Friday, 30 December 2016

Bacchus, the Liberator

"Bacchus" by Solomko (earliest 20th century)
The simplest way to comprehend Bacchus (also known as Dionysus and Liber) is to understand him to be the God of the vine and of wine, and all that is associated with wine. Ancient Romans shared many of our contemporary associations with wine, such as cheerfulness, licentiousness and night-time partying, but beyond this the ancients added a sacred dimension. In Latin the name of the God, Liber, literally means free.* The English word liberty derives from it, and that which the word stands for was sacrosanct to the Romans. Bacchus is also the God of libations, with wine being integral to many Roman rites, and the divine patron of religious intoxication and ecstasy, which presumably played a role the Dionysian mysteries. The God also has a dark side, and not only because his revels are often traditionally associated with the night. In liberating his devotees from ordinary cares and inhibitions he momentarily breaks the order of things. When Bacchus holds sway traditional social bonds loosen, including those of class, the family, gender relations, even the order of the State – and the mind – may dishevel. The Hellenic myths relating to King Pentheus and King Lycurgus spell out the danger, a danger that went beyond the mythical in the 2nd century BCE, when the Roman Senate felt compelled to restrict the practice of Bacchic religion.

* According to The Bantam New College Latin and English Dictionary (3rd ed) “Liber” means “free, open, unoccupied, unrestricted, unprejudiced, outspoken, frank, uncontrolled, unrestricted”.

The history of Bacchic rites in Roman polytheism
The history of wine making goes back at least as far as 4000 BCE, for it is known that a winery from that date operated in what is now Armenia, situated in a part of the world which either is, or is close to, the prehistoric homeland of the original Indo-European tribes. We cannot say with certainty when the veneration of the wine God began in Rome, but we do know that a temple to Ceres, Liber and Libera* was founded in Rome in 496 BCE and that it was a major religious centre for plebeians (Beard et al, vol 1 at 64). Liber is the indigenous Italic name for the God of germination and fertility in its male aspect, and came to be (or perhaps always was) widely regarded as one and the same as Bacchus / Dionysus. At what point Romans incorporated Hellenic visions of the God into their own religion is unclear, but late 3rd century BCE references to Bacchus in the plays of Plautus indicate Rome’s familiarity with the God in this form. As well as this:
“We now have the confirmation of archeological discoveries in Etruria [north of Rome] that a cult-grotto [which honoured Bacchus] … was built in the third century in what was virtually a public part of the city of Volsinii and that this was destroyed at the time of the Senate’s action in 186 BC … The Bacchic cult was evidently very widespread … It was to be found not just in Roman and Latin communities, but allied ones as well. It cut across all the usual boundaries between social groups, for we know of devotees amongst slaves and free, among Romans, Latins and allies, men and women, country people and city-dwellers, rich and poor [Beard et al, vol 1 at 93-94].”
The worship of Liber was an ancient and essentially wholesome and mainstream State sanctioned cult. One of the first major festivals of the ancient Roman calendar honoured Liber – the Liberalia, on 17 March. It was a popular date for freeborn teenage boys to give up their childhood togas, and protective bulla amulets, and put on the plain white toga of manhood. Though Liber, Bacchus and Dionysus were understood to be the same God, the worship of Bacchus and the associated (Dionysian) mysteries, as a cult imported from the east, was an exotically different thing to that of the respectable and traditional Roman cult of Liber.
“Most foreign religions entered Rome quite imperceptibly; introduced to the city by natives of the east who brought their religions with them, these cults gradually attracted the support of some Romans. One such religion was the worship of Bacchus … Bacchus was a saviour God who offered his followers salvation and blessed afterlife. He was particularly interested in the growth of grapevines (their death each autumn and rebirth each spring provided for humankind a promise of immortality); and therefore wine, the product of the grapevine, was used in the celebration of Bacchic rites. Drinking wine was a form of communion with the God … by the early second century BC, Bacchic rites had acquired a reputation of being drunken orgies that were breeding grounds for all forms of corruption and immorality … In 186 BC, the Consuls, responding to complaints about moral and criminal offences by Bacchic initiates, urged the Senate to restrict cult activities … The very aspect that made Bacchus appealing to some Romans – its emotionalism – made it frightening to others … When rumours spread about lewd behaviour, kidnappings, forgeries and murders by … initiates, State officials felt that the activities of the cult, which appealed largely to the lower classes, posed a threat to the public safety of Rome … crippling restrictions were placed on future cult activities, but the State did not interfere with individual worship of Bacchus. An individual was free to worship the God of his or her choice, but forbidden to participate in disorderly assemblies [Shelton at 393-394].”
As part of the Roman State’s crackdown on Bacchic activities, the names of initiates were made publicly known; all up around 7000 people were thought to have been part of the secretive and apparently licentious Bacchic cult. Consuls travelled to towns and villages to investigate and hold trials. Those who had merely been initiated but committed no crimes were:
“… left in chains. Those who had defiled themselves by debauchery or murder … false testimony, forged seals, substitution of wills, or other fraudulent acts, were sentenced to capital punishment. More people were executed than were put in chains … Convicted women were handed over to their relatives or to their guardians, who would punish them in private. If the woman had no one who might serve as a suitable punisher, she was punished in public by the State. / Next the Consuls were assigned the task of destroying all Bacchic sanctuaries … except where there was an ancient altar or a consecrated statue [Livy, cited by Shelton at 396]”.
It is important to note that the Senate’s ruling “was not that Bacchic practice as such should become illegal, but that apart from traditional practices, it should be kept to a very small scale” (Beard et al, vol 1 at 95) for “complete suppression of the cult would have jeopardised the pax deorum [peace with the Gods]” (Warrior at 87-88).

Around a century later, it is said that Caesar authorised the transfer of the Bacchic mysteries to Rome (Turcan at 119), after which time they gained greater acceptance. However, Mark Antony’s conspicuous worship of Bacchus brought fresh controversies for the Roman State. In 41 BCE, when Antony visited the important eastern city of Ephesus:
“… the priestesses of the [prestigious] Artemis temple were persuaded to greet him as the living incarnation of Dionysus the Gracious, ‘Giver of Joy’. He was welcomed into a celebrating city filled with ivy, thyrsus wands, harps, pipes and flutes, disheveled women dressed as maenads and men and boys dressed like satyrs and Pans. The political implications of this religious honour would not have been lost on Octavian. While he was confined to Rome, the eastern territories were starting to identify Antony as the successor of all the former earthly Dionysoi, including Alexander the Great, the Ptolemies of Egypt and Pompey the Great … Octavian fought back … by circulating rumours of his own familial relationship with … Apollo [Tyldesley at 145]”.
Likewise, in 34 BCE Antony entered Alexandria with great pomp, in a ceremony somewhat reminiscent of a Roman triumph, dressed in the style of Bacchus – crowned with ivy leaves and carrying a thyrsus wand, and he is said to have posed for Greco-Egyptian paintings and statues representing the God (Tyldesley at 167 and 172). With Antony conspicuously taking on Bacchus as his divine patron, while Octavian claimed Apollo’s patronage, it is tempting to see the war between Octavian and Antony as a sort of proxy war between orderly Apollo and disorderly Bacchus, but the evidence of the time points elsewhere, for throughout this period and beyond it seems Bacchus was gaining increasing popularity, with poets such as Ovid, Tibullus, Propertius and Horace heaping praises on the God.

By the time of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, a number of Pompeian shrines depicting Bacchus testify to the popularity of his worship, and evidently he continued to remain popular, for the second largest temple ever built in Rome was dedicated to Liber and Hercules by emperor Septimius Severus in the late 2nd century CE (Beard et al, vol 1 at 255). We know that during this period organised groups worshipping Bacchus, known as thiasi, flourished throughout the empire – one thiasi is known to have comprised some 500 members (Turcan at 119; Beard et al, vol 2 at 291). Meanwhile the Lycurgus cup, made in the 4th century CE, indicates the ongoing worship of Bacchus until late into the Roman age.

* As Liber is identified with the Hellenic Dionysus, so Libera is identified with his consort, Ariadne: Grimal at 246. 

The Roman understanding of Bacchus
"Bacchus and Ariadne" by Le Sueur (1640)
The Roman understanding of Bacchus is not substantially different from the Hellenic, although as a Greek God he has a more prominent position, for he is included among the 12 major Olympian Gods, whereas Bacchus does not hold a place amongst the 12 major Roman Gods (the Dii Consentes). Plutarch poses a number of ways of understanding the importance of the God in the Roman pantheon, including the association with freedom in his original Roman name, Liber Pater (“free father”), which includes the freed up speech (ie, more frank and bold) of the drinkers of wine. Plutarch also notes the connection between the name Liber and the related Latin word for libations – the pouring of wine being an integral aspect of many traditional Roman rites. Ovid makes a similar observation in his Fasti (17 March), adding that the word for sacrificial cakes, liba, also derives from the God’s name. Liber’s association with both liberty and religious libations leave us in no doubt as to the importance of the God in Roman polytheism.

Despite the disreputable nature of Bacchic activities in 2nd century BCE Rome, Cicero, writing around a century later, makes it clear that he regards Bacchus as a God of noble character, and lists him as amongst the Gods who was once human but merited celestial honours due to his illustrious life’s actions (On the Nature of the Gods & Treatise on the Laws). Presumably the most illustrious of those acts was his discovery of winemaking and the spreading of this art across vast regions of the world, including as far away as India (it is tempting to wonder if the Bacchic conquest of India is a mythicised remembrance of the Indo-European invasion of the region circa 2000-1500 BCE). Aside from liberty, libations and the introduction of wine, Bacchus is also associated, in myth, with a number of virtues. He instructs against avarice in the story of Midas, who asks for the favour of turning all that he touches into gold only to realise the gift is a curse. The same lesson is taught in the tale of the pirates who attempt to sell Bacchus into slavery and are instead transformed into dolphins – this story also connects Bacchus with liberation and was likely an important myth to those of Bacchus’ ancient devotees who were slaves or who sought to avoid slavery. Bacchus provides a laudable example of filial piety when he rescues his mother Semele from Hades, whence forth she became known as the Goddess Thyone. However, the most moving of the myths surrounding Bacchus is surely that of his love for Ariadne, whom he rescued from that lonely shore where Theseus had abandoned her. Ovid tells the story:
“… the God who carries a torch for lovers [ie, wine lightens the path of love] … feels himself the flames that scorch – as, fresh from sleep, the Cretan princess [Ariadne] found, grief crazed, barefoot, robe ungirt, blonde hair unbound, pacing the shore of Naxos … all the while crying ‘cruel Theseus!’ … the innocent tears run down her tender cheeks, she weeps, she screams, yet still, somehow, she seems beautiful, her allure unrobed by the tears. Hands beating her soft breasts, she sobbed, ‘he’s betrayed me, he’s gone! What will become of me? What …?’ Suddenly, the whole shore resounded with the noise of cymbals and drums frenziedly pounded … Behold the wild-tressed bacchanals, the wanton, gay satyrs, the rout that lead the wine-God’s way … the God arrives in his chariot roofed with grape-clusters, he drives a team of tigers with golden harness on … ‘I am here,’ said the God, ‘a truer lover than he was. Your life is in no danger. You shall be Bacchus’ wife. The sky is your dowry; henceforward you are the Cretan Crown; a looked-for star, you will act as a guide to ships lost at night.’ And lest she should take fright at the tigers, he leapt down (the sand held the print of his foot) and went to her and put his arms round her and carried her off. No struggle – with ease the Gods accomplish anything they please. Some sang a wedding chorus, others cried ‘long live Bacchus!' And so to bed go God and bride.”
There are layers of importance in this story, not least because it must have sometimes happened that ancient women found themselves in circumstances as perilous as Ariadne’s (and some still do today). For such women, and for the women who fear a similar fate, Bacchus shows himself to be a powerfully divine ally of womankind. Bacchus, the devoted son to his mother; devoted lover to his wife (despite her past – until only a hundred years ago a woman like Ariadne was described as “ruined”); the God who dressed as a girl in his childhood (to avoid Juno’s detection); was cured of his madness when he was initiated into the rites of the great Goddess Cybele (whose own priests dressed as women); who encouraged women away from their usual lives of restraint, to become bacchantes, and ecstatically dance on mountains and in forests in a Bacchic trance – when they did it was said they ceased to be the weaker sex and were possessed of super-human strength. The emotionalism traditionally associated with womankind is the God’s forte. He is wildly fertile and attractive. He says yes to sex, yes to pleasure, yes to fun, yes to joy.

However, there is a dark side to the Giver of Joy, as many a night-time reveler learns when the sun rises. Many of the myths surrounding Bacchus involve violence and death. It is notable that Mercury, the God who guides souls to the afterlife, is associated with Bacchus – in myth Mercury was the first to care for Bacchus after his birth from Jupiter’s thigh. This birth was a second birth for Bacchus, for he is the twice-born God, first born of Semele, then of Jupiter. As a twice-born God associated with the grapevine, which renews itself every spring, it seems likely that the Bacchic (or Dionysian) mysteries were connected with the promise of resurrection after death. As Walter Otto calls him, in his book Dionysus, Myth and Cult, he is “The God Who Comes”. By calling him this Otto refers to the tendency in Bacchic myth for the God to symbolically disappear for a time and then suddenly reappear, but we can allow the more lewd, contemporary associations with this phrase, for Bacchus is undeniably a deeply masculine fertility deity, and from a woman’s perspective he is, quite simply, incredibly sexy. As Apuleius has his hero say to his girlfriend:
“Bacchus, the spokesman and squire of Venus, has turned up … All this wine we must drink today so as to dispel the cowardice induced by embarrassment, and instill into ourselves the onset of sexual pleasure. These are the only provisions needed on Venus’ barque … [Apuleius at 25].”
Traditional rites in honour of Bacchus
"Emma Hamilton as a Bacchante" by Westall (1805)
Horace mentions that “I made a vow of a joyous banquet, and a white goat to Bacchus”. While Varro states that male goats are offered to “father Bacchus, the discoverer of the vine, so that they might pay with their lives for the injuries they do to him”. In his Fasti, Ovid also confirms that goats are a traditional offering to Bacchus (9 January), and that “Bacchus loves flowers”, including flower wreaths (2 May). Ovid also gives us some idea of the rites of the Liberalia in his Fasti:
“Father Liber enjoys honey, and rightly we give the finder [Bacchus was said to have first discovered honey] bright honey poured on hot cakes. Why a woman has charge of this is not obscure: he incites bands of women with his [thyrsus] wand. Why an old woman you ask? That age is more prone to wine and it loves the teeming vine’s gift. Why an ivy wreath? Bacchus loves the ivy most … They say that when his stepmother [Juno] hunted for the boy, nymphs from Nysa screened the crib with its leaves [17 March]”.
In their notes on the Liberalia Boyle and Woodard write:
“One of the characteristic elements of the feast of Liber, with whom Bacchus is completely identified, was the consumption of cakes which were sold on the street by old women … celebrants purchased [these] honey cakes in the streets from [the] old women, and these ‘priestesses’ were garlanded with ivy. A portion of each cake sold was offered to Liber on portable hearths carried by the vendors … On this day celebrating ancient deities of fertility, the white ‘toga of liberty’ (toga libera or toga virilis) is put on as a sign that the boy (usually at the age of fourteen) is now a … young adult. The purple edged toga praetexta of childhood is put away …. St Augustine, citing Varro as his authority, identifies Liber and Libera as overseeing the ‘liberation’ of male and female seed respectively … and writes … of the worship of phallic images drawn along in wagons on the day of the Liberalia. In the town of Lavinium, an entire month is set aside for the worship of Liber, during which time the people continually speak obscenities … In Rome on the day of the Liberalia, images of male and female genitalia are dedicated to Liber and Libera respectively in their temple [Ovid, Fasti, Penguin at 224-226].”
Final thoughts
Tibullus writes that “Bacchus grants the relaxations of joy: Bacchus brings peace to suffering beings” and Horace observes that “Bacchus dissipates preying cares”. Likewise, Propertius offers up the following prayer:
“O Bacchus, I prostrate myself humbly in front of your altars: father, give me tranquility … there’s a medicine for sorrows in your wine … Bacchus wash this trouble from my soul.”
The message is that Bacchus enables us to periodically relax, to not take things so seriously, to loosen up, to cheer up, and that this is good for us. Although, as Horace notes, we should not “exceed a moderate use of the gifts of Bacchus” (we should not be greedy, as Midas was), which is why we worship other Gods as well – to maintain a healthy balance and a harmony. May Bacchus bless us all and look favourably upon us.

The last words go to Tibullus:
“Come radiant Bacchus! With the hallowed leaf / Of grape and ivy be thy forehead crowned! / For thou canst chase away or cure my grief … / This God makes all men rich. He tames proud souls /… Fill our cups once more! / Just and benign is he … / Him and his vines adore! / But, O! He rages, if his gift ye spurn. / Drink, if ye dare not a God's anger brave! / How fierce his stroke, let temperate fellows learn / Of Pentheus' gory grave. / … why complain and moan? O wretched me! / When will my lagging sorrows haste and go? / Delightful Bacchus at his mystery / Forbids these words of woe.”

Apuleius, The Golden Ass, Oxford (translated by Walsh)
Beard, North and Price, Religions of Rome: Volume 1, Cambridge Uni Press
Beard, North and Price, Religions of Rome: Volume 2, Cambridge Uni Press (Encyclopaedia Britannica Online)
Chadwick, The Early Church, Penguin Books
Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods, (translated by Brooks)
Cicero, Treatise on the (translated by Barham)
Grimal, The Penguin Dictionary of Classical Mythology, Penguin
Horace, The Works of (translated by Smart) 
Kamm, The Romans, Routledge
Kline (trans), Tibullus and Sulpicia (55 BC–19 BC) - The (National Geographic)
Otto, Dionysus: Myth and Cult, Indiana University Press
Ovid, The Art of Love, The Modern Library (translated by Michie) 
Ovid, Fasti, Penguin Classics (translated by Boyle and Woodard)
Propertius, The Love Elegies, (translated by Kline)
Rüpke (Ed), A Companion to Roman Religion, John Wiley and Sons
Shelton, As the Romans Did (2nd ed), Oxford University Press (Theoi Greek Mythology)
Tibullus, The Elegies of Tibullus, (translated by Williams)
Turcan, The Gods of Ancient Rome, Routledge
Tyldesley, Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt, Profile Books
Varro, On
Warrior, Roman Religion, Cambridge University Press

Written by M. Sentia Figula; find me at and on Facebook

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