Astoria Back Yard – photo by Mitch Waxman
The Romans had a name for March 16th and 17th, specifically for tonight and all day tomorrow, and it was the Bacchanlia. A central holiday for the cult of a fertility and wine god called Bacchus, who was a latin interpretation of the greek Dionysos, the Bacchanal (which was originally a gathering of women, but was made co-ed in 188 BC) would take place on the Aventine Hill. Shackles of conventional morality and licentiousness would be thrown off and vast celebrations of oinoculture would be enacted.
In the rites, men were said to have shrieked out prophecies in an altered state of consciousness with frenzied bodily convulsions. Women, dressed as Bacchantes, with hair dishevelled, would run down to the Tiber with burning torches, plunge them into the water, and take them out again. Their flames would not diminish as they were made of sulphur mixed with lime.
The rites gradually turned into sexual orgies, particularly among the men, and men who refused to take part were sacrificed. It is said these men were fastened to a machine and taken to hidden caves, where it was claimed they were kidnapped by the gods.
The festivities were reported to Postumius who persuaded the Roman Senate to authorize a full investigation. In 186 BC, the Senate passed a strict law (the Senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus) prohibiting the Bacchanalia except under specific circumstances which required the approval of the Senate. Violators were to be executed.required the approval of the Senate. Violators were to be executed.
Lexington Avenue, Manhattan – photo by Mitch Waxman
Just as our modern Republic seeks favorable comparison with the ancient titans of Rome, so too did the Romans see themselves as the inheritors of the advanced cultures that preceded them in dominance over the Mediterranean world, and which they conquered in the most brutal manner imaginable. The Bacchanal was a conservative Italian version of the wild Dionysian Mysteries and the Greek Bacchanal.
If the Dionysus Cult first came to Greece with the importation of wine, as seems likely, then it probably first emerged around 6000 BC in one of two places, either in the Zagros Mountains, the borderlands of Mesopotamia and Persia, both with their own rich wine culture since then (arriving in Europe via Asia Minor), or from the ancient wild vines on the mountain slopes of Libya / North Africa. North Africa was the source of early Egyptian wine from around 2500 BC, and home of many an ecstatic rite involving animal possession—notably the goat and panther men of the Aissaoua Sufi cult of Morocco (though it is also possible that this was of later origin and influenced by Dionysian cults itself). Whatever the case it appears Minoan Crete was the next link in the chain of transmission, importing wine from the Egyptians, Thracians and Phoenicians and exporting it to its own colonies, such as Greece. Thus it was in Minoan Crete (c. 3000 to 1000 BC) that the basic Mysteries probably took form—certainly the name Dionysus exists nowhere else other than here and Greece.
Ia, Santorini – photo by Mitch Waxman
Even the Greeks, or “Hellenes” as they would have and do call themselves (Greek is bad latin, a derogatory term meaning short legged- Graeki). When the christians gained power and influence in the latter days of the Roman Empire, Hellenes was the term used for heathen or pagan, and so it fell out of usage.
The Hellenes themselves were late comers to the mediterranean milieu, conquering a civilization which modernity refers to as the Mycenae (which had supplanted the still earlier Minoan) some 10,000 years ago. This culture, which is believed to have traded with Pharonic Egypt and Phonecia (also modern terms), fell to ruin after the explosion of the Santorini (Thera) volcano ca. 1600 BC left them defenseless. The Bacchanal, however, was already an annual tradition by then.
Cultic rites associated with worship of the Greek god of wine, Dionysus (or Bacchus in Roman mythology), were allegedly characterized by maniacal dancing to the sound of loud music and crashing cymbals, in which the revellers, called Bacchantes, whirled, screamed, became drunk and incited one another to greater and greater ecstasy. The goal was to achieve a state of enthusiasm in which the celebrants’ souls were temporarily freed from their earthly bodies and were able to commune with Bacchus/Dionysus and gain a glimpse of and a preparation for what they would someday experience in eternity. The rite climaxed in a performance of frenzied feats of strength and madness, such as uprooting trees, tearing a bull (the symbol of Dionysus) apart with their bare hands, an act called sparagmos, and eating its flesh raw, an act called omophagia. This latter rite was a sacrament akin to communion in which the participants assumed the strength and character of the god by symbolically eating the raw flesh and drinking the blood of his symbolic incarnation. Having symbolically eaten his body and drunk his blood, the celebrants became possessed by Dionysus.
Kalives, Crete – photo by Mitch Waxman
Crete, which is the true cradle of the western tradition, was an important cultic center for Dionysus- but the Cretans are known and commented on historically for their parties. Come and spend a night out in Astoria, you’ll see what I mean.
The idea of a mystery religion consisted essentially of a series of initiations which benefited the individual or their society in some way. Initially associated with the passage from childhood to adulthood and maturity, they later became seen as what we might call an evolutionary rite. And it was in the form of a Mystery Religion that the Dionysus Cult was first channeled in a more civilized way, probably first in Minoan Crete.
The notion behind the Dionysian Mysteries seems to have been not only of the affirmation of the primeval bestial side of mankind, but also its mastery and integration into a civilized psychology and social culture. Given the dual role of Ariadne as the Mistress of the Minoan Labyrinth and consort of Dionysus, some have seen the Minotaur story as also partly deriving from the idea of the mastery of mankind’s animal nature, though this remains controversial. The self mastery achieved in this way was not one of domination as in similar cults, most famously preserved in contemporary culture as George and the Dragon, and perhaps the original Minotaur myth, but one of acceptance and integration. Thus while the Mysteries did much to lighten the darker aspects of the cult they often failed to reassure its perhaps excessively civilized critics and continued to be regarded by many as dangerously liberative (particularly given its egalitarian tendencies as well).
Astoria Maenads – photo by Mitch Waxman
Fascinating, the way that some traditions just will not die out. St. Patrick’s day is tomorrow, and when you raise a glass to some wee lass in a pub, or go to some drunken revel at a friends apartment, think of the Maenads and realize that you are enacting the bacchanal- and carrying out a tradition that extends back through time. Watch out for the ladies, though, they have a tendency to go a little wild on this sort of holiday, even the prim and proper ones.
Carry A. Nation (November 25, 1846 – June 9, 1911) was a member of the temperance movement, which opposed alcohol in pre-Prohibition America. She is particularly noted for promoting her viewpoint through vandalism. On many occasions Nation would enter an alcohol-serving establishment and attack the bar with a hatchet. She has been the topic of numerous books, articles and even a 1966 opera by Douglas Moore, first performed at the University of Kansas.
Nation was a large woman, almost 6 feet (180 cm) tall and weighed 175 pounds (79 kg) and of a somewhat stern countenance. She described herself as “a bulldog running along at the feet of Jesus, barking at what He doesn’t like”, and claimed a divine ordination to promote temperance by smashing up bars.