Thyrsos

For other uses, see Thyrsus (disambiguation).

A thyrsus or thyrsos (Ancient Greek: θύρσος) was a wand or staff of giant fennel (ferula communis) covered with ivy vines and leaves, sometimes wound with taeniae and always topped with a pine cone.

Symbolism

The thyrsus, associated with Dionysus (or Bacchus) and his followers, the Satyrs and Maenads, is a symbol of prosperity, fertility, hedonism, and pleasure/enjoyment in general.[1] It has been suggested that this was specifically a fertility phallus, with the fennel representing the shaft of the penis and the pine cone representing the "seed" issuing forth. The thyrsus was tossed in the Bacchic dance:

Pentheus: The thyrsus— in my right hand shall I hold it?
Or thus am I more like a Bacchanal?

Dionysus: In thy right hand, and with thy right foot raise it"[2]

Sometimes the thyrsus was displayed in conjunction with a kantharos wine cup, another symbol of Dionysus, forming a male-and-female combination like that of the royal scepter and orb.[3]

Use

In Greek religion, the staff was carried by the votaries of Dionysos. Euripides wrote that honey dripped from the thyrsos staves that the Bacchic maenads carried.[4] The thyrsus was a sacred instrument at religious rituals and fêtes.

The fabulous history of Bacchus relates that he converted the thyrsi car­ried by himself and his followers into dangerous weapons, by concealing an iron point in the head of leaves.[5] Hence his thyrsus is called "a spear enveloped in vine-leaves",[6] and its point was thought to incite to madness.[7]

Literature

In the Iliad, Diomedes, one of the leading warriors of the Achaeans, mentions the thyrsus while speaking to Glaucus, one of the Lycian commanders in the Trojan army, about Lycurgus, the king of Scyros:

He it was that/drove the nursing women who were in charge/of frenzied Bacchus through the land of Nysa,/and they flung their thyrsi on the ground as/murderous Lycurgus beat them with his ox-/goad. (Iliad, Book VI.132-37)

The thyrsus is explicitly attributed to Dionysus in Euripides's play The Bacchae as part of the costume of the Dionysian cult.
...To raise my Bacchic shout, and clothe all who respond/ In fawnskin habits, and put my thyrsus in their hands–/ The weapon wreathed with ivy-shoots..." Euripides also writes, "There's a brute wildness in the fennel-wands—Reverence it well." (The Bacchae and Other Plays, trans. by Philip Vellacott, Penguin, 1954.)

Socrates writes in Phaedo:

I conceive that the founders of the mysteries had a real meaning and were not mere triflers when they intimated in a figure long ago that he who passes unsanctified and uninitiated into the world below will live in a slough, but that he who arrives there after initiation and purification will dwell with the gods. For "many," as they say in the mysteries, "are the thyrsus bearers, but few are the mystics,"--meaning, as I interpret the words, the true philosophers.

In Part II of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust, Mephistopheles tries to catch a Lamia, only to find out that she is an illusion:

Well, then, a tall one I will catch.../And now a thyrsus-pole I snatch!/Only a pine-cone as its head. (7775-7777)

Sookie Stackhouse notes the thyrsus carried by the maenad in the 2nd book of The Southern Vampire Mysteries.

She idly waved the long wand with the tuft on the end. It was called a thyrsis [sic]; I’d looked maenad up in the encyclopedia. Now I could die educated. (Harris, Charlaine (2006-09-01). "Living Dead in Dallas: A Sookie Stackhouse Novel"

Gallery

Notes

References

public domain: 

  • Casadio, Giovanni; Johnston, Patricia A., Mystic Cults in Magna Graecia, University of Texas Press, 2009
  • Ferdinand Joseph M. de Waele, The magic staff or rod in Græco-Italian antiquity, Drukkerij Erasmus, 1927

External links

  • Encyclopædia Britannica Online
  • The Ancient Library
  • Perseus Project
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