Talk of violence and sex sparked a wide-ranging, spirited discussion in Eagle Rock on a recent Saturday night. But the venue was not a sports bar — it was a wine-tasting lounge called Colorado Wine Co. — and the topic was not television, football or the news. It was ancient Greece.
As a couple of dozen patrons lingered, milled about or settled into plush sofas and chairs, two college professors — invited by their former student Brett White, who owns the lounge — lectured about Plato, Aristotle, and, chiefly, Dionysus, Greek god of wine, merrymaking and, as they demonstrated, much more.
With an often explicit display during a dual lecture by the pair of Occidental College humanities teachers, guests sipped Chardonnay or Merlot as they listened to details of Dionysus and the Greeks, who held that wine was divine.
"This is a different setting," said Debra Freas (her last name rhymes with Greece), who teaches ancient Greek and Latin at the Eagle Rock-based college. "So it gives a different perspective. There's more of a willingness to engage and ask questions — even more than we see among our students. This is great."
Freas earned a doctorate degree in classics and teaches students about Roman and Greek poetry and literature in Occidental's comparative studies in literature and culture department. Freas was joined in the presentation by her department chair, Damian Stocking, with whom she teaches a class on Greco-Roman gods.
Stocking instructed the audience that, more than merely symbolizing indulgences of emotionalism, Dionysus represents a mythology that's distinctively "more violent than hedonism."
In particular, he noted that Dionysus taps the ancient Greek concept of sparagmos — which means to "tear, rend, pull to pieces" — as an act of ripping apart an animal or human as a sacrifice. The professors observed that Dionysus represents what they refer to as a "dislocation of self" and cautioned everyone to think of ancient Greece with nuance, depth and renewed relevance — and to regard Greek mythology's figures as gods of process, not simply gods of this or that, such as sex, grapes or wine.
Accordingly, they showed and discussed the thyrsus — such as an ornamented staff carried by Dionysus —and its inversions of what might today be termed as gender identity. There were also readings from Euripedes.
Stocking and Freas spoke of war, peace and Alexander the Great. They told those gathered that the Greeks contemplated the question, "What is the world really about?" but that they did so essentially as a story.
Naturally, this being a lecture on Dionysus, eroticism figured into the presentation, with phallic images, vases and explanations of various terms, ideas and artifacts representing eruption and "bursting forth."
Amid the wine drinking, enjoyment and lightness of an elegant if academic Eagle Rock affair, Freas admitted that both professors appreciate the value of "unpacking the experiences of [Greek] gods and exploring whether they've continued in our world."
Freas said she was impressed by those who attended and enjoyed the break from collegiate routine afforded by giving instruction in an intimate, darkly lit room.
"The questions were insightful and wonderful," she said. "The crowd was perfect — about half asked questions and more asked questions afterward — and we were excited to do it."
Pondering Dionysian ethos in today's society, Stocking concluded by reminding the wine-sipping assembly that lessons of ancient Greece apply today, too. Sometimes, he said, coming together first means being torn apart.
Holleran is a contributor to Times Community News.