IT WAS A COOL afternoon and Luibka and me were enjoying some bulgarian red wine in a terrace restaurant. She was a knowledgeable and conversational woman, very keen on talking about the culture and history of her country. She wanted to show me her lovely medieval hometown called Triavna, so we went to spend the weekend there in the mountains. I was most amused by how she described to me the ancient inhabitants of bulgaria, the thracians, and how they had made a religion out of wine, ecstatic dances and music. She loved everything about greece, wine and history. I have the impression that, if she lived two thousand years ago she would have been a some kind of Dionysian priestess.
In ancient greece there were two religions, one was the Olympic religion, that of Zeus, Athena and Apollo, it was the official worship of the city state, mostly masculine and external. But there was also another religion, a set of cults, secret, feminine, unutterable and mysterious. They were the Mystery religions. The very word Mystery comes from the greek “closing the lips” or remain silent. Two of the most important were of Thracian origin, the Dionysian Mysteries and Orphic Mysteries. The Dionysian cult was the opposite of that of Apollo, the god of light, moderation and distant reason. Dionysus was the god of ecstatic dancing and intoxication. The worshipers were mostly women, the Bachants, that danced in groups during all night until they entered into trance. Theater, masks, lashings, snake handling and animal sacrifices were part of the rituals. Wine was Dyonisus’ blood, and he was called the liberator from all social bounds. If they were disturbed or watched by a man they may kill him and make him peaces, as part of the ritual. – You should be afraid of women- Liubka told me. -They have wild hearts- She said as she sipped some red wine. The whole thing was extremely wild, so much that the romans forbade them.
A more introspective and ascetic religious movement was the Orphic mysteries. Orpheus was a thracian shepherd, poet and musician that, when his beloved Imilice died he descended to hell in search for her. When he met Hades, he played his lyre, so beautifully and sung with such pathos that even the king of Hell and his wife Persephone were moved. When asked, Orpheus begged them to release his beloved from Hell, Hades agreed but with one condition. Her soul will follow behind him but if he looks back she will remain in hell for ever. He started to climd towards the exit but at certain moment he amid darkness he thought he had lost her and turned to look back
The Orphics were an ascetic sect; wine, to them, was only a symbol, as, later, in the Christian sacrament. The intoxication that they sought was that of “enthusiasm,” of union with the god. They believed themselves, in this way, to acquire mystic knowledge not obtainable by ordinary means. This mystical element entered into Greek philosophy with Pythagoras, who was a reformer of Orphism as Orpheus was a reformer of the religion of Dionysus. From Pythagoras Orphic elements entered into the philosophy of Plato, and from Plato into most later philosophy that was in any degree religious.
When I told her I was interested in practicing Stoicism during my travels she could not help smiling with disapproval.