The savage drumbeat grew louder as the worshippers of wine whirled, gyrated and staggered ever faster around the gilded altar.
Letting loose great animal shrieks and howls, they offered gaping mouths and golden goblets to the earthly embodiment of their god, in this case a large, portly gentleman straddling a golden bull. Wrapped in a blood-red robe and laughing like a maniac, he expertly splashed wine from a great bejeweled urn into vessels and vassals alike.
“Drink to ecstasy!” he bellowed. “Drink to joy! Drink to Dionysus!”
Penetrating the Veil
Like any secret society worth its name, the Revived Order of Dionysus (ROD) was difficult to penetrate. I traced rumors and put out probes for nearly six months before receiving a rather cryptic call asking if I was interested in attending a gathering of the cult. I said I was, and an “exploratory meeting” was scheduled at the Old Absinthe House in New Orleans .
My contact arrived four Pernods late, but punctuality is probably not one of the strong suits of those who swear fealty to a wine deity. The large, bearded man introduced himself as Augustus but the bartender called him Michael. Though he wore the guise of a well-to-do businessman, hints of his true nature peeked through his formal vestments — rings sparkled from every finger and a large clip depicting a serpent-entwined staff crowned with a cluster of grapes weighted down his tie.
He ordered a scotch and soda.
“I expected wine,” I said.
“There’ll be plenty of that later,” he assured and proceeded to lay down the ground rules. First, no cameras. Second, I would be blindfolded during the trips to and from the cult’s temple. Finally, the Order wanted editorial approval of the article.
I acquiesced to the first two and flatly refused the third.
He finished his drink and asked, “How can we trust you not to say bad things about us?”
“You can’t. It’s the nature of journalism.”
“Well,” he said, “I guess if something called Modern Drunkard Magazine can’t give us a good write up, no one will.”
I smiled. He smiled. I was in.
On the sidewalk outside, Augustus affixed what was not so much a blindfold as the sort of feather-festooned masks common to masquerade parties, minus the eyeholes. I heard a car pull up and was gently pushed into the backseat.
“It’s not far,” Augustus said, “but we’re going take the long way, just to throw you off.”
“Drats,” I said.
“Who does he write for?” a voice asked from the front seat.
“Modern Drunkard,” Augustus said. “Don’t worry, they’re on our side. Right?”
“If not us, who?” I said, echoing his early sentiment.
That assurance kept the peace for the rest of the drive. Ten minutes later I was guided by the elbows down a sidewalk, through a gate, up some steps and through a door accessed by a special knock that sounded not a little similar to Shave and a Haircut — Two Bits.
“Who’s he?” a voice whispered as I was ushered down a hallway.
“The drinking press,” Augustus answered. “He’s cool.”
After passing through another portal my mask was removed.
The New Believers
The walls of the ballroom were painted with colorful murals stretching to 15-foot-high ceilings. The murals, not badly done, depicted Bacchanalian orgies from various eras of history.
A pale reflection of the lively debauchees on the walls, twenty or so modern toga-wrapped acolytes of Dionysus stood in small conversational groups. Most were, quite frankly, aging baby boomers with outmoded haircuts, the sort you’ll find lurking around Renaissance Fairs and Blue Oyster Cult concerts. Most also carried the extra weight common to practicing hedonists.
“Help yourself to some wine,” Augustus said, gesturing toward a table laden with a dozen Grecian urns. “I’m going to get out of this monkey suit and into something more . . . decadent!” He giggled and fled the room.
“Good afternoon,” I said to no one in particular, then advanced on the wine table. I filled an oversized copper goblet with what appeared to be a hearty burgundy then turned back to the crowd. They’d returned to their conversations and paid me no mind, save for one rather unsettling exception: From across the room a fiftyish crone was throwing what appeared to be gang signs in my direction.
“She’s giving you the Sign of the Evil Eye,” a smiling sandy-haired fellow refilling his goblet said in a stage whisper. He wore his hair shaggy and his prodigious sideburns joined forces under a long jaw. A facial tick that caused him to wink his left eye every two seconds or so gave him the demeanor of a licentious orangutan.
“Heavens,” I said, laughing nervously. “Whatever shall I do?”
“Watch out,” he said, winking ferociously. “She’s a Maenad. She may tear you limb from limb like Pentheus.”
I remembered enough of my college Greek mythology to recall that Dionysus’ cousin Pentheus was indeed ambushed and delimbed by a gang of vicious female followers of Dionysus called Maenads.
After introducing himself as Cassius, one of the Order’s founding members, the winking gentleman explained that some of the group didn’t particularly care for my presence.
“They think you’re going to mock us,” he said with a wink. “I assured them you would do no such thing.”
“Glad you set them straight,” I said then turned to a tap on my shoulder. A goat-bearded man with a strange grin shoved his empty goblet at me.
“Fill my cup, knave,” he said.
“Fill my cup. Now.”
“Pour your own bloody wine.”
The goat beard traded his superior expression for a mein of confusion. We both looked to a thoroughly amused Cassius.
“He thinks you’re an initiate,” he said, laughing and winking. “He was hazing you.”
“What is he, then?” Goat Beard demanded.
“He’s a sssssssspyyyyyyyyyyyyy,” a voice hissed in passing and I turned to watch the Maenad finish her strafing run. She landed in the company of three crones and what appeared to be an actual ogre. She told them something, and they all turned to stare at me.
“Spy?” Goat Beard asked.
“For the Anti-Demigod League,” I said. “I’m prepared to bust this operation wide open.”
Cassius laughed, put an arm around my shoulders and steered me to an empty corner of the room. “They’re insecure because they’re not sure of themselves, of Dionysus,” he explained. “And who could blame them? I was pretty unsure myself when we started out.”
I asked him to elaborate and he spent the next fifteen minutes indulging my curiosity.
The Birth of a Cult
The seeds of the Order sprouted from a decidedly secular wine club called the Order of Dionysus, an organization more interested in exploring new vintages than reviving old gods. Augustus was a Freemason at the time and joined the club in 1996. He soon convinced five of his fellow Freemasons, including Cassius, to follow him.
“The name of the club interested us because some believe Freemasonry is an offshoot of a secret society called the Dionysiac Architects,” Cassius explained. “Once we were in, we started digging deeper. It became an obsession.”
Their research revealed that more than a few Bacchic and Dionysian cults survived the fall of Rome and the Rise of Christianity, and some still exist to this day. Then they stumbled upon “The Book.”
Dionysus Rising was written in the early 18th Century by the First Earl of Rosse, Richard Parsons, a notorious libertine and founding member of the Irish chapter of the infamous Hell-Fire Club. During a trip to Egypt, Parsons claimed to have come into possession of ancient Dionysian scrolls looted from the Great Library in Alexandria prior to it being burned to the ground. Upon returning to Dublin , Parsons wrote his book, presumably based upon the scrolls, and founded a group called the Sacred Sect of Dionysus. Only two copies of his book are known to exist and ROD owns one of them.
“It cost us more than a BMW,” Cassius confided. “And worth every penny.”
Drawing from Parson’s book, the six Freemasons began introducing strange rituals into the wine club’s meetings. Which served to alarm many of the more conservative members.
“They thought we were stone crazy, or Satanists,” Cassius said, laughing. “It started getting ugly, so we left.”
In 1999 the six broke off from the club and formed the Revived Order of Dionysus.
While two of the founding six have since departed, Cassius claimed the New Orleans chapter presently boasted more than sixty members. They were also in the process of launching chapters in San Francisco, Miami , Atlanta and London. The Atlanta chapter will be based at a college fraternity.
“When they graduate, they will carry the seed of the Order to cities all over the country,” Cassius said with a rather diabolical gleam in his eye. “Our ranks will swell.”
Much as the crowd on hand. Since my arrival the attendance had nearly doubled in size to a chatty forty. Younger members now milled among the boomers, some of them possessing facial piercing and tribal tattoos.
“We’re drawing members from pagan and goth groups,” Cassius said. “Ripe recruiting grounds for the Order.”
Suddenly the room rang out with a resounding “Hail, Dionysus!” and I turned to witness Augustus’ triumphant return. Resplendent in a blood red toga, an elaborate laurel and a heavy gold medallion the size of a tea plate, he charged to the middle of the room, reared back and let loose a long ear-splitting roar.
“Drink, my children,” he bellowed. “Drink and be joyous!”
The sons and daughters of Dionysus rushed the wine table en masse in swift obeisance to his command. Augustus joined them, scooping up an urn and filling goblets while laughing like a lunatic.
“It’s Augustus’ turn to embody Dionysus,” Cassius shouted above the racket. “We senior members take turns.”
Smiling broadly, Augustus joined us long enough to fill our goblets. “Drink up, outsider!” he shouted. “All of it!”
I obliged. He refilled my goblet. I drank it down. He filled it again. “I like your appetites,” he said, his eyes blazing into mine. “I hope it holds up.”
“You needn’t worry,” I told him. “I’m an old hand at winebibbing.”
“I wasn’t talking about wine,” he said with a weird smile before moving on.
I looked to Cassius for an explanation. He grinned at me, winking more ferociously than ever.
“What do you know about Bacchus?” a swarthy gentleman demanded, slurring a bit. The wine had flowed freely in the half hour since Augustus’ return and the disciples were getting a tad raucous.
I told him I knew the wine god was the son of Zeus.
“There are a lot of societies that invoke the name of Bacchus or Dionysus,” he said with more than a little anger. “Wine clubs and such. But they’re a bunch of posers. We’re not just a gang of snotty fools who like to get smashed on wine and dance around. We actually believe in Bacchus. We worship him as our god. We believe he really exists.”
“I believe in Christ too,” a red-headed woman chirped in. “You can believe in both, you know.”
The swarthy gentleman frowned at her. “Maybe,” he grumbled. “But mostly we believe in Bacchus.”
“Then you must believe in Zeus and Apollo and the rest of the Pantheon,” I said.
He blinked at me blurrily. “You can believe in whatever you like, that’s the thing. I believe in Bacchus.”
Which may strike you as an odd idea — that fully grown, ostensibly sensible adults would worship a deity long confined to the realm of myth. But realize that at one time large segments of the civilized world not only believed in the wine god, they held large religious festivals in his honor. Festivals that were so wanton with sex, drunkenness and criminal activity they were banned by the Roman Senate in 186 BC.
Christ and Bacchus had much in common, the redhead went on to inform me. Both were born of a mortal woman impregnated by a god, both returned from the dead, both were suppressed by the Romans and both transformed water into wine.
“Christ only did that last trick once though,” the swarthy gent interjected. “It was a regular gig for Bacchus.”
The Divine Excuse
While the wine tasted as if it were the product of the venerable wineries of the Brothers Gallo rather than an act of a god, it served to loosen the collective tongues of the gathered. As I drifted from group to group, eavesdropping, I slowly came to the conclusion that, aside from a handful of true believers, the majority placed Bacchus in the pantheon of St. Patrick rather than Jesus Christ. More a convenient theme and excuse for wanton drinking and ribald behavior than an actual spiritual divinity.
Which seemed fine to me. As I dipped deeper into the urns, I admit I began to feel warmly toward the sect. Evil Eyes and accusations of espionage aside, on the whole they seemed a good-natured and fun-loving bunch. The abject gusto in which they drank their wine was certainly commendable. As the evening commenced they seemed more and more a modern reflection rather than a weak parody of the revelers in the murals.
The religion was certainly not without its attractions. Debauchery organized under the auspices of godly worship is nothing to scoff at. Every bender blessed by Bacchus. The more you drank, the better you got in with the chap holding the keys to Paradise. How could the sect not grow?
“Will you be participating?”
I turned to the speaker, a short, whispy-haired gentleman. He could have been an English Literature professor nearing the end of his tenure.
“Oh, I’m participating,” I said, holding up my goblet.
“Fine,” he said with a vacant yet insinuating grin before drifting away.
“More wine?” a voice asked. I turned to a young man wearing a turtleneck and chinos.
I held out my goblet. “Toga at the dry cleaners?”
“We haven’t been initiated yet,” he said with a shy smile. A woman in a smart dress was introduced as his wife. They appeared a pleasant suburban couple.
“You’re the reporter,” she said.
“Or the spy,” I said. “Take your pick.”
She leaned close and whispered, “So what do you think?”
“Seems harmless enough,” I said. “I’ve been to wilder parties.”
“The party hasn’t started yet.”
“They’re just warming up,” she said. “It might get a little kinky.”
I smiled indulgently. I could only imagine what the nice couple considered kinky. Would their be breast-flashing? Drinking contests? Strip poker?
Attack of the Maenads
I confess that things began to blur as the party careened toward midnight. I bumped into Cassius, literally, and told him how surprised I was that no one appeared to have left yet. In fact, the crowd seemed to be growing by the minute.
“No one will leave before the ritual,” he assured me.
“You’ll see. So, how do we look so far?”
“Splendid!” I said, then decided to put it to him straight. “How many do you think actually believe in Dionysus?”
He looked around then shrugged. “I don’t know. More every day.” He moved on and I returned to the wine table. As I was refilling by goblet someone bumped into me.
“Watch it,” my old chum the Maenad said without looking at me.
“Pardon me,” I said. “We seem to have gotten off on —”
“Get your hands off me!” she screeched, drawing away in mock fear.
I hadn’t laid a finger on the crone.
“What’s going on here?” a voice boomed and, sure enough, it was the ogre and his Maenad allies, grouped directly behind me. “What’s he done to Serena?”
I didn’t bother explaining what my intentions with the hideous crone were. It wouldn’t have mattered a hair. They were plainly employing what the Teddy Boys of the London of my youth called the Bump and Thump. With the Bump part of the maneuver out of the way, the Thump was obviously imminent.
Disciples began to crowd around our unhappy little group and a great deal of the warmth I’d felt for the sect was replaced by an immediate loathing and fear. I examined the watching faces and no longer saw happy-go-lucky hedonists — I saw the same vicious mob mentality common to any group that felt its territory was threatened, or were just in the mood for some random violence.
It suddenly sprang to mind how violent the Dionysian festivals used to be, how swarms of devotees, especially the women, would swarm and rip to pieces hapless victims for no good reason at all.
What am I doing here , I wondered. Why had I put myself at the mercy of wine-maddened savages with a long history of blood lust?
A Savage Ballet
I was saved by a bull. Not a real one — though I would have enjoyed nothing more than watching a frothing beast drive his horns through the lot of them — but a wooden one, painted a bright gold and purple.
Shoved into the middle of the room by a squad of Rodites, it was announced by amplified trumpets and ridden by a very drunk Augustus. Wine slopped from the urns he held in each hand as he shouted from the bottom of his lungs, “Let the Bacchanalia begin!”
The lights went out, replaced by strobes mounted high in each corner of the room. The trumpets dissolved into pounding drums. The crowd let out a primal whoop and swarmed the high-riding Augustus. I was left alone at the table, relieved to be out of harm’s way, at least for the moment.
Their frenzied ballet was half mosh pit, half snake dance. They yipped, they yelled, they whirled with abandon, their faces frenzied and, yes, mad.
I refrained from joining in. Not out of any sense of journalistic detachment, the wine had managed to sink that flimsy raft hours ago, but because of the latent violence of the previous moment.
A platoon of Maenads unwrapped the heavy cords that bound their waists and put them to use as whips, striking the backs of the others, who writhed and shuddered with joy or pain, perhaps both. Augustus, the deity of the moment, splashed wine into the chaos and encouraged his flock to ever greater heights of depravity.
Hideous , I remember thinking, hideous and evil.
And it was only the beginning.
An Orgy of Violence
The swirling whirlpool of flesh around the idol began to slow and coagulate. By now half had lost their togas and naked bodies gleaming with sweat and wine began groping and rubbing against one another, culminating in open copulation on the floor.
In the midst of the madness, Augustus roared his approval. With a running start, the Maenad crone Serena leapt at the bull, clawing for purchase so she may pull herself aboard. She reached up a hand to her god and he, perhaps not so drunk after all, ignored it, reaching instead for the outstretched palm of the now completely nude red-headed woman. She scrambled into the saddle and waved to the cheering mob. Bacchus parted his robe, leered directly at me, then thrust his weight upon her.
I felt a tentative hand lightly grip my forearm. I turned to look into the eyes of the wispy-haired fellow and his earlier query echoed in my mind.
I slowly pulled my arm away and walked to the door.
In the hallway I found the uninitiated man and wife sharing a cigarette in the hallway. They turned to me and smiled.
“Pretty kinky, huh?” the woman said.
“You weren’t kidding,” I said. “Why aren’t you—?”
“Not until we’re initiated,” the husband said in an almost relieved tone.
“What must the initiation be like?” I wondered.
“Pretty kinky,” she said.
I nodded and bid them good night.
From the outside the temple of Dionysus looked like any of the other slumping mansions on the block. A casual passerby wouldn’t have the vaguest idea what was going on inside, which was probably for the best.
A stanza from one of Byron’s more obscure sonnets came to mind.
What does polite society know
of the secret hearts of men?
What shows the shuttered window
but all the evil you can imagine?
I shuddered and walked toward the distant glow of downtown New Orleans.
The Moral Balance
Back at the Old Absinthe House, where I drank until the wee hours of the morning, I wrestled mightily with what I had witnessed.
It’s not difficult to assume the role of prude when confronted with something as blatantly decadent as the Revived Order of Dionysus. It is equally easy to dismiss the Order as a gang of besotted swingers justifying their behavior with the trappings of a dead religion.
But sooner or later the initial revulsion subsides and you come to grips with the realization that these twisted debauchees are, for good or ill, not corrupting an old idea — they’re being utterly faithful to it.
According to Euripides, it was because Dionysus was half human that he was more readily appreciative and willing to seek out earthly pleasures. And because he was half-deity, he could push the envelope much further than a mere human. He became the trailblazer and embodiment of the outer reaches of hedonism, the irrational counterweight to the cold rationality of Apollo.
And while the majority of we drunkards prefer to drink in the moral middle ground between the two, in this age of cold-hearted and rampant neo-puritanism it is perhaps comforting to know that a counterweight still exists in a shuttered mansion in New Orleans. And perhaps soon, in a town near you.