I wonder what, exactly, is swallowing me. The cave entrance looks like a gaping mouth as we walk into the darkness and feel the temperature drop. It’s a perfect Mediterranean August day, and my girlfriend, a friend, and I cross the threshold from the blue-skied world into the cold chamber of a cave in Greece’s Mount Parnassos. A ritual ring of stones is laid out before us and I burn some incense because this Taurus comes prepared. For thousands of years, this has been a place of worship of the Greek god, Dionysus, as some believe it was his home. We walk deeper into the cave and I feel Dionysus’ presence envelop me as the air gets colder and the darkness grows.
In the back of the cave, a rope hangs off of steep and slippery rocks covered with carved graffiti that goes back thousands of years. I compartmentalize my fear of heights to climb up that rope into the unknown. I run my finger across a groove of Greek letters carved into a rock and feel a chill. A song that someone sings from the front of the cave echoes back to us; we sing back, channeling the nymphs. Then we wildly swing our flashlights and dance across the rocks, whose faces and shadows shapeshift with the light; one looks like an old woman holding a baby, another looks like a grinning demon. It’s like a veil is lifted: we’re in the underworld now. The singing stops. The echoes fade. Silence. We breathe and listen. We are here and now in silence.
Dionysus is the god of hedonism, wine, and theater. He’s the god of saying “yes” to that which usually gets a “no:” the parts of ourselves that we feel ashamed of or try to hide. Among the Greek gods, the androgynous outsider Dionysus is definitely the queerest (although let’s be real, none of them are that straight). One of his epithets is “twice-born” as one of his origin stories involves being torn apart and eaten as a baby and then being put back together in Zeus’ thigh, from which he later sprang. Being ripped apart and put back together sounds a bit like a queer journey, no?
Mysteries happen in this cavernous labyrinth but it’s not for me to say more. It goes against the heart of the Dionysian mysteries and I don’t want to incur his wrath…or that of my girlfriend. The first rule of ancient Greek worship of Dionysus is you don’t talk about ancient Greek worship of Dionysus. Some Greek gods – particularly those linked with darkness or the Underworld like Dionysus or Demeter – were worshiped with secret rituals or mysteries. You had to earn your way into the enlightenment or truth of that god; it wasn’t for everyone to know and it wasn’t for those not yet ready. For sometimes, it’s only in the dark that you can find the light you need. Later, when we return to the world above of sun and warmth and cicadas, I feel that light pouring in and out of me.
Dionysus’ followers were mostly women, as well as slaves and other non-citizens. His rituals or mysteries included orgies in nature where worshippers would have sex, sing, dance and go into a trance to reach an ecstatic state. The Greek etymology of “ecstasy” means “standing outside of oneself;” to be ecstatic is to be out of your mind or out of your sense of who you think you are. These days, Dionysus is everywhere: alcohol and drugs, festivals, the theater, pop and electronic music that puts you into a mindless state or trance. Ever lost your mind to Britney on a dance floor? That’s Dionysus flowing through you.
Experiences of Dionysus are ones of self-celebratory (or self-destructive) affirmation and it was in this emotional space that my girlfriend and I decided to date. We’d been friends for years and started dating in Covid but like many queer Greek folks, she isn’t fully out of the closet with her family. My own coming out at 22 was initiated by a promise to myself to say “yes” to everything but to be with my girlfriend, I have to say “no” to us and our affection, at least in some situations. I was never in a relationship – straight or gay – until I came out, so this ambiguous space of semi-secrecy feels like a new type of confinement. Even if my girlfriend were fully out though, we’re still in Greece, which typically says “no” to queer people (and any type of female sexuality, really).
Perhaps this is why we both feel the pull to pursue ancient Dionysian spaces (the modern ones, like concerts, dance clubs, or festivals, aren’t available in Covid anyway), where we can say “yes” to ourselves, each other, and life itself. Throughout our relationship, we say “yes” to each other in private over and over again to create a shame-free, open space just for us because Dionysus has no place for shame.
“Yes, let’s go this way,” she says as we walk through a valley between mountains, making our own path that will take us down to Delphi – home of the Temple of Apollo – a few days before we go to the cave. “Yes, now is the time,” she says, even though it’s 4PM when we start walking and the sun dips lower and lower, disappearing completely to leave us hiking in the dark under an almost full moon. We’re tired, we’re cranky, we’re four hours in but still, we say “yes” and press on and still, we have no regrets as the moon guides us down into Delphi, the mythological navel of the world.
“Yes, let’s do it,” I say as we grab my dog, Ollie, and jump on a ferry to a nearby island, where we meet our friend and her dogs. I hold Ollie and try not to fall down the cliff as we make our way to a secret beach and there, we all get naked and dive into the ocean, splashing around like Dionysian nymphs. “Yes, follow me,” I say to Ollie as I hold him and float on a donut, drifting in the sea. I wonder how I got to this perfect moment where I’m naked on a Greek island, surrounded by love in every possible form, and I realize it just took a “yes” to get here. I want to laugh or cry or maybe both and it’s not the first time as my relationship with my girlfriend is made up of so many moments, adventures, and “yeses” that bring us to this non-logical, natural space where Dionysus and his followers once roamed.
Searching for Dionysus has illuminated the difference between pleasure for its own sake that distracts you and the kind that goes deeper, which reveals something about yourself. In this cave and other spaces, I find my profound capacity for pleasure and love, which I’d denied myself in my days as a young closeted woman and which I’d sought in other ways during my years of non-sobriety. I discover parts of myself that have been made small to appease others but guess what? Dionysus doesn’t have much patience for smallness (read Euripides’ The Bacchae to see how he deals with those who diminish others). To live a Dionysian life isn’t just to party all the time; it’s actually to break from the shackles of “no,” and to say “yes” to your own bigness. So, dance, fuck, scream, sing, cry, drink, laugh, play – do everything you tell yourself you “shouldn’t” do and then you might just meet this open, queer, multifaceted god.
My girlfriend and I sit outside the mouth of the cave, holding each other as we watch the sun rise. We’ve been in the cave for a very, very long time. Hours or days, it’s hard to say. Like many places in Greece, there’s no border between the ancient and the modern. Time stops, boundaries dissolve, and it might be 2021 or 2000 BCE; in these moments, I can’t tell. As the sun casts its glow over us, I blink my eyes a few times, adjusting to the light after being in the darkness behind us for so long. It blinds me. I take a deep breath to feel this moment flow through me and I feel my girlfriend’s breathing sync with mine. We breathe together, listening to that stillness of the mountain and as I feel her body next to me – here and now – I don’t yet know that it’s the last time we will say “yes” to each other.
Two months later, I say “yes” to myself and return alone to Los Angeles. I’ve been gone for over a year and feel like I’m far behind everyone. I haven’t had a job since before the pandemic and I’m self-conscious that I haven’t “done” anything. Except I have done something: I’ve felt the joy of Dionysus. I’ve felt the joy of saying “yes.” During my year in Greece, I say “yes” to myself in a deep way, which allows me to write like I never have before. Scripts, essays, comics, journal entries, letters, an entire TV show – it all flows out and I can barely keep up. I let my family see the strange, sensitive, super gay sides of me that I’ve tried to hide for many years. I tell my once partner over and over again that I love her without the shame that usually makes me censor myself because of my fear of being “too much.” After all, in the world of Dionysus, there’s no such thing as “too much” because everyone just is. The outside world – the one of mere mortals – makes it much easier to say “no” than “yes” and I’ve spent more than enough time in that space of self-denial. So, I say “yes” to Dionysus and the joy of being in both the lightness and the darkness because there, I can finally say “yes” to myself.