Articles by The Dionysian Artist

The Dionysian Artist

Markos Gage Δ (The Dionysian Artist) – Australia devotee and initiate of Dionysos – Artist and writer. [Formerly known as The Gargarean].

A Polytheist Artist Proposition

We live in a world saturated in art. Our contemporary master pieces are found on billboards and seen on television as advertising. This current culture’s greatest musicians are carefully crafted by an executive board of mega power-mongers competing with other mega power-mongers. Even the most profound of art forms – the theatre – is manipulated and evaluated by non-artistic producers to determine their risk of investment.

If our peoples go down in history, we will be known for crap art on a mass scale. It’s value based on prescribed assumptions of what will make money.
Is this a bad thing? I don’t think so, I’m cynical of it on a personal level, but all art is an evocation of epiphany, it’s bringing an idea: inspiration, concept into reality. In art’s role of money maker, one cannot dismiss that it works.
Art justifies the human’s claim to being apart from animals. It is the proof of our right to be the dominant species. It’s an universal communicator that transcends all boarders of reality, language, culture and location. If there is anything that should be held in reverence, it is in all forms of art.

So that’s why I don’t think it’s ‘bad’ that our culture is saturated in tasteless art. Sometimes though… I find it worrying. Apart from art just being, it requires an audience. This trend of flooding the world with bad art is lowering the standards of the audience.

I find the jadedness in myself as I wander through the internet. Social networking websites presents art in such an artificial and dismissive manner, so much so, when I see something truly amazing I appreciate it with only a glance and maybe a ‘like’ or a ‘share’. This jaded overexposure continues offline into a physical art gallery. It is especially noted when observing others in this environment who, with echoing voices ring, “same old” or “how boring” as they observe paintings by some of the greatest masters in history. The worry I feel is that this over exposure is leading to the nihilism prophesised by Nietzsche. If we’re not careful, the audience with such non-standards will be incapable of appreciating art for what it is.

Then you see the hatred of art in society itself. It’s fitting writing about this now as we see examples with the spread of extremists morons in the Middle-East who seek to destroy all forms of art from burning drum kits to demolishing some of the greatest artefacts / structures in world history. We can’t just blame those extremist barbarians in the middle-east however. The West is at fault too with its over censorship, intolerance and itself destroying artwork in the name of religion and politics. Since Abraham smashing idol statues to the modern art movement of the twentieth century there has been a war against art. On both sides there have been gains and losses. Sadly, given my knowledge of history I see the West following suit, yet, again.

If by over exposure, religious doctrines or cultural norms we have to admit we have lost our ability to hear the choir of the Muses. Yet under Muses reign their devoted polytheist followers produced the greatest art ever known. The art of polytheists have had an influence on all we know. From basic composition to our concept of aesthetics, standards of writing to the play house – we can even go as far as claiming the development of politics, philosophy and mathematics.
To provide an example here is a simplification of fifteenth century art history: We have a culture that is exposed to the Greek writings from the Islamic Golden Age. This rekindled the lost heritage within the Italian elite who went on to further study the Greeks and developed a new kind of appreciation for the art. These nobles then commissioned digs and contemporary artists to create a new era of art that we name the Renaissance.

I don’t want to dismiss the hard work of those peoples, but it was their reintroduction to the classical polytheist cultures that initiated nations out of the Medieval Dark Ages. The liberating influences of the ancients lead to the further developments climaxing during the industrial revolution. In regards to art we have the study of natural science, such as anatomy led to better medical practice. Alchemy, via the study of chemicals to make pigments, became the secularised study we call chemistry. Introduction and experimentation of artists aided in the development of common metal alloys too. Through the reintroduction of perspective from the Roman’s, artists became architects and learnt to build grander, stronger structures. Along with philosophy and the theatre we have the development of political theory and eventual reestablishment of democracy and just think, individuals like Shakespeare would be nothing without the works of Homer, fragments of Greek plays and of Roman greats like Ovid.

So you see when Oscar Wilde says in wit, mimicking works by Kant and Plato: “All art is quite useless” I will fervently argue against it. Yet, I also seek a balance of Wilde’s statement through making art as devotion. The balance is dependent on the point of view of the creator / spectator, if one is secular then it could be perceived as useless but if one has faith in the divine it is the most beautiful work one can strive for.

This is the difference, faith, and this is something that our polytheist predecessors had, belief in the gods and what did they do? The ancients and their knowledge of art have made us what we are today. All their art was devotional, their entire lives were dedicated to their gods and in the process of creating art for the gods they achieved the greatest pinnacle of art. A pinnacle that we have been disparately trying to emulate but never reaching fulfilment because our culture is not polytheistic.

It’s not a matter of money, monotheism, politics. It’s faith in the gods while creating art in their honour.

If we look at all kinds of movements, be it political, cultural or religious we see that that there is an art movement in itself that coexistent and justifies the existence of that said movement. That is something I want to attempt to ignite throughout the polytheist community. One being the reestablishment of the Dionysian Artists. The other commitment is encouraging others to produce devotional art and / or establish their own artistic communities within the polytheist sphere.

So what is an art movement? I’m going to quote Wikipedia here are its succinct and correct:

“An art movement is a tendency or style in art with a specific common philosophy or goal, followed by a group of artists during a restricted period of time, (usually a few months, years or decades) or, at least, with the heyday of the movement defined within a number of years.”

There is a lot of debate as to what was the first art movement but of my own opinion the first was the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood founded in 1848 by William Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Millais. I believe they are the first art movement as they, the artists, were the first to have a set of doctrines which dictated the art as being considered Pre-Raphaelite, these are:

  1. to have genuine ideas to express
  2. to study nature attentively, so as to know how to express them
  3. to sympathise with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parodying and learned by rote
  4. most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues

These doctrines are very liberal but allow members some guidance in what to strive for in making art. As a result of their formal brotherhood we not only witness a drastic change in art of the mid-late 1800’s but also see their effect on other areas of art including writing, poetry, common home decor, architecture and fashion. Through their art they created a miniature cultural revolution within the Victorian climate with influences on other forms of art and associated movements that continued well into the twentieth century.

We have these examples of success already in front of us. There have been groups with lesser goals than the polytheist community that have altered the cultural climate. From ancient examples I’ve provided in previous posts to my mention of the middle ages to more modern times. Movements that have lesser motivations, each all different, but none that have the gods on their side in their creation. Compared to these groups there is a lot of people online that call themselves polytheist, why is it that we are not pressing forward into the grand overarching culture of the west to reassert ourselves once again? To me the simplest way to do this is through art. Be it painting or sculpture, writing, poetry, philosophy or performance. Not these navel gazing, petty, self-generating squabbles between ourselves.

Maybe, just maybe, if we can work together to produce good art for our gods we can break the jadedness of mainstream culture… let’s conflagrate the passions of the Muses once more. Let’s do something constructive for our gods!

Markos Gage Δ

Open Roads

I’ve been invited to discuss a specific announcement I made earlier in the month on my personal blog. In that I am officially a Dionysian Artist, Orpheotelest and initiate into a kind of Orphic mysteries.

Two things I want to address first:

1. In my announcement I used the words priest and clergy lightly. These terms are used to communicate a concept for my modern audience that is familiar with a certain kind of monotheist language to define: “holy man”. It should be acknowledged that these words are inapplicable to the actual Orpheotelestai, and in my case: Dionysian Artist.

The Orpheotelestai took on more of a shamanic role in Greece, derivative of the northern tribes known as Thracian and Dacian. Their knowledge spread and evolved throughout the Grecian nations and colonies to become what we call Orphic.The Dionysian Artists, Dionysiakoi Technitai1, were a unique religious organisation that I have discussed extensively in my column on In short: they were performers, actors and playwrights – anyone dealing with play production. Over time they were granted privileges of free travel through the Greek City States and recognised as holy performers. Naturally these rights lead to alternative careers such as diplomats, negotiators and spies.

I don’t know for sure if the two groups were ever related but both held titles and knowledge in the Dionysian Mysteries. For those unfamiliar with Mystery tradition, they encompass a theatrical aspect with elements that could be considered shamanic.

2. As of writing I am not claiming I’m part of any specific school of Orphic. I believe my Mysteries are related to the Starry Bull strain of Orphism. However I have yet to be physically initiated. There is a problem with distance as it’s foundation is in the US and I’m in Australia. Therefore I am not claiming an official position under the aegis of the Starry Bull tradition.

So what does this mean?

I consider myself a Dionysian Artist and Orpheotelest. I will refer and sign off as Markos Gage  – D.A. (ΔT / ΔA, or simply Δ) – Dionysian Artist.

I will also offer services that are divided into two distinct categories. These services are related but differ, so they have variable fees:

1. As a Dionysian Artist I’ll offer tutoring in creating devotional art. Depending on the extent of my services some may be offered for free or a fee, this is negotiable. These services practical artistic skills including:- Help with mediums in: bronze, wax, plastics, mould making, digital art, graphic design, inks, pastels and oils.

  • Constructive criticism.
  • Material studies (Example: I can teach how to make paints and pastels.) I also have extensive knowledge of health and safety and what not to do.
  • General artistic advice.
  • The philosophy of religious (Dionysian) art.

My expertise as a Dionysian Artist is only visual arts. This does not discount a person pursuing other creative paths like an actor, musician or poet, etc. The concept of this school is the greatest form of devotion is through expression. By mastering an art the artist not only connects to the gods through art but ‘brings the gods into existence’. The mysteries live through art and is a core prerequisite of the Dionysian artists, this leads to the next service I offer.

2. As a self-proclaimed Orpheotelest I offer initiation services into my own mysteries. These services can be partially online, but the end result must be performed in person and must be paid for.

  • As this requires a physical, in-person, element I may refer you to someone else if students are in another country or interstate.
  • I expect extensive work and study by the student. Some source books will include works by  H. Jeremiah Lewis (Sannion). As he is alive and well, thankfully, I’ll also expect any student to pay for his books and services too, including his own classes.2 I will not encroach on his own traditions.
  • This work is not for the light hearted.
  • Fees and work are not negotiable.

How have you done this? How can you claim these titles?

I will not divulge any Mystery rites – even to justify my claim. I’d prefer you to call me a fraud before I tell anyone what I’ve seen.

That said, since July 2015 I have undergone – not one – but a series of experiences spiritually, emotionally and physically. At first I was shy of accepting these titles. Even though there has been extensive divination by myself and others, I still refused. Last month there was an accumulated climax which appears that it has to be acknowledged and accepted. So I have finally accepted it and feel better for it.

For prior experience notes: I’ve been creating art since I was a child and now an artist as a profession. I’ve been involved in Hellenic Polytheism since 2000. My interest in Dionysos begun in 2010 – (there around), I’ve been studying mystery rites since 2011. Became a leadership member of the Thiasos of the Starry Bull in 2014. Undergone Sannion’s Toys Course in early 2015 and since been working extensively with these Spirits of Initiation.

So here I am now.

Markos Gage – Dionysian Artist.


I wish to give a very special thank you to Sannion and Emily Kamp.

Dionysian Artists

This week the Dionysian Artists was launched across three social networking platforms, WordPress, Tumblr and Facebook with each going through development stage. The idea is a loose polytheist art guild or movement where artists can show their work, discuss, learn and criticise. Anyone can join and the criteria for art is open. There is one rule: the art shared must be devotional.

In many polytheist paths the deities worshiped encourage creative expression as a form of devotion. It’s not surprising that there are incredibly talented polytheist artists out there, from painters to poets. The Dionysian Artists is a group where these artists can come together to show their work, advertise work for sale, seek commissions and seek advice in a likeminded creative community. For the admirers it is a place to view our gods, to seek artists for work and to simply admire.

As mentioned the Dionysian Artists can be found on three platforms, each with a differing purpose but interconnected with one another.

WordPress site: the official website of the Dionysian Artists, here we will showcase artwork and submissions.

Facebook group: A closed group open to all, the group is closed to maintain members privacy. The Facebook group is a place where members can discuss topics on a casual level.

Tumblr: an open submission blog, a more casual version of the WordPress website.

Want to help?

I would love this to be a self-sustaining community and that my role as host for the Artists is limited. We are looking for volunteers to do basic admin jobs on each platform. Also in the coming weeks we will be seeking submissions from artists. If you’re interested contact me:

Also I am looking for feedback, advice, criticism and support. We’re starting small and basic – if this kicks off it might become a major polytheist website.

Who is the host of the Dionysian Artists?

Markos Gage. I’ve been around polytheist groups for over fifteen years, a Dionysian Hellenic Polytheist. I’m a professional artist with a background in art history and material studies. I’m a trained sculptor, mould maker, painter, digital artist and pastelist.


It would be wonderful if this community is laid back and relaxed, I have deliberately left definitions, by-laws and rules out of this group to enable the upmost potential for creative expression. The Dionysian Artists are hosts to devotion, not a place to cause controversies, debates and childish squabbles. I’d love it that my role as host is limited, but if it comes to it any trolling behaviour will result in removal from the Artists.

Below is the starting Charter for the Dionysian Artists


The name for the art movement is derived from the classical guild of artists called the Dionysiakoi Technitai (Artists of Dionysos). This guild was dedicated to Dionysos through the theatre and performance but the members were not exclusive worshipers of Dionysos. Some titles indicate that poets were dedicated to other gods under the auspices of Dionysos. A member seeking to join this art movement does not need to be dedicated to Dionysos to join, they are not even required to follow any Hellenic path as long as they consider themselves polytheist and producing artwork for the gods they may join.


Imagine a group of people with one specific goal: impressing our gods. It is a noble ambition. Your audience is divine thus, ideally, your art will be the absolute best.
So let’s provide a space where artists can come together to express themselves for their gods and also seek further help from others.

That is my vision.

Always Remember your Audience

A good chunk of western philosophy is based on what is beauty. What sets the standard of aesthetics? Thus far the answer has never been found as aesthetics is a human invention. So what if our audience is not human? What if it’s god itself? If we free ourselves of human impressing then the scope of our creative potential is limitless, liberated.
Comprehending your audience, the Divine, is key to the Artists of Dionysos.

What is Art?

Since the establishment of modern art, artists have striven to define what is art. The Modernist ideology generally considers that anything can be art as long as there is an artist to define it as art.

That is something I want to foster in this community. It does not matter what you do as long as it’s the best form of expression to the Gods.
Art submitted can be anything from photos, drawings, performance, dance, written word, poetry, music. Any form of expression.

So any art will do?

As pointed out above the definition of what is art is up to the artist. But the art here has to meet one criteria: it has to be considered devotional. In truth it is owned by the gods. That does not strip the artist of the rights of their work, they are free to do with it what they will, but the purpose of creation or designation is devotional. That is the only rule for this art movement.

An example of what I mean by this is: In ancient Greece the theatre was a sacred domain. Actors would express their work to an audience, but in doing so they would ‘give themselves’ to the gods. They suspend their own identities to take on the role they are acting. The performance is holy in itself and although it does exist in the eyes of the gods the audience brings the act into existence by appreciating it. By buying, watching and appreciating the audience allows art to continue to be made. This interchange between artist and admirer is the epitome of the ancient concept of Charis.

What is not acceptable?

Common sense should be used as judgement, anything that is illegal is not allowed. Anything that is contrary to the movements goals is forbidden. This includes material created with the intent to offend. The work provided must be dedicated to a deity. Must have some religious context.

What is religious context?

We will not judge anyone’s work based on their religion.

Any God? Any religion?

This has been designed with the intent of providing the polytheist / pagan community with its own space to share their work. But we acknowledge that some polytheistic paths intersect with monotheistic faiths. We will not forbid any religion.

Monsters and Heroes

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 TV shows. Then there was the Disney production of Hercules and always my favourite of the sword and sandal Claymation classics like the original Jason and the Argonauts, Clash of Titans and Adventures of Hercules.

It’s really no wonder why people look at me funny when I explain my personal beliefs. Pretty much every telling of the heroes exploits has been camp trite that deviates from the narrative of myth with a production value a level above a 1970’s stag film.
Yet when reading actual myths there is a seriousness in it. A heroes journey to enlightenment can be called equivalent of stories like Jesus Christ and Gautama Buddha.

Herakles is one of the most renown heroes of Greek myth. Unlike his Theban, Attic, Argive counterparts he is a universal hero, a stock hero of the Hellenic world. For example when we look at Italian and even Spanish Hellenic myths Herakles takes on roles over other city state heroes like Theseus. So in nations that had no nationalistic identity with a hero in the myth, Herakles was used as a replacement.
This is testament to the Story itself. The hero of the tale is insignificant to the archetype of the protagonist verses the monster. It may be a different hero but always the same monster.

But to avoid confusion let’s just focus on the labours of Herakles. Most people understand the twelve labours as being a means for Herakles to right a wrong and also to get recognition as a great hero. We can, and do, view these stories as just fun epic tales. But as a person studying and attempting to understand myth they often have a layered significance. For example we could view the labours as a celestial event of the sun moving through the sky during the year, each labour is the ancient understanding of the constellations the sun passes through. Herakles ultimate, fiery and horrible death is akin to other solar deities that die at winter solstice.

The shamanic role of Herakles is his loss of identity and attribute transferences when fighting each monster. Example is: we can’t imagine Herakles without his lion skin, but the skin itself belonged to his first labour of the Nemean Lion, a invulnerable monster often born from Typhon and Echidna, sent to Nemea to terrorise the land. In order to defeat the beast Herakles must challenge his own perceptions by working out a different method of killing and skinning the beast with its own claws. When he achieves his goals he dons the skin and uses it’s protective fur as armour. In a twisted sense he becomes the beast. Ordering it’s chaos into his own accord.

Herakles again does this when he defeats his second labour and uses the Hydra’s blood as poison for his arrows. Ultimately it’s this poison that defeats Herakles, as it’s the same poison used on his shirt to kill him. It’s toxin and his own funeral pyre burns his mortality away and allows him to ascended as a deity. The beast, and his accomplishments allow for his transcendence.

These themes are also found with Perseus. Perseus is given a task of killing Medusa, a sad and unfortunate monster. Perseus invades Medusa’s home, uses his mirrored shield to look at Medusa’s image and also use her own identity to kill her. When the task is done he steals her identity, by decapitating her, using her deathly stone gaze powers to defeat his foes. Again this theme as identity transference and ordering a beasts chaos to the will of the hero leads to the champions triumphs.

But not all Greek heroes do this. Let’s look at Bellerophon, the actual rider of Pegasus. Bellerophon performs a series of heroic tasks and defeats monsters like the Chimaera. However he does this with the aid of a monster, he does not kill Pegasus, he only tames it. That’s why when Bellerophon attempts to ascend to heaven he is rejected. He is not truly one with the beast, he only owns the beast but has not accepted the monsters identity into himself.

To return back to Theseus (or Herakles) we have a hero entering a space which is actually the antagonist. The path itself is the monster and teaches the hero to become something special, the creature or god at the end of the path are just an obstacle to finalise the heroes enlightenment. In this sense Theseus journeys into the deep unknown with his rewards being what experience he has in the travels. The identity transference takes on a completely different role as it’s not literally stealing the monster attributes that contributes to his transcendence, but becoming something internally through travelling. The initiation is entirely cerebral.

You can see these same themes in other heroes like Orpheus and Odysseus. They all venture into hades and undergo an experience of loss that will forever change their lives. Their knowledge and power may not be as carnal as skinning a lion or stealing a gorgon head, but it’s of the same value.

To end this piece I want to point out that the protagonist and antagonist are of equal measure. The heroes achievement are only made by their foes and by sacrificing part of themselves in order to steal their foes power the hero becomes greater, a god. Acknowledging this allows us to see the value in these monsters and that heroic worship should also include the rivals of these heroes.

Mead and Metal

In these times of decadence where the price of our labour is turned into an abstract digit on a computer screen, where we can walk into supermarkets that house every conceivable produce we would ever want, we tend to forget the significance of the objects around us. Imagine a fantasy world where if we wanted a computer we would have to make it ourselves down to every microchip, or at least, knew the person who made it. Now picture that for everything around you. Do you think we would be such a disposable society if we had such intimacy with objects?


What I love about studying ancient polytheist cultures is that everything around these people was part of a never ending cycle of narratives, layers upon layers of mysteries that explain the holy significance of things we wouldn’t even think for a second about now. For example how on earth does honey become associated with the sun and stars? What do swaddling clothes (a long forgotten tradition of binding infants to pacify them) have in common with fermenting? What does mead have to do with metal? I believe that through exploring these unusual mysteries we can get a glimpse into the thoughts of our ancestors and a greater understanding of the gods. Hopefully I’ll touch on some of those secrets in this article.

As I’ve mentioned before, alcohol was of major importance to developing civilisations for factors other than recreation. Its foremost practical purpose was it allowed impure water to be safely consumed and also prevented water from being spoiled while navigating the seas. Thereby, alcohol allowed larger cities to flourish and exploration and trade to spread. It also held a religious significance in its mind altering nature; its euphoria was seen as something divine. We associate Dionysos as being the god of wine but he is the god of honey too, with mead being a popular drink throughout Greek history. Dionysos is attributed by Ovid 1 as being the creator of honey and is often described with honeyed words from honey coated lips, wielding his Thyrsos pointed with a pinecone dripping with honey.

Karl Kerényi dedicates a fascinating and complex chapter to honey and mead in Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life, where he explores the religious significance of mead. In linguistics honey and intoxication have been connected since the birth of language:

“The original Greek words for “to be drunk” and “to make drunk” are methyein and methyskein. Rarer and later is oinoun “to intoxicate with wine.” Echoes of methy signify “honey” not only in a number of Indo-European languages but also in a common Indo-European-Finn-Ugric stratum; for example, Finnish mesi, metinen, and Hungarian mez. German Met and English “mead” signify, “honey beer,” and these words have exact parallels in the Norse languages.” 2

Kerenyi continues to explain that mead was developed early in the Aegean, before the introduction of wine, indicating that the production of mead coincided with a celestial calendar which followed the star Sirius (the Dog Star).

“It seems strange to us that the four cardinal points of the solar year-the two solstices and two equinoxes-the summer solstice should have been chosen as the beginning of the year. With it begins the hottest period of the year. The days begin to grow shorter, the nights, longer. Men yearn for the night.”

The Sirius calendar originates from Egypt with the rising and falling of the Nile which corresponds with the Dog Star, a system introduced to Greece via the Minoans and who used natural sun caves to measure the year. The caves around Crete were considered sacred spaces of the gods as often their birth place or place they were brought up and protected in. It was in these places people found mystery, miracles, initiation and epiphany. Of the few animals that inhabited these caves were bees with their honey considered the either the blood or food of the gods – ichor or ambrosia.

“Before they were domesticated, bees had often been found in caves. With their sweet food they were the most natural nurses for a Divine Child who was born and then kept hidden in a cave. The archetypal situation that nature offered was taken into the Greek myth of Zeus.” 3

Before the cultivation of bees, the primitive people of Crete would ‘steal’ the food of gods and place the honey in leather sacks. Men stealing the sacred food of the gods was maintained in myth:

“The cave is inhabited by sacred bees, the nurses of Zeus. It is further related that four foolhardy men wished to gather the honey of the bees. They put on bronze armour, scooped up some of the honey, and saw the “swaddling clothes of Zeus.” Thereupon their armour cracked and fell from their bodies. Zeus was angry and raised his thunderbolt against them, but the goddess of fate and Themis, goddess of the rule of nature, restrained Zeus. For it would had been contrary to the hosion if anyone had died in this cave. The four honey thieves were transformed into birds.” 4

These sacks were kept in the sun and in time became alcoholic. Consuming the sacred substance was then confirmed as a miracle by the mind altering euphoria that was guided by the light of the sun and stars. These sacks were named ‘korykos’ 5 and were associated with the swaddling clothes of the gods which were held in such holy regard that they were featured in caves where gods were said to be born throughout Greece. Just as the clothes transformed the babes into developed gods, it too turns water into an epiphany inducing liquid.

Bee hives were not exclusively for collecting honey either, as perhaps an equally important product of hives is the wax. The surrounding civilisations of Greece may have illuminated the night with candles so we could continue to draw the associations of bees, heat and light from there. However there is little indication that candles were popularly used by Greeks, who preferred instead oil lamps. There are a number of reasons for this; Greece was a major producer of olives and olive oil so as a natural resource it was practical to use oil instead. Beeswax has historically been an expensive luxury item and would have been uncommon in lower and middle class homes. The only alternative to bees wax is tallow, animal fat, which is unpleasant to burn because of the smell.

In regards to the ancient Greeks wax can literately be seen as the flesh of the gods, but the relationship of heat and light is different from candles. Greeks were the pioneers of complex figurative sculpture and perfected a method of bronze casting called the lost wax process.

At art school I minored in bronze sculpture and learnt that bronze techniques have not changed since ancient times. I quickly fell in love with wax as a medium as compared to water-based clays it is relatively stable and also malleable. Unless exposed to extreme heat, such as being left in the summer sun, wax will not melt or disfigure. It can be kept forever.

The lost wax process is simple and genius: one sculpts an object in wax, it is then moulded in a terracotta slip that is fired in a kiln, the wax drips out as the mould is simultaneously cooked. All that is left is a hollow mould ready for bronze to be poured into it. Afterwards the mould is smashed apart and the wax figure is reborn as a metal object that will last forever.

Wax and bronze continue to share an uncanny physical relationship: the heating and cooling of both is similar, for when bronze is poured into a mould its liquid form is a higher volume than the solid cool state. This means when poured into a mould it will expand and constrict, picking up all the detail. Wax goes through the same process and is able to pick up incredible detail, even finger prints. In this regard, copying bronze (counter casting, transference to wax and remoulding) produce identical statues without any size distortions or alterations.

After the bronze statue is complete it is then covered in wax as a finish, as is still practiced today. The green and brown patina that we associate with the look of bronze is the same as how we now envision Greek marble to be always white. Most Greek bronzes were melted down and destroyed and those we have in museums were usually discovered buried or in shipwrecks where they inherited the brown or green colouring from the exposure to the elements. In classical times bronzes would have been highly polished to the point they gleamed like gold with a thin layer of wax polish to protect the metal from oxidisation from the air. To maintain this polish, especially for statues exposed outside, they would have been constantly maintained by polishing and waxing.

The connection between Dionysos and Hephaistos is known in Greek mythology usually attributed to Dionysos being the liberator of the labourers’ burden. According to myth the two gods enter Olympus together, but I believe their relationship goes further with this connection between bees and bronze. As mentioned these substances used in bronze-making have an interconnected back-and-forth affinity. On top of that, the process of bronze making is similar to that of the production of mead: benign substance from bee hives, transference into container, heat, holy transformation (rebirth). Indeed it can be argued that the mould of the statue is as the swaddling clothes of gods, in both function and appearance.

In Delphi there is a legendary artefact called the Omphalos. It is a carved domed stone said to be the same stone that Rhea fooled Kronos with when he was eating his own children and made to appear like the swaddling clothes of Zeus. The Delphi oracle presided over this stone when giving her prophecies and it was kept as a holy symbol as the centre of the world. It appears just like a mould used for casting bronze statues. Also like a mould, the Omphalos is hollowed out. We don’t know for sure what religious purpose the stone served, but I speculate based on the idea of the korykos, that it was a vessel that held the blood of the gods in the form of alcohol. This is further evident in other cultures that still maintain Omphaloi, such as the one found in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, which in appearance has evolved into a cup or grail. 6


Further, the stone is often directly related to a hive, and the priestesses of Delphi who presided over the Omphalos, when giving prophecy, were called the Delphic Bee. 7 The Homeric Hymn IV to Hermes hints at bees, prophecy, since it states that Apollon learnt the art of bird prophecy from Bee Maidens: Melaina, Kleodora and Daphnis and grants their gifts to Hermes:
“But I will tell you another thing, Son of all-glorious Maia and Zeus who holds the aegis, luck-bringing genius of the gods. There are certain holy ones, sisters born — three virgins gifted with wings: their heads are besprinkled with white meal, and they dwell under a ridge of Parnassus. These are teachers of divination apart from me, the art which I practised while yet a boy following herds, though my father paid no heed to it. From their home they fly now here, now there, feeding on honey-comb and bringing all things to pass. And when they are inspired through eating yellow honey, they are willing to speak truth; but if they be deprived of the gods’ sweet food, then they speak falsely, as they swarm in and out together. These, then, I give you; enquire of them strictly and delight your heart: and if you should teach any mortal so to do, often will he hear your response — if he have good fortune. Take these, Son of Maia, and tend the wild roving, horned oxen and horses and patient mules.” 8

In Samothracian Mysteries we see the three gods Apollon, Dionysos and Hephaistos come together with their association of the Korybantes, a group of armoured warriors that protected Zeus as a child. There also seems to be a parallel with the birds myth mentioned above with the honey thieves.
The Korybantes are shown clad in armour and dancing, clanging and bashing their shield and sword to drown out the cries of the babe. Their dance is an integral part of the mysteries. Bees have a unique method of communication that involves dancing and buzzing their wings, often to communicate an alert to defend the hive… are the Korybantes the bees of Zeus?

Strabo 9 claims that the Korybantes are made up of separate groups of the sons of Hephaistos and Apollon. Details of the Samothracian Mysteries are sketchy, at best, but the sons of Hephaistos are the Kabeiroi (Cabiri), ecstatic dwarves often depicted as satyr-like daimons in the act of making and consuming wine. They are talented smiths that grant blessings to sailors, as well as the caretakers and guardians of the phallus of Dionysos-Zagreus after he is dismembered by the Titans.

It is at the Samothracian Mysteries that the founders of Thebes, Kadmos and Harmonia, met and later wed. Their most renowned daughter is Semele, the mother of the Olympian Dionysos, but Autonoë is also of interest as she was married to Aristaios (Aristaeus), the son of Apollon and the first cultivator of bees.

As with many agriculture heroes that invented and taught the mysteries of cultivation, there are differing myths of how Aristaios domesticated bees. In the theme of this article the most interesting story begins with his natural hives being destroyed by an irate Orpheus after the death of his wife. Aristaios, unhappy that he lost his hives approached the Delphic prophetess for guidance, and she said that he would find bees and honour on the island of Ceos. Aristaios followed her advice and arrived on the island to discover the natives suffering a terrible pestilence. The hero set aside his quest for bees and helped the people by honouring Zeus Ikmaios and the Dog Star, Sirius. He sacrificed bulls to both gods and from their flesh came tamed bees and honey that healed the people of Ceos and brought the cool winds and rain, thereby inventing the New Year festival dedicated to domesticated bees at the rising of Sirius. 10

This is just a minor sample of the nuances of the interwoven tapestry of honey in myth and serves a point to demonstrate that a substance many consider common and mundane was actually part of a rich and complex narrative that resonated with peoples’ identities and faith.
Although what we know of myth is just a fraction of what was told in the past, we are the first people in history to have a compiled database of stories from these people. We have access to hundreds (if not thousands) of unforgotten tales that hint at the nature of the human psyche which allows us to empathise with our ancestors and grasp at their knowledge of nature and the divine. It is through these myths that we can find hints at the mysteries and re-establish what has been forgotten.


A special thank you to Emily Kamp for her constructive criticism and Linda Spencer for the use of her photos.


1 Ovid, Fasti III 736

2 Kerényi, Dionysos, 38

3 Kerényi, Dionysos, 31

4 Kerényi, Dionysos, 30-31

5 Kerényi, Dionysos, 45:

“The cave was called Korykion antron, “cave of the leather sack” – the most famous of all those places in and outside the Greek world that were named after the korykos, the container for liquids used in fermenting honey and, as we have seen, associated with a Cretan cave of Zeus.”


7 Kerényi, Dionysos, 49 via Pindar, Pythia IV 60

8 Homeric Hymns, Trans. By H. G. Evelyn-White, IV. To Hermes.

9 Strabo, Geography 10. 3. 20 – 22 Trans. Jones

10 Kerényi, Dionysos, 39



Fig1: Bronze being poured in moulds at my art school, credit: Linda Spencer, used with permission.
Fig2: Left:  “Omphalos in Delphi archeologic museum” credit: Юкатан, 2009 CC licence.
Right: Fired moulds being removed from kiln, credit: Linda Spencer, used with permission.

Sacred Streets


This article is dedicated to the leaders of the troop, the singers and dancers, actors and pantomimes, writers and musicians, acrobats and magicians, painters, illustrators and sculptors – The Dionysian Artists.

Mille viae ducunt homines per saecula Romam – A thousand roads lead men forever to Rome.

I ponder on this phrase a lot, typically it means: all paths lead to the same destination, but my feelings of it go back further. I like to believe that all roads lead to the founding of civilisation – in a literal sense – in that the streets and roads are the birthplace of our culture particularly through street performance.

In 2008 two hermit artists decided to do something pretty dramatic, well, at least for them. They decided to go out into the streets of a major metropolitan city and draw on the pavement for donations. My partner and I soon discovered the power of the street.

The knowledge and physical wealth that it grants. My perspective of the street changed overnight, no longer did I consider those busking or working on the street to be lowly, instead I quickly develop an admiration and love for the street. Street culture is a fascinating subject, in some ways it’s part of the overall culture but also separate of it. There are unspoken laws, unique slang, obscure subcultures and most importantly unrecognised traditions that can be traced to ancient times. Street performers are often outsiders who don’t follow the social norms that has been expected of them, many are freaks and weirdos, most are extremely talented and either completely mad or incredibly wise, or a bit of both.

In some respects I view busking or street performance as an actual magical rite, performers perform a ritual, they finish and hold out a hat and get money from nowhere. Away from earnings, they transform the commonplace environment of the street into a domain of miracles with feats of disbelief. I have never witnessed such direct and consistent magic like street performance. I don’t think it’s mere coincidence that terms used in reference to magic are similar or identical terms used in art: craft, spell, act, art. It is also interesting that Street Magic is still performed today and in fact many street magicians use tricks, symbols and colours that were used in ancient times.

Through my profession and my own spiritual practice I started witnessing uncanny connections between performance and my beliefs, exploring this subject has resulted in this article.

Ancient Greek religion was unique at the time because unlike some other cultures it was based around household worship, community and polis. In some cases priests were elected from the general population, religious titles and positions were granted to common people. Interacting and communing with the divine was not exclusive to just the elite or ordained priest, everyone was entitled to participate and later there were rites in which even slaves were allowed.

One of the most important and unique developments of this faith was the theatre. I suspect the theatre had humble origins beginning with bards that would travel from town to town reciting epic Homeric stories on the side of the road or in the local agora. As their reputation developed more people would gather on grassy hills to see these bards perform. Slowly these bards incorporated other performers who mimed, danced, played music etc. Over time actors were given lines and the hills were carved out into an amphitheatre. What started as a simple impromptu act by travelling performers turned into an organised community service.

The theatre was not just for entertainment, it held multiple functions as a gathering place. Plays themselves were considered sacred performances, Tragedy is usually consider the foremost important form. The origins of Tragedy was lost in ancient Greece, where scholars like Aristotle and Athenaeus of Naucratis debated the etymology of the word. In general, Tragedy is commonly believed to originate from τραγῳδία trag(o)-aoidiā “goat song” meaning that it may of involved some form of ritual sacrifice. It is agreed that it is related to the god Dionysos. Richard Seaford suggests Tragedy evolved from some form of Satyr play related to the Dionysian mysteries which possibly enacted the death, rebirth of Dionysos – these performances were intense and involved audience participation, the mystery rites later became free for public viewing:

At the Dionysiac festivals the citizens en masse watched the ritual impersonation of myth on the streets, but were excluded from the mystic ritual at the heart of the festival. And so not only was the traditional processional hymn transformed into a scripted stationary hymn under a hillside (so that all could see), but also the irresistibly secret sights of mystic ritual were opened out to the curious gaze of the entire polis. Greek ritual tends to enact its own aetiological myth, and the first tragedies were, I suspect, dramatisations of the aetiological myths enacted in mystery-cult – as was, a century later, the highly traditional Bacchae.” (1)

In some respects the theatre was place of religious observance similar to how one might view a church. The performers were taking on the role of religious spokesmen. By the time fifth century BC Athenian Golden Age of drama playwrights were writing plays with the same themes as the mystery performance but incorporating other tales. So the essence of being confronted with death was still present but transformed into another new narrative to maintain audience enthusiasm.

Also to maintain audience enthusiasm and to prevent them leaving the theatre depressed was the comedies which were performed as intermission plays between the tragedies. These light hearted plays sometimes involved actors dressed as satyrs (with a long red leather phallus around their waist) the plays would parody classical stories. For example the only surviving satyr play, Cyclops by Euripides features Odysseus saving Silenus and his troop of satyrs from the cruelty and sexual molestation of the Cyclops, Polyphemus. Other times they involved a serious debate or dire situation that results in some silly happy ending.

The origins of Comedy appear to be ancient even in classical times. The term comedy is usually considered derived from Kom-oid meaning “party song” and may have had its origins as some silly drunken mockery. Obviously related directly with Dionysian festivals. Compared with tragedy its origins are confusing. It appears that it was imported into Athens via the Dorians in what is called the Dorian farce. Athenian comedy originally seems to be focused on nonsense and impromptu with only a loose story. Dramatic comedy being introduced from Sicily and evolved into a proper narrative as mentioned by Aristotle in Poetics 5.1449b:

The making of tales (i.e. plots) originally came from Sicily, but of the Athenians Crates first began, by discarding the abusive scheme as a whole, to construct stories and tales.” (2)

This is further evident as Athenian Old Comedy writer, Aristophanes references the Dorian Colonies of Magna Graecia in Wasps, for their farces which he considered low-class for its obscene humour, slap stick and sexual themes.

Don’t expect anything profound,
Or any slapstick à la Megara.
And we got no slaves to dish out baskets
Of free nuts—or the old ham scene
Of Heracles cheated of his dinner;
… Our little story
Had meat in it and a meaning not
Too far above your heads, but more
Worth your attention than low comedy.

Still Aristophanes employed the themes in his comedies. His criticisms appear to be attempts to prop up his own plays over Magna Graecia, where it looks like native writers were the inventors of the first comedic plot.

Old comedy also featured something pretty radical, it was used as a platform to ridicule and lampoon people of importance, such as leaders, nobility and even gender statuses. I consider this the birth of free speech, especially after the theatre became a domain of politics with politicians holding debates or speeches before plays. Regardless, as the art form developed (and possible political problems) comedy became more focused on archetypical stock characters. These characters deviated from anyone in particular and are notable for a lack of mythic or religious figures, instead they are stock characters based on everyday life: courtesans, revellers, parasites, angry cooks and soldiers etc. This is considered Middle Comedy. From here comedy disappeared from history in Greece as none of the play survived, until it had a resurgence during the reign of Alexander as New Comedy.

However the Italians had a different sense of humour to the Athenians and maintained and expanded the traditions of comedy. An especially fascinating aspect is found in Tarentum (Taranto) where comedy was incorporated into female initiation rites and was performed for girls entering maidenhood:

Rhinthon, who was born in Syracuse but worked in Taras/Tarentum, has earned the reputation of expanding the genre of tragi-comedy, subverting some of the Attic conventions. It is very likely that his plays were performed in the theater at Locri, and the presence of a phlyax figure in the Grotta suggests that Locrian women enjoyed the sophistication and wit he represents.

[…] There may have been actual theatrical performances in the cave: among the votive objects were miniature models of the Grotta on which curtains were carved in relief. Terracotta figurines of comic actors and musicians, along with masks, indicate the importance of the theater to the votaries. The chiaroscuro mix of the serious and the comic, like the interplay between death and life, would be appropriate for the rituals in a nymphaeum.” (4)

(Again returning back to what Seaford mentions about satyr plays and mystery rites.)

The comedy in Italy of utmost importance in this essay as it is the link between classical comedy and the Middle-Age Commedia dell’Arte. The stock characters found in Middle comedy in Greece are direct precursors to the future Harlequin and Pierrot (which will be discussed later).

Before and after Alexander, performing troops became highly respected in Greece. It appears that they were formalised into an official professional guild called, Dionysiakoi Technitai (Artists of Dionysos) where they were granted unprecedented privileges. The Debate, On the False Embassy, 348 BC, specifically states that the first two ambassadors from Athens to negotiate peace with Philip II were tragic actors and poets:

Aristodemos and Neoptolemos were Tragic actors. Because of their profession these men had safe-conduct to go wherever they wished, even into enemy territory.” (5)

Phillip’s high regard for these actors was seen as corruption by critics in Athens, even going as far as claiming the actors were serving their own interests over the city’s. Of a particular note Neoptolemos sung a tragic ode to Phillip the night before his daughter’s wedding, which was later seen as an ill omen. It was during the wedding that Phillip was assassinated in the theatre. (While no links are found in history, I love fantasying of a conspiracy by the actors.)

By 279 BC a Delphic decree by the Athenian state was written in marble granting these artists immunity within all Greece: any harm, taxation or conscription was forbidden against them. (6) These marbles were followed up with a number of congratulatory awards naming performers and those that worked for the Technitai including carpenters, prop makers and background artists. In The Context of Ancient Drama by Eric Csapo & William Slater they claim that this organisation was the first trade union. However I feel that because the guild appears to have its own internal autonomous government structure, which was completely apart from any other state government, it was more akin to the Papal State. This is evident in the Delphic decrees as they emphasis religious services performed by the Technitai moreover than their acting abilities. To return back to the Mysteries cults of Greece, there are strong ties within these rites and performance. The Technitai would had been the ones that performed the sacred plays and also the ones that knew all the mysteries. They were not mere actors, but diplomats, spies and the highest priests of the time. Their power became so prominent they were allowed to wear distinctive clothing and regal items to prove their association to the guild and also their authority, including purple robes, crowns and golden jewels bearing their insignia.

Perhaps it is completely unrelated, but in less than one hundred years after the Delphic decree Rome outlawed and committed a massive purge of the Dionysian cult in 186 BC with declaration of the senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus. Livy wrote a fantastical account for the reason why in History of Rome (7), claiming that members of the cult were performing evil nocturnal rites that involved either extorting or killing nobility to gain their inheritance with an intended conspiracy against the Republic. I wonder if the Technitai (who were the Dionysian cult) was the real threat behind this drastic action? Whatever the case, the Technitai continued to exist throughout Roman imperialism even into Christian times. What humbly begun on the streets in time became a powerful international organisation.

Apart from the organisation of the Dionysiakoi Technitai there were also independent street performers throughout Greece and Rome. With exception of the laws mentioned from the Twelve Tables and some minor laws preventing ranked Roman officers and members of the senate from viewing or participating, these performers appeared to be free to perform wherever.

They may of even been supported by the state to please the mob during festivals. A distinctive trait of these travelling performers was the Phylakes stage, a portable stage made of boards that allowed actors, poets and dancers to perform. This mobility allowed them to follow the rustic Dionysian processions that would spread out from the cities after religious festivals. While their performances may of copied classical plays these street actors are most often mentioned for their crass and lewd comedic performances.

Of interest, these independent performers also did other forms of street performance such as street magic, Alciphron of Athens (unknown date, possibly between 170 and 350 CE) is one of the few that records the classic cups and balls routine. He mentions being “rendered speechless and gaped with surprise” as he watched a street performer:

A man came forward and placed on a three-legged table three small dishes, under which he concealed some little white round pebbles. These he placed one by one under the dishes, and then, I do not know how, he made them all appear all together under one.

At other times he made them disappear from beneath the dishes and showed them in his mouth. Next, when he had swallowed them, he brought those who stood nearest him into the middle, and then pulled one stone from the nose, another from the ear, and another from the head of the man standing near him.

Finally he caused the stones to vanish from the sight of everyone. He is a most dexterous fellow and even beyond Eurybates of Oechalia, of whom we heard so much.” (8)

(Note: Eurybates of Oechalia is a famous thief mentioned in previous letters)

There are few classical sources of these performers with only vague references in law and mention of preference for performers to set up on crossroads or outside places of worship. Crossroads were a place of mystery for Ancient people and associated with the gods Hermes and Hekate. Two divinities of magic, chthonic gods as guide and guard of the dead. (Hermes is also inclusive of travel, begging, rustic performance, con-men, thieves, trade and money.)
Here is where I start to wonder if these people were not just performers for entertainment purposes but played a role as a poor man’s celebrant and priest? Was street magic enough proof by performers to act as a charlatan and quack doctor?
Plato is quite critical of what he describes as so called Orphic priests:

Begging priests and prophets frequent the doors of the rich and persuade them that they possess a god–given power founded on sacrifices and incantations.” (9)

The Orphic cult itself is based around the legendary traveling musician and prophet of Dionysos, Orpheus, who ventured into hades to free his beloved from death. While in the realm he witnessed the mysteries of death and after failing in his original task went about teaching the mysteries in what would become Orphism. The traditions, myths and rituals differ from time, place and possibly priest, but there is a shared concept that those initiated into its mysteries are free from continual reincarnation of mortality and are able to enjoy an eternity feasting with gods and other initiated.

An interesting aspect of this cult are the gold leaf tablets or scrolls left with the dead that instruct the soul of the correct destination to be free of reincarnation. These tablets have been found all over the Hellenistic world from Thrace, to Sicily and Crete, all share similar characteristics, however some are poorly made while others are elaborate. The most amateur tablets feature spelling mistakes, incorrect instructions, some are simply blank. Is this proof of hacks jumping on the band wagon to fool a grieving family after the loss of a loved one? Were these hacks travelling performers who proved their power with parlour tricks? I can only guess.

An aspect of ancient funeral rites, especially in Italy was that funerals were not solemn, at least not how they are in the west now. Livy actually marks the year 328 BC for two significant events, the founding of the colony at Fregellae and the meat served at the funeral of the mother of M. Flavius. (10) Funerals were used by Romans to demonstrate the wealth and power of the family after the death, they would involve massive public feasts, games and performance.

Apart from politics funerals were a celebration of life and performers found themselves in the role of celebrates where they lead a triumphant procession of the body to the tomb – the tomb itself was often elaborately decorated with Dionysian scenes. Festivals, performances and tombs are reassurances for the living, to prove that life after death is a good thing. Plays aided in that distraction. When viewing or participating both audience and actors have to remove themselves from their current situation and identity. One must suspend their thoughts to comprehend the “fantasy” in front of them, performance in itself is a form of release. What better way to recover from grief then be submerged within a fantasy. To return back to the independent street performers, did they involve themselves in these funeral performances or offer their services to rural folk too?


An interesting point by Dionysian polytheist author, H. Jeremiah Lewis (11) is the colour schemes shared with street performance throughout history and also magical ritual in classical times, particularly in regards to Orphism. White, red and black are colours that make up a dusky dark cloak worn by Medea in the Orphic Argonautika in Greek it is called: ὄρφνῐνος orphninos. The colours are also mentioned in a Bulgarian healing ritual where each are related to the varying realms of heaven, earth and the underworld. Much later times the colours are worn by harlequins, clowns and street magicians in what was originally street shows, the Middle-Age Commedia dell’Arte. I suspect that the colour scheme goes as far as the Greek theatre mask.

Unfortunately the masks were made of organic plant stuffs, similar to papier-mâché thus none have survived history. But I believe they were painted with white for the flesh, black around the eyes and eyebrows and red for the lips. A good example of this is the modern ‘French’ mimes with face paint that is outlined around the jaw and chin with black, black around the eyebrows and eyes, white over the face and red on the lips and sometimes cheeks. Mimes also earn their name from Pantomimes which comes from the ancient theatre as “imitates all” meaning they spoke, danced, played music etc. The silent aspect of their performance was a later addition.

Harlequin is first attested to Orderic Vitalis in the 11th century, where he claims he was haunted by a troop of demons led by a black masked giant named familia harlequin, a description that reminds me a lot of satyrs, Pan and the retinue of Dionysos. By the time of the Renaissance the Harlequin evolved into a stock fool character for plays as either a servant of the devil or the devil himself. Noted for despite his large appearance he is nimble physically as his role often involved some form of foolery and acrobatics.
Clowns are the most ancient performers known with references of clown characters found in ancient Egypt royal courts, 4500 years ago. (12) A fascinating aspect of the clown is that they have a long history of being associated with priests and healers, in some cases the role was actually filled by a member of the priestly caste. Anthropologists relate clowns to the Heyoka, with many Native American tribes considering clown shamanic powers to be the most powerful. The shaman healing aspect is not unique to Native American’s, similar roles are found in shamanic traditions of Europe, Africa and Asia too.

Even now modern Clown doctors can be found mentioned in medical essay’s for their effectiveness recognised in western medicine, proven by performers like Patch Adams, Hunter Doherty:

Their activities include entertaining bored children and mothers in crowded outpatient clinic waiting rooms, distracting anxious families in inner-city emergency rooms, comforting parents of children in intensive care units, and distracting small AIDS or cancer patients during painful and frightening procedures. They spread joy and mayhem wherever children might be found in what is otherwise an environment not designed with children in mind.” (13)

Of course with associations with healing comes also the chthonic relationship too. Shamanic practices often cite clowns as either scaring off or being possessed by the dead. No doubt being linked with illness and healing would lead to this.

The modern appearance possibly originates from the Italian Commedia dell’Arte, as the Pierrot (foolish victim) or Pulcinella stock characters usually dressed in white, loose robes, sometimes with red frills around the neck. In a classical context Pierrot, akin to the mime, fits nicely into the description of the chorus in most Greek plays, typically they were white robed and wore plain masks. The chorus sometimes plays a shamanic role as an intermediary between actors and audience, thereby breaking through the Fourth wall.

As the circus developed in more modern times clowns adapted into what we know of today. An interesting result of pop culture and connections with figures like John Wayne Gacy (and attacking clowns in France this year) clowns have once again regained their associations with death and despite positive work in hospitals performances featuring clowns are being cancelled, some even feature warnings for people who suffer coulrophobia. (14)



Street Magicians appear to be an art form that has barely changed throughout history. (As already mentioned by Alciphron’s account.) The Conjurer by Hieronymus Bosch (1502), features a street magician performing a similar trick as the cups and balls, in the painting the magician wears black and red attire (akin to the Harlequin) and holds up a snail shell instead of a ball. The second central character is a man dressed in white and red (akin to the Pierrot?) who appears to be a gasping in shock at the trick. While difficult to see in most reproductions online, he actually has a frog coming out of his mouth, symbolising loss of reason and succumbing to animal instincts of disbelief, a foolish victim. Art commentators often mention how Bosch uses these two figures to deceive the viewer as their clothing draws the eye, a casual viewer can easily miss the thief stealing the victims coin purse to the far left.

The overall theme of the painting is attributed to Flemish proverbs:

“He who lets himself be fooled by conjuring tricks loses his money and becomes the laughing stock of children.”

“No one is so much a fool as a wilful fool.”

The criminal association is not just found with Bosch and these proverbs, other Middle-age commentators are critical of street performance and sort it being banned. Classical theatre was outlawed by Emperor Justinian in the sixth century and thereafter performance was viewed by Christian leaders as being a pagan act, equating it to other criminal activity such as thievery and prostitution. The English parliament of King Henry IV even partly blamed street performers for rebellion in Wales:

No westours and rimers, minstrels or vagabonds, be maintained in Wales… Who by their divination, lies and exhortation are partly cause for insurrection and rebellion now in Wales.” (15)

These fears of street performance continue into the modern age by the authorities, especially in Europe, where there is an increased of anti-social laws in public spaces – despite social studies reporting busking activity actually decreasing crime rates and establishing a sense of safety to the public. (15)

Modern street performers cannot be generalised easily. They are made up entirely by individuals that do things their own way, each with an unique act. They are not sponsored or funded by any other business than their own, yet a good number travel around the world each year living in perpetual summer. Some are professionally trained from world famous circus groups, others are self-taught or trained in a sort of apprenticeship. Their skills are acquired through practice, hard work and failure. Apart from learning their tricks they also learn to master the act of engaging with the public, a task that is quite difficult. I’m often amazed not just by their act but how they gather crowds. You can see their charisma at work when they start out as some funny looking person standing in the middle of the street yelling like a madman, to being the centre of attention of a hundred or more people in less than ten minutes. The most experienced performers make this look simple, however when you see the beginners you realise just how difficult it is to stop people for a moment to watch.

In regards to traditions, many street performers still follow the customs of the circus, even if they’re not conscious of it. Of note: those I’ve watched often wear red, black and white. I asked one performer why he chose to wear the colours and he informed me that apart from being attention grabbing, they are colours he is comfortable performing in.

While some may have forgotten their historical backgrounds street performers still maintain the Dionysian spirit, not just in their occupation and travelling lifestyle. Currently there are several organisations established by street performers with aims of fighting the constricting laws in cities around the world that prevent free speech and performance in public. In many cases they are succeeding against a system that affects everyone’s right to freely express themselves. Often these organisations are the only ones that are fighting these issues and bringing light to these invasive laws that are passed through government without media acknowledgement. To that extent they are like the technitai as ambassadors between the public and government.

We live in a world entrenched in so much information that is provided to us by corporate businesses, governments and politically bent media. Rarely do we get to see an individual’s perspective of the world, especially an individual that has resisted the set expectations of what culture presumes of them. Performers prove that we can be free, that anyone can make their own life on the street not only with dignity but also admiration. From my own perspective the service I provide is paid for not only with generous donations from the people, but also the incredible support and encouragement that is constantly shown to me while I work. In times where I’m feeling a bit dishearten by what is happening around me, it’s always beautiful to realise that the horrors in the world are mere minorities to the kindness of the majority.

To finally finish this piece I would like to quote Owen Lean , a street performer, from the Busker Hall of Fame:

We live in a society where we have repressed a lot of our animal instincts in striving for order – yet inside of us that animal is screaming and fighting to get out, and every now and again we need that release.

This is what street performance does. We, the busker, stand right in the centre of the urban environment, right in the middle of this 9-5 world of straight lines and literally pull our audience out of it for twenty minutes and we do our job right, turn them into children again, allowing you to experience a different world, a world where the rules are broken, and where you’re not only allowed but actively encouraged to play.” (17)





1 Richard Seaford, Dionysos; 90

2 Section 3: Ancient Greek Comedy, Chapter 8: Early Greek Comedy and Satyr Plays

3 Trans. P. Dickinson, Oxford U.P, Plays; 171

4 Bonnie MacLachlan , Kore as Nymph, not Daughter:Persephone in a Locrian Cave

5 / 6 Eric Csapo & William Slater, The Context of Ancient Drama; 233, 244

The 279 BC Delphi Degree:
It was decided by the Amphictyons and the hieromnemones and the agoratroi: In order for all time the technitai in Athens may have freedom from seizure (asylia) and from taxation, and that no one may be apprehended from anywhere in war or in peace or their goods seized, but that they may have freedom from taxation and immunity accorded to them surely by all of Greece, the technitai are to be free of taxes for military service on land or sea and all special levies, so that honours and sacrifices for which the technitai are appointed may be performed for the gods at appropriate times, seeing that they are apolitical (apolypragmoneton) and consecrated to the services of the gods: let it be permitted to no one to make off with the technitai either in war or in peace or to take reprisals against them, provided that they have contracted no debt with the city as debtors, or are under no obligation for a private contract. If anyone acts contrary to this, let him be liable before the Amphictyons, both he himself and the city in which the offence was committed against the technitai. The freedom from taxation and security that has been granted by the Amphictyons is to belong for all time to the technitai at Athens, who are apolitical. The secretaries are to inscribe this decree on a stone slab and set it up in Delphi, and to send to the Athenians a sealed copy of this decree, so that the technitai may know that the Amphictyons have the greatest respect for their piety towards the gods and adhering to the requests of the technitai and shall try also for the future to safeguard this for all time and in addition to increase any other privilege they have on behalf of the Artists of Dionysus. Ambassadors: Artydamas, poet of tragedies, Neoptolemos, tragic actor.

7 Livy, History of Rome, Book XXXIX

8 The Letters of Alciphron via Christopher Milbourne , Magic: A Picture History

9 Plato, Republic 363c; 364a–365b

10 Edited by Bettina Bergmann and Christine Kondoleon, National Gallery of Art, Washington, The Art of Ancient Spectacle; 259


12 Michael Bala, Jung Journal: Culture & Psyche Volume 4Issue 1, 2010, The Clown An Archetypal Self-Journey

13 Linda Miller Van Blerkom, Clown Doctors: Shaman Healers of Western Medicine


15 (Jusserand 1950, 113) via Kalli R. Fullerton, Street Performers and the sense of place.

16 Susie J. Tanenbaum, Underground Harmonies: Music and Politics in the Subway of New York


More info:

Image info:

1 Theatrical masks of Tragedy and Comedy.
Roman artwork
2nd century CE.
Public Domain

2 Ooooh I’m a Mime
Tyler Mestas
11 May 2013
CC copyright

3 The Conjurer
Hieronymus Bosch
1496 – 1529
Public Domain Image

4 Shove tuesday (Pierot and Harlequin)
Paul Cézanne
Public Domain Image


A special thanks to H. Jeremiah Lewis (Sannion) for introducing me to this subject and his continual free publication and research found on his blog: