Possession and Power in the Worship of Dionysus

 The Woman’s Phallus: Possession and Power in the Worship of Dionysus

Presented at Dionysia, June 16, 1990, Washington state.

This presentation investigates the phallophoria, an ancient Greek celebration involving people carrying images of phalluses in honor of the god Dionysus.

The image of a woman or procession of women carrying a phallus seems to me to be central to understanding the god’s movement and function in human society. First, it represents a role reversal; second, it is a form of possession (in two meanings of the word); third, it is an assertion of power and of sexuality.

Let me hasten to say that the phallophoria as practiced by Greeks in any period was not a woman’s mystery. Kraemer notes specifically that processions of rural villagers carrying phalluses or pulling carts containing phallic images involved the entire community(1). These appear to be among the oldest of rites dedicated to Dionysos, who was worshipped in Greece by the 7th century B.C.E.

Farnell finds evidence of the parades across Greece, in urban Dionysias as well as rural festival, and adds that phalluses were made of leather or of wood, especially fig wood(2).

Kraemer follows Farnell in believing the phallophoria to be an expression of thanksgiving for agricultural abundance, adding that the festivals (as typical for harvest celebrations) grant temporary license for drunkenness and licentiousness.

Of course in the modern world both men and women are free to carry the phallus and to derive from it the meanings I am exploring; but I focus on the woman in this procession and choose to lead it as a woman’s mystery at this festival for the following reasons.

Kraemer’s paper pivots on the assertion that women dominated the worship of Dionysus, at least in Hellenistic times. She argues that the “oreibasia”, the nighttime revels, reversed the roles that women normally played in Greek society, freeing them for a time from duty to household and allowing them to take on some of the functions and liberties men normally enjoyed.

Evans goes farther, asserting that women declare their independence from men-particularly sexual independence–for the duration of the festival(3). Role reversals, in fact, characterize Dionysian rites, with men taking on women’s clothing as well(4).

In the modern world women do not parade through the streets with phalluses. Even in Hellenistic times, the act had begun to lose its agricultural meaning and to take on connotations of human fertility and human sexuality(5). Today, even Pagan women who celebrate harvest and pay attention to the rhythms of the land don’t necessarily view the carrying of a phallus first and foremost as a celebration of the land’s fertility.

When women process with the phallus at this festival, what is it, then, that we are carrying? Most obviously the claiming of powers held in the dominant culture (though less so now than even a decade ago) by men: to lead, direct activities, choose sexual partners, speak assertively.

(We, too, can carry big sticks).

Less obviously, we claim the power to be priestesses of the god. Farnell argues that the phallus is one of the objects to which the power of the god adheres: it is in a sense the divinity itself.

Now, there are other symbols which mark the god’s devotees–the ivy crowns, the thyrsus, the snake (particularly the red snake), the tambourine–and other objects which carry the power of the god, wine, the goat-skin containers for the wine, and raw flesh. The phallus, however, embodies a particular power.

One of the illustrations I submitted for my first book, Ecstatic Ritual, depicted Dionysus with a phallus about a third of his body length. My publisher bounced it primarily because the depiction of an erect phallus is still considered to be an obscenity in England as well as other places in the world. His reaction to the image was instructive, however: he felt it was first, comical, and second, frightening.

As a representation of sexuality it isn’t a Madonna video. It isn’t in fact particularly erotic–though some men may be disappointed to hear it, the women I know are less often intrigued than put off by an overly large male member. A phallus of the size we are discussing isn’t sensual, it’s powerful in a very raw sense of the word. It implies an overwhelming force, an irresistible intoxication, the mystery of sexuality.

To think of a phallus as overwhelming can be actively frightening to women, representing men’s sexual domination, which almost all women experience in some way at some point in our lives. By taking this power into our hands, strapping it onto our bodies, we say “this presence, this overwhelming force which is divine, is ours to use and to control.”

I am reminded of the often quoted passage in Plutarch(6) about the maenads who stumbled into Amphissa after a nighttime revel. The women of the town found them sleeping in the town square, protected them from assault by the town soldiers and escorted them safely home. I haven’t read an example of Greek literature which depicts an instance of physical harm occurring to the women worshipping Dionysus(7).

In addition to all this, it’s my own feeling and experience with the divinity that he actively protects the physical safety of the women who are possessed by him.

And possess him. Carrying or wearing the phallus which represents the divinity, we begin the process of calling down that divinity. Now, Freidrich says that Dionysus is one of three deities who is said by the Greeks to be a state of mind as well as a force of nature(8). He is entheos, ecstasy–intoxication. In technical magical terms, he’s almost impossible simply to evoke–he must also be invoked; get the god in the circle and he’ll be in you as well.

We carry the phallus and say, “Dionysus, come to us.” We give permission for the process of trance or possession to begin, which can be augmented by the ingestion of wine or dancing or both, and which Kraemer argues must culminate in a revel–in the wild nighttime dancing (oreibasia) or the eating of raw meat (omophagia)–in some kind of tangible expression of the joy in the touch of the god. Only such an act will “ground” or end the possession/trance.

Kraemer argues that it is possible that Greek women experienced, and I argue modern women can now experience, that dance as a sexual union with the god, the Euhios Daimon, the spirit of ecstasy; it is one of the points of the rite.

The woman with the phallus, then, claims the power the god confers on his worshippers, particularly his female worshippers: to step beyond the boundaries of their societally prescribed roles, to control their own sexuality and the power of sexuality in general, and to move in and through a period of intoxication. A woman can begin to become a bacchante, maenad, thyiad, lenai, by taking the god into her hands.


(1)Kraemer, Ross S, “Ecstasy and Possession: The Attraction of Women to the Cult of Dionysus”, Harvard Theological Review 72:1-2, January-April 1979, p. 57. Kraemer references Farnell (see note 2 below) and Martin P. Nilsson, The Dionysiac Mysteries of the Hellenistic and Roman Age, 1957, reprinted in 1975, Arno Press, New York.

(2)Farnell, Lewis Richard, Cults of the Greek States, Vol. V., 1908, reprinted Caratzas Brothers Publishers, New Rochell, New York 1977, p. 197. Kraemer calls this the best listing of Dionysiac references; a comment true of Farnell on the Greek divinities in general. Farnell references Clemens and Plutarch, among others. He says Hesychios calls the phalli made of fig wood “Thyonidas”, which he explains as one of the variants of Dionysus–the object is named for the god.

(3)Evans, Arthur, The God of Ecstasy: Sex-Roles and the Madness of Dionysus, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1988, p. 51.

(4)Evans, p. 71 and elsewhere.

(5)Kraemer, p. 80.

(6)Kraemer, p. 65, referencing Plutarch.

(7)Euripides does have Agave rend her own son; this is a punishment from Dionysus for both Agave and Pentheus, however–and arguably the physical harm here occurs to Pentheus, not Agave…

(8)Paul Freidrich, The Meaning of Aphrodite, University of Chicago Press 1988, p. 92. The other two deities being Aphrodite (lust/love) and Ares (blood lust).

copyright &#169 1990 Brandy Williams