In the memorable words of Propertius, the river Maiandros:
wanders deceptively over the Phrygian plain and itself conceals the direction of its flow. (Elegies 2.34)
Even more evocatively the poet Nonnos of Panopolis described the beguiling son of Okeanos:
lurking in the secret places with his water in the lap of earth – who rolls deep through the earth and drags his crooked stream towards the light, crawling unseen and travelling slantwise underground, until he leaps up quickly and lifts his neck above the ground. (Dionysiaka 11.379 ff)
The river’s penchant for suddenly changing its course led to the following amusing anecdote related by the normally rather dry Roman historian Strabo:
And they say that lawsuits are brought against the God Maiandros for altering the boundaries of the countries on his banks; that is, when the projecting elbows of land are swept away by him. When he is convicted the fines are paid from the tolls collected at the ferries. (Geography 12.8.19)
His name gave rise to our word meander (“to go in a winding or circuitous manner”) as well as the Greek key pattern:
A meander or meandros (Greek: Μαίανδρος) is a decorative border constructed from a continuous line, shaped into a repeated motif. Such a design is also called the Greek fret or Greek key design, although these are modern designations. On the one hand, the name “meander” recalls the twisting and turning path of the Maeander River in Asia Minor, and on the other hand, as Karl Kerenyi pointed out, “the meander is the figure of a labyrinth in linear form”. Among some Italians, these patterns are known as Greek Lines. Usually the term is used for motifs with straight lines and right angles; the many versions with rounded shapes are called running scrolls. Meanders are common decorative elements in Greek and Roman art. In ancient Greece they appear in many architectural friezes, and in bands on the pottery of ancient Greece from the Geometric Period onwards. The design is common to the present-day in classicizing architecture. The meander is a fundamental design motif in regions far from a Hellenic orbit: labyrinthine meanders (“thunder” pattern) appear in bands and as infill on Shang bronzes, and many traditional buildings in and around China still bear geometric designs almost identical to meanders. (Wikipedia s.v. Meander)
Built on the slope of Mount Thorax, on the banks of the small river Lethakos, a tributary of the Maiandros upstream from Ephesos and about 15 miles from Miletos, was the city of Magnesia. It was named after the Magnetes from Thessaly who settled the area along with some expat Cretans. The original settlement was destroyed by the Cimmerians (a people descended from Iranian or Thracian stock) some time between 726 and 660 BCE. The deserted site was soon reoccupied, though whether the city was rebuilt by Ephesians or Milesians is a matter of academic dispute. Eventually they were absorbed into the Persian empire, and when the famous Athenian general Themistokles (savior of his city) was exiled by the rabble, emperor Artaxerxes offered him rule of Magnesia if he would defect to his court, which the man sensibly did. While there he founded several festivals, transplants from his native Attica:
Possis in his third book of Magnesian Things says that Themistokles when taking up the office of crownbearer in Magnesia sacrificed to Athene and called the festival the Panathenaia. And when sacrificing to Dionysos the Chous-drinker he also introduced the festival of the Choes there. (Athenaios, Deipnosophistai 12.533d)
The temple Themistokles established near his house, where now the public officers cast out the bodies of those who have been put to death, and carry forth the garments and the nooses of those who have dispatched themselves by hanging. (Plutarch, Life of Themistokles 22.1)
Nor was this the only instance of his involvement in Bacchic cultus, for much earlier during the war Plutarch relates:
Themistokles was sacrificing alongside the admiral’s trireme and three prisoners of war were brought to him, of visage most beautiful to behold, conspicuously adorned with raiment and with gold. They were said to be the sons of Sandauké, the king’s sister, and Artaÿktos. When Euphrantides the seer caught sight of them, since at one and the same moment a great and glaring flame shot up from the sacrificial victims and a sneeze gave forth its good omen on the right, he clasped Themistokles by the hand and bade him consecrate the youths, and sacrifice them all to Dionysos Omestes (Carnivorous), with prayers of supplication; for on this wise would the Hellenes have a saving victory. Themistokles was terrified, feeling that the word of the seer was monstrous and shocking; but the multitude, who, as is wont to be the case in great struggles and severe crises, looked for safety rather from unreasonable than from reasonable measures, invoked the God with one voice, dragged the prisoners to the altar, and compelled the fulfilment of the sacrifice, as the seer commanded. At any rate, this is what Phanias the Lesbian says, and he was a philosopher, and well acquainted with historical literature. (Ibid 13.2-3)
Among the Attic festivals that Themistokles brought with him were Anthesteria (IMagnesia 8.2), Lenaia (IMagnesia 13.1) and the Dionysia (IMagnesia 97.20). In the middle of the 3rd century BCE the city instituted an important new Bacchic festival.
Leading up to the festival’s founding there was a lot of disturbing poltergeist type phenomena and spectral apparitions which had everyone on edge. It culminated in a torrential storm during which Spirits could be seen dancing in the clouds and rain and finally a plane tree was struck with lightning and split in half. When the stump was inspected the following morning the face of Dionysos could be seen in it.
The city assembly wasted no time in sending Hermonax, son of Epikrates and Aristarchos, son of Diodoros to Delphoi to inquire of the God what was going on. They returned with the following message:
The God gave this oracle: Magnesians, having obtained as your portion the inviolate city on the waters of the Maiandros, defenders of our possessions, you came to inquire of my mouths, what report there is for you, since Bakchos was seen lying in the wood. And the lad yet appeared because you did not build well-hewn temples for Dionysos when you were founding your cities. But even so, O people of great strength, found temples delighting-in-the-thyrsos. Establish an extra perfect, pure priest. And go to the sacred plain of Thebes, so that you might receive Mainades from the family of Kadmeian Ino. And they will give to you orgia and noble customs and they will establish thiasoi of Bakchos for you in your city.
Obedient to the oracle, the inscription goes on to relate that they sent envoys to Thebes who returned with three Mainades named Kosko, Baubo, and Thettale:
And Kosko conducted the thiasos Platanistenoi (of the Plane-tree), Baubo the thiasos outside the city, and Thettale the thiasos of the Katabatai (the Thunderstruck). And when they died these women were buried by the Magnesians. Kosko lies in the place called “hill of Kosko” and Baubo in Tabarnis and Thettale near the theater.
The thiasoi these women established were along the lines of what Aristotle proposed:
Some kinds of associations seem to be formed for the purpose of enjoyment, such as thiasoi devoted to religious revels and eranoi devoted to feasting; these exist for the sake of sacrifices and fellowship: they hold their sacrifices and meetings, portioning out honors to the Gods and providing themselves with pleasurable refreshment. In ancient times, for instance, sacrifices and meetings were held as a kind of firstfruits following the gathering of the crops, since they had the most leisure at those seasons. (Nichomachean Ethics 8.1160a)
There are several significant things about this inscription that must be pointed out.
It was an exceptional honor to give these women public burial within the city because that kind of thing just generally was not done, as Sarah Iles Johnston notes in her commentary on the inscription:
Public burial was usually reserved for soldiers who died in battle, and the granting of public burial was closely regulated by the cities (C.W. Clairemont, Patrios Nomos: Public Burial in Athens in the Fifth and Fourth Centuries 7-15). For a grave at Kyme granted to a women named Archippe, one of several benefactors, see IKyme 13.I.14 (cf. IKyme 19.44-52, public burial for a man named Labeo, who was buried at the gymnasium). See as well no. btb. (Tenos) for a Thyssas named Isia buried with honors by the city. It is likely, however, that the Magnesian oracle explains the origin of three heroic graves in or near the city, dedicated in memory of the three traditional founders of local Magnesian Dionysiac organizations. Such heroes were worshipped with cult, and were usually mythical figures (see Farnell, Greek Hero Cults and Ideas of Immortality 413-418, for cults of mythic ancestors, eponymous heroes, and mythic oikists, of which only six out of ninety-six are female; 418-20, for functional and culture heroes, of which only one out of thirty-two is female). Female founders are rare, even in myth, but they do exist: e.g., Antinoe, mythical founder of Mantineia, buried in the common hearth Paus. 8.9.5; Lampsake at Lampsakos, Plut. De Mul. Virt. 255e; and Hippodameia, whose grave was in the altis at Olympia, Paus. 6.20.4. […] It is unlikely that any ordinary person would have been buried near the theater. Because of the danger of pollution associated with death and graves, cemeteries were normally located outside the city wall. Heroes and legendary founders, however, were often honored with tombs in or near the agora; R. Parker, Miasma 42; R. Martin, Recherches sur l’agora grecque 194-201; C. Berard, in La mort, les morts dans les socié.té.s anciennes, eds. G. Gnoli and J.-P. Vernant 94 and 104 n.30; F. Kolb, Agora und Theater, Volks-und Festversammlung 5-6 and n.5. Thettale and her colleagues were remembered by public graves because they were mythical founders of Bacchic organizations at Magnesia; for another mythical maenad honored with a public tomb, cf. Choreia at Argos, a member of Dionysos’ mythical maenadic army, killed by Perseus in the attack on Argos, Paus. 2.20.4. The other maenads killed at Argos were buried in a common grave (near the temple of Hera Anthea, 2.22.1), but Choreia was worthy of her own memorial Like the grave of Thettale, her tomb was located in the heart of the city, near the theater. Pausanias apparently identified Choreia as a maenad by an inscribed stele that marked her grave. Henrichs, 130 n.25, suggests that inscriptions identifying the Magnesian maenads marked their graves.
The next thing that we note is that there are three mythical founders of Magnesia’s thiasoi; this parallels other triads of Bacchic women such as the daughters of Dion:
The wife of Dion, king of Laconia, was Iphitea, daughter of Prognaus, who had kindly received Apollo. In return Apollo rewarded her by conferring upon her three daughters (Orphe, Lyco, and Carya) the gift of prophecy on condition, however, that they should not betray the Gods nor search after forbidden things. Afterwards Bacchus also came to the house of Dion; he was not only well received, like Apollo, but won the love of Carya, and therefore soon paid Dion a second visit, under the pretext of consecrating a temple, which the king had erected to him. Orphe and Lyco, however, guarded their sister, and when Bacchus had reminded them, in vain, of the command of Apollo, they were seized with raging madness, and having gone to the heights of Taygetus, they were metamorphosed into rocks. Carya, the beloved of Bacchus, was changed into a walnut tree, and the Lacedaemonians, on being informed of it by Artemis, dedicated a temple to Artemis Caryatis. (Maurus Servius Honoratus, Commentary on the Eclogues of Vergil 8.29)
The daughters of Anios:
The daughters of Apollon’s son Anios, whose names were Elais, Spermo, and Oino, were called Oinotrophoi. Dionysos bestowed on them the function of producing oil, grain, and wine from the earth. (Apollodoros, Bibliotheka E3. 10)
And the daughters of Minyas:
They relate that the daughters of Minyas, Leukippe and Arsinoe and Alkathoe, becoming insane, conceived a craving for human flesh, and drew lots for their children. The lot fell upon Leukippe to contribute her son Hippasos to be torn to pieces, and their husbands, who put on ill-favoured garments for very grief and sorrow, were called ‘Grimy’ (Psoloeis); but the Minyads themselves were called ‘Oleiae,’ that is to say, ‘Murderesses.’ And even today the people of Orchomenos give this name to the women descended from this family; and every year, at the festival of Agrionia, there takes place a flight and pursuit of them by the priest of Dionysos with sword in hand. Any one of them that he catches he may kill, and in my time the priest Zoïlos killed one of them. But this resulted in no benefit for the people of Orchomenos; but Zoïlos fell sick from some slight sore and, when the wound had festered for a long time, he died. The people of Orchomenos also found themselves involved in some suits for damages and adverse judgements; wherefore they transferred the priesthood from Zoïlos’s family and chose the best man from all the citizens to fill the office. (Plutarch, Greek Questions 38)
As well as, of course, the progenitors of the archetype:
Suddenly I saw three companies of dancing women, one led by Autonoe, the second captained by your mother Agave, while Ino led the third. There they lay in the deep sleep of exhaustion, some resting on boughs of fir, others sleeping where they fell, here and there among the oak leaves-but all modestly and soberly, not, as you think, drunk with wine, nor wandering, led astray by the music of the flute, to hunt their Aphrodite through the woods. But your mother heard the lowing of our horned herds, and springing to her feet, gave a great cry to waken them from sleep. And they too, rubbing the bloom of soft sleep from their eyes, rose up lightly and straight-a lovely sight to see: all as one, the old women and the young and unmarried girls. First they let their hair fall loose, down over their shoulders, and those whose straps had slipped fastened their skins of fawn with writhing snakes that licked their cheeks. Breasts swollen with milk, new mothers who had left their babies behind at home nestled gazelles and young wolves in their arms, suckling them. Then they crowned their hair with leaves, ivy and oak and flowering bryony. One woman struck her thyrsus against a rock and a fountain of cool water came bubbling up. Another drove her fennel in the ground, and where it struck the earth, at the touch of the God, a spring of wine poured out. Those who wanted milk scratched at the soil with bare fingers and the white milk came welling up. Pure honey spurted, streaming, from their wands. (Euripides, Bakchai 680-711)
Nor was Magnesia ad Maeandrum the only city to seek a connection between their Bacchic orgia and those of the Theban Kadmeiades. Indeed, the Corinthians did so at the behest of the Pythia just like the Magnesians:
The things worthy of mention in the city include the extant remains of antiquity, but the greater number of them belong to the period of its second ascendancy. On the market-place, where most of the sanctuaries are, stand Artemis surnamed Ephesian and wooden images of Dionysos, which are covered with gold with the exception of their faces; these are ornamented with red paint. They are called Lysios and Bakcheios, and I too give the story told about them. They say that Pentheus treated Dionysos spitefully, his crowning outrage being that he went to Cithaeron, to spy upon the women, and climbing up a tree beheld what was done. When the women detected Pentheus, they immediately dragged him down, and joined in tearing him, living as he was, limb from limb. Afterwards, as the Corinthians say, the Pythian priestess commanded them by an oracle to discover that tree and to worship it equally with the God. For this reason they have made these images from the tree. (Pausanias, Description of Greece 2.2.6-7)
While other Mainadic groups drew on their own independent traditions, both local:
All the women of Makedonia were addicted to the Orphic rites and the orgies of Dionysos from very ancient times (being called Klodones and Mimallones), and imitated in many ways the practices of the Edonian women and the Thracian women about Mount Haemus, from whom, as it would seem, the word ‘threskeuein‘ came to be applied to the celebration of extravagant and superstitious ceremonies. Now Olympias, who affected these divine possessions more zealously than other women, and carried out these divine inspirations in wilder fashion, used to provide the revelling companies with great tame serpents, which would often lift their heads from out the ivy and the mystic winnowing baskets, or coil themselves about the wands and garlands of the women, thus terrifying the men. (Plutarch, Life of Alexander 2.5-6)
And the Boiotians and other Greeks and the Thracians, in memory of the campaign in India, have established sacrifices every other year to Dionysos, and believe that at that time the God reveals himself to human beings. Consequently in many Greek cities every other year Bacchic bands of women gather, and it is lawful for the maidens to carry the thyrsos and to join in the frenzied revelry, crying out ‘Euai!’ and honouring the God; while the matrons, forming in groups, offer sacrifices to the God and celebrate his mysteries and, in general, extol with hymns the presence of Dionysos, in this manner acting the parts of maenads who, as history records, were of old the companions of the God. He also punished here and there throughout all the inhabited world many men who were thought impious, the most renowned among the number being Pentheus and Lykourgos. And since the discovery of wine and the gift of it and because of the greater vigour which comes to the bodies of those who partake of it, it is the custom, they say, when unmixed wine is served during a meal to greet it with the words, ‘To the Good Deity!’ but when the cup is passed around after the meal diluted with water, to cry out ‘To Zeus Saviour!’ For the drinking of unmixed wine results in a state of madness, but when it is mixed with the rain from Zeus the delight and pleasure continue, but the ill effect of madness and stupor is avoided. (Diodoros Sikeliotis, Library of History 4.3.2-5)
Concerning this penchant for mimesis within Mainadic thiasoi, Ross S. Kraemer notes:
These texts and inscriptions confirm the existence of well-regulated Dionysiac cults, with relatively tame rituals consisting of dancing, snake-handling and wandering on the mountains nocturnally. These cults appear to have had both private and public dimensions. Such practices are well attested for the first century by various Greek writers, and as early as the third century by the epigraphical evidence. In this period, the cult of Dionysus flourished at Delphi, at Magnesia and Miletus, and many other cities and regions as well. The sum total of our evidence for the orgiastic worship of Dionysus, or the private, ecstatic, non-agricultural and presumably biennial cult, as distinct from the public, yearly agricultural festivals, yields an intriguing but incomplete picture. We know that in the Hellenistic period groups of Dionysiac worshippers, often organized in three groups after the three sisters of Semele, Agave, Ino and Autonoe, gathered together periodically to dance upon the mountains, wear ritual clothing and pay homage to the God. In some instances, the interval was one of two years, while other references suggest that thiasic groups, as they may be called, met more frequently. A ritual sacrifice was apparently performed by some thiasoi, the exact form of which is difficult to reconstruct. Despite our lack of extensive precise knowledge about the Dionysiac orgia, a constellation of myths, rituals and symbols emerges which is susceptible to analysis and interpretation. In particular, we may discern two major motifs, those of insanity and possession on the one hand, and of socio-biological roles and status on the other. In the many myths of the introduction of the worship of Dionysus, including those represented by Euripides’ play, the reversal of sanity and insanity predominates. Those who yield to the divine madness of Dionysiac possession are the truly sane, while those who resist the holy insanity are truly insane. Those who accept the call of the God and surrender to the temporary possession suffer no harm, while those who struggle against the God invoke a second level of possession far more dangerous than the first. It is insane to be sane, sane to be insane. This motif of the reversal of normal states and judgments occurs in the sphere of socio-biological roles as well. Women possessed by Dionysus are compelled to abandon, at least temporarily, their domestic obligations of housework and child-rearing in favor of the worship of the God. While in the service of Dionysus, their activities express a marked ambivalence towards the neglected roles. On the one hand, the Bacchae mimic their normal roles, in a transmuted form, as they nurse baby wild animals with the milk intended for their own young. But the death and dismemberment of Pentheus reflects the inversion of their maternal loyalties-the slaughter of Pentheus is the vicarious slaughter of each woman’s own offspring. (Ecstasy and Possession: The Attraction of Women to the Cult of Dionysus)
We get to see some of this in action in Magnesia’s neighboring city Miletos.
According to Strabo:
Miletos was first founded and fortified above the sea by Cretans, where the Miletos of olden times is now situated, being settled by Sarpedon, who brought colonists from the Cretan Miletos and named the city after that Miletos, the place formerly being in possession of the Leleges. (14.1.6)
At a later date Neleus, son of Kodros (the last King of Athens) came to Miletos after being driven from Attica (ancient homeland of the Ionians) by the return of the sons of Herakles. The men accompanying him murdered the male citizens of Miletos and took their widows as wives. Fittingly, this genocidal bond between Attica and Miletos was the reason Athens and her allies ended up getting dragged into the Persian Wars, during which Themistokles distinguished himself. (Circles, etc.)
Dionysos’ arrival in Miletos did not leave so large – or bloody – a footprint. As with Magnesia we find Anthesteria (IMilet. I 3, 143A.27), Lenaia (IMilet. I 2, 10.39) and the Dionysia (IMilet. I 3 152a) celebrated.
A number of interesting documents pertaining to the cult of Dionysos in Miletos have come to light, for instance this sale of a priesthood:
… whenever the priestess performs the sacrifices for the sake of the whole city, it is not possible for anyone to throw in a victim to be eaten raw before the priestess throws one in for the sake of the whole city. Nor is it possible for anyone to conduct their thiasos ahead of the public thiasos. But if any man or woman wishes to sacrifice to Dionysos let the sacrificer designate whichever of the two he wishes to preside and let the designated official take the perquisites. And the priestess is to pay the cost of her office in ten years, a tenth part each year, depositing the first part in the month Apatourion in the year when the God Apollon is eponymous magistrate, after Poseidippos, on the fourth day of the first third of the month and the rest in the following years in the month Artemision, on the fourth day of the first third of the month … and the priestess is to give women … and to provide the equipment for the women in all the celebrations. And if any woman wishes to sacrifice to Dionysos, let her give as perquisites to the priestess the splachna, the kidneys, the intestine, the consecrated portion, the tongue, and the leg cut off as far as the hip joint. And if any woman wishes to perform initiations for Dionysos Bakchios in the city or in the countryside, or in the islands, let her give to the priestess a stater every trieteris. And at the Katagogia the priests and the priestesses of Dionysos Bakchios are to bring Dionysos down from the sea before the setting of the sun … of the city. (LSAM 48)
This funerary epigram for a Mainad priestess which was on public display:
Bacchants of the city, say “Farewell you holy priestess.” This is what a good woman deserves. She led you to the mountain and carried all the sacred objects and implements, marching in procession before the whole city. Should some stranger ask for her name: Alkmeonis, daughter of Rhodios, who knew her share of the blessings. (REG 32)
And this lex sacra:
…the Prodorpia is given at the Dionysia: … libations: double propitiary offerings; stones wreathed with fillets; wood. On the twelfth: at the house of the Basileos the following is to be given to Dionysos: a lamp, barley, wheat groats, a pure cheese, honey, wood, flock of wool, libation: propitiary offerings, garlic, and (?); on the thirteenth: to Hera Anthea the following is to be given: a pregnant white sheep, having mounted to the altar in white, a chous to the priestess, and wood… a twelfth of a medimnos; at the house of the priest the following is to be given: a chous and wood; and as a gift to the Gods at the altar: an amphora of wine. On the fourteenth to Zeus Nosios: …a male sheep, a sixth of a medimnos of wheat, a sixth of a medimnos of barley, a sixth measure of wine, wood, honey, and oil. To the hero Leukos: a male sheep; to Arge: …; on the … of the rising month the festival is to be announced by herald: of Apollo Delphinios… (IMilet. I 3 152a)
There is also this account from Parthenius’ Love Stories that reads as if it were the foundation myth for a Bacchic festival along the lines of the Agrionia:
From the first book of the Stories of Aristodemus of Nysa: but he there alters the names, calling the woman Euthymia instead of Herippe, and giving the barbarian the name Cavaras. During the invasion of Ionia by the Gauls and the devastation by them of the Ionian cities, it happened that on one occasion at Miletus, the feast of the Thesmophoria was taking place, and the women of the city were congregated in temple a little way outside the town. At that time a part of the barbarian army had become separated from the main body and had entered the territory of Miletus; and there, by a sudden raid, it carried off the women. Some of them were ransomed for large sums of silver and gold, but there were others to whom the barbarians became closely attached, and these were carried away: among these latter was one Herippe, the wife of Xanthus, a man of high repute and of noble birth among the men of Miletus, and she left behind her a child two years old.
Xanthus felt her loss so deeply that he turned part of his best possessions into money and, furnished with two thousand pieces of gold, first crossed to Italy: he was there furthered by private friends and went on to Marseilles, and thence into the country of the Celts; and finally, reaching the house where Herippe lived as the wife of one of the chief men of that nation, he asked to be taken in. The Celts received him with the utmost hospitality: on entering the house he saw his wife, and she, flinging her arms about his neck, welcomed him with all the marks of affection. Immediately the Celt appeared, Herippe related to him her husband’s journeyings, and how he had come to pay a ransom for her. He was delighted at the devotion of Xanthus, and, calling together his nearest relations to a banquet, entertained him warmly; and when they had drunk deep, placed his wife by his side, and asked him through an interpreter how great was his whole fortune. “It amounts to a thousand pieces of gold,” said Xanthus; and the barbarian then bade him divide it into four parts – one each for himself, his wife, and his child, and the fourth to be left for the woman’s ransom.
After he had retired to his chamber, Herippe upbraided Xanthus vehemently for promising the barbarian this great sum of money which he did not possess, and told him that he would be in a position of extreme jeopardy if he did not fulfil his promise: to which Xanthus replied that he even had another thousand gold pieces which had been hidden in the soles of his servants’ boots, seeing that he could scarcely have hoped to find so reasonable a barbarian, and would have been likely to need an enormous ransom for her. The next day she went to the Celt and informed him of the amount of money which Xanthus had in his possession, advising him to put him to death: she added that she preferred him, the Celt, far above both her native country and her child, and, as for Xanthus, that she utterly abhorred him. Her tale was far from pleasing to the Celt, and he decided to punish her: and so, when Xanthus was anxious to be going, he most amiably accompanied him for the first part of his journey, taking Herippe with them; and when they arrived at the limit of the Celts’ territory, he announced that he wished to perform a sacrifice before they separated from one another. The victim was brought up, and he bade Herippe hold it: she did so, as she had been accustomed to do on previous occasions, and he then drew his sword, struck with it, and cut off her head. He then explained her treachery to Xanthus, telling him not to take in bad part what he had done, and gave him all the money to take away with him.
A theme we shall have occasion to revisit later on.