When SAHMellier announced that the theme for this month’s Monthly Wine Writing Challenge is “Devotion”, after searching for the link between “Grease” and wine (if any of the other participants have found one, I salute them), I decided to go in a different direction and write about the devotion shown to Bacchus, the god of wine by his followers, the Bacchantes.
I had a very hazy idea of what this devotion, demonstrated in the ritual of Bacchanal, involved. I thought that perhaps it had something to do with consuming vast quantities of wine and waiting for divine inspiration/madness to strike. While I had experienced the (temporary) belief that my amazing (for me) prowess in an office quiz was fuelled entirely by red wine, with hindsight I may have been wrong. However, when I queried the wisdom of sitting the tasting section of a WSET exam before the written part, I was reliably informed that the wine would “liberate my mind” and enhance my performance. There may have been something in this. We started (I believe) with an amazing Pouilly-Fuissé, the lingering finish of which inspired me throughout the written paper.
As everyone who has read Donna Tartt’s wonderful novel “The Secret History” knows, staging a DIY Bacchanal is a bad idea that will most likely end in tears, blood and all-consuming guilt. However, it’s a fascinating idea; I love wine and always seek to expand my knowledge and therefore enjoyment of it, so is there something that I could learn from the Bacchantes (SPOILER ALERT!!! without accidentally disembowelling a poultry farmer)?
In the name of research I bought a book called “The story of Bacchus” by Andrew Dalby. I enjoyed this book, particularly the author’s approach to writing a biography of a mythical figure, adopting a factual, down-to-earth style, even when describing the most far-fetched events (see below).
I learnt that Bacchus is accredited with giving wine to the world. This ultimate gift resulted from a tragic accident. Bacchus’ beloved friend Ampelos was killed trying to ride a bull. Bacchus decorated Ampelos’ grave with a vine, which flowered the next day, bore fruit the following day, which were ripe the day after that. (One does wonder whether the grapes could have achieved both physiological and sugar ripeness in 3 days, but let’s go with it.) His satyrs pressed the juice and collected it in wooden cups. (The book omits to state whether the cups were made from American or French oak.) There was so much juice that not all of it got drunk immediately, and on the following day it was less sweet, but tasted “alive” and made those who drank it feel happy. And thus Bacchus gave the world the gift of wine, the source of devotion for most of you who will read these words.
So, if you would like to show your devotion to Bacchus, then you may ask “what is a Bacchanal and how do I do it?”. From what I can gather, you need:
- 1 thyrsos (stem of giant fennel – available at all good grocer’s shops.
- Oak fronds, ivy stems and branches and asphodel stems and bulbs
- A sacred casket containing models of male genitalia. (It’s a long story, but in a nutshell (!) Bacchus travelled to Hades (the underworld) to rescue his mother, Semele, who had been killed by Zeus (his father) with a thunderbolt while still pregnant with Bacchus. Zeus rescued the foetus and fashioned a womb in his own thigh, where he carried baby Bacchus until it was time for his birth. On his journey to Hades, Bacchus was assisted by an elderly man called Prosymnos, who, in exchange for his help, demanded that Bacchus promise to sleep with him on his return. By the time that Bacchus arrived back with Semele, Prosymnos had died. Bacchus was clearly a god of his word, because, determined to keep his promise, he fashioned a set of male “parts” out of wood, placed this on top of Prosymnos’ grave and sat on it.)
I did say it was a long story, but I needed to explain the rationale (if that’s the right word) of the sacred casket and contents thereof. As an aside, reading this book made me think for the first time that I had missed out by not studying Classics. These tales are all recorded by Homer, Hesiod and the like.
- To be female (men may be tempted to follow the example of Pentheus (Bacchus’ disapproving cousin), disguise yourself as a woman and join in, but do be aware that Pentheus was discovered and torn into a hundred fragments).
- (Surprisingly optional, apparently a later addition) wine. For me, it would have to be a really good Chardonnay, as it was a Puligny-Montrachet that transformed me from enthusiastic wine drinker to a true devotee of Bacchus. But that’s another story.
To sum up, trying to recreate a Bacchanal in your own back yard is potentially messy and expensive, carries a risk of extreme violence and attendant trauma, and is unlikely to endear you to your neighbours. Instead, I encourage you to show your devotion to wine by sharing a bottle with your family and friends, raising a glass to Bacchus and spreading the love.