Thyrsus

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In Greek mythology, a thyrsus (thyrsos) 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.[1] The thyrsus was a sacred instrument at religious rituals and fetes.

Symbolism

The thyrsus, associated with Dionysus (or Bacchus) and his followers, the Satyrs and Maenads, is a composite symbol of the forest (pine cone) and the farm (fennel). 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?

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.

Fiction

It 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.)

"And 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'[3] —meaning, as I interpret the words, 'the true philosophers.'" (Plato, Phædo 69c-d, The Harvard Classics, 1909–14.)

In Part II of Goethe's Faust, line 7775-7:

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

The above lines are spoken by Mephistophiles, while he is trying to embrace a Lamiae.

Iliad, Book VI.132-37:

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.

The above lines were spoken by Diomed of the Acheans, to Glaucus of the Trojans, regarding Lycurgus.

Notes

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