Greek mythology, a thyrsus (thyrsos) was a staff of giant fennel ("Ferula communis") covered with ivyvines and leaves, sometimes wound with taeniae and always topped with a pinecone. Where these emblems were, there was the spirit of Dionysusalso. Euripideswrote that honeydripped from the thyrsos staves that the Bacchic maenads carried. [Euripides, " Bacchae", 711.] It was a sacred instrument at religious rituals and fetes.
The thyrsus associated with
Dionysus(or Bacchus) and his followers, the Satyrsand Maenads, is a composite symbol of the forest (pine cone) and the farm (fennel). It has been suggested that this was specifically a fertilityphallus, 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?::Or thus am I more like a Bacchanal?"Dionysos": In thy right hand, and with thy right foot raise it" ["
Sometimes the thyrsus was displayed in conjunction with a wine cup, another symbol of Dionysus, forming a male-and-female combination like that of the royal scepter and orb.
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' ["Mystai", "initiates".] —meaning, as I interpret the words, 'the true philosophers.'" (
Plato, "Phædo", The Harvard Classics, 1909–14.)
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