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BACCHUS: A Biography

By Andrew Dalby, published by The British Museum Press at £14.99. HBk. 166pp. ISBN: 0-7141-2242-4

There was a time not so long ago when the average pagan probably wouldn't need a book such as this because reading the Greek and Roman myths was just the done thing. Then the Celts came along and it all went to pot. Fortunately the British Museum is seeking to redress the balance somewhat by publishing a series of biographies of classical deities starting with the present volume.

Bacchus, or Dionysus to the Greeks, is to the average pagan more obscure than most other classical deities, which seems a pity given the pagan penchant for a good piss-up, but there you go.

Anyway, this is a biography. It is exactly what it says on the cover. Dalby has collected all the various myths and tales about Bacchus's various "life stages" from the writings of a wide variety of classical writers and from all over the Greek world and attempted to create a coherent narrative, a This is Your Life, from them. All of this while teasing apart the contradictory accounts which have come down to us relating to the birth, childhood, adolescence and maturity of this most ambiguous of deities.

And a strange chap he was, at least the Romans and Greeks thought so. Having had his mother burned to death by his father before his birth, his first foster mother rescued from his step-father by Poseidon and the rest of his childhood spent dressed as a girl and dodging the vengeful Hera in the care of a group of nymphs in a remote hideaway on Mt Nysa with only the odd visiting satyr to provide a dubious role model, is it any wonder he grew up playing with girls and, well, generally being strange?

The myths tell that in his adolescence he explored eastwards to India and Arabia where his worship was established as he passed; wrestled with Pallene, the daughter of king Sithon, and won her hand in marriage; was attacked by sailors who attempted to bind him and sell him into slavery; and seduced Ariadne and eventually married her as well, all while roaming with his faithful supporters and companions. Again, Dalby is at pains to disentangle the varying, often contradictory, versions and present a coherent narrative while flagging up the discontinuities and disagreements.

Above all else, Bacchus is associated with wine and its attendant revelry; indeed he is credited with the discovery of the drink and therefore of intoxication, which he shared with mortals. For that, no doubt, he has our eternal gratitude. More darkly, his revels and those of his followers have been associated since ancient times with violent and unrestrained debauchery. In particular he has been credited (if that is the right word) with driving his female followers to acts of madness, butchery and riot and with exacting a terrible vengeance on those who reject his call to his festivals and celebrations. All work and no play makes for one very pissed-off god.

Dalby has done a highly entertaining job with the myriad of conflicting accounts, many of them from satirical and flippant sources and discussing and clarifying the contradictory claims of this author and that version of the myth. We don't know where Mt Nysa was, but everyone had a theory about that; just as everyone knew (but couldn't agree) exactly what happened to his unfortunate first foster-mother. This is an easy and enthralling read and is warmly recommended for anyone remotely interested in this sort of thing.