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Dionysios to the Greeks, Bacchus to the Romans, one of the very great gods to both, his stereotyped modern imagine is that of a pot-bellied, foolish, red-nosed souse with a wreath of vines askew on his head, swilling and spilling wine from a cup whilst hiccupping and braying out-of-tune songs. The ancient god of wine, most people would say. A comic figure, a kids’- book illustration, or as in Beethoven’s Sixth in Fantasia. End of story.

And when he had grown into a strong, beautiful, virtuous, talented, philosophical youth who had the gift of making all living things both animal and vegetable burst into growth and health by his mere presence, Zeus entrusted him with the care of wine, not as a juice for sloshing oneself into brutish stupors but as one of those four terrifying, inexplicable liquids that give and preserve life: water for the earth, blood for the body, semen for the womb, wine for the spirit.

For fifteen hundred years before Our Era and for another thousand into it he roamed the vineyards on sun-drenched Greek mountain sides and in fertile plains and valleys of Italy’s golden South, his mission to safeguard the awesome mysteries biding their time in the ripening grape and to bridle their powers when unleashed. His worshippers flourished throughout the Mediterranean world in a great variety of cults, none known for sobriety or prudishness, that celebrated ecstasy, conception and birth. All were Bacchantes in the broad sense of followers of Bacchus’, but not the Bacchantes, of which more in a moment. Art sprung up in their wake: twenty centuries of music, poetry, dance, theatre, sculpture, painting. Later, Bacchus accompanied imperial Rome’s legions to the ends of the known world, from Portugal to India, from Britain to Arabia.

One long-lived cult in particular fascinated not only its contemporaries beginning in about 100 Before Our Era, but has been enthralling poets, artists and historians ever since its demise some three hundred years later. These were the women-only Bacchantes, whence the Italian feminine plural article le (the masculine would be i). Their beliefs and rituals went far beyond the male-dominated ones centred on inebriation, sexual excess and mindless fertility.

It is a wobbly thing to generalise about doctrines that thrived very long ago for more than three centuries in many places and languages without leaving written records (they thrived mainly in southern Italy and in local dialects of Greek and Latin), but we do know that these Bacchantes wondered in great depth about ecstasy, conception and birth in the sobering light of anguish, sterility and death, with deliberate seriousness and on a high order of ideals, as was and is to be expected of women. It was taught that inebriation by wine in judicious measure aided the spirit to reach out into the Infinite; that erotic ecstasy and orgasm were sparks of Olympus shed on mortals by the Olympians; that conception derived ultimately, beyond mere physical insemination, from the sun, the moon and the stars; that giving birth conferred a species of immortality on the mother; and that knowledge of what lies beyond death’s door is forever denied to mortals, so that all speculation is futile. So long as men were kept out, Bacchus, always invoked by song, dance and sacrifices, would bestow his love and protection on these, his dedicated searchers for answers to ageless questions.

As there inevitably had to be, there were excesses of all kinds and degrees — in some places and at some times, enough to draw imperial disapproval and prohibitions from Rome; but these were rare, and they never seriously damaged the respected and elevated image of the Bacchantes, of these Bacchantes, of le Baccanti. Theirs was a doctrine of many-tiered, measured joy without useless illusions. They lived and let live, and though they sought no converts and left no records, their shades and echoes still hover timidly just out of sight and hearing wherever the grape is grown and Bacchus tends his mission.

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