On Bacchus and the Beast

“ ‘All present, Cap’n!’ responded the mate Opheltes, leading along the shore what he thought was a prize he had won in a lonely meadow, a boy with a beautiful face like a girl’s.

Their captive appeared to be staggering and struggling behind a drowsy, drunken stupor. I looked at his dress, his face and his movements.

Nothing I saw suggested the form of a mortal creature.”

Ovid, Metamorphoses (8 CE)

I had a day recently catching up with the documentary category of BBC Iplayer, the kind of day which occurs when I have a day off but am not hungover so I can concentrate on slightly more substantial programmes. I was re-watching Bacchus Uncovered: Ancient God of Ecstasy (BBC4, 2018), the documentary in which Prof Bettany Hughes investigates the origins and subsequent influences of the ancient god of wine and revelry. Dionysus being by far my favourite god of the ancient world, I was reminded of several fascinating aspects of this deity’s character that I’d forgotten about.

Anyone else see it?

Firstly I noticed how striking the likeness is of this statue of Dionysus is to the character of Disney’s 1991 animated feature Beauty and The Beast‘s Beast, or Prince Adam if you prefer. One of my favourites of the classic Disney Princess films, my love for which has been discussed in other places, the character of Beast definitely could be modelled on images of Dionysus from the ancient world – just add some long brown hair and big blue eyes. Is it possible Dionysus was an inspiration for the Disney animators when designing the character of the Beast? Or am I just so obsessed with Dionysus and Disney that I am seeing correlations where they perhaps don’t really exist, just to please myself?

Of course, when Disney did have cause to actually portray Dionysus (in the animated film Hercules, from 1997), they did not come up with as flattering a portrayal …

Dionysus from Hercules (Walt Disney Pictures, 1997)

But who wouldn’t want two of their favourite things to be united? And thinking a bit deeper, there are reasons why Bacchus might have been a relevant influence on this fairy tale, popularised in 19th century France from which the Disney version originates. Dionysus was known for his transformative power, existing himself in a liminal space between human and god, male and female, and animal and human, regularly taking the shape of wild animals as well as androgynous beauties. His human mother Semele was burned to a crisp while carrying him, and his father, Zeus, sewed the unborn baby into his thigh to continue developing. Therefore he even changed the mighty Zeus into a maternal figure, a fact reflected in his popular title of ‘borne of two mothers’. Changing sailors into dolphins, women into trees, appearing himself as a horned bull or snake as well as an effeminate youth, his powers of bodily transformation are a physical variant of the more potent power he wields over psychic states of intoxication, ecstasy, inspiration and revelry.

Of course, there are other explanations for Dionysus’ sexy little twink appearance in ancient art and literature. Rabelais put his effeminacy down to the impotence-inducing effect of drinking too much good wine, or as Shakespeare put it, ‘it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance.’ An explanation that has been ratified by modern science, incidentally; perhaps it’s no surprise that Rabelais was so incisive as he was a doctor of medicine himself, as can be inferred from his verbose explanation of the phenomenon below.

“I mean, by wine intemperately taken, since lack of temperance produces a lowering of the blood, a slackening of the sinews, a dispersing of the generative semen, a hebetation of the senses and a subverting of locomotion, all of which are impediments to the act of generation. You do indeed find Bacchus, the god of drunkards, painted beardless, dressed in women’s attire, as being entirely effeminate, a eunuch, a gelding.”

Rabelais, The Third Book of Pantagruel (1546)

The story of King Pentheus almost suggests an inversion of Beast’s origin story, as described in Euripides’ tragic play The Bacchae, one of my favourite works of Ancient Greek literature. When Dionysus comes to visit his motherland of the city of Thebes, the Theban king Pentheus denies his divinity, insults him and imprisons him as a degenerate faker. Dionysus plays along for a while before escaping from Pentheus, and enacts his revenge by transforming Pentheus’ mother and aunts (as well as all the women of Thebes) into frenzied bacchantes who run off into the forest to take part in a Dionysian ecstatic ritual. Pentheus follows, out of curiosity, and is discovered spying on precedings. His mother, in her ecstatic trance, mistakes him for a wild beast and, along with the other crazed followers, tears the king limb from limb with their bare hands. We can just make out the familiar themes of a prince’s unwelcome reception of a supernatural being, his pride and arrogance receiving their comeuppance in a violent and bestial transformation.

The most appealing aspect of Dionysus’ myth, the reason why he is my favourite from the pantheon of ancient deities is, however, his strange vulnerability. As we can see from the examples from Ovid and Euripides above, Dionysus is quite happy to stagger around drunk, alone, in the form of an alluring youth. He lets himself be captured, passively allowing himself be led along by the sailors to their ship, or thrown into Pentheus’ jail. Based on the Ancient Greek sexual attitudes towards adolescent boys, there is a strong erotic undertone to this behaviour, some knowing exchanges, such as Dionysus’ pleading with the sailors when he has eventually sobered up. ‘Oh no, you beasts, where are you taking me? What are you going to do with a poor, lonely boy such as myself?!’ Very funny actually, seeing as he turns them all into dolphins as soon as he feels like it.

My favourite Dionysus: Alan Cumming in a gold kilt for a production of The Bacchae (National Theatre of Scotland, 2008)

Dionysus’ combination of vulnerability with homoeroticism and supernatural powers is a potent one, unique in ancient and more recent mythologies. He’s a kind of character that is very popular nowadays, as we search for alternative narratives away from the story of the patriarchal, dominating hero, towards the ‘carrier bag theory of fiction’ popularised by Ursula K. Le Guin. Stories of natural phenomena, queer eroticism, liminality, feminine power, occultism, transformations, all these are themes whose popularity proves the current cultural shift we are experiencing towards a new collective identity far away from boring and toxic patriarchal dominance.

“The theory of archetypes, which is essentially ahistorical, helps to confirm gender inevitability and to imprison male and female in stock definitions. By contrast, attitudes to the Beast are always in flux, and even provide a gauge of changing evaluations of human beings themselves, of the meaning of what it is to be human, and specifically, since the Beast has been primarily identified with the male since the story’s earliest forms, what it is to be a man.”

Marina Warner, ‘From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairytales and Their Tellers’ (1995)

Dionysus shows a way of being strong outside traditional, masculine, violent displays of power. And, like a lot of Ancient Greek culture, he resonates with a very 21st century sensibility. However, he remains morally and ethically ambiguous as all the pantheon of Ancient Greek deities remain, resisting more recent religions’ codes of right and wrong. And I think I like that best of all.

As seen in Bettany Hughes’ documentary, there are clear narrative links from Dionysus to Bacchus to elements of myths surrounding later religious figures or gods such as Jesus Christ and Shiva. So if the Ancient Greek god of wine can influence major modern religions, why shouldn’t he influence Disney as well? And if he can influence Disney, please can he continue influencing us?

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