The best gift my parents ever gave me was D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths. It was a large hardcover volume full of truncated, child-friendly versions of many popular Greek Myths. More importantly, it was pages upon pages of huge, lovely, detailed illustrations done in what I assume to be colored pencil or pastels—the pictures were colorful, touchable, starry. I sat in a living room armchair devouring everything until I finally turned the last page and sealed it with a tear (hyperbolic melodrama). No really though, I was extremely sad when it was over. So I read it again. And again. And repeat. In retrospect, D’Aulaires is probably what made me aspire to be a ‘70s art teacher type when I grew up. That book was my JAM.
Even though I basically had its entire contents memorized, I never understood the sections on Dionysus. I got that he was the god of wine. The book had him reclining on a boat as he caused its destruction with a rapidly growing grapevine (sadly, no D’Aulaires Dionysus illustrations can be found on this internet, but I can look for a few of my many personal reproductions if you wish). Okay, the Greeks like wine. I get it. My mom liked wine (Scotch) and she was Greek. But why was it necessary to have a god for it? And what, pray tell, is a bacchanal?
I would eventually fill in the blanks. Wikipedia notes that “The bacchanalia were wild and mystic festivals of the Greco-Roman god Bacchus (or Dionysus), the wine god. The term has since come to describe any form of drunken revelry.” Merriam-Webster literally defines “bacchanal” as an ORGY first, and as “a devotee of Bacchus; especially: one who celebrates the Bacchanalia” second. I guess that’s why my mother evaded the question for twenty years.
The Dionysian Mysteries Wikipedia page provides some really clear and detailed descriptions of the origins of a bacchanal.
“The Dionysian Mysteries were a ritual of ancient Greece and Rome which used intoxicants and other trance-inducing techniques (like dance and music) to remove inhibitions and social constraints, liberating the individual to return to a natural state. It also provided some liberation for those marginalized by Greek society: women, slaves and foreigners. In their final phase the Mysteries shifted their emphasis from a chthonic, underworld orientation to a transcendental, mystical one, with Dionysus changing his nature accordingly (similar to the change in the cult of Shiva).”
“In contrast with the daytime festivities of the Athenian Dionysia were the biennial nocturnal rites of the Tristeria, held on Mount Parnassus in winter. These celebrated the emergence of Dionysus from the underworld, with orgies (orgia) in the mountains. The first day was presided over by the Maenads in their state of Mainomenos (madness), during which animals—and perhaps humans—were hunted, torn apart with bare hands and eaten raw. This was the Sparagmos, once associated with goat sacrifice and marking the harvest (and trampling) of the vine. The second day saw the Bacchic nymphs in their Thyiadic (or raving) state. Although still orgiastic, this was a more sensual and benign bacchanal (assisted by satyrs). Mythographers claim that the Maenads (or wild women) resisted the Bacchic urge and were driven mad, while the Thyiades (or ravers) accepted the Dionysian ecstasy and kept their sanity.”
- There is absolutely a True Blood story arc correlation, in case you were wondering
- Is this where the term “raver” came from?!
- You can see how defining a bacchanal can be reduced to simply drinkin’ some wine and havin’ some orgies
So, yeah, bacchanals. They happened. Life went on. Eventually, I came across another book: The Secret History by Donna Tartt. First of all, everyone needs to read this book. It’s incredible. Without giving away too much of the plot, it involves a group of Bennington Classics students who become obsessed with the concept of a bacchanal and you know, recreate one, like you do. This got me thinking about the whole thing again, with an adult brain this time.
It’s easy to dismiss the process of seeking that state of inebriation as a fleeting pursuit of youth, and even easier to judge those that indulge with the same frequency as they age. It’s silly, wasteful, harmful. You will do things you regret (bass players, cheese fries). It gets more sinister: you will willingly place yourself in compromising positions, contract diseases, damage your liver and your reputation. You will be an addict.
And yet. There is something there, something that inspired thousands to actually worship a deity that represents the substance that allowed them to get closer to these heights and depths. They saw something important in the ritual—something religious, closer to God.
There was a period in my life marked by loss and confusion during which I pointedly chose the hardest path for everything, even the most menial things. If there was an escalator available, I would take the stairs. I ate unflavored oats three times a day. I took long walks at 2 a.m. in February. I respected ascetics and fought to control my naturally hedonistic nature. In retrospect, it’s easy to see that I was punishing myself, even though that year and the few on its tail ended up being remarkably hedonistic. I didn’t escape unscathed: I self-flagellated, suffered unnecessary guilt, and eventually ran home with my tail between my legs.
The guilt came from the belief that I was doing something unimportant, but not only that—something wrong. Frivolity. Meaningless connections. Inebriation. Foolishness, pettiness, shallowness.
And yet. I did find some deliverance. Not enough, not the kind that builds your bones from the ground up and lasts. But the connections were not all meaningless, and there are moments that will be woven into my fabric until I die. They were me, and they created me.
It’s still hard to shake that feeling of “all work, no play.” It’s so American and boring. Those ancient revelers knew the power of losing your mind for a little while—literally losing your mind. Is there any time when your brain is as clear and calm as when experiencing the euphoria of sex? It’s one sweet moment of absolution, of liberation. Partying like the Greeks and Romans is a fiscal transaction. You pay, and you get. Give some dignity and possibly chunks of liver and ye shall receive endorphins, tales, and a modicum of freedom from whatever ails you. Because there will always be something that ails you. You’re not running away from your problems, you’re counterbalancing them.
The Thyiades kept their sanity, and so can you. Accept the Dionysian ecstasy (at least some of the time).
All images are illustrations from D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths.