God of Wine

Already the last month of 2016! Are you looking forward to celebration drinks on Christmas and the New Year? Here is God of Wine, Dionysus or Bacchus. Enjoy!


 

Dionysus and grape vine

Kylix (Drinking cup) showing Dionysus on a boat across the wine dark sea, Attic. Circa 530 BC/BCE by Exekias. State Collections of Antiquities, Munich, Germany. ©Ronald Sheridan/Ancient Art & Architecture Collection

Kylix (Drinking cup) showing Dionysus on a boat across the wine dark sea, Attic. Circa 530 BC/BCE by Exekias. State Collections of Antiquities, Munich, Germany.
©Ronald Sheridan/Ancient Art & Architecture Collection

It is always inadvisable to array any of the Greek gods, and Dionysus is perhaps one of the most dangerous of them all. Legend tells that as a youth he was drinking wine on the beach of the island of Chios, when a pirate ship sailed in. The pirates, seeing his extraordinary beauty, calculated that they could get a rich ransom for him, so they snatched him and sailed away. Before long they realised, too late, what a mistake they had made. The wind dropped, the woodwork of the ship began to turn into grape vines and wild beasts appeared around their captive. Driven mad with fear, the pirates leapt overboard and turned into dolphins, while the god sailed serenely on to his destination.


 

Dionysus on mosaic floor

Mosaic floor showing head of Dionysus set in a pattern of triangles. From Roman villa. Corinth. Circa 2nd cent . AD/CE. Corinth, Archaeological Museum of Ancient Corinth, Greece ©Ronald Sheridan/Ancient Art & Architecture Collection

Mosaic floor showing head of Dionysus set in a pattern of triangles. From Roman villa. Corinth. Circa 2nd cent . AD/CE.
Corinth, Archaeological Museum of Ancient Corinth, Greece
©Ronald Sheridan/Ancient Art & Architecture Collection

The gods of the Greek and Roman world are, above all, wish-fulfilment figures, so they are seen as immortal, beautiful and powerful. Artists of a later age often seem to make the mistake of confusing Dionysus with his attendant and childhood tutor Silenus, who follows in the god’s wild company riding on a donkey and sporting a horse’s ears and tail. No Greek or Roman, however, would wish to be old, fat, bald, ugly and ridiculous, and the Roman artist who created the mosaic floor of a villa in Corinth clearly knew better than to depict the god as anything but totally desirable, young and beautiful.


 

Maenad and thyrsus staff

Kylix (Drinking cup) showing Maenad carrying a thyrsus staff and a leopard. Brygos Painter, Circa 490 BC/BCE. Attic white ground. From Vulci. State Collections of Antiquities, Munich, Germany. ©Ronald Sheridan/Ancient Art & Architecture Collection

Kylix (Drinking cup) showing Maenad carrying a thyrsus staff and a leopard. Brygos Painter, Circa 490 BC/BCE. Attic white ground. From Vulci. State Collections of Antiquities, Munich, Germany.
©Ronald Sheridan/Ancient Art & Architecture Collection

There is a tendency to see Dionysus as simply the god of wine, but this is only one side of a far more complex aspect of his power. The Greeks tried to conduct their lives on rational principles, but they were wise enough to recognise that beneath the inhibitions imposed by civilised society lies a much more dangerous force that must be understood and which, if denied and repressed too rigidly, may break out with great violence. The wild Maenads who follow the god wearing animal skins and snakes and carrying rods wreathed with ivy are capable of supernatural strength, and opposition to them can have fatal consequences.


 

Dionysus holding wine cup

Dionysus holding a wine cup. Black figure Greek vase painting. Greece ©Ronald Sheridan/Ancient Art & Architecture Collection

Dionysus holding a wine cup. Black figure Greek vase painting. Greece
©Ronald Sheridan/Ancient Art & Architecture Collection

The god Dionysus is shown here as a mature, bearded figure, seated on an elegant folding stool and holding a horn drinking cup of wine. He is executed in the black-figure style, where the figure is painted in black-firing slip with the details carried out by using a sharp point to scratch through the slip to the natural body colour of the vase. Dionysus is appropriately framed in stylised tendrils of vine, and shown crowned with a wreath of ivy, which had many associations with the god. His attendant Maenads often carry rods topped with fir-cones and bound with ivy, and human drinkers are sometimes shown wearing ivy wreaths in the belief that this was a specific against drunkenness. There is, however, a good deal of undeniable evidence that it didn’t work.