Born from Semele as “a joy to mortals,” Dionysos is first and foremost the god of wine, the divine inventor and dispenser of his ambivalent gift. In countless texts and images from Homer to late antiquity he is associated with the grape vine, presides over the vintage and the wine-making, holds drinking vessels such as the kantharos or the rhyton, performs wine miracles on sea and on land, participates in the symposium, and even subdues other gods like Hephaistos and the Centaurs by making them drunk.
But does the wine god ever consume “the blood of the grape”? Like other gods who are seen as ritual role models for their worshipers, Dionysos should practice what he preaches. He should not only pour libations like Apollo or Athena, but he should act as a wine drinker in his own right. But does he? After decades of searching in vain for a Greek text or image that represents Dionysos unambiguously in the process of putting a cup to his lips and drinking wine, I begin to wonder why the god appears to be so reluctant to enjoy his own gift. It is not inconceivable, of course, that I have missed a passage that portrays Dionysos as drinking or inebriated, or a vase painting that shows him deep in his cups. Even if such representations exist, however, they are the exception rather than the rule, and the question remains why a god who is virtually synonymous with wine seems to keep at a safe distance from his sacred drink.
Texts about Dionysos are of little help. In the Bacchae of Euripides wine is consumed by mortals and not by the god, who as a character in the play associates himself with madness rather than wine. Almost a millennium later in the 48 books of Nonnos’ Dionysiaka, Dionysos invents wine, participates in drunken revels and is surrounded by humans who are extremely intoxicated, but he is never said to drink wine. Several images of Dionysos in art are somewhat more explicit than the texts. The closest Dionysos ever gets to drinking wine is in a vintage scene on a black-figure amphora in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Residing solemnly in the midst of a vineyard surrounded by grape-gathering satyrs, he lifts a kantharos to his lips, but it does not touch them; between cup and lips a gap remains. By contrast, other images show how human lips make physical contact with a cup. On a series of late antique mosaics from Antioch and elsewhere, for instance, Dionysos and Herakles engage in a drinking match. Whereas Herakles visibly imbibes wine from a cup, Dionysos either lifts a kantharos or holds a drinking vessel upside down. The implication is that the wine god has indeed been drinking wine, but he is not shown in the act of drinking.
These and other texts and images relevant to my topic raise a number of methodological and cultural issues that need to be discussed. How is “drinking” represented in Greek art? What does it mean when a Dionysos shown in a work of ancient art is described as “drunk” by modern interpreters? Why are modern artists more inclined to depict the wine god in an inebriated state than Greek or Roman sculptors or painters? How come the ancient Dionysos is more likely to be perceived as drinking wine on images rather than in texts? Did the Greeks have strong feelings one way or the other about gods indulging in the consumption of wine? Why was a drinking Dionysos or a Dionysos in his cups such a rare sight in ancient art?