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Reflections on Bacchus

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

The Roman sculpture of Bacchus from 2nd century CE | Author: Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 2.5

It is commonly assume that Bacchus was counterpart of Dionysos. But what it actually means? It’s highly not obvious and doesn’t concern only the Dionysos nor even Rome itself, but the essential methodological problems of religious science and history of religion. Were gods identify with each other just like that?

General deliberations

It needs to be remember that ‘Bacchus’ is latinised form of Greek ‘Bakchos’, so there is no any identify Bacchus with Deionysos, because there were no separate Dionysos and Bacchus.

For long decades the researchers insight on Roman religion was shaped by XIX century. In the next century dominated, created by Gregor Wissowa, scheme of development of the Roman religion assuming departure from the “real” “Roman” religion under the influence of an external factors – Latin, Etruskan and Greek. Many researchers accepted this scheme in their works. Today it can’t be stated any longer, because after this “epoche of ancestors” there are no sources contermporary to described events left. In later authors no doubt, of course, survived much earlier accounts and fragments of elders sources, but first accounts contemporary to described events comes not until turn of III and II century BC. Condition of their preservation cause however, that the key role in studies of Romans religion imagines have works even later. Moreover, if we had richer source base from earlier epoches could we really shelled this “truly Roman” religion the problem concerned in equal degree any religion and philosophical system)? For Romans yet in VIII c. BCE were contacted with the Greeks in Italy which, naturally, has to conduct to exchange of religious thought and ideas, so was there at any time “pure” Roman (or any other) religion? Rather not. John Scheid, great scholar of Greek religion, wrote about this like that:

(…) a religion is never and never can be pure, uncontaminated. It is always the result of mixture, even at the earliest stages we are able to identify. So the sorting out of Roman and non-Roman elements, or for later periods a concept like syncretism as opposed to a “pure” religion, are nonsense.

John Scheid, Graeco ritu: a typically Roman way of honoring the gods

All this issues cause that it can’t be pointed the “true Roman backbone” distorted gradually by alien influences (mainly because it never existed). This web of penetrating and interacting on each other beliefs and religious ideas can’t be untie. This is why can’t be point any “begin” of hellenization, because we know well that Romans were connected with the Greeks long before any written sources accessible for us. We can only examine the nature of this process, because it does not consisted on simple transfer of gods and rituals.

That’s how we reach, worked out by contemporary anthropology, the idea of acculturation. This is how writes about it scholar of Roman religion, Prof. Danuta Musiał:

(…) overtaken by given community alien elements involve usually to emerge brandly new structure, understood only in native context. It has to be remember that there are not one-way processes, but usually asymmetric, i.e. one culture more take than give.

Dionizos w Rzymie, s.25

If it’s about Rome, perfectly expressed it one of the greatest historians of XX century, Arnaldo Momigliano when he wrote: “There is no such time and no such place, in which Romans would be free from Greek influences”. There is no doubt that the main cultural receivers in this relations were Romans. It wasn’t, however, “copy-paste” process. Romans creatively processed what they received from Greeks – both mythology and art.

The idea originally described identifying gods derived from different religions is syncretism. Every religion is syncretic, truly, as a result of migration of beliefs, miths and religion ideas. The Romans took from the Greeks very much not only in religious sphere but also in art. The resemblance of Roman and Greek pantheons is so great that it persuaded many scholars throughout history to assume latinization of the whole Greek religion. In antiquity itself we find nterpretatio (interpretatio literary and interpretatio priest), i.e. called alien gods by names of the gods derived from Roman pantheon. Mostly it resulted from resemblance of functions of the gods or goddesses. One of the proofs of that are commonly cases of double dedications, e.g. for Athena-Minerva. Still, they’re not the same goddesses what contemporary readers of antic texts seems to forget. Just imputation different name some god doesn’t mean that it’s one and the same god. The main difference between gods lies in the way of performing the cult, so it’s the ways must approach to themselves, not just names. In Rome itself we have several temples of Minerva, each of them suits “slightly different Minerva”, with a little bit different “area” of action, and from any of them waited slightly different help. The same case was, among other cultures, in Greece, i.e. with Athena (Athena Polias, Promachos, Nike).

Interpretatio literary concerns the “folk” identify the gods, interpretatio priest, on the other hand, has more official character – allows priests and officials to reconcile the native religion tradition with openness on alien cults, avoid thanks to this religious conflicts. The mechanism of interpretatio doesn’t concern the cult, however.

The area of action of Dionysos

What is actually the area of action (gr. time) of Dionysos?  Albert Henrichs, great scholar of Greek religion, was trying to answer to that question by distinguishing “wine, theater, menadism, and underground world”. Great expert of Dionysos, Włodzimierz Lengauer, added to these spheres women and sexuality. By menadism Henrichs understood rituals performed under the god’s mania, fury, strikes besides almost exclusively women. Thus Dionysos is greatly not only the god of wine, but also even the chthonic god! Moreover – Dionysos is dimorphos (“about two figures”) what combined with another sources may refer to his sexual dimorphism. On depictions visible bearded man or long-hair boy (delusively similar to woman); in one of the versions of the myth of his childhood he was nurture in girl’s costume; it is also called as the Pseudanor (“the fake man”). Ovid is said:

…tu formossisimus alto
Conspiceris caelo; tibi, cum sine cornibus astas,
Virgineum caput est;

– “thou art the most lovely in the lofty sky; thy face is virgin-seeming, if without horns thou stand before us” Ovid, F. J. Miller (transl.) – Metamorphoses, Books 1-8, Loeb Classical Library, 1971, Heinemann

Bacchus is therefore the god of opposites. On the one hand – wild, crazy, the wine giver and a the mania sent down on bacchants, i.e. the god’s worshippers, which under its influence tear apart animals and even their own children, on the other hand however – caring, custodial, gentle, almost girlish, incoming to human. That mania is however also some kind of direction on the beauty of the sensual world, first of all the erotic feelings.

In the Roman, as well as in the Greek, world Bacchus was accompanying Eros. It is clearly see on different frescoes, i.e. in Villa dei Misteri in Pompei we find (in The Room of Misteries) marriage’s rituals, on one of the scenes appears even Eroses. In addition the fixed motif presented in Dionysos’s cult, visible also on that frescoes, is phallos. There is no strange thing in this – wine, joy and feast were all connected with lust and love the most in symposions.

The presence of the phallos in Dionysos’s cult may in first moment be pointed on fertility. However profound analysis of iconography performed by leading expert of Dionysiac iconography, Cornelia Isler-Kerenyi, leads to conclusion that that’s not what it’s supposed to do – it’s symbolizes bringing by the god “joy of life, i.e. sexuality, which in it’s essence is useless and joy0giving”. It’s confirmed by presence of the homoerotic plots in Dionysiac mythology. Thus it’s not about fertility, but about the joy of bodily commune with other human being, something which european culture, as an effect of the victory of christianity, has long lost.

Dionysos in Rome

It is true that very early has started identifying old-italian god Liber with Dionysos. However the crucial moment has come in 495 BC. For during the war with Wolscis dictator Postumius made a vow before the gods that “if the battle were attended with a happy and glorious outcome, he would offer great and expensive sacrifices and institute costly games to be celebrated annually by the Roman people”. So it has done so and as a fullfilment of the vow in 494 (or 495) BCE sacrificed a temple on Aventine for the three gods: Ceres, Liber and Libera. They created so-called Aventine Trinity, which were very quickly identified with the Trinity of Eleusinian Misteries: Persephone, Core and Dionysos. We have to remember, of course, that the then Rome is not Italy in which the presence of Dionysos is much older (what is logically – there were Greek colonies in Italy, after all).

The Bacchic cult

What are exactly cult, myth and ritual and what are the relations between them? Answer for this question is not simple at all. Modern definition of ritual we owe anthropology and specifically so-called the Cambridge school. In the end of XIX century one of the scholars from that school (Robertson Smith) formulated the thesis that the fundament of the old religions were not a faith but an institutions and practices explained by myth. We reach here to the relation between ritual and myth, what is in itself a subject on separate study. It has to be remember about one thing – there is no simple connection between one and the other. Not always myth derives from the ritual or otherwise, not always myth explains ritual, too. Against theses old scholars it can’t be simply colligate. Certainly any component can’t be underestimate – ritual is no less valuable than theology or mythology.

Bacchanalia shown on a Roman sarcophagus, dated to 210-220 CE.
Na licencji Creative Commons Uznanie autorstwa - Na tych samych warunkach 3.0.

It can be simply said that cult is a whole set of rituals performed in honour of some god. But in such definition lies many traps. The cults performed in honour of the same god in different time and places can be diverse. It is easily seen on example of commonly mistaken Liberalia and Bacchanalia. I have mentioned already about identified Dionysos (i.e. Bacchus) with Liber, but! The Liberalia, i.e. official “state” holiday in honour of Liber-Dionysos celebrated 17 march, were one thing and the Bacchanalia – unofficial “private” rituals in honour of Bacchus, were the other! Around the latter became loudly in 186 BCE because of bachanalia’s affair. But this affair didn’t concern Liberalia. It concerned only private cults known as Bachanalia. But there was no one Bachanalia! They were not in any sense regulated so there were as many Bachanalia’s as many were different private associations (thiasoi), which could be as different as possible between themselves. All Bachanalia’s affair concerned while among other things correct and incorrect ways of cult.

Author: Jan Siwinski
  • Musiał, Dionizos w Rzymie
  • Lengauer, Dionizos. Trzy szkice
  • Beard, Religions of Rome, vol. 1&2
  • Otto, Dionizos. Mit i kult
  • Nilsson, The bacchic mysteries of the Roman age, The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 46, No. 4 (Oct., 1953), pp. 175-202 (28 pages)
  • Bieber, The mystery frescoes in the mystery villa of Pompeii, The review of religion, (Nov., 1937)
  • Turcan, The Gods of Ancient Rome
  • Loeb Classical Library, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, Volume III, Books V-VI
  • Bremmer, Myth and ritual in Ancient Greece: observations on a difficult relationship, Griechische Mythologie und Frühchristentum
  • Scheid, Graeco Ritu: A Typically Roman Way of Honoring the Gods, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Vol. 97, Greece in Rome: Influence, Integration, Resistance (1995), pp. 15-31

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