Sometimes it’s hard to be a god. Dionysus, a veteran of at least four thousand years of worship, knows better than most. In his heyday he was the wine god of classical Greece with a broader portfolio encompassing fertility and vegetation. He is said to have revealed the secret of winemaking to the peasant Icarus who was then beaten to death with clubs by a group of sloshed shepherds who thought the intoxicating drink had poisoned them. “There’s no such thing as a free lunch, especially with a god” says Dionysus with a twinkle in his youthful eye.
A true Olympian, Dionysus boasts an impeccable pedigree. His father was Zeus. (“Whose father wasn’t Zeus in those days?” quips the grape god.) His mother Semele was the daughter of the man who founded Thebes and brought the alphabet to Greece. Semele was Zeus’ mistress until his wife Hera talked the lustful god into appearing to his inamorata “in his full glory…” The mere sight of said glory blew her to bits, but not before she bore Dionysus.
In classical Greek times and probably earlier Dionysus’ female followers carried out mysterious secret rites by moonlight in the mountains well away from public view. Adherents in Rome several centuries later staged Bacchanalia—wild celebrations in honour of the god, whom they called Bacchus.
“The trouble with Romans is that they partied pretty much the same way they did everything else, like destroying civilizations and generally conquering the known world: hot blood, no impulse control—you know the story. With all that orgy-schmorgy stuff going on nobody even took the trouble to get drunk for its own sake. Those Latin lunatics served up enough steaming depravity to keep every pervert in the Empire happy and every sheep nervous. It had to end. Eventually the authorities decided I was too dangerous to play a role in the official religion of Rome and declared the flesh fests illegal. I’ve had nothing but bad press since, for the crime of being popular with a rough crowd!”
Over the years western culture added insult to injury by portraying Dionysus as a chubby innocuous character swaying tipsily on the back of a donkey, the eunuchoid Disney-Bacchus of “Fantasia.” Dionysus resents the loss of his former glory and once thriving cult.
“No one remembers my boyish good looks any more, let alone my grand exploits. Look at the way I used to smite my enemies. Take Lycurgus of Thrace or the daughters of Minyas in Orchomenus, or Proteus in Argos. And how about those Lydian pirates and that weasel Pentheus of Thebes? Not a pussycat in the bunch, I guarantee you! It takes god power to give bastards like them a good smite, but I had it and I creamed ‘em.”
Dionysus reflects further on his ancient triumphs. “Some of them I drove mad by turning their own animal natures against them. Neat trick, I thought. Other times I just let the maenads have a go at them. They were a handful, those maenads. Followed me everywhere. Folks thought they were drunk but they never touched a drop. The girls were simply bug-house nuts, always in a tumult—perpetually premenstrual as you’d say to day. They’d tear you to pieces and eat you raw as soon as look at you. Spargamos, they called it, or sometimes omophagia, as if fancy names mean it didn’t make everyone else sick. Those maenads would give your Hannibal Lecter a run for his money any day. They just wouldn’t have any of that nice Chianti.”
Dionysus admits that bad company has contributed to two thousand years of image problems, but he has no regrets. “The maenads were the Rottweiler-Canary Island Cattle dog cross of their day. I needed them for security. Besides, they could be diverting company.”
The wine god is equally frank about his well-known association with satyrs, creatures of ill repute who were mostly human above and all goat from the waist down. “They were a great bunch of guys. I was tutored by Silenus, the oldest satyr. Sure he was an unregenerate nymph-chaser, but what do you expect from a guy equipped with a functioning set of goat parts? The nymphs used to say he drank as much as he did so he could get unconscious for a while and give them a rest. And there was more to him than genital juxtaposition. He could prophecy the future if you caught him at the right moment after he passed out.”
At this point in the interview the creator of wine reached inside his robes and withdrew a huge Burgundy balloon containing a beautiful damson-garnet wine. He swirled, sniffed, smiled and handed me the glass. The bouquet was heavenly, complex and deep with every-changing aromas of violets, sandalwood, cherries, strawberries, plums, toasted coffee bean and wet forest floor. He gazed at me intently as my eyes glazed over.
“Have a swallow. It’s Le Musigny 1815. I know. It’s incredibly fresh, just ready in fact. How do I do it? The perfect cellar, in caves under Olympus. Godship has its privileges. I love to guess people’s favourite wine and pour them a glass. I don’t care if it’s Very Berry Ripple or Yquem from the comet vintage. See, that glass in your hand is more important than my disreputable old crowd or those Roman orgies. My really important job is wine, with a sideline in flora, fauna and the arts. I work 24/7 to free you from the suffocation of Apollonianism, the tyranny of reason and the oppression of personal identity. To those in authority I’m a dangerous subversive.
“I preach moderation in everything, including moderation. I strive against reason, calm and order for the people. Your hippies and Zen Buddhists had the right idea, but the hippies got too messed up with all those chemicals and the Zensters wouldn’t have a drink to save their lives. Your animal side, including your hunger to fuse with your fellows in a warm fuzzy could, is the key to being free. And human. Repress it like those Apollonian compulsives or turn it into a triple-X grunt-a-thon like the Romans and you spoil a beautiful thing. Badda-bing, badda-boom.”
Dionysus regards the classical Greeks as his truest followers. “My personal idea of a good time is Anthesteria. My people in what you call Asia Minor and Athens would mount that celebration every spring to commemorate the first tasting of the wines made the previous autumn. It was like a cross between the arrival of your Beaujolais Nouveau and Superbowl Sunday. We ate, we drank, we talked, we walked in processions, we listened to good music, we saw some good theatre—now that was a party! It symbolized my return to life—see, I die every winter and come back in the spring, like a vine. The rest of the year, my Greeks poured libations to me on any and every special occasion and drank wine just to stay alive. Wine was bigger then than Coca Cola is now. It was a good time to be a wine god.”
We may not be his classical Greeks, but Dionysus insists that “there’s never been a better time than now to accept my gift to you. That Icarus got the word out and now there’s an ocean of wine in your world. Go for a sail. God knows—that is, I know—your generation needs the joy of wine to ease its abundant sorrows.”