A Very Short History of Bacchanalia & Dionysia

by Havi Rojer

I’m feeling devious / You’re looking glamorous / Let’s get mischievous / And polyamorous / Wine and women and wonderful vices / Welcome to the cult of Dionysus

“The Cult of Dionysus,” The Orion Experience

The word Bacchanalia conjures to mind drunken revelers singing and dancing in the night, often in little or no clothing. The origins of the word are the Greco-Roman Bacchanalia festivals, which celebrated Bacchus (Greek: Dionysus), the god of wine, drunkenness, revelry, and freedom. The first Bacchanalia festivals were modeled on the Grecian Dionysia, as well as the Dionysian Mysteries, a ritual to return individuals to a primordial spiritual state through alcohol and dancing. These Greek traditions arrived in Rome around 200 BC and were soon embraced by many Roman citizens. However, the Roman senate viewed these revelries as potential threats to the Empire and senatorial rule, particularly due to their individualistic and hedonistic associations, subsequently enacting legislation to curtail Bacchanalia festivals in the 2nd Century BC.

Both the short-lived Roman Bacchanalia, as well as the original Greek festivals, Dionysia, focused on celebration through dance, music, and obviously wine, as well as on the exhibition of new theatrical plays. Tragedies and comedies were performed for the enjoyment of audiences, and particular authors were chosen as winners of playwriting contests. In the 5th Century BC, in Greece, the playwright Thespis was awarded a goat as his prize. Strange as this may sound, goats were an important symbol of the god Dionysus, since he spent time as a goat when he was a child to hide him from the wrath of his father’s cuckolded wife. Therefore, Thespis’ new pet wasn’t particularly out of place. 

Traditional Greek tales recount that Athenians initially rejected the veneration of Dionysus. In vindication, the god brought a plague upon the Athenians’ male genitalia, which was likely as awful as it sounds. Once the Athenians accepted the Dionysusian cult, he cured them of this affliction, but in remembrance of this tale, many Greek revelers participated in the processions of Dionysia while holding up phallic symbols made of bronze or wood. Following these processions, the Greeks would hold choral competitions, often featuring highly competitive poets and musicians. Afterwards, they sacrificed bulls to mark the beginning of a grand feast. When the feast was over, a second procession often took place, this time involving far more drunkenness and revelry than before. 

This latter procession is likely what influences our modern-day usage of the word bacchanalia. However, it’s important to acknowledge that the festivals of Bacchanalia and Dionysia were far more than simply drinking and dancing. They were a place for everyday citizens to experience art, theatre, and culture, as well as an opportunity to connect with the intrinsic revelry and independence within each follower of Dionysus.

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