Bacchus is an ancient Roman god, synonymous with the Greek Dionysus. He is typically shown as the god of harvest, grapes, fertility and theater. Some darker traditions associate the god with madness, possibly due to his association with wine drinking and the resulting drunkenness.
In mythology, the god is believed to be the son of Jupiter, king of the gods, and the mortal woman Semele. Juno, the wife of Jupiter, was jealous over her husband’s affair, and convinced Semele to ask Jupiter to display himself in his true, godly form to prove who he was. Unfortunately, as a mortal, she could not bear the sight and died upon seeing him. Jupiter took the as yet-unborn Bacchus and sewed him onto his own thigh, thus leading the harvest god to be called twice born.
In his youth, the god is believed to have discovered grape vines and began the cultivation of wine. Some stories suggest that Juno, still jealous of his existence, drove him mad and sent him wandering throughout the world until he was cured. Despite this, a myth exists that when Vulcan, the god of the forge, bound Juno to a magical chair Bacchus got Vulcan drunk and managed to rescue the goddess.
The god is believed to have been extremely attractive and to have had many romantic encounters with mortals, other gods, and occasionally part-humans such as satyrs and nymphs. In ancient Rome, Bacchus’ passionate impulses, as well as his association with wine and revelry, were celebrated at secret festivals called Bacchanalia. The word has since evolved to incorporate any drunken celebration, as the spiritual elements of the festivals have long been discontinued.
The god is said to have developed both from the Greek deity Dionysus and from an early Roman god called Liber. This older god was also a patron of the harvest, and worshipped as a part of rites-of-passage for young men. Bacchus and Liber have similar symbols, including grapes, ivy, and leopards.
Theologians believe that Bacchian and Dionysian rituals had a heavy influence on early Christianity. Some suggest that the story of Jesus turning wine to water is a clear parallel to the Roman deity. Other theories draw parallels between Bacchus’ association with wine and food and the story of the last supper, where the “blood” of Jesus was symbolized by wine.
The god is frequently portrayed in literature and film. One of the earliest portrayals is in the ancient Greek play The Frogs by Aristophanes. In the Pastoral Symphony section of Disney’s Fantasia, Bacchus is portrayed as an obese, tipsy, and lusty buffoon with a very small donkey as a companion. The film also shows that he is considerably closer to mortals than the gods, a common theme in stories relating to him. He also appears in a Disney TV show, based on the movie Hercules, as a similar character.
In popular culture, Bacchus is sometimes called the “god of college students,” or the “god of teenagers,” with assumption toward age group preferences for drinking and parties. However the deity was first and foremost a symbol of harvest, bounty and new life. Today, theater and dance festivals are occasionally dedicated to him, and modern wineries also sometimes portray him as part of their labels and logo.