Some of our Bacchic Martyrs


‘All round the ship they leapt in showers of splashing spray. Time after time they surfaced and fell back into the sea, playing like dancers, frolicking about in fun, wide nostrils taking in the sea to flow it out again. Of the whole twenty (that was the crew she carried) I alone remained. As I stood trembling, cold with fear, almost out of my wits, the god spoke words of comfort: “Cast your fear aside. Sail on to Dia.” ‘Landing there, I joined his cult and am now a faithful follower of Bacchus.’ ‘We’ve listened to this rigmarole,’ said Pentheus, ‘To give our anger time to lose its force. Away with him, you slaves! Rush him away! Rack him with fiendish tortures till he dies and send him down to the black night of Stygia.’ So there and then Acoetes was hauled off and locked in a strong cell. (Ovid, Metamorphoses 3.572)

The Bakchai of Southern Italy

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 34.18)


This tomb they say belongs to the maenad Chorea. She was one of the women who joined Dionysos in his expedition against Argos, and Perseus, being victorious in the battle, put most of the women to the sword. To the rest they gave a common grave, but to Chorea they gave burial apart because of her high rank. (Pausanias, Description of Greece 2.20.4)

The Comedian

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. (Diodoros Sikeliotes, Library of History 37.12)


Amphion and Zethos put Dirce to death by binding her to an untamed bull; by the kindness of Liber, whose votary she was, on Mount Cithaeron a spring was formed from her body, which was called Dirce. (Hyginus, Fabulae 7)


Icarius’ dog returned to his daughter, Erigone; she followed his tracks and, when she found her father’s corpse, she ended her life with a noose. Through the mercy of the gods she was restored to life again among the constellations; men call her Virgo. That dog was also placed among the stars. But after some time such a sickness was sent upon the Athenians that their maidens were driven by a certain madness to hang themselves. The oracle responded that this pestilence could be stopped if the corpses of Erigone and Icarius were sought again. These were found nowhere after being sought for a long time. Then, to show their devotedness, and to appear to seek them in another element, the Athenians hung rope from trees. Holding on to this rope, the men were tossed here and there so that they seemed to seek the corpses in the air. But since most were falling from the trees, they decided to make shapes in the likeness of their own faces and hang these in place of themselves. Hence, little masks are called oscilla because in them faces oscillate, that is, move. (The First Vatican Mythographer 19)

The Haliai

Before the temple of Hera is a grave of women. They were killed in a battle against the Argives under Perseus, having come from the Aegean Islands to help Dionysos in war; for which reason they are surnamed the Women of the Sea. (Pausanias, Description of Greece 2.22.1)


When Father Liber went out to visit men in order to demonstrate the sweetness and pleasantness of his fruit, he came to the generous hospitality of Icarius and Erigone. To them he gave a skin full of wine as a gift and bade them spread the use of it in all the other lands. Loading a wagon, Icarius with his daughter Erigone and a dog Maera came to shepherds in the land of Attica, and showed them the kind of sweetness wine had. The shepherds, made drunk by drinking immoderately, collapsed, and thinking that Icarius had given them some bad medicine, killed him with clubs. (Hyginus, Fabulae 130) When Father Liber went out to visit men in order to demonstrate the sweetness and pleasantness of his fruit, he came to the generous hospitality of Icarius and Erigone. To them he gave a skin full of wine as a gift and bade them spread the use of it in all the other lands. Loading a wagon, Icarius with his daughter Erigone and a dog Maera came to shepherds in the land of Attica, and showed them the kind of sweetness wine had. The shepherds, made drunk by drinking immoderately, collapsed, and thinking that Icarius had given them some bad medicine, killed him with clubs. (Hyginus, Fabulae 130)

Ino and Melikertes

At the proper time Zeus loosened the stitches and gave birth to Dionysos, whom he entrusted to Hermes. Hermes took him to Ino and Athamas, and persuaded them to bring him up as a girl. Incensed, Hera inflicted madness on them, that Athamas stalked and slew his elder son Learchos on the conviction that he was a dear, while Ino threw Melikertes into a basin of boiling water, and then, carrying both the basin and the corpse of the boy, she jumped to the bottom of the sea. Now she is called Leukothea, and her son is Palaimon: these names they receive from those who sail, for they help sailors beset by storms. Also, the Isthmian games were established by Sisyphos in honor of Melikertes. (Apollodoros, Bibliotheca 3.26-29)


And those called the Boukoloi created a revolt in Egypt and joined with the other Egyptians led by the priest Isidoros. First, in the cloaks of women, they tricked the centurion since they appeared to be the women of the Boukoloi approaching to give him money for their men, and they struck him down. His companion they sacrificed swearing an oath on his entrails and then eating them. Of these men Isidoros was the bravest. Then, when they defeated the Romans in battle, they advanced towards Alexandria and would have reached there had not Cassius been sent against them from Syria and contrived to upset their unity and divide them from each other, for they were too many and too desperate for him to dare to come against them all together. And so he subdued them when they grew divided. (Cassius Dio, Roman History LXXII 4)

The Jews of Ptolemais and the neighboring Greek cities

At the monthly celebration of the King’s birthday people were driven by harsh compulsion to partake of the sacrifices, and when a festival of Dionysos was celebrated, they were forced to wear ivy wreaths and walk in the Dionysiac procession. At the suggestion of the people of Ptolemais a decree was issued to the neighbouring Greek cities, enforcing the same conduct on the Jews there, obliging them to share in the sacrificial meals, and ordering the execution of those who did not choose to conform to Greek customs. (2Maccabees 6)


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. [Note: he was murdered by a Christian mob but I for some reason didn’t bother to transcribe that bit] (The Chronicle of Lanercost for the year 1282)

Kadmos and Tieresias

Pentheus: One of you, go quickly to where this man, Tiresias, has that seat of his, the place where he inspects his birds. Take some levers, knock it down. Demolish it completely. Turn the whole place upside down—all of it. Let his holy ribbons fly off in the winds. That way I’ll really do him damage. You others—go to the city, scour it to capture this effeminate stranger, who corrupts our women with a new disease, and thus infects our beds. If you get him, tie him up and bring him here for judgment, a death by stoning. That way he’ll see his rites in Thebes come to a bitter end. (Euripides, The Bakchai 345-356)


Since we have set forth the facts concerning Samothrace, we shall now, in accordance with our plan, discuss Naxos. This island was first called Strongylê and its first settlers were men from Thrace, the reasons for their coming being somewhat as follows. The myth relates that two sons, Butes and Lykourgos, were born to Boreas, but not by the same mother; and Butes, who was the younger, formed a plot against his brother, and on being discovered was driven out to seek another land in which to make his home. Consequently Butes, together with the Thracians who were implicated with him, set forth, and making his way through the islands of the Cyclades he seized the island of Strongylê, where he made his home and proceeded to plunder many of those who sailed past the island. And since they had no women they sailed here and there and seized them from the land. Having been repulsed once from Euboea, they sailed to Thessaly, where Butes and his companions, upon landing, came upon the female devotees of Dionysos as they were celebrating the orgies of the god near Drius, as it is called, in Achaea Phthiotis. As Butes and his companions rushed at the women, these threw away the sacred objects, and some of them fled for safety to the sea, and others to the mountain called Dius; but Koronis, the myth continues, was seized by Butes and forced to lie with him. And she, in anger at the seizure and at the insolent treatment she had received, called upon Dionysos to lend her his aid. And the god struck Butes with madness, because of which he threw himself into a well and met his death. (Diodoros Sikeliotes, Library of History 5.50.1-5)

Martino and Pietro

Asked why the said synagogue is held, he replies that it derives from the fact that they as a custom were in the habit of adoring a certain idol called Bacchus and Baron and also the Sibyl and the Fairies and that Baron and the Fairies were accustomed to holding congregations during which there was no respect between daughter and father, nor with the godmother, as there is, however, outside the said synagogue. And in the synagogue, by night, when the candle was out, they mixed and each took the woman he could have, without recognising her and without speaking while the synagogue lasted; and if a son was begotten, he was the most appropriate and apt to exercise the office of barbe; and he said other things, that his companion had previously said. (Record of the interrogation of the barbes Martino and Pietro, 1492)

The Martyrs of Alexandria

About this period, the bishop of Alexandria, to whom the temple of Dionysos had, at his own request, been granted by the emperor, converted the edifice into a church. The statues were removed, the adyta were exposed; and, in order to cast contumely on the pagan mysteries, he made a procession for the display of these objects; the phalli, and whatever other object had been concealed in the adyta which really was, or seemed to be, ridiculous, he made a public exhibition of. The pagans, amazed at so unexpected an exposure, could not suffer it in silence, but conspired together to attack the Christians. They killed many of the Christians, wounded others, and seized the Serapion, a temple which was conspicuous for beauty and vastness and which was seated on an eminence. This they converted into a temporary citadel; and hither they conveyed many of the Christians, put them to the torture, and compelled them to offer sacrifice. Those who refused compliance were crucified, had both legs broken, or were put to death in some cruel manner. When the sedition had prevailed for some time, the rulers came and urged the people to remember the laws, to lay down their arms, and to give up the Serapion. There came then Romanos, the general of the military legions in Egpyt; and Evagrios was the prefect of Alexandria. As their efforts, however, to reduce the people to submission were utterly in vain, they made known what had transpired to the emperor. Those who had shut themselves up in the Serapion prepared a more spirited resistance, from fear of the punishment that they knew would await their audacious proceedings, and they were further instigated to revolt by the inflammatory discourses of a man named Olympios, attired in the garments of a philosopher, who told them that they ought to die rather than neglect the gods of their fathers. Perceiving that they were greatly dispirited by the destruction of the idolatrous statues, he assured them that such a circumstance did not warrant their renouncing their religion; for that the statues were composed of corruptible materials, and were mere pictures, and therefore would disappear; whereas, the powers which had dwelt within them, had flown to heaven. By such representations as these, he retained the multitude with him in the Serapion. (Hermias Sozomen, The Ecclesiastical History 7:15)


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, Greek and Roman Parallel Stories 19)

Thomas Morton

Thomas Morton and the Merry-mount colonists set up a May-pole, drinking and dancing about it many days together, inviting the Indian women for their consorts, dancing and frisking together like so many fairies, or furies rather and worse practices. As if they had anew revived & celebrated the feasts of ye Roman Goddess Flora, or ye beastly practices of ye mad Bacchanalians. (William Bradford, History Of Plymouth Plantation) The Plymouth Militia under Myles Standish took the town the following June with little resistance, chopped down the Maypole and arrested Morton for ‘supplying guns to the Indians’. He was put in stocks in Plymouth, given a trial and finally marooned on the deserted Isles of Shoals, off the coast of New Hampshire, until an ‘English ship could take him home’, apparently as he was believed too well connected to be imprisoned or executed (as later became the penalty for blasphemy in the colony). He was essentially starved on the island, but was supplied with food by friendly natives from the mainland, who were said to be bemused by the events, and he eventually gained enough strength to escape to England under his own volition. The Merry Mount community survived without Morton for another year, but was renamed Mount Dagon by the Puritans, after the Semitic Sea god, and they pledged to make it a place of woe. During the terrible winter famine of 1629 residents of New Salem under John Endecott raided Mount Dagon’s plentiful corn supplies and destroyed what was left of the Maypole, calling it the ‘Calf of Horeb’ and denouncing it as a pagan idol. Morton returned to the colony soon after and, after finding most of the inhabitants had been scattered, was rearrested, again put on trial and banished from the colonies. The following year the colony of Mount Dagon was burned to the ground and Morton shipped back to England. (Wikipedia s.v. Thomas Morton)

The Nurses

I will not fight against any god of the heaven, since even the son of Dryas, Lykourgos the powerful, did not live long; he who tried to fight with the gods of the bright sky, who once drove the fosterers of mainomenosDionysos headlong down the sacred Nyseian hill, and all of them shed and scattered their wands on the ground, stricken with an ox-goad by murderous Lykourgos, while Dionysos in terror dived into the salt surf, and Thetis took him to her bosom, frightened, with the strong shivers upon him at the man’s blustering. But the gods who live at their ease were angered with Lykourgos and the son of Kronos struck him to blindness, nor did he live long afterwards, since he was hated by all the immortals. (Homer, Iliad 6.129 ff)

The Oinotrophoi

My lord, most noble hero, you make no mistake. You saw me father of five children; now you see me almost childless, such is the fickleness of fate. For what help to me is my son far away on Andros isle where in his father’s stead he reigns? Delius gave him power of prophecy and Liber gave my girls gifts greater than their prayers, greater than belief. For at my daughters’ touch all things were turned to corn or wine or oil of Minerva’s tree. Rich was that role of theirs! When it was know to Atrides, plunderer of Troia … with force of arms he stole my girls, protesting, from their father’s arms and bade them victual with that gift divine the fleet of Greece. They fled, each as she could, two to Euboea, two to their brother’s isle, Andros. A force arrived and threatened war, were they not given up. Fear overcame his love and he gave up his kith and kin to punishment. And one could well forgive their frightened brother. Now fetters were made ready to secure the captured sisters’ arms: their arms still free the captives raised to heaven, crying “Help! Help, father Bacchus!” and the god who gave their gift brought help, if help it can be called in some strange way to lose one’s nature. How they lost it, that I never learnt, nor could I tell you now. The bitter end’s well known. With wings and feathers, birds your consort loves, my daughters were transformed to snow-white doves. (Ovid,Metamorphoses 13.631)

Lucius Opiturnius, Minius Cerrinius and Marcus and Caius Catinius

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. (Livy, History of Rome 34.17)


At the base of Olympus is the city of Dium, near which lies the village of Pimpleia. Here lived Orpheus, the Ciconian, it is said — a wizard who at first collected money from his music, together with his soothsaying and his celebration of the orgies connected with the mystic initiatory rites, but soon afterwards thought himself worthy of still greater things and procured for himself a throng of followers and power. Some, of course, received him willingly, but others, since they suspected a plot and violence, combined against him and killed him. And near here, also, is Leibethra.


Phryne was accused of impiety because she held a komos in the Lykeion. This is what Euthias, who prosecuted her, said: I have now proven that Phryne is impious because she has participated in scandalous revelry, because she has introduced a new god [Dionysos Isodaites], and because she has assembled unlawful thiasoi of both men and women. (Works of the Attic Orators 2.320)

The Sicilians

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. (Sandra Benjamin, Sicily: Three Thousand Years of Human History pages 122-23)

King Skyles

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 worshipers, they saw him raving like a 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. They put at their head Octamasadas, grandson (on the mother’s side) of Teres. Then Skyles, when he learned the danger with which he was threatened, and the reason of the disturbance, made his escape to Thrake. Octamasadas, discovering whither he had fled, marched after him, and had reached the Ister when he was met by the forces of the Thrakians. The two armies were about to engage, but before they joined battle, Sitalkes sent a message to Octamasadas to this effect, ‘Why should there be trial of arms betwixt thee and me? Thou art my own sister’s son, and thou hast in thy keeping my brother. Surrender him into my hands, and I will give thy Skyles back to thee. So neither thou nor I will risk our armies.’ Sitalkes sent this message to Octamasadas, by a herald, and Octamasadas, with whom a brother of Sitalkes had formerly taken refuge, accepted the terms. He surrendered his own uncle to Sitalkes, and obtained in exchange his brother Skyles. Sitalkes took his brother with him and withdrew; but Octamasadas beheaded Skyles upon the spot. Thus rigidly do the Skythians maintain their own customs, and thus severely do they punish such as adopt foreign usages. (Herodotos, The Histories 4.79)


The battle was long and bloody, as might have been expected with so many thousands of desperate men. Spartacus was wounded in the thigh with a spear and sank upon his knee, holding his shield in front of him and contending in this way against his assailants until he and the great mass of those with him were surrounded and slain. The Roman loss was about 1000. The body of Spartacus was not found. A large number of his men fled from the battle-field to the mountains and Crassus followed them thither. They divided themselves in four parts, and continued to fight until they all perished except 6000, who were captured and crucified along the whole road from Capua to Rome. (Appian, Civil Wars 1.120)

Spartacus’ Wife

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. (Plutarch, Life of Crassus 9.3)

* This amazing woman’s name has not come down to us through history. I considered using one of the names given to her by writers of fiction, such as Varinia or Sura. But somehow it seemed more fitting to remind people that along with her freedom her name had been stripped from her. Dionysos has restored both to her and she now revels with him and the other mystai, beyond the reach of hateful men.

The Tarentines

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. (Julian, Misopogon 355d) 

The Vignerons

The so-called Kalends, and what are called Bota and Brumalia, and the full assembly which takes place on the first of March, we wish to be abolished from the life of the faithful. And also the public dances of women, which may do so much harm and mischief. Moreover we drive away from the life of Christians the dances given in the names of those falsely called gods by the Greeks whether of men or women, and which are preformed after an ancient and un-Christian fashion; decreeing that no man from this time forth shall be dressed as a woman, nor any woman in the garb suitable to men. Nor shall he assume comic, satyric, or tragic masks; nor may men invoke the name of the execrable Bacchus when they squeeze out the wine in the presses; nor when pouring out wine into jars [to cause a laugh], practicing in ignorance and vanity the things which proceed from the deceit of insanity. Therefore those who in the future attempt any of these things which are written, having obtained knowledge of them, if they be clerics we order them to be deposed, and if laymen to be cut off. (Canon 62 of The Council of Trullo, convened in 692)