The Greeks also, indeed above all, saw the deity in beauty. The story is well known of how the courtesan Phryne, on the point of conviction in court, lowered her garment and uncovered her peerless bosom, causing the judges to let her off. It is usually told as if the judges had simply done so in an attack of erethism, like the characters in an American comic strip. The reality is that they felt themselves in the presence of the divine: such beauty must mean that Phryne was under the special protection of Aphrodite. As Athenaeus tells us:
“But the judges were seized with holy awe of the divinity, so that they did not venture to kill the prophetess and priestess of Aphrodite.”
It was for this reason also that Praxiteles was commissioned to make a statue of Phryne, and that he bestowed on her his statue of Eros, the life-force.
The Greeks word for god meant the moment of excitement when one recognizes a long-lost friend, and applied it to the excitement of a new discovery. Whence our word enthusiasm; and they distinguished enthusiasm from ecstasy, of standing outside — a notion we echo in our phrase “he was beside himself”. In all these states God had seized man, an action known as theolepsy.
The Greeks, therefore, looked with especial interest on any process which seemed able to induce this theoleptic awareness of divinity. They knew that music, dancing and alcohol could cause it, and found it to be present also at the climax of the sexual act, when the bounds of one’s personality seem to dissolve and one merges with the infinite. Thus it was that from very early times, Greece had offered a home to a cult, evolved originally in Thrace, in which, once every two years, people climbed the mountains, accompanied by kettledrum and flute, danced wildly, and ended by performing the sexual act. This, when the time came to provide it with a deity in human shape, was called the worship of Dionysos. Priapus — specifically sexual desire — was his son, but Dionysos himself as the god of the grape and of wine — wine which enabled an to escape from the bounds of his own personality.