Dionysian frenzy

In addition to the permanent exhibition of coins, medallions and antiques, the French National Library (Site Richelieu-Louvois) often hosts prestigious temporary exhibitions. When I was there in the summer of 2014 they had an impressive display of ancient Greek vases from the personal collection of the Duke of Luynes (1802-1867), decorated mainly with pictures of the god Dionysus and his followers.

A text panel explained:

Dionysus, god of wine and intoxication, theater and illusion, is ubiquitous on vases intended mainly for the consumption of wine. He arrives surrounded by a joyous procession, the thiasos, formed by maenads and satyrs, half-man half-horse. They all taste the pleasures of drunkenness, encounters, music and dance in a frenzy that can sometimes become savage.

On the vase in my first photo, the two men have tails like horses, so they must be satyrs, and the women are maenads, each carrying a thyrsus, the symbol of Dionysus, a staff of giant fennel with a pine cone at the top. But the satyr and maenad in the center of the photo seem quite relaxed, having evidently not worked themselves up into a frenzy just yet.

Procession of the thiasos

On this vase, the maenads and satyrs have formed a procession (the thiasos) and are running round and round with their typical implements, like the thyrsus being carried by the woman in the middle.

Members of the thiasos

Here the woman on the left is beating on a tambourine, the next woman has a stick in one hand and the man is holding a canthare, a kind of long-handled drinking cup.

Maenads and satyrs

On the left a maenad is offering a satyr a drink of wine, while in the center two women are embracing, one carrying a stick and one with a snake wrapped around her arm.

Dionysian frenzy

Here the maenad on the left, the one with her back to us, has ripped a live goat in half and is about to eat its raw flesh, showing that she has now reached a state of Dionysian frenzy. The satyr in the middle is wildly trashing around with the two staffs that he is holding in both hands (at least one of which is a thyrsus with a pine cone at the top). The maenad on the right is making music with her pipes, playing two of them at the same time.

Location, aerial view and photo of the Richelieu-Louvois library on monumentum.fr.

My photos in this post are from 2014. I revised the text in 2018.

See also: Paintings on opera themes in Bordeaux
(scroll down for the painting Bacchante by William Bouguereau).

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