Sunday, May 24, 2020

The cult of Dionysus: Wine, uninhibited freedom, and subversion of the powerful

Image: Marble statuette of Dionysus early 3rd century BCE at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York courtesy of the museum.
This fully clad figure of Dionysus is in stark contrast to the many depictions of the god in various states of undress during raucous celebratory processions depicted in Roman art.
The god wears Thracian boots, a short chiton, a belted panther skin, and a goatskin worn like a cape, with the forelegs of the goat wrapped around his arms. He can perhaps be identified as Dionysus Melanaigis (of the Black Goatskin), whose cult was introduced into Attica from Boeotia. Pausanias (II.35.1), second century CE author of a guide to Greece, mentions a temple to Dionysus Melanaigis in Methana on the Saronic Gulf and states that a music competition was held there in the god's honor every year and that prizes were awarded for swimming races and boat races. - The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Thracian boots represent the belief that Dionysus was born in Thrace, traveled abroad, and arrived in Greece as a foreigner. However, evidence from the Mycenaean period of Greek history show that he is one of Greece's oldest attested gods. The earliest written records of Dionysus worship were found in and around the Palace of Nestor in Pylos, dated to around 1300 BCE. The details of any religion surrounding Dionysus in this period are scant, and most evidence comes in the form only of his name, written as di-wo-nu-su-jo ("Dionysoio") in Linear B, preserved on fragments of clay tablets that indicate a connection to offerings or payments of wine, which was described as being "of Dionysoio". By the seventh century BCE, iconography found on pottery shows that Dionysus was already worshiped as more than just a god associated with wine. He was associated with weddings, death, sacrifice, and sexuality, and his retinue of satyrs and dancers was already established.
The mystery cult of Bacchus was brought to Rome from the Greek culture of southern Italy or by way of Greek-influenced Etruria. It was established around 200 BCE in the Aventine grove of Stimula by a priestess from Campania, near the temple where Liber Pater ("the Free Father") had a State-sanctioned, popular cult. Liber was a native Roman god of wine, fertility, and prophecy, patron of Rome's plebeians (commoners), and one of the members of the Aventine Triad, along with his mother Ceres and sister or consort Libera. A temple to the Triad was erected on the Aventine Hill in 493 BCE, along with the institution of celebrating the festival of Liberalia. Liber protected various aspects of agriculture and fertility, including the vine and the "soft seed" of its grapes, wine and wine vessels, and male fertility and virility. Pliny called Liber "the first to establish the practice of buying and selling. Liber also invented the diadem, the emblem of royalty, and the triumphal procession."
Before the importation of the Greek cults, Liber was already strongly associated with Bacchic symbols and values, including wine and uninhibited freedom, as well as the subversion of the powerful. This association may have stemmed from the Mycenaean god Eleutheros, who shared the lineage and iconography of Dionysus but whose name has the same meaning as Liber.

Image: Marble statuette of Dionysus early 3rd century BCE at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York courtesy of the museum.
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