I am just trying to pull together a little constellation of thoughts and conversations. This post spins at the crossroads of Wole Soyinka’s Myth, Literature, and the African World (ergo a little of Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy by way of Soyinka’s dialogue with it), Zdenka Volavka’s Crown and Ritual, Margaret Thompson and Henry John Drewal’s Gẹlẹdẹ, some household conversations about Dionysos, a smidge of Károly Kerényi’s Dionysos, and a friend’s offhanded observation that the so-called ‘Artemis’ of Ephesus’s so-called ‘breasts’ looked a lot like the nests of bumble bees (having to use ‘so-called’ twice says something, doesn’t it?).
This may also be brought to you by the letter ‘M’ and the number 8. This isn’t intended to be a mash-up of all these elements, but deep-rooted mysteries tend to have many branches and sometimes they intertwine. This is gestural, pointing out how what is disparate in proximity might converge if we trace the outline of their trajectory.
The observation that the breasts looked a lot like bumble bee nests is a very suggestive thing. Ephesus was known in antinquity for its production of honey. Honey production requires honey bees, of course, not bumble bees, but notice that the representations of Artemis of Ephesus focus on wild beasts, not domestic ones. Bumble bees would be the natural, ‘wild,’ contrast case for the domestic honey bee.
Anton Bammer seems to counter the idea that these breasts are bull’s testicles with a comparably odd idea that the ‘breasts’ represent amber jewelry. He bases on a dig that found amber jewels in an Artemis of Ephesus shrine, but the jewels described were quite small, 1 to 1 1/2 cm wide. They are more appropriate to the necklace she is often shown wearing than the more substantive ‘breasts.’
The amber would, however, be a nice analogue of golden honey. Amber was a valuable object that they likely would have acquired through the quite old amber trade. That this connection of amber necklace and trade provides a potential link between Northern European Gullveig and Freya’s brisingamen to Hera’s being tricked with an amber necklace into letting Apollo and Artemis be born is no less intriguing. Beneath these seemingly disparate cultural worlds we might glimpse a common preoccupation with honey and mead as sacred and civilizing forces related to wild and restive ones.
This broad complex links honey to divinity and there is room for a great deal of poetic play. There is the fairly established links between the Korybantes and bees, but one might wonder if the same connection holds elsewhere. Might the Valkyries, too, have roots in the bees? The connection between bees and the dead seems old enough to support the play. Closer to home and returning to Artemis of Ephesus, we have the importance of figures like Dionysus, nourished by secret/hidden/secreted honey, becoming the means through which the cultivation of honey becomes established (e.g, Ovid on Bacchus in the Festi).
This being nourished by honey makes sense of the placement of the nests on the statue of Artemis such that they suggest breasts; the are supposed to evoke breasts—they are breasts by virtue of producing (wild) honey that sustains and transforms both the human and divine, putting them into contact with each other. The secret nature of honey and the intimate nature of nursing connote an especially spiritual and sacred domain.
That figures like Bacchus who invent are joined to potentially dangerous and destabilizing ecstasies suggest a crossing which simultaneously makes possible domestication and the destruction of the domestic by the wilderness. Behind these figures looms a still more encompassing wildness, of which Artemis of Ephesus is one. The Dionysian rises up from a wilder landscape. The tales that suggest that Artemis of Ephesus fell from the sky suggests some sympathy between her and Cybele.
Interestingly, if the breasts are bumble bee nests, then the connection between korybantes, Dionysos, Zeus, and honey is notable for its transposition of the originally feminine (and scarce) secret of honey into the domain of masculine production and initiation. The broad network of mysteries that animates the Dionysian complex relate it to the network of mysteries that animate the Kongo complex illuminated by Volavka. Leopards, smithwork, hunters, fertility, serpents, star lore, and copper/bronze all enter into the frame, suggesting a deeper root for both in prehistorical movements out of and within Africa.
This is not suggest a precise identity between these movements (remember that deep roots have many branches and we are talking about branches…which may also have branches of their own), these pulses of people and wisdom. While related the way in which they develop requires us to appreciate how the divergence of people leads to independent and unique expressions. Common mysteries, yes, but they continue to evolve and adapt, their internal structure rearranged accordingly. An old source but branching and diverging, then, that sends people out of Ethiopia into the Near East and out into the Mediterranean world, on the one hand, and across the Sahel into West and Central Africa.
Volavka’s work on Kongo thought helps make sense of the nature and principle behind that divergence. Kongo thought, she suggests, centers upon a people finding their place within the world, a place that comes to be only through the direct relationship to the powers of maternity (kingodi), to the women who give birth to children within a space. The plurality of mothers makes possible a plurality of places, which are occupied thanks to the efforts of the children who come to occupy the spaces in which thet are born.
In other words, the vehicle of change and adaptation is the lineages that flow and branch through the mothers who are both material and spiritual foundations for social life. That takes the process out of the hands of abstract intellectual comparison and thrusts it into the concrete world of communal and ecological demands. A crucible, no doubt, but slower and more intense.
Dionysos becomes a node not unlike Lusunsi, a point at which the place acquires a face and potentially a voice, but also the point at which the face is undone and consumed, returned to the wild mother (as when mead gives way to wine in Greek thought). A complex that sometimes appears anthropomorphically but which cannot be easily flattened out onto that frame. And, finally, leads us back to Soyinka’s notion that Ogun and Dionysos might have profound sympathies.
No conclusions here, just sketches.