I am not always the most perceptive when it comes to spiritual experiences. I have friends who talk to the gods between one breath and another, simply by closing their eyes to listen. That has never worked for me. The inside of my head is too loud and cluttered, its imagination running too many channels at the same time. Divinity is not a sweet whisper in my ear, an intuition that guides my hand, or a line from a song that repeats until I notice the message.
For me, all too often, the gods have to shout.
There are a lot of ways this can look. I’ve written about some of them here. Often, it’s very traditional. Weather patterns at specific times. Happenstance that ensures I’m in the right place for a specific event. Animals that appear in the wrong place, demanding to be noticed.
I was not surprised, exactly, when I walked into my bathroom and saw the yellow jackets crawling over the window, segmented bodies walking up the glass and buzzing back down into the brightly colored bottles along the sill. That doesn’t mean I was pleased.
I knew they were yellow jackets because they had come up in conversation twice earlier in the summer. Entirely coincidental, of course. One friend posted about feeding them sugar water in the garden, encouraging their presence as pollinators. Another talked about butchering rabbits on their homestead, and the way the little yellow bodies had come investigating the fresh kills.
“Yellow jackets are carnivores in the spring – or the larvae are,” my friend explained. “And they’re smart. They remember: faces, or smells, or something. I set a little meat to the side for them, and they’ve never bothered me since. They’re kind of sweet.”
I thought about this as I watched the – six? was it really six? – insects buzzing in front of me. I’d seen a couple in the house before, since I got back from quarantine. My partner, usually not at all a fan of crawly things, had mentioned offhandedly that they’d been around during my absence. But six seemed a lot to come out of nowhere.
A quick and slightly harried moment of research told me that the colder weather marked the end of a nest’s life cycle. These would be the hunters, looking for sugary foods now that their usefulness was nearing its end. Most of them would be dead in a few days, and as I looked, I saw that some were dead already, littering the floor and the windowsill itself. Probably they were looking for somewhere warm. It was unsettling, but, the internet told me, not at all dangerous. Not unless I harmed one and spooked them.
That didn’t stop me from being afraid of them. Like any farm-grown kid, I’ve had my share of stings. Bees, sure, but hornets are the ones that I have always known are dangerous, their thin bodies hovering like angry needles, waiting for a place to hit. These were friends, I reminded myself, walking cautiously into the room. They wouldn’t even bother with my presence unless I alarmed them.
I took a shower, all of the humidity making me feel safer, and went about my day. It wasn’t until later, in a park across town, that I realized maybe something was up. I pulled down my mask in a quiet corner to take a drink, and a yellow jacket flew close, landed on my bottom lip, and shared some of the sugary liquid. I held still as I could, waiting until it flew off to take a deep breath and close my eyes.
“Okay,” I whispered. “You’ve got my attention. Who is it?”
I had a good idea. At the beginning of the summer, when the living room officially became my office, I reclaimed the desk that had previously housed the altars of the Olympains. In typical fashion, they had spread throughout the house. Athena moved to the hallway, looking down with compassion or stern judgment, depending on the day. Hermes took up residence next to my ancestor altar, nestled against an ever-expanding spider plant. The Olympians tend to like clean, orderly spaces where they can be properly appreciated.
There was only one who had been comfortable in the bathroom.
Still, it felt worthwhile to double check. I hadn’t worked with him in years, except for the divinations I provided to some of his followers. Or the poetry blog I still tended for him. Or the offering I had poured out the week before.
Better to be sure. I called up a connection, one of his followers I didn’t know very well. “Just need some external clarification,” I told them. “Getting a bunch of signs – can you check with D, for me? See if they’re from him?”
“Oh, they’re definitely his,” I got back, almost immediately.
I sighed. “Of course they are.”
Dionysos and I go back a while. It’s the same sort of relationship I have with a lot of the Hellenic pantheon – not an easy connection but a friendly one, built on work and gifts and shared experience. I’ve had the impression for a long time that he and my patron know each other, hang out, collaborate on projects when the fancy takes them.
I’ve been on the receiving end of those projects before. They’re always useful lessons – long on growth, a little short on fun. I’ve figured that’s a natural consequence of having two gods known for their slightly brutal take on education; I try not to complain too much. At least I still have my head.
I hadn’t expected Dionysos to show up on his own. As much as I love him, and respect the gifts he brings, I haven’t ever felt as though we were close.
“Something you want to tell me, handsome?” I muttered to the image I’d hung of him, capturing three wasps in a jar and carrying them out the door, down the stairs into the free air. They buzzed curiously at the mouth of the jar and flew away, only mildly inconvenienced.
Within three hours, I had released twenty of them. I was starting to think that maybe they were the same ones, again and again, determined to get their message across.
New tactic, then. I built a feeder of sugar water and left it where it wouldn’t bother anyone. Then I went back upstairs. “Alright,” I said, shuffling a deck of cards that spews gibberish and nonsense when used for anything other than communicating with this specific pantheon. “Zagreus. Talk to me.”
I knew which of his faces to call on from instinct, as much as anything. I could justify it, if I wanted to. The omnivorous diet of the wasps put me in mind of the maenads drinking honey and milk after their hunt. Some half-remembered line about wasps being the wolves of the insect world suggested itself. But I didn’t know of anything in the lore or modern practice that made this connection explicit. I just knew who he was – the red mouthed hunter – in a sort of wordless recognition. Not one of the happier faces the Ever-Arriving presents to the world.
I am afraid of Dionysos in the loving way I imagine a shepherd might be afraid of a wolf pack. He is beautiful, and when I spy him at the edges of my firelight I am delighted that he exists. I also know how sharp his teeth can be.
I steeled myself for whatever he had to say.
The deck spat out three cards into my hands. I frowned at them.
You’re doing a lot of work there, dear. Maybe take better care of yourself, while you’re at it. Maybe relax a little.
I looked up at him, and at the wasps that, while they swarmed in increasing numbers, hadn’t so much as buzzed at me.
I have found Dionysos in the company of strangers, half-drunk on liquor and half on strange sounds, dressed as a maenad while I wove between the bodies of the gods. I have found his joyful face on the dance floor, and his terrible one on the lonely walk home. I have visited him in museums, crouching down to stare into marble eyes. I have read books and plays and poems about him and still felt distant. Delighted, of course. Respectful. Moved, sometimes, to tears. But sitting on the porcelain lid of the toilet and watching wasps buzz around the room was the first time I felt as though he had any interest in reaching back to me.
The yellow jackets have quieted down this week. I keep my makeshift feeder stocked, and check every so often to make sure nothing else has discovered it. It keeps them outside, mostly. I still find the occasional body curled on the window sill, where I might leave a shot of rum or a glass of wine.
“Euoi,” I hum to myself, sweeping them up. “Hail Iacchos.” With my free hand, I reach down into my chest to untie one more cord in the knot of anxiety and worry that I carry with me. “Thank you for your many blessings.”
He has many names. I forget, sometimes, that along with Anthroporraistos (man-eater) and Mainolês (raging) he is also Eleuthereus and Lysios. Liberator. Release.
Call this an offering. May I learn to know threats when I see them and welcome my friends warmly.