The Symbols of Dionysus

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Let’s start with the most obvious of the symbols of Dionysus: wine, grapes, and vines – these are constants with all images of the god, whether he is a young, beautiful, slightly effeminate male, as usually portrayed in Greek art, or a fat, old, red-faced drunkard, as medieval art made him. Very often, the traditional diadem worn by almost all ancient Greek gods is replaced on Dionysus by a wreath made of wines or ivy leaves.

Another symbol of Dionysus is the thyrsus, which is a staff made of fennel with a top made of a pine cone. The god carries it around all the time, and the staff is, of course, decorated with ivy or vine leaves. Sometimes the top, the cone, was dipped in honey, which means the thyrsus was originally a fertility symbol.

One thing you have to remember about Dionysus is that he is a social drinker and a party-goer, so he’s always accompanied by a lot of people. Drinking wine was a method of social interaction in ancient Greece; all male citizens drunk just enough to spice up the conversation, but generally people did not over-indulge and avoided intoxication. The satyrs are the male companions of the god of wine; they are often depicted with the legs of a goat and playing the pipe. The older satyrs are named sileni, although originally there was just one Silenus, tutor to Dionysus – an old, ugly and fat man, who’s always drunk and riding a donkey. Silenus borrows features from goats, or sometimes from horses. The female members of the entourage were called Mainades.

Another symbol of Dionysus is a drinking cup, a specific one called kantharos, which is easy to recognize by its elongated handles. He had one that was, of course, never empty, no matter how much he drank from it.

Dionysus wore the skin of a big cat on his shoulders – it’s generally accepted to be a leopard skin, but sometimes it’s referred to as panther or tiger skin (one should remember that the god came from India, hence the association with tigers). Other animals sacred to him include donkeys, which carry his entourage, rams, dolphins and serpents – which were given to him by his father, Zeus. Interestingly enough, there was one creature Dionysus hated – the owl of Athena, of course, since wisdom and heavy drinking don’t usually mix well.  

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