June 24, 2012

God of Wine Part II: The Church of Bacchus

In the year 1820, Ephraim Lyon of Eastford, Connecticut came up with a surprising idea: he decided to found a church dedicated to Bacchus, the god of wine.

The temperance movement was starting to gain influence at this time, so perhaps Ephraim's religious revelation was in reaction to the movement's anti-alcohol messages. Whatever the reason, Ephraim took his calling seriously. As the History of Windham County, Connecticut notes,

He named himself as the high priest, saying he must become badly intoxicated several times each year in order that he might hold the office. 

The rest of the church's membership was composed of those who "used intoxicating liquids to excess." Members didn't need to apply, and Ephraim didn't ask permission before adding someone to the church's membership list. Instead, he added a new member's name whenever he learned of someone who had been drinking heavily. Eventually, the Church of Bacchus had more than 1,000 members, both male and female, in its congregation. The only way to be removed from Ephraim's list was to go on the wagon.

Unfortunately because of the growing temperance movement many of the church's members didn't want their names on the list, and asked Ephraim to be removed. He refused. The requests became threats, but still Ephraim refused. Fearing for life and property, Ephraim's wife finally burned her husband's list, but he recreated it from memory and hid it someplace secure. It was rumored that he shared the list only with an inner circle of church deacons derived from Windham County's most zealous drinkers.

A Roman sarcophagus decorated with a Bacchic scene.
Despite threats and being socially ostracized, Ephraim maintained his devotion to the god of wine until his death in 1840. The deacons and other devout Bacchants memorialized his life with plenty of strong liquor and merrymaking. Ephraim claimed that "members who died in full membership were said to go the Bacchanalian revels of their patron god," so I hope he's happy somewhere with a big glass of wine in his hand.

Was Ephraim Lyon serious about his church? Did he really believe in Bacchus as the god of wine? I suppose it's impossible to say. Maybe he was just protesting against the temperance movement, or perhaps it was just all an elaborate joke.

I do wonder, though, if a joker would risk his life and his home the way Ephraim did. And Ephraim's statements about the afterlife match what the ancient followers of Bacchus believed. Perhaps he did receive a genuine divine revelation, even if it was a drunken one. As I noted in last week's post, Windham County did have a history of encounters with Bacchus.


I got this information from David Philips Legendary Connecticut (2001) and History of Windham County, Connecticut (1889) by Richard Bayles.

June 17, 2012

God of Wine Part I: The Windham Bacchus

One of the archetypal images of New England is the white steepled church standing next to the town common. These churches can be seen all over the region, and are a testament to early settlers' devotion to Christianity.

Sometimes, though, a little bit of paganism crept in, as this story illustrates. 

On June 10 in the year 1776 the British ship Bombrig was captured by American naval forces in Long Island Sound. Four of the ship's crew were sent to a crude jail in Windham, Connecticut.

The four men were Edward Sneyd, the ship's commander; John Coggin, the ship's Irish boatswain, who supervised the deck crew; John Russell, the ship's carpenter; and a fourth sailor named William Cook. Although the men were not tortured or particularly mistreated, prisons and jails in the 18th century were grim places where prisoners were confined in small, poorly ventilated cells and fed poorly.

Luckily for the sailors, the owner of a tavern on the other side of Windham's Green (the town common) took pity on them and provided them with good food and plenty of alcohol. Very little is known about the owner except her name - Widow Carey. Who Mr. Carey was and how he passed away is unknown. History is also mute about why she acted so charitably towards the prisoners, but it doesn't take much imagination to guess why a lonely woman might be drawn to four needy sailors. Some people just love a man in uniform!

To repay Widow Carey's charity the sailors asked their wardens for a large log, which they were given. Using just their jackknives they carved from it an image of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine.

The Windham Bacchus

Roughly two feet tall, the Windham Bacchus portrays the god as a naked chubby man astride a keg of wine. Bacchus holds a bowl of grapes and apples in front of his unmentionables, and he has chubby cheeks and a big smile. Widow Carey accepted the carving from the sailors and mounted it in front of her tavern.

In November the sailors escaped from Windham's jail and made their way to Norwich, Connecticut, where they stole a canoe. While paddling their way towards Long Island, the canoe capsized and Sneyd, Russell and Cook drowned. John Coggin survived but was recaptured.

The sailors met a grim fate, but their masterpiece lived on. Widow Carey kept it in front of her tavern for many years, until she married another tavern owner and moved it to his establishment. From there Bacchus was sold in 1827 to Lucius Albee, who ran the Staniford House tavern. Albee hung Bacchus from a giant elm tree, where it remained for many years until a large storm blew the sculpture down, breaking one of its arms. After languishing in a woodshed Bacchus was purchased for twenty-five cents, repaired, and celebrated as an iconic image from the Revolutionary War. You can now see it (or should I say him?) in the Windham Free Library.

I like to read about ancient Greco-Roman religion, so this story made my antennas perk up. I don't know much about the history of New England taverns, but it's interesting that tavern owners in Puritan-founded Connecticut would exhibit a statue of a pagan god. It's also interesting how the historical events surrounding the carving parallel ancient Bacchic myths and rituals.

Bacchus is the Roman name for Dionysos, the primordial god of wine and ecstasy. It makes sense for him to be associated with a tavern, but what about those British sailors? Dionysos was associated with water and the sea, and in some Greek rituals a statue of the god was pulled through the streets in a wagon shaped like a ship. In many myths Dionysos seeks refuge in the sea from his oppressors, and also emerges from it to triumph over his enemies. In one famous myth, Dionysos is kidnapped by sailors who want to sell him into slavery. He transforms them into dolphins and they leap into the sea.

Dionysos was also associated with trees and even was addressed as Dionysos Dendrites ("Dionysos of the Trees"). Paintings from Greece show people worshiping his image attached to a tree, and he also guarded orchards. It's only fitting that Lucius Albee hung him from an elm.

Unfortunately there is a dark side to many of Dionysian myths. People who introduced his worship into an area or city often died by drowning, much like the sailors. For example, Dionysos taught Icarius of Athens to make wine, but Icarius was drowned in a well by drunken shepherds who erroneously thought he poisoned them. As an infant Dionysos was nursed by his aunt Ino, but she was driven mad by the jealous goddess Hera and drowned herself and her son Melicertes in the sea. At the god's sanctuary in Lerna a lamb was thrown into an allegedly bottomless lake as an offering to underworld deities. 

Was there some supernatural or divine force at work in 18th century Windham? I don't want to speculate too much. After all I don't want to sound too paranoid. Maybe historic events just sometimes follow ancient mythic patterns.

On the other hand, there was an actual Bacchus cult in Windham County in the 19th century. But that's my post for next week!


I got my information from History of Windham County, Connecticut (1889) by Richard Bayles, and The Story of Bacchus (1876) by Brigham Payne, William Lawton Weaver, and Samuel Peters.

June 11, 2012

Noah Webster and His Wife

Did you ever wonder why Americans spell the word "color" one way, while the British spell it "colour?"

There are lots of ways American spellings differ from the British: center vs. centre, theater vs. theatre, wagon vs. waggon, etc.  American spellings seem simpler and more intuitive than their British counterparts.

The American versions of these words were codified by Connecticut's own Noah Webster. Webster was born in Hartford in 1758 to a well-off farm family, and was home schooled by his mother in mathematics, music, and spelling (of course). Webster attended Yale and got a law degree, but after floundering around for a while he eventually found his true calling as an educator, opening a school in Goshen and writing a speller, a grammar book, and a reading book for his students.

Webster strongly supported the American Revolution, and carried his political opinions into his educational work. He felt America should be free of European ornamentation and ostentation, so he simplified the spelling of words. Get that letter "u" out of "glamour" and "colour" - it's too showy! His spelling book sold over 15 million copies and created the tradition of spelling bees. He also thought America should be a rational nation, so his grammar book and reading book drew on secular stories rather than the Biblical tales that had been used in schools previously.

In 1825 Webster published An American Dictionary of the English Language, which had taken him fifteen years to compile.  An American Dictionary contained 12,000 words which had never appeared in dictionaries before, including common American words like "skunk" and "squash" that had been omitted from British dictionaries.

Noah Webster

Noah Webster clearly had a very impressive intellect, and made an enormous impact on the life of all Americans. As a result, folktales about his life were once very common. They have now mostly disappeared, but David E. Philips includes this one in his wonderful book Legendary Connecticut.

One day Noah's wife Rebecca needed their pretty young maid to run an errand, but she couldn't find her anywhere. Rebecca looked in the kitchen, she looked in the barn, and she looked in the orchard but the maid was nowhere to be seen.

Rebecca Greenleaf Webster

The only room left unchecked was Noah's study. The door was shut, and Rebecca knew this meant her husband was hard at work on some intellectually strenuous project. The errand was urgent, though, so she quietly opened the door to her husband's study to see if the maid was inside.

She was, and Noah was passionately kissing her.

Rebecca cried out, "Noah, I'm so surprised!"

Noah turned to his wife, and always eager to demonstrate his masterful vocabulary said, "I beg to differ with you, my dear. I am surprised. You are astonished."

Neither tradition nor Legendary Connecticut record Rebecca's reply, but I'm sure many of her words were of the four-letter kind.

June 03, 2012

Raising Hell

Did you ever want to summon Satan? You know, maybe become rich and famous overnight without any hard work? Just make sure you read the fine print on that contract Old Scratch is handing you...

Apparently it's not that hard to call up the Devil. According to Clifton Johnson's book What They Say in New England, if you simply say the Lord's Prayer backwards the Devil will appear. I don't know if this charm really works, and I'm not going to experiment.

This superstition appears in other New England lore, like the story about two young ladies looking for love who accidentally summon a demon. I don't think it originated in New England, though, since similar beliefs are found around the world. For example, in Newfoundland saying the Lord's Prayer in reverse will summon a terrible hag that gives your enemy nightmares, while Scotsmen who want to meet the Devil trace a circle of chalk and recite the Pater Noster backwards.

It's a belief that has persisted into the present, as a quick search of the Internet will show. It's also related to the Satanic music scares of the 1970s and 1980s when rock stars allegedly backwards messages into their music. Even as late as 1991 a band with the charming name Cradle of Filth put a backwards Lord's Prayer on an album.

In his classic of 1970s occultism, Mastering Witchcraft, Paul Huson recommends reciting the Lord's Prayer backwards as the first step to becoming a witch or warlock. Not that it will really summon Satan, Huson claims, but rather it will clear the nouveau witch of all that pesky Christian conditioning. Huson is obviously skilled in the ways of magic, since he wrote several successful TV shows, including The Colbys, a spinoff of night-time soap opera Dynasty.

The images for today's post were painted by Thomas Deas and John Quidor in the 19th century, and are illustrations for Washington Irving's story "The Devil and Tom Walker."  Tom Walker is a greedy Yankee who makes a deal with Satan and becomes Boston's most successful loan and mortgage broker. As you can tell from the paintings things don't end well.

One interesting thing about Irving's story is that Satan is summoned in an abandoned Indian fort in the woodsy wilderness of Brighton, Massachusetts. How our landscape and traditions have changed! These days Brighton is a dense Boston neighborhood full of Boston University and Boston College students, who do their hell-raising primarily with kegs and red plastic Solo cups.