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Smashing the patriarchy, smashing grapes: The all-female cult of Bacchus

Meet Paculla Annia: feminist, anarchist, high priestess - and historical enigma.

Any screenwriters looking for a Hollywood-friendly new on.

This is the fascinating story I discovered when researching the Bacchanalia of classical times. Paculla Annia was a Campanian Priestess and Bacchic cult leader who came to be seen as a dangerous threat to the structure of patriarchal Roman society, leading to the matriarchal cult's brutal repression.

In fact, she represents the original archetype for the witch (read: powerful, ergo terrifying, woman that doesn't fit neatly into the virgin/whore binary) in Western culture. The tropes of the Medieval witch (secret nocturnal meetings, female leadership, music, dancing, shrieking) can literally be traced back to the Bacchanalias "especially in the time when they were led by priestess Paculla Annia (188-186)".

It's no surprise that throughout history women have often been blamed for troubles faced by the ‘body politic’.

Such as the Vestal Virgins of Ancient Rome, who were tasked with keeping alight the sacred flame of Vesta, the goddess of hearth and home, becoming 'surrogate housekeepers', in a religious sense, for all of Rome.

Their virginity was thought to be directly correlated to the sacred burning of the fire. If the fire were extinguishe - a terrible omen for the Roman state - the Vestals were to blame. Promiscuity of a Vestal, who took a sacred oath of chastity for 30 years as a young girl, was punishable by being sealed into an underground tomb in the Campus Sceleratus ('evil field'), outside the city walls of Rome, with just a few day's food supply. Why such a cruel death? Because you can't shed the blood of a Vestal, so they invented this... clever.. technicality.

Classical historians have shown how Vestals were regularly used as scapegoats when things went wrong - drought, famine etc.

“Women had the destructive power … to wreck what men versed in politics and war had built”.


A key concept in the Roman psyche is Pax Deorum - Pax Hominum - a delicate, mutual balance between the peace and goodwill of the gods, and the peace and welfare of the people. The Gods safeguard the welfare of the people, in return for being worshipped - in the correct way.

Roman religion was an organic accumulation of various cults, the Greco-Roman 'Mysteries', and power (and therefore, order) was inextricably linked to religion.

Yet, cults could have a hierarchical structure that was different to the prevailing social hierarchy... If the state did not control them, they could generate a ‘second people’ which could lead to revolution, undermining or even overthrowing the existing state.


The first versions of the cult of Bacchus were open only to women and were shrouded in secrecy - open only to those who had been initiated, as was common with the various cults 'mysteries' the comprised Roman religion.

They carried on quietly for centuries, it seems, undisturbed by the senate.

But in 188 BC, Paculla Annia, a Campanian Priestess professing herself to be under the influence of Bacchus, is said to have presided over what was seen as the “corruption” of Bacchus's mystery cult, leading up to its brutal suppression in 186 BC.

She increased the frequency of the Bacchanalia from 3 times a year, to 5 times a month, and changed it from a daytime to a nighttime ritual. Previously the reserve of women, she also opened them up to all social classes and both sexes, beginning by initiating her two sons into the cult.

The cult gained thousands of followers, and grew rapidly in its power and influence. It was thought to function as a hidden state within the state, with "particular appeal to those with 'leuitas animi' (fickle or uneducated minds); the lower classes, plebeians, women, the young, morally weak, and "men most like women" … but even men of the highest class were not immune."

The roman historian Livy’s account tells how women made up the most influential groups with this particular cult, and this of course, was their main crime.

Describing the thousands of worshippers, Postumius tells his audience that “a great number are women and they are the source of this evil”.


The fact that young men would be initiated into the cult of Bacchus, began to represent a serious challenge to the authority and structure of patriarchal Roman society.

At this time, young men of 14-16 years old were supposed to be initiated into Roman citizenship under the watchful eyes of the oldest mail relative. The teenage boy would discard the crimson-bordered toga (toga praetexta) of his childhood, and don the pure white toga of a man - the toga virilis'.

"When the boy was ready, the procession to the Forum began. The father had gathered his slaves, freedmen, clients, relatives and friends, using all his influence to make his son's escort numerous and imposing. Here the boy's name was added to the list of citizens, and formal congratulations were extended. Then the family climbed up to the temple of Liber on the Capitoline Hill, where an offering was made to the god. Finally they all returned to the house, where the day ended with a dinner party given by the father in honour of the new Roman citizen."

Thus the ‘most alarming aspect of this gathering of marginals… was the fact that very young men were initiated by their mothers… in short, women were taking the place of both father and the city'.


The fact that teenaged boys were initiated by women cause anxiety levels that led to the extraordinary violence with which the cult was then suppressed.

Livy’s account characterised the cult of Bacchus as representing ‘disorder and madness, while the state, represented by the (all male) senate, stands for order and sanity.’

However, the repression "was more a matter of the control of people’s allegiance to Rome, its society and religion, than a case of the Bacchic cult’s essential immorality".

But the cult was ‘held to be a threat to the security of the state, investigators were appointed, rewards were offered to informants, legal processes were put in place and the Senate began the official suppression of the cult throughout Italy. ... many committed suicide to avoid indictment.’

The penalty for leadership was death; there were more executions than imprisonments. With over 6,000 executions, the suppression of the Bacchic cult was unprecedented in its cruelty - “there is nothing comparable in religious history before the persecutions of Christians”.

A copy of the the “Senatorial decree concerning the Bacchanalia” which banned the Bacchanalia throughout Italy, was discovered in Tiriolo, Campania, southern Italy in 1640 and now hangs in the Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna.

Paculla’s fate, however, is unknown. Illicit Bacchanals persisted covertly for many years, particularly in Southern Italy, their likely place of origin.


This is one of the enduring questions. Not much is known about what actually happened as initiates were sworn to secrecy. It seems ‘bacchantes’ would seek an ecstatic state, 'emerging from the ego' to be united with god, through dancing, wine - and other orgiastic activities depending on which accounts and contemporary propaganda you read; from wine-fueled violence to mandatory sexual promiscuity and crime to omophagia (eating raw meat).

Accounts tell of Bacchantes, "with hair dishevelled, would run down to the Tiber with burning torches, plunge them into the water, and take them out again. Their flames would not diminish as they were made of sulphur mixed with lime".

The best, and most tantalising clues we have as to what happened during these mysterious Bacchic initiations are reflected in the incredibly vivid frescoes of The Villa of Mysteries, on the outskirts of the city of Pompeii.

(However, we have to bear in mind these date (c. 50 bc) to long AFTER the suppression of the cult (186bc). So they are likely inspired as much by Satyr plays and mythology as first-hand observation).


As I was researching this I was struck by how inconsistent her legacy is. Was she a she-devil, or was she a sexually emancipated matriarch, who got too powerful for the senate's liking? She is surely an undiscovered feminist icon:

Religious leader, matriarch, sexually-emancipated and sexually powerful, anarchist, priestess. She doesn't fit the mould of "virgin" or "whore" and so she literally becomes the archetype for the first "witch"; the patriarchy's only place for women who don't fit neatly (on pain of death) under either designation.

Seriously - someone's got to write her story - I feel a new Hollywood heroine coming on!



A Bacchanalian Wine Dinner In Honour of International Women's Day

On the 4th March I will be hosting an event to celebrate International Women's Day with collaborators Jenius Social.

While there'll be no scary initiation rites, there will be a trough full of grapes for my guests to tread in - we will be smashing the grapes, and smashing the proverbial patriarchy with an evening of sisterhood and celebration!



Vestal Virgins, Sibyls, and Matrons: Women in Roman Religion:

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