Animals strike curious poses

[Relevant to a couple ongoing conversations, so I’m reposting it. Note, since writing this I’ve discovered another bird associated with Dionysos.]

A while back, in the context of discussing a possible Orphic ritual involving the freeing of a caged bird I mentioned how frequently doves come up in the Starry Bull tradition. They’re linked to Aphrodite, Persephone, Ariadne, Columbina, John the Baptist and Hermes. Well, apparently they were also considered sacred to Dionysos at Delphi.

G. W. Elderkin, in The Sacred Doves of Delphi (Classical Philology, Vol. 35, No. 1 (Jan., 1940), pp. 49-52) writes:

As Ion was about to partake of a banquet at Delphi, an ill-omened word from one of the servants caused him and the others present to cast upon the ground the libation which had been intended for the god. He then ordered the sacred craters to be filled anew with wine of Byblos. At this moment the doves which dwelt in the halls of Apollo flew into the banquet tent and drank of the rejected libation. One of the birds reeled and fell dead of the poisoned wine which had been intended for Ion. The presence of doves in the Delphic sanctuary was not a figment of Euripides. […] A second significant detail of the description is that the doves drank wine. For this reason the poet happily called them a κώμος πελειών (1197) and enriched the Dionysiac flavor of the reference with the verb έβάκχευσευ (1204). That Euripides was not the first to give the dove a Dionysiac habit is shown by certain coins which have been assigned to Mallos in Cilicia, a Cretan colony. On these coins which are dated between 485 and 425 appears a dove with a body formed of a bunch of grapes, while closely related types of the same city have only the bunch of grapes. This curious grape dove may be the rock dove called οίνάς – a word which means not only “dove” but “vine” and “wine.” Aristotle, the earliest author known to have used the word, derived it from οίνος because of the wine-dark color of the dove. This derivation leaves out of account the bibulous propensities of the Delphic flock and the grape dove of Mallos where there was, as at Delphi, a most trustworthy oracle.

The article goes on to discuss the dove’s association with Apollon and Aphrodite as well as Dionysos, and there’s some interesting bits about Sicily and Phoenicia – but then it takes a detour into crazy land, proposing that the Pythia and other Apollonian oracular women received their inspiration from drinking water from springs or cisterns that had been mixed with wine. There were actually several Dionysian oracles where that was the medium through which the mantis achieved a state of entheos or enthousiasmos but that’s just not how things were done at Delphi, Klaros, etc. But hey, at least Elderkin wasn’t proposing that the Pythia ingested oleander.

I find this connection between Dionysos and doves very interesting and not just because it helps explain their strong presence in the Starry Bull tradition.

Birds, for the most part, aren’t found in the Dionysian menagerie. Bulls, goats, foxes, donkeys, spiders, beetles, large and small felines, deer, gazelle, pigs, dolphins, bears, elephants and whatever the fuck these animals here and here are – but not birds. The few exceptions I can think of are owls (which he transforms the Minyades into in some accounts), peacocks (found mostly in Ptolemaic Egypt) and eagles, though in all probability Pausanias was describing a statue of Sabazios:

Polykleitos of Argos made the image; it is like Dionysos in having buskins as footwear and in holding a kantharos in one hand and a thyrsos in the other, but an eagle sitting on the thyrsos does not fit in with the received accounts of Dionysos. (Description of Greece 8.31.4)

Interestingly, as I was tracking down the above quote I found another source pertaining to Dionysian doves – the Oinotrophoi:

Then virtuous Anchises said: ‘O chosen priest of Phoebus, am I wrong, or do I not remember that you had a son and four daughters, when I first saw your city?’ Shaking his head, bound with its white sacrificial fillets, Anius replied sadly: ‘Mightiest of heroes, you are not wrong: you saw me the father of five children, whom now you see almost bereft. What is the use of my absent son, who holds the island of Andros, that takes its name from him, and rules it in his father’s place? Delian Apollo gave him the power of prophecy. Bacchus Liber gave my female offspring other gifts, greater than those they hoped or prayed for. All that my daughter’s touched turned into corn or wine or the grey-green olives of Minerva, and employing them was profitable.

‘When Agamemnon, son of Atreus, ravager of Troy, learned of this (so that you do not think we escaped all knowledge of your destructive storm) he used armed force to snatch my unwilling daughters from a father’s arms, and ordered them to feed the Greek fleet, using their gift from heaven. Each escaped where they could. Two made for Euboea, and two for their brother’s island of Andros. The army landed and threatened war unless they were given up. Fear overcame brotherly affection, and he surrendered his blood-kin. It is possible to forgive the cowardly brother, since Aeneas and Hector, thanks to whom you held out till the tenth year, were not here to defend Andros.

Now they were readying the chains for the prisoners’ arms. They, while their arms were free, stretched them out to the sky, saying: “Help, O Father Bacchus; deliver us, we pray!” and he, who granted their gifts, helped them – if you call it help for them to lose in some strange way their human form, for I could not discover by what process they lost it, nor can I describe it. The end of this misfortune I did observe: they took wing, and became snow-white doves, the birds of your goddess-wife Anchises, Venus.’ (Ovid, Metamorphoses 13.640-674)

Which could actually serve as an aition for the Orphic rite described in the Derveni papyrus:

For libations, prayers and sacrifices placate souls. An incantation by magoi can dislodge daimones that have become a hindrance; daimones that are a hindrance are vengeful souls. This is why the magoiperform the sacrifice, as they are paying a blood-price. Onto the offerings they make libations of water and milk, with both of which they also made drink-offerings. They sacrifice cakes which are countless and many-humped, because the souls too are countless. Initiates make a first sacrifice to the Eumenides in the same way as magoi do; for the Eumenides are souls. For these reasons a person who intends to make offerings to the gods, first frees a bird, having a hope of being sometime in the netherworld with the souls, when the evil (?) … but they are souls … this (?), but as many (souls) as … of … but (?) they wear …


Even more fascinating, since that rite is supposed to effect the liberation of the soul from spiritual bondage and ancestral guilt – the banded owl butterfly’s scientific name is Caligo atreus dionysosPsuchai in Greek can mean either “soul” or “butterfly” and the Atreidae are practically the definition of a tragically doomed family.

Begging priests and prophets frequent the doors of the rich and persuade them that they possess a god-given power founded on sacrifices and incantations. If the rich person or any of his ancestors has committed an injustice, they can fix it with pleasant things and feasts. Moreover, if he wishes to injure some enemy, then, at little expense, he’ll be able to harm just and unjust alike, for by means of spells and enchantments they can persuade the gods to serve them. And they present a hubbub of books by Musaeus and Orpheus, offspring as they say of Selene and the Muses, according to which they arrange their rites, convincing not only individuals but also cities that liberation and purification from injustice is possible, both during life and after death, by means of sacrifices and enjoyable games to the deceased which free us from the evils of the beyond, whereas something horrible awaits those who have not celebrated sacrifices. (Plato, Republic 2.364a–365b)


  1. Not entirely connected to the above, but just wondered: what do you make of the Argei mentioned by Ovid in the Fasti under the Liberalia/March 17th? Though that account comes after the specifically Bacchic matters of that date, nonetheless there are some intriguing connections to wider Dionysian/Bacchic/Orphic matters…maybe…?!?

    (Am working on my “Dionysian Themes in Celtic Stuff” paper at the moment–the title is only slightly better than that, though!)


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