Bacchus, Dionysus, the God of Winemaking & Religious Ecstasy

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In ancient Greek mythology and myth, Dionysus, also known as Bacchus, is the god of the grape harvest, winemaking, orchards and fruit, greenery, fertility, insanity, ceremonial lunacy, religious ecstasy, celebration, and theater.

The Romans later adopted the name Bacchus. He causes a frenzy known as bakkheia. Romans associated Bacchus with Liber Pater, the “Free Father” of the Liberalia festival, patron of viniculture, wine, and male fertility, as well as the keeper of the customs, rites, and liberties associated with becoming an adult and acquiring citizenship. However, the Roman state regarded independent, popular Bacchus festivals (Bacchanalia) as subversive because they allowed classes and genders to mix freely, violating conventional social and moral norms. Except in the toned-down forms and substantially reduced congregations sanctioned and overseen by the State, Bacchanalia celebration was deemed a capital felony. The festivals of Liber and Dionysus were combined with those of Bacchus.

Related article: Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Rome

The mythical religion of Bacchus was brought to Rome from Etruria or from the Greek civilization of southern Italy. A priestess from Campania founded it in the Aventine grove of Stimula circa 200 BC, close to the temple where Liber Pater (“the Free Father”) had a State-approved, well-known cult. Liber, together with his mother Ceres and sister or consort Libera, was a native Roman deity of wine, fertility, and prophesy. He was also the patron god of Rome’s plebeians (citizen-commoners). On the Aventine Hill, a temple to the Triad and the custom of commemorating the festival of Liberalia were established around 493 BC. By 205 BC, Liber and Libera had been legally linked with Bacchus and Proserpina. The worship of the Triad had been influenced by Greek culture more and more throughout time.

The most well-known Bacchus celebrations in Rome were the Bacchanalia, which were modeled after the ancient Greek Dionysia celebrations. It was said that these Bacchic rites involved omophagic acts like dissecting live animals and devouring them whole, uncooked. Bacchic practitioners used this ritual to create “enthusiasm,” which is etymologically defined as letting a deity enter the practitioner’s body or having her become one with Bacchus, in addition to acting out Bacchus’ baby death and rebirth.

Featured image: Dionysus with long torch sitting on a throne, with Helios, Aphrodite and other gods. Antique fresco from Pompeii.

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