Underrated: Dionysus

The orgies and drunken frenzies of the god of wine — immoderate but exhilarating

Underrated
Bacchic scene, 1626-1628, from the collection of the Museo del Prado, Madrid (© Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

If NASA had named its famous moon-shot after Dionysus instead of Apollo, we’d have been surprised. You don’t want a Lord of Misrule to preside over a lunar landing. But NASA’s Dr Abe Silverstein had a book of mythology and a better idea. (And to demonstrate aerospace’s continuing debt to Ancient Greece, the new space programme is called Artemis, after Apollo’s sister.)

Apollo had his tiresome lyre, which he plucked to make epicene music for his blameless followers. But Dionysus surely inspired Beethoven’s raucous Seventh Symphony which Nietzsche described as the “apotheosis of the dance”. Yes, I know it’s a Greek word, but I don’t think we have anything like as many apotheoses as we need.

If you are going to have a classical god, Dionysus is much more amusing than Apollo. Who could not be impressed by someone whose cult was of such persuasive power that the women of Athens went every year to Parnassus to hold orgies in his honour?

With Dionysus we are in the colourful territory of ecstatic libations.  There really is, one imagines, nothing quite like a good orgy. The more so when a part of the Dionysiac theory is that drinking, dancing and sex are evidence of theolepsy, of being “possessed” by the gods. (Greek words really are rather useful.)

And the Dionysus brand was influential: a franchise even. The Etruscans took up his cult and enjoyed lounging on luxurious flower-embroidered couches, drinking powerful wine from heavy silver cups while being attended by naked slave-girls. Additionally, Dionysus was often followed by satyrs which, if Attic Red Figure vases are anything to go by, had permanent erections. You would not say that about Apollo’s lot.

What began as a “harmless vineyard cult”, according to Burgo Partridge in his rackety study A History of Orgies (1958), developed into the spectacular Roman Bacchanal, as Dionysus merged into the person of Bacchus, an even more worldly entity. Most happily, in later European art, any depiction of a Bacchanal licensed nudity . . . and all that tends to go with it.

As evidence of how emotionally impoverished we have become, I am very short of real-time orgy experience. Still, I suspect the orgy has been downgraded since Bacchus’s day. So far from tanned, toned and fit nymphs and lusty satyrs, I suspect orgies, if they exist at all, are rather as if the check-in line at Ryanair has been involuntarily stripped bare. Sometimes at Stansted, I feel Dionysus is not tending to his legacy as assiduously as we might wish.

But, because I have read the great Jean Seznec, I am cautious about bad-mouthing gods. His La Survivance des Dieux Antiques (1940) says they are still around and did not die when Christianity became established. I am sure they are.

I know this because there is a family house on Skopelos with a view of Olympus from the kitchen; and there’s really not much doubt about Apollo’s presence there. I can wave to him as I chop basil. And the house is quite near Mount Othrys, mountain of the Titans and the Kingdom of Achilles. (And also the source of the best oregano.) You can sense their presence in Thessaly, if not in STN.

“But where is Dionysus?” you ask. He was the last of the twelve gods to ascend Olympus, his arrival delayed because of wandering the world teaching winemaking. So the essential distinction is this: you have Apollo, a Mr Tidy Paws. And Dionysus, an itinerant wine merchant, immoderate outlaw, enthusiastic and exhilarating. At his worst he was mad and destructive. Yet for all his licentiousness, Dionysus was not a vengeful god.

Apollo has his temples and statues. Dionysus, on the other hand, is better remembered for his rites, although we can admit that drunken frenzies rarely stimulate great building design.

But drunken frenzies do bring some benefits. Euripides believed: “The blood of the grape lightens the burden of our mortal misery”.  I think we all accept that. And I like the old lines from an anonymous poetaster:

Better than the Scriptures can
Wine reveals God’s plan to Man

For “Wine”, read Dionysus. As Nietzsche knew, he is the promise of life itself: sometimes violent, often flawed, reliably unpredictable and endlessly compelling.

And the rest of the legacy of Apollo and Dionysus? Abe Silberstein’s NASA branding, of course. By contrast, if only in matters of style, Gucci has a range of “Dionysus” handbags. Of course, Dionysus also lent his name to a legion of wine bars, facilitating, for example, the introduction of hummus to Tyneside.

What do you want?  Law and order, familiar forms and manners? Or the delirium of an unchecked creativity that continuously reinvents itself? Predictability or excitement?  Impossible, if you think about it, to imagine a wine bar called Apollo.

Jackson Pollock was a Dionysiac painter: a brawling drunk, abusive of booze, a man who died in a car crash of his own careless making. But Jack the Dripper’s pictures are joyful and exuberant. He might have had a death-wish, but his paintings are The Life Force.  Another example: Porsche is Apollonian since it is an argument about pure technical supremacy. Meanwhile, Ferrari betrays a Dionysiac commitment to massimo edonismo.

Always wise to let a feminist have the (second to) last word. Camille Paglia said: “Apollo is a tyrant, Dionysus is a vandal”.

For once, I’m going for vandalism.