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Bacchus: A Biography - Interview with the author Andrew Dalby

Interview by Ursus

Often when I review a book, I want to ask the author for further insights. With Mr. Dalby a patrician (senior member) at UNRV, I had the rare privilege of exercising that desire. The following is an interview with the author replicated with his permission.

Jeremy Baer, aka "Ursus": As you will discern from my review, I rather enjoyed your book. I did however feel it was strangely lacking in an author's foreword. I like to know the person behind the book and their private relations to the subject at hand. Can you elucidate your motivation for writing this telling of Bacchic myth?
Andrew Dalby: An easy question. The publisher wanted a biography with a difference, and suggested Bacchus (there is room for doubt whether, in the early stages of this decision-making process, a certain decision-maker even knew that Bacchus was a divine rather than human person). As for me, when I write, I like to write something new. I decided that I could enjoy myself, and perhaps interest others too, if I treated the ancient sources as real biographical evidence and developed the life story of Bacchus from that starting-point.

Ursus: I think the mark of a good author or scholar is that they not only have sufficient knowledge of what they speak, but have obvious passion for the area they explore. I received the impression you immensely enjoyed writing this novel, or am I wrong in that assessment?
Dalby: Yes, my prediction came true. I did enjoy it. I also looked on it as preparation for something more. You call it a "novel" -- goodness knows whether it is -- but I certainly have in mind to write one or more novels in the near future.

Ursus: In reading the book I had discovered some alternative myths of which I was not aware. Did you personally garner any new insights into Bacchus while writing and researching?
Dalby: Plenty. I am always learning when I write, and this book was no exception. Many of these stories I first read when I was at school; others I learned when I read Nonnus's Dionysiaca, not long before writing the book; and the story about Prosymnus, I must admit, I nearly didn't find at all. Robert Graves (for example) seems to have missed this story, important though it is. I first encountered it thanks to J. G. Frazer's footnotes to his translation of Apollodorus. But I was sort of expecting it, because Bacchus's sexuality is ambiguous in several of the myths.

Ursus: Which of the myths of Dionysus is your favorite, and why?
Dalby: Difficult, but I think it has to be the story of Pentheus, the one Euripides tells in his play "Bacchae". This one, maybe more than any other, shows what the Greeks understood of the power and danger of the wine-god.

Ursus: Which do you think is the better gift of Dionysus: wine or drama? And while we are on the subject, what is your favorite wine vintage and favorite piece of drama?
Dalby: You don't ask much, do you? I wouldn't be without either of them -- they both, in quite different ways, take us outside ourselves -- and I'm not going to choose either as better!

Favourite wine? Impossible. There can be no single one. For a long banquet, take Blanquette de Limoux to begin; Muscat of Lemnos with the foie gras; a Loire wine, maybe Gros Plant du Pays Nantais (white) or a really nice cool Anjou (light red) with whatever comes next; a Bergerac, maybe, or a Côtes du Rhône, or Aglianico, or even Amarone di Valpolicella, with the plat principal; and then we're probably sailing towards Port (late bottled vintage is quite OK) or Maury or something of that kind.

Favourite play? Impossible. There can be no single one. The Frogs (in which Bacchus/Dionysus plays a cameo role); Hamlet; The Importance of Being Earnest (last and best of the Greek New Comedy tradition); and more; and more ...

Ursus: What are your views on the cult's seedier side? Orgies, nocturnal murders, eating of raw flesh, dismemberment of human beings --
Dalby: --- Oh, I'm in favour of them.
Ursus: -- Truth or hostile propaganda?
Dalby: Yes, of course there is propaganda involved, but it is clearly true that the cult of Bacchus celebrated the release of inhibitions, and necessarily the results could not be completely foreseen or controlled.

Ursus: Had you lived in those times, would you be an enthusiastic member of the Bacchic cult?
Dalby: Actually, had I lived in those times, I think the female members of my household would have been enthusiastic members of the cult. It was a women's thing really. But I would certainly have taken full part in the vintage festivals.

Ursus: As you may or may not know there are various groups throughout the world dedicated to resurrecting the Olympian cults, with different levels of historical authenticity in their practices. Bacchus seems to a popular deity among modern Greek pagans. Do you have any opinion on the whole phenomenon, or even advice for those who seek to know Bacchus?
Dalby: Well, given the cult's more notorious practices, such as you list above, authenticity may be hard to achieve! I do believe that it's worth trying to reconstruct ancient lifestyles -- it helps us to understand a lot of details that would otherwise remain completely obscure -- but, at the same time, we have to accept that we can't ever do it completely.

Ursus: Of all the books you have written, what is your favorite so far?
Dalby: Empire of Pleasures

Ursus: What are your literary plans for the future? Any more mythological retellings on the horizon?
Dalby: Bacchus has been followed by Venus. I think she'll be the last in that series -- as I said above, I like to try new things. So, instead of that, look out for the novel. On a Byzantine theme.

I thank Mr. Dalby for answering my questions, he is indeed a scholar and a gentlemen. I encourage anyone interested in Greco-Roman myth to read Bacchus.
For further reading on Bacchus, interested parties may wish to read my article: Culture from Counter-Culture: Dionysian Drama and Hellenism

...back to the review of Bacchus: A Biography

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Interview with Andrew Dalby - Related Topic: Rediscovering Homer


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