As the Renaissance saw him: Titian’s “Dionysus and Ariadne”
And finally, everyone’s favourite ancient wine deity, Dionysus – merged here with his Roman alter ego Bacchus as they are in fact one and the same.
It is from his Roman incarnation that we draw our words “Bacchic” or “Bacchanalia” and we use them rather lightly.
Nonetheless, in the ancient world Dionysus trod a fine line between enjoyment and nightmarish excess.
Although he is often presented as a rather large, jovial drunk today, the god of wine and festivals and so on, an image fostered principally among Renaissance painters and then 19th century idealists, the Greeks and Romans had another side to him too.
In their eyes he was usually young and boyish, the fatter character taken by his tutor and the god of beer Silenus, and in this incarnation he was equally the god of chaos and excess, wilful abandonment of the senses and madness.
His cult was based on mystery and rumour and the devotees (Maenads – literally “raving ones”) were usually women, which tended to heighten the association of Dionysus with uncontrolled excesses, particularly sexual aspects.
At their rites they were said to be driven into dangerous hallucinogenic states and raptures of ecstasy which gave them supernatural strength.
This in turn would lead to them tearing apart wild animals (usually oxen or bulls) with their bare hands, an act known as sparagmos, and devouring the flesh raw, omophagia.
It was in this way that Dionysus wrought his revenge on his mortal family, which had denied his divinity.
The death of Pentheus at the hands of his mother Agave and aunt Ino
The story, as told in Euripides’ play The Bacchae, has Dionysus arrive in Thebes, home of his dead mother Semele, who was burnt to a cinder when her lover Zeus appeared to her in his true form.
The city is ruled by Dionysus’ cousin Pentheus, who constantly denies the former’s parentage and says that they all knew Semele to be a little soft in the head.
Dionysus gradually weaves a psychological web around Pentheus that makes him doubt his own sanity and infects the women of Thebes with his spell, sending them up into the hills as Maenads to indulge in Bacchic rites.
Cajoling Pentheus’ curiosity, some of it overtly sexual, Dionysus persuades his cousin to spy on the women. While climbing a tree to get a better look he is spotted and torn limb from limb by the frenzied women, his own mother, Agave, bearing her son’s head into town joyfully proclaiming they have killed a lion.
Dionysus then lifts the spell and the play ends with Agave screaming in terror, clutching her son’s head and realising the terrible thing she has done.
And let that be a suitable warning to drink in moderation.