A wand or staff called a thyrsus, was associated with the wine-god Dionysus (and his Roman equivalent Bacchus). A thyrsus generally consisted of a straight rod, topped with a plant-themed ornament—most often a pinecone. The material recommended for the main staff of the religious scepter was a large stalk of giant fennel, called a narthēx. It was a curious choice, but Dionysus was allegedly looking out for the wellbeing of his inebriated followers when he suggested that each thyrsus should be made out of giant fennel. A scholar named Diodorus Siculus (1st century BCE) preserved the tale of Dionysus’ giant fennel endorsement:
“When wine was first discovered, the mixing of water with it had not as yet been devised and the wine was drunk unmixed; but when friends gathered together and enjoyed good cheer, the revellers, filling themselves to abundance with the unmixed wine, became like madmen and used their wooden staves to strike one another. Consequently, since some of them were wounded and some died of wounds inflicted in vital spots, Dionysus was offended at such happenings, and though he did not decide that they should refrain from drinking the unmixed wine in abundance, because the drink gave such pleasure, he ordered them hereafter to carry a narthex and not a wooden staff” (Diodorus Siculus, Library, 4.4).
According to this tale, Dionysus chose to equip his followers with giant fennel rods instead of wooden canes so as to reduce the damage that would occur if a drunken brawl erupted among his followers. Nevertheless, Dionysus’ troupes of fanatic followers, such as the Bacchae and Maenads still could not be underestimated. When riled up by Dionysus’ powers of inebriation and madness, his followers could still quite literally tear people apart with their bare hands.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Cropped scene from a terracotta bell-krater (bowl for mixing wine and water) ca. 450 B.C., [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).
- The Library of History, by Diodorus Siculus, edited by Giles Laurén (Sophron Editor, 2014).