningful when I am at shrine offering chilled tulsi to the Gods. 😇


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