Theatre as ritualised sacrifice surfaced in a fundraiser at the Gisborne Showgrounds a few springs ago. The horse-boy auction was held in support of women diagnosed with breast cancer but the unconscious paganism behind it was the stuff of country matters.
A grassy arena corralled by timber stalls at the Showgrounds made up the venue. Women in groups of 10 sat at tables in the stalls under tin roofs. At the centre of the ring, the MC was costumed as a circus-ring master and would be in charge of a posse of horse-boys – 12 young farmers in green shorts – when they arrived.
The lads were well-watered and full of wild oats when they clattered onto the iron roofs. Photographs suggest they were reasonably erect. They pawed at the iron with their feet, leaped into the arena and crashed into the lawn. They staggered about like new-born foals until they found their hooves. Then each one was chosen by a group of ladies.
A coloured ribbon designated which group each horse-boy would represent. The horse-boys tied the ribbons around their heads.
The women ate, and drank. They had a laugh and laid bets as their horse-boys competed for them in races and inflatable paddling pool show-jumping.
There were libations. There was horseplay.
By late afternoon some of the horse-boys had garbed themselves in items of women’s clothing.
In Euripides’ play The Bacchai, priapic horse-boys cavort with followers of Dionysus, the Greek god of madness, intoxication, religious ecstasy and theatre. The king of Thebes refuses to believe Dionysus is a god so Dionysus talks him into putting on a wig and a dress and perch atop a pine tree to spy on his maenads (raging women), also known as bacchai. The bacchai spot him, uproot the tree and tear him apart. They play catch with his limbs for a bit.
His mum impales her son’s head on her sacred staff then she and the maenads trip into the city singing about how they have killed a lion.
Death by dismemberment followed by resurrection features in Dionysus’s back story too. This links the deity to the cycle of seasons. His brief includes god of the harvest and of fertility. A brief period of transvestism features in the back story too, but that’s by the by.
The most significant festival in ancient Greece to honour Dionysus was the City Dionysia. The festival was held to celebrate the end of winter and the coming of spring. Drunken men dressed in goat skins led the pompe (procession) and a bull was sacrificed to purify the Theatre of Dionysus. A two-day programme of tragedies, satyrs and dithyrambic contests followed.
According to one tradition, the winner was awarded a goat, a common symbol for Dionysus. The goat was usually torn apart.
It would be back. Or one like it.
Feasting, drunken revelry and orgiastic behaviour rounded off the weekend.
By the end of the fundraiser at the Gisborne Showgrounds arena, the Mephistophelean circus-master had auctioned the horse-boys to the women “to do what you will with.”
None of the boys were slaughtered, not in the true sense of the word anyway, and none were dismembered.
Whether the event doubled as a fertility rite is unclear. These are country matters and best left there.
Suffice to say, The Gisborne Herald shortly afterwards reported one of the most fruitful years in close to a decade for sheep and beef farmers.
“The grass is growing and the clover is beautiful,” said one hill farmer.
“This has been one of the best seasons in a long time.”