The basis for the orgy was not wine or sex, but dance. Women in particular, but also men, nymphs and satyrs got carried away by music played on drums, cymbals and the double flute. They began to dance wildly and worked themselves into a trance-like state, in which the soul left the body, the extasis. Ecstasy was dangerous: a spirit might easily possess someone in this condition, which, of course, was the point of the orgy. The spirit of the wine god should possess the disciples and a condition starts called enthousiasmos.
Once the god had entered a human, he became man. Now he could nourish himself. He could fill his belly with sacrificial meat, quench his thirst with wine, make love or avenge himself on his enemies.
Bacchus was able to rouse his followers into a frenzy, called mania, which endangered everyone around them. In this state, the bacchantes tore sacrificial animals to pieces with their bare hands, then devoured the flesh and dressed themselves in the skins. Human beings, too, were the victims of mania. In the tragedy by Euripides, The Bacchae, the impious King Pentheus of Thebes is torn to pieces by his mother and other female relations, who, in their manic ravings, see him as a sacrificial beast. Euripides calls the women maenades, which means 'the possessed'.
Bacchus in India
According to Ovid, Bacchus proceeded through Thace, Phrygia, Asia Minor and even India, where he was believed to have discovered cinnamon and incense. According to myth, he celebrated a victory at the Ganges and returned home triumphant on the back of a tiger; artists often depict him in this pose.
Not in myth, but in real history, when Alexander the Great went to India, he established an Indo-Hellenic community. The Greeks discovered the Indian god Shiva, who is dedicated to wild dancing, like Bacchus, and is also capable of manic destruction. As well as being the god of destruction, Shiva is also a god of rebirth - again, like Bacchus. In India Bacchus and Shiva were identified as the same god. So on Roman mosaics, when we see Bacchus riding a tiger he is really Shiva, the resurrection god.
Back to myth: when Bacchus returned to Europe the Olympian gods recognized him as their equal. Apollo offered him a job: for nine months of the year Apollo divulged the future to the priests at the oracle of Delphi but for the three winter months, when the vines stood bare, Bacchus made the predictions, which he had learned from the satyrs how to do. The priests of Delphi treated Bacchus as an equal of Apollo, the great sun god, which was recognition indeed.
The Latin Gods: Liber and Bona Dea
Meanwhile, in Italy, Pater Liber, ‘the Free Father', was worshipped as the god of wine. He was a fat, good-natured little chap, much less formidable than his slender Greek counterpart. Liber was credited with the discovery of honey: when his disciples made music with cymbals, a new species of insect appeared - the bees had mistaken the music for buzzing. Liber felt sorry for the homeless insects, and stuffed them into a hollow tree. Out of gratitude for their new home, the bees rewarded him with honey.
It was customary, therefore, to sacrifice honey to Liber, or the honey-cakes that bore his name: libum. In Latin, fiber means 'free', so the notion of freedom was linked with him too. On his feast-day, liberalia (17 March), everyone had a holiday and sixteen-year-old boys were granted their 'freedom' or citizenship. The Latin word for a libation, libamen, also derives from Liber's name. The existence of a Latin wine god, who was separate from the Greek Bacchus, indicates that the Romans had made wine before they came into contact with the Greeks.
At first the Romans were not as lavish in their use of alcohol as the Greeks. The founding father of their city, Romulus, performed his libations with milk. In addition he decreed that wine was forbidden to anyone but free men over the age of thirty-five. Slaves, youths and women were not allowed to touch it.
The women of Rome were not allowed to drink wine. The wife of Egnatius Maetennus drank wine from the vessel and was for that reason bludgeoned to death by her husband. Romulus acquitted him of murder. Fabius Pictor wrote in the Annals that a housewife who had broken open the box holding the keys to the wine cellar was starved to death by her family for that crime.
And Cato writes that a woman's closest family had the right to kiss her on the mouth* to find out whether she had been at the wine jug ...
The jurist Cn. Domitius imposed a fine equivalent to her dowry on a woman who had clearly drunk more wine than she had been medicinally prescribed. For a long time, wine was treated with the greatest thrift. (Plin. N.H. XIV-89)
In practice women drank wine anyway - even the best families didn't always uphold the law. Neither did the gods set a good example: the goddess Bona Dea (the wife of Faunus, see page 159-60) was an alcoholic. Early in December, but not on any fixed date, the ladies of Rome celebrated her feast-day and men were excluded from the revels. There are no writings by female historians from the period, so we don't know exactly what happened, except that the house was decorated with garlands and the ladies wore hairbands and wreaths. We know that the flesh of a sow was eaten, and that a large vessel was filled with a ceremonial drink. The women called it milk, but many men (such as Juvenal, Sat. II-83) assumed that it was wine. During the Republic attitudes changed towards wine drinking. It became normal for women to drink wine, and eventually even slaves were allowed to do so - farmers made a cheap wine especially for the latter. When children were given wine as medicine, Liber had finally gained respectability.
Bacchanalia in Rome
Just as mistrust of Liber and wine was fading in Rome around 200 BC, a new wine god arrived to cause havoc: the Greek Bacchus. Only the initiated could take part in the rituals dedicated to him and they were pledged to secrecy. Herodotus wrote about the mysteries of Osiris (alias Bacchus) and Isis (alias Demeter):
In the evening, in the lake, the Egyptians perform plays about his adventures, which they call mysteries. Although I know still more about how it all occurred, I must remain silent. And I must also keep silent about the initiation ceremony of Demeter ... (Her. 11-171)
His pious silence has ensured that we will never know what happened during the bacchanalia, or at the orgia. However, on the walls of the Villa dei Misterii in Pompeii, there are depictions of a Bacchic initiation, and we can make out a few details. The frescoes were drawn as a kind of cartoon strip. In the first picture a girl is coming in with a brown sacrificial cake - or perhaps a piece of pork - cut into slices. Mystery rituals, such as those dedicated to Demeter, consisted of three parts:
1. Legómena, or 'things spoken': prayers were uttered and hymns sung. In the Villa dei Misterii a little boy sings from a papyrus scroll.
2. Deiknúmena, or 'things shown,: something of sacred significance was displayed, just as priests in the Christian Church hold the bread aloft during the Eucharist, so that everyone can see it. At the mysteries of Ceres, the goddess of agriculture, an ear of corn was shown. In the case of Bacchus a phallus was revealed. In the Villa dei Misterii we see a girl creeping on her knees as she lifts a corner of the dark blue cloth covering the phallus. This symbol, both sacred and obscene, has led to doubts about the chastity of the Bacchic mysteries.
3. Drómena, or 'things done': this last category was kept even more secret than the others. One of the last pictures in the Villa dei Misterii shows a naked girl initiate being whipped in ritual purification. Afterwards she pirouettes, while striking together two small cymbals over her head.
The dance of ecstasy was a significant part of the Bacchic orgy, but it is not clear whether it brought the 'things done' section to its conclusion. Sadly we can only guess, which leads us to think the worst: the word 'orgy' is used nowadays to mean uninhibited group sex, while a 'bacchanal' is over-indulgent revelry. Roman legislators were influenced by the gossip that circulated about the orgies: in 186 bc the Senate forbade the rites. None of this proves that the bacchantes actually were hell-raisers, and it should be borne in mind that Christians were rumoured to engage in group sex and to eat children. In any case, Romans did not have to join an underground religion for sex - they had plenty of willing slaves in the privacy of their homes.
According to myth, the Egyptian god Osiris was the brother of Isis. He ruled Egypt with his sister, and taught mankind agriculture and oenology. A golden age prevailed until Seth, Isis' and Osiris' evil half brother, cut Osiris into pieces and scattered parts of his body across the whole of Egypt. Isis gathered them up but was unable to find his penis. She then prepared the body for its resurrection, when Osiris will usher in a new golden age. Until then he rules the dead. The torment of Osiris points to his significance as wine god and the vine symbolizes him, as it does Bacchus. In autumn it, too, is hacked to pieces, and left apparently dead throughout the winter. In spring it comes back to life. All of the wine gods symbolize destruction/resurrection- Bacchus, Shiva and Osiris.
The Egyptian cult of Isis and Osiris attracted many devotees among the Romans, and Osiris was quickly identified with Bacchus. Many Roman emperors were initiated into Egyptian rituals: a giant statue of Osiris stood in the palace of Hadrian and Caligula was a fanatical follower of Isis. Yet acceptance in Rome was not so easy for the next wine-and-resurrection god on the list: Jesus Christ.
Patrick Faas, Around the Roman Table