Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.05.21

Thomas A. Carpenter and Christopher A. Faraone (edd.), Masks of Dionysus. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993. $49.95 (hb). $17.95 (pb). ISBN 0-8014-2779-7 (hb). ISBN 0-8014-8062-0 (pb).

Reviewed by Richard Hamilton, Bryn Mawr College.


Pride of place must go to the section on Mystery Cult and especially Graf's article, which will be for many the first view of the two virtually identical small ivyleaf gold lamellae from a 4th C. woman's grave in Pelinna Thessaly published in 1987. Beyond offering us an "edition" of and commentary on the orphic-dionysiac text inscribed on the two Pelinna leaves, Graf gives a helpful overview of our developing understanding of the context of these and the other lamellae that have been found, "a Panhellenic movement of some duration" which now extends over seven centuries (5th BC-3rd AD) and three countries (Thessaly, Crete, S. Italy), and he provides a chart of all 17 lamellae in terms of location, date, type of burial, placement of leaf, divinities invoked, metrical form (usually a mixture of hexameter and prose -- his inclusion of pentameter, restricted to one example, seems typologically unsound), and content (2nd s. directions to deceased, 1st s. narratives/boasts, 2nd s. blessings, immersion-in-milk formula). Graf argues that the present ritual implied in the reference to "this day" (v.1 "now you have died and now you have come into being, o thrice happy one, on this same day") is more likely a funeral (i.e., death-which-is-life as in the Olbia bones, "life-death-life") than a prior initiation and, less persuasively, that mention of Dionysiac release to Persephone (v.2 "tell Persephone that Bakkhios himself has set you free") suggests the Orphic (and Neoplatonic) anthropogony involving the Titans' dismemberment of the first Dionysus, which will thereby be attested epigraphically for the first time and may be "the true lore of the bakkhoi," perhaps common to all the lamellae. (For a different possibility, see R. Seaford HSCP 1986; Henrichs calls the dismemberment "a myth of unknown origin, contested antiquity and uncertain meaning," p.26.) Graf also points out the oral nature of the text, with its mixture of prose and verse and its unmetrical substitution of "thrice happy" for "blessed" in v.1, and the prominence of often wealthy women in these burials, though he does not mention the oddity of two lamellae in the one burial at Pelinna.

Cole's essay starts with the lamellae. She mentions a new tablet from Lesbos not included by Graf and, noting that the chronological range is only a century except for the otherwise exceptional Caecilia Secundina tablet, argues for a Bacchic context "originating either in Thessaly or in southern Italy sometime in the late fifth century B.C." She then contrasts these lamellae with the seventy-five public sepulchral inscriptions with Dionysiac themes, which she finds "are part of the standard repertory of Greek and Latin epitaphs". Specifically, "[in] epitaphs that imply happiness or security after death for the initiated it is normally the Eleusinian mysteries that find attention" while "Bacchic organizations only rarely mention anything to do with the myth of Dionysus and the Titans." Although the conclusions are essentially negative, the collection itself is useful, and is sensibly analyzed and clearly presented.

Burkert, too, begins with the lamellae, which he sees as evidence for "Bacchic mysteries from the sixth to the fourth century, with centers at Miletus and the Black Sea, in Thessaly and in Macedonia, Magna Graecia and Crete". He contrasts that with the transformation evident in the "barren and unpromising" Hellenistic and imperial evidence: "Monarchic enthusiasm, feigned or real, reaching the level of Bacchic frenzy, seems to be at least one factor in the transformation of Dionysiac mysteries from the clientele of individual charismatics into well-organized and officially recognized clubs, even if the 'truly religious' element is found to decline. The eclipse of Hellenistic monarchies must have been another shock; but it still left the bourgeois thiasoi we find in the imperial age." He ends with two unusual reliefs on a 2nd BC altar of Dionysus at Cos. One shows Dionysus flanked by Corybants, which may refer to the Orphic myth of Dionysus but is more likely a reference to the post-Alexander warlike Dionysus. The other, an unparalleled (and, unfortunately, unillustrated) relief showing Dionysus "purified by Meter and receiving his mysteries", is connected to a contemporary inscription mentioning private teletai under control of the cult priestess: "this is not yet the form of Dionysian mysteries that was to come to the fore in the imperial age. But the anarchic element dreaded by the Romans in 186, originating from some migrating sacrificulus et vates, was out."

Dionysiac images form another focus of this volume, in the essays of Carpenter, Lissarague, Bonfante and Jameson. Carpenter, in a well-illustrated essay, discusses two anomalous fragmentary early 5th C. images of unbearded Dionysus wearing an "overgarment", one showing him holding a dismembered fawn, the other a large grapevine. He connects both vases with four other contemporary renderings of Dionysus and dismembered animals and with the production of a play about Lycurgus: "this explains the clustering of the scenes around 470 and the appearance of the foreign overgarment on several of the [parallel] vases and perhaps of the toylike animal and the link between the two exceedingly unusual depictions of the god." Yet the Dionysus shown holding the animal (which is sometimes a goat, sometimes a fawn) is usually bearded, and only sometimes wearing an overgarment, and, as far as we can tell, always holding animal parts in both hands, which excludes one of the two beardless images. More likely is Carpenter's suggestion that the distinctive overgarment with "rectangular panel at the top, cut to fit around the head" found on four of the vases suggests theater since the four representations all appear at the same time (though one of the examples has sides free and covers the god's chiton while the other three do not). The key element must be the garment not the god since other individuals wear a similar garment at this time (e.g. LIMC "Dionysus" 297 and 325 maenads, London B141 piper, Boardman ARFV 6 maenad, 333 dancers). Most likely of all is Carpenter's more limited claim that the two contemporary and unparalleled representations of beardless Dionysus with which he began also derive from theater.

Lissarrague continues his study of the alterity of the satyr (on archaic vases), who "oscillates between the animal and the human, the barbarian and the civilized ... to a greater or lesser degree" and is not "just a single strange type." (But then why reduce the dots on Leningrad B 1412 to "a furry coat," especially when spots and fur will both reappear so often on satyr "tights"?) He effectively contrasts centaurs, who have a real society of their own (are not just servants), in whom the human part is always less important than the animal (not variable), who are never seen in erection, who are real educators and have real knowledge (rather than mere astonishment and curiosity) and who are a menace to human order, but then concludes rather flatly that satyrs "make the viewer think about humanity" (as if the centaurs did not). As usual, Lissarrague makes some sparkling incidental observations, notably how satyrs "begin to age" in the second half of the 5th C.

Bonfante presents an intriguing and, to the outsider, puzzling series of Etruscan mirrors (mostly) from the 4th C. that show the Etruscan Dionysus/Fufluns in action, three with helpful Greek labels: (1) Dionysus (unlabelled) being born from the thigh of Tinia in the presence of Apulu (Apollo) and Mean, with a snake-eating wild man (= mask?) above and winged Inael below; (2) Semla holding a thrysus and kissing the young Fufluns, who is embracing her, in the presence of Apulu, holding a laurel branch, and a boy (with a hint of a horsetail) playing pipes; (3) bearded Fufluns with kantharos and helmeted Menarea looking at Artames (Artemis) holding bow and arrows and smaller Esia, said to be the soul of Ariadne (because the retrograde name signifies death?), with satyr mask on the ground ("the head of a bearded Silenus looks up menacingly"). But how does one go about separating the Etruscan from the Greek?

Jameson's essay, placed earlier than these but primarily a study of iconography, concerns "the persistent ambivalence about the god's involvement with sex", in iconography, myth and cult. Thus Dionysus is never pictured with an erection though his satyrs always are; in archaic art he is always clothed and when later naked he is graceful and languid. His feminine dress and mask on a tree trunk may be a phallic representation of the god (this may be the book's most provocative statement) but if so it is very discreet. "The conjugal Dionysus' engagement in sex seems carefully edited" mythologically (the "gentle eroticism" of his marriage to Ariadne) and in cult (in the marriage with the basilinna "the god is assimilated to the man"). "Exuberant phallicism has no part in the Dionysiac cults of women."

The other essays paired with Jameson at the beginning, are unified by their essentially positive view of Dionysus and implicit rejection of the Bacchae as a charter myth, with Henrichs attacking the idea that Dionysiac worship offers fusion with the god and Obbink challenging the view that sacrifice is terrifying and awesome.

Henrichs criticizes the modern emphasis on the violent and disruptive Dionysus of the "mythical record" as opposed to distinctly divine Dionysus of non-tragic literature and actual cult. Specifically, the god's immortality, superhuman power and capacity for self-revelation, though they have a deceptive human quality, are typical aspects of any Greek god; Nietzsche "destroyed Dionysus as a god" by viewing him as "a cluster of psychological and social abstractions," who fuses with his worshipers. Better is Otto's polar Dionysus which leads to a "widening of horizons and an ability to mediate between the various realms of Dionysus" but also "further contributes to the erosion of the god in Dionysus". (Why is this better? Because it cannot be disproved? Because human thought is basically polar?)

Obbink, like Henrichs, stresses the positive cultic Dionysus against the negative, tragic, sacramental god. "We cannot even be sure that the Greeks ever equated Dionysus with any of his sacrificial animals." "Historical maenads offered sacrifices as civilized substitutes for the savage sacrifices of maenadic myth." "The picture of sacrifice that emerges from the cult calendars is a tame and domestic one." Ancient theories stress "the god's benefactions during life."

The essays on tragedy form a surprisingly instructive trio: Schlesier and Seaford look at precisely the same body of material (maenadic imagery in tragedy vs epic) with different methods and different conclusions; Zeitlin by contrast starts not with data but an idea and moves centrifugally rather than centripetally.

For Schlesier maenadic imagery is not just a metaphor but a doubling of truth, a second mask: "a figure described as bakkheuôn, for instance, is seen as performing a Bacchic role and is therefore temporarily seen with a Bacchic mask". Even in non-Dionysiac contexts the terminology is not merely metaphoric but describes violent frenzy. Maenadic imagery in epic (Andromache, Demeter) simply describes rushing motion and violent emotion at a turn of events while maenads as tragic models involve the killing of mates or children. The last part of the essay describes Clytemnestra, Deianira and Phaedra, who all kill and all die. Schlesier's claims might have been more persuasive if she had contrasted maenadic imagery with, say, Fury imagery.

Seaford covers precisely the same ground but with more precision: maenadism is antithetical both to the state and to the whole process of marriage. The only house destroyed in epic is Hektor's hence the only maenad is Andromache (and, oddly, Demeter); in tragedy there are many and the metaphor covers "the states of mind that precede, accompany and follow the killing of kin and destruction of the household" (Antigone, Evadne, Hecuba, Helen, Heracles, Ino, Iole, Cassandra, Clytaemnestra, Orestes and Procne, though not Medea). Four others don't quite fit (Io, Capaneus in two plays, chorus of Seven), showing "the metaphor is almost always more complex than it seems". The mechanism for the metaphor is social: "in embodying the communal principle of the polis Dionysus is a potential destroyer of the household ... whereas in ritual the threat is heeded, in myth the threat is generally imagined as realized ... this communality of the polis is established at the expense of women, who, without power in the public sphere, were easily imagined as adhering excessively to the household and as resisting their public powerlessness." Thus in Thebes repeatedly, "the salvation of the polis is linked to the self-destruction of the royal household." Thus in tragedy we find destruction of the household (intrafamilial violence), the permanent subversion of ritual, the Dionysiac, whereas these are almost entirely lacking in epic where the polis (assembly, judicial authority, urban center, communal ritual, citizenship) "barely functions."

Zeitlin, testing the hypothesis that the contrast between the ideal polis, Athens, and its opposite, Thebes, is a dramatic convention, finds that in the latter Dionysus "is drawn into the circle of Ares and Aphrodite, both protectors and destroyers of the family and polis, and where Demeter and Athena have no efficacious role to play in the averting of disaster. But in Athens, it is precisely these two goddesses, Demeter and Athena, who between them can be said to 'stabilize' Dionysus and to divert his potentially negative effects or to capture his creative powers for the benefit of the city. The method is detailed consideration of Dionysus in Theban Antigone (with a glance at the Bacchae) as opposed to Pallas Athena (with a glance at the Phoenissae) balanced by the Athenian Dionysus of the Oedipus at Colonus and, at greater length, the Ion, where "Athena and Demeter may be said to deflect the scenario of a destructive Dionysiac action that more properly belongs to Thebes". This polarity is complicated by consideration of the Antiope situated in the middle ground between the two cities (Eleutherae), where there is no "fateful collusion between Dionysus and Ares" and "Dionysiac violence is subdued". A specialist may see problems in this summary (where is Argos? where is Apollo? does Dionysus change in these plays or simply the plot? what plays are actually sited at Athens?), some of which are anticipated by the author, but in fact the summary is the most insubstantial hint of the rich array of ideas embedded in the consideration of details of three plays, any one of which justifies the effort. In the French manner (cf. Lissarague) this essay is both a review summarizing Zeitlin's recent work on Thebes as the "anti-city" (1986) and on the story patterns of the Ion (1989) and a preview of her thoughts on the Phoenissae, specifically the thematic and imagistic relationships in the putative trilogy Hypsipyle, Phoenissae, Antiope.

The collection, offering as it does abundant new material, fresh ideas and an excellent bibliography, is exceptionally good value for almost any one interested in Greek culture. It could have been made even more valuable by incorporating the responses of Blundell, Foley, Halperin, Johnston, Mikalson, Oakley, Redfield and Segal, well-known figures who, to judge from the footnotes, made some incisive remarks. Otherwise, why the conference?