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
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!
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.
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.
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.