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In Greek mythology, a thyrsus or thyrsos (Greek: θύρσος) was a staff of giant fennel (Ferula communis) covered with ivy vines and leaves, sometimes wound with taeniae and always topped with a pine cone. These staffs were carried by Dionysus and his followers. Euripides wrote that honey dripped from the thyrsos staves that the Bacchic maenads carried. The thyrsus was a sacred instrument at religious rituals and fêtes.
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. 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?
Dionysus: In thy right hand, and with thy right foot raise it"
- Or thus am I more like a Bacchanal?
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.
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)
...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.)
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.
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"}
A Bacchant holding a thyrsus: Malice, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1899
Bacchus Triumphant (1882)
by John Reinhard Weguelin
- 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
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