Red-Letter Days & Red-Hot Nights
Heroines and villains show up in the strangest places. Take this story of two flesh-and-blood gals named Hispala and Paculla.
First, a little background. In Thrace, a lightly populated wilderness north of Athens, the female followers of the wine god Dionysus used to get together three times a year. Their rites, called orgia (origin of our word orgy), were secret. And it was a girls-only gathering. Once initiated, matrons as well as young unmarried women would decompress by hanging out together all day and night. Everyone loved the maenad gear too: ivy garlands, fawn-skin robes, a walking stick made of fennel, and an optional live snake or two.
While the sun was up, the gals confined themselves to mild mischief: binge drinking, hallucinogen intake, and raucous singing. As it grew later, the maenads ran barefoot in frenzied, torch-carrying glee on the hillsides, occasionally bringing down a victim or two (usually mammal, on occasion an unlucky higher primate) to serve as carpaccio appetizers. And so it went for ages.
Then a smarty-pants priestess named Paculla, whose turn it was to direct the Dionysian activities, made major changes. First shock: she dragged her two grown sons into it. Then she bossily decreed they should allow more men to join. Finally she insisted that the group meet monthly for five consecutive nights of “initiation.” When the members groaned, she shut them up by hollering, “Dionysus the god personally told me to do it!”
In the third century B.C., the cult went mainstream, as more and more male initiates wiggled their way into the mix. And it spread from sleepy, bucolic Thrace to Greece and then to Italy. Now popularly known as Bacchanalia after Bacchus, the Latin name for the wine god, the cult took the Etruscans—always game for late-night partying—by storm. It then captured the fancy of big-city Romans, who were reveling in the ecstatic aftermath of a successful war against Hannibal and the Carthaginians. By 186 B.C., the wild initiations and orgiastic goings-on had reached a fever pitch—the cult had over seven thousand avid adherents in Italy alone. Red-Hot Nights
Living in Rome at that time was an upscale young courtesan named Hispala Fenecia, a former slave who longed to find a decent guy, settle down, and live the straight life. As it happened, she moved into a neighborhood where a good-looking fellow named Publius Aebutius lived with his mother and stepdad. Propinquity struck and sparks flew.
Although Hispala continued to turn a few tricks, she gave her new love the “on the house” intimacy discount. A generous sort, she also chipped in to help Aebutius with his finances, since he was kept on a tight leash by his parents. At length, convinced that her relationship was truly serious, Fenecia made out her will and designated her boyfriend as sole heir.
Meanwhile, the plot thickened, as plots tend to do. Aebutius’s stepdad Titus, who controlled the young man’s inheritance from his dead father, was a rotter. He’d played fast and loose with the funds. Fearing disclosure, he pressured his wife to compromise the boy in some fashion. “We’ve got to keep his trap shut,” Titus threatened.
After some coaching, the mother told her son that the last time he’d been ill with the dropsy, she’d made a vow to the gods that if he recovered she would initiate him into the Bacchus cult.
Bewildered, Aebutius agreed to comply, although the prep for such a ceremony—a ten-day chastity fast—sounded awful. By this time, he and Hispala kept no secrets from each other. That night, he told her he wouldn’t be around for the next couple of weeks—some religious vow the mater made while he was sick.
Orgies among the worshipers of wine god Dionysus, or Bacchus, often had wild initiation rites, their sordid secrets for members only.
When Hispala learned it was the Bacchanalians, she had a meltdown, cursing and lamenting. “No way will I let you do that!” she cried. “It’s an abomination and will destroy your life. I know—because when I was a slave, my mistress compelled me to take part in their hideous rites. Oh, the wine, the feasting, the loud music, the debauchery—it took me weeks to recover.”
Even though it sounded suspiciously like fun to Aebutius, he solemnly swore to his girlfriend that he’d confront his parents and just say no. When he told them, they screamed, “The caresses of that serpent have made your disrespect your parents and the gods!” With the help of four slaves, they kicked Publius Aebutius out of the house.
After much travail, a terrified Hispala and Aebutius took their story to a high official, the Roman consul. Hispala reluctantly agreed to give a full deposition, naming names and revealing what went on at the Bacchanalian orgies, but insisted on being placed in a witness protection program. A flood of details began to emerge. The orgies took place in the grove of Stimula, and the agenda included a mix of homosexual and heterosexual activities, with special emphasis on defiling new members, who all had to be under the age of twenty. Uncooperative initiates were defiled anyway, then tortured and/or killed.
Once Hispala got rolling, she spilled it all. “All those shrieks you hear five nights a month? That insanely loud drum and cymbal music? Bacchanalians. You might think it’s a live concert, but the noise is cover for the sounds of murder and rape,” added the young stoolie.
Thanks to the courageous testimony of Hispala and Aebutius, the entire Roman senate heard the case against the Bacchanalian cult and passed a decree to reward both of them. The senators voted the young man exemption from military service and 100,000 in coins. Hispala, the key witness, received the same amount—and also the legal freedom to wed a man of honorable birth. Oh, and round-the-sundial witness protection for her safety.
Did the two marry and live happily ever after? Roman historian Livy, that old spoilsport, didn’t say, although he did cover the story in vivid detail. As a postscript, however, Livy noted that the Bacchanalians were immediately restricted to holding their sacred rites in groups no larger than three women and two men—which really took the wind out of the defiling ceremonies.
By that time, enthusiasm for Bacchus bashes was flagging fast, since the authorities had rounded up everyone from the top-ranking orgiasts to the rank-and-file members of the “Bacchanalian conspiracy,” imprisoning and/ or executing more than five thousand men and women.
Nevertheless, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the rockin’ Bacchantes rose again. Centuries later, during the reign of Emperor Titus at the time of the Vesuvius eruption in A.D. 79, it was no longer a felony to explore the mysteries of Bacchic worship. In fact, the most stunning villa found in Pompeii, dubbed the Villa of the Mysteries, contains wraparound murals and male and female Bacchanalians carrying out their solemn (possibly felonious) rites.
The Egyptian goddess Isis became very popular in Rome. A loving mother, she was often depicted with her baby son or with a sistrum, a musical rattle.