Despite his aspirations to the contrary, H. Jeremiah Lewis, better known as “Sannion,” is an individual well-known throughout many sections of modern paganism and polytheism. A prolific writer on many subjects, he is best recognized as an ardent devotee of Dionysos, and has written one of the largest books on Dionysos that is ever likely to be produced by scholar or devotee. His most recent published work from last year is Strange Spirits Volume One. It is also the most enigmatic of his works, with only the following information given on the back cover or elsewhere online: “A collection of poetry and other mysteries.” It is an apt description, and yet so much more could be said … however, saying anything further in a comprehensive fashion would require more pages than the book itself has, and thus a reviewer is left in something of a quandary. Nonetheless, I shall attempt to convey some of its flavor in what follows.
Most of the poetry in this volume was printed at Sannion’s blog previously; however, to have the entire collection brought together in the particular order it is in has a logic (if that is even a remotely applicable concept) and a sensibility all its own. The themes are repeated and revisited throughout its pages — masks, spiders, Harlequin, fools, Dionysos, wine, madness, and once again … — and thus the entirety almost reads like a meta-sestina (or, given the previous list, “septina”?) of sorts.
The poems function not only as effective and evocative art, they also end up — whether they intended to or not — supplying a kind of experiential theology of polytheism, and in particular of Dionysos and one form of Dionysian devotional spirituality. There can be no understanding of experiential polytheism outside of the actual experience of the gods themselves, and the ecstatic and erotic, foolish and mad, senseless and yet eminently sensible divine drives of Dionysos and of Dionysian devotees are not only described in these poems, they can even function in a mystagogic fashion, giving the reader an experience — or, at very least, a glimpse of such an experience — of the god and gods concerned. The entire collection serves as a dithyramb in many parts, which then prompts the reader to respond with one’s own dithyramb, and to join the dance of the merry revelers, whether Bacchants or the wild followers of Herla.
After the first short poem — interestingly enough, entitled “Epilogue” (!) and which should probably be read again when one reaches the end to complete the circle — is “New Dithyrambs for Dionysos,” a poem in nine parts, and one of the longer strictly poetic pieces in the book. It serves as much as a “mission statement” for the remainder of the book as could be possible. Of particular relevance in this regard are the following lines from the fifth section (p. 6):
Nobody in this age enjoys hearing about other people’s dreams
or reading their poetry.
It’s completely understandable —
these are such personal things,
the language of an individual soul.
These days we don’t have time for myth,
the great story of a nation’s spirit and its gods.
This is a problem.
Bad things happen when the things of the inner realm are neglected.
These things push through the cracks,
make doors where there were none before,
manifest through signs
and the violence of nature.
People compelled by alien desires
to deeds they’d never contemplate in their right mind ….
It is this same observation and this same feeling, I suspect, that draws many people in the modern world to pagan and polytheistic religions in the first place. The problem thus being identified, the rest of the book (and what comes before it) is not the solution per se, but instead the course trodden by one particular adept guide in pursuit of solutions.
Though everyone who reads this book will have their own favorite poems, and one person’s tastes are manifestly unlike anyone else’s, nonetheless I feel the following poems were of particular note and enjoyment for me based on my own interests: “A wonderful dithyramb of the land below” (for, amongst other things, its mention of Taras), “Syncretism” (for its skillful handling of an oft-misunderstood subject), “Occupy Thebai” (as a product of its time and build-up to a priceless punchline), “O Muse of Sicily” (for its hints at so many myths that remain mostly untold and unknown, and for directing itself to a very particular audience in relating these myths), “Fufluns” (for bringing further attention to Etruscan culture), “Dum spiro, spero” (for being one of the many poems that brings all of these overarching themes together in a way that is both visceral and a prime example of the holy fool’s craft), “Aphorisms” (for the same reason), and “The Agony of Antinous” (for reasons that anyone who knows me and my work will understand readily). Many others are also excellent, but I leave the individual readers to discover them for themselves and compile their own list in turn.
My biggest mistake in reading this book was to not read it quickly enough. It is not that the book’s poems don’t deserve to be savored or contemplated; it’s instead that the experience of reading them is lost if too much thought and reflection interrupts the flow of language. If read in one sitting, the potentially mystagogic effects of this collection are more potent and more apparent. There should not be time to think; instead one should get lost in the dance and the dreams and the drunkenness produced by these words of the poet. Because the subject matter and the voice of so many of these poems is similar, they begin to flow together quite easily … and, in doing so, it demonstrates that lists of the “favorite” poems like the one produced in the previous paragraph represent several steps back from the ideal reading experience. The work functions as a whole as equally well as it does with any free-standing poem. Whether one chooses to listen to any individual part, or instead to the overall effect of the fugue, is one’s own choice.
If Volume One is of this quality, one can only wonder at what awaits us in Volume Two, and I sincerely hope Sannion will turn his hand to that activity sooner rather than later.
Until then, keep dancing…!
[P. Sufenas Virius Lupus is a metagender person, and one of the founding members of the Ekklesía Antínoou–a queer, Graeco-Roman-Egyptian syncretist reconstructionist polytheist group dedicated to Antinous, the deified lover of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, and related deities and divine figures–as well as a contributing member of Neos Alexandria and a practicing Celtic Reconstructionist pagan in the traditions of gentlidechtand filidecht, as well as Romano-British, Welsh, and Gaulish deity devotions. Lupus is also dedicated to several land spirits around the area of North Puget Sound and its islands.
Lupus’ writings are available in several Bibliotheca Alexandrina devotional volumes, including Unbound: A Devotional Anthology for Artemis, Waters of Life: A Devotional Anthology for Serapis and Isis, and Bearing Torches: A Devotional Anthology for Hekate;From Cave to Sky: A Devotional Anthology for Zeus, Out of Arcadia: A Devotional Anthology in Honor of Pan, The Scribing Ibis: An Anthology of Pagan Fiction in Honor of Thoth, Anointed: A Devotional Anthology for the Deities of the Near and Middle East, andQueen of the Sacred Way: A Devotional Anthology in Honor of Persephone, a sole-authored book of poetry, The Phillupic Hymns. Lupus’ poetry has also appeared in theScarlet Imprint anthology Datura: An Anthology of Esoteric Poesis and Galina Krasskova’s anthology When the Lion Roars: A Devotional to the Egyptian Goddess Sekhmet. An essay by Lupus appears in the anthology edited by Lee Harrington, Spirit of Desire: Personal Explorations of Sacred Kink. Fiction by Lupus has appeared in the Bibliotheca Alexandrina anthology The Scribing Ibis: An Anthology of Pagan Fiction in Honor of Thoth, Inanna Gabriel and C. Bryan Brown’s Etched Offerings: Voices from the Cauldron of Story, and the e-zine Eternal Haunted Summer. Three books in The Red Lotus Library, the Ekklesía Antínoou’s publishing imprint, are now available, The Syncretisms of Antinous, Devotio Antinoo: The Doctor’s Notes, Volume One, and All-Soul, All-Body, All-Love, All-Power: A TransMythology. Further publications will be mentioned here as they become available!]