Worshipping the party god – evidence of Bacchus in Lincolnshire

I posted a little while ago about a candlestick find from Branston with possible connections to the god Bacchus, and I want to follow up on that subject here by looking at the other artefacts from Roman Lincolnshire with connections to the Roman god of wine and revelry.

Bacchus is a fascinating deity, particularly in a British context, as he straddles the traditional categories that we employ when discussing ancient religion. Although part of the classical Graeco-Roman pantheon he was always viewed as an external deity, part of his core mythology being his obscure foreign origins and his journey to the Greek world (see for example the tale of his encounter with some sailors whom he turns into dolphins). His cult also has elements, though, of the mystery cults which began to permeate the Roman world from the 1st Century onwards, promoting more personal modes of belief and promising rewards in the afterlife in return for entering into the secretive rites of the cult. Excavations at the Walbrook Mithraeum at London revealed statues of Bacchus alongside images of eastern deities such as Mithras and Serapis, and the temple may have been dedicated to Bacchus in its final stages of use in the 4th Century (Lewis 1966). Although therefore most commonly associated today with frivolity and drunken excess, there was a deeper and more serious side to the god, and his worship related to rebirth and eternal life.

Depictions of Bacchus himself, or of his followers, attributes and animal companions are actually not as numerous in Britain as those of deities such as Mars, Minerva or Mercury. Nevertheless, the god does seem to have gained a following in Britain, and can be found on metallic small finds, furniture fittings, stone carvings and as a motif on mosaics. The examples currently known from Lincolnshire are discussed in turn below and, as you will discover, include a masterpiece of bronzework and potential connections with early Christianity.

Furniture mount from Lincoln

atherton place bacchus

Copper alloy furniture mount from Lincoln

This magnificent copper alloy bust with silver inlay originally adorned the leg of a tripod table or brazier. It is one of the finest examples of figurative bronzework from Britain, but is not as widely known as it deserves to be. It was discovered in 1824 during renovations at Atherton Place, a grand house near James Street in Lincoln which now no longer exists. Thompson (1971) quoted an account by local architect and historian E. J. Willson of how a mason’s labourer apparently found the object within some rubbish he removed from the house and subsequently sold it to a Henry Hutton. At some point shortly afterwards, however, its whereabouts became lost before it reappeared at an auction in the 1960s, described as being a Renaissance piece. It now remains in private ownership, but from drawings made by Willson at the time of discovery (reproduced in Thompson 1971) it is clear that it is indeed the same object.

The quality of workmanship suggests that the bust was not of British manufacture. Silver has been used to pick out details in the hair and the eyes may have originally been set with gems or coloured glass. The youthful Bacchus has a faun skin over one shoulder and his hair is adorned with leaves and berries. The findspot is just inside Lincoln’s upper east gate and likely represents a remnant from a wealthy private residence, its owner able to afford such high quality imported craftsmanship.

Furniture mount from Greetwell

greetwell bacchus white

Furniture mount from Greetwell. Image copyright Portable Antiquities Scheme

This copper alloy mount is also from a piece of tripod furniture, but of lower quality craftsmanship than the example discussed above, and likely of local manufacture. It was discovered at the eastern edge of modern Lincoln, close to the site of the grand residence known as the Greetwell Villa, and recorded with the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

This example retains its characteristic shank, upon which the bowl or brazier that the tripod was supporting would have rested. The depiction shows Bacchus emerging from a stylised flower (a calyx), and wearing a tunic across one shoulder, decorated with rosettes. There are what appear to be grapes above his ears and a bunch of leaves somewhat dumped on the top of his head, clearly identifying the figure.

An interesting element of this mount is that there are what appears to be two incised letters scratched into the surface of the calyx – DN – as highlighted in the image below.

greetwell bacchus incised letters

Inscribed letters on the Greetwell mount

Some scholars have drawn parallels between the cult of Bacchus and early Christianity. Aside from his associations with wine and drunkenness (the aspects of the god that we most commonly focus on today) Bacchus was seen as a saviour deity and a giver of eternal life, capable of leading his devotees to a glorious afterlife, just as he had saved the abandoned Ariadne (Henig 1984). The letters DN are commonly found in a late Roman context, for example on coinage, as an abbreviation for Dominus Noster – ‘Our Lord’. This title, used by Christian emperors in the 4th Century, has both secular and religious implications. Thomas (1981) references a ceramic bowl from Canterbury, onto which was scratched both a Chi-Rho symbol and the letters DN, linking the two in a Christian context.

So if we can interpret the inscribing of the letters DN onto the mount as the title ‘Our Lord’ being applied to the image of Bacchus, can we suggest that a conflation existed between early Christianity and the Bacchic cult? The relationship between early Christianity and Bacchus was a complicated one. The late 2nd / early 3rd Century Christian author Tertullian saw Bacchus as a dangerous deity, a ‘patron of drunkenness and lust’ (de Spectaculis X), but was this vitriol actually fuelled by similarities between the two faiths and the challenges posed by the Bacchic cult to the growth of Christianity? Early Christianity in Britain seems to have shared similarities with pagan worship and there may not have been a hard line separating them, individual worshippers conflating elements of new and traditional cults to suit their own needs and beliefs.

The suggestion that the letters incised onto this image of Bacchus represent a conflation between the Bacchic cult and early Christianity in Lincolnshire therefore remains an uncertain but fascinating possibility.

Finger ring intaglio from Revesby

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Carnelian intaglio from Revesby. Image copyright The Collection: Art & Archaeology in Lincolnshire

This carnelian intaglio remains in situ within its silver finger ring, the form of which dates the whole object to the late 1st Century BC or 1st Century AD. It is therefore of a very early date for Roman Britain and may even predate the invasion of AD43.

The intaglio shows Bacchus, draped about the waist, standing and holding one of his more prominent attributes, the pinecone-topped staff known as a thyrsus. His head is turned to look at the satyr next to him, who is bending away but looking back over his shoulder. The closest known parallel for this image is a ring from Vienna, though in that example Bacchus has a panther at his feet and holds a kantharos (a drinking cup) in his hand.

Panther head spout from Winteringham

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Panther head spout from Winteringham. Image copyright Portable Antiquities Scheme

Objects featuring animals known to have associations with deities can be notoriously difficult to interpret. Do they demonstrate a direct connection to the worship of that deity, or are they simply decorative objects? The panther had a strong association with Bacchus, appearing alongside him in various artistic depictions (such as the ring from Vienna mentioned above), and would be an unusual creature for a Romano-British artist to choose to depict without an ulterior motive. We can therefore be more confident that this object has religious connections, particularly since it is a pouring spout, and Bacchus was the god of wine.

The panther itself is quite difficult to see, but the image on the right of those above shows a view of the animal’s muzzle, with the hole where the liquid would have emerged at the bottom, roughly where the mouth is.

Maenad vessel mount from Ulceby

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Maenad from Ulceby. Image copyright Portable Antiquities Scheme

Maenads were the female followers of Bacchus, and notorious for being rather crazy in their devotions, whipping themselves up into intoxicated frenzies and responsible in mythology for the murder of various individuals (such as Orpheus) who were seen to have slighted Bacchus.

This copper alloy mount was found at Ulceby and is thought to depict a stern-faced Maenad. It originally formed part of a vessel and so, like the panther spout discussed above, would have been a fitting choice of imagery.

Small cherubic face mounts

face mounts

Small mounts, from Nettleton (left) and Heckington (right). Images copyright Portable Antiquities Scheme

A number of small copper alloy mounts in the form of cherubic human faces are now known from Lincolnshire, represented by the two examples pictured above. These hollow-backed mounts are likely to have been originally attached to copper alloy vessels, forming a link with the panther spout and Maenad mount discussed above. Although their identification is uncertain, it is possible that they represent Bacchus. Until one is found in context or with more definable attributes, however, their identification must remain uncertain.

Horkstow villa tessellated pavement

lysons horkstow central roundel

Central panel of the Horkstow mosaic, drawn by Samuel Lysons

The large and grand mosaic pavement from the villa at Horkstow in North Lincolnshire is most famous for its dramatic depiction of a chariot race (more on that in a future post), but the design features a number of other interesting elements. The central panel of the floor, sadly not surviving in its entirety, was illustrated shortly after the discovery of the mosaic in the late 18th Century. The illustration by Samuel Lysons, above, shows four outer roundels, only three of which appear to have survived (though William Fowler’s drawing of the same mosaic only shows two surviving roundels).

lysons horkstow roundel

Horkstow mosaic roundel, drawn by Samuel Lysons

The figures, particularly the pair in the image above, have traditionally been interpreted as representing worshippers in a state of Bacchic ecstasy (for example Morgan (1896)). This interpretation has been challenged, for example by Witts (2010), who suggests that the roundels may instead depict scenes from the life of Achilles, but without the entire scene surviving the central section of the mosaic remains enigmatic. Bacchic revelries have often been seen as suitable motifs for dining rooms, where eating and drinking (perhaps on an obscene scale) took place.


References

Henig, M. 1984. Religion in Roman Britain. Batsford

Lewis, M. J. T. 1966. Temples in Roman Britain. Cambridge University Press

Morgan, T. 1896. Romano-British Mosaic pavements: history of their discovery and a record and interpretation of their designs. Whiting and Co

Thomas, C. 1981. Christianity in Roman Britain to AD500. University of California Press

Thompson, F. H. 1971. Some Lost Roman Bronzes from Lincoln. Antiquaries Journal Volume 51

Witts, P. 2010. Mosaics in Roman Britain: Stories in Stone. History Press

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2 thoughts on “Worshipping the party god – evidence of Bacchus in Lincolnshire

  1. Pingback: The Horkstow chariot mosaic: sporting depiction or allegory of fate? | Roman Lincolnshire Revealed

  2. Pingback: A previously unidentified giant from Roman Lincolnshire | Roman Lincolnshire Revealed

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