Image Credit: Thiasos of Dionysos, c.525-500 BCE, Louvre Museum
An Alcohol Enthusiast
I’m an atheist, but even I know that sometimes the gods smile upon us.
Recently, my wife and I took our kids to one of the summer shacks that specialize in the foot-long hotdog (with a grilled bun sliced on the top, as any proper New Englander would expect). As we sat in sweltering heat around a picnic table, the family discussion turned to why the birch beer and cream soda from the local Hosmer Mountain company was so much better than those of the giant corporations. The conversation inspired my eleven year old son to think about drinks and he inquired, with the tone of a young scientist, “Dad, are you an alcohol enthusiast?”
“What do you mean by that, son?” I asked, “Are you just politely asking if I’m an alcoholic?”
He wasn’t. As he explained through his laughter, he wanted to know if—and why—I was so interested in alcoholic drinks, especially their history. As any teacher or parent knows, there is no tougher or more rigorously demanding an audience than a middle school student. His question strikes at the heart of this blog and much of career as a folklorist. And given that he’s in the direct line of succession for generations of alcoholics, the answer carries special responsibilities.
That’s how I prefaced my answer. I told him that I was interested in things that can bring joy and harm to people depending on how (and how often) they are used. I reminded him of my sorrow that his grandfather did not live long enough to meet him on account of his alcoholism and the lesson I drew from that required us to pay attention to such things. I also told him about the research that suggests an intimate connection between alcohol production and human civilization. I mentioned examples of rituals, celebrations, festivals, and similar events that include or focus on alcoholic drinks.
I passed the exam, at least for now.
The more I thought about it, the more enamored I became with the term “alcohol enthusiast.” My son’s use of language was more perceptive than perhaps he intended. The English word “enthusiasm” traces its origin to the ancient Greek enthousiasmos, which conveyed divine inspiration and possession by a divinity. Not surprisingly, such a state of being was associated with Dionysos, the god of wine and ecstasy—and a being whose actions, to the ancient imagination, occupied the border between pleasure and danger. (Connecticut, incidentally, once had a church of Bacchus—the Latin name for Dionysos, which I will explore in detail in a post someday.)
My son’s perspicacity also reached into my personal intellectual history. I owe a debt to many mentors who encouraged and shaped my interests, but Carl A. P. Ruck looms like a giant among them. Carl is a professor of Classical Studies at Boston University, where I basically failed out of a Ph.D. program before moving onto Indiana University to study folklore and rhetoric. His influence, however, was immense, even in the little time we worked together. Carl is known internationally for his work on mythology, religion, and the use of drugs and alcohol to produce altered states of consciousness.
Go to your favorite search engine and type in “entheogen.” You’ll find immediately that it was a term coined by Carl to capture—or perhaps recapture from the weakened term “enthusiasm”—those ingested and imbibed concoctions that resulted in an experience of the “god within” (the en-theos), substances that played such an important role in human civilization and early religious experience.
I’ll be certain to explore the insights of those who have studied entheogens and how even contemporary folklore continues to grapple with the intense and foundational experiences they entail. If you’re interested in an introduction to this kind of work—and be aware, it is occasionally regarded as controversial because it does not conform to a sanitized version of human history or promote the idea that humans are rational creatures—I would suggest grabbing any book that Carl has penned and enjoying the ride.
“Alcohol enthusiast” is, then, a complicated term that could hint at someone who studies the folklore and cultural history of alcohol or who readily partakes in its experience. For me, it was a term that, as sudden as a bolt of lightning, brought together my past and my future mentors—my teacher and my child—and asked that I pay attention to the wisdom of both.
Lesson learned. And it was a fortuitous omen for this blog.