The Roman god Bacchus was the equivalent of the Greek Dionysus and at times also known as Liber (the “free”). To the Estruscans he was known as “Fufluns”. The deity is likely to have originated from Phrygia (Turkey) or Phoenician (Lebanon-Syria-Israel) and have followed the expansion of wine production and trade.
He was the illegitimate son of Jupiter from the mortal Semele. Jupiter’s wife Juno, having discovered the betrayal, tricked Semele into desiring Jupiter to reveal himself to her as a deity. Having promised to grant her a wish Jupiter was forced to display his nature but in doing so caused Semele to be incinerated. Jupiter saved the baby Bacchus by sewing him into his own thigh so that he might reach the ninth month and be born (from his thigh!). Bacchus was therefore known as the god which was born twice.
Bacchus was placed in the care of Mercury, messenger of the gods and patron of commerce. As he grew up he discovered the culture of the vine and how to turn grapes into wine. Jupiter’s wife Juno discovered his existence and struck him with madness and endless wandering. However Cybele cured him of this and taught him about religious rites. The centaur Chiron, master of the healing arts, is also known to have been his tutor and taught Bacchus chants, dances and initiations. Bacchus continued his errant nature in order to teach viticulture and spread his personal cult.
The physical appearance of Bacchus in Graeco-Roman culture changed over time, initially represented as a strong but disheveled bearded character much in line with his sylvan background and later as a rather more effeminate and sensuous youth.
Bacchus was credited with the discovery of wine and carried a magic wand known as “Thyrsus”: a fennel pole with a pine cone on its end. His female followers were known as Maenads whilst the male were Satyrs. They wore leopard skins and carried fir branches entwined with ivy (sign of longevity).
Ariadne-Ariana (the one who managed to escape from the Minotaur’s labyrinth) was Bacchus’ consort – it is unclear how Ariadne left Theseus to marry Bacchus as there are several varying accounts. Her marriage diadem is the Corona Borealis constellation seen in the northern hemisphere. She gave birth to four children and later died – possibly by hanging or perhaps killed by Perseus. However Bacchus/Dionysus went down into the underworld and brought both his spouse and his mother Semele back to the world of the living.
Marsyas in particular was a satyr and major follower of Bacchus. He was hung upside-down and skinned alive by the god Apollo for having challenged him to a pipe-playing contest. Often portrayed as a friend and follower of Bacchus, for example in Ovid’s book “Metamorphosys” which has inspired so much Renaissance art on the theme of Bacchus.
Marsyas is also a link within the story of King Midas who had captured Marsyas, recognised him for who he was and duly returned him to Bacchus. Bacchus dutifully rewarded him with a wish which Midas used frivolously – ie that all he touched might turn to gold.
Other common elements associated with Bacchus include:
- ivy: a symbol of longevity as well as considered to be an antidote of the effects of wine, possibly because of its blooming in winter – in opposition to the vine which blooms in summer.
- figs: believed to purge
- pine cones: the resin was used as a preservative of wine
- bulls (likely a young bull): the bull would be killed as a sacrifice in honour of Bacchus. The Bull’s horns were a common wine-drinking vessel.
- goat: which was a common sacrificial animal but also provided the skins in which wine was stored and carried in antiquity.
- bees: perhaps because honey was frequently mixed with wine
- musical instruments such as cymbals, double flutes and bullroarers
- tigers, leopards and leopard skins (symbol of his errant travelling in Asia/India)
The nature of Bacchus and Bacchic rites has as many facets to it as there are interpreters and followers, for example:
- On the one hand he is easily considered in a context of abandoned dissolution such as is brought by excessive use of wine.
- or as a “hard” figure, capable of controlling the drink and using it to achieve the creative benefits of its mystical properties
- as a representation of the cycle (of life) which accompanies the plants hybernation, return to life and yield of (mystical) fruit. This latter consideration made baccanalia a frequent theme for the decoration of Roman sarcophagi and funerals.
The religion of Bacchus entered Rome around 200BC either from the north as Etruscan Fufluns or from the south as Greek Dionysos. He was worshiped with orgiastic rites known as Baccanalia which are believed by many to have been exclusive to women. These rites were taken to the extreme and provoked great scandal in Rome such that in the year 186BC a law was passed prohibiting the cult’s extreme practices – which is telling of ancient roman morality! However, this doesn’t mean that worship of the god was per se in any regarded negatively, indeed many rural comunities would have a high regard for Bacchus, for example, evidence of Bacchus and bacchic effigies (sculptures and images) are very common in agricultural sites such as those found around Pompeii in the rural Roman villas where wine was produced.
Being a “mystery religion” much information about Bacchic religion was lost with the advent of Christianity and much of what we know is based on fragments of descriptions, references in plays and literature as well as art.
The theme of Bacchus, the Maenads, Satyrs and Baccanalia have inspired copious amounts of art throughout the ages and in different cultures. Notable examples include ancient Greek, Attic and Etruscan pottery decoration, Roman frescos such as those found at Pompeii, not to mention famous representations by renaissance artists such as Michaelangelo, Caravaggio, Velazques, Poussin, Picasso and many others.