Bacchus, Roman God of Wine and Fertility

Bacchus Mosaic
Bacchus is portrayed in this mosaic from the Roman Empire, from Tunisia.

S. Vannini / De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images

Bacchus was a Roman agricultural god who was associated with the harvest — particularly that of grapevines. The son of Jupiter by a human woman, Bacchus was said to wander the world educating people about the delightful wines that could be made from grapes.

Did You Know?

The word bacchanalia comes from Bacchus, and the wild parties thrown in his honor.

According to legend, Bacchus traveled the earth teaching people how to make wine, and is credited with spreading grapevine cuttings around the world.

Secret rituals for women only were held in Bacchus' honor during the ancient Roman period.

Much like his Greek counterpart Dionysus, Bacchus earned the title of party god. In fact, a drunken orgy is still called a bacchanalia, and for good reason. Devotees of Bacchus whipped themselves into a frenzy of intoxication, and in the spring Roman women attended secret ceremonies in his name. Bacchus was associated with fertility, wine and grapes, as well as sexual free-for-alls. Although Bacchus is often linked with Beltane and the greening of spring, because of his connection to wine and grapes he is also a deity of the harvest. A celebration is held in his honor each year at the beginning of October.

Bacchus is often portrayed crowed with vines or ivy. His chariot is drawn by lions, and he is followed by a group of nubile, frenzied priestesses known as Bacchae. Sacrifices to Bacchus included the goat and the swine, because both of these animals are destructive to the annual grape harvest — without grapes, there can be no wine.

Bacchus has a divine mission, and that is his role of liberator. During his drunken frenzies, Bacchus loosens the tongues of those who partake of wine and other beverages, and allows people the freedom to say and do what they wish. In mid-March, secret rituals were held on Rome's Aventine hill to worship him. These rites were attended by women only, and were part of a mystery religion built up around Bacchus.

In addition to being the patron of wine and drink, Bacchus is a god of the theatrical arts. In his earlier incarnation as the Greek Dionysus, he had a theater named for him in Athens. He is often portrayed as a slightly effeminate figure, prone to good humor and general bawdiness.

Vineyard at harvest time
Mypurgatoryyears / Getty Images

Bacchus in Mythology

In classical mythology, Bacchus is the son of Jupiter and Semele. However, he was raised by nymphs after Semele burned to ashes, overwhelmed by the splendor of Jupiter in his true form. Once he grew up, Bacchus wandered the earth learning about the culture of the vine and the mysteries of winemaking. He studied the religious rites of the goddess Rhea, and began sharing the good news far and wide. When Bacchus returned home from his adventures, the king was none too pleased with his shenanigans, and ordered him put to death.

Bacchus tried to talk his way out of execution by spinning a fanciful yarn in which he claimed to be a fisherman, but the king wasn't having any of it. However, before the death sentence could be carried out, the prison doors sprung open of their own accord, Bacchus vanished, and his worshipers threw a huge party in his honor.

Bacchus is mentioned in Longfellow's Drinking Song as the leader of a drunken, debauched parade:

Fauns with youthful Bacchus follow,
Ivy crowns the brow, supernal
as the forehead of Apollo,
and possessing youth eternal.

Round about him, fair Bacchantes,
Bearing cymbals, flutes, and thyrses,
Wild from Naxian groves, or Zante's
Vineyards, sing delirious verses.

He also appears in the writings of Milton, in the story of Circe:

Bacchus that first from out the purple grapes
crushed the sweet poison of misused wine,
after the Tuscan mariners transformed,
Coasting the Tyrrhene shore as the winds listed
on Circe's island fell (who knows not Circe,
The daughter of the Sun? Whose charmed cup
Whoever tasted lost his upright shape,
and downward fell into a grovelling swine).

In his Greek incarnation as Dionysus, he appears in a number of myths and legends. Represented by grapevines and a drinking cup, Dionysus taught mankind the art of winemaking. Pseudo-Apollonius warns of the dangers of overindulgence, and says in Bibliotheca, "

Icarius received Dionysos, who gave him a vinecutting and taught him the art of making wine. Icarius was eager to share the god's kindness with mankind, so he went to some shepherds, who, when they had tasted the drink and then delightedly and recklessly gulped it down undiluted, thought they had been poisoned and slew Icarius. But in the daylight they regained their senses and buried him."

While slaying one's host is considered bad form today, you can certainly celebrate Bacchus in his guise as a god of vine and wine — just be sure to do so responsibly!