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November 24, 2022
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December 15, 2022

Dionysus and the Thyrsus

Photo by Ivan Obolensky

The above fell into the garden the other day. It reminded me of a thyrsus.

The thyrsus has a long history in Ancient Greece. It was a staff or wand, sometimes of fennel, other times not, topped with a pinecone, or several. It was both a weapon and a symbol associated with the Greek god, Dionysius, and later with Bacchus, his Roman variant. The staff was often pictured intertwined with grape vines. It was carried during festivals and religious ceremonies. The thyrsus represented prosperity, fertility, and hedonism.

Hedonism is associated with desires for pleasure and the reduction of pain. It has a negative connotation today, but in a historical context, hedonism embraces the revolt by the senses and the emotions to the strictures, mores, rules, and constraints imposed by civilization. An imperfect but useful analogy of this conflict might be that of the rationalistic and industrial attitudes of the nineteenth century versus those of the Romantic movement.

For most of recent history, civilization and its benefits have enjoyed an almost sacred status, but this hasn’t always been the case and not by everyone at all times. One of the many burdens of living in complex societies, be they economic, religious, or military, is that such communities exert a downward pressure on the individual to conform to certain modes of conduct.

Conformity to societal rules is the quid pro quo for the use of the technology that civilizations provide. The inner workings of an iPhone are considered technology today but so is governance, taxation, and lending. There are many rules that we must adhere to with more to come as the complexity of living in our time accelerates—which brings us back to Dionysus, the god of many names. He had over forty depending on his function, from the “one who distributes many portions”, to “the bull eater”, and the “God of the wine press”.

There has always been a friction between chaos and order. It is a universal conflict that has existed from the very beginnings of recorded history as demonstrated in various origin stories. To the Ancient Egyptians, chaos was represented by the marshes where the river hippopotamus lived. The Pharoah, to prove he was a pharaoh and the legitimate upholder of order, had to kill a hippo, no easy task even now. Tutankhamun, according to certain sources, suffered from numerous deformities and had difficulty with that task, which may explain why his reign was brief.

Dionysius is part of that universal conflict. Where he originated from is unknown. Some sources point to his origins in the far, far North, others to the East. Certainly, he didn’t come from Greece, nor from nearby Macedonia or Thrace. But lest we think of Dionysius as some godlike political agitator promoting chaos, one should note that it was because of him, and in his honor, that the theater and all the thousands of offshoots we consider entertainment in the Western world took form. It was through Greek drama that the political ideas of the Hellenic world were examined, and the pluses and minuses of dictatorship and democracy debated. He was called “twice born” well before Christianity and was considered the arbitrator between man and beast.

And as to the thyrsus, itself, Polyaenus in his Strategems in War describes the women followers of Dionysus, the Maenads, as ‘brandishing thyrsuses instead of spears with wreaths concealing their faces’. Armed with the thyrsus, the women of Ancient Greece were freely allowed to congregate in the forests as part of the rituals as given to them by Dionysius. When Pentheus, the ancient King of Thebes, disallowed such gatherings, he paid the ultimate price for having done so. Not to keep you in suspense, but he was torn apart by his own wife and daughter and, dare I say, eaten. See The Bacchae by Euripides for more details.

There is great power in the thyrsus, make no mistake. Chaos lies within us all, and well it should. Without the ecstasy of letting go and the thrill of living, what’s the point of order? That thought is worth considering today, just as it was in the distant past.

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