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.

Ariadne Speaks

Who was the mistress of the labyrinth?
Who was my lunar bull, that the initiates danced with?
Whose bloody hands held the sacrificial knife?
Who gave her name to the King’s first-born?

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Ariadne by Herbert James Draper

Dutiful daughter I, adept in the art of the spindle and the loom
Like Clothos I spun the new thread, birthed in scarlet
Like Lachesis I made its measure, to fit the greater weaving
Like Atropos I cut the thread, dyed scarlet

Priestess of the Labyrinth, walker in the deep dark places
Only comfort to my bull-brother Asterion
Sacrifices bound in red thread, down into the dark
I cut the thread, with knife in scarlet

There in the deep places, in the winding places
There with my sacred bull, blood like wine
My love crowned me with nine flames
Married in deathly dark, doomed flesh, incandescent spirit
I chose immortality

Theseus came, after too many years
Dreaming of a hero’s victory, a hero’s reward
I gave him the bloody thread of the sacrifice
I used him to give my weary brother release
As he thought he used me to gain a throne

We sailed away, me feckless hero and I
To Naxos we came, The Immortal Gods parted us
My roaring bull, with wine like blood, claimed me
My mortal clay entombed, my immortality re-born in flames of ecstasy
My nine-jeweled wedding crown enshrined in the stars

My husband and I roam the earth
We bring the place that is both center and edge
We bring the place where the chains of life fall away
My wine-stained maids, my bloody-handed students
Our dance is not safe, but it is so, so alive

The Invisible Labyrinth is my palace, I stand at the door and the center
With knife and thread, with crown and veil
Come to me, children of Earth and Starry Heaven
I will teach you of the weave and the dance of winding ways
I will teach you that to die is to marry immortality

Pantheacon Devotional Scripts

For some time, I’ve been promising to put the scripts for our Pantheacon devotionals up for people to download. Well, I finally got ’round to it. All four scripts are here, as PDFs.

Included in the folder are the scripts from 2015-2018, and the Dionysos chants we used, in a separate document. There are Ariadne specific chants from Her devotional in 2018, but I don’t have final copies of those ready. I’ll add them to the folder when I do.

Sorry that there’s no notation about how to chant them as we do. I’m a passable devotional poet and liturgist, but I’m no musician, and I don’t know how to make such notations. If someone who does writes it up, I’ll update the chant document with that.

The 2015 devotional was our first public outing; it was, in fact, our first ritual ever. I was asked to run a Dionysian devotional at Pantheacon for a local Hellenic group, Pandemos, who are the folks who host the Hellenic hospitality suite at Pantheacon.

The 2016 devotional was our first public ritual under the name Thiasos Bakkheios. Pandemos wasn’t available to work with us that year, so when we were submitting the ritual to Pantheacon programming, we needed a group name for the form. I decided on Thiasos Bakkheios, and so another great tradition was retroactively created.

The 2017 devotional was our first openly political ritual. In my opinion, all Dionysian practice is political, even if it’s not partisan, as the kind of freedom of mind and body that Dionysos provides is at odds with much of Western, capitalist culture. We went a bit further, though, as we decided to center it around the dismemberment of Pentheus, the foolish king. Nobody said “Donald Trump,” but we weren’t shy about our subtext, either.

2018 saw our first public Ariadne devotional. She had been communicating to us in our private devotions that She wanted more of our time and attention, so in mid-2017 we decided we’d focus the 2018 Pantheacon offering on Her. Several of our monthly devotionals were dedicated to getting to know Her in preparation, and the script presented here is what ultimately came of that.

During that ritual, it happened that some of the celebrants in attendance were ready to stop dancing and chanting significantly earlier than the rest, and the energy was starting to flag a bit. She moved me to put some of the lore I’d absorbed, while studying Her in the course of writing the ritual, and weave it into a new version of her story. I’m working on a more coherent version of that, and I’ll post it here when I have it ready.

Enjoy these devotional pieces. Use them yourselves, in whole or in part, change things, borrow bits for your own rites. All I ask is that you give the original authors credit and not use our work for profit.

The Dionysian Artists Q & A

The Dionysian Artist

Late last year I sent out requests for questions of The Dionysian Artists. A modern devotional artist guild and religious cultic tradition I’m attempting to formulate. These are the questions and answers so far. If you have more to add feel free to leave a comment or email me. markos.gage@gmail.com

I also wish to thank everyone who has already asked me questions!


Who is Dionysos?
Why is Dionysos relevant in the modern era?
What symbolism is associated with Dionysos and what do those symbols represent?

How to develop a relationship?
Like any other relationship it requires respect and honour. Foremost is establishing some kind of cultus (worship), this may be in any kind of religious expression. It could be via art, devotion, sacrifice, offering yourself through drug use, dance, music, ecstatic practice – etc. Dionysos is a god that comes, he is literal epiphany, it just a matter of…

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The God Who Comes to America

I’ve been doing some research into the history of California wine, as it seemed relevant to honoring local manifestations of Dionysos. After all, the coming of Dionysos to America could be understood as parallel to the introduction and spread of European viticulture here.

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Monsters and Heroes

If we choose to see myths as more than literal stories–that is, as being about more than simply the surface events they depict–then we can see one way in which they are stories that live thousands of years and miles outside of their original context.

As the Dionysian Artist suggests, the stories of heroes and monsters don’t have to be only old adventure stories. They’ve survived so long because they are about more than just a series of events, they’re also about transformation and actualization. Monsters can be seen as the shadow, the chaos in the world, which are integrated by the hero’s triumph into something more.

The Dionysian Artist

(This was originally published on polytheist.com December 2014. As mentioned in previous posts I’m compiling all my writing here for posterity and for future reference.)

Typhon by Wayne McMillan.

When we think of Greek mythology images of fantastic monsters and heroes often comes to mind. The stories are filled with hybrid beasts that haunt the lands as challengers to would be champions. We see these monsters as just that: monsters. An opposition, a narrative piece to add some excitement to tales of heroes. But what if monsters hold a greater significance? What do we gain by understanding their role in the heroes journey? Why do I feel a sympathy and even a reverence to monsters?

There is always a degree of kitsch when discussing Greek mythology. Many of us were introduced to the myths as children. Growing up in the 90’s I would watch the ultimate of camp: Hercules and Xena…

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I’m Not a Dionysian Rock Star–and That’s Becoming OK

Once upon a time, I had dreams of being a rock star. Not a touring musician (no one deserves to suffer that), but a rock star in the sense of someone locally famous for Doing Things in the community. More, I wanted to be a Dionysian rock star. I wanted to hear

Elektra Records promotional photo, circa 1969

Not like this guy.

folks say things like,”hey, isn’t that the guy who does the really cool Dionysian rituals?” as I walked by, to have people email me out of the blue asking about polytheism or Dionysos, to have the kind of blog that gets re-posted and hosts long, interesting discussions. And, dare I dream, maybe I’d found a tradition of reverence that would outlive me.

But, as it happens, I’m not a rock star. As much as I might dream of it, I just don’t have the kind of extroverted drive that it takes, or the kind of life where I can take my traveling Mad God Show on what passes for the Pagan event circuit.

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