Review: The Story of Bacchus by Andrew Dalby
Andrew Dalby is a linguist and historian who seems to know his stuff. I just can’t quite get behind is manner of presentation.
The Story of Bacchus is written almost like a biography, which might seem cute and charming but I didn’t think it was pulled off very well. Biographies tend to be linear and factual and usually don’t have many contradictions and differing evidence (usually, right? I actually haven’t read a biography in years, but this is how I imagine them to be.)
When writing about a God, however, how does one write linearly? How does one stick to facts? How does one avoid contradictions and how does one reconcile the evidence? Dably makes a gallant attempt at this. Seriously, he knows his stuff. It’s not the content that I thought was weird (well, it is, but that’s just Bacchus for you.) The presentation of The Story of Bacchus was just… strange, awkward, and sometimes a bit bizarre. (Or is this just the nature of Bacchus…?) I read it quickly, and it was an easy read. I even enjoyed the content. I just couldn’t get behind the writing style.
The Story begins with the love story of Zeus and Semele, and Dalby makes what I think is a reference to butt sex. He then tells about Bacchus’s childhood, adolescence, his wild wanderings in India, wine, his friends, his lovers, his triumphs, his agonies, and how he fits into the Hellenistic cosmology. All of this is great and detailed and really interesting. I’ve been studying Bacchus for years and this book really helped fill in some gaps and connect some pieces that I’ve been struggling with.
So the book is written like a story (“Zeus said this, and then Semele said this, and this is what Hera thought, and then this happened, and then this thing, and then this.”) But then he inserts some historical stuff, like chapter breaks, and this just disrupts the flow of the writing. It’s a unique way of annotating the text without adding footnotes, but it’s distracting and he doesn’t pull it off gracefully. And then the story resumes, and poor Dalby tries to be conversational with his presentation but it just seems a bit awkward and fumbling.
That all said, I liked the content of this book. (I just really didn’t like the writing style and the presentation of the information.) Dalby knows his myth, and his knows his primary (and sometimes secondary) sources. I appreciated this because now I have a better idea of which dead Greek guys said which thing about which Deity. And while I think Dalby wasn’t trying to present a heavily academic book, I think I would have appreciated old-fashioned footnotes as opposed to random paragraphs and interruptions in the text.
I keep on trying to compare this book to Otto, but they’re just too different. At first I wish I had read this one before reading Otto, thinking this one might have been easier to read and added context to Otto, but they both do different things. Dolby tells a story, Otto presents… well, somewhere between an academic treatise and a devotional piece. I don’t know if it matters if one is read before the other, just as long as both are read. They’re both useful additions to any Dionysian library.