The name Bacchus may be known to many people. As the Roman god of wine, agriculture, fertility, and revelry, he formed a very important part of the Roman pantheon. Also venerated by the Romans as Liber Pater, it is especially difficult to extricate the myths and beliefs of the Romans and the Greeks about Bacchus.
Bacchus may now be known as the god who created wine but his importance to the ancient Greeks and Romans goes far beyond that since he was also the god of vegetation and agriculture. Specifically charged with being the patron of the fruit of trees, it is easy enough to see how he soon came to be associated almost exclusively with wine-making and the frenzied state of ecstasy that came with the imbibing of that wine.
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Who is Bacchus? The Origins of Bacchus
While it is clear that Bacchus is the Romanized form of the Greek god Dionysus, who was a son of Zeus, king of the Greek gods, what is also clear is that Bacchus was a name that the Greeks already knew Dionysus by and which was simply popularized by the people of ancient Rome. This makes it difficult to separate Bacchus from the pre-existing Greek mythology, cults, and system of worship.
Some theorize that the Roman Bacchus was a combination of the characteristics of Dionysus and of the existing Roman god Liber Pater, turning him into a figure of revelry and merrymaking whose aim was to get those around him drunk. This is the Bacchus that has gone down in the popular imagination ever since, not the Greek god who undertook journeys throughout the world and into the underworld and performed heroic actions. If so, then perhaps Roman literature did not understand the significance of Dionysus or Bacchus and simplified him to the form that we know today.
The God of Wine
As a god of forests, vegetation, and fruitfulness, Bacchus’ task was to help the orchards flower and fruit. He was responsible not just for the growing of the grapes during the spring but also for the grape harvest in the fall. He not only helped create wine and facilitated the making of it, but his association with revelry and drama meant that he brought a feeling of ecstasy and freedom to his followers.
Bacchus represented spontaneity and escape from the everyday toil of human life. The drunkenness that he brought to his followers allowed them to escape from social conventions for a time and think and act in the ways they wished to. This was supposed to promote creativity and imagination. Thus, the many festivals of Bacchus were also the site of all kinds of creative art, including theater and the recitation of poetry.
Bacchus and Liber Pater
Liber Pater (a Latin name meaning ‘the Free Father’) was a Roman god of viticulture, wine, freedom, and male fertility. He was part of the Aventine Triad with Ceres and Libera, with their temple near Aventine Hill, and regarded as a guardian or patron of the plebeians of Rome.
Since his association with wine, fertility, and freedom gave him several similarities with the Greek Dionysus or Bacchus, Liber was soon assimilated into the cult of Bacchus and absorbed much of the mythology that had originally belonged to Dionysus. While it is difficult to distinguish any of the traits and achievements of these three gods, the Roman writer and natural philosopher Pliny the Elder says of Liber that he was the first person to start the practice of buying and selling, that he invented the diadem as a symbol of royalty, and that he began the practice of triumphant processions. Thus, during Bacchic festivals, there would be processions to recall this achievement of Liber’s.
Etymology of the Name Bacchus
‘Bacchus’ comes from the Greek word ‘Bakkhos,’ which was one of the epithets for Dionysus and which was derived from ‘bakkheia,’ meaning the highly excited, exultant state that the wine god induced in mortals. Thus, the people of Rome, in taking this name, made a clear priority on the aspects of the personality of Dionysus that they were absorbing and wished to maintain within the Roman god of wine and festivity.
Another possible explanation is that it derives from the Latin word ‘bacca,’ which meant either ‘berry’ or ‘fruit from a shrub or tree.’ In this sense, it could have meant grapes, which are used to make wine.
Bacchus was also at times known by the name Eleutherios, which means ‘the liberator’ in Greek. This name is a tribute to his ability to impart a sense of freedom to his followers and devotees, to liberate them from self-consciousness and social conventions. The name references the feeling of unrestrained joy and frolic that the people could enjoy under the effects of the wine.
Eleutherios may in fact have predated both Dionysus and Bacchus as well as the Roman Liber, being a Mycenaean god. He shared the same kind of iconography as Dionysus but his name had the same meaning as Liber’s.
Symbolism and Iconography
There are many different depictions of Bacchus but he has certain symbols which make him one of the most recognizable of the Greek gods. The two most common depictions of Bacchus are as a good-looking, well-formed, beardless youth or an older man with a beard. Portrayed at times in an effeminate way and at times in a very manly manner, Bacchus was always recognizable by the ivy crown around his head, the bunch of grapes accompanying him, and the wine cup that he carried.
Another symbol carried by Bacchus was a thyrsus or thyrsos, a large fennel staff covered with vines and leaves and with a pinecone attached to the top. This was a rather obvious symbol of a phallus, that was supposed to denote male fertility which was also one of Bacchus’ domains.
Interestingly enough, there’s a certain amount of hedonism and frolic that is associated with each and every one of Bacchus’ important symbols which tells us a great deal about what exactly the Roman god was revered for.
Worship and Cults of Bacchus
While the worship of Dionysus or Bacchus became properly established in the 7th century BCE, there is evidence that cults of the same kind might have existed even before that among the Mycenaeans and people of Minoan Crete. There were several Greek and Roman cults devoted to the worship of the god of wine.
The cult of Dionysus or Bacchus was equally important in both Greek and Roman society but it is still unclear how exactly it came to ancient Rome. The worship of Bacchus was probably brought to Rome through southern Italy through Etruria, in what is now Tuscany. The southern parts of Italy were more influenced by and steeped in Greek culture, so it is not a surprise that they should have taken to the worship of a Greek god with so much enthusiasm.
The worship of Bacchus was established in about 200 BCE in Rome. It was in the Aventine Grove, very close to the temple of Liber where the pre-existing Roman god of wine already had a state-sponsored cult. Perhaps this was when the assimilation happened as Liber and Libera began to be identified more and more with Bacchus and Proserpina.
The Bacchic Mysteries was the main cult devoted to worshiping Bacchus or Dionysus. Some believe that it was Orpheus, the mythic poet and bard, who founded this particular religious cult since many of the rituals that are part of the Orphic Mysteries were originally supposed to have come from the Bacchic Mysteries.
The purpose of the Bacchic Mysteries was to ritually celebrate changes in the lives of people. This first applied only to men and male sexuality but later extended to feminine roles in society and the status of a woman’s life. The cult conducted ritual sacrifice of animals, particularly goats, who seem to have been important to the god of wine given that he was always surrounded by satyrs. There were also dances and performances by masked participants. Food and drinks like bread and wine were consumed by the devotees of Bacchus.
When Bacchus became associated with Iacchus, a minor deity who was either the son of Demeter or of Persephone, he began to be worshiped by the followers of the Eleusinian Mysteries. The association may have only been due to the similarity in the names of the two. In Antigone, by Sophocles, the playwright identifies the two deities as one.
According to the Orphic tradition, there were two incarnations of Dionysus or Bacchus. The first was allegedly the child of Zeus and Persephone and was killed and dismembered by the Titans before he was born again as the child of Zeus and Semele. Another name that he was known by in the Orphic circles was Zagreus, but this was a rather enigmatic figure who was linked to both Gaia and Hades by different sources.
There was already a Liberalia festival that was celebrated in Rome from about 493 BCE. It is presumably from this festival to Liber and the idea of the ‘Triumph of Liber’ from which the later Bacchic Triumphal Processions were borrowed. There are still mosaics and carvings that feature these processions.
The Dionysia and Anthestria
There were many festivals dedicated to Dionysus or Bacchus in ancient Greece, such as the Dionysia, the Anthestria, and the Lenaia, among others. The most famous among these was probably the Dionysia, of which there were two kinds. The Rural Dionysia which featured a procession and dramatic performances and theater had started in Attica.
On the other hand, the City Dionysia took place in cities like Athens and Eleusis. Taking place three months after the Rural Dionysia, the celebrations were of the same kind except far more elaborate and featuring renowned poets and playwrights.
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The most ritualistic of the festivals to the god of wine was probably the Anthestria of Athens, which was a three-day festival at the start of spring, that was also meant to honor the souls of the dead Athenians. It began with the opening of vats of wine on the first day and ended with a ritual cry to banish the souls of the dead to the underworld on the third day.
One of the most important festivals of ancient Rome, the Bacchanalia was based on the festivals from ancient Greece dedicated to Dionysus. However, one aspect of the Bacchanalia was an added animal sacrifice and consumption of the raw meat of the animal. This, the people believed, was akin to taking the god into their bodies and being closer to him.
Livy, the Roman historian, stated that the Bacchic Mysteries and the celebration of the wine god were first confined to the Roman women before they spread to the men as well. The festivals were held several times a year, first in southern Italy alone and then in Rome after the conquest. They were highly controversial and hated by the State for the subversive ways in which they undermined Rome’s civil, religious, and moral culture, such as celebrations filled with drunken revelry and sexual promiscuity. According to Livy, this included drunken cavorting between men and women of different ages and social classes, which was an absolute no-no at the time. Small wonder that the Bacchanalia was banned for a time.
In the official Roman pantheon, Bacchus was considered at first an aspect of Liber. Soon, Liber, Bacchus, and Dionysus had all become almost interchangeable. It was Septimus Severus, the Roman Emperor, who encouraged the worship of Bacchus again since the god of wine was the patron deity of his birthplace, Leptis Magna.
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Bacchus’ ritual procession in a carriage drawn by tigers and with satyrs or fauns, maenads, and drunken people surrounding him was supposed to be a tribute to his return after conquering India, which he was reputed to have done. This, Pliny said, could have been a precursor for the Roman Triumph.
Most of the myths that survive about Bacchus are the same Greek myths that already existed about Dionysus. It is almost impossible to separate the two. Thus, the most famous story about the god of wine is the story of his birth, for which he is referred to as the twice-born.
Birth of Bacchus
Even though Bacchus himself was a god, his mother was not a goddess. Bacchus or Dionysus was the son of Zeus (or Jupiter in the Roman tradition) and a Theban princess called Semele, daughter of King Cadmus of Thebes. This means that Bacchus was the only one of the gods who had a mortal mother.
Jealous of the attention of Zeus towards Semele, the goddess Hera (or Juno) tricked the mortal woman into wishing to see Zeus in his true form. Given the amorous tendencies of Zeus, Hera’s anger can hardly be blamed. Still, one wonders why it was always the poor mortal women who bore the brunt of it and not her rake of a husband.
Since the gods were not meant to be seen by humans in their original form, as soon as Semele set eyes on the king of the gods, she was struck down by the lightning bolts in his eyes. As she was dying, Semele gave birth to Bacchus. However, as the child was not yet ready to be born, Zeus saved the child by picking him up and sewing him inside his thigh. Thus, Bacchus was “born” a second time from Zeus when he reached full term.
This bizarre story may have been the reason for Dionysos or Dionysus to be named such, which according to some sources, means ‘Zeus-limp,’ ‘Dios’ or ‘Dias’ being one of the other names of the mighty god.
The other theory for his being twice born is that he was born as the child of Jupiter, the king of the Roman gods, and the goddess Proserpina, daughter of Ceres (goddess of fertility and agriculture) and abducted wife of Pluto (lord of the underworld). He was killed and disemboweled by the Titans while fighting against them. Jupiter quickly gathered up the pieces of his heart and gave them to Semele in a potion. Semele drank it and Bacchus was born again as the son of Jupiter and Semele. This theory borrows from the Orphic belief about his birth.
Bacchus and Midas
One of the other myths about Bacchus is a very well-known fable about King Midas and his golden touch, narrated by Ovid in Book 11 of Metamorphosis. Midas has gone down in our childhood memories as a lesson on the pitfalls of greed but few remember that it was Bacchus who taught him that lesson. It is an interesting anecdote about a figure that was supposed to be characterized by overindulgence and abundance.
Bacchus had a tutor and companion, a drunk old man called Silenus. One time, Silenus wandered away in a drunken haze and was found by King Midas passed out in his garden. Midas graciously invited Silenus in as a guest and feasted him for ten days while the old man entertained the court with his stories and jests. Finally, when the ten days were over, Midas took Silenus back to Bacchus.
Grateful for what Midas had done, Bacchus granted him any boon of his choice. The hospitable but greedy and foolish Midas asked that he be able to turn anything to gold with a touch. Bacchus was displeased by this request but granted it. Midas immediately proceeded to touch a twig and a rock and was overjoyed. Then he touched his food and wine but those turned to gold as well. At last, his daughter came running up to him to hug him and she was also turned to gold.
The king was horrified and begged Bacchus to take back his boon. Seeing that Midas had learned his lesson, Bacchus relented. He told Midas to wash his hands in the Pactolus River, which took on this trait. It is still known for its golden sands.
Association with Other Gods
Interestingly enough, one deity that Bacchus shares quite a lot of similarities with, at least as far as the origins of both are concerned is the Egyptian god of the deceased, Osiris. Even apart from their connection to death and the afterlife, the stories of their birth are eerily similar.
Bacchus was also said to be closely linked to Pluto or Hades, with philosophers and scholars like Heraclitus and Karl Kerenyi even providing evidence that they were the same deity. Given that Pluto was the lord of the underworld and Bacchus was the epitome of life and festivity, the idea that the two may be one presents a fascinating dichotomy. This idea of the dual god is however only theoretical at this point in time and has not been proved to be true.
Just like with Bacchus or Dionysus, Osiris was also supposed to be twice-born. Hera, angry that Zeus had had a son with Proserpina, supposedly told the Titans to kill said son. Ripped apart and dismembered, it was the quick actions of Zeus that meant Bacchus was born again. With Osiris, he too was killed and dismembered before being brought back to life by the actions of the goddess Isis, his sister-wife. Isis found and collected each of Osiris’ parts, to join them together into human form so he would rise again.
Even in the 5th century BCE, Osiris and Dionysus had been syncretized into one deity called Osiris-Dionysus. Many of the Ptolemaic pharaohs actually claimed to be descended from both, given their dual Greek and Egyptian lineage. Since the two ancient civilizations and cultures had such close ties, the amalgamation of their mythology is no surprise.
Similar to Bacchus with his thyrsus, Osiris was also known by a phallic symbol since it was supposed to be the one part of him that Isis could not find. Thus, she ordered the priests to set up such a symbol in the temples devoted to Osiris to honor him.
Bacchus in Modern Media
Bacchus has a very important place in modern media as the archetype of the god of wine. Associated with romps and merriment, revels and raucous parties, he has gone down in the modern imagination as a figure larger than life. Much of the duality and nuance that characterized him in classical times has disappeared and his other adventures, his heroism and rage, and his importance to the rural life of agriculture and farming have been forgotten. Bacchus has become known as a party animal.
Renaissance Art and Sculpture
Bacchus was an important figure not just in classical antiquity and Hellenistic architecture and sculpture but also in Renaissance art. The most famous of these would be the statue Bacchus by Michelangelo. While the idea was to show both the dissolute and drunken side with the cup of wine and the capacity to reach a higher plane of thought with the contemplative expression, this perhaps does not always come through to later viewers, unaware as we are of the different sides of Bacchus.
Another very famous artist who painted Bacchus was the artist Titian, whose beautiful piece Bacchus and Ariadne depicts Bacchus with the mortal woman who was his consort and the love of his life. This as well as his other painting The Bacchanal of the Adrians are both pastoral paintings. Flemish Baroque paintings by the likes of Rubens and Van Dyck have Bacchanalian celebrations and followers as a common theme in many of their paintings.
Bacchus was a major subject of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s reflections on Greek tragedy in The Birth of Tragedy. He was supposed to represent that which was uninhibited and chaotic and not bound by conventions and for this reason, was often a figure of suffering. This is also a viewpoint that Russian poet Vyacheslav Ivanov agrees with, saying of Bacchus that his suffering was “the distinctive feature of the cult, the nerve of its religion.”
In the animated film Fantasia, Walt Disney featured Bacchus in his merry, drunk, Silenus-like form. Stephen Sondheim and Burt Shevelove adapted a modernized version of The Frogs by Greek playwright Aristophanes into a Broadway musical, with Dionysus rescuing Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw from the underworld.
Under his Roman name, Bacchus was featured as one of the playable characters in the battle arena game Smite with its host of characters from Roman mythology.
There are also various albums and songs dedicated to and named in tribute to Bacchus or Dionysus with the most famous probably being the track Dionysus on the Map of the Soul: Persona album released by BTS, the popular South Korean boy band.