As I wait for the rest of the questions to pour in I figured it would be appropriate to discuss some of the basics of Dionysian religious practice — and it doesn’t get more basic than costuming. He is the god of the theatrical arts, after all, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that his votaries would feel a strong desire to dress the part.
The costume that they adopted remained remarkably consistent from its earliest representations in primitive cups and vases that appeared long before the scant mention of Dionysos and his followers in the epics of Homer (where the essential components of this costume, too, are found) on up to the end of antiquity and beyond. Indeed whenever one has wished to invoke a spirit of Bacchanalian revelry down through the ages one always begins by carefully going over the details of this costume, even in the most insipid and uninspired works of art.
There are three components that take precedence over the rest — the thyrsos, the animal-pelt and the crown — to the point where these have become a kind of shorthand for the costume in its entirety. As I shall demonstrate, there was a good deal more to the costume than just this — especially when considering the differences between what male and female Dionysians wore — but it seems appropriate to begin here, especially since these are iconographic details shared by the god and his votaries alike. Indeed it can be difficult to determine whether an image depicts Dionysos or one of his priests, so closely does their attire match, and in many early works of art it is only these identifying features that enable one to tell Dionysos apart from Zeus (if bearded) or Apollon (if youthful) or any of the other gods and heroes. (More than once Dionysos has been mistaken for a goddess too.)
Of the three the thyrsos is the most quintessentially Dionysian attribute. Crowns of various sorts were ubiquitous in ancient Greek religion, to the point where one commentator remarked that no libation was poured out, no pinch of incense burnt on the altar nor were the lips ever raised in reverent prayer without first placing a garland upon the head. And though rarer, other deities could be shown draped with animal skins such as Pan and Artemis. But when you glimpse the thyrsos it is a clear sign that you have entered the realm of Dionysos.
The thyrsos is a staff or less commonly a wand that is surmounted by a pine-cone and dangling streamers of vegetation — usually ivy or grape-leaves though other plant matter plucked fresh from the forest while mountain-roaving could be substituted. In the more refined setting of the Roman Bacchic clubs we find brightly colored ribbons replacing the vegetation.
Likewise there was some minor variation when it came to the construction of the thyrsos. Generally the staff or wand consisted of a stalk of fennel, a light, hollow, fibrous plant that grew plentifully in Greece and Italy. (Interestingly, much later on in early modern Italy the ecstatic Benandanti cultists carried fennel stalks when they went out to do nocturnal battle with the witches who threatened the fertility of their fields, a phenomenon that some speculate may have been a highly Christianized survival of ancient Dionysian customs, comparing this to the conflict between the farmers and maenads depicted in Euripides’ Bakchai.) As such the thyrsos was somewhat fragile and unlikely to survive through a night of wild Bacchic celebration, especially as it was repeatedly pounded into the ground to keep time during ritual processions and dances. A common preliminary activity, as Euripides shows, was the construction of a new thyrsos.
Perhaps because of the ephemeral quality of the fennel stalks other, more durable materials could be used instead. The commonest substitute that we encounter is a pine branch since this tree had strong symbolic associations with Dionysos (it was no accident that Pentheus met his doom in a pine tree) though we also find thyrsoi made of oak and myrtle as well as metals such as gold and silver, though these are extremely rare and seem to be limited to theatrical public demonstrations such as those orchestrated by the Hellenistic monarchs. Aside from being more permanent — and thus an object one could bring home and keep as a reminder of what was done out in the wild — these other thyrsoi served a wider range of functions. For instance in the rules of a Bacchic association from Athens it is noted that those who become too drunk, rowdy and noisy will be summarily beaten with the thyrsos of the Horses (officials appointed to keep good order within the society) which is a far greater deterrent if the staff is made of something more substantial than fennel. Admittedly, the spectacle would have been a great deal more amusing had they retained the original materials.
Aside from marking the bearer as a votary of Dionysos and providing a rhythmic accompaniment to the dance, what was the purpose of the thyrsos? To begin with, it was a very potent symbol — potency being one of the primary things that it symbolized. It’s hard to ignore certain phallic overtones when you’re carrying a large shaft topped off with a bulbous pine-cone. The thyrsos was also used to channel and direct the miraculous powers of the god (in some sense it could be seen as a miniature portable idol of Dionysos, hence the inclusion of the pine-cone, the ivy and the grape-leaves which are his most sacred plants) being repeatedly thrust against the moist earth by his enraptured worshipers to draw up streams of oil, honey, milk and wine from the depths. It doesn’t take a Freud to catch that sort of subtext! But of course all symbols connected with Dionysos are polyvalent — sometimes contradictorily so — and the thyrsos is certainly no exception to this. It could also signify the will and autonomy of the individual, for instance when the maenads are shown using it to fend off the unwanted advances of the always amorous satyrs. Likewise it could represent strength and aggression when the maenads carried it into combat against the settled inhabitants around mount Kithairon, easily deflecting the blades and puncturing the shields of their enemies while in possession of the god’s frenzy. It is also said that when Dionysos led his conquering army through the countries of the East they hid spears within their fennel stalks.
Lastly, the thyrsos could be dipped in a flammable mixture and set ablaze so that it became a torch carried in nocturnal rites. We encounter this both during the Thyiadic dances on mount Parnassos during Lampteria and in Livy’s account of the Bacchanalia where the priestesses race down to the river with thyrsoi ablaze and submerge them into the water only to have them reignite when withdrawn thanks to the combination of pitch and other substances they had been coated with. What a sight that must have been!
Of course even more awe-striking is a maniac clothed in the skin of beasts.
[To be continued.]