When it comes to Dionysus, there are various elements which are … challenging to make sense of. This is as it should be. One of these concerns the likely etymology – and therefore meaning – of one of His most prominent theonymics: Bacchus (or Bakkhos, Βάκχος, etc.).
Usually it’s suggested to somehow be connected to a Latin term for “berry”, and therefore pertain to the obvious – Wine. But we have an entirely different – and much more spiritually resonant – view.
Here’s an excerpt from my recent RUDRAGANIKA piece – the overarching thrust of which was to consider the various manifestations of that female Retinue of the Sky Father known to us as the Maenads, Thiasoi, Bacchae, etc. – which solves the issue via some innovative application of both linguistics and comparative Indo-European theology.
“Instead, I would seek to link it to another Greek term – Iacchus – that is most certainly of a considerable Dionysian saliency. This derives from ἰάχω (Iakho), a term referring to the act of ‘Crying Out’, ‘Screaming’ – a forceful exultation or terrifying roar. Rather like, we may suggest … the ‘Roar’ that is ‘Rudra’ (itself, via PIE *Hrewdh, a ‘Wail’, the ‘Howling of the Storm Wind’), or the ‘Ghosa’ we find attested for the situation of Rudra’s female Ganas as ‘Ghosini’.
The actual PIE etymology is a bit … complex, but appears to link to a certain *(s)weh₂gʰ-. I would query whether this is in fact a close compatriot of the better-attested PIE *wekʷ- – whence our most excellent friend, Vak [Goddess of Speech], Voice, Vox, etc. Certainly, the situation of Sanskrit वग्नु (Vagnu – similarly, a roar or a speaker) being from the former yet sounding rather close to the latter should seem instructive in this regard.
We can be reasonably sure that we are on a rather … useful path in this regard when we consider the hailing for Dionysus found in Orphic Hymnal 30 – Βακχεῖον ἄνακτα. Why is this pertinent? Check the transliteration. ‘Beta’ in Ancient Greek, is often thought of as being a ‘B’ sound. It can be. However, it can also be something of a ‘V’ sound. There is some … considerable academic debate as to just how far back that particular kernel goes, and in which dialects of Ancient Greek (strictly speaking, Koine Greek – although it might potentially predate this). We shall not get into the depths of the phonological debate here.
We shall, however, note that ‘Vakheion Anakta’, ‘Ruler of Vakkhos’, is a suspiciously close coterminate for a term that is most familiar to us in the Hindusphere: Vachaspati. What does this mean? Pati (Lord, but also Husband) of Vak. It occurs in a few (not unrelated) senses in the Sanskrit liturgies. For one thing, it is a way to say ‘Brihaspati’ (‘Lord of the Songs of Prayer’), another form of Rudra – Vak is His Wife (and yes, Vachaspati also occurs in direct appellative application to Rudra elsewhere). For another, it occurs as a term for a ‘Priest’ – a ‘Lord of the Sacred Speech’, indeed. It is, after all, only through Her Blessing that the male whom (or Whom) She Chooses (Kama) is able to carry out their (or Their) most resounding – perforce – performance. ‘Anax’, here, has a different shade of meaning to ‘Pati’ – instead, we may feasibly render it as something approaching ‘Commander’, ‘Director’. Certainly, it is not hard to see how eminently apt that ought be for a Priest (especially if there is a lack of a direct divine personification for the Sacred Speech in question).
In any case, PIE *(s)weh₂gʰ- effectively means a rather penetrating ‘Sound’ – indeed, modern English ‘Sound’ is similarly from this root, as is ‘Swoon’ (although the Old English which more directly underpins this – Swogan – also entails the sense of a rampaging motion, ‘invading’, ‘moving with force’ or violence). We can tell that it is not simply any kind of sound via various of the post-PIE derivatives which have rather pointedly sought to hone in upon a sort of keening cry – Latin Vagio, to refer to a wail, for instance. I would also be tempted to posit a certain ‘resoundingness’ to its characteristic, based around not only the other comparative usages – but also given the seeming resonance between this and other Ancient Greek derivatives with the onomatopoeic employment utilized for the Chorus of Frogs in the course of Aristophanes’ most excellently Dionysian (and Katabatic) play by that same name. Βρεκεκεκὲξ κοὰξ κοάξ (Brekekeke Koax Koax), indeed. A play wherein we significantly repeatedly encounter the Dionysus engaged in a ‘mysterious’ (in both senses of the term) agon for the purposes of salvation (to the polis), hailed directly as Iakkhos. “Dance On, And We’ll Follow!”
We might also note that the specific nature of one of the better-attested ‘cries’ in question – ‘Eis Oros’ – is of further probative value. ‘To the Mountain!’ … or, perhaps more figuratively, ‘Let’s Get High!’ A scenario wherein the situation of a woman becoming a Maenad, a Bacchant, is only possible in the ‘Mountainous’ environment – whilst experiencing in literal and/or metaphorical and/or metaphysical terms, a certain ‘high’-ness. We might certainly link this to the Oreiads … and also those female Kiratas (mountain-dwelling ‘savage’ hunters) encountered alongside Rudra.
After all, as Aristophanes puts it:
“Dionysos, who delightest to mingle with the dear choruses of the Nymphai Oreiai, and who repeatest, while dancing with them, the sacred hymn, Euios, Euios, Euoi! Echo, the Nymphe of Cithaeron, returns thy words, which resound beneath the dark vaults of the thick foliage and in the midst of the rocks of the forest; the ivy enlaces thy brow with its tendrils charged with flowers.”
That ‘Euios’ (εὐαί – ‘Euae’) cry, in case you had been wondering, is effectively a ‘Howl’. Whether ecstatic, or perhaps somewhat otherwise. Goes nicely with the Wolves in that regard. And the prominent Dionysian theonymics ‘Euaster’ and ‘Euios’.
I should note that it is more conventionally regarded as ‘εὐοῖ’ (Euoi), with a potentially folk-etymology of ‘Good Son’ (‘Eu’ and ‘Huios’ respectively); yet whilst ‘Good Son!’ might indeed seem a potential joyous refrain for Dionysian devotees, it nevertheless seems to lack the ‘organic’ nature of the more simple and decidedly onomatopoeic explanation. One which, as it happens, may render this ‘Howl’ a cognate to our modern ‘Ovation’.
So, what does all of this mean ? Well, for a start, it posits yet another point (indeed – full-scale suite) of distinct coterminity between Dionysus and Rudra. This is unsurprising to us.”
They are, after all, as we have capaciously explored elsewhere – the same God.
Jai Sri Rudra !
ॐ नमः शिवाय