Sepphoris PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
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Dionysus at Sepphoris

On the acropolis, just east of the citadel and above the theatre, was a large residence, built around 200 AD (when the Mishnah was being written in Sepphoris) and destroyed in the major earthquake of 363. The rubble covered the floor of its dining room. This was in the form of a triclinium, typical for the Roman aristocracy: diners lay on couches, set up in the shape of a U. When the archaeologists scraped the dirt from the floor, they discovered what the diners contemplated as they ate and drank: a remarkable mosaic depicting scenes from the life of Dionysus. Those who lay on the middle couch had before them the exquisite portrait of a lady. She was cast in the role of Venus with a Cupid on her right shoulder.
The colors in a mosaic are those of the actual stones (cut into semi-cubes called tesserae). This one features 23 shades. When the artist reached the lady, he chose smaller tesserae, enabling him to bring such nuance to her cheeks and glance that she appears to come alive. To the young girl who scraped the dirt away in 1982, it must have seemed like a resurrection. The effect is heightened by contrast with the surrounding mosaic, done in a rougher style.
Fifteen panels celebrate Dionysus (Bacchus), perhaps the only Greco-Roman god who is still much worshiped today. After a lengthy disappearance, he re-emerged in 1956 on the Ed Sullivan Show in the person of Elvis Presley. For Dionysus is not just the "god of wine," but the god of frenzy, the god of letting go, a god who brings to the surface subterranean urges that threaten to break up the social order. The greatest expression of this aspect is the Bacchae by Euripides (a recent edition of which features Elvis on the cover). The main phenomena of Dionysus' cult can be found in the modern rock concert, where the devotees (Maenads) are "fans," and where the long-haired star incarnates this god whose tresses were vines.

outcome-of-bout.jpgThe central panel in the Sepphoris mosaic (above) shows Dionysus in the midst of a drinking bout with Heracles (Hercules), while the flutes of his cousin Pan are played between them. In a panel northwest of this (right) we see the outcome: Heracles is on the floor, while Dionysus, inverting the cup to show he has drunk it all, retains control. There we have the principle of Dionysus. His rivals and his devotees may fall on their faces, but the god himself never loses control. He is the epitome of abandon and control, such that one can say: the more wildness, the more form. It is the paradox of all great art, of which this god is patron.

A "Homeric Hymn" to Dionysus shows that he could transform things to wine by a touch. And now, thanks to recent archaeological discoveries, we can see how strong his worship was in Galilee, famous for its many wines. Not only do we have this mosaic floor, but we find him in grand style at Scythopolis: he was the patron of that mighty city. When Jesus was growing up, Dionysus must have been a powerful presence throughout the area. That would have been the context for the first of the signs in the Gospel of John (John 2:1-11). Jesus and his mother attend a wedding at Cana, probably Khirbet Kana just across the valley from Sepphoris (perhaps he had met the future bridegroom while both were workmen here). There Jesus does the "Dionysus-thing," out-Dionysusing Dionysus in Dionysus-land. 

The story of Dionysus' birth expresses his character. His father was Zeus. The mother, however, was not Hera, Zeus' wife, but Semele, a mortal. Disguised as an old woman, Hera wheedled the pregnant Semele into wheedling Zeus to show himself in his true form. This was of course the lightning stroke, which turned Semele to a crisp. Zeus saved the embryo and sewed it into his thigh, out of which, at term, burst the god of flowing wine.

In an alternate version, the mother was Persephone, who finished her nine months. Jealous Hera set the Titans against the infant. They hacked him to pieces, devouring all but the heart. Zeus rescued this, had Semele eat it, and out of her Dionysus was born a second time.

Both versions contain the idea of death and rebirth. Dionysus was sometimes called the "twice-born" and the "insewn." There may be a connection to the practice of pruning the vines, as well as to the deep winter sleep that vines must undergo in order to produce good grapes.