The Flutes of Dionysus Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In a sense, the polytheistic ancient Greeks were actually pantheists. In addition to their many individualized, anthropomorphic deities, such as Zeus, Apollo, and Aphrodite, they also recognized supernatural forces which existed all around them in nature. Thus every tree had its own special divine power called a dryad and every sea its own nereid. While modern mythological handbooks usually refer to these forces as “minor deities,” the Greeks themselves used the word daemon to refer to all supernatural forces, including the dryads and nereids as well as the theoi or Olympian gods such as Zeus. A daemon was a guardian or inner spirit which could possess a tree, a body of water, or even a human being. In Plato’s Apology, for example, the fifth century philosopher Socrates speaks of a daemon, an inner divine force, urging him always to seek the truth.

With the advent of Christianity, the daemons of antiquity were transformed into demons, and the protective power of the dryads and nereids were identified with the evil, demonic powers of Satan and his minions. The most vivid example of this transformation of pagan divinity into Christian demonology is Pan, the ancient woodland deity whose goat horns and hooves were probably the source for the features later associated with the Christian devil.

Another powerful Greek daemon is Dionysus, the god of wine and ecstasy, who can dominate mortals with his terrible life force. Dionysus, too, was transformed in the Christian era, but in a metamorphosis kinder than Pan’s: He usually became not an evil demon but a cheerful drunkard, known better by his Roman name Bacchus.

Stock is not concerned, however, with the history of this transformation or with the iconography of Bacchus in Western literature. His interest is daemonic enthrallment, the manipulation of the human psyche by a supernatural power. As the god of wine, of intoxicating alcohol, the Greekdaemon Dionysus becomes the epitome of this enthrallment.

The point of departure for Stock’s book is Euripides’ Bacchae, a fifth century B.C. Greek tragedy about the god’s return to Thebes, the Greek city of his birth. Bacchae centers on a confrontation between Dionysus and Pentheus, his regal cousin who doubts the god’s validity. In this play the powerful Dionysus seizes control of Pentheus’ mind and eventually drives his victim into the hands of frenzied women, including Pentheus’ mother, who savagely tear Pentheus apart limb from limb.

The effect of Dionysian frenzy upon mortals is ambiguous. For Pentheus it is savage and destructive, but for the women it is ecstatic, joyous, and liberating. Thus, the power of the Greek god of wine is both daemonic and demonic, both good and evil. The Janus-faced Dionysian power is simultaneously reflected in the jolly, inebriated deity in the pastoral scene of Walt Disney’s Fantasia (1940) and in the terrifying demon in the Walpurgisnacht of the same film.

In a sense, Dionysus himself once linked with the performance of drama in fifth century Athens, was ambiguous and wore different masks. Stock focuses on several of these masks. First of all, Dionysus is, at times, the source of prophetic inspiration; that is, Bacchic frenzy was often the means to special religious insight and the ability to prophesy. At the same time Dionysus is a magician, a wonder-worker, who, in Euripides’ play, makes Pentheus see two suns in the sky and slips from his fetters like an ancient Harry Houdini. Most significantly, the god is the center of a Greek religious cult associated with frenzied female worshipers called maenads and with a wild sacrificial ceremony called sparagmos, in which the victim, like Pentheus, is torn apart limb from limb.

Stock illustrates similar patterns of Dionysianism in the Old Testament prophets who, like the followers of Dionysus, are seized by rapture, roam in bands, wear animal skins, are affected by music, utter cryptic and emotional speeches, and control nature with miracles and wonderworks. These characteristics are seen especially in the story of King Saul in 1 Samuel.

At the same time, Stock notes the Dionysian traits of Yahweh, the righteous god of the Old Testament, who, like Dionysus in the Bacchae, is often filled with daemonic wrath and has the power not only to create but also to destroy. Yahweh ruthlessly shows his hand against wayward humans. He sends the Flood against Noah’s contemporaries, punishes the builders of the Tower of Babel with linguistic chaos, destroys the sinfilled cities of...

(The entire section is 1900 words.)