I first learnt about the god Dionysus through watching a TV programme about the origins of theatre, presented by the playwright Ronald Harwood. This was about 1983-84. I couldn’t believe what I saw. I was aware that the Greek gods, unlike ‘our’ upright Christian God, were a pretty tricky lot, but the cult of Dionysus and what he demanded of his worshippers, simply mesmerized and horrified me. I suddenly realized that some of my darkest suspicions about the human psyche were not without foundation; and that the Greeks not only recognized a dark reality but also gave it ritual expression. I wanted to know more so began reading Greek mythology.
The more I read about Dionysus, the more I wanted to know. But I was always frustrated by the piecemeal nature of the information; nowhere could I find a completed and orderly account of the god’s life and cult. In point of fact being a layman I was naive, and perhaps also subconsciously influenced by the relative orderliness of the Christian biographies of Jesus, because there could never be a chronological accounting of a god’s life; for gods are unbounded by time and space.Nogodeverlivedalifeinrealtime,accordingtoachronologyofevents. Butbefore I realized this, I had already committed myself to writing my own biography of the god, seeking to make (an artificial) order ofthe god’s life so that I could bener understand it. The exercise worked, for once I put all the disparate parts in order, I found I could at last make sense of the myth. Only then, could I read episodes in the god’s life in isolation and without confusion. I made the order by geographical means, charting the god’s adventures according to location. I then proceeded to organize the cult by a similar process. I found none of this easy. I began with hardly any notion of Greek geography, no knowledge of the classical languages, and scant idea of the societies in which the cult flourished. Moreover,
Egyptian and middle eastern religious ideas needed research, for I soon realized they had a definite relevance to the Dionysian phenomenon. The decision to write abookwascirca 1985,butbecauseIwassowoefullyunpreparedittookme22years to complete; a competent classicist would have had it wrapped up in a fraction of the time. Along the way I went down various blind alleys, spending several years alone studying the society and history of Macedonia, because of that kingdom’s particular concern with Dionysus; yet not a word about Macedonian worship of the god is mentioned in my text, for there was nothing I found that would have made us any the wiser. Likewise, I was intrigued by ancient and modern writers’ brief references to an equation of the Jewish god – the straight-laced God of Christianity and Islam – with the orgiastic Dionysus. How these two could possibly have anything in common baffled me, and I could find nothing in my research.