Men and women saluted this god with a cup of wine. More than a cup might lead to intoxication, and from there it could be a small step to ritual madness. Such transgressions were grist to the mill of this particular god, who was celebrated for condoning ecstatic liberation from everyday identity.

The fifth-century BCE poet Euripides tells us that the god Dionysus introduced men to wine, but Dionysus or Bacchus, as he was known to the Romans had other associations as well. As a shape-shifter, he was also the god of theatre and impersonation. He was a god of wild nature who was accompanied by a sacred band of followers that included maenads (wild women) and satyrs. Fuelled by wine, music, song and dance, they gathered on mountainsides outside the boundaries of the city. It was customary for gods to be offered cooked meats during cultic celebrations, but Dionysus was worshipped with the eating of raw flesh.

His mythic origins reflect his ambiguity. It was said that Dionysus was twice born. After fathering him with the mortal Semele, Zeus snatched the unborn child as Semele was burned to death by his own thunderbolt, and sewed him into his thigh until the child could be born full term. In some versions of the story, only Dionysus’ heart is saved and sewn into Zeus’ thigh. So he is a god who dies and is reborn. This led to his association with the Underworld and his reputation as a god offering rebirth and salvation in cult practices.