Defending Dionysus


It’s a flat-out fact that alcohol, and those of us who like to imbibe it, are reviled by a healthy percentage of Americans.

Since the heady days of Old Egypt, revolts against Nectar of the Grain have flared up, wreaked havoc, then been devoured in the sanctimonious flames of their own hubris. Prohibitionists cite dozens of reasons to support their crackdowns on emancipatory imbibement, some noble, some nutty, but all familiar and not a single one specifically related to booze. Pick a justification, any justification, from immorality to safety, and you’ll find it is all about control. The fact of the matter is, some people find it nearly impossible to function unless everyone around them thinks and acts according to their sense of moral propriety, their unnatural rules.

These rules are hobgoblins. They are fanciful inventions. They fail a test of scrutiny to a degree rivaled only by the results of George W’s civil-service exam. More importantly, prohibitionist strictures fly in the face of history and human nature. Tipplers have the upper hand, and we always have. No set of squinty-eyed aphorisms can stand against the tidal wash of truths that accompany self-actualization through heedless boozing.

The Egyptians knew it (they didn’t even have a word for alcoholism), and so did the Medieval Scottish Highlanders, Pre-Colombian Puebloans, Japanese Ronin, Romantic English poets (with their absinthe and laudanum), late-nineteenth-century Crowlyite mystics, Al Capone and his merry cabal of sociopathic rum-runners and post-millennial gin hounds. Even today, we are surrounded by those in the know. We see them in sports bars, dark lounges, or spilling from the beds of pick-up trucks. Bottle in hand, they gamely attempt to redirect a world that has lost its way. Sensible groups of men and women, and even the odd culture or two, have tirelessly worked to counteract the Dictatorial Army of Quotidian Authority — they’ve kept their eyes on the prize, their feet on the floor with the peanut shells, and their breath Binaca-fresh, ready at the drop of a shot glass for a bar brawl or bacchanal, whichever.

Best thing about it is this: we drunkards can look to history and instinct for all the validation we require in support of our beliefs, and to add a gleeful purpose to our confrontation with the daily mosaic of our lives. Take heart. Screw your courage to the sipping place.

One group is missing from the list of sauce-sentient cultures presented previously. They are the ancient Greeks, arguably the most alcohol-savvy society to ever drain a wineskin. The Attic Greeks (let’s say 500-200 BCE) understood booze. They felt it on an atomic level. Their vision penetrated all the way to the bottom of the keg, and they discovered a god down there; an other-dimensional entity, who sculpted, inflamed, and adored the sprightly, terrible, untidy, and joyous miracle that is intoxication. How many anti-boozers can claim that quality of lineage?

Back in the day, an Athenian’s road to revelry followed a two-fold course. One, the act of drinking itself sallied right to the mystic edge of ritual, and two, fealty was paid to that god at the bottom of the keg — the chaotic and licentious progenitor of wine and the vine, Dionysos.

Like no people before or since (and certainly not among our beige, frightened, militant excuse for a national psyche), the Greeks not only understood alcohol and drunkenness, they feared, respected, and loved alcohol and all of its peripheral elements. They knew booze as a force, a doorway, a pre-Skinnerian avatar of all that is wet, slippery, dangerous, giddy, and reptilian in us Homo sapiens sapiens (the species so nice, we named it twice). They realized that intoxication is simultaneously sane and insane. The unavoidable veracity of their knowledge led them to surround drinking, not with a fascist’s prohibitive fist, but with a wreath of deification and a chuckle, like the sound barley makes when it gets your joke — a laugh full of nature and nurture.

Greek sozzlement practices were born first of practicality. Hellenic wine (beer and grain alcohol weren’t as popular) could seriously kick your ass. Think Everclear is potent, the way it ambushes you in an alley and pimp-slaps your entire sense of individuality? Everclear couldn’t hold a free-drinks card to a jug of primo Mendaean grape juice. As Hermippus (a Greek playwright) once quipped, “With the Mendaean wine the gods themselves wet their soft beds.”

Anthropologists specializing in Greek viticulture estimate that Attic wine approached an alcohol content roughly twice that of your last Earnest and Julio spout-box. Doesn’t sound too bad, but consider the fact that the Greeks added grains and fruits in their vintage — thereby granting the tippler an occasional dose of St. Anthony’s Fire (ergot poisoning, similar to the effects of psilocybic mushrooms) — and it’s easy to see how Greek wine was known to cause madness. Genuine hallucinations were very common, and then, as now, it was considered bad form for a host to inadvertently drive his guests insane — hence the evolution of the wine ritual. Swirling about in that rich purple gumbo was the key to our impulse locks. Unlocking those chains opens the door to a heightened self-awareness, and presents a free pass to places we never thought to go.

In its most rudimentary form the wine ritual was a compendium of guidelines governing how to water-down the wine so as render it more potable and less delirium-inducing. “X” ladles of unadulterated wine were added to a bowl called a krater. To the wine was added “Y” ladles of pure clean water. The amounts were rigidly proscribed. Drunkenness was the goal, but not at the expense of suffering the unplanned eruption of a mosh pit in one’s rumpus room.

And you couldn’t just slosh the water and wine together like some sloppy proto-Christ. No, the watering was accompanied by rounds of prayers to appropriate deities, most notably Dionysos. Prayer ensured a blessing, a blessing colored the good times that lay ahead in vibrant hues of meaning. A blessed mixing meant success, while a bad one could lead to boredom, anger, violence, or bouts of illogic. A krater untouched by Dionysos might get you tanked, but it paled before the awesome power of a fully deified bowl. If all went well with prayers and mixing, your reputation for artistry and communion would be lauded across the Peloponnese.

A proper mix, however, was only part of the ritual. In addition to providing the best water his spring could provide, the host also bore the responsibility for the level of inebriation attained by each of his guests. No single reveler was supposed to become more snockered than another, nor was any one guest supposed to reach blottohood faster than anyone else. Pacing your arrival at the desired state was essential. A steady progression by all participants ensured an even balance, kept the evening fairly apportioned, and the conversation philosophically magnanimous.

Clearly mapped, lovingly assembled before the gods’ eyes, and gracefully administered by the host, a bout of drinking might achieve the exemplary designation symposium. As we might use the words party, discussion group, book club, or old-fashioned debate to mean radically different events, the Greek symposium encompassed them all, and was frothy with other connotations as well. Contrary to those mind-wreckingly awful spans of time we remember from college (those classes you could time with a sundial), the Greek symposium was a fully democratic, totally egalitarian conversation on philosophy, politics, and art. Points were acknowledged, mulled, parsed and reincarnated over the course of the evening. It bears a thoroughly pleasant similarity to that contemporary situation that finds us in our favorite tavern, among our closest friends, pints at hand, feeling ebullient amid the ever-evolving conversational whirlwind of tipsy companionship. That we see the resemblance between then and now shows how clear history can sound when it yodels down the canyons of our lives.

But so what, right? So the goofy Greeks decorated their merrymaking in pretty bows and successfully sublimated their impulses with constrictive ceremonial routines. Big deal. Why should we care? Why bother with ancient trivia? What does a long-dead society have to say to us that we ought to give a rat’s posterior about?

Just this:


Why do we drink? We drink to don mental snowshoes, skis, cowboy boots, galoshes, bunny slippers, come-fuck-me pumps, and hiking boots for an expedition through Unknown Lands. Using the prism at the bottom of a tumbler as a map, we venture as close as we can stomach to the inviting, terrifying, edge of the Abyss of Unreason. We drink so we can look out into nothingness and shriek “Bite me!” at the heavens. Some people live every instant of their lives right on the crumbling cliffs, and require drink to illuminate the fall-off point as they dance a jig along the lip, tempting their resolve and the Threads of Fate. Some are not even aware of the Abyss, others might wail at the night sky that the Abyss is a myth, preferring instead the cool predictability of Friends, Britney Spears, and housing covenants.

Dionysos emerged, fully formed, from Zeus’ thigh to shower his white light, and his awful darkness, on both groups and all in between. Dionysos is an oscillation along the wave of our inner narrative. He is the divine force behind wine, but also rebirth, bursting springtime greenery, and the sharp delineation between the self, and gibbering, ricocheting, reality-negating insanity. Dionysos is the very personification of Indestructible Life.

He (or she, for this god could be tantalizingly androgynous) is said to have come from the East, with his maenads, fauns, satyrs, and wine lunacy. Many Athenians, especially women, took to his arrival like Dick Cheney to a warhead, quickly elevating him to the top of their pantheistic pyramid. With surprising speed, the Dionysian rite became the most popular observance in Greece.

Defending DionysusIn what is probably the oldest documented example of Tight Asses reacting irrationally to Life Thirsters, people (mostly men) who disliked the Bull God’s message got their chitons in a twist and demanded that their leaders take immediate action against this anarchic “cult.” Nicely foreshadowing our contemporary anti-libationists, Athenian tea-totalers used a safety- and morality-based rational as their primary weapon. The “cultists”, with their debauchery, were clearly harmful to civic order, and to the health of the state. They caused children to behave disrespectfully toward their elders. They urged wives out of the home and into the thoroughfares where, driven mindless by drink, their ordinarily hidden sexuality was displayed most shamefully. Dionysian celebrants were unseemly. They held authority in open disdain, cheated at dice, pilfered their neighbor’s goods, trespassed, made the very racket of Hades, urinated in the streets, associated with actors, ran naked across the land, sacrificed entire herds of livestock to their greedy, besotted deity, and were all too quick to end a debate with a fist or bronze-tipped spear.

The sober-heads went before the Senate and issued demands. “This is Athens, curse you! Athens! Birthplace of Plato, Diogenes, Hippocrates, Thucydides, and Aeschylus; creator of democracy and smiled upon by Olympus. We do not act this way! We have rules, traditions, social obligations. Tradition is the sap and tar that stays the leaks in this mighty ship of state. You can not cast them on the pyre for the sake of fun, for a good time, for the accumulation of mere thrills. Oh, you claim to feel good now, but just wait until you regain your senses. Wait ‘til dawn, when your head is filled with Apollo’s fire, and the ‘truths’ of last night blur into meaninglessness. We, the Caretakers of Propriety, insist that you hedonists, you rabble-rousers, you harlots, stop your dangerous, revolting, frightening activities this very instant. If you do not, we cannot be held responsible for what happens next. Think of your families! Save the state! Long live the commonplace!”

Just as in America today, a lamentable majority of Greek pro-sobriety zealots grew, like runaway kudzu, from the middle class — people not wealthy enough to enforce their beliefs through bribery, and yet not so poor they could see the world with open eyes. The middle class is the frightened class. No dirt, no stains, no wavering, no bullshit. The Athenian bourgeois wielded somewhat less political power than our modern-day adversaries, but they were every bit as vociferous and tight-assed as those worthies of the Southern Baptist Convention, whose flaccid sense of beauty stems from the deranged notion that they are normal.

Dionysians eventually took action against their blowhard antagonists. Their tactic was sheer genius, one of the truly awe-inspiring knock-out punches ever delivered by a religion.

They recognized, then trumpeted, the marriage of Alcohol and Art.

Never in the history of humanity, with our hardwired ability to create meaning from the disparate collage of our surroundings, has a union between seeming opposites been so fruitful, or so necessary. Some wed for love. Others for money. Many arranged weddings amount to nothing for either party. The coupling of Alcohol and Art on the other hand, wrote, sculpted, sang, and soft-shoed the stories of the World. The Greeks saw this, as did a great number of cultures across the globe. But more than simply recognizing and honoring this match made in Falwell’s hell, the Greeks celebrated it in the most famous of their many festivals — the Festival of Dionysos, a three day slobberknocker devoted to wine, hedonism, and theater. Theater? Yes, indeed. Alongside his other spheres of influence, Dionysos was the god of theater.

The Greeks understood that all humans possess madness, and recognized the role of intoxication in that affair. Booze shone a spotlight on it, made it immediate, scary, and desirable. We desire madness because it is an antivenin against societal stagnation. Which begs the question: how do we sip from that frightening fountain without being devoured by it? We protect ourselves through creation. Through art. World society was created by refracting the consumption of 100 proof libations through humanity’s need to know-through-storytelling, and is constantly remixed, remade, by the radioactive swizzle stick of para-darwinian, bio-poetic mutualism. Ever wonder why the most recognizable representations of the theater arts are the Comedy and Tragedy masks?

Think about it.

Art and booze. Booze and art. Two halves of the same coin. Each counteracting, then necessitating the other in a violent, contemplative, romantic, erotic, political Charybdis of dizzying intellectual blasphemy. Booze without art got us Alcoholics Anonymous. Art without Booze spawned Michael Medved. Take a gander at this miniscule sampling of artists who walked the weaving walk and talked the slurred talk: Euripides, Shakespeare, Byron, Mozart, Strindberg, Fitzgerald, Papa Hemingway, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Sylvia Plath, Anais Nin, Thelonious Monk, Charles Bukowski, Hunter Thompson, Martin Scorsese and scores of neo-millennial rockers. That’s my list. Try making your own. You know who they are, and every seminal drunkard means something different to you than to anyone else. Such is the magnificence of the booze/art interconnection.

Prohibitionists, Madd Mothers, pseudopopulist Baptist buzz-stompers and New Agey my-body-is-my-temple sticks in the mud will never win. The juggernaut of gin-soaked centuries and the cattle prod of bleary-eyed mimesis will always win out over lame authoritarian rationales. Why? Because we need booze to see the chaos, and art to protect ourselves from it.

Next time some soap-boxing zealot who couldn’t have fun on Fizzy Lifting Drinks tells you you’re out of line, or over doing it, or whatever, you might recommend they get their eyes off the TV, their face out of the Bible, and read a little history. They’ll forget their need to control the world when they see that the world doesn’t care.

Next time one of your soft, squishy friends gives you the pseudo-sage advice that “less is more,” give that person to understand that, as simple math dictates, more is more. More life, more fun, more of everything, but especially more of that impish, vital willingness to pull down your pants and moon the status quo.

Next time you wake up, reeling and miserable, with a headful of epileptic gophers and a stomach that feels like you spent all night trying to digest Atlas Shrugged, and you tell yourself that you need to “cut back a little,” to “get a grip on this drinking thing,” kick those loathsome thoughts to the curb. Kick them out before you wind up reading John Grisham by the light of a bug zapper on a patio in Pastel Town sporting an apron that says Boy Meets Grill. You are better than that. You deserve more. The world is your happy hour and the bartender pours ‘em stiff.

Hold your swimming head up high. Show the nay-sayers who’s boss. Cut loose. Leave footprints. Make noise. Annoy someone, then grin at them ‘til they see the light. Write your name in the snow of conformity. You owe it to history. You have an intoxica-aesthetic imperative to enhance our culture.

Dionysos expects no less.

—Richard English

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