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The Roman god Bacchus

The Roman god Bacchus as a Christian icon

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Before the acceptance of Christianity, Roman polytheism was dominant in the western world.  Rome's borders extended as far west as Britain and as far east as modern day Greece and Turkey.  To help ease the transition to Christianity, the Christians cleverly chose to disguise Jesus in such a way as to hide him from the pagans, blending him into the existing society.  By likening his imagery to an already existing Roman god, Christianity found a foothold in the Empire while also protecting its followers from religious treason.  Bacchus, the Roman god of wine and ecstasy, was the Christians' iconographic choice.

Bacchus was the Greco-Roman god associated with mental and physical duality.  His mythology began in Greece, under the name Dionysus, a foreign god joining an already existing civilization (Dionysus and Bacchus are comparable deities, but for the purpose of this article, "Bacchus" will be utilized to discuss the pagan god to avoid confusion).

In Euripides' Bacchae, Bacchus came to Greece from a far off land and shook up the Thracian king with his new religious practices and effeminate ways.  The Bacchanalia, a procession of satyrs and overly drunken women, led to the king's disapproval of Bacchus' religion, eventually resulting in the death of the Thracian king.  Though this particular myth is vastly different from the stories of Jesus, there are similar visual themes the Christians expertly borrowed in their symbolic portrayal of Jesus to aid the Romans in accepting the new religion, allowing it to eventually become the primary faith of the empire.

Bacchus

Bacchus, by Simeon Solomon. c. 1867 ( Image Source )

On the surface, the similarities between Bacchus and Jesus are easily evident.  Both gods are first depicted as youthful and feminine.  Bacchus is intended to be androgynous, with long flowing hair and a soft face.  Jesus, however, is in part portrayed young to reveal his innocence, highlighting his purity.  In numerous catacombs in the city of Rome, there are images of the young Jesus as the Good Shepherd, the protector of the lambs of God—the human race.  These early depictions in the catacombs reveal a young—but adult—shepherd, holding a lamb either in his arms or by his side.    

As time goes on, both Bacchus and Jesus begin to age—they start to look more like adult men as their beards grow and their bodies become more muscular, as depicted in ancient artworks.  Both exhibit these older attributes after their particular religious sects have been respected for years.  As Bacchus and Jesus were both new characters in the eyes of the Romans—Bacchus was new to the Greco-Roman pantheon comparatively, and Jesus was the son of the new Christian God—their depictions both began as the youth of the religions, the babes of two very different faiths.  Thus, when their images begin to age, it is symbolic of their wisdom and knowledge as deities, and the admiration they had gained from their followers.

There is also an important similarity between these two figures in that their early imagery reveals that their faiths were initially targeted toward women in the beginning of their worships.  Men were the religious leaders of both societies, and women were commonly ignored or pushed to the side.  To gain a position within the Roman culture, both Bacchus and Jesus had to show a value for women, giving them a voice in the male-dominated world.  The primary worshippers of Bacchus were the Maenads, women who reached a heightened level of ecstasy through excessive drinking.  According to Greco-Roman thought, the drinking allowed the women (and the few men who participated) to achieve a spiritual release they were otherwise not allowed because of the norms of their society.  Religious worship, however, temporarily exempted them from these rules. 

The Bacchanalia

The Bacchanalia: Bacchanal before a Statue of Pan, 1631 – 1633, Nicolas Poussin ( Public Domain )

Similarly, Jesus showed an interest in women by taking the time to heal those who otherwise were ignored and exiled.  One of the images found in the catacombs relates to the Woman with the Issue of Blood who was cleansed by Jesus after reaching for his robe, her faith in his power alone healing her.  According to the Biblical account, the first person to see Jesus after his resurrection was a woman, Mary Magdalene, who herself travelled with the twelve apostles.  Both Bacchus and Jesus emphasized the importance of women early in their mythologies by providing women with the attention they desired from their deities right away.  By focusing on women, a large faction of supporters rose around both men quickly, the power of the forgotten ones.  This was a very strong image in both Greco-Roman and early Christian culture, and both were commonly depicted with women in their art.

Christ healing a bleeding woman

Christ healing a bleeding woman, as depicted in the Catacombs of Rome. ( Public Domain )

Finally, one of the most pertinent (and evident) artistic similarities between Bacchus and Jesus of Nazareth is their affiliation with wine.  Bacchus' association is most apparent since the primary part of his Bacchanalia is the heavy drinking that elevates the minds of the participants.  In many Greco-Roman depictions of this procession, women are shown heavily drinking with the satyrs—half men and half-goats—nearly falling off their donkeys as they ride through the procession. Jesus, however, is associated with wine in a much more formal manner.  In his art, there are numerous references to the Eucharist, the spiritual and sometimes physical transformation of his blood into wine, and his flesh into bread.  This remains a primary focus of Catholic religious practices.  This is most often depicted in early Christian art as the Last Supper, the final feast before his death, which implies the importance of wine to his followers, just as it was important to those of Bacchus.

Jesus transforms water into wine

Jesus transforms water into wine. Detail of The Marriage at Cana by Marten de Vos , c. 1596 ( Public Domain )

The purpose of these correlations between Bacchus and Jesus is not to claim they were the same being or that one was designed in the other's image.  Bacchus remains one of the foremost young gods of the Greco-Roman religion, and Jesus remains the focus of the Christian faith.  The purpose of revealing the artistic resemblances between a pagan god and the son of the Christian God is to show one of the ways in which Christianity came to be accepted two thousand years ago.  In spite of the existing religions, Christianity became one of the three primary religions worldwide, which was made possible because such visual similarities allowed the ancient Christians to hide their new faith from the Romans, thus protecting it from total destruction. 

Featured image: Triumph of Bacchus, oil on canvas by Ciro Ferri, 17th century. Image Source.

By Ryan Stone

Bibliography

Euripides. The Bacchae (Focus Publishing, Massachusetts, 1998.)

Ferguson, George. Signs and Symbols in Christian Art: With Illustrations from Paintings from the Renaissance (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1966.)

Freke, Timothy and Peter Gandy. The Jesus Mysteries: Was the "Original Jesus" a Pagan God? (Harmony Books, New York, 2001.)

Hamilton, Edith. Mythology (Warner Books: New York, 1969.)

Henig, Martin. A Handbook of Roman Art: A comprehensive survey of all the arts of the Roman world (Cornell University Press: New York, 1983.)

Jensen, Robert M. Understanding Early Christian Art (Routledge, Kentucky, 2000.)

Mathews, Thomas. The Clash of Gods: A Reinterpretation of Early Christian Art (Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1995.)

Rodgers, Nigel. Life in Ancient Rome People and Places (Hermes House: London, 2006.)

Schiller, Gertrud. Iconography of Christian art (Volume 1) (New York Graphic Society, New York, 1971.)

Comments

angieblackmon's picture

This part gets me, right off the bat...

"To help ease the transition to Christianity, the Christians cleverly chose to disguise Jesus in such a way as to hide him from the pagans, blending him into the existing society."

Um, maybe everyone was just fine doing their own thing with their own religion...and "cleverly" and "disguise" no....that's lying. 

Sorry, this type of thing gets me going a little bit especially around the holidays....so before I say something rude...that's all I have! :)

love, light and blessings

AB

Excellent article with fascinating parallels. When one delves into the official political responses that Rome had to both these religions the parallels continue. The Bacchanalian feast had an egalitarian dimension in which the women of all Roman classes mixed, eventually men were included and this appeared to be the last straw. The equivelant of the popular press, writers like Livy, ended up portraying the event as a debased orgy that was mixed up with fraud and criminality. The backlash resulted in heavy legislation to radically water the religion down and bring it under official control. Lots of people rounded up and the inevitable executions that followed. The early Roman Church found itself in a similar situation. No small part of this was the fact that a slave Christian woman was in principle of equal status to a patrician Christian man and that would not do. Christians were rounded up on the pretext of stories that their Eucharists were degenerate cannibalistic events where baby's blood was drunk. It just goes to show that people have never let facts dilute a juicy story and outrage about things in the public eye is always a handy way for administrations to consolidate control!

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