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 D I O N Y S O S 
Introduction - The myth The attributes of the godThe cult - Festival days in Athens - Antique iconography - Modern iconography - Dionysos and the theatre - Greek theatre and Euripide's Bacchae - Dionysos in ancient Greek literature - References and links 
Study of iconography - Bacchus, myth and cult - Sophocles' Antigone

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Antique iconography

  Depictions of Dionysos     The dionysian cortège     The attributes of Dionysos  


Dionysos begins to appear in ceramics at the end of the VIth century B.C. in the form of an adult with a pointed beard, dressed in a long oriental robe over a tunic.

Dionysos (detail) - © [Louvre.edu], Ph. RMN H. Lewandowski Dionysos and satyrs - © [Louvre.edu], Ph. RMN H. Lewandowski Satyr (detail)  - © [Louvre.edu], Ph. RMN H. Lewandowski
Dionysos (detail) - © [Louvre.edu], Ph. RMN Dionysos and his thiasos - © [Louvre.edu], Ph. RMN Maenad (detail) - © [Louvre.edu], Ph. RMN
Dionysos (detail)  - © [Louvre.edu], Ph. RMN H. Lewandowski Dionysos and his thiasos  - © [Louvre.edu], Ph. RMN H. Lewandowski Maenad (detail)  - © [Louvre.edu], Ph. RMN H. Lewandowski
© Louvre.edu

In the three amphorae kept at the Louvre, and pictured in Louvre.edu, Dionysos' cortège is depicted on the other side of a scene of the works of Hercules. The god is standing, head crowned with ivy, holding a vase (a keros, vase in the form of a horn, or a kantharos, drinking cup with two handles) or holding a wreath of vine. He is facing one of the members of his cortège, a satyr on the amphora of 540, and a maenad on that of 520 and that of 510.

Classic beard head - [Louvre.edu]  -   Photo Béatrice Oravec Dionysos and his thiasos © [Louvre.edu] - Photo Béatrice Oravec
© Louvre.edu

In the Vth century, his face is depicted in a less solemn way: in the sculpture dating from the beginning of 480-460, we see a full-face portrait of a still bearded but smiling god. At the back of the cup figuring an athlete, the god is depicted sitting, also holding a keros, but the satyr character drawing close to him seems to touch him in a familiar way.

Staying with the Louvre sculptures, the Hellenistic and Imperial ages introduce other episodes of the god's life in which his image is considerably altered.

Silenus holding the infant Dionysos - © [Louvre.edu] - Photo Béatrice Oravec Wine flask in form of a bunch of grapes - © [Louvre.edu]  - Photo Erich Lessing
© Louvre.edu

Dionysos is no longer depicted as an adult, but as a child or adolescent : in the imperial copy of a IIIrd century Hellenistic original, we see a bearded and athletic Silenus (he is not yet the pot-bellied staggering ventripotent depicted in the cortèges) holding the infant Dionysos in his arms. A Ist century A.D. wine flask in the form of a bunch of grapes shows the god as an infant wrapped in the grape as if in a cradle.

Dionysos (detail) © [Louvre.edu] - Photo Béatrice Oravec Dionysos, maenad and satyr - © [Louvre.edu] - Photo Béatrice Oravec
© Louvre.edu

Dionysos appears in the form of a hairless and hip-swaying ephebe on the Borghese vase (40-30 B.C.), when the dionysian cortège has turned into a gracious farandole with neither trance nor violence.

He is depicted in the same way in the marble relief entitled The legend of Triptolemus (date unknown) where a different angle of the legend is illustrated : Dionysos bound to the elysian mysteries, to Demeter and Persephone - goddesses of vegetation renewal, and in this particular case, to the invention of wheat.

Dionysos and Ariadne  - © [Louvre.edu] - Photo Erich Lessing Dionysos (detail) - © [Louvre.edu] - Photo Béatrice Oravec Dionysos (detail) - © [Louvre.edu] - Photo Béatrice Oravec
© Louvre.edu

Under the Empire, Dionysos is essentially Ariadne's lover : he maintains his effeminate look which likens him to Apollo, distancing him more and more from the virility of Hercules (see the IInd century marble illustrating a theatre mask and the Dionysos-Ariadne couple, and also the sarcophagus of 230-235 A.D. entitled Dionysos and Ariane pulled by the Centaurs and that of Dionysos finding Ariadne asleep, dated 240).


Dionysos and satyrs - © [Louvre.edu], Ph. RMN H. Lewandowski Dionysos and his thiasos - © [Louvre.edu], Ph. RMN Dionysos and his thiasos  - © [Louvre.edu], Ph. RMN H. Lewandowski
© Louvre.edu

In the oldest amphora, Dionysos is surrounded by four bearded satyrs. The two nearest the god are adorned with sharp ears and long reddish tails. Only one is represented in an ithyphallic state. The one receiving Dionysos' wine seems to want nothing more. The other two dance fervently. javascript:openWin('qcentaure.htm','',700,600,1,1) In the amphora dated 520, Dionysos is also surrounded by 4 people, but a maenad is facing him and comes to draw the wine from his kantharos. The three satyrs, leaning slightly forward, are depicted in an attitude of respect before a rite which seems to be taking place.  The third amphora shows the same scene : Dionysos facing a maenad. They are only accompanied by two satyrs : one still, and the other dancing.

Dionysos and his thiasos © [Louvre.edu] - Photo Béatrice Oravec Dionysos and his thiasos © [Louvre.edu] - Photo Béatrice Oravec
© Louvre.edu

On the other side of the athlete cup, the dionysian cortège surrounding the seated god is illustrated in a more unbridled and detailed manner : in all five maenads and six satyrs, two horses (asses ?) brought by two satyrs, an ithyphallic satyr dancing with a half-naked maenad ; the circularity of the cup conveys the fervent movement of the procession.

Satyr - © [Louvre.edu] - Photo Béatrice Oravec Dionysos, maenad and satyr - © [Louvre.edu] - Photo Béatrice Oravec Maenad - © [Louvre.edu] - Photo Béatrice Oravec
© Louvre.edu

The cortège illustrated on the Borghese vase, dating from three centuries later, transcends the movement of bodies in the music : a satyr with back turned plays the diaulos, naturally well-built, but beardless and with only an embryo for a tail - sign of bestiality, while the maenads play the zither or cymbals.


Drinking cups, bunches of grapes, vine branches

Not all of Dionysos' characteristic attributes figure on the objects at the Louvre (reproduced on the Louvre.edu service on-line) : besides the decorative bunches of grapes, the god holds different drinking cups (keros or two-handled kantharos), or a branch of vine more or less loaded with clusters of grapes.
The thyrsos (stick of fennel often crowned with a pine cone), carried by Dionysos or the Maenads, appears from the Vth century onwards : see for example a hydria kept at the British Museum (E228), pictured in The Beazley Archive Pottery Database, and the Berlin cup which was attributed to Makron (Berlin F 2290, Antikensammlung), pictured in the Perseus Database.
In the Louvre collection, the mask is depicted in only one of the marbles illustrating Ariadne and Dionysos. Detached from the god, it seams to be symbolic of the theatre rather than a characteristic attribute of the god.


Among the animals associated with Dionysos, there is :
- the ass : see 'Dionysos on an ass accompanied by satyrs and maenads' (Boston 01.17, Boston Painter, Boston Museum of Fine Arts) and 'Dionysos seated on a chariot pulled by asses' (Mississipi 1977.3.69, Painter of Theseus, the Mississippi University Museum),
- the panther or the leopard : see a red-figure hydria 'Dionysos seated amid attendants and gods' (Harvard 1960.347, Harvard University Museum) ant a mosaic of winged and crowned Dionysos riding panther (Delos, House of Dionysos).
The lion or the tiger substitute the panther or leopard in certain African mosaics (for example, the mosaics at El Jem and at the Museum of Sousse). In a mosaic at the Museum of Sousse (certainly belonging to 'the House of Virgil'), Dionysos is illustrated, head crowned with vine leaves, holding in one hand his thyrsos, in the other the reins of his chariot pulled by tigers. To the left of the chariot walks a maenad playing the tambourine. In the foreground of the mosaic the child Dionysos is depicted riding a lion (Dionysos 1). The detail of another mosaic at El Jem shows the youth Dionysos on an enormous lion, preceded by a maenad and followed by two satyrs and drunk Silenus, on a dromedary (Dionysos 3).