Greek Mythology >> Greek Gods Cult >> Dionysus Cult >> Bacchanalia (Bakkheia)


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Festival of Bacchus

THE BAKKHEIA (Bacchanalia) was a wild festival of the god Dionysos celebrated by the Bakkhai or Bakkhantes--female devotees of the god. This page contains a few poetical descriptions of the revels from late antiquity.

Dionysus, Satyr and Bacchante | Greco-Roman marble bas relief from Rome C1st A.D. | British Museum, London
Dionysus, Satyr and Bacchante, Greco-Roman marble bas relief from Rome C1st A.D., British Museum


Philostratus the Elder, Imagines 1. 14 (trans. Fairbanks) (Greek rhetorician C3rd A.D.) :
"[From a description of a painting depicting the fiery birth of Dionysos :] The flame, dividing, dimly outlines a cave for Dionysos more charming than any in Assyria and Lydia; for sprays of ivy grow luxuriantly about it and clusters of ivy berries and now grape-vines and stalks of thyrsos which spring up from the willing earth, so that some grow in the very fire. We must not be surprised if in honour of Dionysos the fire (pyros) is crowned by the earth (), for the earth will take part with the fire in the Bakkhic revel and will make it possible for the revelers to take wine from springs and to draw milk from clods of earth or from a rock as from living breasts."

Philostratus the Elder, Imagines 1. 15 :
"[From a description of an ancient Greek painting depicting the company of Dionysos :] Flowered garments and thyrsoi and fawn-skins have been cast aside as out of place for the moment, and the Bakkhai are not clashing their cymbals now, nor are the Satyroi playing the flute, nay, even Pan checks his wild dance that he may not disturb the maiden's [Ariadne's] sleep."

Philostratus the Elder, Imagines 1. 18 :
"[Ostensibly a description of an ancient Greek painting at Neapolis (Naples) :] Here are also painted, my boy, scenes from Mount Kithairon--choruses of Bakkhai, and rocks flowing with wine, and nectar dripping from clusters of grapes, and the earth enriching the broken soil with milk. Lo! ivy creeps over the ground, serpents stand erect, and thyrsos trees are dripping, I think, with honey. This fir you see lying on the ground is a great deed of women inspired by Dionysos; it fell as it shook off Pentheus in the form of a lion into the hands of the Bakkhai. They rend in pieces their prey--that mother of his and his mother's sisters, they tearing off his arms while she is dragging her son by the hair. You would even say they were raising the shout of victory, so like the Bakkhic cry is their panting. Dionysos himself stands where he can watch them, puffing out his cheek with passion and applying the Bakkhic goad to the women. At any rate they do not see what they are doing, and in the supplication of Pentheus they say they hear a lion's roaring . . .
Pitiful also we must consider the state of the women. For of what things were they unaware on Kithairon and of what things do they here have knowledge! Not only has their madness left them, but also the strength they possessed in the Bakkhic revel. On Kithairon you see how, inspired by the conflict, they rush headlong, rousing the echoes on the mountain side."

Philostratus the Elder, Imagines 1. 19 :
"[Ostensibly a description of an ancient Greek painting at Neapolis (Naples) :] Dionysos steers . . . a sacred ship; in it Dionysos revels and the Bakkhai cry out in response to him, and orgiastic music resounds over the sea, which yields its broad surface to Dionysos as readily as does the land of the Lydians . . . He is accompanied only by Lydian women and Satyroi and fluteplayers, and an aged narthex-bearer [i.e. Seilenos], and Maronian wine, and by Maron himself . . . [and] Panes sail with him in the form of goats . . .
The ship of Dionysos, has a weird appearance in other respects, and it looks as if it were covered with scales at the stern, for cymbals [i.e. instead of the shields of a warship] are attached to it in rows, so that, even if the Satyroi are overcome by wine and fall asleep, Dionysos may not be without noise on his voyage; and its prow is drawn out in the semblance of a golden leopardess. Dionysos is devoted to this animal because it is the most exciteable of animals and leaps lightly like a Bakkhe . . . And the thyrsos here has grown in the midst of the ship and serves as a mast, and sails dyed purple are attached to it, gleaming as they belly out in the wind, and woven in them are golden Bakkhai on Mount Tmolos and Dionysiac scenes from Lydia. That the ship seems to be embowered with vine and ivy and that clusters of grapes swing above it is indeed a marvel, but more marvelous is the fountain of wine, for the hollow ship pours forth the wine and lets it drain away."

Philostratus the Elder, Imagines 1. 23 :
"A youth [Narkissos] just returned from the hunt stands over a pool . . . The cave is sacred to Akheloos and the Nymphai, and the scene is painted realistically. For the statues are of a crude art and made from a local stone; some of them are worn away by time, others have been mutilated by children of cowherds or shepherds while still young and unaware of the presence of the god. Nor is the pool without some connection with the Bakkhic rites of Dionysos, since he had made it known to the Lenai (nymphs of the wine-press); at any rate it is roofed over with vine and ivy and beautiful creeping plants, and it abounds in clusters of grapes and the trees that furnish the thyrsoi, and tuneful birds disport themselves above it, each with its own note, and white flowers grow about the pool, not yet in blossom but just springing up in honour of the youth."

Philostratus the Elder, Imagines 1. 25 :
"[Ostensibly a description of an ancient Greek painting at Neapolis (Naples) :] The Andrians. The stream of wine which is on the island of Andros, and the Andrians who have become drunken from the river, are the subject of this painting. For by act of Dionysos the earth of the Andrians is so charged with wine that it bursts forth and send up for them a river; if you have water in mind, the quantity is not great, but if wine, it is a great river--yes, divine! For he who draws from it may well disdain both Neilos [Nile] and Istros [Danube] and may say of them that they also would be more highly esteemed if they were small, provided their streams were like this one.
These things, methinks, the men, crowned with ivy and bryony, are singing to their wives and children, some dancing on either bank, some reclining. And very likely this also is the theme of their song--that while the Akheloos bears reeds, and the Peneius waters Tempe, and the Paktolos ((lacuna)) . . flowers, this river makes men rich and powerful in the assembly, and helpful to their friends, and beautiful and, instead of short, four cubits tall; for when a man has drunk his fill of it he can assemble all of these qualities and in his though make them his own. They sing, I feel sure, that this river alone is not disturbed by the feet of cattle or of horses, but is a draught drawn from Dionysos, and is drunk unpolluted, flowing for men alone. This is what you should imagine you hear and what some of them really are singing, though their voices are thick with wine.
Consider, however, what is to be seen in the painting : The River-[god] lies on a couch of grape-clusters, pouring out its stream, a river undiluted and of agitated appearance; thyrsoi grow about it like reeds about bodies of water, and if one goes alone past the land and these drinking groups on it, he comes at length on Tritones at the river's mouth, who are dipping up the wine in sea-shells. Some of it they drink, some they flow out in streams, and of the Tritones some are drunken and dancing. Dionysos also sails to the revels of Andros and, his ship now moored in the harbour, he leads a mixed throng of Satyroi and Lenai and all the Seilenoi. He leads Gelos (Laughter) and Komos (Revel), two spirits most gay and most fond of the drinking-bout, that with the greatest delight he may reap the river's harvest."

Callistratus, Descriptions 2 (trans. Fairbanks) (Greek rhetorician C4th A.D.) :
"[A description of an ancient Greek statue :] On the statue of a Bakkhe (Bacchante). It is not the art of poets and writers of prose alone that is inspired when divine power from the gods falls on their tongues, nay, the hands of sculptors also, when they are seized by the gift of a more divine inspiration, give utterance to creations that are possessed and full of madness. So Skopas, moved as it were by some inspiration, imparted to the production of this statue the divine frenzy within him. Why should I not describe to you from the beginning the inspiration of this work of art?
A statue of a Bakkhe, wrought from Parian marble, has been transformed into a real Bakkhe. For the stone, while retaining its own nature, yet seemed to depart from the law which governs stone; what one saw was really an image, but art carried imitation over into actual reality. You might have seen that, hard though it was, it became soft to the semblance of the feminine, its vigour, however, correcting the femininity, and that, thought it had no power to move, it knew how to leap in Bakkhic dance and would respond to the god when he entered into its inner being. When we saw the face we stood speechless; so manifest upon it was the evidence of sense perception, though perception was not present; so clear an intimation was given of a Bakkhe's divine possession aroused it; and so strikingly there shone from it, fashioned by art in a manner not to be described, all the signs of passion which a soul goaded by madness displays. The hair fell free to be tossed by the wind and was divided to show the glory of each strand, which thing indeed most transcended reason, seeing that, stone though the material was, it lent itself to the lightness of hair and yielded to imitation of locks of hair, and though void of the faculty of life, it nevertheless had vitality. Indeed you might say that art has brought to its aid the impulses of growing life, so unbelievable is what you see, so visible is what you do not believe. Nay, it actually showed hands in motion--for it was not waving the Bakkhic thyrsos, but it carried a victim as if it were uttering the Euian cry, the token of a more poignant madness; and the figure of the kid was livid in colour, for the stone assumed the appearance of dead flesh; and though the material was one and the same it severally imitated life and death, for it made on part instinct with life and as though eager for Kithairon, and another part brought to death by Bacchic frenzy, its keen senses withered away. Thus Skopas fashioning creatures without life was an artificer of truth and imprinted miracles on bodies made of inanimate matter."




A complete bibliography of the translations quoted on this page.