Who was Dionysus?
Dionysus, or Bacchus to the Romans, was the son of Zeus and the mortal Semele. A pregnant Semele begged Zeus to reveal his true form to her – mortals, however, could not look upon the undisguised form of a god without dying – and so she perished when he eventually relented. Zeus rescued his unborn son by sewing him into his thigh, and released the fully-grown baby from his leg a few months later.
Dionysus crops up with a remarkable frequency in ancient art, and this is likely on account of the god’s manifold significance. He is perhaps best-known for being the god of wine, but there were several other areas worthy of note which were within his domain – theatre, fertility, and crucially, release (often in the form of ritual madness). Indeed, in Euripides’ Bacchae, a text that centres around the worship of Dionysus, he is described both as ‘Bromius’ (he who roars) and ‘Lysius’ (he who lets go). To the Greeks, and indeed to many more recent artists like Cy Twombly, Dionysus was characterised by the innately human desire for total release and a complete abandonment of the self – the type that could be achieved only through giving oneself over entirely to the god in a ritual known as the Bacchanal.
The Raging Maenads & the Cult of Dionysus
There were a number of secret cults dedicated to the worship of Dionysus – as is often the case for such things, their existence is well-documented, but any record of their activities is virtually nil. What we can discern from the literary and documentary record is that there was one cult, consisting only of women, who allegedly tore apart live animals and ate their flesh raw, so maddened were they in their worship of the god. These female followers of Dionysus were known as ‘Maenads’, and a common trope in ancient literature is to compare a raging or furious woman (such as Dido or Medea) to a Bacchant or a Maenad. The rites of the Bacchic cult have fascinated authors, historians and artists for centuries – from Euripides’ Bacchae, written in the 5th Century BC to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History first published in 1992.
One of the ancient artistic media on which we most often see Dionysus is, somewhat unsurprisingly, on cups designed for drinking wine. This is a playful touch from the artist – it refers obviously to the god and his significance within this bibulous context, but also bears the extra undertone of warning – the potential madness that could result from excessive drinking and merriment. This artistic tradition is alluded to in our Attic Black-Figure kylix (AS-3594) and our Roman bronze patera handle on which we can see Bacchus (ES-19174) – an appropriate god to have chosen in the context of a wine offering.