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Cheers... to Drinking Songs

The Bacchae of Euripides closes with a mother mourning over the corpse of her mangled son, whom she helped to tear apart while in an intoxicated frenzy. Her filicidal rage is a punishment for failing to acknowledge that Dionysus is a god. The gods, it seems, interest themselves in drink and its apparatus.

In the Bacchae, the undifferentiated chorus plays the virtuous drinker—that is, the god-affirming, god-thanking drinker. Named, self-determining, god-denying individuals (Pentheus, Agave) play villainous drinkers, crazed, mangled, disinherited, isolated, and shamed by the wrath of the divinity they have insulted. There is a kind of moral here: one’s orientation toward Dionysus determines one’s experience of the Dionysian. But there is also a complementary formal suggestion: singing in groups has something to do with good drinking or drinking to the good. Those moral and formal suggestions linger wherever the drinking song appears: in religious rites and festivals from Passover to Christmas, on ships, in military regiments, in sporting clubs—all gravitational centers for the first person plural, all highly ceremonial.

The long tradition of sacred or vertical drinking songs confirms the gods’ beneficent jealousy in regulating the human–drink relationship. One of Sappho’s lyrics calls in the voice of a community of drinkers to Aphrodite (Kupris):

                                        Kupris, hither

Come, and pour from goblets of gold the nectar

Mixed for love’s and pleasure’s delight with dainty

                  Joys of the banquet.

Here “joys” are the exclusive gift of a god to a banqueting community in celebration. They should be sought from the gods, not just from the wine itself. Persons transcend things in the Sapphic gift economy, and true—or safe—celebration begins with right orientation to persons. The drinking songs of the Jewish Passover Haggadah and Christian worship make the point more directly: wine is a divine gift that, drunk with the correct ceremonies, rids a community of its guilt and resentments. The eucharistic hymns in Act I of Wagner’s Parsifal—sung in chorus—celebrate this idea as well as any work of art. The vertical drinking song’s message is clear: Dionysus is a god, and wine is a divine gift to be accepted in company and in a posture of worship.

This divine imperative is less obvious in horizontal drinking songs—that is, drinking songs that have no thematic interest in worship of a god: Schubert’s “Trinklied” lieder, Mozart’s so-called Champagne Aria from Don Giovanni, Richard Hovey’s tankard-swinging barroom choruses, sea shanties, and sporting anthems. The medieval drinking songs collected in the Carmina Burana maintain a connection to the divine, but usually by way of blaspheming it—parodying, among other sacred texts, St. Thomas Aquinas’s hymn on the Eucharist and a hymn to the Blessed Virgin. In general, however, those drinking songs detached from religious ritual replace a divine imperative with a corporate one, as in the late-seventeenth-century ballad “The Merry Fellows”:

Now, since we’re met, let’s merry, merry be,

In spite of all our foes;

And he that will not merry be,

We’ll pull him by the nose.

Read entire article at New Criterion