Rivers and streams are full from spring rain and snowmelt. Some flood over their banks which can fill us with wonder or worry depending on how likely the flood waters will damage something we value. I don’t admit this around my neighbors but I look forward to seeing my local creek flood because it does little harm except to inundate the flood plain and wetlands around it. A few houses do get wet basements, but the owners have sump pumps and have learned how to handle it.
I say I look forward to it because it does fill me with wonder. Over night the little creek turns into a lake! I find some Dionysian energy in a swollen stream or river. Dionysius, the Greek god of wildness, passion, ripeness, and ecstasy needs his moment and his admirers. More so today since few people honor him after the Romans turned him into Bacchus, the god of drunkenness, and the Christians turned him into the devil with goat horns and cloven hooves. But most sensible societies have always allowed him—the Lord of Misrule—to have his day, although he would most likely prefer the night. When he reigns, the Apollonian spirit of order, reason, and rectitude must flee.
They say you can either embrace Dionysius or fight him. Those who embrace and honor him find ecstasy. Those who fight him find madness. You can’t really ignore him because those who try find him rising from their deep unconscious in unwanted and unseemly ways.
Ecstasy means literally to stand outside (ex-stasis) so the flooded stream is very Dionysian in that it flows outside its usual boundaries. But that’s what Dionysius does: he pulls us outside our normal borders and boundaries and rigid ways of thinking and living. Of course this can be threatening because Dionysius, like the flooded river, cannot be controlled. While his followers find joy in just floating along, recklessly thrilled by the swirling currents of water, Apollo would be in the line of people tossing sandbags to each other. Yes, the residents of Fargo, North Dakota have much to lose when the Red River rises above its banks. Yes, they need sandbags or a good levy. But the Red, like most rivers, or all rivers, needs its fierce, uncontrollable seasons when it must—somewhere—run free
Ecstasy or wildness is a form of joy, and joy is closely bound up with creation. The Mundaka Upanishad says
From joy springs all creation
By it is sustained,
Towards joy it proceeds,
And to joy it returns.
The German poet Rilke said, “Only in joy does creation take place.”
It is hard to imagine that a flooding river is not a joyful river, dancing in its wildness, reveling in its ecstatic course beyond its banks. And even though the flood may do damage, it also plays important roles in the overall health of the environment whether we can see and appreciate that or not, and maybe that is why the river can experience its own joy. It is doing what it is meant to do. If we’ve built our homes too close to the wetlands or paved over too many acres that could be a flood plane, we have to take the consequences. It might drive us mad, this seasonal pumping out the basement or stacking sandbags. But that’s the madness that comes from fighting Dionysius or ignoring him. Dionysius is in nature as well as in ourselves.
Springtime is the season to come outside, to pull down the barriers we used to stay warm and alive during the winter, and to go wild for a time, dance, and let the creative juices flow beyond the stacked sandbags of our psyches. If we don’t, the levies might break. But I think it must be hard not to indulge Dionysius in spring. There is simply too much wild joy sprouting around us. We can’t keep it down and dumb. It will sing whether we want it or not.
In one of Rilke’s prayer-poems to God he writes about the adventurousness of the human spirit that desires to find this joy in creation, the joy of encountering the wild God of the earth.
Because once someone wanted you,
I know that we too are able to want you.
When mountains contain gold
and we plunge into the depths
until no one can dig for it anymore,
the river that grasps the stillness of stone
will at some point finish our work,
and bring that gold into the light of day.
Even when we are not willing: