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Bacchus: A Biography - Andrew Dalby

Book Review by Ursus

One of UNRV's more accessible resources is the smattering of bona fide scholars and authors that grace our fora. Our longest serving resident scholar is the venerable Andrew Dalby, an Oxford trained scholar on the classical world with interests in language and food. Two of my esteemed fellow moderators have submitted reviews on Dalby's works, each choosing a subject near and dear to their heart. The delightfully gastronomic Pertinax devoured Dalby's Empire of Pleasures, while the deeply Hellenophile Pantagathus sung odes for Dalby's Rediscovering Homer. My own special interest is Greco-Roman mythology and religious cult. It was thus a pleasant surprise when I discovered Mr. Dalby had written a retelling of Bacchic myth. Not to be outdone by my two erudite legati colleagues, I immediately crafted the following review as a prelude to an interview with Mr. Dalby.

Who is Bacchus? Dionysus, as the Greeks called him, was a relative late comer to the Hellenic mythological epics. Homer affords him a paltry side reference. Yet allusions to the deity reach as far back as the lost Minoan-Mycaeanan era. Homer's negligence aside, the cult once established became widespread throughout the Greek speaking world. It afforded Hellenism no less than a revolution. In spiritual terms the boisterous rites of the cult provided an alluring counter pose to normative Greek religion. In artistic terms Dionysian motifs permeated visual arts, especially pottery paintings, and would also give birth to a completely new art form in the guise of drama.

Greeks in southern Italy introduced it into the Latin West, where it gained solid currency. Finding the cult practices too illicit for its sensibilities, the Senate severely restricted the cult for the next century and a half. By the early empire the cult was en vogue again, with Dionysian art and drinking symposiums quite well established among the population. The cult was by this time somewhat robbed of its revolutionary fervor. Nonetheless, Dionysus, or Bacchus as he was known to the Romans, was firmly ingrained into the Greco-Roman cultural consciousness. With this brief sketch of the cult's history aside, we can focus on the god himself as revealed by the extent literary tradition.

With lingering traces of Victorian era prudishness, Greek myths that are taught to students (to the fading extent they are taught at all these days) are often purged of their more colorful attributes. I am speaking of course of the carnal predilections of the bawdy Greeks and Romans, their penchant for sexual indulgences of all types that their deities shared. Perhaps not the thing to teach to young pupils, but the tales seem sanitized without them. There is also an area for the wonderfully dry wit the Greco-Roman literati imbued in their deities. This is all too often filtered out by scholars who believe everything Hellenic must be as dignified as a philosophical dissertation. What Dalby does is reinvigorate the ancient tales with every full measure of their authentic flavor. Does it seem a paradox that a genre could be ennobled by letting its pleasant vulgarities shine through?

Consider for example the following exchange Dalby presents in the first chapter. Zeus lies in bed with his mistress Semele, who is to become mother of Dionysus. Semele relates a story to Zeus where Teiresias the seer stood before Zeus and Hera as they were having an argument. The quarrel was over which gender received the better pleasure during sexual intercourse. Teiresias had lived an earthly life as both genders, and was thus in a unique position to comment. When Teiresias declared that nine-tenths of sexual pleasure belonged to the female orgasm, Hera blinded the seer in rage. As Semele relates to Zeus, this was the great secret of womankind that the Queen of the Gods did not want unearthed.

This is an aspect of classical society which they strangely did not teach me in grade school. I venture to say if this particular color of Greek mythology were reclaimed, there would be a lot more interest in the classics at all levels of education. Hail to Dalby for resurrecting what lay buried beneath Judeo-Christian society's contempt for human sexuality.

The book's central conceit is that it is written in the manner of a biography of a real person. As the subsequent interview reveals, there is an ulterior reason for that. But as a purely literary device it works wonders, for it presents the tales of Bacchus as though he were a living, breathing person rather than a dead letter from antiquarian lore. Dalby's "biography" of this god spans the entire mythological corpus. There is the seduction of Semele by Zeus, and a jealous Hera's counterstrike against her philandering husband's mistress. There is the god's unorthodox childhood and adolescence amongst the bucolic creatures of Greek mythology. There is the god's "invasion" of Arabia and India, spreading the vine wherever he goes. There is furthermore the cultivation of the vine and its divine gift to the world: wine. Finally we have the god's amorous adventures, his journey into the underworld, his ascension to Olympus, and his conquest of Greece despite the reluctance of the establishment to accept his colorful ways.

Bacchus is a god any establishment would hold with suspicion (despite being the son of the king of the gods, and one cannot get more Establishment than that). The rites and understandings of the god's cult seemed to contravene orthodoxy at every turn. The cult was initially rural rather than civic. Its followers largely women rather than men. Its ecstatic nature was a source of mystery. Yet it was that very off-color energy that made the god and his cult so popular and gave birth to tragedy as an art form. Dalby chose the perfect god for his mythological telling. No other deity can offer such an interesting lifestyle to illustrate.

Bacchus is grand, bold and eloquent. It is a brilliant and joyous retelling of the myths concerning the most rowdy of Olympian deities. This is the way myth should be presented: with the same wonder and vigor the Ancients themselves invested in the subject. I like the absurdities of myth, I delight in their contradictions. Next to heavenly aspirations and dire tragedy stands earthy humor. Juxtaposed against flights of fantasy are often psychological insights of profound realism. Myth is the embodiment of an age, the articulation of an entire cultural ethos. Not only can myth be grand and noble, it can be fun and bawdy. Or at least it can be in relation to the god of wine. Dalby understands this, and behind all the meticulous scholarship poured into the book there stands a man obviously smiling and nodding along in mirth as the tales unfold.

Dalby synthesizes the Hellenic and Roman mythographers to present a full-bodied tale of the life and times of Dionysus. He takes great pains to offer the differing, often contradictory versions of the same myth, including some of the rarer told tales. I had considered myself a well-read pagan enthusiast, but there was some new material here that greeted my eye. At just over 160 pages it is a quick read, and Dalby's delightful prose carries along each succulent page with graceful brevity. The colored plates in the beginning, while unfortunately few in number, do offer some choice pieces of Dionysian art through the ages. At the end of the book one shall find thoughtful listings of the numerous primary sources Dalby used to service this study, and also offered are suggestions for reading on the wider aspects of Greco-Roman culture and Dionysian cult.

Discuss and order this book online at Amazon

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.

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Book Review of Bacchus: A Biography - Related Topic: Roman Mythology


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