Fight Giants!

Cornelia Isler-Kerényi, Dionysos, the polis, and power

Until the age of Pericles, Dionysos is normally portrayed as a bearded man, dressed in a long chiton and himation. His movements are measured and dignified.This is his countenance in the numerous images in which he is accompanied by a thiasos of Satyrs and dancing women, but also in the mythological representations in which he always appears as an intermediary and defender of the cosmic order, that is to say, of the authority of Zeus.

Another image of Dionysos emerged in 560 BCE and continued to be current until the Hellenistic period: that of the Gigantomachos, the God who combats the Giants. The Giants had revolted against the Olympians with the aim of ousting them from power. For the Greeks, the Gigantomachy was a prefiguration and model of any conflict against barbarian enemies, while the victory of the Olympians foreshadowed the victory of civilisation over those who would try to undermine it. The Gigantomachy was therefore a frequent subject of official art, as seen for example in the sculptural decoration of Greek temples.

A revealing example is the decoration of the Siphnian Treasury at the Sanctuary of Apollo in Delphi erected just before 525 BCE. It had two decorative pediments and a frieze running around the outer walls. The frieze at the top of the north face, the first to come into a visitor’s view, is the best preserved. It shows the Gigantomachy with a host of figures. Dionysos, whose name is written on the plinth at the bottom of the figuration, is attacking an enemy. He is wearing a short chiton, leaving his legs free, while a panther skin on his shoulders indicates that he is a hunter. It is important to note here that his team of lions is led by Themis (who is also labelled), the deity personifying cosmic order.