the thyrsus the dionysian wand

The thyrsus is an essential part of Dionysian costume and has several layers of symbolic significance. It is a tall rod that maenads (bacchae) and satyrs hold in one hand, usually made from fennel, wrapped with ivy and topped off with a pine cone. The thyrsus is a remarkable piece of equipment: when granted Dionysian power, it was capable of conjuring forth water, wine, and milk from the land. It doubled as a fearsome weapon too, impaling its victims and thus granting the female Bacchae the kind of physical domination usually associated with men. It is, then, a transformational item, granting people new and supernatural powers that extend beyond gender norms and social convention. Another important aspect of the thyrsus is that it is a kind of phallic symbol, emphasizing Dionysus’ status as a god of fertility (and, of course, the ecstatic sexual abandon his rituals include).

One woman struck her thyrsus on a rock
and a spring of water shot out, bubbling.
Another drove her fennel wand into the ground
and the god released a jet of wine.
Those who wanted milk
simply tapped the earth
with their fingers and a fountain started.
Pure honey spurted and streamed
from the tips of their wands.
If you had been there, sire,
you would have gone down on your knees and prayed
to the very god you deny.

In Euripides’ play, The Bacchae, the thyrsus turns tragic at the end as Agave parades through Thebes with the impaled head of her son, Pentheus, perched atop the rod. The thyrsus thus comes to represent the height of her tragedy — that is, the immense sorrow that comes with her realization that she has brutally killed her own son. However, it also emphasizes her excessive pride in mistakenly bragging that what’s on top of the thyrsus is some kind of hunting trophy. Ultimately, then, the thyrsus sheds its previous meanings for its ultimate definition — it shows Dionysus’ complete control over the tragedy and horrors that unfolded in Thebes.