Red thoughts

There are a pair of quotes that have long intrigued me. They are:

Pausanias, Description of Greece 2.2.6-7
The things worthy of mention in the city of Corinth include the extant remains of antiquity, but the greater number of them belong to the period of its second ascendancy. On the market-place, where most of the sanctuaries are, stand Artemis surnamed Ephesian and wooden images of Dionysos, which are covered with gold with the exception of their faces; these are ornamented with red paint. They are called Lysios and Bakcheios, and I too give the story told about them. They say that Pentheus treated Dionysos spitefully, his crowning outrage being that he went to Kithairon, to spy upon the women, and climbing up a tree beheld what was done. When the women detected Pentheus, they immediately dragged him down, and joined in tearing him, living as he was, limb from limb. Afterwards, as the Corinthians say, the Pythian priestess commanded them by an oracle to discover that tree and to worship it equally with the God. For this reason they have made these images from the tree.

Pausanias, Description of Greece 7.26.11
You may reckon Phelloe one of the towns in Greece best supplied with flowing water. There are sanctuaries of Dionysos and of Artemis. The Goddess is of bronze, and is taking an arrow from her quiver. The image of Dionysos is painted with vermilion. On going down from Aegeira to the port, and walking on again, we see on the right of the road the sanctuary of the Huntress, where they say the goat crouched.

I have questions. Like: why is this distinct practice found in such vastly different parts of Greece? How commonplace was it? What did it represent? Why are Dionysos and Artemis paired in both instances?

I was also curious why the translator used different words for red – was it just a creative flourish or reflective of the original Greek, and if so what word(s) did Pausanias employ in his text?

Thankfully that last one is easy enough to answer. Here are the texts in Greek, with the words in question bolded.

λόγου δὲ ἄξια ἐν τῇ πόλει τὰ μὲν λειπόμενα ἔτι τῶν ἀρχαίων ἐστίν, τὰ δὲ πολλὰ αὐτῶν ἐπὶ τῆς ἀκμῆς ἐποιήθη τῆς ὕστερον. ἔστιν οὖν ἐπὶ τῆς ἀγορᾶς— ἐνταῦθα γὰρ πλεῖστά ἐστι τῶν ἱερῶν—Ἄρτεμίς τε ἐπίκλησιν Ἐφεσία καὶ Διονύσου ξόανα ἐπίχρυσα πλὴν τῶν προσώπων: τὰ δὲ πρόσωπα ἀλοιφῇ σφισιν ἐρυθρᾷ κεκόσμηται: Λύσιον δέ, τὸν δὲ Βάκχειον ὀνομάζουσι. (2.2.6)

εἰ δέ τινα τῶν ἐν Ἕλλησι πολισματίων ἀφθόνῳ καταρρεῖται τῷ ὕδατι, ἀριθμεῖν καὶ τὴν Φελλόην ἔστιν ἐν τούτοις. θεῶν δὲ ἱερὰ Διονύσου καὶ Ἀρτέμιδός ἐστιν: ἡ μὲν χαλκοῦ πεποίηται, βέλος δὲ ἐκ φαρέτρας λαμβάνουσα: τῷ Διονύσῳ δὲ ὑπὸ κινναβάρεως τὸ ἄγαλμά ἐστιν ἐπηνθισμένον. ἐς δὲ τὸ ἐπίνειον καταβᾶσιν ἐξ Αἰγείρας καὶ αὖθις ἐς τὰ πρόσω βαδίζουσιν ἔστιν ἐν δεξιᾷ τῆς ὁδοῦ τὸ ἱερὸν τῆς Ἀγροτέρας, ἔνθα τὴν αἶγα ὀκλάσαι λέγουσιν. (7.26.11)

And it turns out that they are slightly different. The first is ἐρυθρᾷ from ἐρυθρός, the standard Greek word for red, which we use in the Starry Bull tradition to refer to the period from July to September, when we celebrate Dionysos in his Hunter aspect and honor the Furious Host alongside him.

In the second instance, however, Pausanias uses κινναβάρεως which the Little Liddle gives as:

cinnabar, bisulphuret of mercury, whence vermilion is obtained; thought by some to be serpent’s blood

And a little later on ἐπηνθισμένον:

to deck as with flowers, make bright-coloured; decorate, adorn; give one a red tint; brighten, give lustre to a dye.


2 thoughts on “Red thoughts

  1. There’s definitely a common theme in the two instances: the occurence (or at least the implication) of slaughter. When the Maenads killed Pentheus they killed him like prey (whether because they thought they were hunting like in Euripides or because they were big cats and actually were hunting as per Ovid). The goat crouched at a place dedicated to Artemis the Huntress (and presumably was Her quarry). So both instances are associated with a prey animal being killed. Regarding the serpent blood, I remember reading in Kerenyi’s book that Maenads sometimes would tear apart the snakes in their hair like ivy. Considering that Pentheus is a hypostasis of Dionysos, we have three instances of animals associated with Dionysos being killed as stated or implied by the sources listed. I think that this is where this is heading.


    1. All that is certainly part of the background – but why is the face of the idol painted red/vermillion?

      It’s also interesting that at Corinth the idol is a xoanon rather than the more standard term we find at Phelloe, an agalma (probably related to agallomai.) Though I suppose that suits each cult’s aition, or origin story.


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