Wind-begotten Iakchos of the distaff

One of the most important sources of information on Tarentine religion and mythology are the coins minted by this powerful port city, especially since it left little in the way of ruins compared to the other poleis of Magna Graecia, some of which still possess nearly intact temples and sanctuaries. Currency was a way of propagating identity in the ancient world, with strong political, historical and religious messages encoded in its symbolism. Coins traveled far and fast, especially in the purses of seafaring merchants, and though everyone may not have been able to read their inscriptions people understood the pictures they contained.

It’s a little harder for us to decode them today since they often rely on localized traditions that either conflict with or never made it into the literary record that’s come down to us. The tantalizingly fragmentary glimpses we get of this variant mythology leave us hungering for more stories and images and the threads of a living culture to bind it all together in our hearts.

Consider the coins that frequently pair the Dioskouroi with Iakchos and his special iconography observed nowhere else, as Arthur Evans observes in The horsemen of Tarentum 14-18:

“The Tarentines, as we know, in return for the patriotic fraud by which the dying Phalanthos had secured the perpetual duration of the city, decreed him divine honours. Judging, indeed, by analogy, we should be inclined to refer to this hero most of the figures of armed horsemen that appear on the present series. It is extremely probable that the interesting type already referred to of the horseman in peaked pileus and Doric chiton is to be regarded as an earlier representation of the leader of the Lacedaemonian colonists. The head-gear worn by the horseman strongly supports this attribution, since one of the principal incidents in the story of Phalanthos connects itself with the conical cap which he wore on his head, and the taking off of which was to be the signal for the rising of the Parthenian conspirators.

“The twin figures that appear on some of the Tarentine coins must, of course, be identified with the Dioscuri; it is highly probable, as I hope to have occasion to point out, that the first appearance of this type contains a direct allusion to the alliance with the Spartan mother city, and is to be referred to the date of Akrotatos’ expedition. It is certain that in some of the single riders on the Tarentine didrachms we may also detect at times one or other of the Lacedaemonian twins.

“The hippie deities of Tarentum are referred to on an inscription in which they are associated with those of the sea, as receiving the thank-offerings dedicated from the Roman spoils after the naval victory of Kroton in 210 B.C. The best illustration of these equestrian coin-types has, however, been supplied by the recent discovery of a vast deposit of votive terra-cotta figures on the site of a sanctuary of Chthonic divinities within the walls of the outer city of Tarentum. Many of these terra-cottas, as I have already pointed out elsewhere, supply the closest parallels to familiar types of Tarentine horsemen as they appear on the coins. In some cases we have identical figures of the Dioscuri, in others a naked warrior in a peaked-crested helmet is seen seated sideways on a galloping steed, holding in his left hand the large round shield which is so frequent a concomitant of the equestrian figures on the coins. In another instance a youthful figure, shield in hand, is seen standing in front of his stationary horse laying his right hand on its neck, a scheme which finds its counterpart in a coin of Period IV., where, however, the warrior stands behind his steed. A still more striking resemblance is to be found in another characteristic type of these votive terra-cottas, in which the rider is seen with his knee bent under him, as if in the act of vaulting from his horse, a design which reappears on a whole series of Tarentine coins.

“These parallels occurring on a group of objects devoted to a Chthonic cult with which, together with the infernal deities, were associated the deified heroes of Tarentine religion, form a valuable commentary on the coin-types with which we are concerned, and afford additional grounds for supposing that the agonistic exercises performed by the horsemen before us connect themselves with a similar heroic cult. Several of the symbols that appear on some of the earliest of these equestrian types, such as the caduceus, or the bearded Herm, in front of the horse, the kantharos, or, somewhat later, the kylix, that is seen below, are best explained in this Chthonic connexion. The kylix especially, which on a coin of my Third Period appears beneath the type, already described, of the warrior vaulting off his horse in this case probably the heroized Phalanthos had at Tarentum a distinctly sepulchral association. From an epigram of the poet Leonidas it appears that it was an usual practice to place a kylix above a grave, originally: no doubt, with the idea of receiving libations for the departed. The kantharos, on the other hand, is even more intimately associated with the old heroic cult of Tarentum and its mother city. In the votive terra-cottas above referred to it is seen in the hands of the recumbent figure of Aidoneus or the Chthonic Dionysos, who symbolizes on these the heroized departed. Its appearance in the hands of the seated figure on some of the earliest types of the preceding didrachm series is also very suggestive.”

And yet this is a motif that extends beyond coinage – Dionysos is also represented with a distaff on Apulian pottery, so clearly this was a locally important feature. One wonders if there is Orphic influence at work here. After all weaving and nets are a prominent feature of Orphism. Orpheus, according to the Suidas, authored a book entitled Diktuon or ‘The Net’ which likely discussed the generative weaving of Persephone. Epigenes in his work On Orpheus offered an interpretation of some of the language in this poem, suggesting that “shuttles with bent carriages” meant ploughs, “warp-threads” were furrows, “thread” was seed, “Fates clothed in white” were the phases of the Moon, “Workless” was an epithet of Night, “Gorgonian” an epithet of the Moon because of the face on it and Aphrodite meant “time for seed-sowing.” There are plenty more – including a reference to Orpheus hunting with a net like Zagreus and of course the prescription to wear linen instead of wool because of the latter’s chthonic associations, but I’ll save all of that for a future post.

What I’d like to tease out now is the thread between Dionysos and the Dioskouroi – an appropriate metaphor since one of the animals linked to these sons of Zeus is the spider. Through Helen they are also connected to a golden apple, one of the toys (along with a tuft of wool) used by the Titans to lure the tragic infant to his demise according to Clement of Alexandria.

The passage quoted in that link continues on suggestively:

If you wish to inspect the orgies of the Corybantes, then know that, having killed their third brother, they covered the head of the dead body with a purple cloth, crowned it, and carrying it on the point of a spear, buried it under the roots of Olympus. These mysteries are, in short, murders and funerals. And the priests of these rites, who are called kings of the sacred rites by those whose business it is to name them, give additional strangeness to the tragic occurrence, by forbidding parsley with the roots from being placed on the table, for they think that parsley grew from the Corybantic blood that flowed forth; just as the women, in celebrating the Thesmophoria, abstain from eating the seeds of the pomegranate which have fallen on the ground, from the idea that pomegranates sprang from the drops of the blood of Dionysos. Those Corybantes also they call Cabiric; and the ceremony itself they announce as the Cabiric mystery. For those two identical fratricides, having abstracted the box in which the phallos of Bacchus was deposited, took it to Etruria–dealers in honourable wares truly. They lived there as exiles, employing themselves in communicating the precious teaching of their superstition, and presenting phallic symbols and the box for the Tyrrhenians to worship. And some will have it, not improbably, that for this reason Dionysos was called Attis, because he was mutilated. And what is surprising at the Tyrrhenians, who were barbarians, being thus initiated into these foul indignities, when among the Athenians, and in the whole of Greece–I blush to say it–the shameful legend about Demeter holds its ground?

This is interesting for a number of reasons. First it states that Dionysos’ penis was transported to Italy, which may explain the country’s super-abundant fertility (one of the reasons that the rape of Kore was located here) and why his cult is so deeply rooted in this place.

Secondly, it makes Dionysos one of the Samothracian Kabeiroi which is significant for two reasons. One, the Tarentine coins give Persephone’s Samothracian name Axiokersa in conjunction with Iakchos and secondly the Kabeiroi were often identified with the Dioskouroi since they were both sibling deities who had lost a brother. Interestingly, in the case of the Dioskouroi the pattern is somewhat switched since it is Polydeukes who is immortal. (Polydeukes’ name is thought to be derived from polu “much” gleukos “sweet new wine.”)

Personally, however, I tend to view the Kabeiroi and Dioskouroi as distinct on account of this story related by Diodoros Sikeliotes:

There came on a great storm and the chieftains had given up hope of being saved when Orpheus, they say, who was the only one on ship-board who had ever been initiated in the Mysteries of the deities of Samothrace, offered to them prayers for their salvation. And immediately the wind died down and two stars fell over the heads of the Dioskouroi, and the whole company was amazed at the marvel which had taken place and concluded that they had been rescued from their perils by an act of providence of the Gods. For this reason, the story of this reversal of fortune for the Argonauts has been handed down to succeeding generations, and sailors when caught in storms always direct their prayers to the deities of Samothrace and attribute the appearance of the two stars to the epiphany of the Dioskouroi. (Library of History 4.43.1)

Despite their syncretic fusion at the end it is notable that Orpheus called the Kabeiroi forth to still the violent winds and did not simply turn to his companions on the Argo, suggesting that Kastor and Polydeukes are not the Theoi Megaloi of Samothrace.

However if one were inclined to see them that way, this passage from the Roman Cicero positing that there were three Dioskouroi comparable to the three Kabeiroi brothers stands out for its intriguing implications, especially since it counts Dionysos among their number (twice if you accept the Orphic assignment of Eubouleos as an epithet of Dionysos in his chthonic and mediating aspect) and also brings them into connection with the Tritopatores:

The Dioscuri similarly are known amongst the Greeks by a variety of names; there are, firstly, the three who are called at Athens Anactes or Kings, the offspring of the most ancient of the Royal Jupiters and of Proserpine: Tritopatreus, Eubuleus, and Dionysus. (De Natura Deorum 3.21)

Note that the mother of these sons of Zeus is Persephone.

The Tritopatores are the “Fathers of the Third Generation” (among other derivations of the name) who are either the ancestors, wind-spirits or giant monsters with a hundred hands – and quite possibly all three in one:

Demon in the Atthis says that the Tritopatores are Winds, Philochoros that the Tritopatores were born first of all. For the men of that time, he says, understood as their parents the Earth and the Sun, whom then they called Apollon. Phanodemos in book 6 maintains that only the Athenians pray and sacrifice to them when they are about to marry for the conception of children. In the Physikos of Orpheus the Tritopatores are named Amalkeides and Protokles and Protokleon, being doorkeepers and guardians of the Winds. But the author of Explanation claims that they are the offspring of Ouranos and Gaia and that their names are Kottos, Briareos and Gyges. (Suidas s.v. Tritiopatores)

The association of these daimonic winds with conception is further elucidated by a verse of Orpheus’ discussed by Aristotle:

This problem affects the doctrine in the so-called Orphic poems as well; for he says that the soul, being carried by the winds, enters from the universe into living creatures when they inhale. (De Anima 410b)

Now, are you ready for shit to get really weird?

Iakchos is usually regarded as the form that Dionysos takes on at Eleusis, where he lead the initiates in torch-lit revels:

Now most of the Greeks assigned to Dionysos, Apollon, Hekate, the Mousai, and above all to Demeter, everything of an orgiastic or Bacchic or choral nature, as well as the mystic element in initiations; and they give the name Iakchos to Dionysos as the leader-in-chief of the mysteries and the daimon attendant of Demeter. And branch-bearing, choral dancing, and initiations are common elements in the worship of these Gods. (Strabo, Geography 10.3.10)

Swinging your firebrand in your hand – light in the darkness of night – you arrived in your enthusiastic frenzy in the flower-covered vale of Eleusis – euhoi, o io Bakchos, o ie Paian! There the entire Greek nation, surrounding the indigenous witnesses of the holy Mysteries, invokes you as Iakchos: you have opened for mankind a haven, relief from suffering. – Ie Paian, come o Saviour, and kindly keep this city in happy prosperity. (Philodamos, Paian to Dionysos III)

I call upon law-giving Dionysos who carries the fennel stalk,

unforgettable and many-named seed of Eubouleus,

and upon holy, sacred and ineffable queen Mise,

whose two-fold nature is male and female.

As redeeming Iacchos, I summon you lord,

whether you delight in your fragrant temple at Eleusis,

or with the Mother you partake of mystic rites in Phrygia,

or you rejoice in Cyprus with fair-wreathed Kythereia,

or yet you exult in hallowed wheat-bearing fields along Egypt’s river,

with your divine mother, the august black-robed Isis,

and your triad of nurses. (Orphic Hymn 42)

Or as Aristophanes had his chorus sing in The Frogs:


Iakchos, much-loved resident of these quarters,

– Iakchos, O Iakchos! –

come to this field for the dance

with your holy followers,

setting in motion the crown

which sits on your head, thick

with myrtle-berries, boldly stamping the beat

with your foot in the unrestrained

fun-loving celebration –

the dance overflowing with grace,

dance sacred to the holy initiates!

Wake the fiery torches which you brandish in your hands,

– Iakchos, O Iakchos! –

brilliant star of the all-night celebration!

The meadow is aflame with light;

old men’s knees cavort!

They shake off the pain

of long years in old age

in their holy excitement.

Hold your light aloft

and lead the youthful chorus, Lord,

to the lush flowers of the sacred ground!


However, Iakchos is sometimes represented as the child of Dionysos, with Persephone or Demeter most often given as the mother.

Except in the Dionysiaka, where we find a very interesting and relevant variant tradition. Nonnos has the God beget Iakchos through Aura (the Titaness of cool, early morning breezes) by putting on the form of a Wind and furthermore the epic poet makes Iakchos the immortal sibling of a mortal twin, precisely like the Dioskouroi.

All of which is really making me wonder if something like that was behind the Tarentine coins with the Dioskouroi on one side and a distaff-wielding Iakchos on the other.

I also wonder whatever became of Iakchos’ dead brother?

Which reminds me – interesting fact: many of the cities of Magna Graecia had a double foundation. First by a god or hero and later by a mortal, who was like their living shadow. As an example, Tarentum was originally settled by Taras, the son of Poseidon and Satyra the swamp-nymph and then later, after the Messenian war Phalanthos led the Spartan Virgins’ sons there. Phalanthos was eighth in descent from Herakles, which I found significant since eight is a number with obvious arachnid associations. Speaking of which, did you know that Tarentum was famed for it’s wool and murex in antiquity?

The most esteemed wool of all is that of Apulia, and that which in Italy is called Grecian wool, in other countries Italian. The fleeces of Miletus hold the third rank. The Apulian wool is shorter in the hair, and only owes its high character to the cloaks that are made of it. That which comes from the vicinity of Tarentum and Canusium is the most celebrated. (Pliny, Natural History 8.73)

I find it interesting that Tarentum was colonized by the Partheniae since the constellation Virgo is the asterized Erigone. Though that story is set in Athens, the Spartans had their version of it too:

Opposite is what is called the Knoll, with a temple of Dionysos of the Knoll, by which is a precinct of the hero who they say guided Dionysos on the way to Sparta. To this hero sacrifices are offered before they are offered to the god by the daughters of Dionysos and the daughters of Leucippus. For the other eleven ladies who are named daughters of Dionysos there is held a footrace; this custom came to Sparta from Delphi. (Pausanias, Description of Greece 3.13.7)

But in this version Ikarios is a king:

The image of Modesty, some thirty stades distant from the city, they say was dedicated by Ikarios, the following being the reason for making it. When Ikarios gave Penelope in marriage to Odysseus, he tried to make Odysseus himself settle in Lacedaemon, but failing in the attempt, he next besought his daughter to remain behind, and when she was setting forth to Ithaca he followed the chariot, begging her to stay. Odysseus endured it for a time, but at last he bade Penelope either to accompany him willingly, or else, if she preferred her father, to go back to Lacedaemon. They say that she made no reply, but covered her face with a veil in reply to the question, so that Ikarios, realizing that she wished to depart with Odysseus, let her go, and dedicated an image of Modesty; for Penelope, they say, had reached this point of the road when she veiled herself. (ibid 3.20.10-11)

Gee, what was it Penelope was famed for again?

This was her latest masterpiece of guile: she set up a great loom in the royal halls and she began to weave, and the weaving finespun, the yarns endless … So by day she’d weave at her great and growing web –. by night, by the light of torches set beside her, she would unravel all she’d done. (Homer, Odyssey 2.93-95)

Nearby the spot where Ikarios’ maiden daughter was abducted rites of Kore were celebrated:

The sanctuary of Demeter surnamed Eleusinian is where, according to the Lacedaemonian story, Herakles was hidden by Asklepios while he was being healed of a wound. In the sanctuary is a wooden image of Orpheus, a work, they say, of Pelasgians. From Helos they bring up to the sanctuary of the Eleusinian a wooden image of the Maid, daughter of Demeter. (Pausanias, Description of Greece 3.20.5-7)

This is not the only time we find an overlap of Erigone and Persephone. As you know, Erigone was honored during the Aiora on the 12th or 13th of Anthesterion. During that same month the Lesser Mysteries of Eleusis were carried out:

Great and Lesser Mysteries used to be celebrated at Eleusis in Attica. Previously the Lesser did not exist, but when Herakles came and wanted to be initiated. It was not lawful for the Athenians to initiate any foreigner, but as they respected his outstanding qualities and because he was a friend of the city and a son of Zeus, they created the Lesser Mysteries into which they initiated him. The Great Mysteries belong to Demeter, the Lesser to Persephone her daughter. (Scholiast on Aristophanes, Ploutos 845)

The inventor of these mysteries was Mousaios, according to Diodoros Sikeliotes:

Herakles, having completed the tenth Labour, received an order from Eurystheus to bring Cerberus from Hades up to the light. For this Labour, supposing this would benefit him, he went along to Athens and took part in the Mysteries at Eleusis. Mousaios, son of Orpheus, was at that stage in charge of the rite. (4.25.1)

Mysteries which had a Dionysiac tenor:

Agra and Agrai: place, singular and plural, in Attica in front of the city; there the Lesser Mysteries are celebrated, which are an imitation of matters concerning Dionysos. (Stephanos of Byzantium, Lexikons.v. Agrai)

You find this same constellation during the Haloa:

Haloa is a festival at Athens including secret rites of Demeter and Kore and Dionysos, celebrated by the Athenians at the pruning of the vine and the tasting of the stored-up wine. In these rites images of male organs are displayed, concerning which they say that they are performed as a symbol of the procreation of men, since Dionysos, who gave the wine, made it a potion which stimulates one to intercourse. He gave it to Ikarios, whom the shepherds killed, in ignorance that drinking wine had such consequence. Then they were driven mad, because of their outrageous actions against Dionysos, and they had remained in the state of shame. The oracle, to stop their madness, ordered them to make and dedicate clay sexual organs. When the evil had passed, they established this festival as a memorial of the incident. In this festival, an initiation is given in Eleusis by women, and many games and jokes are told. Since only women are present, they have freedom to say what they want. And they say the most shameful things to each other then; the priestesses stealthily draw near to the women and discuss illicit love, whispering, as it is something unspeakable. All the women shout shameful and irreverent things to each other, holding up indecent representations of male and female organs. Here much wine is set out, and tables full of all the foods of earth and sea, except the things forbidden in the mystery, namely: pomegranates, apples, domestic fowl, eggs, seal-mullet, erythinos, black-fish, crayfish, dogfish. The archons furnish the tables, and leaving the inside to the women they go outside and remain there, expounding to all the inhabitants that cultivated foods were discovered among them and made common to all men by them. Sexual organs of both sexes, made from pastry, are set out on the tables. The Haloa are named on account of the fruit of Dionysos. The aloai are the vineyards. (Scholia to Lucian 279)

A maiden is abducted by death; the land is cursed with madness so that the girls swing from trees and the boys rage with lust. Deliverance comes through dance, music and feasting at the marriage of the bull-leading hero and the divine daughter. This is the stuff of mysteries.


  1. So much to say here…where does one begin?

    With something silly, perhaps. Thus, first, it seems in your third paragraph of the Arthur Evans quotation, the second word is the victim of autocorrect…I don’t think Evans was saying that the Dioskouroi were Deities of the countercultural 1960s. ;)

    Second: you’ve assisted me with not only one of my upcoming papers with this, but TWO! If you play your cards right, you might even get further details on one or both later this year (though one definitely, which I’ll be giving in March, and depending on how things go, might do an encore of at K’zoo when you’re there!). So, many thanks on that front once again!

    Third: you mentioned Herakles and the Eleusinian Mysteries, which is (of course!) one of my favorite topics given my own involvements with things of that nature and some specific details of such that have relevance to the Antinoan cultus…

    …And speaking of which, fourth: Antinous is syncretized with Iakkhos specifically, as well as the Dioskouroi in various ways…

    It’s a feast, certainly! Thank you for this!


  2. And further to this: the Lenaia this year is on the 28th, which is not an Antinoan holy day, but it is between two: the one on the 27th is for the Dioskouroi, and the 29th is the Star of Antinous/Antinous the Navigator festival. Intriguing! (Or, as you have often said: Circles!)


  3. I really like to think of Iakhos as an interesting point where Apollon and Dionysos meet. While I tend to connect Iakhos to Apollon who is also a wind deity and hailed in Elektra as their king by the Dioskouri, not to forget his seafaring cults, I do find this discussion on the relevance in connection with Dionysos an important point of overlap. I am sure if asked even ancients just who exactly is Iakhos would have produced different answers :) I think such intersections is veey important and this gave me something to toss around in my mind as to pertaining to their relationship.

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  4. I am very thankful for all this information you are sharing. Thank you! Please don’t stop, your work is SO important!


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