The thyrsos (ancient Greek θύρσος, plural: thyrsoi, Latin thyrsus), rarely thyrsos staff or bacchus staff is a staff in Greek mythology carried as an attribute of Dionysus and his companions, the Maenads and the Satyrs.
Origin and forms of the thyrsos
The thyrsos was a staff said to have been made of a stalk of giant fennel; at any rate, the term narthex (fennel stalk) is used by Euripides as a synonym for thyrsos. Insofar as they are synonyms, thyrsos seems to be the older term; at any rate, that is what a Euripides scholion says.
The thyrsos is usually depicted with bandages or entwined with vine leaves. At the top was a crown of ivy or vine leaves, in later times often a pine cone. The representations of the crown are very different.
Sometimes it consists of a branch with a few leaves, sometimes it is a fennel flower, another time an elaborate, bushy arrangement with ivy leaves arranged in regular rows, sometimes the leaves are naturalistically executed, sometimes only indicated by dots.
Likewise, the shaft in the depictions is sometimes clearly identifiable as a fennel stalk, sometimes apparently a wooden stick, sometimes a crude stick, another time a carefully smoothed stick entwined with ribbons.
Ultimately, the plant attributes of the cult of Dionysus (ivy, vine, and fennel) are combined almost arbitrarily in all gradations between completely crude and completely artificial.
The fir tree and the fir branch alone appear only in isolated, early pieces of evidence and later disappear completely from the Dionysian iconography. And finally, the length of the thyrsos also varies considerably between man-high and ell-long.
For all the variability in depiction, the thyrsos was more or less straight in all ancient depictions; only in modern times are there depictions of thyrsoi that resemble a shepherd's crook (for example, in a fresco by Giovanni Francesco Romanelli).
Priestess of Bacchus by John Collier, 1885-1889, private collection. Finally, in the 19th cent. In the wake of Nietzsche, efforts were made (sometimes with limited success) to create a more authentic representation of the "Dionysian,"
as can be seen in the fully clothed Priestess of Bacchus in a tiger skin, in a tiger skin, who carries in her right hand a very solid-looking thyrsos crowned by a pine cone, which, completely without wine, ivy and ribbons, looks more like a spear than like a prop of a wine festival (see Thyrsolonchos).
Whether in its "original form" the thyrsos per se is to be identified with the narthex, or whether it was originally a staff that was replaced by the lighter fennel stalk at the command of Dionysus so that those intoxicated by wine would not injure themselves with their staffs, remains unclear.
The origin of the word is also unclear. First documented (and there many times) is Thyrsos in The Bacchae, a tragedy by Euripides. Otherwise, the evidence in classical Greek literature is very sparse; with the onset of Hellenism, the word appears frequently.
The stem θυρσ- appears in various plant names, such as θυρσίνη (summerroot), θύρσιον (thyme), and θυρσίτης (glueweed) without these plants being related or similar, from which Papen concludes that the stem must be related to a name for a plant part.
He assumes that since Narthex is the stem, Thyrsos as a plant part must correspond to the corolla. This is consistent with the fact that in Hesychios the thyrsos is called klados (branch, sapling).
Bearers of the thyrsos
In ancient art the thyrsos appears as an attribute from 530 BC very often with the Maenads, occasionally also with satyrs and silen, the god Dionysus himself or his wife Ariadne. Ultimately, it is the distinguishing attribute of the god and his retinue, i.e., the moment a figure of mythology appears in the thiasos, the thyrsos is also added to it. Therefore:
Hephaistos, who is brought back to Olympus by Dionysus, is seen drunkenly waving the thyrsos.
likewise, the centaurs and Pan, who originally did not belong to the god's retinue, are shown with thyrsos and other Dionysian attributes from the Hellenistic period onwards; conversely, Pan gives off the flute peculiar to him, which becomes the instrument typically played by satyrs.
Eros, who has also been a companion of Dionysus since the 4th century, occasionally wears a thyrsos.
In some cases it remains unclear why a deity wears the thyrsos, for example in representations of Nike or Roma with thyrsos.
The thyrsos was also worn by the initiates of the Dionysus Mysteries or is their attribute, hence Plato says in the Phaidon:
"Thyrsus-bearers are many, but true enthusiasts few."
in the sense of "For many are called, but few chosen." To what extent the thyrsos as an attribute of the initiates and the followers of Dionysus is to be understood metaphorically or quite practically-really remains uncertain. When Plutarch describes an unknown tragedian with the words.
"Gone is youth and thyrsos rests"
or Juvenal says
"Song and thyrsos beat are denied to poverty"
so it remains unclear whether the thyrsos here is figurative, or whether it is a concrete object, such as a fool's garment that remains in the closet at Shrovetide because the former wearer has grown older and more mature (or poorer).
Even into the political symbolism of the Roman Empire the Thyrsos could penetrate: When Marcus Antonius entered Ephesus in early 41 B.C., he was worshipped as the New Dionysus: women dressed as bacchantes and men costumed as pans and satyrs carried thyrsos staffs in the solemn procession before the triumvirate.
On a silver tetradrachm from Ephesus, the portraits of Mark Antony and Octavia, sister of Octavian and wife of Mark Antony since the fall of 40 BC, appear on the obverse; the reverse shows Dionysus with Thyrsos and Kantharos, standing on the cista mystica and framed by two serpents.
The thyrsos is also used as a weapon by the Maenads, or they use lances disguised as thyrsoi, as on the India campaign of Dionysus or they are used in the killing of Pentheu This combination of thyrsos and lance is mentioned for the first time by Kallixeinos of Rhodes in the description of the festival procession of Ptolemy II. (winter 275/74 BC), where the performers of the god and the Maenads carried such thyrsos lances (θυρσόλογχος thyrsolonchos).
The distinction between thyrsos and thyrsos lance seems to have been blurred later. Macrobius, for example, asks what the difference is, and Nonnos in the Dionysiaka speaks only of thyrsoi, even where they are apparently used as weapons.
Thyrsos outside the cult of Dionysus
It is difficult to say what exactly was or is to be understood by a thyrsos, since the term was apparently also used more generally for plant parts tied together, entwined sticks, etc., which were used in a festive-cultic context.
Plutarch, for example, in describing a Jewish feast of tabernacles, calls the lulav, a bundle made of the branch of a date palm, the etrog and branches of myrtle and willow, also thyrsos, and also in the 2nd Book of Maccabees and in Josephus lulav is translated as thyrsos.
Or even more generally in Latin, where thyrsus, tirsus or tursus was used simply to denote the stem or stalk of a plant, e.g. in Pliny to denote the stalk of asparagus. Today, therefore, the Latin thyrsus in botany denotes a special inflorescence, see under thyrsus.