Dionysos in the Northlands

Already in the works of Homer (among the earliest mentions of the God in the Greek language, not counting his appearance in a smattering of Linear B texts from Pylos and other Mycenaean poleis dating back nearly half a millenium before those initially oral compositions were first committed to ink and papyrus) Dionysos has shadowy origins and a reputation for being a world-traveler. Iliad 6.129 ff places him among the Edones of Thrake on the periphery of the Hellenic world; Homeric Hymn 1 goes even further afield, speculating that his birth took place somewhere between Phoinikḗia and Aígyptos, while in Homeric Hymn 7 he is abducted by Tyrsēnoi (either Anatolian, Lemnian or North Italian pirates, depending on the scholarly theory one ascribes to.) The pirates believe him to be a prince “bound for Kypros, the Hyperboreans, or lands even further still.”

A century or so later we find the cult of Dionysos Bakcheios firmly established among the Hellenic colonies that sprang up along the shores of the Black Sea (including the oldest non-literary references to Mainades, initiates into his mysteries and even Orphikoi at Olbia, for which see Jane Hjarl Petersen’s Constructing identities in Multicultural Milieux) as well as the frozen steppes of what would one day become Russia (see George Hinge’s Dionysus and Heracles in Scythia) where even Kings warmly received him:

Skyles conceived a desire to be initiated into the rites of Dionysos Bakcheios; and when he was about to begin the sacred mysteries, he saw the greatest vision. He had in the city of the Borysthenites a spacious house, grand and costly (the same house I just mentioned), all surrounded by sphinxes and griffins worked in white marble; this house was struck by a thunderbolt. And though the house burnt to the ground, Skyles nonetheless performed the rite to the end. Now the Skythians reproach the Greeks for this Bacchic revelling, saying that it is not reasonable to set up a god who leads men to madness. So when Skyles had been initiated into the Bacchic rite, some one of the Borysthenites scoffed at the Skythians: ‘You laugh at us, Skythians, because we play the Bacchant and the god possesses us; but now this deity has possessed your own king, so that he plays the Bacchant and is maddened by the god. If you will not believe me, follow me now and I will show him to you.’ The leading men among the Skythians followed him, and the Borysthenite brought them up secretly onto a tower; from which, when Skyles passed by with his company of worshippers, they saw him playing the Bacchant; thinking it a great misfortune, they left the city and told the whole army what they had seen. After this Skyles rode off to his own place; but the Skythians rebelled against him and slew him. (Herodotos, Histories 4.79)

Nor was this a singular or succinct sojourn among the lands of the Midnight Sun; through antiquity up to the present Dionysos has consistently been manifest among the Germanic, Slavic, Baltic and related populations of Northern, Eastern and Central Europe – and not just through the borrowed appearance and attributes of indigenous divinities such as Jarilo or Yngvi, or obscure Christian Saints like Ivan Kupala or the Blessed Martyr Tryphon Zarezan, but indeed under his very own name and likeness. (Not that that stopped him from wearing others’ faces from time to time, as circumstances required.)

A short survey will suffice.

Dionysos had deep roots in Dacia:

Following the turbulent revolution in 1989, Romanian viticulture was for a while in a downward spiral. During the communist era, many vineyards were nationalised and organised into collective wineries, to the detriment of the wine industry. When land was restored to former owners, as many either fled or expired or became untraceable, a Burgundy-like labyrinth of tiny plots of vineyards emerged, posing another challenge. The 1990s was a particularly difficult decade for Romanian wine. But this is a country with a glorious history of wine. As one of the most ancient wine-producing countries in Europe, pre-Roman Dacia was said to possess such an abundance of vineyards that, as per legend, Dionysus was born in modern day Dobruja, shared by Romania and Bulgaria. Dacian wines were so attractive that the land was repeatedly invaded, forcing king Burebista, on his high priest Deceneu’s advice, to take the poison pill of destroying vineyards in Dacia. As a Roman province, Dacia Felix (literally: wealthy Dacia) was an important granary of the empire, and continued to produce quality wine. (Jacky I.F. Cheong, World of Bacchus: The Romanian Renaissance)

As well as throughout much of Moesia, whose territorial capital – Dionysopolis – was named after him (AMNG 369):

Bacchus was worshipped in various contexts in Upper Moesia. The surviving inscriptions and depictions suggest that he was worshipped primarily as patron god of agrarian fertility and vegetation, or of wine and vine-growing. This is most explicitly shown by Liber’s epithet laetus in an inscription from Pusto Šilovo near Leskovac and by Libera’s appellation Hilara in an inscription from Naissus. It has been suggested that Liber was the patron god of mines and ores and that he was also worshipped in iatrical contexts. Liber’s chthonic aspect has been attested both by funerary monuments and by many cult objects recovered from burials. (Sanja Pilipović, The Triad Zeus, Herakles and Dionysos. A Contribution to the Study of Ancient Cults in Upper Moesia)

In another article Pilipović discusses the Bacchic presence in the area around Singidunum:

The Vračar inscription to Liber and Libera is dedicated to the divine pair, patrons of fertility and vegetation, wine and vine-growing. It may be assumed that the monument was also erected on the suburban estate of its dedicant, of whom we know nothing. Another group of votive monuments comes from Kosmaj: one dedicated to Jupiter and Liber, three to Silvanus. The one dedicated to Jupiter and Liber comes from a hamlet (Reka) near Guberevac. This cultic association of Jupiter and Liber was not unknown, given that both were considered patrons of the vine and wine. Worthy of mention of these is the syncretistic depiction of Dionysus-Demeter on an intaglio set in a nineteenth-century golden ring. Here Dionysus as the deity of renewal and vegetation is united with the agrarian and chthonic goddess Demeter, the one who invented viniculture with the one who gave the gift of grain to humankind. Coming from an unknown find-spot are two bronze statuettes of Bacchus. One depicts him with a large bunch of grapes and a knife, the other shows a satyr carrying the child Bacchus on one arm and holding a large pruning knife in the other. Monuments whose exact find-spots are unknown have been found in Singidunum itself: the male torso of Bacchus or a satyr with a nebris and a large bunch of grapes in hand, a terracotta lamp with a Bacchus mask, or a bronze statuette of Ceres. From the narrower area of Singidunum, the military camp and civilian settlement, comes the following evidence of worship: a bronze statuette of Bacchus from Belgrade Fortress, and a bronze statuette of Priapus from Zmaj Jovina Street in the very centre of modern Belgrade. Discovered on the right bank of the Danube east of the castrum, in the municipality of Grocka, are: a terracotta lamp with a Bacchus mask from Ritopek; a fragment of a marble torso of Bacchus or a satyr with a nebris from Dubočaj; a female figure, possibly Persephone or Demeter, from the site of Begaljica. In Ada Ciganlija, a Sava river island south of the castrum and settlement, was found a bronze statuette of Bacchus, and further south, in Stepojevac (municipality of Sopot), was found a bronze weight in the form of Fawn/Pan. (Agriculture and Worship: A Contribution to the Study of Daily Life in Roman Singidunum and its Environs)

Dionysos was venerated at a military outpost in Dalmatia:

To Isis and Serapis, Liber and Libera, P. Quinctius Paris having undertaken a vow for the well-being of his son Scapula gladly and deservedly fulfilled his vow. (SIRIS 676)

He had an antron or sacred cave in Kallatis:

The priestess of Athena, … daughter of Apollonios, has dedicated the chamber within the cave to Dionysos Bakchos … and to the society-members. (IKallatis 80)

A temple at Istros:

Pautalos son of Cornutus, priest of the Bakcheion of Asians, set up this column from his own resources. (AGRW 78)

Another at Bizye:

I, Lykomedes son of Chrestos, priest of the great Bacchic temple (Bakcheion), have dedicated this altar to God Zeus, who is Dionysos, for my children, for honor–which has come to possess–and for my own initiates (mystai), whom blessed Dionysos saves. (IGBulg 1865)

… son of Diogenes, priest of Bakchios dedicated the altar to the God Zeus Dionysos for himself and my children who are fellow-initiates (synmystai) on account of salvation. (IGBulg 1864)

And another at modern Stara Zagora (IGBulg 1671).

He had an assembly-hall at Tomis:

This pure statue is dedicated on behalf of the society to you, Blazing One, as a gift from the workshop of Parmis, crowned initiate among the Bakchoi, who reveals the ancient rite. May you, Bull-horned One, receive the handiwork of Hermagenes and save the sacred society of Parmis. (ITomis 120)

An initiation-chamber at Histria:

To good fortune.  On behalf of the fortune of the lord, emperor Marcus. . . Aurelius Antoninus . . . Augustus Pius Eutychius (i.e. Elagabal), on behalf of Julia. . . Augusta, mother . . . of the camp, on behalf of Valerius Comazon and Julius Flavianus, the greatest prefects of the lord emperor, on behalf of the sacred Senate, on behalf of the sacred campaigns (or: armies), on behalf of Titus Flavius Novius Rufus, the consul managing the province, and on behalf of the Council and the People of the most brilliant city of the Histrians.  The company (speira) of elder (presbyteroi) Dionysos-devotees (Dionysiastai) who are gathered around the father (patēr), Achilleus son of Achillas, the priest (hiereus), Aurelius Biktor son of Kastos, . . . and the revealer of the sacred objects (hierophantēs). . . Flavius Jucundus, and Falvius Severus, and. . .  Aristides. (IHistria 99)

A Bacchic initiate was brought home to be buried in Pontic Amastris:

It was now my thirtieth year.  My father named me Aemilianus. Geminos, a man of the nobility, brought me up.  In the presence of burning incense (or: burnt offerings), I led the band of revellers mystically in the rite for the triennial God Euios.  I was also revered in the gymnasia and experienced in wrestling, javelin–throwing, kick–boxing, pankration, discus–throwing, circular racing (or: using a hoop), jumping, and all rhythmic ball playing, each of which my foster–father taught me.  I won with a Satyr-play at Kyzikos and Pergamon. At Kyzikos I myself won the crown, but at Pergamon cruel fate carried off the crown. Misfortune withered my body on Dorian soil, but Geminos my foster–father, carrying my bones to my homeland, placed them into a stone chest which was adorned with eternal crowns.  Year 225, one before the Kalends of September (= 31 August), which is Loos 17. (AGRW 93)

At Poljanka he had both domestic and rural shrines:

The Poljanka site, located on the coast of the Lake Maeotis, was one of the agricultural military settlements that were established during the reign of Mithridates VI. The excavations unearthed, among others, a building in which a room was identified as a sanctuary, due to its different layout and its findings, dated to the last quarter of the 1st century BC. Some of the terracotta figurines and miniature clay masks that were discovered in this domestic sanctuary are connected with Dionysos’ worship. The figurines of a bearded bull, a Silen on a goat, a Satyr with goat hooves wearing a cloak and a round hat and the masks of a bearded, most probably, Dionysos and those of young Dionysos or of Satyrs display a certain association with the cult of the god. To the west of the Poljanka settlement is located the General’skoye fortified site in which was excavated a sacred complex consisting of two structures with two rooms each. The complex, as it is assumed by the excavator, functioned as a sanctuary or even a “rural” modest temple. Among the terracotta finds that were unearthed in the rooms belong two fragments of masks depicting, with high possibility, young Dionysos. The first one, which was found near an altar, preserves the lower part of the face. The other one, found in a different room, preserves the upper part of the face with lush hair and small horns, probably depicting Dionysos “the bull”. This fragment has, also, an aperture for suspension. The researchers are dating the series of the so-called votive masks of Dionysos in his youth found in the Cimmerian Bosporus from the 1st century BC to the 2nd century AD. (Katerina Amanatidou, The cult of Dionysos in the Black Sea region)

He was also highly honored by their neighbors in Kytaia:

On the Kerch Peninsula and in the southeast corner of it is situated the ancient city of Kytaia. The name of the city and its location in the Cimmerian Bosporus can be traced in the works of many ancient authors such as the Periplus of Pseudo-Skylax, the Geography of Ptolemy and the Natural Historia of Pliny the elder. The excavations in the ash hill, which covers the continental rock landscape in the center of the city, unearthed the religious area and the sanctuary of Kytaia. In the remains of a building with an altar, in a sacrificial pit bothros and in the natural and artificial clefts of the hill a great number of objects were discovered and identified as religious offerings. Those “votive” findings consist of pottery fragments, a lot of them bear incised dedications to Dionysos, terracotta statuettes depicting him and his companions and clay models of bead and phalli along with animal bones of pigs, sheep and goat. The ceramic dates the sanctuary as well as the appearance of the city in the first half of the 5th – the beginning of the 4th centuries BC. A group of terracotta figurines and small votive clay masks representing Dionysos and Silenoi (Fig.34), Maenads and Satyrs, the members of his entourage, testifies its worship in the sanctuary. Most notable are a small mask portraying Dionysos with beard and a diadem on his head and a figurine of an actor wearing a Silens’ mask. (ibid)

In Topalu there was a limestone stele on which:

… Dionysus is represented as a Hero rider advancing to a table with drinks attended by a Dionysiac slave; a satyr leads the horse and other female deities, probably nymphs. (D. M. Teodorescu, Munmente pgs 91-2)  

Dionysos had a strong presence in the domestic cults of the Roman Netherlands:

In this part of the Empire we find Bacchus mostly in the form of small busts and appliqués. Apart from the Hessenberg fragment, in Nijmegen two statuettes of Bacchus as a young man were found, one in the area of the military fortress on the Hunerberg, the other in the area where Oppidum Batavorum was situated. Two other statuettes of a thyrsus-bearing infant Bacchus have been found in the Netherlands. […] His presence in domestic contexts in other media is overwhelming. Strongly connected with otium and the symposium, statues, herms, mosaics and wall paintings representing Bacchus and his followers were very popular in villae and houses throughout the Empire. (Christel Veen, Bacchus and Jupiter-Ammon, two bronze sculptures from Roman Nijmegen, the Netherlands)

As well as in Roman Gaul:

Mythological decoration also appears on smaller luxury objects, such as ivory containers and silverware. At Séviac, fragments of an ivory pyxis with scenes of an Amazonomachy were found. A late antique cache of ivory statues and plaques at the villa of Saint-Loup-de-Comminges near Mont-maurin included representations of Jupiter-Serapis, satyrs and Bacchic scenes, and a youth in a Phrygian cap. Finds of silverware are not common in southwest Gaul, but two may be mentioned. At Thil (Haute-Garonne), several vessels showing Dionysos, Venus, and hunting scenes were buried together, probably in the second half of the third century. Plates showing a seated goddess with a snake, Dionysiac scenes, and pastoral and hunting scenes were found at a villa near Béziers and may date to the fourth century. […] Three Dionysiac sculptures from Chiragan (the sleeping Ariadne, the Dionysos, and another Ariadne), along with satyrs from Trier and Wellen and a maenad from Arles, reflect the popularity of Dionysiac imagery. The continuing popularity of the Dionysiac theme in many media and contexts into late antiquity derives from its role as an allegory for salvation and from its more general role as imagery of good luck. The single statuette of Ariadne asleep encapsulates all these promises in a single, simple composition. Certain cults of Dionysus in some areas continued well past the end of the fourth century, but Dionysiac imagery could also be neutral and decorative. The late mythological statuettes from Gaul accord well with the repertoire of Dionysiac imagery elsewhere. Dionysiac imagery was extremely popular in all late antique media, including mosaics, silverware, and textiles. Often, the media can be linked to dining, as in the case of triclinium mosaics and platters and flagons of silver table services; a plate with Dionysiac imagery found near a villa at Béziers is heavily worn and appears to have been used at the table. It is quite possible that some of the Dionysiac late mythological statuettes found in Gaul were displayed in dining rooms. The poet Ausonius reports a statue of Liber Pater displayed in one of his villas but does not mention the locale within the villa. An epigram by his Italian contemporary Naucellius describes a bronze Silenus who oversees the mixing of wine, which may have been part of the decor of a triclinium. (Lea M. Stirling, The Learned Collector: Mythological Statuettes and Classical Taste in Late Antique Gaul)

According to CIG 6788c there was a branch of the Worldwide Guild of Dionysian Artists located in Nemausus, Gaul and Poseidonios relates a curious rite carried out by their countrywomen:

In the ocean, Poseidonios says, there is a small island, not very far out to sea, situated off the outlet of the River Leigeros in Gaul; and the island is inhabited by the women of the Samnitai, and they are possessed by Dionysos and make this god propitious by appeasing him with mystic initiations as well as other sacred performances; and no man sets foot on the island, although the women themselves, sailing from it, have intercourse with the men and then return again. And, he says, it is a custom of theirs once a year to unroof the temple and roof it again on the same day before sunset, each woman bringing her load to add to the roof; but the woman whose load falls out of her arms is rent to pieces by the rest, and they carry the pieces round the temple with the cry of ‘Euah’, and do not cease until their frenzy ceases; and it is always the case, he says, that some one jostles the woman who is to suffer this fate. (Strabo, Geography 4.4.6)

Nor did the bloody and oppressive monotheist conquests put an end to Dionysos’ wanderings through this part of Europe; indeed he made his presence felt in the post-conversion landscape and consciousness of the people with even greater vigour, as we see in this account from Cornwall:

Now it came to pass, on a certain day, as he was on a journey through a certain district which they call Tricurius, he heard, on his left hand to be exact, men worshiping a certain idol after the custom of the Bacchantes, by means of a play in honour of an image. Thereupon he beckoned to his brothers that they should stand still and be silent while he himself, quietly descending from his chariot to the ground and standing upon his feet and observing those who worshiped the idol, saw in front of them, resting on the summit of a certain hill, an abominable image. On this hill I myself have been and have adored and with my hand traced the sign of the cross which St. Samson with his own hand carved by means of an iron instrument on a standing stone. When St. Samson saw the image, selecting two only of the brothers to be with him, he hastened quickly towards them, their chief, Guedianus standing at their head, and admonished them that they ought not to forsake the one god who created all things and worship an idol. They pleaded as excuse that it was not wrong to celebrate the mysteries of their progenitors in a play. Some others were quite furious, some mocked, but those of a saner mind strongly urged him to go away. (The Life of St. Samson of Dol 47)

And Gloucestershire:

Here is another thing, no less wonderful and quite widely known, which happened in Great Britain. There was a hunting-forest in Gloucestershire teeming with boars, stags, and every kind of game commonly found in England. In a leafy glade of this forest was a hillock, which rose to a man’s height at its highest point. Knights and other hunters used to climb up on top of the hillock whenever, worn out with heat and thirst, they sought some relief from their discomfort. Now given the right combination of place and circumstances, if anyone strayed a long way from his companions and climbed it alone and then, though alone, said ‘I’m thirsty’ as if he were speaking to someone else, at once, to his surprise, there would be a cupbearer standing at his side, in rich attire, with a merry face, and holding in his outstretched hand a large horn, adorned with gold and jewels, such as is used by the old English as a drinking-vessel. Some nectar of an unfamiliar but delicious taste would be offered him. When he had drunk it, all the heat and weariness of his sweating body would leave him, so that anyone would believe, not that he had just been engaged in action, but that he was eager to start. When he had consumed the nectar, the server would provide him with a napkin with which to wipe his lips; and then, his ministration completed, he would disappear without waiting for a reward for his services or for conversation to satisfy curiosity. (Gervase of Tilbury, Otia Imperialia 3.60)

And even later at Cumbria:

About this time, in Easter week, the parish priest of Inverkeithing, named John, revived the profane rites of Priapus, collecting young girls from the villages, and compelling them to dance in circles to the honour of Father Bacchus. When he had these females in a troop, out of sheer wantonness, he led the dance, carrying in front on a pole a representation of the human organs of reproduction, and singing and dancing himself like a mime, he viewed them all and stirred them to lust by filthy language. Those who held respectable matrimony in honour were scandalised by such a shameless performance, although they respected the parson because of the dignity of his rank. If anybody remonstrated kindly with him, the priest became worse than before, violently reviling him. (The Chronicle of Lanercost for the year 1282)

And West Wycombe:

Whatever the doctrines of Sir Francis Dashwood’s Hell-Fire Club were, their practice was rigorously pagan: Bacchus and Venus were the deities to whom they almost publicly sacrificed; and the nymphs and the hogsheads that were laid in against the festivals of this new church, sufficiently informed the neighbourhood of the complexion of those hermits. (Horace Walpole, Memoirs and Portraits page 129)

As well as Switzerland, where:

The wines of the neighbourhood of Vevey, especially on the sunny district extending hence to Lausanne, and called La Vaux, enjoy a considerable reputation. The Romans are believed to have first planted the vine on these hills and the discovery of a stone inscribed Libero Patri Colliensi proves that they had erected a temple to Father Bacchus at Collium, a little village now called Cully, on the margin of the lake between Vevey and Lausanne. A society or guild of very high antiquity called L’Abbaye des Vignerons having for its motto the words Ora et labora exists at Vevey. Its object is to promote the cultivation of the vine and for this purpose it despatches every spring and autumn “experts”, qualified persons, to survey all the vineyards of the district and upon their report and testimony it rewards the most skilful and industrious vinedressers with medals and pruning hooks (serpes d’ honneur) as prizes. In accordance with a custom handed down from very ancient times, which is possibly a relic of pagan superstition, this society periodically celebrates a festival called la Fête des Vignerons. It commences with the ceremony of crowning the most successful cultivator of the vine, which is followed and accompanied by dances and processions formed of the lads and lasses of the neighbourhood attired as Fauns bearing the thyrsus and nymphs. Father Bacchus in his car and Ceres throned on a waggon filled with wheat sheaves appear in the most classical costume in the midst of their followers. But the procession includes a singular mixture of scriptural characters along with these heathen Bacchanals. Thus Silenus riding on his ass is followed by Noah in his ark and Pomona is succeeded by the spies from Canaan bearing between them the bunch of grapes. A vine press and a forge at work are also exhibited drawn by fine horses. On other days of the fête (for it lasts for several) the spectators are entertained with the native dances and songs of Switzerland performed by the herdsmen and shepherdesses of the neighbouring Alps and the concluding and perhaps the most interesting part of the festivities consists in the bestowing upon a young maiden, the fairest in fame and form in the vicinity, a dower and in the celebration of her marriage with a partner of her choice. (John Murray The handbook for travellers in Switzerland and the Alps of Savoy and Piedmont 1865)

His image was quite popular among the Franks:

Though representations of Dionysos appear sporadically in the West in the fourth through the seventh centuries, no comparable examples in the East have survived. Between the seventh and eleventh centuries Dionysiac depictions seem to disappear in both East and West. In the West, earlier sculptures of Dionysos were occasionally reused or copied in religious sculpture and minor arts. In Aachen, Henry II (1002-1014) acquired sixth- to seventh-century Alexandrian ivories which he had inserted into the pulpit of the Cathedral. These spolia were signs of Henry’s imperial ambitions; he used both antique and contemporary prototypes to identify with the world of antiquity. Also preserved within the Ottonian realm is a 1023 copy of the encyclopedic De rerum naturis of Rabanus Magnentius Maurus, archbishop of Mainz (784?-856), the Carolingian original of which has disappeared. In this work, Rabanus adapts the Etymologiae of Isidore of Seville. In the best illustrated copy (Cod. Casinensis), Bacchus is shown in the presence of nine other gods, including his companion Pan. Goldschmidt has shown that various elements of the illustration use classical prototypes. As late as 1430, the illuminator of Palatinus 291 copied the same work as Rabanus Maurus, injecting contemporary flavor into figures which are clearly of classical descent. About 1180, the abbot of St. Denis gave his monks a fountain whose upper basin was oddly decorated with thirty heads of pagan gods, heroes of fables and ancient allegories. Among these are Ceres, Bacchus, Pan, Jupiter, Juno, Thetis, Neptune, Paris and Helen, the elements, and the wolf and the lamb of fables. The inscription reads, “Labrum quod est in propilaeo fani diui Dionysii.” Adhemar rightly stresses the singularity of this composition of gods and heroes in the interior of an abbey cloister, a place destined for meditation and prayer. He explains the presence of mythology in a religious context as a product of the new classicizing preference of the Scholastics. The one spolium which might consciously invoke Dionysos as Christ can be found on the thirteenth-century bookcover of the gospel of St. Lebuinus. A Roman gem of Bacchus set in the center of the cover of the Utrecht gospel shows continued appreciation, if not for the god himself, for the potency of classical images in general. This chalcedony gem was probably carved between the first and third centuries of the Roman era, provenance unknown. The pudgy face of Bacchus is crowned with ivy leaves and schematic flowers bound by fillets and is quite similar to the depiction in a third- to fourth-century textile from Egypt. Placed at the center of the cross it recalls the identification of Christ with Dionysos one sees in the Kyranides lapidary, which was translated into Latin in the twelfth century and hence accessible to readers in the West. Despite ecclesiastical attempts to eradicate the pagan gods, Dionysos seems to have been revived, perhaps in his Christological aspect, in the thirteenth century, to which the Utrecht gospel may testify. Through the agency of the Carolingian authors and the Ottonian collectors and copyists, works were brought to the West to inform the court and strengthen the connection with antiquity inherent in imperial political ideologies. Moreover, the copying of the illustrated manuscripts kept mythological images available. In the educated circles of the Scholastics, rare depictions of the gods of Virgil and Ovid were produced, while spolia and mirabilia were incorporated into Christian settings. (Susan Heuck Allen, Dionysiac Imagery in Coptic Textiles and Later Medieval Art from The Classics in the Middle Ages edited by Aldo S. Bernardo and Saul Levin 1990)

And even more so in Germany:

Near Bacharach there is a huge stone in the Rhine which, known as ‘the Altar of Bacchus,’ is visible only on rare occasions, when the river chances to be particularly low; and in olden times, whenever this stone was seen, the event was hailed by the townsfolk as an omen that their next grape harvest would be an exceptionally successful one.” (Lewis Spence, Hero Tales and Legends of the Rhine page 89)

What really characterized this kernel of traditions and myths is the fact that it had absolutely no connection with the educated world, if we except the attempt to portray such popular deities as Perchta or Holda in the guise of Diana or Venus, who were better known as such to the authors of the writings that we have discussed above. The volume of Geiler’s Strasbourg sermons is a striking example of this disassociation. We know only two editions of the work. In the first, the sermon dealing with the ‘Furious Horde’ (‘Am dürnstag nach Reminiscere von dem wütischen heer’) is accompanied by an engraving which, at first glance, may seem a surprising choice: in a charming wood the carriage of Bacchus approaches, preceded by a satyr playing a bagpipe and by an inebriated Silenus, with his head thrown back and wreathed with bunches of grapes, riding an ass. It is difficult to see how this scene from classical mythology could have been expected to suggest to readers the shadowy myth of the ‘Furious Horde’, so well known to them. The artist had taken the illustration from an edition of Virgil’s works published by Sebastian Brant in 1502, confining himself to removing the figure of the poet seated at his desk, on the left of the picture. In itself there was nothing exceptional about this. But in the present case the gulf between the text being commented on and the figure was so great, that the illustrator of the Emeis did not even bother, as he had done elsewhere, to delete the labels with the name ‘Bachus’, ‘Silenus’, ‘Satirus’. For the ‘Furious Horde’, to be sure, there was no iconographic tradition to fall back on, but Bacchus’s peaceful cavalcade could not have satisfied Geiler’s readers, just as it does not satisfy us today. In 1517, a year after the first edition, the Emeis was republished, again in Strasbourg, with some changes in the illustrations, including a substitution for the engraving accompanying the sermon on the ‘Furious Horde’. Bacchus’s cavalcade was replaced, not with an original engraving, but with an image based on an illustration in Brant’s Sultifera navis modified here and there. Obviously Brant’s wagon-load of fools seemed more suitable than a group of Bacchus’s followers to express the aura of mystery and terror surrounding the myth of the ‘Furious Horde’. (Carlo Ginzburg, The Night Battles Witchcraft & Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth & Seventeenth Centuries 1983 pages 45-46)

Particularly at Jena:

Hundreds of years ago, the streets of Jena and of other German towns used to echo to the songs of black-robed monks who went from door to door singing and begging alms. Their example was followed by bands of poor students, known as Bacchantes. These Bacchantes wandered from one university to another in search of better instruction or better means of support. Such a wandering life was favored by the customs of times when people thought it a virtue to give freely to all persons seeking help, but especially to monks and students. The Bacchantes had with them younger traveling scholars, known as Skirmishers, who were to receive instruction in return for certain services. The young Skirmisher had to wait upon his Bacchante, beg, and even steal for him, and for the most part he was very tyrannically used. But as he was a waif without other protection, he had to make the best of matters. After the Reformation, in many places these orphan boys, or waifs, were banded into organized choirs who received pay from churches, but also were assisted by private subscriptions. It was their duty to sing not only in the churches, but before the houses of their patrons as well. Thus they ceased to be beggars. (Arthur Upson, The Singing-boys of Jena)

The German youths who celebrated the solstice with sheep-sacrifices were not the first to hear the rustling in the primeval forest of the unconsciousness. They were anticipated by Nietzsche, Schuler, Stefan George, and Ludwig Klages. The literary tradition of the Rhineland and the country south of the Main has a classical stamp that cannot easily be got rid of; every interpretation of intoxication and exuberance is apt to be taken back to classical models, to Dionysus, to the puer aeternus and the cosmogonic Eros. (Carl Gustav Jung, Wotan from Essays on Contemporary Events)

Dionysos personally inspired some of Germany’s most creative intellectuals, showing up in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Wandrers Sturmlied:

Ye are pure, like the heart of the water,
Ye are pure like the marrow of earth,
Hov’ring round me, while I hover
Over water, o’er the earth
Like the gods.
Shall he, then, return,
The small, the dark, the fiery peasant?
Shall he, then, return, waiting
Only thy gifts, oh Father Bromius,
And brightly gleaming, warmth-spreading fire?
Return with joy?
And I, whom ye attended,
Ye Muses and ye Graces,
Whom all awaits that ye,
Ye Muses and ye Graces,
Of circling bliss in life
Have glorified–shall I
Return dejected?
Father Bromius!
Thourt the Genius,
Genius of ages,
Thou’rt what inward glow
To Pindar was,
What to the world
Phoebus Apollo is.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail:

Oh, how the drink of the gods warms me up!
Vivat Bacchus!
Long life to Bacchus!
Bacchus, who invented wine!
Bacchus was a good man,
so let us drink to his memory!

Heinrich Heine’s Die Götter im Exil:

Silenus, whom the merry maids had raised upon an ass, rode along, holding a golden goblet, which was constantly filled for him. Slowly he advanced, while behind whirled in mad eddies the reckless troop of vine-clad revelers. You, reader, who are well educated and familiar with descriptions of Bacchanalian orgies or festivals of Dionysos, would not have been astonished by this. At the utmost, you would only feel a slightly licentious thrill at seeing this assembly of delightful phantoms rise from their sarcophagi to again renew their ancient and festive rites, all rioting, reveling, hurrahing Evöe Bacche!

Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice:

It began with fear, fear and joy and a horrified curiosity about what was to come. It was night, and his senses were alert; for from far off a hubbub was approaching, an uproar, a compendium of noise, a clangor and blare and dull thundering, yells of exultation and a particular howl with a long-drawn-out u at the end — all of it permeated and dominated by a terrible sweet sound of flute music: by deep-warbling, infamously persistent, shamelessly clinging tones that bewitched the innermost heart. Yet he was aware of a word, an obscure word, but one that gave a name to what was coming: “the stranger-god!” There was a glow of smoky fire: in it he could see a mountain landscape, like the mountains round his summer home. And in fragmented light, from wooded heights, between tree trunks and mossy boulders, it came tumbling and whirling down: a human and animal swarm, a raging rout, flooding the slope with bodies, with flames, with tumult and frenzied dancing. Women, stumbling on the hide garments that fell too far about them from the waist, held up tambourines and moaned as they shook them above their thrown-back heads; they swung blazing torches, scattering the sparks, and brandishing naked daggers; they carried snakes with flickering tongues which they had seized in the middle of the body, or they bore up their own breasts in both hands, shrieking as they did so. Men with horns over their brows, hairy-skinned and girdled with pelts, bowed their necks and threw up their arms and thighs, clanging brazen cymbals and beating a furious tattoo on drums, while smooth-skinned boys prodded goats with leafy staves, clinging to their horns and yelling with delight as the leaping beasts dragged them along. And the god’s enthusiasts howled out the cry with the soft consonants and the long-drawn-out final u, sweet and wild both at once, like no cry that was ever heard: here it was raised, belled out into the air as by rutting stags, and there they threw it back with many voices, in ribald triumph, urging each other on with it to dancing and tossing of limbs, and never did it cease. But the deep, enticing flute music mingled irresistibly with everything. Was it not also enticing him, the dreamer who experienced all this while struggling not to, enticing him with shameless insistence to the feast and frenzy of the uttermost surrender? Great was his loathing, great his fear, honorable his effort of will to defend to the last what was his and protect it from the Stranger, against the enemy of the composed and dignified intellect. But the noise, the howling grew louder, with the echoing cliffs reiterating it: it increased beyond measure, swelled up to enrapturing madness. Odors besieged the mind, the pungent reek of the goats, the scent of panting bodies and an exhalation as of staling waters, with another smell, too, that was familiar: that of wounds and wandering disease. His heart throbbed to the drumbeats, his brain whirled, a fury seized him, a blindness, a dizzying lust, and his soul craved to join the round-dance of the god. The obscene symbol, wooden and gigantic, was uncovered and raised on high: and still more unbridled grew the howling of the rallying cry. With foaming mouths they raged, they roused each other with rude gestures and licentious hands, laughing and moaning they thrust the prods into each other’s flesh and licked the blood from each other’s limbs. But the dreamer now was with them and in them, he belonged to the Stranger-God. Yes, they were himself as they flung themselves, tearing and slaying, on the animals and devoured steaming gobbets of flesh, they were himself as an orgy of limitless coupling, in homage to the god, began on the trampled, mossy ground. And his very soul savored the lascivious delirium of annihilation. Out of this dream the stricken man woke unnerved, shattered and powerlessly enslaved to the daemon-god …

Likewise Dionysos was a favorite among Russian poets, appearing in Alexander Pushkin’s Bacchanal Song:

Why, revelry’s voice, are you still?
Ring out, songs of Bacchus, our patron!
Long life to you, maiden and matron,
Ye fair ones who gave of your love with a will!
Drink, friend, drink with gusto and relish!
As I do in mine,
In your glass of wine
Fling lightly the ring that you cherish!
Come, let’s clink our glasses and high let us raise them!
Hail, muses! Hail, reason! In song let us praise them!
Thou, bright sun of genius, shine on!
Like this ancient lamp that grows dimmer
And fades with the coming of dawn,
So false wisdom pales at the first flash and glimmer
Of true wisdom’s ne’er-fading light…
Live, radiant day! Perish, darkness and night!

Vasilii Ivanovich Maikov’s Elisei:

The Elisei is a long poem in which Bacchus uses the coachman Elisei in his
battle against limiting the access to alcohol. There are many scenes in the
Olympus mocking the council of the gods, scenes of scuffles, and quite a few
bedroom scenes. To a large extent it is a raunchy poem and in a rather poor taste,
and maybe because of it Maikov is primarily remembered as the author of this
particular work. As to religious matters, what is clear from this poem is Maikov’s
intense dislike of the clergy and hypocrisy in general. When Bacchus makes his
case before Zeus for the greatness of wine, he says that the clergy would confirm
it (SP 326/3. 120). (Adam Drozdek, Spiritual Journey in Maikov’s Poetry)

Nikolai Yazykov:

And love, well, what of love? ‘Tis aye
too cold if Bacchus be not nigh.
But with him — something too unruly!
She plays the role of double-dealer . . .
Just fill my glass up to the brim;
but not to pledge thy health, O Lila!
But as for Bacchus, O my friends,
how sweet our life when he attends.
No here-today-but-gone-tomorrow;
today – the next day – he is ours!

Thaddeus Venediktovich Bulgarin:

We got a jocular order… to torture the German girls with dances. With fervor, we fulfilled this order – we danced until we began to drop. The pretty German gals were delighted! After the lavish dinner, at three in the morning, after a mighty libation in the names of ancient gods Bacchus and Aphrodite, the mazurka started, which ended only at 7 in the morning…

Osip Mandelstam:

The stream of golden honey poured, so viscous,
slow from the bottle, our hostess had time to murmur:

‘Here, in sad Tauris, where fate has brought us,
we shan’t be too bored’ – glancing over her shoulder.

Everywhere the Bacchic rite, as if all were merely
dogs and watchmen – go, and you’ll see nothing –
the days like heavy barrels rolling by quietly:
far off, hut-bound voices – no response or meaning.

I said: ‘The vines live on here in ancient wars,
and curly-haired horsemen fight in leafy rows,
the science of Hellas in stony Tauris – these are
the noble golden acres, the rusty furrows.’

And Vyacheslav Ivanovich Ivanov’s The Vineyard Of Dionysus:

Dionysus walks his vineyard, his beloved;
Two women in dark clothing – two vintagers – follow him.
Dionysus tells the two mournful guards – The vintagers:
“Take your sharp knife, my vintners, Grief and Torment;
Harvest, Grief and Torment, my beloved grapes!
Gather the blood of scarlet bunches, the tears of my golden clusters –
Take the victim of bliss to the whetstone of grief,
The purple of suffering to the whetstone of bliss;
Pour the fervent liquid of scarlet delights into my ardent Grail!”

For Vyacheslav Ivanovich Ivanov Dionysos was more than just a poetic trope. In Dancing Maenads in Early 20th-Century Britain Fiona Macintosh remarks:

In Germany and Russia there were followers of Dionysus, who shunned the modern world altogether and lived in quasi-Bacchic settings and practiced Dionysian rituals.*

* Blom (2008), 200-2. In Russia, for example, Vyacheslav Ivanov (1866-1949), classical scholar and author of The Hellenic Religion of the Suffering God (1904), lived in ‘The Tower’ believing he was Dionysus from 1905 onwards. In Germany there were numerous bearded and naturist followers of Dionysus, including the young Herman Hesse.   

He was quite the interesting fellow, according to James H. Billington:

‘Viacheslav the Magnificent’ was the crown prince and chef de salon of the new society, which met in his seventh floor apartment ‘The Tower,’ overlooking the gardens of the Tauride Palace in St. Peterburg. Walls and partitions were torn down to accommodate the increasing numbers of talented and disputatious people who flocked to the Wednesday soirees, which were rarely in full swing until after supper had been served at 2 A.M.

Acclaimed poet Maria Skobtsova recalled the symposiastic paradise created by Ivanov decades later, as a White emigre in Paris:

We lived in the middle of a vast country as if on an unhabited island. Russia was illiterate, whereas in our milieu was concentrated all the culture of the world: the Greeks were quoted by heart, we welcomed the French symbolists, we thought of Scandinavian literature as our own, we were familiar with the philosophy, theology, poetry and history of the whole wide world, in this sense we were citizens of the universe, the keepers of mankind’s cultural museum. This was Rome in the time of its decline… We played out the last act of the tragedy concerned with the rift between the intelligentsia and the people. Beyond us stretched out the Russian Empire’s snowy desert, a country in fetters: it was as ignorant of our delights as of our anguish, while its own delights and anguish had no effect on us.

Which reminds one of the Swedish noble and poet Carl Michael Bellman (1740-1795) who founded the Bacchi Orden (Order of Bacchus) modeled on Masonic, esoteric, chivalric and similar secret societies:

Bellman has established an Order in honor of Bacchus, into which no one is allowed unless they have been seen by everybody lying in the gutter at least twice. Bellman holds his Chapter meetings once in awhile, dubs knights of the Order according to their special merits, and last evening he held a special ceremony for a deceased knight of the Order.  Everything was in verse, and set to melodies from the opera and theater. He sings and plays the cittern. (Diary of Johan Gabriel Oxenstierna, December 4, 1769)

This Order was dedicated to a new Holy Trinity of Intoxication, Death, and Sex represented by the old Gods Dionysos, Charon and Freyja (or Fröja) whom he wrote impassioned verse to honor:

Blow then ye rascals to virtue’s decline,
Fröja and Bacchus we worship entire,
Our gullets on fire
We die of desire,
We perish for love but are quickened with wine.
Pick up the waldhorn and hold it out stiffly,
Blow then, ye changelings, a blast!
Stina’s white bosom is visible briefly;
Break up love’s padlock at last!
Dearest beloved, remember my words;
Love has her temples, her cities and valleys,
In stairways and alleys
Wherever she dallies
All bolsters and feathers and tables are hers!

Over his career he wrote a series of interconnected poems and songs and librettos in which Dionysos appears in different guises, roles or professions (for instance as a beggar, a suitor, a lawyer, a barrelmaker, etc.) always in pursuit of his lost love Freyja. The most notable in this series (according to the Bellman Society website) being Bacchi Tempel öpnadt vid en Hjeltes död (The Temple of Bacchus, Opened at the Death of a Hero) which:

… is Bellman’s most comprehensive single work of poetry. He had expended a great deal of time and energy in its production. It is a bewildering piece: classical and Christian mythology is mixed with Swedish drunken figures, in a comprehensive whole that is both erudite and bizarre in its burlesque humor. It is one of the most peculiar works in all of Swedish literature. The action is set in an imaginary Bacchic temple in an Arcadian landscape on an idyllic island. Swedish features are mixed with the classical shepherds’ geography, as crows and pine trees appear beside the parrots and almond trees of a southern clime. The overarching idea is that of preparations for a ceremony in honor of the deceased Movitz (Stockholm alcoholic).  The guests are worshippers of Bacchus from all of Stockholm’s pubs. The high priestess is (the lady of ill repute) Ulla Winblad, who is pregnant, possibly with Movitz’ child. The action proceeds with reminiscences or flashbacks, pronouncements over the dead hero, and the ceremonies connected with his burial. At the end, Ulla gives birth to a new little Movitz, and the sorrow gives way to joyous toasting and salutes.


4 comments

  1. Interesting additions here!

    Upon further investigation, I think the Gervase of Tilbury passage–while definitely fascinating–doesn’t have much about it that says it must be “Dionysos/Bacchus/etc.” The name of Bacchus does appear elsewhere in Gervase, and so for him not to use it here if that is what is meant would be odd. It seems to be a kind of combination of things, or a reinterpretation of them: an idea that comes from Irish myth, but which would have been available via the Elucidation that occurs in manuscripts of Chrétien’s Grail story, in which passers-by at wells are served by maidens from the wells, but then all of this stops when one such maiden is raped and her golden cup for serving others is stolen, which creates the “wasteland” of the Grail stories as we tend to know them. Take that story, invert the gender and make the server a bit more Ganymede-like, and you’ve got the story in Gervase, which is a fairly common “otherworld help/feeders from the faeries” type of story that occurs fairly often in Britain.

    But, that’s just my opinion! ;)

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      • Granted, it could be that “Dionysian disruption” of the pattern of faerie women going on here, and good ol’ Mx. Delta is having a laugh playing this part…and yet, it may not be entirely irrelevant to pursue the other track and see what it says, and it, too, may be a mask Dionysos is wearing up in the Isles…(or even Mise!)…

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