A taste of Bacchus
Rachel Hendry has an exclusive
Wednesday 30 March 2022
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Dionysus, cradling a chalice in one hand, his thyrsus dripping honey in the other, sits opposite me awaiting my verdict.
“I’m, um, getting blossom?” I stutter, avoiding eye contact. “Like those fancy honeys? And I guess some form of sharper citrus? Lemon zest, maybe?”
He chuckles warmly and I look up, squinting, as features I have only ever seen cast in marble break into a mischievous grin.
“Not bad,” he says, leaning forward and swirling his glass slowly. “Mortals don’t get the full spectrum of taste, so it’s always interesting to drink alongside your palates. For example, where you taste blossom, I taste orange trees on their fourth day of flowering, when the bees swarm to their sweet nectar and the orange fruit is but a week from forming. It’s a beautiful time in our Spring.”
There are many things that I worried would highlight my mortality whilst profiling a literal Greek God—a wine tasting was not one of them.
Somehow I have found myself in a vineyard at the foot of Mount Parnassus, not far from the sacred town of Delphi, presented with the opportunity to interview Dionysus—Bacchus as he is known in Italy—ahead of this year’s harvest.
The sun burns high in the sky but its warmth seems to radiate from Dionysus himself, whose bronzed skin is draped with fur of a fawn, rippling with amber and treacle, sorrel and silver birch. The loose blonde curls framing his face are threaded with ivy; in fact, ivy weaves its way through everything he touches: grapevines are sprouting from the feet of his chair. Perhaps now I should comment on the colour of his eyes, but I have not found it in me to make contact with them just yet.
Glass after glass appears before us, materialising out of the air. A wine my eyes mistake for water, my nose for perfume and my mouth for nectar. Next a drink so sweet and so golden it could be honey, all ripe figs, crystallised cubes of ginger and crumbling toasted walnuts. Another is inky black, like running your hands over smooth leather, tobacco shared after a kiss, holding heavy silver jewellery in your hands. It’s an offering of such generosity I lose count. My notes—and my spittoon—remain untouched.
About four wines in, I notice that instead of taking his wine diluted with water, as is custom, Dionysus has been drinking his neat—“as the God of Wine intended,” he smirks.
“You view wine as if it is a vocation,” I comment, grasping the opportunity to latch onto reality.
“That’s because it is,” Dionysus states matter of factly. “Wine is essential. It is a release from routine, an encouragement of harmony between the rational and the irrational. Wine is joy, is truth, it is the very essence of life. And it has been reduced to religious ritual for far too long. I view it as my divine purpose to preach the prioritisation of pleasure. And pleasure begins and ends with wine”
“For wine moistens and tempers the spirit and lulls the cares of the mind to rest. It revives our joys and is oil to the dying flame of life,” I murmur, reciting a quote from Socrates I’d come across in my research.
“It may be Socrates that is given the credit, but it is I that spoke those words to him in the first place,” he retorts, reading my mind.
“And I suppose you take credit for the harvest as well?” I ask, becoming defensive in my embarrassment.
“Not at all. Harvest is a combination of the work of the vine and the work of man.” A slow, thoughtful smile forms. “Of course part of that work is the worship of myself, the God of Harvest. If that work is not done then there will simply be no fruit for me to take credit for.”
I cannot argue with that.
* * *
The birth of Dionysus is what can only be described, somewhat tongue in cheek, as the stuff of legends. His father is the God almighty Zeus and his mother—despite Zeus’ marriage to Goddess Hera—was Semele, a Theban Princess whose life was fated to take a tragic turn for the worst. Upon discovering her husband’s dalliance, Hera took it upon herself to persuade Semele that Zeus was no God at all, but a mere mortal in corrupt disguise. In order to put her anxieties at ease Semele asked Zeus for a favour, one he was bound to keep, to appear to her in his full divinity. The favour was granted; Semele was incinerated on the spot.
Zeus, failing to save Semele, did manage to save their unborn child, placing them in his thigh. Nine months later Dionysus was born and he was taken to the Nysean Nymphs to be raised.
Now Dionysus is an established God in his own right, with a beatific reputation that precedes him. Known also as Dendrites (Tree God), Anthios (Bloom Producing) and Karpios (Bringer of Fruit), Dionysus started out as a God of liquid life, responsible for the life sustaining fluids we have been gifted on earth through plants. A gift he’s not going to let us forget anytime soon.
It is at this point I should introduce you to the concept of a Bacchante, or a Maenad, should this be a concept with which you are unfamiliar.
All Gods require reverence and celebration from their mortals and Bacchus is no different. A Bacchante is the term for a female worshipper of Bacchus. A literal translation of Maenad means “raving one”. Congregations in the name of Dionysus are known for taking themselves to the wilderness of the mountains in order to dance, to consume Bacchus through his wine, to reach a full, ecstatic frenzy. It is not uncommon for small or young animals to be seized and consumed during these gatherings, their blood viewed as an incarnation of Dionysus, their bodies a sacrifice.
* * *
“And you’re comfortable with this level of devotion?” I ask him, tentatively, feeling more confident now the wine is well and truly flowing through my veins.
“I’m a God. My very presence demands it,” he answers, eyes alight with a burning fire, narrowing in my direction. “Besides, it is very rare in our society that women are allowed freedom in their routine, let alone a worship that verges on the hedonistic. I am not just comfortable with the encouragement of ecstasy, I am proud of it.”
He’s right. Part of Dionysus’s popularity today is down to the democracy of his deity. As far as he is concerned everyone is equal, regardless of gender, age, race and occupation—a rarity in religion. Women especially, so often excluded from ritual and from revelry, are actively incited in their veneration of him.
“I just can’t imagine myself letting go to such an extreme extent,” I admit, jealousy tainting my words. “It seems like lunacy to me.”
“A little lunacy now and then didn’t do anyone any harm,” Dionysus replies. “Yes wine is libation, but it is also liberation. Why does service have to mean sacrifice? I want people to engage with me, not just serve me. To experience pleasure as part of protocol, to know that one does not require the absence of another.
“I am a firm believer that excess and abundance should form part of worship. That release in the form of complete abandonment of the taught, societal self is the closest man can get to divinity. If lunacy means freeing yourself from the shackles of shame and restraint then so be it.”
“That’s easy for you to say,” I protest, “Not all of us are capable of such things.”
“I think you are capable of experiencing more joy in this life than you can possibly imagine,” He says, his voice turning hypnotic in its depth.
“There’s going to be a gathering later this evening,” he continues. “You should join us.”
I pause, aware I am in danger of not just blurring my professional boundaries, but obliterating them completely.
“No amount of bacchic celebration can taint a virtuous woman,” he responds, eyes glistening with mischief. “You have nothing to be scared of here.”
I drain my glass in resignation.
* * *
The next morning I wake in my own bed, no recollection of how I got there. There is ivy in my hair, a throbbing in my head and—somewhat disturbingly—dried blood garnishing my fingernails. Next to me lies a note.
In vino veritas it reads.
In wine, there is truth.
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