Carl Kerényi, Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life

Carl Kerényi, Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life 364-370; 386-388
It must have been a festival of all-souls related to the Athenian Anthesteria. One of these choës from Italy shows – through a siren approaching the sacrificial altar – a connection with the realm of souls, and the picture on a larger vase even indicates that this form of vessel was used in the funeral sacrifice. The conception of the depature of the youthful dead, especially women, as an exodus from the city to Dionysian nuptials – such an exodus is represented on innumerable south Italian vases – was based on actual departures to private mysteries during the Anthesteria. An Italic chous bears the image of a characteristic figure in this nocturnal exodus: a boy satyr with torch and situla. A chous from near Brindisi shows Dionysos and his female companion on a couch served by a boy satyr. The vases with these scenes were found in tombs, and it was for this purpose no doubt that they were manufactured in such quantity. The spread of this conception required vases for burial with men as well as women; or better still, vases with pictures of two kinds that could be buried with persons of either sex.

A happy and unique find is a krater in the Naples museum, because the painting is clarified by an inscription. A winged youth throws a colorful embroidered ball to a hesitant women. Looking outward but at the same time inward, she is resting one hand on a stele which bears the inscription. The stele is a horos, a boundary stone, and here it probably marks the boundary of the hesitant woman’s home country, which she, wearing no ornament and lightly clad, must now leave. She does not reach for the ball, but looks with the shadow of a sly smile at the messenger who has thrown it to her. She will go. On the other side stands a woman with a grave expectant face, holding out to her a mirror and a tainia, a festive ribbon. The woman who thus hesitates is not a hetaera; she is a bride-to-be, but one who already knows. She would prefer not to travel this road.

Who the winged youth is and what the ball means we are told in a well-known poem by Anakreon:

Eros with the golden curls
Throws me the purple ball
And calls me to play with
The girl with the bright-colored sandals (Frag. 5)

It is Eros — golden-curled in Anakreon, here dark-haired — who summons the girl to the game of love with his ball. The ball is an erotic message. Whence and whither? Eros is the only intermediary. What the hesitant woman thinks we are told by the inscription on the boundary stone: “They have thrown me the ball” — “they” in the plural, not any definite individual, even if the bridegroom is waiting in the background. The plural does not befit the language of ancient erotic poetry, but it does that of sepulchral epigrams: “The goddesses of fate … led me down to Hades.” Ordinarily they are sent a messenger to act as a guide, in this case, Eros. Often it was Hermes, the guide of souls. The woman to whom the daimon of love has been sent as messenger and guide still hesitates to accept death fully, though it has already taken possession of her. She is unwilling, but she goes nevertheless to the great erotic adventure. For such was death in the atmosphere of the Anthesteria. Eros with the ball is an aspect of death.

A series of vase paintings shows us the rest of the story as — so we must assume — it was set before the painters of the pottery works, in model books. The painters were free and at the same time restricted. Although they never copied their models exactly, they nevertheless followed the main lines of a coherent pictorial text representing a story with its own inner logic. If the deceased woman was lightly dressed and without ornament in starting on her way to the Dionysian nuptials, it meant, according to this conception, that her adornment — which in the picture is suggested by the woman waiting with mirror and tainia — would follow. The painting on a bell krater in Lecce shows a woman who is no longer hesitant but willing; already in festive garments, she is washing her hair in the presence of two delicate nude Dionysian youths. The one, with a festive band round his head (he is thus a mitrephoros) holds the thyrsos and the burning torch for the night journey. The other holds a basket, the contents of which are destined for the impending sacrificial banquet, and a strigil, the brush of which athletes cleansed themselves; in this context it identifies him as the other’s younger companion. Are they ordinary youths? Or rather does not the mitrephoros with the thyrsosrepresent Dionysos as bridegroom? Here we have already passed the boundary stone dividing “mortal” and “immortal.”

Though the willing woman on another krater in Lecce is also making use of a mirror and arranging her hair, there can be no doubt that two divine beings are visible beside her. One is a silenus from the Dionysian sphere. He holds out to her a perfume bottle and an apple, evidently sent by the waiting bridegroom to whose retinue he belongs. On the other side of her, Hermes in on the point of leaping away, impatient to escort the bride. He is carrying a folded sheet for the marriage bed; such a sheet is included in the bride’s dowry on the votive tablets from the sanctuary of Persephone in Lokroi in southern Italy. This sheet lends thepsychopompos a double meaning; Hermes is a guide both to souls and to brides. The basin in the center alludes to the bridal bath, and the objects to the right of Hermes are probably krotaloi, Dionysian instruments which the bride will hold in each hand in her maenadic dance before the god. After the dance she will probably rest on the bed with Dionysos and refresh herself from the bowl that the satyr boy gave to her on the Brindisi chous.

Bearing another instrument characteristic of Dionysian dancing girls, a large tympanon, she is shown following the winged Eros in the passionate representation on an Apulian amphora in Bonn. It is on the basis of this painting that an erotic Dionysian abduction was for the first time recognized to be a journey to death. With the gesture of his left hand, Eros is drawing her after him — and the resisting gesture on her right hand is unmistakable.

A bride such as this one with the tense, frightened face, followed by the escorting boy with a wreath — the wreath of Ariadne! — is not being led to an ordinary wedding. With this escort and this expressive phase she can only be going to a mystery. With his right hand the winged Eros beckons to those who have remained far behind; it is a gesture of farewell, farewell to the thiasos. In the vase paintings of the south Italian group from which all the examples cited here are taken, we can also discern the details of the exodus in which only a few persons participate, the executants of a particular ceremony separate from the general thiasos in the open. The two possibilities presented by this ceremony — “earthly love” with a mortal silenus and “heavenly love” with the god — are indicated in an exemplary manner by a work of the Meidias painter. The exodus to “earthly marriage” is represented on a krater in Barletta. The little procession consists of the couple — a mortal silenus and his torch-bearing bride, hand in hand — and those who will take part in the ceremony. They are going out of the city, as is shown by the fact that the wine is carried in a wineskin with a light situla, a kind of pail, rather than a krater which is hard to carry and rarely goes in these scenes. The none too decorativesitula, from which the wine is perhaps drawn with a drinking horn, is also characteristic of the “heavenly nuptials.”

People do not go to “heavenly nuptials” hand in hand. To a divine encounter one is called, seduced by a superior power. Where a living person is concerned, this person will achieve the telos in a mystery ceremony through the gamos. Just this happens in the death of young people. Dionysos lured them and also summoned them with a bell; he is shown thus luring a woman on a krater in Ruvo. She follows him with the tympanonwhich will accompany her dance when she sues for the god’s love. Her face expresses the magic spell that has come over her. One of the two sileni, representing the servants who accompany her, bears both torch and situla. On a bell krater in Lecce a youth, naked except for the cloak thrown lightly over his shoulders, is standing before a seated woman; she is the divine maenad from whom he desires fulfillment. He has arrived as though from a journey, and the egg he brings her is the egg that is buried with the dead. She is awaiting him with a large thyrsos; a silenus holds another behind her. He also holds a wreath in preparation for the marriage which is to resemble that of Dionysos to Ariadne.

Throughout southern Italy the name “Ariadne” suggests itself for Dionysos’ divine partner, into whom the female deceased are transformed, while the males are transformed into Dionysos. On a large bowl in Ruvo she is borne heavenward by two winged Erotes. One holds the torch. The other holds the situla, a certain indication that the subject was originally a mortal, just as Ariadne in the classical myth was the mortal daughter of a king. Mortel men are awaited by immortal maenads. On a krater in Lecce a stately seated feminine figure, holding a tympanon in her left hand as a sign that she is a maenad, welcomes a timid youth and hands him a bowl of the wine which a silenus is pouring from a wineskin into a situla. The youth already bears a branching, flowering thyrsos, but the mystery of his transformation into a true Dionysos is still to come. In another painting a maenad lures and leads a youth who is already fully equipped as a young Dionysos. On a krater in Barletta he holds not only the thyrsos but a kantharos in the manner of a Heros Dionysos; on a krater in Bari he holds a cluster of grapes. On a large bowl similar to that showing the erotic ascension of an Ariadne, the ways of initiation of both a man and a woman are indicated. On one side the woman, already holding the tympanon, is being lured by a torch-bearing Eros and a maenad. On the other side, the youth is sitting beside his tomb as heroified dead sit beside their monuments in base paintings. Behind the tombstone – it is at the same time a boundary stone, as always in this type of representation – stands the luring maenad with a tympanon; behind her stands an already initiated youth bearing clusters of grapes. Both sexes achieve the same Dionysian apotheosis in death.


The chous found near Brindisi shows Dionysos and his companion on their couch. On the disc Dionysos himself is carrying the vessel as he rides heavenward with Ariadne after their marriage at the Choës festival. Around them the cosmos unfolds, surrounded by the outermost zone of the zodiac. The upper segment of the relief shows the background of the ascension, the firmament, characterized by the two Atlantes which support it, by the sheaf of lightnings, by sun, moon, and stars, by the star on the caps of the Dioskouroi, and the distaff of the Moirai. The symbols of the lower segment indicate the deities and cults relating to existence on the earth and sea: the wheel of Tyche, the crosstorch of Demeter and Persephone, a cornucopia, a coveredliknon and its contents, three cakes and a phallus set down in a particular way, Hekate’s torch, a thyrsos with band, the sickle of Kronos, Poseidon’s trident, and a sign that is not clear. The ladder, obviously leading to the upper sphere (which the chariot bearing the bridal pair has already reached), points to the cult of Adonis. It was in this cult that the women went out on the roof terraces to celebrate the god of youth.

By this combination of divine attributes, the dischi sacri of Magna Graecia bear witness to a tendency to universalism, a cult of pantes theoi, all the gods. This feature is stressed by the use of the zodiac. It points to a Dionysos-dominated universalism rising above all ties with any particular deity or state, a universalism latent in the pre-Greek and extra-Greek Dionysian religion and in a very special way inherent in it. The widespread use of Dionysian images in tombs, as disclosed in vase paintings and sarcophagus reliefs, implies such a tendency, for it was in connection with the burial of the dead that the need to celebrate indestructible life was most absolute and universal. This is as true of the Dionysian religion as it is of Christianity. The amplification of the Dionysos cult in late antiquity to a cosmic, cosmopolitan religion was a very natural development, but such a development was possible only insofar as zoë could exert a spontaneous religious influence.