The Bacchae

by

Euripides

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Thyrsus Symbol Analysis

Thyrsus Symbol Icon

The thyrsus is an essential part of Dionysian costume and has several layers of symbolic significance. It is a tall rod that the Bacchae 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 is capable of conjuring forth water, wine, milk from the land. It doubles 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).

The thyrsus turns tragic at the end of the play, 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 have just unfolded in Thebes.

Thyrsus Quotes in The Bacchae

The The Bacchae quotes below all refer to the symbol of Thyrsus. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Disguise, Deception, and Identity Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Ecco edition of The Bacchae published in 2015.
Lines 169 - 519 Quotes

They say some foreigner has arrived from Lydia:
one of those charlatan magicians
with blond hair that reeks of scent,
the flush of wine in his cheeks
and all the tricks of Aphrodite in his eyes.
Day and night he's with the women,
showing them his mysteries –
holding up his secret, for them to adore.
Once I catch him there'll be none of that tossing of locks
and waving of wands:
I'11take that head from off his body!

Related Characters: Pentheus (speaker), Dionysus, The Bacchae
Related Symbols: Thyrsus, Hair
Page Number: Lines 233-242
Explanation and Analysis:

And here's another miracle! The prophet Tiresias
all got up in fawn skin, and my mother's father
dressed up as a Bacchant with a wand.
You look ridiculous, both of you: have you lost your wits?
I'm ashamed of you, Grandfather.
Shake off that ivy and drop that bloody stick!
This is your doing, Tiresias, I can tell:
another imported god, another chance
to make money on the side from burnt offerings
and reading auguries from the guts of birds.

Related Characters: Pentheus (speaker), Dionysus, Cadmus, Tiresias
Related Symbols: Thyrsus
Page Number: Lines 248-257
Explanation and Analysis:
Lines 520 - 866 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: The Herdsman (speaker), Dionysus, Pentheus, The Bacchae
Related Symbols: Thyrsus
Page Number: Lines 705-710
Explanation and Analysis:

They snatched children
from their homes, and pillaged houses.
Everything they threw on their backs stayed there:
nothing, not even bronze or iron, fell to the earth.
Flames danced in their hair but did not burn them.
The furious villagers took up their weapons in defense
and, sire, what happened next was dreadful to see.
The men's spears of pointed metal drew no blood,
while the flung wands of the women ripped open flesh,
and the men turned and ran.

Related Characters: The Herdsman (speaker), Pentheus, The Bacchae
Related Symbols: Thyrsus
Page Number: Lines 753-763
Explanation and Analysis:
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Thyrsus Symbol Timeline in The Bacchae

The timeline below shows where the symbol Thyrsus appears in The Bacchae. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Lines 1 - 168
Disguise, Deception, and Identity Theme Icon
Gods and Mortals Theme Icon
Order vs. Irrationality Theme Icon
...city “ringing” with his “ecstasies” and “the cries of women, clothed in fawn-skin, holding the thyrsus.” He explains that he’s targeted Thebes because his mother Semele’s sisters, Agave, Ino, and Autonoe,... (full context)
Disguise, Deception, and Identity Theme Icon
Gods and Mortals Theme Icon
Order vs. Irrationality Theme Icon
...birth. According to the chorus, if Theban women dress in ivy and wool, carry the thyrsus, and dance, they will be “freed from themselves, possessed by Dionysus!” (full context)
Lines 169 - 519
Disguise, Deception, and Identity Theme Icon
Gods and Mortals Theme Icon
Dionysus’ evasiveness angers Pentheus. Pentheus cuts off Dionysus’ hair and snatches his thyrsus, before ordering him to be locked up. Dionysus warns Pentheus that he will pay for... (full context)
Lines 520 - 866
Gods and Mortals Theme Icon
Order vs. Irrationality Theme Icon
...swollen breasts and let them feed.” They fixed up their Dionysian garments and tapped their thyrsi on the rocks, bringing forth water, wine, milk, and honey. (full context)
Gods and Mortals Theme Icon
Order vs. Irrationality Theme Icon
Violence Theme Icon
...herdsman jumped out at Agave, but she quickly called on the women to turn their thyrsi against the men. (full context)
Gods and Mortals Theme Icon
Order vs. Irrationality Theme Icon
Violence Theme Icon
...villagers’ weapons were powerless to stop them—their spears drew no blood. The women flung their thyrsus wands at the men, ripping open their flesh. The herdsman says it was clear some... (full context)
Disguise, Deception, and Identity Theme Icon
Gods and Mortals Theme Icon
Order vs. Irrationality Theme Icon
...feet, and a headdress. To complete the outfit, he needs a “dappled fawn-skin” and a thyrsus. (full context)
Lines 867 - 1022
Disguise, Deception, and Identity Theme Icon
Gods and Mortals Theme Icon
Order vs. Irrationality Theme Icon
Dionysus comes back, ushering out Pentheus, who is dressed as a woman and carrying a thyrsus. Pentheus seems disoriented, telling Dionysus that he appears to be a bull. Dionysus says it’s... (full context)
Disguise, Deception, and Identity Theme Icon
Gods and Mortals Theme Icon
Order vs. Irrationality Theme Icon
...Pentheus’ dress is lined up nicely. Pentheus asks which hand he ought to hold the thyrsus in to look “more like a true and proper Bacchante.” (full context)
Lines 1023 - 1392
Gods and Mortals Theme Icon
Order vs. Irrationality Theme Icon
...Cithaeron. They came across some of the Bacchae, who were singing songs and repairing their thyrsi. (full context)
Disguise, Deception, and Identity Theme Icon
Gods and Mortals Theme Icon
Order vs. Irrationality Theme Icon
Violence Theme Icon
Agave picked up Pentheus’ head and mounted it on the top of her thyrsus. The second messenger says he heard her calling out to Dionysus, her “fellow huntsman” and... (full context)
Disguise, Deception, and Identity Theme Icon
Gods and Mortals Theme Icon
Order vs. Irrationality Theme Icon
Violence Theme Icon
The chorus celebrates what’s happened to Pentheus. Agave enters, carrying her thyrsus with the head of Pentheus impaled upon it. Agave addresses the chorus, telling that the... (full context)