Prelude: Dionysos in Italy

Alexis, fragment 222 from The Tarentines
Whether anybody will say that my judgement is good or bad I cannot tell you; but this, at least, I have made up my mind about on careful study: that all the doings of men are out-and-out crazy, and that we who for the time being are alive are only getting an outing, as though let loose from death and darkness to keep holiday, to amuse ourselves and to enjoy this light which we can see. And the man who laughs and drinks the most, and holds fast to Aphrodite, during the time he is set free, and to such gifts as Fortune offers, after he has had a most pleasant holiday can depart for home a well-satisfied man.

Arnobius of Sicca, Adversus Nationes 5.20
After the tenth month she bears a daughter, of beautiful form, whom later ages have called now Libera, now Proserpine; whom when Jupiter Verveceus saw to be strong, plump, and blooming, forgetting what evils and what wickedness, and how great recklessness, he had a little before fallen into, he returns to his former practices; and because it seemed too wicked that a father openly be joined as in marriage with his daughter, he passes into the terrible form of a dragon: he winds his huge coils round the terrified maiden, and under a fierce appearance sports and caresses her in softest embraces. She, too, is in consequence filled with the seed of the most powerful Jupiter, but not as her mother was, for she bore a daughter like herself; but from the maiden was born something like a bull, to testify to her seduction by Jupiter. If any one asks who narrates this, then we shall quote the well-known senarian verse of a Tarentine poet which antiquity sings, saying “Taurus draconem genuit, et taurum draco” [“The bull begot a dragon, and the dragon a bull.”] Lastly, the sacred rites themselves, and the ceremony of initiation even, named Sebadia, might attest the truth; for in them a golden snake is let down into the bosom of the initiated, and taken away again from the lower parts.

Augustine, De Civitate Dei 7.21
Now as to the rites of Liber, whom they have set over liquid seeds, and therefore not only over the liquors of fruits, among which wine holds, so to speak, the primacy, but also over the seeds of animals:— as to these rites, I am unwilling to undertake to show to what excess of turpitude they had reached, because that would entail a lengthened discourse, though I am not unwilling to do so as a demonstration of the proud stupidity of those who practice them. Varro says that certain rites of Liber were celebrated in Italy which were of such unrestrained wickedness that the shameful parts of the male were worshipped at crossroads in his honour. Nor was this abomination transacted in secret that some regard at least might be paid to modesty, but was openly and wantonly displayed. For during the festival of Liber this obscene member, placed on a little trolley, was first exhibited with great honour at the crossroads in the countryside, and then conveyed into the city itself. But in the town of Lavinium a whole month was devoted to Liber alone, during the days of which all the people gave themselves up to the must dissolute conversation, until that member had been carried through the forum and brought to rest in its own place; on which unseemly member it was necessary that the most honorable matron should place a wreath in the presence of all the people. Thus, forsooth, was the god Liber to be appeased in order for the growth of seeds. Thus was enchantment (fascinatio) to be driven away from fields, even by a matron’s being compelled to do in public what not even a harlot ought to be permitted to do in a theatre, if there were matrons among the spectators.

Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 4.13
I ran across the statement very recently in the book of Theophrastus On Inspiration that many men have believed and put their belief on record, that when gouty pains in the hips are most severe, they are relieved if a flute-player plays soothing measures. That snake-bites are cured by the music of the flute, when played skilfully and melodiously, is also stated in a book of Democritus, entitled On Deadly Infections, in which he shows that the music of the flute is medicine for many ills that flesh is heir to. So very close is the connection between the bodies and the minds of men, and therefore between physical and mental ailments and their remedies.

Sandra Benjamin, Sicily: Three Thousand Years of Human History pages 122-23
The Greeks’ popular god Dionysius [sic], the patron of the theater and of merrymaking generally — known to the Romans as Bacchus — was transformed by the Byzantines into a demon. Bacchic feasting had characterized, particularly, the final days of the Sicilians’ grape harvest; the Byzantines tried to suppress the festival. Byzantine priests interfered with carnivals, which they considered licentious, and refused to baptize actors so as to hinder theatrical productions. But the populace paid little heed, risking anathema to attend the amusements. 

Julius Caesar, The Spanish War 31.8
Upon this motion, our cavalry on the left fell upon Pompey’s right wing. Meanwhile the clashing of armor mingled with the shouts of combatants, and the groans of the dying and the wounded, terrified the new-raised soldiers. On this occasion, as Ennius says, “they fought hand to hand, foot to foot, and shield to shield;” but though the enemy fought with the utmost vigor, they were obliged to give ground, and retire toward the town. The battle was fought on the feast of Bacchus, and the Pompeians were entirely routed and put to flight; insomuch that not a man could have escaped, had they not sheltered themselves in the place whence they advanced to the charge.

Giovanni Casadio, Dionysus in Campania
Let us now revert to Aristodemus. Besides his uncontrolled—but ritual—wine-drinking habit, which proved his undoing in the end, another indication of his membership in the bakchoi brotherhood comes from an explicit insinuation made by those same local historians from whom Dionysius of Halicarnassus derived his information: as a boy he once acted as femminiello (a Neapolitan word sounding like “drag queen” and corresponding exactly to the Greek thēlydria) καὶ τὰ γυναιξίν ἁρμόττοντα ἔπασχεν, which is an explicit exegesis of the particular initiation to which the god himself had been subjected in the mythical-ritual complex of Lerna and to which were also subjected (with varying degrees of enjoyment) the Roman youths involved in the so-called Bacchanalia affair … This was presumably the last phase in a process of successive rearrangements and functional re-adaptations of an ethos that regards inversion and androgyny as coincidentia oppositorum, an ethos whose origin can be traced back to the tragicomic parades that Aristodemus Malakos in his devotion to Dionysus imposed on the boys and girls of the Cumaean aristocracy. To quote Plutarch about the rules laid down by the tyrant (Mul. Virt. 26.261f–262a), “It was the will of the god that adolescent boys should wear their hair long, adorned with gold jewels; and he forced the girls to cut their hair short and to wear boys’ garments and scanty petticoats.”

Cassius Dio, Roman History 9.39.5-10
Lucius was despatched by the Romans to Tarentum. Now the Tarentines were celebrating the Dionysia, and sitting gorged with wine in the theatre one afternoon, they suspected that he was sailing against them. Immediately, in a passion and partly under the influence of intoxication, they set sail in turn; and thus, without any show force on his part or the slightest suspicion of any hostile act, they attacked and sent to the bottom both him and many others. When the Romans heard of this, they naturally were angry, but did not choose to take the field against Tarentum at once. However, they despatched envoys, in order not to appear to have passed over the affair in silence and in that way render them more arrogant. But the Tarentines, so far from receiving them decently or even sending them back with an answer in any way suitable, at once, before so much as granting them an audience, made sport of their dress and general appearance. It was the city garb, which was in use in the Forum; and this the envoys had put on, either for the sake of dignity or else by way of precaution, thinking that this at least would cause the foreigners to respect their position. Bands of revellers accordingly jeered at them — they were also celebrating a festival, which, though they were at no time noted for temperate behaviour, rendered them still more wanton — and finally a man planted himself in the way of Postumius, and stooping over, relieved his bowels and soiled the envoy’s clothing. At this an uproar arose from all the rest, who praised the fellow as if he had performed some remarkable deed, and they sang many scurrilous verses against the Romans, accompanied by applause and capering steps. But Postumius cried: “Laugh, laugh while you may! For long will be the period of your weeping, when you shall wash this garment clean with your blood.” Hearing this, they ceased their jests, but made no move toward obtaining pardon for their insult; indeed, they took to themselves credit for a kindness in the fact that they had let the ambassadors withdraw unharmed. Meton, failing to persuade the Tarentines not to engage in war with the Romans, retired unobserved from the assembly, put garlands on his head, and returned along with some fellow-revellers and a flute-girl. At the sight of him singing and dancing the cordax,a they gave up the business in hand to accompany his movements with shouts and hand-clapping, as people are apt to do under such circumstances. But he, after reducing them to silence, said: “Now it is our privilege both to be drunk and to revel, but if you accomplish what you plan to do, we should be slaves.”

Cassius Dio, Roman History 43.44.1-3
In honour of his victory the senate passed all those decrees that I have mentioned, and further called him “Liberator,” entering it also in the records, and voted for a public temple of Libertas. Moreover, they now applied to him first and for the first time, as a kind of proper name, the title of imperator, no longer merely following the ancient custom by which others as well as Caesar had often been saluted as a result of their wars, nor even as those who received some independent command or other authority were called by this name, but giving him once for all the same title that is now granted to those who hold successively the supreme power.

CIL 6.489
Sacred to holy Bacchus the Deliverer. Lucius Iunius Paederos, freedman of Lucius, after a vow had been made, willingly and rightly from his own money, gave and dedicated this as a gift.

Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Greeks Book Two
If you wish to inspect the orgies of the Corybantes, then know that, having killed their third brother, they covered the head of the dead body with a purple cloth, crowned it, and carrying it on the point of a spear, buried it under the roots of Olympus. These mysteries are, in short, murders and funerals. And the priests of these rites, who are called kings of the sacred rites by those whose business it is to name them, give additional strangeness to the tragic occurrence, by forbidding parsley with the roots from being placed on the table, for they think that parsley grew from the Corybantic blood that flowed forth; just as the women, in celebrating the Thesmophoria, abstain from eating the seeds of the pomegranate which have fallen on the ground, from the idea that pomegranates sprang from the drops of the blood of Dionysos. Those Corybantes also they call Cabiric; and the ceremony itself they announce as the Cabiric mystery. For those two identical fratricides, having abstracted the box in which the phallos of Bacchus was deposited, took it to Etruria–dealers in honourable wares truly. They lived there as exiles, employing themselves in communicating the precious teaching of their superstition, and presenting phallic symbols and the box for the Tyrrhenians to worship. And some will have it, not improbably, that for this reason Dionysos was called Attis, because he was mutilated. And what is surprising at the Tyrrhenians, who were barbarians, being thus initiated into these foul indignities, when among the Athenians, and in the whole of Greece–I blush to say it–the shameful legend about Demeter holds its ground?

Inscription from Cumae
Lying buried in this place is illicit unless one has lived like a bakchos.

Nancy de Grummond, Mirrors, Marriage and Mystery 
Another specimen, of a Praenestine pear-shaped type but with Etruscan inscription, has the theme of the fate of Esia, a name unknown in Greco-Roman myth. E. H. Richardson argued that she was the equivalent of Ariadne, in a story of the latter’s death as caused by Artemis, and many have accepted her suggestion. She is held wrapped up like a dead soul by Artumes, who displays the arrows with which the goddess is accustomed to end the lives of young girls. Next to her stand Fufluns, the Etruscan Dionysos, a bearded male with a drinking cup, and a winged Menrva. Below, coming up from the ground, appears an oracular head. We do not know its message, but most likely it relates to the fate of Esia. It may be that Fufluns will receive her and bestow immortality upon her. Whatever the message, Fufluns and Menrva seem to react strongly: Menrva throws up both hands in a gesture of surprise (or dismay?) and Fufluns also raises one hand. We shall observe these gestures again in other scenes of individuals who are receiving a prophecy.

Diodoros Sikeliotes, Library of History 37.12
One day, when public games were being celebrated and the theatre was filled with Roman spectators, they slew a comedian who expressed annoyance on the stage, on the pretext that he had not properly fulfilled his role. The whole theatre was filled with disorder and terror, when fortune brought onto the scene a satirical character appropriate to the circumstances. His name was Sannio, and he was of Latin origin. He was a very clever clown, who excited laughter not only by his words, but even when he was silent by the different poses of his body; there was something appealing about him, so that he enjoyed a high reputation in the theatres of Rome. The Picentines, wishing to deprive the Romans of the entertainment given by this humorous actor, determined to kill him. Sannio, informed of the fate that awaited him, stepped onto the stage where the comedian had just been murdered, and, addressing the audience, he said, “My spectators, the omens are favourable! May this evil turn into good fortune! I’m not a Roman, and I’m subject to the fasces just like you. I travel throughout Italy, searching for favours by making people laugh and giving pleasure. So spare the swallow, which the gods allow to nest safely in all your houses, for it is not fair to do anything that would make you upset.” The jester continued to speak with many other humorous remarks that amused them, and so by appeasing the crowd he freed himself from danger. 

Dionysios of Halikarnassos, Roman Antiquities 19.5.1-5
Postumius was sent as ambassador to the Tarentines. As he was making an address to them, the Tarentines, far from paying heed to him or thinking seriously, as men should do who are sensible and are taking counsel for a state which is in peril, watched rather to see if he would make any slip in the finer points of the Greek language, and then laughed, became exasperated at his truculence, which they called barbarous, and finally were ready to drive him out of the theatre. As the Romans were departing, one of the Tarentines standing beside the exit was a man named Philonides, a frivolous fellow who because of his besotted condition in which he passed his whole life was called Demijohn; and this man, being still full of yesterday’s wine, as soon as the ambassadors drew near, pulled up his garment, and assuming a posture most shameful to behold, bespattered the sacred robe of the ambassador with the filth that is indecent even to be uttered.

When laughter burst out from the whole theatre and the most insolent clapped their hands, Postumius, looking at Philonides, said: “We shall accept the omen, you frivolous fellow, in the sense that you Tarentines give us what we do not ask for.” Then he turned to the crowd and showed his defiled robe; but when he found that the laughter of everybody became even greater and heard the cries of some who were exulting over and praising the insult, he said: “Laugh while you may, Tarentines! Laugh! For long will be the time that you will weep hereafter.” When some became embittered at this threat, he added: “And that you may become yet more angry, we say this also to you, that you will wash out this robe with much blood.” The Roman ambassadors, having been insulted in this fashion by the Tarentines both privately and publicly and having uttered the prophetic words which I have reported, sailed away from their city.

Dionysios of Halikarnassos, Roman Antiquities 19.8.1-4
When the Tarentines wished to summon Pyrrhus from Epirus to aid in the war against the Romans and were banishing those who opposed this course, a certain Meton, himself a Tarentine, in order to gain their attention and show them all the evils that would come in the train of royalty into a free and luxury-loving state, came into the theatre, at a time when the multitude was seated there, wearing a garland, as if returning from a banquet, and embracing a young flute-girl who was playing on her flute tunes appropriate to songs of revelry. When the seriousness of all gave way to laughter and some of them bade him to sing, others to dance, Meton looked round him on every side and waved his hand for silence; then, when he had quieted the disturbance, he said: “Citizens, of these things which you see me doing now you will not be able to do a single one if you permit a king and a garrison to enter the city.” When he saw that many were moved and paying attention and were bidding him to prospect on, he proceeded, while still preserving the pretence of drunkenness, to enumerate all the evils that would befall them. But while he was still speaking, the remain responsible for these evils seized him and threw him head first out of the theatre.

Richard Hamilton, Choes and Anthesteria 50-51
A good many Italiote choes show the same pictures as the Attic ones. Youths pouring a libation on an altar from an ornamented chous; a boy with a painted chous and an obelias-cake (reminding one of a streptos), standing near a table; a youth sitting near an altar; youth crowned with feathers or spikes holding out a garland; – all these pictures bring us into a well-known sphere. A jug-race is depicted on an Italiote chous. A boy juggling with three balls, using only one hand, surpasses the skill of the Attic ball-player; hence his conceited attitude, reminding one of a circus-acrobat. Is a rattle or a streptos-cake depicted here? Neither is unfamiliar to us. The rhombos or inyx is shown on many Attic vases, but not on Attic choes: it occurs on this Lucanian chous. The chthonic connection of the chous is proved by the siren approaching a sacrificial altar. The chous was used in the cult at a tomb. […] Very remarkable is the marriage of Dionysos on an Italiote vase, where the young bridegroom is represented with short horns. No Attic vase alludes so clearly to the god, whose wedding was celebrated in the Boukoleion, the bull-stable. Some of the Italiote pictures are equivalent to the theatrical scenes on Attic choes: travesty of Herakles, seen pilfering chous and omphalos-cake from a woman at the Anthesteria; a farce of masked actors on a luxuriously decorated chous; the results of over-eating; a scene at a fair: phlyakes on a merry-go-round to the accompaniment of the flute. Other subjects are a boy hastening to the revel; a single head; women holding mirrors and birds.

Aldous Huxley, Those Barren Leaves pg. 248

“Charming language,” he said, “charming! Ever since I learned that the Etruscans used to call the god of wine Fufluns, I’ve taken the keenest interest in their language. Fufluns – how incomparably more appropriate that is than Bacchus, or Liber, or Dionysos! Fufluns, Fufluns,” he repeated with delighted emphasis. “It couldn’t be better. They had a real linguistic genius, those creatures. What poets they must have produced! ‘When Fufluns flucuthukhs the ziz’ – one can imagine the odes in praise of wine which began like that. You couldn’t bring together eight such juicy, boozy syllables as that in English, could you?”

Hyginus, Astronomica 2.17
Aglaosthenes, who wrote the Naxica, says that there were certain Tyrrhenian shipmasters, who were to take Father Liber, when a child, to Naxos with his companions and give him over to the nymphs, his nurses. Both our writers and many Greek ones, in books on the genealogy of the gods, have said that he was reared by them. But, to return to the subject at hand, the shipmates, tempted by love of gain, were going to turn the ship off course, when Liber, suspecting their plan, bade his companions chant a melody. The Tyrrhenians were so charmed by the unaccustomed sounds that they were seized by desire even in their dancing, and unwittingly cast themselves into the sea, and were there made dolphins. Since Liber desired to recall thought of them to men’s memory, he put the image of one of them among the constellations.

Hyginus, Fabulae 134
When the Tyrrhenians, later called Tuscans, were on a piratical expedition, Father Liber, then a youth, came on their ship and asked them to take him to Naxos. When they had taken him on and wished to debauch him because of his beauty, Acoetes, the pilot, restrained them, and suffered at their hands. Liber, seeing that their purpose remained the same, changed the oars to thyrsi, the sails to vine-leaves, the ropes to ivy; then lions and panthers leapt out. When they saw them, in fear they cast themselves into the sea, and even in the sea he changed them to a sort of beast. For whoever leaped overboard was changed into dolphin shape, and from this dolphins are called Tyrhhenians, and the sea Tyrrhenian. They were twelve in number with the following names: Aethalides, Medon, Lycabas, Libys, Opheltes, Melas, Alcimedon, Epopeus, Dictys, Simon, Acoetes. The last was the pilot, whom Liber saved out of kindness.

Julian, Misopogon 355d
Once upon a time the citizens of Tarentum paid to the Romans the penalty for this sort of jesting, seeing that, when drunk at the festival of Dionysos, they insulted the Roman ambassadors.

Carl Kerényi, Dionysos Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life 364-65
It must have been a festival of all-souls related to the Athenian Anthesteria. One of these choës from Italy shows – through a siren approaching the sacrificial altar – a connection with the realm of souls, and the picture on a larger vase even indicates that this form of vessel was used in the funeral sacrifice. The conception of the departure of the youthful dead, especially women, as an exodus from the city to Dionysian nuptials – such an exodus is represented on innumerable south Italian vases – was based on actual departures to private mysteries during the Anthesteria. An Italic chous bears the image of a characteristic figure in this nocturnal exodus: a boy satyr with torch and situla. A chous from near Brindisi shows Dionysos and his female companion on a couch served by a boy satyr. The vases with these scenes were found in tombs, and it was for this purpose no doubt that they were manufactured in such quantity. The spread of this conception required vases for burial with men as well as women; or better still, vases with pictures of two kinds that could be buried with persons of either sex. 

Charles Godfrey Leland, Etruscan Roman Remains in Popular Tradition pages 67-70
On inquiring from my best authority if there was in La Romagna Toscana a spirit of the vineyards, or of wine, I was promptly informed that there was such a being known as Fardel, or Flavo, but among the witches, or those better informed in such mysteries, as Faflon. And at once there was narrated to me a legend which was then written out:–

“Faflon is a spirit who lives in the vines, and when women or men have gathered grapes and filled the panniers, then comes this Faflon and scatters them all on the ground; but woe to the contadini should they be angered at it, for then Faflon knocks them right and left, and tramples (on the grapes), so that they get no profit. But if they take it good-naturedly, he gathers them again, and replaces them in the panniers.

“Now there was a peasant who greatly loved the spirits, and frequently blessed them. One year everything went wrong with him, his crop of grapes and all other fruit failed, yet for all this he still loved Faflon and blessed him.

“One morning he rose to gather what little there was on the vines, but found that even that little was gone. The poor peasant began to weep, and said: ‘Non mi resta che morire. All that remains for me now is to die, for I have lost what little crop I had in my little vineyard.’ When all at once Faflon appeared, but beautiful with a beauty like enchantment–ma tanto bello di una bellezza da fare incantare–and said: ‘Oh, peasant with great coarse shoes, but with a fine brain, thou hast loved me so well I will reward thee. Go to thy cellar, and there a great quantity

D’uva mastatata tu troverai

E gran vino tu lo farai.
(“Pressed grapes thou shalt see,
And great thy store of wine will be.)

“Now what Faflon had said seemed to be like a dream to the peasant, but he went to his cellar, and truly the wine which he had that year made him rich, e non ebbe piú biogna di fare il contadino–he was no longer obliged to live as a peasant.”

No one can doubt that this Faflon–it was written in the MS. sometimes Flaflon–is the Fufluns, or Fufunal, of the Etruscans. His appearance as a very beautiful being is perfectly in accordance with that of Bacchus. It is exactly in this manner that Bacchus flashes up in beauty from disguise in classic tales. Bacchus of old carried off mortal beauties for mistresses, and I now give word for word as related by a witch a story of a modern Ariadne:–

“There was a contadino who had several vineyards, yet all went so ill with them for several years that he had not wine enough to drink for his family.

“Now he had a daughter–di una belleza da fare incantare–of enchanting beauty. And one evening as he was sitting almost in despair, his daughter said: ‘Father, dear, do you not know how all this came to pass? Have you forgotten that strange and beautiful youth who once came to you and begged for me–he was so much in love? And when you denied him what he asked, he replied: “If I cannot have her neither shall you have any vintage.”‘

“Then the peasant was very angry, and beat his daughter, so that she had to go to bed. Then he went into the cellar, but what a sight be saw! On all the barrels were devils frolicking; fire flashed from their eyes and flamed from their mouths, and as they danced they sang:–

Give Faflon that girl of thine,
And henceforth thou shalt have wine
If the maiden you deny,
As a beggar thou shalt die.’
“Then the man gave his daughter to Faflon, and lo! all the barrels were filled with the best, and from that time his vintages were abundant.”

The picture of the cellar full of frisking Bacchanals and Fauns is good. I suspect that a Catholic influence made them “devils with fire coming out of their mouths.” But perhaps it was onlyIl vino divino Che fiammeggia nel Sansovino.”

The wine divine
Which flames so red in Sansovine.”)

I should have been really sorry if, after all this fine Bacchic lore, I had not found a hymn to him. And here it is. When a peasant wants a good vintage he may possibly pray for it in church, but to make sure of it he repeats the following to the jovial god:–

Faflon, Faflon, Faflon!
A vuoi mi raccomando!
Che l’uva nella mia vigna
E multa scarsa,
E vuoi mi raccomando,
Che mi fate avere
Buona vendemmia!
Faflon, Faflon, Faflon!
A vuoi mi raccomando!
Che il vino nella mia cantina
Me lo fate venire fondante,
E molto buono,
Faflon, Faflon, Faflon!
(“Faflon, Faflon, Faflon!”

Oh, listen to my prayer.
I have a scanty vintage,
My vines this year are bare
Oh, listen to my prayer!
And put, since thou canst do so,
A better vintage there!
Faflon, Faflon, Faflon!
Oh, listen to my prayer
May all the wine in my cellar
Prove to be strong and rare,
And good as any grown,
Faflon, Faflon, Faflon!”)

There, reader, is the very last real and sincere hymn to Bacchus which was ever sung in Italy-probably the last truly Bacchanalian song which will ever be heard on earth.

Charles Godfrey Leland, The Wonderful Conjuration of Bacchus from Legends of Florence; Second Volume (1907 CE) pages 169-174
There was once a certain Friar Geronimo, unto whom a marvelous thing happened; for as he was hastening along to a meeting at the Cloister of San Lorenzo he stumbled over a little old book or ancient manuscript, which he picked up and put in his pocket. During the course of the proceedings, which were extremely long-winded and boring, Friar Geronimo recalled the book, took it out and began to read. Like peasants and children who have not yet mastered their lessons, Geronimo was in the habit of moving his lips and pronouncing aloud the syllables as he read. As it turned out the book was the sort of thing that wizard-jugglers used in the course of performing their audacious tricks and summoning of devils, and as the good friar read aloud a conjuration, strange things began to happen – all the men of the assembly grew horns on their heads! It also caused their ears to shoot forth like those of fauns or jackasses, according to their temperaments, with the asses’ ears in the majority. It made the hair of the abbesses and mother superiors grow forth luxuriantly as well. Indeed, it improved the good looks of the assembly to an extraordinary degree – saving the horns and ears. Withered old abbots became rosy, plump and handsome fellows; thin ascetics lusty as facchini or porters; while the eyes of all grew large and startling, wild or languishing. It was a wondrous change for all, indeed!

It took a while for everyone to notice, whereupon the Friar continued to read out the spell:

All ye who hear my voice,
be merry and rejoice!
Laugh and shout as in a revel!
All be merry, raise the devil;
all be jolly, la, la, la,
with ho! ho! ho! and ha! ha! ha!

Whereupon all present obeyed the instructions to the letter. They began to laugh and dance, and with one accord burst out into a mad, irregular song:

Bacco! Bacco! Bacco!
Padre dei Farraini e dei Folletti!
Dio del vino divino!
Che porti sempre nella mano la pina,
Fate le belle corne crescere,
Sulle teste di tutti qui i presenti!
Fate le orecchie lunge,
Come le orecchie degli asini!
Fate di noi Baccanti,
Tutto in tuo onore,
Bacco! Evviva Bacco!


Bacchus, Bacchus, Bacchus hear!
Father of Fairies and Goblins queer,
God of the wine divine
Which trickles from the vine,
Who bear’st the pine-cone in thy hand,
Great Lord adored in every land!
Make the merry horns appear
On the heads of all assembled here;
Make their ears like asses’ grow,
Make us all Bacchanti. Ho!
In thy honour let it be
Bacchus, O Bacchus, Evöe!

The Friar, as if inspired, read on at the top of his voice; and all the dancers sang to a wild music which came from — the devil knows where:

Cantiamo! Danziamo!
Balliamo! Balziamo!
L’un sopra l’altro saltiamo!
E il diavolo facciamo!
Nel sacco il dolòr mettiamo!
Bacco! Bacco! Bacco!
Tutto in tup onore!
Quando Bacco trionfa
Il dolore fugge via.
Buon amore e buon vino
Mi scalda il mio cammino,
Beviamo il buon vino
Lascia andar l’acqua al mulino!
Il vino ha il sapore,
La bella donna ha il colore,
Facciamo tutti l’amore!
Uomo chi non ama vino,
Non vale un quattrino:
Bacco! Bacco! Bacco!
Evviva! Evviva il dio!
Con gioia faremmo il diavolo!
Mettiamo il dolor in sacco
Bacco! Bacco! Evviva Baccho!


Let’s be merry! Let us dance,
Hop and skip, and whoop and prance!
O’er one another jump and revel
Till we raise the very devil!
Away with sorrow and despair,
Follow us no more, dull care!
Let no grim blue devils track us
While we worship jolly Bacchus!
When he triumphs all is gay,
And affliction flies away,
Love and Laughter, jest and song,
All make light the way so long;
Drink good wine and take your fill!
Let the water turn the mill!
Wine is rosy that is true,
Pretty girls are rosy too;
Let us all make love and true.
He who loves not girls and wine
Is a fool and superfine.
Bacchus! Bacchus! Holy Bacchus!
Let no fear attack us!
Bacchus! Bacchus! Aid the revel!
Let us raise the very devil!
Send all care and grief away,
Bacchus! O Bacchus! Evöe!

And the merriment grew wilder; goblins came dancing in, bearing great flasks of wine, with wreaths of roses and much ivy; the revelers cast away their gowns and stoles and clad themselves with garlands — se le misero in capo e sene formarono delle cinture — crowning and girdling themselves with leaves; laughing, dancing, and shouting more wildly every minute.

The Bishop became mighty – yea, a magnificent man, with curling locks, drinking lustily from a tremendous vase of wine, while the arms of a beautiful abbess encircled his neck.

His attendant, who was short and plump, grew even plumper and jollier, crying aloud, ‘Io sono il Silenzio!‘ And there came in an ass all garlanded with flowers, and the attendant, Silenzio, mounted the ass, supported by wild and merry girls. And so he rode around the hall, following the Bishop; and after him came the rest in a reveling procession, embracing, kissing, making love, drinking, dancing, shouting – facendo il diavolo e peggio! — and singing:

Evviva Bacco, ha Bacco si,
Da Martedi a Lunedi!
“Hurrah for Bacchus, that is right,
from Sunday morn till Saturday night!”

So they kept it up all day and night, and none could enter the hall or leave it, for the doors seemed to be changed to a wall. But at last the brave Geronimo – who had not missed the opportunity, I assure you, to share in the lovemaking and drinking and dancing – began to think how all this revelry he had begun might be brought to an end. He went back to the book and eventually found the counter-spell and read it aloud. As soon as Geronimo finished a change came over all and everything; ’twas like the waking from a wondrous dream. All were silent in an instant – the horns and long ears vanished – gone were the garlands, ivy, roses, vines – yea, even the donkey faded into air. And in that instant they all forgot everything – what they had seen, and what they had been, and how they had behaved. All that they knew was that they were awfully tired of a long day’s hard work, and so went to bed early. All forgot, except for Geronimo that is who laughed heartily and kept the secret, deciding to become a Wizard instead of a Friar.

Singular as it may seem – for the story as I have told it probably seems to every reader a piece of modern manufacture – this tale is widely spread, and the embroidery which I have added to it has been very slight. Other legends give us souvenirs of Bacchanalia, as for instance, the procession in which Venus restores the ring to a youth, and the story of the Bacchanals and Bacchus which still haunt Florence. In fact, there is very little indeed given here which is not found in other traditions. It is worth noting that many writers on occulta, even to the seventeenth century, believe that common jugglers and mountebanks, or legerdemainists, executed their marvelous tricks by the aid of sorcery and the devil. This was not, however, regarded as quite so bad as witchcraft.

“Truly,” adds Flaxius, “there is something touching in the manner in which chroniclers and tellers of old tales recall these little memories of jolly heathen gambollings, rollicking and frolicking, revels, dances, rompings, love-makings, kiss-n-the-rings, and similar jolly, harmless didoes, as if they who were in them had raised the very devil of Iniquity himself, and like Moses, broken all the commandments at once, when, pardy, they were rather acting piously and doing their duty — if innocent enjoyment be such, and a stimulus to honest labour and kindly feeling. For in all this tale there is not one word said that any of the revelers smote or cursed or reviled the rest, or did them wrong in any way — which thing is so unlike the proceedings of all Church councils that it is probably the reason why the Bacchic revel was recorded as unholy.”

Leonidas of Tarentum, Greek Anthology 9.542
To the must-drinking Satyrs and to Bacchus,
planter of the vine,
Heronax consecrated the first handfuls of his plantation,
these three casks from three vineyards,
filled with the first flow of the wine;
from which we,
having poured such libation as is meet to crimson Bacchus and the Satyrs,
will drink deeper than they.

Livy, History of Rome 34:15-18

15. After despatching these officers to their several employments, the consuls mounted the rostrum; and, having summoned an assembly of the people, one of the consuls, when he had finished the solemn form of prayer which the magistrates are accustomed to pronounce before they address the people, proceeded thus: Romans, to no former assembly was this solemn supplication to the gods more suitable or even more necessary: as it serves to remind you, that these are the deities whom your forefathers pointed out as the objects of your worship, veneration, and prayers: and not those which infatuated men’s minds with corrupt and foreign modes of religion, and drove them, as if goaded by the furies, to every lust and every vice. I am at a loss to know what I should conceal, or how far I ought to speak out; for I dread lest, if I leave you ignorant of any particular, I should give room for carelessness, or if I disclose the whole, that I should too much awaken your fears. That the Bacchanalian rites have subsisted for some time past in every country in Italy, and are at present performed in many parts of this city also, I am sure you must have been informed, not only by report, but by the nightly noises and horrid yells that resound through the whole city; but still you are ignorant of the nature of that business. Part of you think it is some kind of worship of the gods; others, some excusable sport and amusement, and that, whatever it may be, it concerns but a few. As regards the number, if I tell you that they are many thousands, that you would be immediately terrified to excess is a necessary consequence; unless I further acquaint you who and what sort of persons they are. First, then, a great part of them are women, and this was the source of the evil; the rest are males, but nearly resembling women; actors and pathics in the vilest lewdness; night revelers, driven frantic by wine, noises of instruments, and clamors. The conspiracy, as yet, has no strength; but it has abundant means of acquiring strength, for they are becoming more numerous every day. Your ancestors would not allow that you should ever assemble casually, without some good reason; that is, either when the standard was erected on the Janiculum, and the army led out on occasion of elections; or when the tribunes proclaimed a meeting of the plebeians, or some of the magistrates summoned you to it. And they judged it necessary, that whatever a multitude was, there should be a lawful governor of that multitude present. Of what kind do you suppose are the meetings of these people? In the first place, held in the night, and in the next, composed promiscuously of men and women. If you knew at what ages the males are initiated, you would feel not only pity but also shame for them. Romans, can you think youths initiated, under such oaths as theirs, are fit to be made soldiers? That arms should be intrusted with wretches brought out of that temple of obscenity? Shall these, contaminated with their own foul debaucheries and those of others, be champions for the chastity of your wives and children?

16. “But the mischief were less, if they were only effeminated by their practices; of that the disgrace would chiefly affect themselves; if they refrained their hands from outrage, and their thoughts from fraud. But never was there in the state an evil of so great a magnitude, or one that extended to so many persons or so many acts of wickedness. Whatever deeds of villainy have, during late years, been committed through lust; whatever, through fraud; whatever, through violence; they have all, be assured, proceeded from that association alone. They have not yet perpetrated all the crimes for which they combined. The impious assembly at present confines itself to outrages on private citizens; because it has not yet acquired force sufficient to crush the commonwealth; but the evil increases and spreads daily; it is already too great for the private ranks of life to contain it, and aims its views at the body of the state. Unless you take timely precautions, Romans, their nightly assembly may become as large as this, held in open day, and legally summoned by a consul. Now they one by one dread you collected together in the assembly; presently, when you shall have separated and retired to your several dwellings, in town and country, they will again come together, and will hold a consultation on the means of their own safety, and, at the same time, of your destruction. Thus united, they will cause terror to every one of you. Each of you, therefore, ought to pray that his kindred may have behaved with wisdom and prudence; and if lust, if madness, has dragged any of them into that abyss, to consider such a person as the relation of those with whom he has conspired for every disgraceful and reckless act, and not as one of your own. I am not secure, lest some, even of yourselves, may have erred through mistake; for nothing is more deceptive in appearance than false religion.

When the authority of the gods is held out as a pretext to cover vice, fear enters our minds, lest, in punishing the crimes of men, we may violate some divine right connected therewith. Numberless decisions of the pontiffs, decrees of the senate, and even answers of the haruspices free you from religious scruples of this character. How often in the ages of our fathers was it given in charge to the magistrates, to prohibit the performance of any foreign religious rites; to banish strolling sacrificers and soothsayers from the forum, the circus, and the city; to search for, and burn, books of divination; and to abolish every mode of sacrificing that was not conformable to the Roman practice! For they, completely versed in every divine and human law, maintained that nothing tended so strongly to the subversion of religion as sacrifice, when we offered it not after the institutions of our forefathers, but after foreign customs. Thus much I thought necessary to mention to you beforehand, that no vain scruple might disturb your minds when you should see us demolishing the places resorted to by the Bacchanalians, and dispersing their impious assemblies. We shall do all these things with the favor and approbation of the gods; who, because they were indignant that their divinity was dishonored by those people’s lusts and crimes, have drawn forth their proceedings from hidden darkness into the open light; and who have directed them to be exposed, not that they may escape with impunity, but in order that they may be punished and suppressed. The senate have committed to me and my colleague an inquisition extraordinary concerning that affair. What is requisite to be done by ourselves, in person, we will do with energy. The charge of posting watches through the city, during the night, we have committed to the inferior magistrates; and, for your parts, it is incumbent on you to execute vigorously whatever duties are assigned you, and in the several places where each will be placed, to perform whatever orders you shall receive, and to use your best endeavors that no danger or tumult may arise from the treachery of the party involved in the guilt.

17. They then ordered the decrees of the senate to be read, and published a reward for any discoverer who should bring any of the guilty before them, or give information against any of the absent, adding, that if any person accused should fly, they would limit a certain day upon which, if he did not answer when summoned, he would be condemned in his absence; and if any one should be charged who was out of Italy, they would allow him a longer time, if he should wish to come and make his defense. They then issued an edict, that “no person whatever should presume to buy or sell anything for the purpose of leaving the country; or to receive or conceal, or by any means aid the fugitives.” On the assembly being dismissed, great terror spread throughout the city; nor was it confined merely within the walls, or to the Roman territory, for everywhere throughout the whole of Italy alarm began to be felt, when the letters from the guest-friends were received, concerning the decree of the senate, and what passed in the assembly, and the edict of the consuls. During the night, which succeeded the day in which the affair was made public, great numbers, attempting to fly, were seized, and brought back by the triumvirs, who had posted guards at all gates; and informations were lodged against many, some of whom, both men and women, put themselves to death. Above seven thousand men and women are said to have taken the oath of the association. But it appeared that the heads of the conspiracy were the two Catinii, Marcus and Caius, Roman plebeians; Lucius Opiturnius, a Faliscan; and Minius Cerrinius, a Campanian: that from these proceeded all their criminal practices, and that these were the chief priests and founders of the sect. Care was taken that they should be apprehended as soon as possible. They were brought before the consuls, and, confessing their guilt, caused no delay to the ends of justice.

18. But so great were the numbers that fled from the city, that because the lawsuits and property of many persons were going to ruin, the praetors, Titus Maenius and Marcus Licinius, were obliged, under the direction of the senate, to adjourn their courts for thirty days, until the inquiries should be finished by the consuls. The same deserted state of the law-courts, since the persons, against whom charges were brought, did not appear to answer, nor could be found in Rome, necessitated the consuls to make a circuit of the country towns, and there to make their inquisitions and hold the trials. Those who, as it appeared, had been only initiated, and had made after the priest, and in the most solemn form, the prescribed imprecations, in which the accursed conspiracy for the perpetration of every crime and lust was contained, but who had not themselves committed, or compelled others to commit, any of those acts to which they were bound by the oath—all such they left in prison. But those who had forcibly committed personal defilements or murders, or were stained with the guilt of false evidence, counterfeit seals, forged wills, or other frauds, all these they punished with death. A greater number were executed than thrown into prison; indeed, the multitude of men and women who suffered in both ways, was very considerable. The consuls delivered the women, who were condemned, to their relations, or to those under whose guardianship they were, that they might inflict the punishment in private; if there did not appear any proper person of the kind to execute the sentence, the punishment was inflicted in public. A charge was then given to demolish all the places where the Bacchanalians had held their meetings; first in Rome, and then throughout all Italy; excepting those wherein should be found some ancient altar or consecrated statue. With regard to the future, the senate passed a decree, “that no Bacchanalian rites should be celebrated in Rome or in Italy;” and ordering that, “in case any person should believe some such kind of worship incumbent upon him, and necessary; and that he could not, without offence to religion, and incurring guilt, omit it, he should represent this to the city praetor, and the praetor should lay the business before the senate. If permission were granted by the senate, when not less than one hundred members were present, then he might perform those rites, provided that no more than five persons should be present at the sacrifice, and that they should have no common stock of money, nor any president of the ceremonies, nor priest.”

Livy, History of Rome 39.8-12 
A low-born Greek went into Etruria first of all, but did not bring with him any of the numerous arts which that most accomplished of all nations has introduced amongst us for the cultivation of mind and body. He was a hedge-priest and wizard, not one of those who imbue men’s minds with error by professing to teach their superstitions openly for money, but a hierophant of secret nocturnal mysteries. At first these were divulged to only a few; then they began to spread amongst both men and women, and the attractions of wine and feasting increased the number of his followers. When they were heated with wine and the nightly commingling of men and women, those of tender age with their seniors, had extinguished all sense of modesty, debaucheries of every kind commenced; each had pleasures at hand to satisfy the lust he was most prone to. Nor was the mischief confined to the promiscuous intercourse of men and women; false witness, the forging of seals and testaments, and false informations, all proceeded from the same source, as also poisonings and murders of families where the bodies could not even be found for burial. Many crimes were committed by treachery; most by violence, which was kept secret, because the cries of those who were being violated or murdered could not be heard owing to the noise of drums and cymbals.

Livy, History of Rome 39.13-16
Then Hispala gave an account of the origin of these rites. At first they were confined to women; no male was admitted, and they had three stated days in the year on which persons were initiated during the daytime, and matrons were chosen to act as priestesses. Paculla Annia, a Campanian, when she was priestess, made a complete change, as though by divine monition, for she was the first to admit men, and she initiated her own sons, Minius Cerinnius and Herennius Cerinnius. At the same time she made the rite a nocturnal one, and instead of three days in the year celebrated it five times a month. When once the mysteries had assumed this promiscuous character, and men were mingled with women with all the licence of nocturnal orgies, there was no crime, no deed of shame, wanting. More uncleanness was wrought by men with men than with women. Whoever would not submit to defilement, or shrank from violating others, was sacrificed as a victim. To regard nothing as impious or criminal was the very sum of their religion. The men, as though seized with madness and with frenzied distortions of their bodies, shrieked out prophecies; the matrons, dressed as Bacchae, their hair dishevelled, rushed down to the Tiber with burning torches, plunged them into the water, and drew them out again, the flame undiminished, as they were made of sulphur mixed with lime. Men were fastened to a machine and hurried off to hidden caves, and they were said to have been rapt away by the gods; these were the men who refused to join their conspiracy or take a part in their crimes or submit to pollution. They formed an immense multitude, almost equal to the population of Rome; amongst them were members of noble families both men and women. It had been made a rule for the last two years that no one more than twenty years old should be initiated; they captured those to be deceived and polluted.

Macrobius, Saturnalia 1.18.7-10
In the performance of sacred rites a mysterious rule of religion ordains that the sun shall be called Apollo when it is in the upper hemisphere, that is to say, by day, and be held to be Dionysos, or Liber Pater, when it is in the lower hemisphere, that is to say, at night. Likewise, statues of Liber Pater represent him sometimes as a child and sometimes as a young man; again, as a man with a beard and also as an old man, as for example the statue of the god which the Greeks call Bassareus and Briseus, and that which in Campania the Neapolitans worship under the name Hebon.

Martial, Epigrams IV.44
This is Vesuvius, green yesterday with viny shades; here had the noble grape loaded the dripping vats; these ridges Bacchus loved more than the hills of Nysa; on this mount of late the Satyrs set afoot their dances; this was the haunt of Venus, more pleasant to her than Lacedaemon; this spot was made glorious by the fame of Hercules. All lies drowned in fire and melancholy ash; even the High Gods could have wished this had not been permitted them. 

Nonnos, Dionysiaka 9.16-24

Hermes Maia’s son received him near the birthplace hill of Dracanon, and holding him in the crook of his arm flew through the air. He gave the newborn Lyaios a surname to suit his birth, and called him Dionysos, or Zeus-limp, because while he carried his burden lifted his foot with a limp from the weight of his thigh, and nysos in the Syracusan language means limping. So he dubbed Zeus newly delivered Eiraphiotes, or Father Botcher, because he had sewed up the baby in his breeding thigh. 

Plato, Laws 1.637a-c
Megillus: Indeed there is not a man who would not punish at once and most severely any drunken reveller he chanced to meet with, nor would even the feast of Dionysos serve as an excuse to save him—a revel such as I once upon a time witnessed “on the wagons” in your country; and at our colony of Tarentum, too, saw the whole city drunk at the Dionysia. But with us no such thing is possible.

Athenian: Regarding all such practices, whether in Tarentum, Athens or Sparta, there is one answer that is held to vindicate their propriety. The universal answer to the stranger who is surprised at seeing in a State some unwonted practice is this: “Be not surprised, O Stranger: such is the custom with us: with you, perhaps, the custom in these matters is different.”

Titus Maccius Plautus, Miles Gloriosus 1016-17
Palaestrio: You conceal it from the profane. I am reliable and trustworthy to you.
Milphidippa: Give me the password, if you are one of our bacchants.
Palaestrio: ‘A certain woman loves a certain man.’
Milphidippa: Well, many women do that.

Plutarch, Greek and Roman Parallel Stories 19
When the Bacchanalian revels were being celebrated at Rome, Aruntius, who had been from birth a water-drinker, set at naught the power of the god. So much so that in a fit of drunkenness he violated his daughter Medullina to insult Liber. But she recognized from a ring his relationship and devised a plan wiser than her years; making her father drunk, and crowning him with garlands, she led him to the altar of Divine Lightning, and there, dissolved in tears, she slew the man who had plotted against her virginity. So Aristeides in the third book of his Italian History.

Plutarch, Life of Crassus 9.3
It is said that when he was first brought to Rome to be sold, a serpent was seen coiled about his face as he slept, and his wife, who was of the same tribe as Spartacus, a prophetess, and subject to visitations of the Dionysiac frenzy, declared it the sign of a great and formidable power which would attend him to a fortunate issue. This woman shared in his escape and was then living with him. 

Angelo Poliziano, Fabula Di Orfeo Scene 5
Ho! Bacchus! Ho! I yield thee thanks for this!
Through all the woodland we the wretch have borne:
So that each root is slaked with blood of his:
Yea, limb from limb his body have we torn
Through the wild forest with a fearful bliss:
His gore hath bathed the earth by ash and thorn!—
Go then! thy blame on lawful wedlock fling!
Ho! Bacchus! take the victim that we bring!

Senatus Consultum de Bacchanalibus
The consuls Quintus Marcius son of Lucius and Spurius Postumius son of Lucius consulted the senate on the seventh of October in the Temple of Bellona. Present at the writing of the decree were Marcus Claudius son of Marcus, Lucius Valerius son of Publius, and Quintus Minucius son of Gaius.

Regarding the Bacchanalia it was resolved to give the following directions to those who are in alliance with us.

None of them is to possess a place where the festivals of Bacchus are celebrated: if there are any who claim that it is necessary for them to have such a place, they are to come to Rome to the urban praetor, and the senate is to decide on those matters, when their claims have been heard, provided that not less than 100 senators are present when the affair is discussed. No woman is to be a Bacchant, neither a Roman citizen, nor one of the Latin name, nor any of our allies unless they come to the praetor urbanus, and he in accordance with the opinion of the senate expressed when not less than 100 senators are present at the discussion, shall have given leave. Carried.

No man is to be a priest; no one, either man or woman, is to be an officer (to manage the temporal affairs of the organization); nor is anyone of them to have charge of a common treasury; no one shall appoint either man or woman to be master or to act as master; henceforth they shall not form conspiracies among themselves, stir up any disorder, make mutual promises or agreements, or interchange pledges; no one shall observe the sacred rites either in public or private or outside the city, unless he comes to the praetor urbanus, and he, in accordance with the opinion of the senate, expressed when no less than 100 senators are present at the discussion, shall have given leave. Carried.

No one in a company of more than five persons altogether, men and women, shall observe the sacred rites, nor in that company shall there be present more than 2 men or 3 women, unless in accordance with the opinion of the praetor urbanus and the senate as written above.

See that you declare it in the assembly (contio) for not less than three market days; that you may know the opinion of the senate this was their judgment: if there are any who have acted contrary to what was written above, they have decided that a proceeding for a capital offense should be instituted against them; the senate has justly decreed that you should inscribe this on a brazen tablet, and that you should order it to be placed where it can be easiest read; see to it that the revelries of Bacchus, if there be any, except in case there be concerned in the matter something sacred, as was written above, be disbanded within ten days after this letter shall be delivered to you.

In the Teuranian field.

Seneca, Oedipus 449 ff
Thee, O boy, a Tyrrhenian band once captured and Nereus allayed the swollen sea; the dark blue waters he changed to meadows. Thence flourish the plane-tree with vernal foliage and the laurel-grove dear to Phoebus; the chatter of birds sounds loud through the branches. Fast-growing ivy clings to the oars, and grape-vines twine at the mast-head. On the prow an Idaean lion roars; at the stern crouches a tiger of Ganges. Then the frightened pirates swim in the sea, and plunged in the water their bodies assume new forms: the robbers’ arms first fall away; their breasts smite their bellies and are joined in one; a tiny hand comes down at the side; with curving back they dive into the waves, and with crescent-shaped tail they cleave the sea; and now as curved dolphins they follow the fleeing sails.

Servius, commenting on Vergil’s Eclogues 5.29
This refers unambiguously to Caesar who, as is well-known, was the first to bring the cult of Liber Pater to Rome; thiasus stands for dances, the round dances of Liber, which means the Liberalia.

Silius Italicus, Punica 7.162-211
Though called away by my great theme, I may not pass over the honours of Bacchus without mention. I must tell of the god who bestowed on man the divine drink, and whom the nectar-bearing vines forbid to set any brand above the presses of Falernus. In the good old days before swords were known, Falernus, a man in years, used to plough the high ground of Mount Massicus. Then the fields were bare, and no vine-plant wove a green shade for the clusters; nor did men know how to mellow their draught with the juice of Lyaeus, but were wont to slake their thirst with the pure water of a spring. But when Lyaeus was on his way to the shore of Calpe and the setting sun, a lucky foot and a lucky hour brought him hither as a guest; nor did the god disdain to enter the cottage and pass beneath its humble roof. The smoke-grimed door welcomed a willing guest; the meal was set, in the fashion of that simple age, in front of the hearth; nor was the happy host aware that he entertained a god; but, as his fathers used to do, he ran hither and thither with kindly zeal, tasking his failing strength. At last the feast was set—fruit in clean baskets, and dainties dripping dew which he hastened to cull from his well-watered garden. Then he adorned the toothsome meal with milk and honeycomb, and heaped the gifts of Ceres on a chaste board which no blood denied. And from each dish he first plucked a portion in honour of Vesta, and threw what he had plucked into the centre of the fire.

Pleased by the old man’s willing service, Bacchus decreed that his liquor should not be lacking. Suddenly a miracle was seen: to pay the poor man for his hospitality, the beechen cups foamed with the juice of the grape; a common milk-pail ran red with wine; and the sweet moisture of fragrant clusters sweated in the hollow oaken bowl. “Take my gift,” said Bacchus; “as yet it is strange to you, but hereafter it will spread abroad the name of Falernus, the vine-dresser”; and the god was no longer disguised. Straightway ivy crowned his brows that glowed and flushed; his locks flowed down over his shoulders; a beaker hung down from his right hand; and a vine-plant, falling from his green thyrsus, clothed the festive board with the leaves of Nysa. Falernus found it hard to strive against the cheerful draught: when he had drunk once again of the cup, his stammering tongue and staggering feet roused mirth. With splitting head he tried, though he could not speak plain, to render thanks and praise to Father Lyaeus; and at last Sleep, who goes ever in the train of Bacchus, closed his reluctant eyes. And when the sun rose and the hoofs of Phaethon’s horses dispelled the dews, all Mount Massicus was green with vine-bearing fields, and marvelled at the leafage and the bunches shining in the sunlight. The fame of the mountain grew, and from that day fertile Tmolus and the nectar of Ariusia and the strong wine of Methymna have all yielded precedence to the vats of Falernus.

Sokrates the Rhodian, History of the Civil War, as quoted in Athenaios’ Deipnosophistai 4.29
Antony himself, when he was staying at Athens, a short time after this, prepared a very superb scaffold to spread over the theatre, covered with green wood such as is seen in the caves sacred to Dionysos; and from this scaffold he suspended drums and fawn-skins, and all the other toys which one names in connection with Dionysos, and then sat there with his friends, getting drunk from daybreak, a band of musicians, whom he had sent for from Italy, playing to him all the time, and all the Greeks around being collected to see the sight.

Synesios, Dio 1133
But their procedure is like Bacchic frenzy – like the leap of a man mad, or possessed – the attainment of a goal without running the race, a passing beyond reason without the previous exercise of reasoning. For the sacred matter (contemplation) is not like attention belonging to knowledge, or an outlet of mind, nor is it like one thing in one place and another in another. On the contrary – to compare small and greater – it is like Aristotle’s view that men being initiated have not a lesson to learn, but an experience to undergo and a condition into which they must be brought, while they are becoming fit for revelation.

Tacitus, Annals 11.31.2
Messalina meanwhile, more wildly profligate than ever, was celebrating in mid-autumn a representation of the vintage in her new home. The presses were being trodden; the vats were overflowing; women girt with skins were dancing, as Bacchanals dance in their worship or their frenzy. Messalina with flowing hair shook the thyrsus, and Silius at her side, crowned with ivy and wearing the buskin, moved his head to some lascivious chorus.

Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History 4.21; 5.20
At Antioch Valens spent considerable time, and gave complete license to all who under cover of the Christian name, Pagans, Jews, and the rest preached doctrines contrary to those of the Gospel. The slaves of this error even went so far as to perform pagan rites, and thus the deceitful fire which after Julian had been quenched by Jovian, was now rekindled by permission of Valens. The rites of the Jews, of Dionysos and Demeter were no longer performed in a corner as they would have been in a pious reign, but by revellers running wild in the forum. Valens was a foe to none but to them that held the apostolic doctrine. Against the champions of the apostolic decrees alone he persisted in waging war. Accordingly, during the whole period of his reign the altar fire was lit, libations and sacrifices were offered to idols, public feasts were celebrated in the forum, and votaries initiated in the orgies of Dionysos ran about in goatskins, mangling dogs in Bacchic frenzy.

Theopompos, fragment 233, quoted by Athenaios, Deipnosophistai 4.166 e-f
The city of Tarentum offers sacrifices of oxen and holds public banquets nearly every month. The mass of common people is always busy with parties and drinking-bouts. And the Tarentines have a saying of some such purport as this, that whereas the rest of the world, in their devotion to work and their preoccupation with various forms of industry, are always preparing to live, they themselves, with their parties and their pleasures, do not put off living, but live already.

Vergil, Aeneid 7.341-405
Straightway Alecto, through whose body flows
the Gorgon poison, took her viewless way
to Latium and the lofty walls and towers
of the Laurentian King. Crouching she sate
in silence on the threshold of the bower
where Queen Amata in her fevered soul
pondered, with all a woman’s wrath and fear,
upon the Trojans and the marriage-suit
of Turnus. From her Stygian hair the fiend
a single serpent flung, which stole its way
to the Queen’s very heart, that, frenzy-driven,
she might on her whole house confusion pour.
Betwixt her smooth breast and her robe it wound
unfelt, unseen, and in her wrathful mind
instilled its viper soul. Like golden chain
around her neck it twined, or stretched along
the fillets on her brow, or with her hair
enwrithing coiled; then on from limb to limb
slipped tortuous. Yet though the venom strong
thrilled with its first infection every vein,
and touched her bones with fire, she knew it not,
nor yielded all her soul, but made her plea
in gentle accents such as mothers use;
and many a tear she shed, about her child,
her darling, destined for a Phrygian’s bride:
“O father! can we give Lavinia’s hand
to Trojan fugitives? why wilt thou show
no mercy on thy daughter, nor thyself;
nor unto me, whom at the first fair wind
that wretch will leave deserted, bearing far
upon his pirate ship my stolen child?
Was it not thus that Phrygian shepherd came
to Lacedaemon, ravishing away
Helen, the child of Leda, whom he bore
to those false Trojan lands? Hast thou forgot
thy plighted word? Where now thy boasted love
of kith and kin, and many a troth-plight given
unto our kinsman Turnus? If we need
an alien son, and Father Faunus’ words
irrevocably o’er thy spirit brood,
I tell thee every land not linked with ours
under one sceptre, but distinct and free,
is alien; and ‘t is thus the gods intend.
Indeed, if Turnus’ ancient race be told,
it sprang of Inachus, Acrisius,
and out of mid-Mycenae.”
But she sees
her lord Latinus resolute, her words
an effort vain; and through her body spreads
the Fury’s deeply venomed viper-sting.
Then, woe-begone, by dark dreams goaded on,
she wanders aimless, fevered and unstrung
along the public ways; as oft one sees
beneath the twisted whips a leaping top
sped in long spirals through a palace-close
by lads at play: obedient to the thong,
it weaves wide circles in the gaping view
of its small masters, who admiring see
the whirling boxwood made a living thing
under their lash. So fast and far she roved
from town to town among the clansmen wild.
Then to the wood she ran, feigning to feel
the madness Bacchus loves; for she essays
a fiercer crime, by fiercer frenzy moved.
Now in the leafy dark of mountain vales
she hides her daughter, ravished thus away
from Trojan bridegroom and the wedding-feast.
“Hail, Bacchus! Thou alone,” she shrieked and raved,
“art worthy such a maid. For thee she bears
the thyrsus with soft ivy-clusters crowned,
and trips ecstatic in thy beauteous choir.
For thee alone my daughter shall unbind
the glory of her virgin hair.” Swift runs
the rumor of her deed; and, frenzy-driven,
the wives of Latium to the forests fly,
enkindled with one rage. They leave behind
their desolated hearths, and let rude winds
o’er neck and tresses blow; their voices fill
the welkin with convulsive shriek and wail;
and, with fresh fawn-skins on their bodies bound,
they brandish vine-clad spears. The Queen herself
lifts high a blazing pine tree, while she sings
a wedding-song for Turnus and her child.
With bloodshot glance and anger wild, she cries:
“Ho! all ye Latin wives, if e’er ye knew
kindness for poor Amata, if ye care
for a wronged mother’s woes, O, follow me!
Cast off the matron fillet from your brows,
and revel to our mad, voluptuous song.”
Thus, through the woodland haunt of creatures wild,
Alecto urges on the raging Queen
with Bacchus’ cruel goad.

Vergil, Georgics 2.380-396
And they’re the why, such transgressions, a goat is sacrificed
on every altar to the wine god – since our elders started to stage plays
and the sons of Theseus rewarded talent along the highways and byeways
and, with drink taken, took to hopping here and there,
a dance on greasy hides, and toppling in soft grass.
So too, Ausonian settlers – who came from Troy –
recited their rough-hewn verse to entertain the masses,
and put on scary masks cut out of bark
and called on you, Bacchus, in rousing song,
and in your honour dangled from the tips of pines tender tokens.
And it ensues that every vineyard crests and fills,
valleys teem, and deep ravines –
anywhere the god took in with his goodly gaze.
Therefore, as is only right, we accord to Bacchus due respect
with songs our fathers sang and trays of baked offerings
and, led by the horn, the sacrifical puck is set before the altar
and his spewling innards roasted on hazel skewers.

2 thoughts on “Prelude: Dionysos in Italy

  1. Interesting to see the mention of the femminiello. They still exist in Naples and the rest of Campania.

    There is a monastery on Montevergine in Campania built on the site of a former temple to Cybele that has an image of the Madonna. Every year, on the feast day of the Madonna di Montevergine, femminielli, transpeople, gay men, and other queer folks process up the mountain to her sanctuary.

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