The circle dance of Thyia

The first time I encountered Thyiadism was in Jane Ellen Harrison’s Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion:

Maenad is only one, though perhaps the most common, of the many names applied to these worshipping women. In Macedonia Plutarch tells us they were called Mimallones and Klodones, in Greece, Bacchae, Bassarides, Thyiades, Potniades and the like.

Some of the titles crystallized into something like proper names, others remained consciously adjectival. At bottom they all express the same idea, women possessed by the spirit of Dionysos. Plutarch in his charming discourse on Superstition tells how when the dithyrambic poet Timotheos was chanting a hymn to Artemis he addressed the daughter of Zeus thus:

‘Maenad, Thyiad, Phoibad, Lyssad.’

The titles may be Englished as Mad One, Rushing One, Inspired One, Raging One. Cinesias the lyric poet, whose own songs were doubtless couched in language less orgiastic, got up and said: ‘I wish you may have such a daughter of your own.’

While my Thracian Adversary was showing me around his shrine room earlier tonight these fascinating women came up in conversation.

And fascinating they are, too – Thyiadism is a type of religious ecstasy characterized by a strong erotic current and frenzied dancing, much like tarantism. The name is derived from the Greek θύω “to burn” and related to θυσία “to place the gods’ portion in the flames.” Overwhelmed by intense longing and erotic heat for Dionysos, these women were driven out of their minds and out of their homes where they danced with torches on the mountain to arouse chthonic Dionysos during winter. (You can see why Cinesias was so peeved that Timotheos called Artemis a Thyiad!)

For a sense of what their worship was like, here is a selection of sources on them:

Why Homer speaks of the beautiful dancing-floors of Panopeus I could not understand until I was taught by the women whom the Athenians call Thyiades. The Thyiades are Attic women, who with the Delphian women go to Parnassos and celebrate orgies in honor of Dionysos. It is the custom for these Thyiades to hold dances at places, including Panopeus, along the road from Athens. The epithet Homer applies to Panopeus is thought to refer to the dance of the Thyiades. (Pausanias, Description of Greece 10.4.3)

Surrounded by the light of torches, he stands high on the twin summits of Parnassos, while the Corycian nymphs dance around as Bacchantes, and the waters of Castalia sound from the depths below. Up there in the snow and winter darkness Dionysos rules in the long night, while troops of maenads swarm around him, himself the choir leader for the dance of the stars and quick of hearing for every sound in the waster of the night. (Sophokles, Choral ode from Antigone)

Opposite the grove is a sanctuary of Dionysos Lampter. In his honor they celebrate a festival called the Feast of Torches, when they bring by night firebrands into the sanctuary and set up bowls of wine throughout the whole city. (Pausanias, Description of Greece 7.27.3)

When the despots in Phocis had seized Delphi, and the Thebans were waging war against them in what has been called the Sacred War, the women devotees of Dionysos, to whom they give the name Thyiades, in Bacchic frenzy wandering at night unwittingly arrived at Amphissa. As they were tired out, and sober reason had not yet returned to them, they flung themselves down in the market-place, and were lying asleep, some here, some there. The wives of the men of Amphissa, fearing, because their city had become allied with the Phocians, and numerous soldiers of the despots were present there, that the Thyiades might be treated with indignity, all ran out into the market-place, and, taking their stand round about in silence, did not go up to them while they were sleeping, but when they arose from their slumber, one devoted herself to one of the strangers and another to another, bestowing attentions on them and offering them food. Finally, the women of Amphissa, after winning the consent of their husbands, accompanied the strangers, who were safely escorted as far as the frontier. (Plutarch, On the Bravery of Women 13)

That Osiris is identical with Dionysos who could more fittingly know than yourself, Klea? For you lead the Thyiadic dances at Delphi and have been consecrated by your father and mother in the holy rites of Osiris. If, however, for the benefit of others it is needful to adduce proofs of this identity, let us leave undisturbed what may not be told, but the public ceremonies which the priests perform in the burial of the Apis, when they convey his body on an improvised bier, do not in any way come short of a Bacchic procession; for they fasten skins of fawns about themselves, and carry Bacchic wands and indulge in shoutings and movements exactly as do those who are under the spell of the Dionysiac ecstasies. (Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris 35)

The association with heat and fire is really brought home in this anecdote related by Plutarch in his treatise De primo frigido (On the Principle of Cold) 18:

Cold, moreover, is perceptibly one of the hardest of things and it makes things hard and unyielding. At Delphi you yourself heard, in the case of those who climbed Parnassos to rescue the Thyiades when they were trapped by a fierce gale and snowstorm, that their capes were frozen so stiff and wooden that when they were opened out, they broke and split apart.

Though it destroyed the clothing of their rescuers, the Thyiades were immune to the extreme cold because of the state of heat they were in – they’d just gotten a little lost, as women are prone to do.

And Dionysos is a very hot god indeed:

They say that in Crastonia near the country of the Bisaltae hares which are caught have two livers, and that there is a place there about an acre in extent, into which if any animal enters it dies. There is also there a fine large temple of Dionysos, in which when a sacrifice and feast takes place, should the god intend to give a good season, it is said that a huge flame of fire appears and that all who go to the sacred enclosure see this, but when the season is going to be very bad, this light does not appear, but darkness covers the place, just as on other nights. ([Aristotle], de Mirabilibus Auscultationibus 122)

What’s ironic about this is that Thyiadism’s eponym is associated in a number of ways with water.

Pausanias gives her father as Kastalios, god of the Castalian spring:

Others maintain that Kastalios, an aboriginal, had a daughter Thyia, who was the first to be priestess of Dionysos and celebrate orgies in honor of the god. It is said that later on men called after her Thyiades all women who rave in honor of Dionysos. At any rate they hold that Delphos was a son of Apollon and Thyia. Others say that his mother was Melaina, daughter of Kephisos. (Description of Greece 10.6.4)

While Constantinus Porphyrogenitus, citing Hesiod, claims that Deukalion sired her:

The district Makedonia took its name from Makedon the son of Zeus and Thyia, Deukalion’s daughter, as Hesiod says: ‘And she conceived and bare to Zeus who delights in the thunderbolt two sons, Magnes and Makedon, rejoicing in horses, who dwell round about Pieria and Olympos.’ (De Thematibus. 2. 48B)

While Herodotos credits the river-god Kephisos:

So with all speed the Greeks went their several ways to meet the enemy. In the meantime, the Delphians, who were afraid for themselves and for Hellas, consulted the god. They were advised to pray to the Anemoi (Winds), for these would be potent allies for Hellas. When they had received the oracle, the Delphians first sent word of it to those Greeks who desired to be free; because of their dread of the barbarian, they were forever grateful. Subsequently they erected an altar to the Winds at Thyia, the present location of the precinct of Thyia the daughter of Kephisos and they offered sacrifices to them. (Histories 7.178.1)

All of these have interesting Dionysian implications. Kastalios because of Delphi and Parnassos; Kephisos because of the prominence of the Anemoi in Orphic tradition (which I’ll be writing on later) and Deukalion because he’s honored during the Anthesteria and also because of Thyia’s children Magnes and Makednos.

Makedonia was one of the early centers of Dionysian worship, where it was enthusiastically taken up by the Argead royal house. Indeed Euripides wrote his masterpiece The Bakchai while staying as an exile at the court of King Archelaos. The rites he describes are far more in line with the type of Dionysian worship he observed there than anything Euripides’ contemporary Athenians would have been familiar with, which is part of why the play was so popular. (Indeed it’s his most famous play and yet it was only after his death that it was first staged by his son.) Although the whole Argead dynasty were devoted Dionysians – and some, like the Ptolemies, extremely so – few rivaled Olympias, mother of Alexander the Great:

As for the lineage of Alexander, on his father’s side he was a descendant of Heracles through Caranus, and on his mother’s side a descendant of Aeacus through Neoptolemus; this is accepted without any question. And we are told that Philip, after being initiated into the mysteries of Samothrace at the same time with Olympias, he himself being still a youth and she an orphan child, fell in love with her and betrothed himself to her at once with the consent of her brother, Arymbas. Well, then, the night before that on which the marriage was consummated, the bride dreamed that there was a peal of thunder and that a thunder-bolt fell upon her womb, and that thereby much fire was kindled, which broke into flames that travelled all about, and then was extinguished. At a later time, too, after the marriage, Philip dreamed that he was putting a seal upon his wife’s womb; and the device of the seal, as he thought, was the figure of a lion. The other seers, now, were led by the vision to suspect that Philip needed to put a closer watch upon his marriage relations; but Aristander of Telmessus said that the woman was pregnant, since no seal was put upon what was empty, and pregnant of a son whose nature would be bold and lion-like. Moreover, a serpent was once seen lying stretched out by the side of Olympias as she slept, and we are told that this, more than anything else, dulled the ardour of Philip’s attentions to his wife, so that he no longer came often to sleep by her side, either because he feared that some spells and enchantments might be practised upon him by her, or because he shrank from her embraces in the conviction that she was the partner of a superior being. But concerning these matters there is another story to this effect: all the women of these parts were addicted to the Orphic rites and the orgies of Dionysos from very ancient times (being called Klodones and Mimallones), and imitated in many ways the practices of the Edonian women and the Thracian women about Mount Haemus, from whom, as it would seem, the word threskeuein came to be applied to the celebration of extravagant and superstitious ceremonies. Now Olympias, who affected these divine possessions more zealously than other women, and carried out these divine inspirations in wilder fashion, used to provide the revelling companies with great tame serpents, which would often lift their heads from out the ivy and the mystic winnowing baskets, or coil themselves about the wands and garlands of the women, thus terrifying the men. (Plutarch, Life of Alexander 2.1.6)

According to the Makedonian historian Marsyas of Pella, his country was originally Thracian territory:

Makedon son of Zeus and Thyia, conquered the land then belonging to Thrace and he called it Macedonia after his name. He married a local woman and got two sons, Pierus and Amathus; two cities, Pieria and Amathia in Macedonia were founded or named after them. (quoted by the scholiast on Iliad 15.226)

Diodoros Sikeliotes recounts an interesting tradition concerning Makednos:

Now Osiris was accompanied on his campaign, as the Egyptian account goes, by his two sons Anubis and Makedon, who were distinguished for their valour. Both of them carried the most notable accoutrements of war, taken from certain animals whose character was not unlike the boldness of the men, Anubis wearing a dog’s skin and Makedon the fore-parts of a wolf; and it is for this reason that these animals are held in honour among the Egyptians … Makedon his son, moreover, he left as king of Makedonia, which was named after him. (Bibliotheka historika 1.18ff)

This is interesting for a number of reasons, including the fact that Apollodoros (Bibliotheka 3.96) gives Lykaon (“Wolf-man”) as the father of Makednos as well as this passage from Pausanias connecting Parnassos and Deukalion with wolves and wind:

They say that the oldest city was founded here on Mount Parnassos by Parnassos, a son of Kleodora, a nymph. Like the other heroes, as they are called, he had two fathers; one they say was the god Poseidon, the human father being Kleopompos … Now this city, so the story goes on, was flooded by the rains that fell in the time of Deukalion. Such of the inhabitants as were able to escape the storm were led by the howls of wolves to safety on the top of Parnassos, being led on their way by these beasts, and on this account they called the city that they founded Lykoreia (Mountainwolf-city). (Description of Greece 10. 6.1-2)

Furthermore, Makednos’ son Pierus was the eponym for the region of Pieria which according to Palaiphatos (Peri Apiston 33) saw an outbreak of violent madness among its women that was cured by Orpheus using Bacchic rites:

Also false is the myth about Orpheus – that four-footed animals, snakes, birds and trees followed him as he played his lyre. Here is what I think happened: in Pieria frenzied female worshipers of Dionysos were tearing apart the bodies of sheep and goats and performing many other violent acts; they turned to the mountains to spend their days there. When they failed to return to their homes, the townspeople, fearing for the safety of their wives and daughters, summoned Orpheus and asked him to devise a plan to get the women down from the mountain. Orpheus performed appropriate sacrificial rites to the god Dionysos and then by playing his lyre led the frenzied Bacchants down from the mountain. But as the women descended they held in their hands various kinds of trees. To the men who watched on that occasion the pieces of wood seemed wondrous. So they said, ‘By playing his lyre Orpheus is bringing the very forest down from the mountain.’ And from this the myth was created.

These rites Orpheus had received from his father Oiagros who had received them from his father Charops who had been entrusted with them for the assistance he gave Dionysos in his war with Lykourgos:

Now when he had led the first of the Bacchantes over into a friendly land, as he thought, Lykourgos issued orders to his soldiers to fall upon them by night and to slay both Dionysos and all the Maenads, and Dionysos, learning of the plot from a man of the country who was called Charops, was struck with dismay, because his army was on the other side of the Hellespont and only a mere handful of his friends had crossed over with him. Consequently he sailed across secretly to his army, and then Lykourgos, they say, falling upon the Maenads in the city known as Nysion, slew them all, but Dionysos, bringing his forces over, conquered the Thracians in a battle, and taking Lykourgos alive put out his eyes and inflicted upon him every kind of outrage, and then crucified him.

Thereupon, out of gratitude to Charops for the aid the man had rendered him, Dionysos made over to him the kingdom of the Thracians and instructed him in the secret rites connected with the initiations; and Oiagros, the son of Charops, then took over both the kingdom and the initiatory rites which were handed down in the mysteries, the rites which afterwards Orpheus, the son of Oiagros, who was the superior of all men in natural gifts and education, learned from his father; Orpheus also made many changes in the practices and for that reason the rites which had been established by Dionysos were also called ‘Orphic.’ (Diodoros Sikeliotes, Library of History 3.65.4-6)

And Lykourgos, of course, means “wolf-worker” or “he who keeps the wolves away.”

Remember how I mentioned tarantism earlier? There’s wolf stuff all up in tarantism. So much so that I wonder if it’s not related to the Italian werewolf traditions as described by Estella Canziani in Through the Apennines and the Lands of the Abruzzi: Landscape and Peasant Life Described and Drawn (pages 12-14):

The driver told us that certain people are bound by their evil star to become lupi minari (lupomanaro, werewolf) and he said that they know this, and before their destined hours of transformation they take precautions not to injure their own cattle, by carefully shutting the stable door with the watch-dog inside, and putting the key in a safe place. The unfortunate werewolf then spills some water in the dust on the ground and rolls himself in it, and becomes a lupo minaro, howling so furiously that he even makes his own cattle’s hair stand on end. This brings all the neighboring wolves out in search of prey. Finally he retires to the threshold of his stable, and again rolls in the dust and resumes his human form. [...] Our driver added that once a certain person offended another and struck him. The following night a pack of werewolves killed about two hundred of his sheep without the sheep dog barking or the shepherd hearing anything of it. The sheep were only bled to death, because the wolves preferred to suck the warm blood. This could be done because the dogs and the shepherds were ligati (bound, i.e. paralysed) by the lupi minari, their senses being made dormant (stunned), and their eyelids weighted with sleep. Similarly the owners of olive trees may be ligati by thieves who know the proper ligazioni (incantations.) We could imagine the feelings of the lonely shepherd climbing into the almond tree on a bright moonlit night, when every shadow would take a queer form and even the mica in the rocks would catch the moonlight and glitter like fierce wolves’ eyes watching their prey. This idea was still more creepy when we learnt that on Christmas Eve the lupo minaro (male) and lupa mannora (female) are said to wander around ululando (howling), disturbing the Christmas peace, and that, to prevent this, at the crossing of the ways (cape croce) small white crosses from the procession on Ascension Day are fixed. The lupo minaro may be detected by his having hair and nails like a wolf, and at night he howls like a wolf. If he meets anyone he eats him up, but if the one he meets has the courage to prick him and make his blood spurt out, the lupo minaro recovers from his disorder and resumes his human shape.

The Abruzzo – which is home to the Apennine wolf – was originally settled by the Samnites, particularly in the region of Samnium (which in modern Italian is called Sannio), famed for its wines, gladiators and Atellan farces. (Hence why Sannio was the name for the stock fool character that evolved into Arlecchino.)

The Samnites are said to have been an Illyrian tribe (as in the people that Olympias came from) who wandered into Italy at an early period, dividing into multiple populations.

The Samnites were famed warriors:

As part of both religious and military duties, Samnite soldiers were required to swear a secret oath to follow their commander’s every order and to fight to the death. Legend tells that small groups of new, unarmed soldiers would be sent to the temple where they were asked to take the oath. Usually, some in the first group would refuse. These would be instantly slain by armed soldiers hiding within the temple, and their bloodied bodies left for the next group to see. There would be little resistance from the groups that followed.

And equally famed for the rite of ver sacrum or the holy spring:

One year, the Sabellines reneged on their vow to sacrifice their children. Other than sacrificing some animals, they did not send off any children born in the spring of their vow to the god Jupiter. As a result, Jupiter sent a series of devastating storms and plagues. To end the destruction and appease the god, they sent off not one-tenth, but all the children who had been born in the year of the vow. The children were to follow an ox to a “foreign” land. The ox did not stop until it reached the base of the Matese Mountains, where it finally rested. The exiles took this as a sign to begin their settlement. They named the place for the ox–Bovenium, modern Bojano. This, then, became the center of the Pentri Samnites.

The historical accuracy of this has been questioned, however:

It’s doubtful they actually ritually killed their children. Instead, they abandoned “without guilt” or sent the children away from the tribe once they reached military age. Legend tells that an animal sacred to the tribe would lead these exiles to a new homeland. For example, the Piceni followed a woodpecker (picus); the Irpini, a wolf; and the Samnites, an ox. The myth of animal “guides” was widespread throughout prehistoric Italy, and some scholars link ver sacrum to pastoral life and transhumance (the seasonal transfer of herds).

Regarding the Hirpini, Manuela Simeoni writes:

they had the wolf as sacred animal and their name comes from the Samnite word for wolf, hirpus. They were an Oscan-speaking population, settled in southern Sannio, where Romans founded the colony of Beneventum. They, or their priests, were also called Hirpi Sorani (wolves of mount Soratte, from the place where this cult was celebrated); the historiographer Servius said that Hirpini practised the cult to Dis Pater, a Latin deity of underworld, with whom the original deity must have been identified, so some scholars believe that the adjective “Sorani” may come from Suri, an Etruscan underworld god. Hirpini also practised fire-walking, walking on coals with bare feet.

Among the deities honored by the Samnites were the hero Sabus, Kerres (a chthonic goddess of fertility and death), Diuvei Verehasiui (a god of wolves and flogging thought to be associated with the Lupercalia), Mefitis (goddess of sulphurous waters) and Euklui Paterei who was a cross between Mercury and Dis Pater (Hesychius s.v. Eukolos) whose name shows up on the Bacchic Orphic gold lamellae found in the area as Eukles:

A: I come from the pure, o Pure Queen of the earthly ones, Eukles, Eubouleus, and You other Immortal Gods! I too claim to be of your blessed race, but Fate and other Immortal Gods conquered me, the star-smiting thunder. And I flew out from the hard and deeply-grievous circle, and stepped onto the crown with my swift feet, and slipped into the bosom of the Mistress (Kore), the Queen of the Underworld. And I stepped out from the crown with my swift feet.
B: Happy and blessed one! You shall be a god instead of a mortal.
A: I have fallen as a kid into milk.

In another gold lamellae from the area the initiate is advised:

You will find a spring on the left of the halls of Hades, and beside it a white cypress growing. Do not even go near this spring. And you will find another, from the Lake of Memory, flowing forth with cold water. In front of it are guards. You must say, ‘I am the child of Ge and starry Ouranos; this you yourselves also know. I am dry with thirst and am perishing. Come, give me at once cold water flowing forth from the Lake of Memory.’ And they themselves will give you to drink from the divine spring, and then thereafter you will reign with the other heroes.

Notice two things about these texts? The stepping out of the wearying κύκλος (reminiscent of the round dances performed by the Thyiades at Panopeus) and the white cypress.

Thuja, which is derived from Θυία, is a genus of coniferous trees in the Cupressaceae or cypress family.

Lastly, the Thyia was a festival of Dionysos celebrated at Elis where a miracle annually occurred:

Between the market-place and the Menios in the city of Elis is an old theater and a shrine of Dionysos. The image is the work of Praxiteles. Of the gods the Eleans worship Dionysos with the greatest reverence, and they assert that the god attends their festival, the Thyia. The place where they hold the festival they name the Thyia is about eight stades from the city. Three pots are brought into the building by the priests and set down empty in the presence of the citizens and of any strangers who may chance to be in the country. The doors of the building are sealed by the priests themselves and by any others who may be so inclined. On the morrow they are allowed to examine the seals, and on going into the building they find the pots filled with wine. I did not myself arrive at the time of the festival, but the most respected Elean citizens, and with them strangers also, swore that what I have said is the truth. (Pausanias, Description of Greece 6.26.1-2)

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4 thoughts on “The circle dance of Thyia

  1. Fascinante!!


  2. Pingback: Reflections on Liberalia/Cú Chulainn’s Feast/Kottytia/Birth of Pancrates | Aedicula Antinoi: A Small Shrine of Antinous

  3. Pingback: A long strange trip | The House of Vines

  4. Pingback: In the theogony of Musaeus, Tartarus and Night came first | The House of Vines

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