In contrast deities on Apulian vases, more often than not, are peripheral, often like spectators in a gallery watching events unfold. As will become clear, Dionysos is the one big exception to this rule; he is the major deity who appears most frequently on Apulian vases — more than 2,000 of them — and he is usually focal and an active participant in the scenes in which he appears.
A scene on a volute krater in Detroit from the second half of the fourth century further illustrates the divine spectator role of the gods and at the same time introduces something new. Across the upper part of the figure scene is an assembly of deities doing nothing in particular. Eros fans a seated Aphrodite next to a seated Apollo, who holds a bow and a laurel branch. Athena, wearing her aegis and helmet, holds a spear and shield as she converses with an enthroned Zeus, who holds a sceptre and is attended by Iris with a kerykeion. Then Hera with a sceptre sits on a stool attended by Hermes. This is the divine family par excellence — and it stands in sharp contrast to the scene below, where Dionysos and Ariadne ride in a panther-drawn biga accompanied by a raucous procession of satyrs and maenads with torches and tympana and preparations for a feast. The enervated deities above serve as a foil for the energized god with his thiasos below. Dionysos never appears in the gallery; rather, he is almost always shown as directly connected with the action of the scene in which he appears.
This is unequivocally a funerary vase. In the scene on the reverse a naked youth with a spear stands beside a horse in a small columned building. That type of building is usually called a naiskos and said to be a tomb monument. The fact that the youth and the horse are painted white means that they are to be seen as statues, while the figures around the building are mortals offering gifts at the tomb. Similar scenes appear on several hundred Apulian vases from the second half of the fourth century but almost never on vases from a Greek context. But on the neck above the funerary scene on this vase is a symposion scene; a man and a youth reclining on a large couch attended by a woman playing pipes and a boy with wine. So too here Dionysos, as god of the symposion, is implied in a funerary context. The vase is first and foremost about Dionysos. The other gods are extras. The funerary nature of the vase also implies a connection between Dionysos and death, and perhaps to a perception of an afterlife.
Almost always on these vases, he carries a feathery thyrsos, quite different from the Attic ivy version. The scenes are appropriate for the symposia, but the vessels on which they appear are destined for the tomb. As has often been suggested, the implication seems to be that for a follower of Dionysos, death involves a journey to a symposion of the blessed, as Plato described it, though on the vases we rarely see the symposion, only the procession.
The naked youth I have called Dionysos on these vases in indistinguishable from other youths on the same vase — only his thyrsos and the presence of a satyr allow him to be identified as the god. The youth is Dionysos, but for the mourners at the funeral he may also be understood as the deceased, a votary of the god who has been assimilated with the god.
A vase of the third quarter of the fourth century by the Darius Painter supports this suggestion. On one side a young, naked Dionysos with a thyrsos and a phiale sits on a hillside. To his right a satyr with a thyrsos leans on a stele and holds up a tympanon. To the left of the god a woman with a thyrsos holds up a comic mask, and Eros flies above him with a wreath. Below the god, metal drinking utensils sit on the ground. The god has long hair and wears an elaborate wreath. There can be little question but that this is the god himself. However, on the other side of the vase there is a spare scene in which a naked youth with a thyrsos and an offering tray sits on a hill, while a woman with a mirror and a thyrsos stands in front of him. The youth has short hair and a simple fillet. He parallels Dionysos on the other side, but the scene itself is a pale reflection of it. Seen by itself we might be inclined to identify the figure as Dionysos, but in the context it is more likely that we are to see him as a mortal follower of the god.
There was a fully developed form for representations of Dionysos right from the start of the Apulian red figure tradition, which was in some ways different from the Attic form. One early painter in particular, usually dubbed the Painter of the Birth of Dionysos, who stands at the beginning of the ornate style of painting, demonstrates a deep knowledge of and interest in the god. His name-vase, a large volute krater, was found at Ceglie del Campo, an Italic site near Ruvo. The scene provides an early example of the gods as passive observers — unnecessary to the scene. Eros attends Aphrodite to the upper left, Apollo stands by a seated Artemis in the upper right. Below, Hermes stands looking up and to the left of him are three unidentified goddesses. A satyr dances in the lower right and Pan observes from the upper centre. In the centre of the scene a named infant Dionysos emerges from the thigh of a named seated Zeus and reaches out toward a veiled woman who has a sceptre. The woman should be Eileithyia, the birth goddess, but the presence of the sceptre has led some to call her Hera-Eileithyia or even Hera. But to anyone who knows the myths of the birth of Dionysos, Hera is precisely who she should not be. It is possible that the woman is connected to local versions of the birth.
The vase, it should be noted, was found together with another volute krater with a magnificent depiction of a young Dionysos with his kantharos and a flowering giant stalk seated amidst satyrs and maenads. On Attic vases Dionysos invariably holds a thyrsos — a fennels stalk stuffed with ivy leaves. The flowering giant fennel stalk, often called a narthex, is a south Italian development.
Perhaps the most extraordinary scene by the Painter of the Birth of Dionysos is a depiction of a sacrifice on a volute krater found at Ruvo di Puglia. In the centre of the upper register a young, naked Dionysos sits, with a narthex resting on his right shoulder. To the right and left of him are women and a satyr. In the register below are more women. One woman, acting as a priestess, prepares to sacrifice a goat at an altar on which a fire burns. Just to the right of the altar is a table with an oinochoe on it, and a woman prepares to place on it a tray of offerings. What is extraordinary about this scene is the statue of Dionysos behind the altar. He is an archaic, bearded figure wearing a short chiton and boots, who holds a kantharos and thyrsos. This is the bearded form of the god that invariably appears in Attic representations of him until the 420s BC — it is a form he is almost never given in Apulian vases.
This richly detailed scene demonstrates a deep knowledge of the worship of Dionysos. It depicts a noisy scene with women clashing cymbals and beating tympana. A calyx krater on a stand and a booted silen with a wine skin and a kottabos cup remind us of his connection with wine, and a female mask suspended near the silen alludes to his role in theater. A maenad with a torch places the scene at night, and a thymaterion to the right emphasizes the ritual nature of the scene. The goat, of course, is the appropriate animal for the sacrifice.
In fact, the scene points to different dimensions of this multifaceted god — his connection with wine, his connection with the theatre, and perhaps even the festival sacrifice to him at the Choes. But it is the young, naked Dionysos the painter has chosen to emphasize, and this, as I have noted, is the form the god is given on most of the 2,000 depictions of him on Apulian vases.
As mentioned earlier, the Dionysos who appears on Attic vases prior to 420 is almost always a bearded adult — then very suddenly he is replaced by a beardless youth. In fact, we can even identify the Attic painter who first depicts the young, beardless Dionysos — called the Dinos Painter — and quite remarkably, the traditional, bearded figure rarely appears after that. One can speculate that the vessels on which the new form appears had a new and different function that called for a different perception of the god, but it is the suddenness of the change in Athens that is particularly striking.
Attic vases found in Apulian tombs show that the Italic people knew well the older, traditional form of the god, but they always chose to represent him as a beardless youth. The form seems to have had special meaning to them, and it is worth asking a radical question here: might the sudden shift in representations of Dionysos on Attic vases have been influenced by the Apulian perception of the god — a new dimension associated with the promise of a blessed afterlife? By the mid-fifth century Athenians knew the prominence of Dionysos in Italy, as Sophocles demonstrates in the fifth stasimon of Antigone when the chorus calls to Dionysos first as ‘you who rule famous Italy.’ Albert Henrichs has convincingly shown that the Dionysos of this hymn, linked as he is with Demeter and Eleusis, is distinctly not the god of wine or the theatre god but rather is a god who is a ‘champion of the dead and a guarantor of a personal afterlife’. The scene of the sacrifice discussed above might almost be seen as an illustration of that point.
Pierre Wuilleumier wrote in his masterly 1939 study of Taranto that ‘texts and monuments prove that Dionysos is the principal god of the region around Taranto’ [...] While Dionysos may have been important in Taranto in the fifth and fourth centuries, the vast number of Dionysiac vases found in Italic settings (as opposed to the few around Taranto) must lead to the conclusion that Dionysos was a principal god of the Italics and that the imagery suggests he was in some ways different from the traditional deity we know in Greece proper.
An extraordinary scene on an Apulian volute krater in Toledo, Ohio, where Dionysos shakes hands with Hades in the Underworld — the only known depiction of him in the Underworld — is a fundamental document for any discussion of Dionysos in south Italy. Sarah Johnston and Tim MacNiven are surely right in their important analysis of the scene when they write that the handclasp signifies ‘the authority that Dionysos held in the realm of the dead’, and as such it helps confirm a funerary context for the generic scenes in which the god appears.
– T. H. Carpenter, Gods in Apulia
For more on this, you may find an excerpt from Carl Kerényi that I posted a while back of interest.
It all keeps being about the Mezzogiorno.