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Blood sacrifice and related rituals in the cult of Dionysus: myth, history and the area in between

The study of the cult of Dionysus has aroused great excitement for a century and a half, or more precisely since Nietzsche presented his passionate treatise on this previously marginalized deity. Since then, the peculiar rituals in his honor, mentioned by ancient poets and reflected in art, have fascinated scholars, influenced the understanding of ancient culture as a whole, and inspired artists. Contrary to what the dull scholars of earlier eras suggested, classical Greece appears in such a view not only as a land of rationalism, order, and harmony, but also as the result of the evolution of a repulsive yet fascinating “primitive” culture. Moreover, as was emphasized in its time, the Greeks never fully forgot or lost the wild side of their nature. As late as the 1970s, scholars read texts such as Euripides’ Bakchantes in this vein, as reflecting an extremely ancient form of sacrificial ritual in which a live animal, sometimes replaced by a human being, was torn to pieces and devoured raw by cult participants. Since the boundaries between sacrifice, worshipper and deity were sometimes fluid, the Dionysian rites were regarded by scholars as particularly interesting testimony to “primitive thinking,” the remnants and influences of which were found in various aspects of Greek culture and the human psyche in general. As a result, the search for their traces also seemed justified in today’s world. Such a vision, which has not been fully abandoned on the periphery of scientific discourse (it is still present in popular studies and continues to influence artists), has been subjected to criticism, particularly harsh since the 1990s. It is emphasized that its theoretical foundations are in obvious contradiction with the concepts developed in the field of cultural anthropology. Moreover, the traditional interpretation of the Dionysian rites is based on a very shallow reading of the source material, which ignores the distinctions between “history,” “myth,” and “fiction,” between “reality,” “perception,” and “construct.” Therefore, it is now accepted that the wild face of Dionysus is a product of ancient fantasy rather than a reflection of the reality of any (pre)historical place. For this reason, little recent attention has been paid to these considered unreal practices. In view of the turbulent development of the study of Greek religion, and especially of animal sacrifice, the understanding of which changed radically in the same period (perhaps quite by accident) in which the traditional interpretation of the cult of Dionysus was abandoned, the data on bloody rituals in honor of this god deserve to be re-examined. Of course, this does not mean a return to old, rightly criticized concepts. Instead, what is needed is an in-depth analysis of all available literary, inscriptional, iconographic and archaeological material in order to create a so-called “dense description” of the phenomenon under study. The ultimate goal of this procedure is not to search for a simple and homogeneous mechanism to explain the nature of the phenomenon, but rather to prevent the trivialization of the issue.