Bacchanalia: the festivals of Bacchus, Roman God of Wine and Fertility3 min read
Originally written on March 17, 2020 – updated 2023
Bacchus was a Roman agricultural god who was associated with the harvest, particularly that of grapevines.
The son of Jupiter by a human woman, Semele, he was raised by nymphs after her mother burned to ashes, overwhelmed by the splendor of Jupiter in his true form.
Once he grew up, Bacchus wandered the earth learning about the culture of the vine and the mysteries of winemaking. He studied the religious rites of the goddess Rhea, and began sharing the good news far and wide. When Bacchus returned home from his adventures, the king was none too pleased with his shenanigans, and ordered him put to death.
Bacchus tried to talk his way out of execution by telling a fanciful story in which he claimed to be a fisherman, but the king wasn’t having any of it. However, before the death sentence could be carried out, the prison doors sprung open of their own accord, Bacchus vanished, and his worshipers threw a huge party in his honor.
He was said to wander the world educating people about the delightful wines that could be made from grapes, and is credited with spreading grapevine cuttings around the world.
Secret rituals for women only were held in Bacchus’ honor during the ancient Roman period.
Devotees of Bacchus whipped themselves into a frenzy of intoxication, and in the spring Roman women attended secret ceremonies in his name. Bacchus was associated with fertility, wine and grapes, as well as sexual free-for-alls.
He is often portrayed crowed with vines or ivy, his chariot is drawn by lions, and he is followed by a group of nubile, frenzied priestesses known as Bacchae. Sacrifices to Bacchus included the goat and the swine, because both of these animals are destructive to the annual grape harvest and, without grapes, there can be no wine.
But Bacchus has also a divine mission: during his drunken frenzies, he loosens the tongues of those who partake of wine and other beverages, and allows people the freedom to say and do what they wish.
In mid-March, secret rituals were held on Rome’s Aventine hill to worship him. These rites were attended by women only, and were part of a mystery religion built up around the God himself.
The Bacchanalia seem to have been popular and well-organised throughout the central and southern Italian peninsula. The cult probably arrived in Rome around 200 BC. However, like all Greco-Roman mysteries very little is known of their rites.
Once the Bacchanalia had become popular, the Roman Senate considered them a threat, believing it was designed to rebel against their political views, thus they wanted to suppress the mystery cult to avoid any kind of rebellion against the Senate.
The Bacchanalia had two different types of religious functions. The first was celebrated by the public, which brought attention to dramatic plays, either tragedy or Satyr-comedic play, while the second belonging to the sexual frenzy and unpolitical cult, which focuses on the release of the sexual tension among people to appease their desires to feel connected to Bacchus himself.
After the abolition of the Bacchanalia, from the following year Liberalia was established, wild parties (but much less than the previous ones)…
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