From a Land Far Away

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAToday is the first day of the Ancient Roman festival of Bacchanalia. It was held in honour of Bacchus, the god of wine. The festival seems to always have been a pretty wild occasion, but by the time it became popular in Rome, things had got rather out of hand. Bacchus was very much the same entity as the Greek god Dionysus and his cult arrived in Rome via Southern Italy some time around 200 BC.

The Greek Dionysia was originally a rural festival, celebrating the cultivation of vines, which was held in the month of Poseideon. It seems to have involved a large procession through the countryside, with people carrying vessels of wine and water, baskets of fruit and also, oddly, men carrying long poles with fake penises attached to them. Also, women wearing gloves made out of flowers who were pretending to be drunken men. Many of the participants were dressed in animal skins and were playing the parts of Pan and other satyrs. All were garlanded with vines and ivy and they were accompanied by pipes and drums. It all sounds a bit raucous but basically harmless.

Over time the celebrations seem to have become more and more debauched and by the time the cult arrived in Rome it was also rather secretive. The Romans really managed to make the whole thing much worse. To begin with, they decided rather than having an annual celebration, they would have a Bacchanalia five times, every month, and they would have them at night. We cannot be sure exactly what went on. The historian Livy gives an extremely colourful and lurid account of the ceremonies when he wrote about the time they were banned in 186 BC. But what we need to know is that Livy was pretty down on anything that he perceived as ‘foreign’ and also that he was writing 200 years after the events he describes. According to him the screams of the initiates were barely drowned out by the drums and cymbals that accompanied the rites. He tells us that only those under the age of twenty were admitted, as they were thought more pliable. He goes on to say that the initiation rites involved violent sex acts which were often performed on men by other men and that those who refused to take part were killed. This is probably not true at all.

03 16 thomas couture romans during the decadence

Livy didn’t like anything that he perceived as degenerate. What he particularly didn’t like was the idea of free-born Romans of both sexes meeting at night and drinking lots of wine. As to the awful foreignness that he feels is to blame, there is really no evidence that the Romans were very bothered about it. It was always pretty much a cornerstone of their foreign policy that they embraced and assimilated the religious beliefs of other countries and it worked quite well for them. Bacchanals continued to happen but with smaller groups of people. Eventually Bacchus had his festival combined with that of another Roman god of wine Liber.

03 16 maerten van heemskerck triumph of bacchus

It seems Bacchus has always been thought of as a god who came from somewhere else. Even in Greece, when he was Dionysus, he was thought to have come from either the east, in India or the south in Egypt. He is often represented triumphantly and chaotically arriving from some far off destination beyond the limits of the known world. He brings with him a procession of wild women and satyrs. He is a protector of those who do not belong to conventional society. He represents freedom. All the wine, the music and ecstatic dancing associated with his cult freed people from self-consciousness, from fear, from care. But he also represents everything that is chaotic, dangerous and unexpected and there are lots of stories about people who got on the wrong side of him. My favourite at the moment is one about the time he hired a pirate ship to take him to Naxos. But instead they tried to take him to Asia so they could sell him as a slave. He turned the masts and oars into snakes and filled the ship with ivy and the sound of flutes. This drove the pirates mad and they jumped into the sea and were turned into dolphins.

03 16 pirate ship

Dionysus/Bacchus was the last god to be admitted to Olympus and the only one to have a human mother. The circumstances of his birth are unusual. Perhaps his father Zeus rescued his unborn body from his mother, who was blasted into oblivion by the sight of an undisguised god in all his splendour. Alternatively, he was torn apart as a baby by a race of giants called the Titans. After that, they boiled him and then roasted him. It is a story that reminds me of some of the tales I’ve read about early Christian martyrs. In the second version, his father managed to rescue only his heart. Zeus then sewed the baby, or his heart into his own thigh until the child was either ready to be born or had been remade. Either seem equally plausible. It is the sort of story that Lucian was making fun of in his ‘True History‘ that I mentioned last week.

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