Heraclitus, Fragment 116 (D 15)


“If it were not in honor of Dionysos that they organize a procession and sing the phallic hymn, what they do would be most shameless: but Hades and Dionysos are one and the same, in whose honor people rave and celebrate the Bacchic revelry.” (Sweet 15; cp. Kahn 116, D, R 15).

Heraclitus here shows how people judge action dependent upon the intention of the action. What would ordinarily be shameless is thought by many to be spared that — when it part of a rite, with certain intention (to honor life). Despite that many people feel that way, if we are to judge Heraclitus consistently with his other statements on ritual, such as Fragment 117, then we must see him here as disagreeing that such a perspectivism is actually rightly applied here. He thus should be viewed as rejecting such rites. That said, however, he does go on to make comments about how we might productively interpret such events.

The celebration of “Bacchic revelry” of Sweet’s translation refers explicitly to the “festival of the Lenaea” — a Dionysian festival accompanied by revelry to celebrate procreation. Kahn notes that phallic symbols were carried and songs sung at a different festival for Dionysos. Assuming that is true, then the focus of this fragment is not on the specifics of the festival. It is on the symbolism of Dionysos, as the god of ritual madness, winemaking, fertility. Here, Heraclitus notes the dialectic connection of this god of fertility with the god of the underworld, Hades. Life is thus entwined with death in the dialectic manner we should expect from Heraclitus.

Those engaged in the orgaistic celebration of fertility, which would beget life, are in the process of generating — and perhaps desiring to generate — those who will replace them as they die (Cp. Kahn, p. 264).

The passage calls to mind Fragment 92 (D 52) where Heraclitus identifies as “the same …. living and dead….” However, given Heraclitus’ monism, we can wonder how far he might go in identifying all gods ultimately as one, as is done in Advaita Vedanta, where all particular deities are identified ultimately with Brahman. Or more still, are they all perhaps metaphorical expressions of logos, or “the ordering” discussed in Fragment 37 (D 30), which in any case is not made by the gods, but is ontologically prior to them. This would seem to follow from Fragment 36 (D 50) that “all things are one.”

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