BMCR 2004.09.13

Bacchus: A Biography

Andrew Dalby, Bacchus : a biography. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2004. 168 pages : color illustrations ; 23 cm. ISBN 0892367423 $19.99.

The Greek god, Bacchus, a familiar figure to any wine aficionado, is the subject of this intriguing book. The author, Andrew Dalby, interweaves different versions of the myths of the life of Bacchus to form a cohesive whole, painting a picture of the god’s life from its beginnings through his installation upon Mt. Olympus. The narrative is interspersed by the author’s commentary on the different versions of the myths, allowing the reader to get a sense of the scope and complexity of the ancient sources. This is a novel concept that portrays Bacchus in the guise of a real historical figure. This book is aimed at the general public and is, overall, an enjoyable read that will appeal to anyone interested in Bacchus and Greek mythology.

The book opens with color plates illustrating people and scenes that are pertinent to the life of Bacchus. Each photograph is accompanied with a descriptive caption, and the plates are referred to in the appropriate sections of the text. The color plates include photos of wall paintings and scenes painted on vases and bowls. The addition of these plates greatly enhances the book, enabling the reader to get a sense of the importance of these myths in the everyday lives of ancient Greeks.

The first chapter, “Zeus and Semele,” introduces the reader to Bacchus’ parents. It narrates the first meetings of Zeus and Semele, the conception of Bacchus and the ultimate downfall of Semele at the hands of the jealous Hera. In between these stories, the author’s commentary discusses the ancient sources that form the basis of our knowledge of these myths. The next two chapters, “The Childhood of Bacchus” and “The Adolescence of Bacchus” describe Bacchus’ youth. Here the reader meets a variety of different mythological characters including nymphs, satyrs and various gods from Mt. Olympus. These chapters relate the birth of Bacchus from his father’s thigh, his flight from his aunt Ino’s house and subsequent life with nymphs and satyrs. In addition, the story of Bacchus’ discovery of wine after the death of his best friend, Ampelos, is recounted. Chapters 4-8 are concerned with the rest of Bacchus’ life. The various ways he spread wine throughout the known world, his marriage to Ariadne, his successful rescue of his mother, Semele, from Hades and his ultimate ascension to Mt. Olympus form the core of the stories in these chapters. Along with these tales, the reader learns interesting stories of how various objects, including phallic symbols, came to be utilized by Bacchae, the followers of Bacchus, in their rituals. Throughout these chapters, the myths are interspersed by the author’s commentary. Chapter 9, “After-effects,” serves to tie together the remaining loose ends in the stories. It covers a diverse array of topics, including the myth that narrates the beginnings of the mixing of wine and water and the importance of wine to Greek society along with the wines that various regions specialized in. It emphasizes the importance of the myths of Bacchus to the lives of ancient Greeks by describing the fact that most ancient Greeks could point to assorted places in Greece that were influential in Bacchus’ life. For example, the people of Thebes believed that the house of Kadmos, the father of Semele, stood in what later became the marketplace, while people in the countryside near Argos could point out the Alkyonian Lake where Bacchus descended to the underworld to rescue his mother. The chapter ends with a discussion of the popularity of Bacchic mysteries; the celebration of the rites of Bacchus. These mysteries, with their incorporation of phallic symbols and drunkenness, both fascinated and repulsed different members of Greek society. As the author describes, in later centuries, the Roman senate attempted to ban worship of the god throughout Rome and its constituents. But Bacchus was too powerful. Ultimately, his cult spread, sometimes in modified form, throughout the Roman Empire.

The book then has two sections entitled “Life Notes” and “Sources.” “Life Notes” serves as an afterword in which the author concisely summarizes the genealogy and relationships between the Greek gods. This informative section gives the reader an overview of the major players involved in the life of Bacchus, various gods in the Greek pantheon, their functions and their interrelationships. This well-written chapter might have served a more useful purpose as a foreword to the book, which is aimed at the general public. The section titled “Sources” provides the reader with further commentary on the different available versions of the myths pertaining to Bacchus’ life. It is organized according to the chapters in the book, and the relevant myths are discussed in the appropriate sections.

The book concludes with a useful section titled “Further Reading.” This helpful chapter guides the interested reader toward books containing more detailed information on various aspects of Bacchus and his life. It is conveniently organized according to areas of interest to allow the reader to find information quickly.

This unique book synthesizes the different, surviving myths of Bacchus into a comprehensive tale. It treats Bacchus as a historical figure who once walked upon this earth. The book is an enjoyable read that is enhanced by the presence of commentary by the author. It is sure to appeal to anyone interested in Greek mythology, Bacchus and the mythical origin of wine.