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date: 01 October 2023

mysteries, Bacchicfree

mysteries, Bacchicfree

  • Fritz Graf


Mystery cults of Dionysos are attested to in Greece from the late Archaic epoch and expanded to Rome in Hellenistic times. They appear in two forms, the group (thíasos) of ecstatic women (mainádes) who celebrate their rituals in the wilderness outside the city and in opposition to the restrictive female city life; and the thíasos of both men and women that constitutes itself as a cultic association and celebrates inside the cities but preserves the ideology of a performance outside the city. The main goal in both types of cult groups was the extraordinary experience of loss of self through drinking wine and dancing; the mixed-gender groups often added eschatological hopes. The purely female thiasoi were led by a priestess of Dionysos, whereas the mixed-gender groups were often led by a male professional initiator. The most conspicuous trace of these initiations are the so-called Orphic gold tablets that attest to the expectations for a better afterlife.


  • Greek Myth and Religion
  • Roman Myth and Religion

The mystery cult of Dionysos is a somewhat diffuse affair. Its geography includes a large number of locations in the ancient world, from Egypt to Olbia on the Crimean, and from Syria to Italy and Spain; its chronology stretches from the late Archaic age to late Antiquity. Accordingly, there is even less unity of ritual and beliefs than one would expect from any cult without a revealed sacred book, and it would be better to speak of Dionysiac (or Bacchic) mystery cults in the plural. Scholars’ sources for the cult are equally diffuse, with inscriptions being the most important body of sources, especially for the Hellenistic and Imperial epochs.1 To complicate matters, what earlier authors sometimes called syncretism but what is better described as ritual or literary bricolage characterizes many cults and source texts, such as the famous fragment from Euripides’s Cretans (F 49), a poetical construction that contains Bacchic elements together with those from the mysteries of Meter, or the rituals performed by the mother of Aeschines that seem to insert elements of West Anatolian origin into a Bacchic frame (Demosthenes, On the Crown, 259–260). Later ritual scenarios, such as the one hinted at in the Egyptian Gurôb Papyrus, combine even greater numbers of heterogeneous elements into a single liturgy.2

Historical Development

Archaic and Classical Ages

The first attestations of Bacchic mysteries belong to the late Archaic and early Classical epochs of Greece, regard different geographical areas, and suggest a somewhat fluid character. In a famous fragment cited by Clement of Alexandria, Heraclitus of Ephesus (floruit 504–501 bce) censures the “mágoi, mŷstai and bákchoi who dwell in the night” and threatens them with fire after their death (Heraclitus, VS 12 B 15). Depending on who the disputed mágoi are (quite certainly non-official ritual performers, whom Heraclitus decries as charlatans), the text indicates the existence of Bacchic mysteries with teachings about life after death and perhaps the presence of itinerant specialists in the same ritual background; the punishing fire is perhaps an Iranian concept.3 The noun bákchos, used here for the first time to designate the worshipper of Dionysos, is since late Archaic times also attested as a major epiclesis of the god (who in nearby Lydia was addressed as Bakiś): this quasi-identity between god and worshipper can be read as an indication of an ecstatic experience of the divine by his human worshippers.

Not much later, Herodotus attests to the ecstatic cult of Dionysos Bakcheios in the Milesian Black Sea colony Olbia (4.79). The worshippers of the god, Herodotus reports, celebrated his rites with ecstatic revels (maínesthai) through the city. The Scythian king Skyles was attracted by these rites, while his subjects censured the Greeks because of them. When an enemy pointed Skyles’s participation out to his Thracian subjects, they killed him after having observed his un-Scythian ritual behavior. Again, the cult was ecstatic; involved initiation; and was perhaps not restricted to citizens (although Skyles owned a house in Olbia and therefore must thus have had some citizen’s rights) and certainly not only to women, as in strict maenadism. But as in Heraclitus, the cult provoked and alienated nonparticipants, presumably because of its ecstatic but very public loss of self. A bronze mirror from a grabe near Olbia attests to a woman and her son as Bacchic initiates around this same time period, and less than a century later, Olbia produced three bone tablets of Dionysiac content that can be understood as tokens of Bacchic initiates.4

In his Egyptian Logos, Herodotus also twice refers to what must be Bacchic mysteries. When he talks about Osiris, he omits the narration of how Seth cut his body apart for religious reasons; it has been convincingly argued that the reasons for such a prohibition were not to be found in Egyptian cults but in the Greek Bacchic mysteries and the “Orphic” narration of how the Titans cut the baby Dionysos apart: this is one of the earliest, albeit indirect, references to this myth (see Orphic literature). When Herodotus reports on the prohibition of wool in Egyptian temple and burial ritual, he adds that this agrees “with the so-called Orphic and Bakchic traditions that in reality are Egyptian and Pythagorean” (2.81). The text thus confirms Bacchic rituals or stories that also are found in the pseudepigraphic texts of Orpheus; these texts must refer to burial practices and perhaps the mythical aetiologies of these practices. And, not unimportantly, Herodotus also saw parallels in Pythagorean rituals and stories which might help to explain why not much later Ion of Chios ascribed the poems of Orpheus to none other than Pythagoras. Such specific grave rituals must lie behind the contemporary inscription from a graveyard in Cumae (Italy) that prohibits burial in this spot “except for someone who has become a bacchos” (bebakcheuménos): this “initiatory perfect” that is found also in other inscriptions connected with mystery cults points to the fact that the ritual caused a fundamental change of status, as would have been expected (652 T Bernabé).

A few decades later, the gold tablet from Hipponion in Southern Italy (c. 420 bce) shows how initiates in a Bacchic cult (mýstai kaì bákchoi) were expecting that the soul would survive and have a special existence in the Underworld with initiates into a Bacchic cult (mýstai kaì bákchoi).5 The text is inscribed as “Gift[?] of Memory”: it purports to guarantee that the deceased bearer of the tablet remembers the instructions concerning the afterlife that she must have received during her initiation in the local Bacchic mystery cult. The text is in hexametres, and the poetic voice is that of a very knowledgeable instructor: this might point to a text ascribed to the one poet who entered the underworld alive, returned from it, and reported his experience in a Katábasis (“Descent”) poem—Orpheus (see figure 1).

Figure 1. Gold tablet from the Necropolis of Hipponion in Southern Italy, c. 400 bce. Museo Archeologico Statale di Vibo Valentia.

Maenadism is central to Dionysiac worship in Euripides’s Bacchae. The maenads are opposed to the order of the city that they break up for the duration of their oreibasía and its ecstatic experiences of which both the chorus and a male observer speak. Initiations are not mentioned, nor are hopes for a better life after death. The official announcement of the start of the rites in Aristophanes’s Frogs is more ambivalent insofar as the speaker talks twice of Bacchic initiations (357, 368). Both passages should be read as a playful way for Aristophanes to combine the underlying topic of the Eleusinian mysteries with comedy as a Dionysiac ritual and the knowledge of private Bacchic initiation rituals.

By the end of the 5th century bce, then, the main features of Dionysiac mystery cults seem to have been established—the ecstatic experience that was the main feature of maenadism, the initiation performed by ritual specialists that later were called orpheoteléstai, the presence of eschatological hope in at least some places, and the connection with the pseudo-epigraphical poetry of Orpheus that associates some forms of these mystery cults loosely with Pythagoreanism. Geographically, the cults were present at the margins of the Greek world, in Olbia Pontica and Southern Italy, but also in Ionia, and an Athenian audience could have some direct or indirect knowledge of them.

The 4th century bce continued these trends. Bacchic gold leaves dated to the 4th century have been found in Southern Italy and Northern Greece (Thessaly and Macedonia). The texts demonstrate close connections through the regions: the first of the so-called short texts appears in Thessaly, but many such texts from a later period have also been found in Crete, while a variation of a formula that is important in Thurioi in Southern Italy (in a context that some scholars, such as Zuntz or Burkert, have thought to be Pythagorean) is found in Pelinna in Thessaly. This points to a very loosely normalized literary tradition that was diffused by ritual specialists. Some of the graves with such tablets belonged to women (including a “sacred woman” [hierá] of Dionysos Bakcheios), and others to men, such as the graves from the small segregated cemetery of Derveni in Eastern Macedonia with the famous papyrus scroll whose main content was the allegorical explanation of an Orphic cosmogony. In most cases, the relatively rich grave finds show the wealthy status of the deceased.

Two Apulian grave vases from the later 4th century bce prove the existence of these rituals and beliefs in Southern Italy in a comparable social milieu. A grave amphora by the Ganymede painter in the Antiken-Museum in Basel (c. 330 bce) depicts Orpheus singing in front of a bearded deceased man in his grave aedicula. The deceased is holding a rolled scroll in his left hand: already Margot Schmidt, who published the vase,6 thought it might have been meant to depict a text that is comparable in form and function to the gold tablets and thus would contain verses of Orpheus that would help the deceased on his path to the Underworld. A volute crater by the Darius painter in the Toledo Museum of Art (c. 330 bce) depicts Hades on his throne shaking hands with a standing Dionysos in the presence of Hermes and deceased heroes (see figure 2). Johnston and McNiven have explained this as Dionysos and the Lord of the Dead agreeing on the special fate of Dionysos’s initiates in the afterlife.7

Figure 2. The Darius Painter (Greek, South Italian, Apulian), Volute Krater, Side A, about 335–325 bce. Toledo Museum of Art, Gift of Edward Drummond Libbey, Florence Scott Libbey, and the Egypt Exploration Society, by exchange, 1994.19.

Hellenistic and Imperial Periods

The Hellenistic period witnessed the expansion of the Bacchic mysteries to Ptolemaic Egypt and, somewhat later, to Rome, where they provoked the Bacchanalian scandal. A papyrus dating from aorund 210 bce preserves the decree of Ptolemy IV Philopator in which he orders “those who initiate to Dionysos on the countryside” to register in Alexandria, to indicate from whom they received their rites up to three generations before, and to deposit their sacred text (hieròs lógos) in a sealed copy in the royal archive.8 This points to a number of private initiatory cults of Dionysos, each with its sacred texts and with a specific leadership tradition, perhaps with the leading priesthood transmitted from father to son; this will have played itself out in differences of ritual, mythology, and belief. Moreover, it is evident that Ptolemy IV himself played the role of Bacchic initiate (Plutarch, Life of Cleomenes 54.2); he might have had a more than just administrative interest in the diverse Bacchic groups of his reign. The fragmentary ritual prescriptions from Gurôb in the Southern Fayum have often been connected with one such Bacchic cult group, although the divinities invoked go well beyond Dionysos, whom the text acclaims as “One Dionysos”;9 such a wider pantheon is not unheard of within Dionysiac mysteries, however, if the so-called Orphic Hymns is the liturgical hymn book of a Bacchic group in Western Asia Minor.

At about the same time, Bacchic mystery groups that, as the inscription from Cumae indicated, were established in Campania in the mid-5th century bce penetrated further north to Southern Etruria and to Rome. Livy’s critical report on the Bacchanalia affair describes this expansion as the arrival of “some lower-class Greek,” a “sacrificial priest and seer” in Etruria (Graecus ignobilis . . . sacrificulus et vates, 39.8.3); this man introduced nocturnal rites with initiations (initia) and the concomitant scandalous behavior that resulted from the participation of both genders. Rome initially had only female cult groups that met rarely and were led by matronae (Liv. 39.13.9), which suggests a form of private maenadism that is comparable to the maenadic groups in Hellenistic Miletus10 or Magnesia at Sipylon.11 A female leader from Campania changed all this, inviting men and offering more frequent meetings, with the same disastrous results as in Etruria. This led the Senate to prohibit the cult for groups of more than three all over Italy, except for traditional and well-controlled cults (SC de Bacchanalibus, 186 bce).12 This measure led to numerous suicides, executions, and a vast and hurried emigration (fuga) from Rome, according to Livy. The reasons for this drastic repression are highly debated among scholars and range from moral outrage to the assumption that the driving force was political, directed against the Italian allies of Rome.13 Whatever the reason, it would be hasty to understand the motives of the senate as driven by religious considerations only: the preserved text of the SC de Bacchanalibus shows the care that the Senate took not to infringe upon the rights of the god.

Information that is independent from Livy’s account suggests that Bacchic mysteries had been known in Etruria for quite some time before the events of 186 bce. The ecstatic god, Dionysos Bakcheios, entered the Etruscan pantheon as Fufluns Pacha, and his image is found on vases and mirrors dating from the 5th century bce.14 Details of his cult are unclear, however. Maenadism is attested to, and the lid of a 3rd-century bce terracotta sarcophagus from Tarquinia that represents a maenad with a thyrsos, a fawn, and a small mixing bowl (krateriskos) goes beyond simple maenadism to suggest a connection with special expectations for the afterlife,15 in the same way as did the statuette of a dancing maenad that accompanied the sarcophagus of a woman in Pelinna buried with two gold tablets shaped like ivy leaves.16 Etruscan inscriptions on 4th- and 5th-century bce vases from Vulci declare that the vases (drinking vessels) belong to Fufluns Pacha, as if they had been dedicated in the local shrine of Dionysos Bakchios. But in fact, three of those vases come from graves, and the fourth certainly did not come from the sanctuary. Thus they are not dedications but part of the possessions of deceased indviduals. It has been hypothesized that the vases were tokens of a Bacchic initiation at the shrine in Vulci that the individuals took with them to their graves, as they did in the Greek world with the Bacchic gold tablets.17 If this is correct, it shows that these initiations were not confined to itinerant specialists but could take place in a temple.

In the long run, the prohibition expressed in the SC de Bacchanalibus did not curb the flourishing of Dionysiac mysteries in Rome and Italy. Three Etruscan sarcophagi of the second century attest to Bacchic associations (bacchana) well after 186 bce.18 In Rome itself, the stucco decorations of the so-called Villa Farnesina, a large and richly decorated Roman house dated to early Augustan times, contain a number of images that undoubtedly illustrate the rituals and beliefs of a Bacchic mystery association.19 In some cases, a reference to written evidence clarifies the association; in other cases, iconographical details appear in isolated documents from the period. Dating from a generation or so later, the famous frescoes of the Villa dei Misteri outside Pompeii depict details of a Bacchic initiation, in part expressed in the language of myth. Even if the final meaning of these frescoes is debated and a metaphorical understanding cannot be excluded,20 both the main panel with the wedding of Dionysos and Ariadne and several ritual scenes that find parallels in the context of mystery rites firmly anchor the fresco within a Bacchic cult (see figure 3).

Figure 3. Scene from a Villa dei misteri fresco. A boy reads the initiation rituals of the Bacchic mysteries. Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei.

Bacchic mystery cults in the Classical and Hellenistic periods are often indicated by the gold tablets that point to individual initiations by itinerant specialists called orpheotelestai, whereas the inscriptions that attest to larger Bacchic associations do not talk about mystery rites—for example, a list of thiasotai contributing to a new temple in late 3rd-century-bce Kallatis21 or the honorary decree of Dionysiastai for their priest Dionysios from Athens.22 This changes during the Imperial age, when these large mixed-gender associations become more visible and do not hesitate to call their members “initiates” (mýstai) and to cite numerous ritual functions such as hierophant or boukólos, as in the famous inscription from Torre Nova near Rome (now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York)23 or in the contemporaneous decree of the Athenian Iobakchoi.24 This change reflects an earlier hesitation to talk openly about mysteries rather than a somewhat radical change in the purpose of these associations. The prosopographical analysis of the Torre Nova inscription, technically an honorary decree for an outstanding member, Pompeia Agripinilla, has shown that the more than three hundred members belong to two large Roman aristocratic familiae, whereas the Athenian Iobakchoi or the members of a later association, a speira, from Cirpan (Bulgaria, 234 ce) are, as far as we can see, much more loosely connected; the Bulgarian inscription gives an even larger catalog of functionaries than the Torre Nova text.

Few of the epigraphical documents talk about the purpose of these associations. The one exception might seem to be the inscription of the Iobakchoi that records a set of rules accepted by the association. It has become clear, however, that these rules are additions to a much older tradition whose existence was self-evident to the association and did not need to be spelled out, besides tantalizing remarks such as “the traditional sacrifices.” The new rules concern the conditions of acceptance into the group, the mechanism of membership, and especially the means to keep peace and avoid disorder during the meetings.

Forms of Organization

The traditional Dionysiac group, the thíasos, appears also as the basic form of organization for Bacchic mysteries. The difference between Bacchic groups with and without a mystery cult must be basically sought in the absence or presence of initiatory rites that would distinguish the many groups of “thyrsos-bearers” (narthēkophóroi) from the few bákchoi (Orpheus F 476).25 During the Imperial epoch, several associations called themselves speîra. This term originated as the name of a tactical unit of the Ptolemaic army and later came to be the Greek term for the cohors of the Roman army; in a Dionysiac context, it occurs especially in Macedonia and the Black Sea region, but also in Rome. The occasional complex title of a “cohors of the Asians” (speîra Asianôn, 2nd century ce)26 or the “cohors of the Trajaniens” (Traianēsiôn, 2nd century ce)27 resonates with the way cohorts of the contemporary army were named and was chosen either because these associations brought together veterans or because the structure of the army offered itself as an easy template for such associations.

Large associations such as the one in the Torre Nove text document a complex hierarchy of initiates; in smaller associations, scholars usually simply discern the mýstai or bákchoi as the common rank and file, with a leader of changing title (see the Hipponion tablet with mýstai kaì bákchoi as the designation of the blessed initiates).28

The terms bákchos/bákchē derive from the Dionysiac thíasos and intimate that the initiate has somehow become identical with his god, as the result of the ecstatic experience that is at the core of the ritual.29 The strict hierarchy of the larger associations of the Imperial age is visible in their quasi-military organization with archimústai and archibákchoi as their leaders (the same military template is manifest in the self-designation of some groups as speirai, spirae, the tactical unit of the Ptolemaic army). Boukólos can mark another, higher degree than the simple bákchos, exploiting the image of oversight and leadership implied in the term. The complex hierarchy of degrees in Torre Nova progresses upwards from bákchoi and bákchai to “sacred” bakchoi and bakchai, then to bakchoi and bakchai “from the girding” (apo katazōseōs) and to a distinctive and higher group “from the girding,” and finally boukóloi. The dressing ritual recalls the nebrismós, the dressing with the fawn skin (nebrís), in the Athenian mystery ritual of Sabazios (Demosthenes, On the Crown 160), although one can assume that the simple nebris marked already the bákchoi and bákchai. Group members awaiting their initiation or freshly initiated could be singled out by their nomenclature as well: the latter as neóbakchoi (Callatis SEG 53:720bis),30 and the former as seigētoi, “those who keep their silences” as the last and lowest group in the Torre Nova text (presumably candidates who have to keep silence during the ritual).

It is debated whether and how these associations related to the individual initiate. Such a unassociated initiate must be addressed in the polemics of the Derveni author against people who would spend money on initiations but not get their money’s worth (P.Derveni col. 22), and many bearers of the Bacchic gold tablets could have been unassociated as well, even if Theophrastus’s portrait of the Superstitious Man introduces the orpheotelestes not as an initiator but as an expert on purifications only (Theophrastus, Characters 16). But such individual initiation without joining a Bacchic group might nonetheless have been the exception. At least in places where scholars have found several gold texts (Pella, Crete), it is safe to assume that the initiate was a member of a larger local group, and this could apply for other texts as well; the Hipponion tablet had the initiate join the path of “the other initiates and bakchoi,” and the Pelinna grave included, outside the sarcophagus of the buried woman, a statuette of a maenad, which suggests that she was during her life a member of a thíasos.

Ritual Activity

Because of the character of the sources—mainly epigraphical and iconographical, spread out over seven centuries and the entire Mediterranean world—and the fact that at least the central rites must have been secret, historians’ information about rituals is vague and hazy.

On a general level, Bacchic rites were opposed to the daily life in a Greek and Roman city; this is true more generally for most Dionysiac rituals. Often, the thiasoi left the city and performed their rituals in the wilderness of forests and mountains: the oreibasía (“march to the mountain”) is attested in Euripides’s Bacchae as well as in several Ionian cities from Hellenistic Miletus31 to late antique Erythrai.32 More commonly, at least from the Hellenistic epoch onwards, the mystery groups meet in an artificial cave (ántron or spēlaîon; a description from the Dionysiac procession of Ptolemy II by Callixenes of Rhodes) that perhaps was understood as the Nysaean cave in which Dionysos grew up33 or simply as an architectural and ideological expression of a general bucolic atmosphere.34 The existence of the function and mystery grade of “cowherd” (boukólos), sometimes also of an archi-boukólos (“chief cowherd”), attests to a similar local ideology. These boukóloi become visible in Hellenistic times and are very common in the mystery groups of the Imperial age.35 The Egyptian Gurôb Papyrus (3rd century bce) contains one of the earliest attestations of the word boukólos in a Bacchic context, but already a fragment from Euripides’s Cretans mentions the nuktipólos boútēs, the night-roaming cowherd (with the rare adjective that Heraclitus B 16 applied to the initiates). Another later term for the meeting place was stibás, literally the primitive and almost pre-cultural bed of leaves and twigs also used in the Thesmophoria.36

The many titles of functionaries in the inscriptions (especially in the one of Torre Nova)37 reflect other forms of ritual activity during the meetings. Priests and priestesses are common in these associations, the often-referenced hierophant (hierophantes in Latin texts) points to a visual revelation during the ritual, as in Eleusis, and the same is expressed by orgiophántes (Orph. Hymn. 6, 31)38 and theophántes39, whereas the sebastophántes combines this revelation with imperial mysteries.40 Carriers of the sacred chest (kistaphóroi, Latin cistifer), of the winnowing fan (liknaphóroi), of the phallos (phallophóroi), of torches (dadoûchos),41 of the gods (theophóroi),42 and of fire (pyrphóroi) refer to processions with these objects but also attest to the use of these objects at some point in the rituals: the kístai contained secret ritual objects (on coins, a snake is sometimes depicted coming out of such a chest); the liknon was used in initiatory rites, as was the phallus; fire was necessary for sacrifices and fumigations. Other inscriptions suggest a thursophóros43 or, more often, a narthecophóros, a carrier of the thyrsos,44 a role that is not further defined but not necessarily compatible with the distinction between the multitude of narthecophóroi and the few true initiates in a hexametre of Orpheus cited by Plato (F 476).45

Figure 4. Roman relief of a maenad and two satyrs in a Dionysiac procession. Found in Herculaneum, c. 100 ce. Courtesy Archivio Scala, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Napoli, inv. 6726.

Besides the common banquets of the members of the ritual group, for which a wealthy member sometimes donated a vineyard to his group, the members of the group were visible through different public activities. Livy describes the nocturnal miracle working of the Roman bacchants who dipped burning torches into the Tiber without extinguishing the fire (Livy 39.13.12). Lucian presents the dancing of boukoloi (“cowherds”) in the cities of Asia as a public spectacle, together with the dances of Pans, corybants, and satyrs—all performed by the city elites (De saltatione 79); dancing Bacchic boukoloi are epigraphically attested to in Pergamon46 and in the collection of Orphic Hymns from the same region (Orpheus, Hymn 1.10). There are traces of sacred dramatic performances in other associations: a group in Magnesia on the Maeander lists a “grand-father of Dionysos,” perhaps a Seilenos;47 the Iobakchoi gives a list of leading functionaries that contains “Dionysos, Kore, Palaimon, Aphrodite, Proteurhythmos,”48 divinities that, with the exception of the last, receive a hymn in the Orphic hymn book whose organization reflects the Orphic myth of Dionysos.49 The theophóroi of Torre Nova were presumably carrying images in procession that perhaps were also used in the group ritual, if they were not altogether wearing a divine mask.

Sacrifices in the different cult groups could be ordinary animal sacrifices that preceded a common meal (see sacrifice, Roman). A Hellenistic inscription from Callatis regulates the sacrifices in connection with Bacchic mysteries (Inscriptiones Scythiae Minoris 3.47). A metrical lex sacra of a Bacchic association in Smyrna prohibits people from eating the heart and the meat of an animal that has not been sacrificed.50 Whether some associations might have refrained from animal sacrifices altogether is not easy to gauge; the group that sang the hymns of Orpheus and accompanied each hymn by a specific fumigation or a libation, might be regarded as vegetarian insofar as the texts do not specify animal sacrifices, but the texts are far from clear.51

Vocal rituals are not specific for mystery cults; many ancient cults used prayers, hymns, and acclamations. Dithyrambos and phallophoreion are hymn types that are connected with the cult of Dionysos but not confined to mystery groups; the phallophóroi that Semos of Delos describes (FGrHist 396 F 24) perform in a theatre. Demosthenes’s polemical description of the Sabazios rites of Aeschines’s mother contains such an acclamation (euoi saboi), together with a ritual verse spoken at a given moment in the rite. An inscription from Thasos defines the “august house of the initiates” as the place where they “sing euoē”.52 The collection of Orphic hymns includes eighty-seven short hexametrical compositions whose sequence must have formed a nocturnal liturgy with Dionysos in its centre, sung as vocal offerings accompanied by fumigations or libations.53 The fresco of the Villa dei Misteri depicts a boy reading from a scroll, a reference to readings from a relevant text, which was also part of the mystery rites of the Egyptian gods (Apuleius, Metamorphoses 11.22); the hierológos who is mentioned together with a hýdraulos, an organ-player, in a list of ritual performers from Ephesos confirms the existence of such liturgical readings.54

Individual initiation rituals were, of course, secret and rarely became visible. Just as the nebrismós that Demosthenes’s polemics confirm for the mystery group led by Aeschines’s mother resonates with a degree of initiation at Torre Nova, a second rite in the same group—the kraterismós—appears also in the ritual of the Corybantes in Erythrai (IG XII:6:2,1197).55 The name points to drinking from a crater, presumably in the sense of the first participation of a new initiate in the communal drinking. In a Bacchic context, a stucco relief in the Villa Farnesina shows a crater in what must be an initiatory scene;56 the krateriskos in the hand on the maenad on the sarcophagus lid from Tarquinia has been understood as a reference to such an drinking rite as well,57 and perhaps the krateríarchos in a Bacchic group from Apollonia on the Black Sea58 is also connected with this same rite (see figure 5).

Figure 5. Scene of initiation, relief in stucco, from Villa Farnesina, Rome, 30–20 bce. Photo by Sailko. Creative Commons License, CC0.

Iconography alone presents a liknon (winnowing fan) covered with a cloth under which the shape of an erect phallus is visible; the cloth is about to be lifted by an initiate.59 The epigraphically attested function of a liknophóros also points to the fact that the liknon played a role in the rituals of some Bacchic groups. In the Orphic hymn book, a hymn is addressed to the god with the epithet liknítes (“He of the Winnowing Fan”), and Vergil’s mysticus vannus Iacchi (“the mystical fan of Bacchus,” Georgics 1.166) alludes to a ritual or mythical function of this harvest tool (a somewhat confused account in Servius and Servius Auctus in Vergil’s Georgics 1.166 = F 59).60

Initiates often received a token of their participation in the cult (Apuleius, De magia 53). Such tokens are mostly lost, but in an almost bureaucratic move, a new initiate into the group of the Athenian Iobacchoi received a letter confirming his admission.61 In much earlier times, the bone tablets from late-5th-century-bce Olbia that all contained the abbreviated name of Dionysos could have had a similar function.62 For the initiates of Fufluns in Vulci, the inscribed drinking vessels must have constituted such a token that accompanied the deceased into the grave, as did the Bacchic gold leaves and the books scrolls from Derveni, Callatis, and on the Basel Orpheus vase.

Afterlife Beliefs

Throughout antiquity, Dionysiac themes were associated with the grave, from the moment the Odyssey (24.74) mentions the golden amphora that contained the ashes of Achilles and Patroclus that was a gift of Dionysos to Thetis. Many of these connections are tantalizingly vague. Dionysiac themes are widespread on Apulian grave goods, but not all scholars are willing to read them as pointing to Dionysiac afterlife beliefs.63 They are similarly widespread on Roman sarcophagi, and ivy leaves appear on a large number of Hellenistic grave stones, especially in the Greek East, but usually without a written reference to Bacchic mysteries.

Still, afterlife beliefs have been connected with Dionysiac cults from early on and are confined neither to the Imperial age nor to the Bacchic gold leaves. For the leaves, the earliest text, the one from Hipponion, attests to the hopes for a better afterlife among the “initiated and bákchoi.” Almost half a century earlier, the inscription from Cumae that reserves a part of a cemetery to the Bacchic initiates is based on specific burial practices that must imply that these practices are necessary for a special afterlife.64 Even earlier, on a late-6th-century-bce mirror from a grave at Olbia, a woman and her son are acclaimed by the Bacchic euhai, presumably because they need to document their Bacchic allegiance after their death.65 Less than a century later, three bone tablets from Olbia connect Dionysos with “life–death–life”—that is, the hope for an afterlife.66 At about the same time in Ionia, Heraclitus’s polemics against initiates assume an eschatological side as well.

Later texts point in the same direction. Plato’s polemical description of the initiates enjoying a permanent state of drunkenness better fits a Bacchic context than an Eleusinian one (Republic 363C = Orpheus F 431).67 The Derveni Papyrus, found in a grave from a small and isolated late-4th-century-bce cemetery, points to questions about the afterlife as well; another grave in the same cemetery contained a metal crater lavishly decorated with a Dionysiac scene. In a contemporary grave in Callatis (from where later inscriptions attest to Bacchic mysteries), the deceased held a scroll in his hand. The scroll’s text is unfortunately lost, but the context recalls both the Derveni grave and the Basel Orpheus vase.68 In a famous Hellenistic grave epigram for the priestess of the maenadic thíasos of Miletus, the deceased is said “to know about the fate reserved for the good,”69 and in an equally famous Latin epigram from Philippi, the parents of an initiated boy imagine him to participate in Bacchic revelries “in a flowery meadow” (Carmina Latina Epigraphica no. 1233). The Etruscan sarcophagus lid from Tarquinia that represents a maenad must similarly refer to afterlife beliefs.

Given this density of especially epigraphical and archeological references to a Bacchic afterlife, it is reasonable to assume that such promises were part of the attraction of this mystery cult, besides the “blessings of madness” and the companionship of banquets and revelries. Still, such extrapolations beyond the few explicit texts are not without problems, and they expose scholars to the danger of easy Christian-centric projections even if they are aware of the excesses of the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule and its historical derivation of early Christianity from the mystery cults.

Links to Digital Materials


  • Bernabé, Alberto, ed. Poetae Epici Graeci. Testimonia et fragmenta, 2: Orphicorum et Orphicis similium testimonia et fragmenta. Munich and Leipzig: Teubner, 2004–2007.
  • Bonfante, Larissa. “Fufluns Pachies.” In Masks of Dionysos. Edited by Thomas H. Carpenter and Christopher A. Faraone, 147–181. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993.
  • Bottini, Angelo. Archeologia della Salvezza. L’Escatologia Greca nelle Testimonianze Archeologiche. Milan: Longanesi, 1992.
  • Bowden, Hugh. Mystery Cults in the Ancient World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010.
  • Boyancé, Pierre. “L’antre dans les mystères de Dionysos.” Atti della Pontificia Accademia Romana di Archeologia. Atti 33 (1960/1961): 107–127.
  • Bremmer, Jan N. Initiation into the Mysteries of the Ancient World. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2014.
  • Burkert, Walter. Ancient Mystery Cults. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987.
  • Carpenter, Thomas H., and Christopher A. Faraone, eds. Masks of Dionysos. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993.
  • Colonna, Giovanni. “Riflessioni sul dionisismo in Etruria.” In Italia ante Romanum Imperium, Scritti di antiquità etrusche (1958–1998). Vol. 3. Pisa and Rome: Istituti Editoriali e Poligrafici, 2005.
  • Cristofani, Mauro, and Marina Martelli. “Fufluns Paχ‎ies. Sugli aspetti di Bacco in Etruria.” Studi Etruschi 46 (1978): 119–134.
  • Dodds, Eric Robertson. The Greeks and the Irrational. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1951.
  • Graf, Fritz, and Sarah Iles Johnston. Ritual Texts for the Afterlife. Orpheus and the Bacchic Gold Tablets. 2d ed. London: Routledge, 2013.
  • Graf, Fritz. “Serious Singing: The Orphic Hymns as Religious Texts.” Kernos 22 (2009): 169–182.
  • Henrichs, Albert. “Die Mänaden von Milet.” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 4 (1969): 223–241.
  • Hordern, James. “Notes on the Orphic papyrus from Gurôb (p.Gurôb 1; Pack2 2464),” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 129 (2000): 131–140.
  • Jaccottet, Anne-Françoise. Choisir Dionysos. Les associations dionysiaques ou la face cachée du dionysisme. 2 vols., I Texte, II Documents. Kilchberg: Akanthus, 2003.
  • Johnston, Sarah Iles, and Tim McNiven. “Dionysos and the Underworld in Toledo.” Museum Helveticum 53 (1996): 25–36.
  • Matz, Friedrich. Dionysiakè Teleté. Archäologische Untersuchungen zum Dionysoskult in hellenistischer und römischer Zeit. Mainz: Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur, 1963.
  • Merkelbach, Reinhold. Die Hirten des Dionysos. Stuttgart: Teubner, 1988.
  • Merkelbach, Reinhold, and Joseph Stauber. Steinepigramme aus dem griechischen Osten. Stuttgart and Leipzig: Teubner, 1998–2004.
  • Morand, Anne-France. Études sur les Hymnes Orphiques. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2001.
  • Moretti, Luigi. “Il regolamenti degli Iobacchi.” In L’association dionysiaque dans les sociétés anciennes. Actes de la Table ronde, 247–259. Rome: École française de Rome, 1986.
  • Pailler, Jean-Marie. Bacchanalia. La répression de 186 av. J.-C. à Rome et en Italie, vestiges, images, tradition. Rome: École Française, 1988.
  • Scarpi, Paolo. Le religioni dei misteri. Milan: Mondadori, 2002.
  • Scheid, John. “Le thiase du Metropolitan Museum (IGUR I,160).” In L’association dionysiaque dans les sociétés anciennes. Actes de la table ronde, 275–290. Rome: École française de Rome, 1986.
  • Schlesier, Renate. “Der bakchische Gott.” In A Different God? Dionysos and Ancient Polytheism. Edited by Renated Schlesier, 173–202. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2011.
  • Schmidt, Margot. Eine Gruppe apulischer Grabvasen in Basel. Studien zu Gehalt und Form der unteritalischen Sepulkralkunst. Basel, Switzerland: Archäologischer Verlag, 1976.
  • Veyne, Paul, François Lissarague, and Françoise Frontisi-Ducroux. Les mystères du gynécée. Paris: Gallimard, 1998.


  • 1. Anne-Françoise Jaccottet, Choisir Dionysos. Les associations dionysiaques ou la face cachée du dionysisme (Kilchberg: Akanthus, 2002); and Paolo Scarpi, Le religioni dei misteri (Milan: Mondadori, 2002).

  • 2. James Hordern, “Notes on the Orphic Papyrus from Gurôb (p.Guroôb 1; Pack2 2464), ” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 129 (2000): 131–140.

  • 3. Graf 2014:84–85.

  • 4. Fritz Graf and Sarah Iles Johnston, Ritual Texts for the Afterlife. Orpheus and the Bacchic Gold Tablets, 2d ed. (London: Routledge, 2013), 185–189.

  • 5. Graf and Johnston, Ritual Texts, no.1.

  • 6. Margot Schmidt, Eine Gruppe apulischer Grabvasen in Basel. Studien zu Gehalt und Form der unteritalischen Sepulkralkunst (Basel, Switzerland: Archäologischer Verlag, 1976), 32–35.

  • 7. Sarah Iles Johnston and Tim McNiven, “Dionysos and the Underworld in Toledo,” Museum Helveticum 53 (1996): 25–36.

  • 8. Scarpi, Le religioni dei misteri, 314 E13.

  • 9. Hordern, “Notes on the Orphic Papyrus.”

  • 10. Jaccottet Choisir Dionysos, vol. II no. 149.

  • 11. Jaccottet, Choisir Dionysos, vol. II no. 146.

  • 12. Scarpi, Le religioni dei misteri, 334 H1.

  • 13. For an overview and assessment, see Jean-Marie Pailler, Bacchanalia. La répression de 186 av. J.-C. à Rome et en Italie, Vestiges, Images, Tradition (Rome: École Française, 1988); and Pagán, Conspiracy Narratives in Roman History (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004), 50–67.

  • 14. Mauro Cristofani and Marina Martelli, “Fufluns Paχ‎ies. Sugli aspetti di Bacco in Etruria,” Studi Etruschi 46 (1978): 119–134; and Larissa Bonfante, “Fufluns Pachies,” in Masks of Dionysos, eds.Thomas H. Carpenter and Christopher A. Faraone (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993), 147–181.

  • 15. Giovanni Colonna, “Riflessioni sul dionisismo in Etruria,” in Italia ante Romanum Imperium, Scritti di antiquità etrusche (1958–1998), vol. 3 (Pisa and Rome : Istituti Editoriali e Poligrafici, 2005), 2022–2025.

  • 16. Graf and Johnston, Ritual Texts, 28.

  • 17. Colonna, “Riflessioni sul dionisismo in Etruria,” 2016–2019.

  • 18. Cristofani and Martelli, “Fufluns Paχ‎ies. Sugli aspetti di Bacco in Etruria,” 129.

  • 19. Friedrich Matz, Dionysiakè Teleté. Archäologische Untersuchungen zum Dionysoskult in hellenistischer und römischer Zeit (Mainz: Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur, 1963).

  • 20. Paul Veyne, François Lissarague, and Françoise Frontisi-Ducroux, Les mystères du gynécée (Paris: Gallimard, 1998).

  • 21. Jaccottet, Choisir Dionysos, vol. II no. 54.

  • 22. Jaccottet, Choisir Dionysos, vol. II no. 1.

  • 23. John Scheid, “Le thiase du Metropolitan Museum (IGUR I,160),” in L’association dionysiaque dans les sociétés anciennes. Actes de la table ronde (Rome: École française de Rome, 1986); and Jaccottet, Choisir Dionysos, 188.

  • 24. Luigi Moretti, “Il regolamenti degli Iobacchi,” in L’association dionysiaque dans les sociétés anciennes. Actes de la Table ronde (Rome: École française de Rome, 1986); and Jaccottet, Choisir Dionysos, 5.

  • 25. Alberto Bernabé, ed., Poetae Epici Graeci. Testimonia et fragmenta, 2: Orphicorum et Orphicis similium testimonia et fragmenta (Munich and Leipzig: Teubner, 2004–2007).

  • 26. Jaccottet, Choisir Dionyssos, II no. 70. See also the thiasos Asianôn in late-2nd-century Thessalonice, Jaccottet, Choisir Dionyssos, II nr. 20.

  • 27. Jaccottet, Choisir Dionysos, vol. II no. 181.

  • 28. Graf and Johnston, Ritual Texts, 1.

  • 29. Eric Roberston Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1951).

  • 30. Jaccottet, Choisir Dionysos, II no. 79.

  • 31. Albert Henrichs, “Die Mänaden von Milet,” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 4 (1969): 223–241.

  • 32. Reinhold Merkelbach and Helmut Engelmann, Die Inschriften von Erythrai und Klazomenai (Bonn: Habelt, 1972), no. 64.6.

  • 33. Pierre Boyancé, “L’antre dans les mystères de Dionysos,” Atti della Pontificia Accademia Romana di Archeologia. Atti 33 (1960/1961): 107–127.

  • 34. Jaccottet, Choisir Dionysos, vol. 1: 150-162.

  • 35. Reinhold Merkelbach, Die Hirten des Dionysos (Stuttgart: Teubner, 1988).

  • 36. See, for example, Jaccottet, Choisir Dionysos, 4 (Athens) or 63 (Histria).

  • 37. Jaccotttet Choisir Dionysos, vol. II no. 188.

  • 38. Jaccottet. Choisir Dionysos, vol. II no. 172.

  • 39. Jaccottet, Choisir Dionysos, vol. II no. 126.

  • 40. Jaccottet, Choisir Dionysos vol. II no. 47.

  • 41. Jaccottet, Choisir Dionysos vol. II no. 188.

  • 42. Jaccottet, Choisir Dionysos, vol. II no. 188. Presumably it has this meaning rather than the older and better attested “possessed, in trance.”

  • 43. Jaccottet, Choisir Dionysos, vol. II nos. 137–139 (Ephesos).

  • 44. Jaccottet, Choisir Dionysos, vol. II nos. 47, 107, 108, 185.

  • 45. Bernabé, Poetae Epici Graeci.

  • 46. Jaccottet, Choisir Dionysos, vol. I 99.

  • 47. Jaccottet, Choisir Dionysos, vol. II no. 147.

  • 48. Jaccottet Choisir Dionysos, vol. II no. 7.124.

  • 49. Fritz Graf, “Serious Singing: The Orphic Hymns as Religious Texts,” Kernos 22 (2009): 169–182.

  • 50. Reinhold Merkelbach and Joseph Stauber, Steinepigramme aus dem griechischen Osten (Stuttgart and Leipzig: Teubner, 1998–2004).

  • 51. Ann-France Morand, Études sur les Hymnes Orphiques (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2001), 101–152.

  • 52. Jaccottet, Choisir Dionysos, no. 31).

  • 53. Graf, “Serious Singing.”

  • 54. Jaccottet, Choisir Dionysos, vol. II no. 137 (Hadrianic).

  • 55. Fritz Graf, Nordionische Kulte. Religionsgeschichtliche und epigraphische Untersuchungen zu den Kulten von Chios, Erythrai, Klazomenai und Phokaia (Rome: Swiss Institute 1985), 320.

  • 56. Matz, Dionysiakè Teleté.

  • 57. Colonna, “Riflessioni sul dionisismo in Etruria,” 2023.

  • 58. Jaccottet, Choisir Dionysos, vol. II no. 46.

  • 59. Matz, Dionysiakè Teleté.

  • 60. Bernabé, Poetae Epici Graeci.

  • 61. Jaccottet, Choisir Dionysos, vol. II no. 4.58.

  • 62. Graf and Johnston, Ritual Texts, 185–187.

  • 63. See Angelo Bottini, Archeologia della Salvezza. L’Escatologia Greca nelle Testimonianze Archeologiche (Milan: Longanesi, 1992); and Daniel Graepler, Tonfiguren im Grab. Fundkontexte hellenistischer Terrakotten aus der Nekropole von Tarent (Munich: Biering & Brinkmann, 1997).

  • 64. Robert Turcan, “Bacchoi ou bacchants? De la dissidence des vivants à la ségrégation des morts,” in : Olivier de Cazanove, ed., L’association dionysiaque dans les sociétés anciennes. Actes de la table ronde organisée par l’École Française de Rome (25-25 mai 1984) (Rome: École Française, 1986), 227–246.

  • 65. Graf and Johnston, Ritual Texts, 187–188.

  • 66. Graf and Johnston, Ritual Texts, 185–187.

  • 67. Bernabé, Poetae Epici Graeci.

  • 68. Bottini, Archeologia della Salvezza, 149–150.

  • 69. Jaccottet, Choisir Dionysos, vol. II no. 149.