Return to Dionysus


Draped in the skin of a fawn, crowned with wreaths of ivy, and carrying the thyrus, a wand of fennel wrapped with ivy leaves (which, as an evergreen, symbolize eternal life) and tipped with a pinecone (the fruit of the evergreen and a symbol of fertility), the Maenads (Bacchae) roamed the mountains and woods, seeking to assimilate the potency of the beasts that dwelled there, and celebrating their god with song, music, and dance. The Satyrs, too, were the companions of Dionysus, but they are represented almost as beasts, themselves, whereas the Maenads merely have taken on their outward appearance. The serpent in the hair (as above) or entwined in the hand, the fawnskin on the back, the wild behavior—that they are women—all are sufficient to show their closeness to nature. There is no need for metamorphosis.

In the ritual of the Maenads is the ambivalence conveyed in Euripides' The Bacchae. To resist Dionysus is to deny the irrational within the self, the repression of which can only lead, inevitably, to its destructive release. The human spirit demands Dionysiac ecstasy; for those who accept it, the experience offers spiritual power. For those who repress the natural force within themselves or refuse it to others, it is transformed into destruction, both of the guilty and the innocent. To have this awareness, of one's own nature and, therefore, one's place in nature is wisdom (sophia), itself. Of the god, one either is the votary or victim.

A Bacchante (1909) is by Arthur Wardle, who was known for his depiction of wild and exotic animals, as well as mythological and literary subjects. Here both are combined.

The tondo of this cylix is in the Staatliche Antikensammlungen (Munich).