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Dionysus in India


In the Metropolitan Museum in New York, there’s a statue of Dionysus, prominently displayed in the Greek antiquities section; walking in, your eyes are drawn to it. While they are not the oldest or necessarily the most virtuosic, there’s a gorgeous quality to the sculptures from that era, the 1st century BCE. Dionysus stands there, hand on hip, the King in the Room, god of wine, ecstasy, foreignness – and also, madness.

Surprisingly for that time, he could also be described as gender-bending. He was portrayed with a ‘womanly appearance’ and features; he was also famous, of course, for the maenads, those female followers of his who, in their frenzy, would tear live beings apart (including, in some of the lore, people).

His legend says that, as a scion of a divine father and a human mother, he brought knowledge of the grape to humanity, and spread it as he went. His story goes as far as India, where, it was said, he conquered at that head of an army, in human form; he was, then, also a god of ‘Eastern’ wisdom. The god of the mystery cult, bringing the grape where he goes – a legend that is deep and wide, like the fruit that is sacred to him.

Houston actually has great native grapes. Every time I taste one, I think I can taste some of the wildness latent in it, that seed of alcohol, not yet germinated. The cultivation of the grape has its own field of study, viticulture, and an association with humanity as old and revered as our associations with horses, dogs and cats.

Our native grapes have a tart, tangy taste, one that hasn’t quite been domesticated. They also have a slightly harder shell than most cultivated ones, which doesn’t quite pop under your teeth. When you bite into one, the slippery insides slip out of the shell, and you’re left with two tastes, the sweet interior, and the sharp exterior. The grape is a vine that coils around trees and becomes woody as it ages, but if you know where to look in a native plant sanctuary, you’ll see them everywhere – coiling up towards the heavens, but hard and rough to the touch.

That’s history, to me. Stories, narratives, myths, tumbling down to us, not very accurately, but still touched with magic and wonders which we are always forgetting. My own life, by now, is so filled with experience that the new additions at one end crowd out the early pieces at the other. It’s why meditation and writing have become so important to me – an attempt to hold, to remember some of it, and to inhabit that wildness, that space, in a way that is true to that experience.

Like Dionysus, I also come from a strange place. I’ve felt like the foreigner in so many situations, the lonely wine-drinker in others. Privately, though, I’ve sought not just happiness, but ecstasy – not easily gained. Everybody needs a goal; that, in a personal and professional sense, is mine.

From Lucian.

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. 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. They used toy bucklers that tinkled at a touch. They took the tambourines for shields; and then there were a few among them, stark naked, who danced wildly, and had tails, and horns like a new-born kid’s.


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