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Tidings of comfort and joy

25 October 2003

12:00 AM

25 October 2003

12:00 AM

Bacchus: A Biography Andrew Dalby

The British Museum Press, pp.166, 14.99

He was born to a virgin honoured with the attentions of the most high god. He assumed human form and gathered disciples around him who were derided for their adoration. Having performed a variety of miracles and made a journey to the underworld, he ascended to heaven, where he joined his father, president of the immortals, as the latest manifestation of personified divinity. In some versions of the story he took his mother with him.

Was it embarrassment at the uncanny similarities between the myth of Dionysus (a.k.a. Bacchus) and the life of Jesus which caused early Christian writers to anathematise the cult of the pagan deity so vigorously? In Bacchus: A Biography Andrew Dalby eschews such vulgar parallels, but it is hard for us to avoid them in tracing the often nail-biting outlines of the wine-god’s career. In its earliest phase there was even a sort of ‘Flight into Egypt’, as the infuriated Hera sought to find and destroy the child, fruit of a liaison between her serial love-rat husband Zeus and the Theban princess Semele.

Fantasies of seeing herself enthroned on Mount Olympus had encouraged Semele to demand that her lover appear to her in his full panoply as a god. Not surprisingly, his lightening when he did so burned her to ashes, but he managed to rip their unborn child from her womb, hid it inside his thigh, then consigned it for safekeeping to Hermes, who chose seven nymphs as its guardians on Mount Nysa. The infant Bacchus had some exotic playmates, including a race of centaurs known as the Pheres, and the goat-footed, vagabond satyrs, led by Silenus, who became a sort of Falstaff to the god’s Prince Hal. Though brought up in a female household and often sporting women’s attire, the youth was what is nowadays called ‘a red-blooded heterosexual’, doing blokeish things like hunting deer and harnessing panthers to his chariot, while gathering round him a throng of groupies, the Maenads (their name means ‘women who have gone mad’) whose all-night parties echoed to whoops of ‘Iobacchos!’

There was no question of him settling down. His whole raison d’

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