Was Dionysus the Original Human of the Sesh?
The story of how the son of Zeus transformed the world as we know it, one bottle of plonk at a time.
What was your birth like? Did you slide freely out of your mother into the caring arms of a well-trained midwife, primed and ready with a pair of scissors to separate you from your long-suffering maternal host? Or was your entry into the world a painful, drawn out affair full of gasping and wheezing and mucus and blood? However it went down, I'm almost certain that it wasn't anywhere near as dramatic events that brought a bloke called Dionysus into the world.
A few years back now, Zeus in all his infinite godly wisdom, decided to have a quick fumble with the daughter of King Cadamus of Thebes, Semele. Zeus' wife Hera got wind of the affair and was understandably slightly aggrieved by the whole thing, so she did what anyone would do that in the situation—she turned herself into a haggard old crone, befriended Semele, made her confess and then doubt Zeus' fatherhood. Semele had a bit of a prang about the whole thing and asked the big man to reveal himself to her. Zeus, being a pretty big deal, had to disguise himself so he nipped down in the ancient Greek version of the modern celebrity's massive sunglasses: a big wreath of lightning bolts. Sadly, Semele had forgotten that as a mortal she'd be unable to gaze upon an undisguised god and she croaked it there and then. Not one to fudge things, Zeus did the honourable thing and sewed his unborn son into his thigh and hot footed it back up to his palatial pad up on Mount Olympus.
With a birth like that it isn't too difficult to see how Dionysus quickly developed into a bit of a naughty boy. According to which version of the myth you believe, he was raised by either Hermes, a few rain-nymphs, or an underworld-dwelling Persephone. Whoever it was that taught the strapping young lad—he was known for his exceptional beauty—his ABCs instilled him with something far more important than a rudimentary understanding of equations or road-crossing etiquette. Whether you know him as Dionysus as the Greeks did, or Bacchus as their Roman descendants renamed him, one thing remains the same: he fucking loved a pint.
More accurately speaking, it was the cheap plonk that he was absolutely bonkers for. Having discovered both the vine and the extraction method necessary to transform it into deep, dark, full-bodied tempranillo, he started downing gallons of the stuff. I think it was Homer who described him as being a bit like "one of those old sods who barks into their pint with a two day old copy of the Express hanging out the back of their muddy trousers at nine in the morning," which was a presumably fair assessment from one of the finest chroniclers of the age. Dionysus was the original human of the sesh.
As the first being to realise that with a bit of elbow grease pretty much anything can get you sozzled, it naturally followed that he got a bit carried away with the grog. Dionysus was eventually packed off on a jaunt around the known world—a sort of hyper-extended version of the two-stops-early walk home you might do after a particularly gregarious evening on the Alpine Lager and dry roasted peanuts. The difference between you and him is that while your pissed-up perambulations might see you flirting with a face-first trip into a bush, the madhead himself went on to pootle about most of the (then) known world. Though there are no reports that verify just how squiffy the bastard got out in the desert, but I'd wager a few drachma that he had a pretty much permanent hangover. In many ways, this was Dionysus' equivalent of that first big lads holiday to a Croatian festival, except, sadly, he didn't get to see Artwork going B2B with a dustbin at 5AM.
In a way, the history of the world is a history of drinkers, and we can thank the lion-riding legend himself for that—and look, even when he's astride a majestic beast, tearing across the dusty plains of North Africa he's got time for a quick sup. From the vantage point of the modern and monotheistic world, we might look at the ancient inclination to turn pretty much everyone into the god of, well, anything as slightly off, even though this pattern of canonisation was, of course, adopted in Christianity, and by now there's probably a patron saint of fidget spinners. I challenge you, though, to find me any one saint who can claim to have metaphorical ownership over vine, grape harvest, winemaking, wine, ritual madness, religious ecstasy, and theatre in the way that the Greek Keith Floyd can. Without him, people simply wouldn't know how to party; we'd be stuck in the house with crosswords and Songs of Praise for company.
The shadow he has cast over humankind—rather predictably it takes the form of one of those novelty oversized wine glasses you can buy from Hawkins Bazaar—has taken various forms, but arguably the most important is a linguistic one. We talk of the dionysian and the bacchanalian so often that we forget their origin. Which isn't surprising given that as far as I understand it, ancient Greek mythology doesn't play a huge role in the nation curriculum and no one's actually bothered reading all of The Odyssey.
Those terms find their own linguistic markers in time, are updated to fit contemporary use. For right or wrong, we are very much living in the age of the sesh. The sesh, as my colleague Angus Harrison pointed out in his illuminating and important essay "Blood, Ket, and Tears: What "The Sesh" Can Tell Us About 2016," the sesh is, "a kingdom of 3 in 1 packs of Amber Leaf, thick cut lines, bleary-eyed bus journeys home in daylight, cracked tinnies and soupy, thick, inescapable comedowns." This world, as Harrison rightly points out, isn't anything new, noting that "after the very first neanderthal ritual or primitive ceremony, one bare-footed primate grunted to another something about "heading back to my cave for afters."
What is new, in terms of an attitude rather than any actuality, is the quasi-glorification of the more squalid side of the sesh—there's an almost perverse pleasure taken in presenting the after party as a scene from a Ken Loach documentary about Sodom. Perhaps, like the million terrible "haha anxiety millennnial lol xanax fuccbois it me kermit sleep is good i hate everything ru paul is goals its lit' memes that clog up the internet like pubes in a hostel plug hole, the ironic lionisation of wanton, self-destructive hedonism is a reaction to world in which sense has become nonsense, where the known and the sure become less sure and less known as the days go by. It is the social currency of a generation who have nothing better to do than drink their weekends away in a cloud of half-hearted chats about the electability of Clive Lewis—a generation for whom Dionysian pleasure has become something grimmer, seedier, darker.
Whether this was what Zeus had in mind when he rescued his son all those years ago is debatable. After all, the conflict between Dionysus and his brother Apollo—the god of rationality and reason—played a fundamental part in the creation of the dramatic arts, and thus is a pivotal element of what we consider culture. How that mutated into Facebook posts about bags of cans, is a prime example of what happens when we mortals play god.
So, next time you find yourself sat in a stranger's flat at 11 on a Sunday morning, swigging sugary dregs out of a four hour old can, your mouth creamy with the debris of cigarettes and nitrous oxide, raise a tin to the man who started the whole thing: Dionysus, you fucking legend.