In 1640, a bronze tablet was discovered during construction work on a palace in Tiriolo, southern Italy. Dating from 186 BC, it records a decree issued by the Roman senate strictly regulating the cult of Bacchus, which it seems had gotten too big for its boots. But despite its ostensible threat to authority, worship of the god of wine continued long after this, and, as the engaging Bettany Hughes investigates in her latest documentary Bacchus Uncovered (shown on BBC Four), his intoxicating (and other) effects can be felt well into the modern world – in gardens of the English Enlightenment, in Nietzsche, in 1960s counterculture, and in a goat festival on the Greek island of Skyros that still takes place every year on the same date of its ancient counterpart.
Bacchus, or Dionysos, is a familiar figure in classical mythology, most commonly associated with wine and the festivals that honoured him with performances in Athens’ spectacular theatre. He is a god that blurs boundaries in several ways: often given an effeminate appearance in ancient sculpture, Bacchus is seen as both savage and civilising, and, as the story goes, was brought back to life after being torn to pieces by the titans.
Drawing on archaeological evidence from the ancient world, the documentary traces the complicated history of the multi-faceted deity to the first written reference (in c. 1300 BC) of Dionysos and his association with wine on a Linear B tablet from Crete. Further back than this, we see the earliest evidence for pure grape wine-making in Neolithic Georgia, discovered just last year, which suggests that wine had long been important to communities and, as decorations on some vessels show, a way to connect with not just one another but also the spirit world. And by looking at the temple to Bacchus in Jerash, Jordan, and mosaics in Nea Paphos, Cyprus, Hughes explores how devotees of the wine-bringing god, who was born of a divine father and mortal mother and traversed the boundary between life and death, responded to the rise of Christianity.
The documentary goes beyond the archaeology too, to examine the wider societal and cultural role of (or even need for) ecstasy and Bacchus. (For a modern literary exploration of this theme, see Donna Tartt’s excellent novel The Secret History). Like the festival revelers on Skyros, should all try to be a bit Bacchic?
Bacchus Uncovered: Ancient God of Ecstasy will be broadcast on BBC World News on 28 & 29 April.
All images: Sandstone Global Ltd