Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Bacchus (Dionysus) The Latin and Greek God of Wine

People in the wine trade talk about Bacchus, the Greek god of wine. For example, there is a wine store in Washington, D.C. called the Bacchus Wine Cellar . Amazon.com is replete with wine books that have Bacchus in their title. And in Oregon there is a tiny vineyard called Dionysus, which is another name for the Greek god. But who was Bacchus or Dionysus and what is his import to the business and lore of wine

No doubt there are those among you who are arm-chair classicists who have read Homers The Odyssey or The Iliad which are good primers for understanding Greek mythology. If reading ancient poetry is not your fort頴hen perhaps you saw the George Clooney movie Brother Where Art Thou which is loosely based on Homers work. Maybe you have even read the Euripides play Bacchae which tells the story of Dionysus. To clear up the matter of this name, Bacchus is Latin for what the Greeks called Dionysus or Bahkos. You could also say that Dionysus is the Greek god of wine and a Bacchante is a female follower of the Dioysian religious cult. According to the playwright Euripides, there does not appear to have been any male devot饳 of this faith.

Perhaps the best source of information on the life of Dionysus is the play Bacchae written by Euripides in 410 B.C. The play itself was given at what was called a Dionysian festivalthese were contests which pitted the work of one writer against another. The philosopher Neitzsche famously said in The Birth of Tragedy that modern drama originated with such festivals.

History suggests that the Dionysian cult is a religion that came from the Far East. While their religious festivals were indeed frenziedas the play reveals--it was not exactly a riotous f괥 lubricated with copious amounts of drink and sexual voyeurism. That is what the term bacchanalia has come to mean in certain definitions. For example, Euripides uses the word Maenad to refer to the women followers of Dionysus. This word means a frenzied woman who is part of a orgiastic ritual according to the American Heritage Dictionary. While we might consider this might the nymphet of Nabokovs Lolita, in her day she might have been considered as pious as a church going nun. Kind of like Julie Andrews of the 5th century B.C.

Euripides says Dionysus gave man the gift of wine. He found the vine growing wild, turned it into wine, and gave it to man. He writes:

He discovered and bestowed on men the service of drink, the juice that streams from vine-clusters; men have but to take their fill of wine, and the sufferings of an unhappy race are banished, each day's troubles are forgotten in sleep -- indeed this is our only cure for the weariness of life.

Dionysus was the son of Zeus, king of the Greek gods. Dionysus mother was Semele. In ancient Greek plays Gods often manifest themselves as men and they breed with mere mortals. Such was the case with Achilles mother Thetis. This is also true with Semele who was Dionysuss mother. In mythology Zeus sits at the top of the power structure among gods. His wife Hera was jealous that Zeus seduced Semele. So Hera zaps Semele with a bolt of lightning. Zeus snatches the baby Dionysus from the burning womb and sows him up in his thigh and then raises him until his birth.

In the play Dionysus sneaks in disguise into the kingdom of Thebes which is ruled by the King Pentheus. Pentheus warns the people about the presence of a fair-haired man who is attractive to the women.

Pentheus tells his people: The rest of you comb the city and find this effeminate foreigner, who plagues our women with this strange disease [the Dionysian cult] and turns them into whores.

A herdsmand says of Dionysus: it was he who gave men the gift of the vine as a cure for sorrow. And if there were no more wine, why, theres an end of love, and of every other pleasure in life.

The women dash off to the mountains to worhsip Dionysus for they have fallen under the spell of this effeminate foreigner. Men are not allowed into their lair.

Pentheus says: They tell me, in the midst of each group of revelers stands a bowl full of wine; and the women go creeping off this way and that to lonely places and there give themselves to lecherous men

Dionysus tells the Maeneds that Pentheus has committed blasphemy by his failure to believe in Dionysus and his mockery of their religion. For that he must be punished.

The women are peaceful one moment and murderous the next. They fall onto a herd of cattle and tear apart with their hands.

Pentheus finds Dionysus in his midst still in disguise and throws him in jail. Dionysus tells the king that his god Dionysus will free him. He does exactly that for the walls of the jail crumble and Dionysus walks free.

Dionysus reveals himself as a god and takes the king to spy on the Bacchae, the women who are practicing the Dionysian religion, but warns him to stay away for they would kill any man. So Pentheus dresses as a woman. As they draw near to the Bacchae, Dionysus snatches up the king and puts him in the top of a pine tree. The Bacchae recognize the male intruder and rip the pine tree up by their roots and then the king tumbles out into the midst of the women.

Dionysus compels the women to punish the king: Women! I bring you the man who made a mockery of you, and of me, and of my holy rites. Now punish him.

The women fall upon the king and tear him to pieces.

The first woman who attacks Pentheus is his mother Agau뮼span style="mso-spacerun: yes"> In her frenzied state she does not recognize her son and tears his arms from his body. She marches back to Thebes to proudly display the wild animal she has caught still not knowing whose head she carries in her hand. Her father Cadmus says who is that whose head you hold in your hand Agau렢ecomes lucid for a moment and shrieks in horror as she realizes it his her son.

Dionysus is not a benevolent god like the Christian and Jewish God. He banishes Cadmus, Agau묠and the rest of their family for the blasphemy committed by their son and husband Pentheus. Cadmus he turns into a snake.

Another source on the life of Dionysus is the play The Frogs by Aristophanes. The Frogs are not characters in the play per se but are part of what is call a chorus. This is a theatrical device unique to Greek plays. The chorus is offstage and acts as a foil for the characters. They portend the future or respond to current events.

In the play Dionysus disguised himself as Hercules and goes down to Hell to rescue the two poets and playwrights Euripides and Aeschylus. (Aeschylus, the critics says, is perhaps the greatest dramatist of antiquity.) Pluto holds dominion over Hell and he deems a contest in which the two poets engage in verbal battle with each otherthe most eloquent speaker will earn his freedom. Its like that scene in Eminems 8 Mile movie where the rap artists do verbal combat with one another. Aeschylsus wins, gets to see the light of day again, and Euripides is left to mope about along the river Styx (which traverses hell).

For forward 600 years and we have Ovids poem Metamorphoses. This is of course written in Latin so the names of the gods are given in Latin and not Greek. For example it is Venus and not Aphrodite. As for Bacchus we learn that he is the one who gave Midas the wish of the so-called Midas Touch. This new-found fortune is horrible for Midas for everything he touches including his daughter turns to gold at the touch of his finger.

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