Persephone’s goose

In Southern Italy the goose is one of the sacred animals of Persephone and often found accompanying her, as we see in this pinax from Lokroi Epizephyrii which depicts a maiden offering a rooster to the enthroned goddess while a goose flexes its wings beneath the offering table:

On an Attic red figure krater said to have been found in S. Agata dei Goti in Campania the goose has wandered into the andrōn where Persephone’s husband is hosting a symposion with Dionysos and his retinue (including a drunken Hephaistos and rambunctious Eros who is about to assault the poor goose) as the guests of honor:

This bird was so closely associated with Persephone that it figured prominently on her throne in the underworld:

Two more series, related to each other, also belong indisputably to the sphere of Persephone: the scenes depicting Hades and Persephone enthroned, and the ‘homage’ scenes in which various deities pay homage to an enthroned Persephone or to the enthroned couple. In the first series we find the following symbols and cult objects. (I) The cock (one is held by Persephone and another is standing under the throne). (2) The thymiaterion surmounted by a cock. (3) The stalk of grain (held by Persephone). (4) The phiale (held by Hades). (5) A blooming twig (held by Hades). (6) The throne with a back ending in a goose’s head. In the homage scenes the divinities paying homage hold attributes which identify them (e.g. Hermes the ram), or offer the cock or other objects appropriate to Persephone or the circumstances. The following deities appear in these scenes. (a) Hermes, always with a ram, and often presenting a cock to Persephone; he is sometimes accompanied by a female figure to whom I shall return below. (b) Dionysos, holding a kantharos and a vine, sometimes also accompanied by a female figure. (c) Apollo, in one type with a lyre, in the other with a lyre and a bow. (d) Triptolemos, holding a stalk of grain in one hand and with the other guiding the winged serpents of his chariot. (e) The Dioskouroi, who are represented as horsemen, sometimes followed by a female figure; they hold a cup or a kantharos and a shield or a lyre. Pruickner so recognizes Athena in one of the types. […] In the fifth group a girl carrying the peplos on a tray and followed by the phialophoros arrives in front of a seated deity who has her himation drawn over her head and is holding a cock; under her seat there is a hydria. This type would suggest that in this cycle at least the phialophoros figure is a priestess, while the goddess, shown as ‘ideally present’, is meeting the peplos-carrying procession. The final group’ shows a girl putting the peplos away in a chest which stands in front of a throne with a back ending in a goose’s head. Since this simple act is shown on pinakes, it must have had a religious significance. The peplos, the type of throne, and the kalathos and kantharos hanging on the wall indicate that we are still in Persephone’s cultic sphere. A mirror is also handing on the wall: we saw that this object had entered Persephone’s orbit. There is also a lekythos on the wall, but this conveys no information to us. The context indicates a sacred garment kept in a sanctuary; this, in combination with the peplophoria scenes, suggests an occasion of garment presentation to a goddess, a well-known ritual act in Greek religion. Zancani Montuoro suggested that we are dealing with the presentation of Persephone’s bridal peplos; she considered the whole nexus of scenes involving the peplos as part of Persephone’s theogamia, but was undecided as to whether these are cultic scenes taking place in the Locrian sanctuary or mythological ones, though she is inclined towards the latter view. (Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood, Persephone and Aphrodite at Locri: A Model for Personality Definitions in Greek Religion)

This is as close as I’ve come to finding an explanation for this bit of Magna Graecian iconography – until the other night.

I was looking through the Karaitos Catalogue of Heroines to see if I could track down any Dionysiac figures I wasn’t already familiar with (alas, none turned up) when I came across this:

HERKYNA (Lebadeia) a companion of Kore. She has a temple on the banks of the river of the same name (Paus. 9.39.2-3). It is unclear whether she received divine or heroic cult there.

Now Lebadeia is where the oracle of Trophonios was located and that has some intriguing parallels with Bacchic Orphic stuff since at various points in the katabasis ritual you had to drink water from Lethe and Mnemosyne. So I decided to refresh my memory and see what Pausanias had to say about her:

They say that here Herkyna, when playing with Kore, the daughter of Demeter, held a goose which against her will she let loose. The bird flew into a hollow cave and hid under a stone; Kore entered and took the bird as it lay under the stone. The water flowed, they say, from the place where Kore took up the stone, and hence the river received the name Herkyna. On the bank of the river there is a temple of Herkyna, in which is a maiden holding a goose in her arms. In the cave are the sources of the river and images standing, and serpents are coiled around their sceptres. One might conjecture the images to be of Asklepios and Hygeia; but they might equally be Trophonios and Herkyna, because they think that serpents are just as much sacred to Trophonios as Asklepios. (Description of Greece 9.39.2)

The only other information I could turn up on her was at

Her name probably means guard-dog, from eruô, to guard, and kyôn a dog, or alternatively, she-who-wards-off, erukô. The story given by Pausanias, however, has it derive from herkos, a bird-catching net or noose. Herkyna appears to be closely identified with the goddess Hekate. Both were childhood companions of the goddess Persephone; and chthonian (or underworld) goddesses associated with dogs. […] Herkyna founded the worship of Demeter at Lebadeia, who hence received the surname of Herkyna. (Lycoph. 153, with the note of Tzetzes.) Herkyna was worshipped at Lebadeia in common with Zeus, and sacrifices were offered to both in common. (Liv. xlv. 27.) […] It appears that Pausanias has ommitted certain details of this story, which seems to be a local version of the tale of the abduction of Persephone. The goose appears to be the lure (rather than the usual narcissus flower), and the burried stream the entranceway to the upper world for the god Haides.

That conjures all sorts of associations with Acheloos and Euthymos, the latter of whom was linked with Persephone at Lokroi:

Many terracotta plaques featuring three female heads were found in the Grotta, sometimes with Pan and sometimes with Dionysiac symbols. This trio of heads is found in nymphaea, in Persephone shrines, and in tombs elsewhere in the Greek world, but in the Grotta Caruso an unusual combination occurs: sometimes the nymphs appear with a tauromorph, a bull with a human face and horns. The iconography of this figure is consistent with portraits of Acheloos or other river gods, and we have textual evidence that ties the Locrian one to a river. An inscription on one of the Grotta’s plaques names the bull-man as Euthymos, a curious Locrian hero. (Bonnie MacLachlan, Kore as Nymph, not Daughter: Persephone in a Locrian Cave)

This makes me curious – is the Herkynaean goose the one depicted in Magna Graecian art? And if so, how did it get there? Most of the Hellenic colonies in Italy were outside the Boiotian cultural sphere, so does that mean that this form of the abduction myth was at one point more widespread before being eclipsed by the ‘canonical’ Eleusinian version? One possibility is that it was favored by Orphics, since both locations betray a strong Orphic influence.

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)

We are everywhere


I was reading Matthew Lloyd’s Dionysus, masculinity, and the return of Hephaestus when I came across this interesting detail:

Indeed, Dionysus maintains his appeal to the more traditionally masculine. Nick Offerman, the actor best known for playing Ron Swanson in the sitcom Parks and Recreation, is an avid worshipper of Dionysus. In his 2014 autobiography, Paddle Your Own Canoe he says:

if I had to choose one god to serve, I would choose… Dionysus. The Greek god of wine, song, and theatre. My Eucharist is found in entertaining people, receiving the bread and the wine of laughter and tears from the crowd, and being brought to catharsis by the work of others. When I take the stage, Dionysus (or Bacchus) sees and hears my ministry and he is muchly pleased.

To Offerman, Dionysus is a god of theatre, revelry, and performance.

The public perception of Offerman is that he is a traditionally manly man. This perception is partially based on the character of Ron Swanson, but also on Offerman’s skill at woodworking. In Chapter 7 of Paddle Your Own Canoe, “Enter Dionysus”, he discusses his early time in the theatre and how his skill with his hands supported his theatrical pursuits. Nevertheless, he denies his own manliness – largely because of those Dionysiac tendencies. In a recent interview with Men’s Health, he says: “I went to theatre school. I took two semesters of ballet. I’m the sissy in my family. I cry with pretty great regularity. It’s not entirely accurate to equate me with manliness.” Indeed, even for Offerman Dionysus is not necessarily male – the quotation from Paddle Your Own Canoe above ends: “Or she. No reason to stick with the tired dogma of the patriarchy.”

Daß Narrenschyff

This bit from Kathryn Topper’s Dionysos, Sympotic Ships, and Empire: Banqueting aboard the Thalamegos of Ptolemy IV:

A fragment of Kallixeinos of Rhodes’ Peri Alexandreias (FGrH 627 F 1, ap. Ath., Deipn. 5.204d-206d) provides a lengthy description of the Thalamegos, the luxurious Nile barge of Ptolemy IV Philopator. Unlike the Tessarakonteres, Philopator’s giant warship, the Thalamegos was built for pleasure cruises, a purpose reflected in its lavish interior design. Distributed over its two decks were promenades, bed chambers, and several dining rooms, including one dining room decorated in an Egyptian style and another with columns of Indian stone. Additionally, the upper deck held a shrine to Aphrodite and a large “Dionysian” room capable of holding thirteen couches and furnished with an artificial cave that housed portrait statues of the royal family.


The metaphor of the symposium as a ship or a journey at sea appears as early as the archaic period, and for several centuries it permeated every aspect of the Greek banquet, from painted pottery to poetry to mosaic floor decoration. The metaphor could function in a variety of ways, referring sometimes to the physical and aesthetic experiences of the symposiasts, and at other times to the relationship between the sympotic group and the larger community (Slater 1976, Davies 1978, Daraki 1982, Corner 2010). As Franks has recently shown, it could also cast the symposiasts as voyagers to distant lands whose journeys resembled that of Dionysos as he traveled throughout the known world triumphantly spreading his cult (Franks 2014), and it is this last use of the metaphor that is most relevant to my reading of Philopator’s Thalamegos.


Banqueting aboard a ship that allowed them to travel – albeit metaphorically – to the limits of the civilized world, guests on the Thalamegos performed their own version of Dionysos’ journeys throughout Greece and the East. In doing so, they enacted a crucial aspect of Ptolemaic ideology, which cast the kings as semidivine spreaders of civilization whose capital city – with its zoo, botanical gardens, Museion, and library – was itself a microcosm of the inhabited world (Casey 2006, Strootman 2014a, 2014b). A ship that brought the riches of the world on board while promising travel to exotic lands, the Thalamegos turned banqueters into participants in this imperial program of collection and expansion.

Reminded me of my favorite Agrigentine anecdote:

Timaeus of Tauromenium relates that there was a certain house at Akragas called the Trireme, on this account:— At a festival of Dionysos once a group of young men were drinking and became so wild when overheated by the liquor that they imagined they were sailing in a trireme, and that they were in a bad storm on the ocean. Finally they completely lost their senses, and tossed all the furniture and bedding out of the house as though upon the waters, convinced that the pilot directed them to lighten the ship because of the raging storm. Well, a great crowd gathered and began to carry off the jetsam, but even then the youngsters did not cease from their mad actions. The next day the military authorities appeared at the house and made a complaint against the young men when they were still half-seas over. To the questions of the magistrates they answered that they had been much put to it by a storm and had been compelled to throw into the sea the superfluous cargo. When the authorities expressed surprise at their insanity, one of the young men, though he appeared to be the eldest of the company, said to them: ‘Ye Tritons, I was so frightened that I threw myself into the lowest possible place in the hold and lay there.’ The magistrates, therefore, pardoned their delirium, but sentenced them never to drink too much and let them go. (Athenaios, Deipnosophistai 2.37)

Okay, second favorite.

There’ll be birds on the ground


“In Hermione, Argolis is a temple of Dionysos Melanaigis (of the Black Goatskin). In his honor every year they hold a competition in music, and they offer prizes for swimming-races and boat-races.” (Pausanias, Description of Greece 2.35.1)

“Want your boat, Georgie?”

Okay. I am terribly amused.

I chose the swarthy fellow in the jester’s cap to illustrate this post because I’d always understood Mórychos to be a Dionysian epiklesis from Syracuse meaning “the Dark One” and his sinister expression conveyed all the right notes (sexy, mysterious, slightly menacing and mad, etc.) The clown thing was just icing on the cake.

Well, as it turns out the image was more appropriate than I guessed!

Or icing is more important than it seems!

Morychos, you see, was a proverbial buffoon; people would say, “stupider than Morychos” as in this quip recorded by Zenobios:

You are more stupid than Morychos, who got rid of his furniture and now has to sit outside his house.

He seems to have started off as a 5th century tragedian whom Aristophanes mocked for his gluttony in The Peace; after that the character took on a life of it own.

According to Thomas Horn he’s alive and well today as the Spirit of Mardi Gras:

In Syracuse, Dionysus was known as Dionysus Morychos (“the dark one”) a fiendish creature; roughly equivalent to the biblical Satan, who wore goatskins and dwelt in the reqions of the underworld. In the scholarly book, Dionysus Myth And Cult, Walter F. Otto connected Dionysus with the prince of the underworld. He wrote: “The similarity and relationship which Dionysus has with the prince of the underworld (and this is revealed by a large number of comparisons) is not only confirmed by an authority of the first rank, but he says the two deities are actually the same. Heraclitus says, ‘Hades and Dionysus, for whom they go mad and rage, are one and the same.'”

But the Hebrews considered the magic (witchcraft) of the Bacchae (the female followers of Dionysus) to be the best evidence of Dionysus’ Satanic connection, and, while most of the details are no longer available because of the fact that Dionysus was a mystery god and his rituals were thus revealed to the initiated only, the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel described the “magic bands” (kesatot) of the Bacchae, which, as in the omophagia, were used to capture (magically imprison) the souls of men. We read, “Therefore, thus says the Lord GOD, “Behold I am against your magic bands [kesatot] by which you hunt lives [souls] there as birds, and I will tear them off your arms; and I will let them go, even those lives [souls] whom you hunt as birds” (Ez. 13:20 NAS).

The kesatot was a magic arm band used in connection with a container called the kiste. Wherever the kiste is inscribed on sarcophagi and on Bacchic scenes, it is depicted as a sacred vessel (a soul prison?) with a snake peering through an open lid. How the magic worked and in what way a soul was imprisoned is still a mystery. Pan, the half-man/half-goat god (later relegated to devildom) is sometimes pictured as kicking the lid open and letting the snake (soul?) out. Such loose snakes were then depicted as being enslaved around the limbs, and bound in the hair, of the Bacchae women. The demon Pan, the serpents, the imprisoned souls, and the magic Kesatot and Kiste, were evidently perceived by the prophet Ezekiel as an effort of the Bacchae to mystically imprison the souls of men through magic and sensuality. Also, Pan was beloved of Dionysus for his pandemonium (“all the devils”) which struck panic and/or pleasure in the hearts of men and beasts. Does the same spirit reside over New Orlean’s Mardi Gras, Rio’s Carnival, and Sydney’s Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras? It appears to this writer that an equally tenacious effort on the part of modern Bacchae to embrace the will of evil supernaturalism exists.

It’s funny, I’ve been getting pinged for a while to start working more with the Harlequinade portion of Dionysos’ Retinue, and (once the monotheist lunacy and historical innacuracies/misrepresentations have been filtered out) I’d say this is a pretty strong confirmation and ties things together rather nicely. (Hahaha. Get it? Ties. Kesatot. I slay me.)

Oh, this should make Anthesteria extra fun this year.

Take it away, Crispin: