Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

The Greeks also had their fertility rites, performed annually in the spring. But the worship of Dionysos was something more complex. (187) It did not take place annually, nor anywhere near cultivated fields. It was limited to closed groups, or “thiasoi“, and in the early days they seem to have consisted only of women; whereas the fertility rites were attended by all. The ceremonies took place at night. It was not just a sensual orgy, but was attended by discomfort and risk. Plutarch records how, at Delphi, the worshippers set out to climb the 8,000-foot Mount Parnassus, were cut off by a snowstorm, and returned with their clothes frozen stiff as boards. The cult, when later thrown open to all, seems to have attracted people of good position.

That the purpose of the cult was to induce an experience which was felt to be ennobling, and of a religious character, cannot be doubted: the followers of Dionysos were called Bacchae (or Bacchantes) and means to have a religious experience of communion with deity. But it was also something more — a social device for releasing sexual tension. As Dodds says, the social function of the cult was essentially cathartic. Hesiod calls Dionysos a god of joy. At Athens he as known as the healer: Athenians who resisted him were liable to be afflicted with a disease of the genital organs. Euripides says that his function is “to cause our cares to cease”. Later, when the function of healing by the dance had passed to the Korybantes, Plato says that they cured “anxiety feelings and phobias arising from some morbid mental condition”. Today we know that anxiety states are commonly the consequence of sexual repression, and can well understand that a cult which promoted physical exercise, lifted inhibitions by means of alcohol, and culminated in a sexual act, may (like the Saturday-night dance of a football club) have been well designed to get rid of such anxieties. The disease of the genitals suffered by those who resisted him was doubtless impotence.

But the Dionysiac worship did not only provide an outlet for libido, it also provided an outlet for the destructive and aggressive urges of Thanatos. The ceremony ended with the tearing to pieces of a living kid, and the immediate devouring of it. Indeed, it has been supposed that at some stage in its development, it was the priest himself who was torn to pieces. In Euripides’ Bacchae, it is King Pentheus who tries to impose order on the Bacchae and who is torn to pieces. This is reflected in the mythology, in which it is the god himself who is torn to pieces by the Titans.

Whether or not, at any historical period, an actual person was so sacrificed is less important than the mythological meaning. It seems feasible that Euripides intended to portray the effects of conscious control of instinctive drives. When that control is too rigid, the unconscious forces are likely to burst out in a violent form and destroy the conscious. From some such roots derives the institution of the orgy of which the Saturnalia is an example: an occasion when it is permissible ‘ to indulge all those desires which are normally kept under control. The orgy is a useful, perhaps an indispensable, social safety valve.