Cradle of Civilization

A Blog about the Birth of Our Civilisation and Development

Wild enigmatic dancers in Greece

Posted by Fredsvenn on September 21, 2014

Korybantes

The Korybantes were the armed and crested dancers who worshipped the Phrygian goddess Cybele with drumming and dancing. They are also called the Kurbantes in Phrygia and the Corybants in an older English transcription. The name Korybantes is of uncertain etymology. Edzard Johan Furnée and R. S. P. Beekes have suggested a Pre-Greek origin.

The Phrygian Korybantes were often confused by Greeks with other ecstatic male confraternities, such as the Idaean Dactyls, the archaic mythical race of small phallic male beings associated with the Great Mother, whether as Cybele or Rhea, or the Cretan Kouretes, spirit-youths (kouroi) who acted as guardians of the infant Zeus.

Dactyls

The numbers of Dactyls vary, but often they were ten spirit-men so like the three Curetes, the Cabiri or the Korybantes that they were often interchangeable. The Dactyls were both ancient smiths and healing magicians. In some myths, they are in Hephaestus’ employ, and they taught metalworking, mathematics, and the alphabet to humans.

When Rhea, the mother of the gods, knew her time of delivery was come, she went to the sacred cave on Mount Ida. As she squatted in labor she dug her fingers into the earth (Gaia), which brought forth these daktyloi Idaioi (“Idaean fingers”), thus often ten in number, or sometimes multiplied into a race of ten tens.

Three is just as often given as their number. They are sometimes instead numbered as thirty-three. When Greeks offered a most solemn oath, often they would press their hands against the earth as they uttered it.

Kuretes

The Kuretes or Kouretes were nine dancers who venerate Rhea, the Cretan counterpart of Cybele. These armored male dancers kept time to a drum and the rhythmic stamping of their feet. Dance, according to Greek thought, was one of the civilizing activities, like wine-making or music.

The dance in armor (the “Pyrrhic dance” or Pyrriche) was a male coming-of-age initiation ritual linked to a warrior victory celebration. Both Jane Ellen Harrison and the French classicist Henri Jeanmaire have shown that both the Kouretes and Cretan Zeus, who was called “the greatest kouros”, were intimately connected with the transition of boys into manhood in Cretan cities. The English “Pyrrhic Dance” is a corruption of the original Pyrríkhē or the Pyrríkhios Khorós (“Pyrrhichian Dance”).

In Hesiod’s telling of Zeus’s birth, when Great Gaia came to Crete and hid the child Zeus in a “steep cave”, beneath the secret places of the earth, on Mount Aigaion with its thick forests; there the Cretan Kouretes’ ritual clashing spears and shields were interpreted by Hellenes as intended to drown out the infant god’s cries, and prevent his discovery by his cannibal father Cronus. Emily Vermeule observed,

This myth is Greek interpretation of mystifying Minoan ritual in an attempt to reconcile their Father Zeus with the Divine Child of Crete; the ritual itself we may never recover with clarity, but it is not impossible that a connection exists between the Kouretes’ weapons at the cave and the dedicated weapons at Arkalochori”.

Among the offerings recovered from the cave, the most spectacular are decorated bronze shields with patterns that draw upon north Syrian originals and a bronze gong on which a god and his attendants are shown in a distinctly Near Eastern style.

Kouretes also presided over the infancy of Dionysus, another god who was born as a babe, and of Zagreus, a Cretan child of Zeus, or child-doublet of Zeus, identified with the god Dionysus.

The wild ecstasy of their cult can be compared to the female Maenads, the female followers of Dionysus (Bacchus in the Roman pantheon), and the most significant members of the thiasus (Greek thiasos), the ecstatic retinue of Dionysus, often pictured as inebriated revelers. Their name literally translates as “raving ones.”

Ovid, in Metamorphoses, says the Kouretes were born from rainwater (Ouranos fertilizing Gaia). This suggests a connexion with the Pelasgian Hyades, popularly “the rainy ones”, but probably from Greek hys, i.e. “swine”), a sisterhood of nymphs that bring rain.

The scholar Jane Ellen Harrison writes that besides being guardians, nurturers, and initiators of the infant Zeus, the Kouretes were primitive magicians and seers. She also writes that they were metal workers and that metallurgy was considered an almost magical art.

There were several “tribes” of Korybantes, including the Cabeiri, the Korybantes Euboioi, the Korybantes Samothrakioi. Hoplodamos and his Gigantes, a race of great strength and aggression, though not necessarily of great size, known for the Gigantomachy (Gigantomachia), were counted among Korybantes, and the titan Anytos was considered a Kourete.

Homer referred to select young men as kouretes, when Agamemnon instructs Odysseus to pick out kouretes, the bravest among the Achaeans” to bear gifts to Achilles. The Greeks preserved a tradition down to Strabo’s day, that the Kuretes of Aetolia and Acarnania in mainland Greece had been imported from Crete.

Zagreus

A single early appearance of Zagreus is in a quoted line from the lost epic Alkmeonis, written in the sixth century BC if not earlier: “Mistress Earth and Zagreus who art above all other gods.” An invocation linking him with the earth goddess Gaia and placing him above all other gods, could not fit easily into the Olympian religion of Zeus.

In Greek a hunter who catches living animals is called zagreus, Karl Kerenyi notes, and the Ionian word zagre signifies a “pit for the capture of live animals” Kerenyi links the figure of Zagreus with archaic Dionysiac rites in which small animals were torn limb from limb and their flesh devoured raw, “not as an emanation of the Greek Dionysian religion, but rather as a migration or survival of a prehistoric rite.”

Maenads

The maenads were the female followers of Dionysus (Bacchus in the Roman pantheon). Often the maenads were portrayed as inspired by Dionysus into a state of ecstatic frenzy, through a combination of dancing and intoxication. During these rites, the maenads would dress in fawn skins and carry a thyrsus, a long stick wrapped in ivy or vine leaves and tipped with a pinecone. They would weave ivy-wreaths around their heads or wear a bull helmet in honor of their god, and often handle or wear snakes.

Hyades

The Hyades were daughters of Atlas (by either Pleione or Aethra, one of the Oceanides) and sisters of Hyas in most tellings, although one version gives their parents as Hyas and Boeotia. The Hyades are sisters to the Pleiades and the Hesperides.

The main myth concerning them is envisioned to account for their collective name and to provide an etiology for their weepy raininess: Hyas was killed in a hunting accident and the Hyades wept from their grief. They were changed into a cluster of stars, the Hyades, set in the head of Taurus.

Gigantes

The Giants or Gigantes were known for their battle with the Olympian gods. According to Hesiod, the Giants were the offspring of Gaia (Earth), born from the blood that fell when Uranus (Sky) was castrated by their Titan son Cronus.

Archaic and Classical representations show Gigantes as man-sized hoplites (heavily-armed ancient Greek foot soldiers) fully human in form. Later representations (after c. 380 BC) show Gigantes with snakes for legs.

In later traditions, the Giants were often confused with other opponents of the Olympians, particularly the Titans, an earlier generation of large and powerful children of Gaia and Uranus. The vanquished Giants were said to be buried under volcanos, and to be the cause of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes.

Cabeiri

A fragment from Strabo’s Book VII gives a sense of the roughly analogous character of these male confraternities, and the confusion rampant among those not initiated: Many assert that the gods worshipped in Samothrace as well as the Kurbantes and the Korybantes and in like manner the Kouretes and the Idaean Daktyls are the same as the Kabeiroi, but as to the Kabeiroi they are unable to tell who they are.

In Greek mythology, the Cabeiri (Cabiri, Kabeiroi, or Kabiri) were a group of enigmatic chthonic deities. They were worshiped in a mystery cult closely associated with that of Hephaestus, centered in the north Aegean islands of Lemnos and possibly Samothrace – at the Samothrace temple complex – and at Thebes.

They were most commonly depicted as two people: an old man, Axiocersus, and his son, Cadmilus. Due to the cult’s secrecy, however, their exact nature and relationship with other ancient Greek and Thracian religious figures remained mysterious.

As a result, the membership and roles of the Cabeiri changed significantly over time, with common variants including a female pair (Axierus and Axiocersa) and twin youths (frequently confused with Castor and Pollux) who were also worshiped as protectors of sailors.

In their distant origins the Cabeiri and the Samothracian gods may include pre-Greek elements, or other non-Greek elements, such as Hittite, Thracian, proto-Etruscan or Phrygian. The Lemnian cult was always local to Lemnos, but the Samothracian mystery cult spread rapidly throughout the Greek world during the Hellenistic period, eventually initiating Romans.

The ancient sources disagree about whether the deities of Samothrace were Cabeiri or not; and the accounts of the two cults differ in detail. But the two islands are close to each other, at the northern end of the Aegean, and the cults are at least similar, and neither fits easily into the Olympic pantheon: the Cabeiri were given a mythic genealogy as sons of Hephaestus.

The accounts of the Samothracian gods, whose names were secret, differ in the number and sexes of the gods: usually between two and four, some of either sex. The number of Cabeiri also vary, with some accounts citing four (often a pair of males and a pair of females), and some even more, such as a tribe or whole race of Cabeiri, often presented as all male.

The Cabeiri were also worshipped at other sites in the vicinity, including Seuthopolis in Thrace and various sites in Asia Minor. The Cabeiri were possibly originally Phrygian deities and protectors of sailors, who were imported into Greek ritual. R. S. P. Beekes believes that their name is of non-Indo-European, pre-Greek origin.

In the past, the Semitic word kabir (“great”) has been seen as the origin since at least Joseph Justus Scaliger in the sixteenth century, but nothing else seemed to point to a Semitic origin, until the idea of “great” gods expressed by the Semitic root kbr was definitively attested for North Syria in the thirteenth century BCE, in texts from Emar published by D. Arnaud in 1985–87.

The name of the Cabeiri recalls Mount Kabeiros, a mountain in the region of Berekyntia in Asia Minor, closely associated with the Phrygian Mother Goddess. The name of Kadmilus, or Kasmilos, one of the Cabeiri who was usually depicted as a young boy, was linked even in antiquity to camillus, an old Latin word for a boy-attendant in a cult, which is probably a loan from the Etruscan language, which may be related to Lemnian. However, according to Beekes, the name Kadmilus may be of pre-Greek origin, as is the case with the name Cadmus.

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