The Thiasos Of Dionysus – A Rudraganika Excerpt

A further excerpt from my recent ‘ RUDRAGANIKA ‘ (A)Arti-cle, looking at the female Retinue of the Indo-European Sky Father deific. This time, oriented toward the ‘Thiasos’ ( θίασος ) processional that accompanies Dionysus (and, entirely uncoincidentally, Poseidon).

The full-length piece can be found here:

Art, as per usual, by HC – who has once again done a subtle yet superlative job of incorporating an array of Indo-European conceptual syllabry into the depiction. Outstanding !


The Parodos of the Thiasos

However, this notion of the ‘Wild God’ embarked upon an ‘invasion’ or a ‘trooping’ is not something exclusive to the Hindu sphere. It most definitely expresses itself via occurrence elsewhere – at least, within the realms of the myth, somewhat more haphazardly as applies the attested realms of ritual, due to the fact that no other Indo-European canon has been preserved with anything like the same rigour in that specific regard. Most accountings we have of what appear to be cognate ritual from, say, the Hellenic sphere are eyewitness at best (often simply the aftermath thereof), or heady extrapolations from fictionalized renditions which leave ample room for conjecture and doubt as to specific details.

I can probably do little better than an ‘old master’ of the literary arts, so here’s Nonnus, from his Dionysiaca extolling the grandeur of Dionysus’ assembling war-host:

“These combatants were joined by the Bacchae, some coming from the Meionian rocks, some from the mountain above the precipitous peaks of Sipylos. Nymphs hastened to join the soldiers of the thyrsus, the wild Oreads with hearts of men trailing their long robes. Many a year had they seen roll round the turning-point as they lived out their long lives. Some were the Medlars (Epimelides) who lived on the heights near the shepherds; some were from the woodland glades and the ridges of the wild forest, nymphs (Meliae) of the mountain Ash coeval with their tree. All these pressed onwards together to the fray, some with brassbacked drums, the instruments of Cybelid Rheia, others with overhanging ivy-tendrils wreathed in their hair, or girt with rings of snakes. They carried the sharpened thyrsus which the mad Lydian women then took with them fearless to the Indian War.”

Interestingly, this army is congealed via the summons of Cybele / Rhea – a figure, a Mountain Mother, Who does indeed bear a notable resemblance to our (Hindu) Mother Goddess in various manifest(ed) particulars (c.f various my earlier work including ‘Bharat Mata And The Indo-European Deific Of National Identity’); and, once again, we seem to see almost a deliberate ‘possibility’ that the ‘Lydians’ referred to are not ‘merely’ mythic – but are, rather, human women of that more eastern and ancient land whipped up into a berserk rage by the God.

I choose my words deliberately there – ‘berserk rage’ – as there are certain associations to the Furor exhibited by the Maenads and other exemplars of the Dionysian female frenzy which, upon reading them, reminded me *instantly* of details given in, say, the Ynglinga Saga for Odin’s empowerment of *His* Chosen. To quote therefrom:

“Odin could make his enemies in battle blind, or deaf, or terror-struck, and their weapons so blunt that they could no more but than a willow wand; on the other hand, his men rushed forwards without armour, were as mad as dogs or wolves, bit their shields, and were strong as bears or wild bulls, and killed people at a blow, but neither fire nor iron told upon themselves. These were called Berserker.”

Now, as it happens, the ensuing descriptions given in Nonnus’ work actually feature various of these women or more-than-mortal-women carrying out *significant* damage to various opposing forces, equipped with … well … not *quite* ‘willow wands’, but certainly not seeming non-lethal simply because their weaponry is not necessarily the conventional martial faire and literally includes ‘wands’ of wood. Indeed, even their bare hands are formidable devices of destruction – directly ripping apart both human foes and creatures otherwise renowned for their strength and durability (in one case, indeed, including a bull). The point is, we have in these Greek texts clear descriptions of slashing and piercing elements somehow mysteriously failing to injure the skin of Dionysus’ Women whilst fire does not seem to burn them, and their Furor-state grants them superhuman strength and ferocity. Even accounting for the likely ‘literary enhancement’ of these traits we should expect to encounter in a poetic source such as Nonnus, it seems both suitably impressive and strikingly resonant conceptry.

Yet we have ‘jumped ahead’ a bit.

The proper term for what is being described here is presumably that which entered in the sub-heading above: Thiasos. Effectively, it means a ‘processional’ or a ‘grouping’ (these days, apparently modern Greek has adapted it to mean ‘theater company’, perhaps rather aptly); and in Ancient Greece it had a few other applications within the religious sphere than the *precise* Thiasos of Dionysus – interestingly, other than the general sense of a religious body, it also accrues when speaking about similar processionals to those around Dionysus … for Poseidon. And, in particular, Poseidon (or Dionysus) engaged in a triumphal (in the old Roman sense, somewhat) marriage march. You can immediately begin to appreciate how this seems to resonate with what we have in India via the Bhole Ki Baraat !

But what does it mean, really?

The etymology has not been precisely pinned down – although the general consensus appears to be that it links to the famed Thyrsus wielded by various of the Thiasos’ participants. This is rather logical – it is certainly the iconic ‘staff of office’ for the true Dionysus devotee of the time; although I am not quite sure that it is the full story. One point which springs to mind is that the weaponized utilization of the Thyrsus should seem to concord with what we see for the Vedic Ganas of Rudra being hailed as bearing piercing weaponry – and the ‘fertility’ (particularly of plants) dimension represented by the pinecone headpiece to the ‘spear’ similarly seems eerily similar to the ‘Ugana’ interpretation that had grown up around the ‘rising up’ (of plants from the soil) in subsequent Hindu scriptural exegesis which had linked such a clade to the SaptaMatrikas etc. So upon that basis, we can certainly sketch out why it might have been reasonable for Thyrsus to, indeed, lie at the root of the Thiasus’ nomenclature. In which case, these *other* utilizations of ‘Thiasos’ for other Gods’ groupings, are either the term becoming applied more broadly to simply mean a religious processional / organization more generally … or, as with the situation of Poseidon, may point back toward a fundamental thematic unity in some sense – even if it is one that had been largely lost to the Greeks themselves by the time they got to writing many things down which have managed to make it to our time.

However, whilst I don’t think that a Thyrsus – Thiasos linkage is, necessarily, inaccurate … I do suspect it to be somewhat incomplete.

Within the coteries of Dionysus’ followers, due prominence must be given to one particular female clade: the Thyiades.

Now these are, as we should perhaps expect by now, something of a ‘liminal’ figure – simultaneously seemingly referred to (for example, in Alcman) in terms that seem to place them amidst Dionysus’ Nymphs (i.e. more-than-human and mythic creatures), whilst also at the same time very definitely existing as ‘sidereal’ human women in other documents. With one of their defining characteristics being their strong association with Dance. Gosh, where have we heard all of THAT before.

The Thyiades are, in various respects, quite a grand fit for our RudraGanika typology – particular because we might also place them as something of a ‘priestess’ clade within the Dionysian coterie. They do not simply dance – they also carry out offerings. We can tell this, in part, because the same pattern we have earlier evinced wherein general traits for the female Ganas of Rudra become ‘focused’ into individual mythic figures or even come to apply to the Consort of the God Herself … the figure of Thyia is quite prominent as the *first* Sacrificer to Dionysus (for whom the later Thyiades are therefore stated by Pausanias to have been named), an apparent lover of Apollo and/or Poseidon (per Pausanias upon the latter score), and with the particular locale bearing her name being a subsequent congregation point for the human women bearing her name as descriptor. Of further interest for our purposes is that the Thyia site appears to bear a prominent altar to the Winds – salient given the strong ‘wind’ associations of various of the Sky Father deific expressions that are pertinent here (including, of course, Rudra and Odin).

Yet this does not tell us too terribly much about what ‘Thyiades’ actually entails.

Instead, for that, we must turn to my favoured field – of mytholinguistics !

The likely root for ‘Thyiades’ is Ancient Greek ‘Thuo’ (θῡ́ω) – which has, as its effective shade of meaning, everything from ‘sacrificing’ through to ‘celebration’ … and, as we should perhaps expect given what sacrificing *actually entails* … setting things on fire, killing, and engagement with religious authorities.

Now this is where it gets interesting. Due to the breadth of its potential associations, it has proven somewhat difficult to pin down whence it came from afore that.

The two major proposals are, perhaps unsurprisingly, closely linked: PIE *dʰewh₂- or *dʰews-

What’s the difference? Well, the former term (*dʰewh₂-) effectively would produce a sense of ‘Smoke’ for the linkage between the PIE and ‘Thuo’ – obvious for the immolation required for the ‘burnt offering’ sacrifice. The latter, however, *could* be thought of as pertaining to the vocalization involved – as the PIE in question, *dʰews-, would link to ‘breath’, and perhaps the ‘hot breath’ of exertion is quite directly salient here. Yet I think that in essence, the likely origin-point for it is somewhere between the two … the ‘Smoking Breath’, as we have earlier observed (see ‘The Mytholinguistics Of The Smoking Breath’) is co-expressed in both directions. The distinction between *dʰewh₂- and *dʰews- is a rather artificial one. As seen with Ancient Greek θῡμός (‘Thumos’) coming from the former (Sanskrit cognate ‘Dhuma’ (‘Smoke’) – which may have rather intriguing bearing when we consider a certain Dhumavati figure amidst the Matrika clade … ) yet bearing a sense of ‘Soul’, ‘Anger’, ‘Desire’, ‘Mind’, that actually reminded me rather overtly of Sanskrit ‘Manyu’, that we shall be (re-)meeting again shortly. This would concord rather well with the potentially homophonic *other* Thuo … which may, in fact, be cognate with our own ‘Furor’, ‘Fury’ (and is certainly, if this is the case, equivalent to the term utilized to translate ‘Erinyes’ in Latin – a point of saliency considering the potential ‘whipping up’, ‘stirring up’ sense to *that* term as well), and most certainly means much the same thing … particularly in swift motion.

The situation of Thyone – perhaps better known as Semele – is also directly salient here … although it is interesting to note that there, as with Dionysus’ Own epithet of Thyoneus, we tend instead to find the rather ‘gentler’ ‘Inspired’, ‘Inspiration’ as the key term for what is being imparted.

So, in other words – attempts to explicate ‘Thyiades’ via recourse to sacral conduct in the sense of setting an offering alight, are only getting a very partial rendition of the picture. What *instead* appears likely (and I do not mean to discount the ‘illumination’ of immolation aspect entirely – certainly, the RudraGanikas are also cited as having a role with the fires for Temple offerings and rites in our Hindu texts), is that the ‘fire’ in question is the ‘spirit’ being ‘whipped up’ – it is the Furor quality of which we have so often spoken. Hence why it is expressed via the ‘Hot Breath’, the steam and visible phenomenon (especially in winter when various of these rites relevant to her were being undertaken) as her soul is in such a heightened state amidst the ecstasy of the dance.

It helps also that there is quite the prominent association *for* that Smoking Breath concept in our Hindu understanding for, of course, Rudra, Vayu Vata, Marut essences.

Yet I said that we should be meeting Sanskrit ‘Manyu’ in short order – and so it now is. I have written quite a number of works which employ this term, and also link it to its Ancient Greek and other, broader IE cognates. The ‘Menos’ of Diomedes and ‘Menis’ of Achilles in the Iliad are great go-to exemplars here – the former is a mental state which is ‘imparted’ into Diomedes by Athena, directly resonating with the ‘Ugra’ (‘Rage’ / ‘Furor’ / ‘Terrifying’ / ‘Large’) investiture for Her Chosen (Kama) carried out by Vak Devi in RV X 125 5; the latter is similar but much more toward the incendiary anger end of the spectrum, than the ‘heightened state of consciousness that also enables more direct communion with the Divine (and/or throwing spears in certain directions pertaining to this … ) that was granted to Diomedes.

Manyu is also the name of the foremost of the Vedic War Gods – entirely uncoincidentally a form of Rudra; and with a birth-mythology given for Him in the Shatapatha Brahmana which, interestingly, directly resonates most strongly with that found for both Zeus and Athena (Minerva) in the Classical comparanda … and also, I suspect (although I have not looked into it in great detail at time of writing) with that of Dionysus. This is as we ought expect. Rudra is Dyaus Pitar, Zeus is … well, Zeus Pater (Dyaus Pitar is a direct linguistic & mythic cognate), and Athena / Minerva (Minerva being from the same root as Manyu – PIE *Men, meaning ‘Mind’, ‘Spirit’, ‘Mental Activity’; whence also ‘Mantra’, etc., as it should so be) has ever been quite strongly concordant with Her Father in key particulars (think – wielding His Thunderbolt, which none other might lift; or wearing the Aegis, and described in quite closely comparative terms in other texts and other regards as well). And Dionysus? Well, again, Masque of the Sky Father.

I shall not expand in any great depth nor detail upon this seeming-coterminity around origination myths here – we shall save that for a future article. But it seems to me quite likely that what is stated in the Shatapatha Brahmana’s accounting of the SataRudriya rite, wherein immediately upon emanation, The Manyu is surrounded by a coterie of Rudras Who make quite the terrifying din around the newly-emanated young God. We see this pattern most definitely play out viz. Dionysus – and we may also see, in the course of the same rite, that invocation of the ‘Spear-wielding’ and ‘Weapons-raised’ female Ganas is included in the step at IX 1 1 21.

2 thoughts on “The Thiasos Of Dionysus – A Rudraganika Excerpt

  1. Pingback: The Thiasos Of Dionysus – A Rudraganika Excerpt – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

  2. Pingback: The Spirits Of Ash, Milk, & Honey – A RUDRAGANIKA Excerpt | arya-akasha

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