In this hymn to Bacchus, a God he often addresses, Horace achieves a powerful impression of intoxication which feels as though it owes something to spirituality and devotion, as well as to wine. It is packed with mythological reference, from Bacchus’s playful tricks with devotees’ hair to the desperate battle of the Gods to save Olympus from the assault of the Titans. The Thyiadae are Bacchantes, the God’s female devotees. The wife honoured by her crown becoming a constellation was Ariadne, who saved Theseus from the Cretan labyrinth. In the last stanza not even Cerberus, the watchdog of Hades, can resist this awe-inspiring but loveable God – see William Blake’s painting of Cerberus in the illustrated blog post here.
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Bacchum in remotis carmina rupibus
vidi docentem, credite posteri,
Nymphasque discentis et auris
capripedum Satyrorum acutas.
euhoe, recenti mens trepidat metu,
plenoque Bacchi pectore turbidum
laetatur. euhoe, parce Liber,
parce gravi metuende thyrso.
fas pervicacis est mihi Thyiadas
vinique fontem lactis et uberes
cantare rivos atque truncis
lapsa cavis iterare mella;
fas et beatae coniugis additum
stellis honorem tectaque Penthei
disiecta non leni ruina
Thracis et exitium Lycurgi
tu flectis amnis, tu mare barbarum,
tu separatis uvidus in iugis
nodo coerces viperino
Bistonidum sine fraude crinis.
tu, cum parentis regna per arduum
cohors gigantum scanderet inpia,
Rhoetum retorsisti leonis
unguibus horribilique mala;
quamquam choreis aptior et iocis
ludoque dictus non sat idoneus
pugnae ferebaris; sed idem
pacis eras mediusque belli.
te vidit insons Cerberus aureo
cornu decorum leniter atterens
caudam et recedentis trilingui
ore pedes tetigitque crura.
I saw Bacchus on the distant crags teaching songs and the Nymphs who learned them, and the pointed ears of the goat-footed Satyrs: believe it, you who are yet to come!
Euoi, my mind reels with the freshness of my fear, and in my breast, possessed by Bacchus, confused rejoicing reigns. Euoi, spare me, Bacchus, spare me from the terrible weight of your staff!
It is right and holy that I should sing of the Bacchantes, the fountain of wine and the rich streams of milk, and tell of the honey that drips from the hollows of trees;
right and holy to tell of the honour to your wife added to the constellations, of Pentheus’s house destroyed by the most crushing ruin, and of the doom of Thracian Lycurgus.
You change the course of rivers and the savage sea; flushed with wine, on remote mountain ridges you dress the hair of the Thracian women with a harmless knot of serpents.
You, when the sacrilegious gang of Titans climbed the steeps to your Father’s realm, wrenched back Rhoetus with your lion-talons and fearful maw;
supposed to be better suited to dance and merriment, and thought less well equipped for battle, yet you were the same in the midst of peace and war.
Cerberus looked on you and gave no harm, gorgeous with your horn of gold, and, gently wrapping you with his tail as you passed, licked your feet and legs with all three tongues.