“Bacchus who sets us free”

Thus writes Robert Fagles at Aeneid 4.73.  Although Virgil’s Latin (at 4.58) merely says, “patrique Lyaeo” — “and to Father Lyaeus”, one of the names of Dionysus — this phrase makes me ponder, “How does Bacchus set us free?”  Could one, perhaps, through an examination of ancient texts, produce a Dionysian Liberation Theology?*

Bacchus (or Dionysus), if you were wondering, is the god of the ancient pantheon associated with ekstasis — standing outside of oneself — which takes madness as one of its main forms, as we see in Fagles’ translation of Aen. 4.300ff (his 4.373):*

She rages in helpless frenzy, blazing through
the entire city, raving like some Maenad
driven wild when the women shake the sacred emblems,
when the cyclic orgy, shouts of “Bacchus!” fire her on
and Cithaeron echoes round with maddened midnight cries.

Bacchus sets us free.  Dido “rages in helpless frenzy” (my trans.).  And then she “bacchatur” through the whole city (4.301).  What is there of freedom in someone who rages, is helpless, raves, is driven wild, whose actions madden Mt. Cithaeron?

Consider, if you will, the life of an upper-class woman in the Graeco-Roman world.  She sits in the back row at the amphitheatre.  She spends most of her life indoors doing as little work as possible.  She shrouds her head in public.  Her first marriage is probably arranged by her father or some other powerful male relative.  She also has access to education, parties, chariot races, the right to divorce her husband, exotic foods, alcohol in moderation, and so forth.

However, in a world of clearly defined roles and strong, sturdy ideals of pietas — duty to the gods, duty to the family, duty to the country, duty to one’s honour — for both men and women, how does madness not set people free?

A Bacchante, as seen in The Bacchae by Euripides, has the opportunity to dance like a wild woman, to shake the thyrsus (Bacchus’ holy staff), to shake her wild her, to abandon the city and dance on the hills.  She is freed from the need to be decorous, she can live by the motto “Dignity Is for Chumps” as a Bacchante, she is freed from the inhibitions placed on her by herself and her society.  For a time, she is freed from her womanly duties and responsibilities without becoming impia.

Bacchus sets us free.  Father Liber (another name; this one is Roman) is also the god of wine, a substance that has its own dis-inhibiting effect upon people, making it similar to madness.  And since Liber is, himself a lover — “he himself is warmed” by the flame of love (Ovid, Ars Amatoria 1.525) — he helps lovers in their quest for the beloved.  I reckon Ovid recommends the use of wine in the pursuit of one’s beloved, and that Bacchus who sets us free will join in the fight.  It’s not necessarily advice I would give, but there it is in one of our texts.  We are set free by wine — by Father Liber — to find somebody to love.  And since scholars think that Bacchus was originally a fertility god, this only makes sense.

Bacchus sets us free.  Dionysus is also the god of the theatre — hence the City Dionysia in Athens, the great theatre festival whence we gain Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes.  In the theatre, you are freed from your very self.  Standing on the stage, looking out in the crowd of thousands of people, you are not Thespis anymore.  With the mask covering your face, you are an ancient hero, or a slave, or a god, or an aristocratic lady.  You can take the words of the playwright, words wrought to make people think about current affairs, words brought to bring about catharsis, and you can speak them into peoples souls from behind that mask.  And it is not Thespis speaking but another.  You, Thespis, are free, for you are not Thespis.

For us in the modern world, there is much to be liberated from.  And while Bacchus was fake at best and a demon at worst (to take the ancient Christian take on pagan gods), a bit of the Dionysian spirit should hopefully be good for us and set us free.  Freedom from inhibitions.  Freedom from feeling constrained by the necessities of life around us.  Freedom from decorum.  Freedom from lovelessness.  Freedom to be a little crazy.

To quote a non-classical source, “A little madness in the spring is healthy even for the king.” (Emily Dickinson)

*The ancient texts will serve, to some degree, a similar role to that of the Bible in Christian Liberation Theology.

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One thought on ““Bacchus who sets us free”

  1. Pingback: Whither will the blogs go? | The Wordhoard

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