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 p1129  Thyrsus

Article by James Yates, M.A., F.R.S.,
on pp1129‑1130 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

THYRSUS (θύρσος), a pole carried by Dionysus, and by Satyrs, Maenades, and others who engaged in Bacchic festivities and rites (Athen. XIV.631,A; Vell. Pat. II.82). [Dionysia, p411A] It was sometimes terminated by the apple of the pine, or fir-cone (κωνοφόρος, Brunck, Anal. I.421), that tree (πεύκη) being dedicated to Dionysus in consequence of the use of the turpentine which flowed from it, and also of its cones, in making wine (Walpole, Mem. on Eur. and As. Turkey, p235). The monuments of ancient art, however, most commonly exhibit instead of the pine-apple a bunch of vine or ivy-leaves (Ovid. Met. XI.27, 28; Propert. III.3.35) with grapes or berries, arranged into the form of a cone. The following woodcut, taken from a marble ornament (Mon. Matth. II. tab. 86), shows the head of a thyrsus composed of the leaves and berries of the ivy, and surrounded by acanthus-leaves. Very frequently also a white fillet was tied to the pole just below the head, in the manner represented in the woodcut on p136B, where each of the figures holds a thyrsus in her hand. See also the woodcuts to Funambulus and Vannus (Statius, Theb. VII.654). [Instita.] 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 (Diod. III.64, IV.4; Macrob. Sat. I.19). Hence his thyrsus is called "a spear enveloped in vine-leaves" (Ovid. Met. III.667), and  p1130 its point was thought to incite madness (Hor. Carm. II.19.8; Ovid. Amor. III.1.23, III.15.17, Trist. IV.1.43; Brunck, Anal. III.202; Orph. Hymn. XLV.5, 1.8).

[image ALT: An engraving of a hybrid plant-motif ornament consisting of a head of ivy leaves and berries on a stem of acanthus leaves. It is an example of the ancient Graeco-Roman 'thyrsus'.]

Thayer's Note:

There can surely be no great mystery about symbolizing wine by an attractive plant hiding a sharp instrument of death; and what may be termed madness often does ensue from alcohol abuse, of course.

As for the plant itself, the vine is the obvious candidate: that ivy should be so often used is somewhat of a mystery.

[image ALT: A photograph of a fragment of a stone frieze depicting on the left a woman in wildly flowing robes playing the cymbals, and on the right a naked man, holding a staff topped with a finial and some ribbons: he has the skin of an animal hanging over his back.]

Fragment of a frieze with a Bacchic scene.

The maenad to the left is playing the cymbals; the male figure holds a thyrsus and "wears" a nebris.

(Foligno, Museo di Palazzo Trinci. 413 × 363 mm: the blue pen is exactly 14 cm long.)

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Page updated: 30 Apr 08