Tending the Bull: A Review

I recently acquired Tending the Bull  by H. Jeremiah Lewis, AKA Sannion. Reading it has settled a long-standing mystery for me. Yes, Sannion can write clearly and succinctly, when he has to.

Image from the Amazon page for the book. I'm linking below, so I hope they don't mind.I’ve heard folks read some of Sannion’s writing, either online or in print, and complain that he must be trying to be obtuse. I don’t thinks so; it seems to me that his usual style is a teaching tool. Normally, he writes around a point, dropping a hint here and a partial conclusion there, mixed with a very generous helping of  block quotes from works classical, scholarly, fictional, and poetic. Online, he also includes music and video links. What I think he’s doing here is trying to lead the reader to make a discovery, by teasing out the not-necessarily-obvious themes running through his examples. It’s a variant on the Socratic method, really, and can be just as annoying to modern readers as one imagines it was to the ancient philosopher’s interlocutors on the streets of Athens.

This mode works for me, usually, and I appreciate the challenge, at least when I have time to read and re-read the quotes until I finally get it. It’s like staring at one of those Magic Eye posters until the hidden image resolves, except that I can never make those work.

There is plenty of this style in Tending the Bull, but there are just as many passages where Sannion lays out in plain language just what he’s talking about: the devotional practices of the Starry Bull tradition. It’s not a comprehensive list; for example, the lists of gods, demigods, and heroes honored in the tradition is absent. So is any kind of formalized liturgical calendar.

That’s all right, though, the book isn’t meant as a kind of initiate-by-mail manual for the Starry Bull. Instead, it’s a description of the basic ritual obligations and practices of the boukoloi, those who serve the members of the tradition as ritualists, maybe magicians, and sometimes diviners. The book won’t teach one to be a boukolous. Achieving that is a more complex matter, requiring personal instruction in the tradition.

What the book will do is give some idea of what the religious life of an initiate looks like, including a brief history and description of the Starry Bull Tradition.

A quick aside: this bit, though it’s only part of one chapter, was one of my favorite bits. I’m a bit insecure, you see, and whenever I’m feeling less than confident in my own practice and the development of my devotional group, part of my brain jumps up and down and yells about how I’m DOING IT WRONG! It then goes on to point out how not having a thick book of established liturgy or a huge number of people showing up to monthly devotionals or the name “Thiasos Bakkheios” on the lips of polytheists everywhere is proof that I’m DOING IT WRONG!

As Sannion describes the current state of the Starry Bull, and the route they took to get where they are, I don’t feel so bad. When that part of my brain starts to jump, I can just wave this book at it, and shout back, “Ha! I am not!”

But back to what Tending the Bull says about life as a Bakkhic devotee: It’s about prayer and libation, and it doesn’t have to be that complicated. Unsurprisingly, Dionysos seems to favor inspiration and variety, so while there are official holy days and whatnot, there are also many, many variations on Starry Bull practice that seem to work just fine.

The minimum work of the boulokous involves daily prayers, a new-moon devotion to the ancestors, and another monthly rite of prayer and maybe divination on behalf of community members who ask for it. That doesn’t seem so complicated, does it? So what’s in the rest of the book?

Aside from the expected quotes, there’s a quick guide to non-ritual activities that can bring one closer to Dionysos and his kin, a good deal of information of historic Dionysianism, and a couple of rituals one might choose to use, adapt, or ignore. The book totals only 127 pages, so that’s really quite good for a brief overview of the topic.

So is this the book for you? Will it open your heart and booze budget to Dionysos and his troupe of attendant friends and family? Will this book save your IMMORTAL SOUL from damnation and sobriety?

I dunno, man. You do you.

If you’re curious as to what the Starry Bull folks are doing these days, it’s good. If you are new to Dionysian devotion and at a loss for things to try, it’s really good. I recommend it, because even if you don’t end up doing things the Starry Bull way, it’s still an example that devotional practices don’t have to be complicated and time consuming. And, hell, even if you aren’t aiming to devote yourself to Dionysian, most of the things suggested as non-ritual practices are good for having a well-rounded, well-lived life.

Tending the Bull is available from Amazon.

About Ashley Sarver

Ashley Sarver is a queer, nonbinary trans femme, polytheist, gamer, and disability caregiver living in the San Francisco Bay Area. View all posts by Ashley Sarver

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