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Ancient and modern

Ancient and Modern

A classicist draws on ancient wisdom to illuminate contemporary follies

6 September 2003

12:00 AM

6 September 2003

12:00 AM

The pop singer Sir Mick Jagger thinks that the Greek god whom he most resembles is Dionysus. Oh dear! One wonders if Dionysus will be pleased when he discovers that the national treasure on earth whose voice keeps giving up (bless) has likened himself to the terrifying god of transformation on Olympus.

Dionysus had the cult-name Bakkhos, whence Latin Bacchus. He has four areas of interest. First and foremost he is god of wine and intoxication, though neither he nor his followers (maenads or bacchants) are ever depicted drinking (sorry, Sir Mick). This is because he was, second, god of ecstasy (mania), and no artificial stimulants are needed to experience that when the god is inside you (even sorrier). A feature of Dionysiac ecstasy is the tearing apart and consumption raw of living animals (yes, Sir Mick?); and his ubiquitous festivals feature revelry, cross-dressing, violence and obscenity, though Dionysus is never depicted with an erection (shurely shome mishtake there, Sir Mick). Third, he is god of the mask, and hence of thetheatre, both comic and tragic. Finally, Dionysus has powerful associations with death. He is linked with Orpheus, who sang his way into the underworld in an attempt to bring back his wife Eurydice, after which maenads tore him apart (an ‘Orphic’ bone has been found inscribed ‘Life


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