Artwork of the month

April 2019 Archaeology

Who's afraid of Dionysos Tauros?

Bull horns on the forehead of a Greek god: shocking! This god is Dionysos, the god of wine: he is one of the most represented deities in the collection of the Fondation Gandur pour l’Art.

The object in question here reveals one of the very special aspects of this god with many facets, known in the Latin world under the name of Bacchus.

See the artwork in the collection

Bust in the shape of Dionysos Tauros
Egypt, Alexandria, IInd – Ist Century BC
Bronze and silver, hollow cast
9.1 x 6.4 x 3.1 cm

Former private german collection, before 1972
Thence Galerie Günther Pühze, Freiburg-am-Breisgau, Germany
Acquired at the gallery Günther Pühze, Freiburg, the 03.05. 2011

Previous publication
Morel-Deledalle, Myriam (éd.), Migrations divines. Exhibition catalogue from MUCEM, Marseille, 24 june to 15 november 2015, Arles, Actes Sud, 2015, p. 43-44 and p. 47, n° 25


© Fondation Gandur pour l'Art, Genève. Photographer: André Longchamp

In ancient Greece, the appearance of gods and goddesses among human beings was supposed to make the earth smile and to stimulate the blossoming of flowers. But there was one benevolent god whose visit to mankind could provoke madness. This god was Dionysos, one of the best attested deities in the collection of the Fondation Gandur pour l’Art, as he is seen on various artefacts dated between the 5th century BC and the 3rd century AD. The piece presented here enables us to consider one of the very peculiar aspects of this multifaceted god, known in the Latin world under the name of Bacchus.

Dionysos, god of wine and inebriation

Dionysos is known to be the son of Zeus, head of the Greek pantheon, and of Semele, a princess of Thebes, in Boeotia. Unfortunately, she died before the end of her pregnancy, struck by the unbearable radiance of her lover. But Zeus sewed the child in his own thigh, hiding him there until the baby’s birth. A golden childhood awaited the little god: raised by the Nymphs in a paradise full of friendly wild beasts and educated by Seilenos, he became a ravishing young man, although very touchy when it comes to the acknowledgement of his Olympian status.

He was the god of grapevine and wine, but also of the symposion – the Greek banquet – and of positive drunkenness. He thus demands to be worshipped like a god in his own right, and woe betide those who would refuse to do it on the pretext of observing traditions, for he would turn into a furious god, an aspect shown on the present artefact. As we will see below, on these occasions, nothing is left of his link to grapevine, wine and happy drunkenness: all that remains is a frenzied god.


Dionysos, troublemaker of the Greek pantheon

But Dionysos is also a god whose iconography, compared to that of other deities such as Poseidon, Ares or Hephaestus, was always considered somewhat strange by the Ancients. With his colourful, richly adorned and extremely feminine long dresses, his beast hide knotted across his torso, his boots and his scepter topped with a pine cone (the thyrsos), he was incongruous among the Olympians who were all half-naked or wearing coats elegantly tied around the waist. Dionysos, strange and foreign, is an outsider god, perhaps from the Greek Orient.

And what shall we say of his entourage, of the procession following him? Dionysos is flanked by a thirsty panther lapping the wine flowing from the god’s cup, drunk and too often ithyphallic satyrs, the stout, shrewd and good-natured Seilenos, and above all women! Sporty, free, bare and dishevelled women… women who, having neglected their newborn children, suckle wild animals and who, after running, dancing and hunting in the woods, can easily be teased or even more by the above-mentioned satyrs. Depraved, frenzied women! Such are the Bacchantes or Maenads, a clear-cut name from the Greek word mania, meaning “madness” (see the English “maniac”). The instigator of this wind of madness is again Dionysos who, with the tip of his thyrsos, drives mad all those he touches. It is therefore not surprising that the propagation of his cult was reluctantly received by faultfinders. The strange Dionysos is a disturbing god.

Red-figure kylix, Makron, 490-480 BC, Maenad and Satyr, München, Staatlichen Antikensammlungen.

Focus on the portrait of a frenzied god

Turning back to our object, Dionysos is portrayed with the features of a young man, a kouros. Our god is therefore in the flower of his youth. As a Greek kouros, his hair has not yet been cut: two long curls escape from the rear of his hairstyle and spread on both sides of his neck. His forehead is adorned with a headband called mitra, and he is the only god wearing this attribute. This headband symbolizes his initiation, during his childhood, by Seilenos: and as an enlightened, he is also a wise person. A wreath, made of heart-shaped ivy leaves and berries grouped in four corymbs, surrounds his face which could be angelic but for his silver, frightening and somewhat crazy eyes. In fact, with his eyebrows in a frown, his large staring eyes and his slightly open mouth, his expression does not reflect the serenity befitting an Olympian god. And what about the two short silver horns protruding on his forehead? This is another worrying sign, especially since Greek deities never display animal features. Bull horns at the forehead of a Greek god: how shocking!

Car, avec ses sourcils froncés, ses grands yeux écarquillés et sa bouche entrouverte, l’expression n’est pas celle de la sérénité qui sied aux Olympiens. Et que dire des deux petites cornes d’argent qui se recourbent sur son front ? Voilà un autre signe inquiétant, surtout quand on sait que Olympiens n’ont pas de traits animaliers dans leur physionomie. Des cornes de taureau au front d’un dieu grec : shocking !

" The applique bust of the FGA is in fact of a rare quality: the precision of its modelling, of its inlays, the treatment of the facial features, body details (eyelids, well-defined lips) and clothing show great technical skills and a true sense of perfection. "

The hunter and the socialite

The way Dionysos is dressed is also very unusual, the perfect mix of a hunter’s and an ancient socialite’s outfit: indeed, above his nicely pleated tunic with a v-shaped neckline, he is wearing a beast hide called the nebris, the skin of a young fawn hunted, killed, flayed and torn apart by the Maenads. This bloody nebris is the livery of Dionysos, which is also worn by his suite. This hide is tied on the right shoulder, and one can even distinguish the small animal leg as well as the irregularly serrated reverse of the skin edge, across his torso. A mantle section, as if lifted by the wind, is waving on his left shoulder.

This association – tunic, fawn hide and mantle – is very peculiar, as the god is usually wearing one or the other of these clothing items, sometimes two, but seldom all three of them.

Drinking with Dionysos at the banquet

Along with Aphrodite, goddess of love, Dionysos is one of the most frequently depicted deities in the classic world, from the Archaic Period to the end of the Roman Empire. If he is naturally shown on banquet dishes from the 6th century BC onward, he was also depicted on a whole series of other media. The piece considered here can be linked by its style to the production of the Hellenistic period (4th – 1st century BC), when the cult of Dionysos enjoyed a new enthusiasm, notably under the aegis of Alexander and his successors.

Among the most interesting bronzes if we consider the style and the god’s features, as it shares similarities with our small bust, is a statuette of Dionysos standing, wearing a short chiton covered with a nebris as well as boots called embades. This statuette was found in Chochlia, Central Greece, and is dated to the middle of the 2nd century BC.1

But the bust of Dionysos – and of his comrades Seilenos, the satyrs and the bacchantes – is also used as an adornment for furniture items related to the banquet, such as series-produced appliques adorning the head-rests of banquet couches (fulcra, fig. 1), the tripods of braziers, or table legs, in order to embellish with a divine presence the banquet room, hotspot of masculine sociability in the classic tradition. The productions which are closest to our bust thus date back to the Hellenistic period.

Fig.1 Lit de banquet (fulcra) © The Walters Art Gallery

These small decorative bronze objects were cast, recast and very widely spread. A plaster casting very similar to the one considered here shows to what extent these objects have been copied and multiplied.2 All these clues make it seem like the cultivated circles were immersed in the vapours of wine, and worshipped Dionysos as a leading god.

Questions of style

The applique bust of the FGA is in fact of a rare quality: the precision of its modelling, of its inlays, the treatment of the facial features, body details (eyelids, well-defined lips) and clothing show great technical skills and a true sense of perfection. The mitra, for instance, is creased on the forehead like a real headband; the same is true for the tunic and the beast hide. This piece can be described as “rococo”, to quote B. Barr-Sharrar speaking of Dionysiac busts of the Hellenistic period.3 A style notably identified in the sparse wreath with its leaves which seem to be moved by the wind. A style where nothing is left to chance, neither the hair nor the facial expression.

All these details give this piece a clearly theatrical aspect, typical of the bronze appliques with Dionysiac designs of the late 2nd century BC.4 Its modelling is also reminiscent of other Dionysiac appliques, such as the Satyr bust from the Mahdia shipwreck, dated around 100 BC,5 a date which must be close to that of the small FGA bust.

The FGA bust can also be compared to a series of six appliques from the eastern part of the Mediterranean basin, showing the fair Dionysos wearing the same three items of clothing: a tunic with low-cut collar, a beast hide tied on the torso and a coat folded back over the left shoulder.6 But these appliques are larger, less refined, and never equipped with inlays. These six exemplars as well as our piece may have been inspired by the same model,7 which could perhaps be seen in one of the cultural hubs of Alexander’s Empire, such as Athens, Pergamon or Alexandria.

Alexandria, the Ptolemies and the bull-horned god Dionysos

In the Hellenistic period, Alexandria was one of the active centres of the cult of Dionysos. Moreover, it is in Alexandria that the artefact which is stylistically and iconographically the closest to our bust was discovered,8 in 1866 (fig. 2).

It shows a drunk and happy Dionysos, as the god indulges himself with wine. Wearing ivy – and not grapevine, as is later the case – the mitra on his forehead, he is holding a cup against his breast and placing his right hand on the top of his head, the usual expression of joyful intoxication. As suggested by his empty eye sockets, his eyes must have been inlaid too, like those of our bust. Apart from a clear stylistic similarity – same treatment of the face, same well-defined lips, same sparse wreath, same “rococo” style – he also displays a pair of short horns on the forehead, like the FGA bust. A rather rare feature, as we shall see.

Fig.2 © Cabinet des Médailles, Paris © Rights reserved

Dionysos enjoyed a notably fervent cult in Alexandria, under the Ptolemies, where he seems to be a protector of the dynasty. The Ptolemaia, a festival instituted in 271/270 BC in honour of the deceased Ptolemy I and Berenice by their son Ptolemy II Philadelphus, bear witness to the foremost position held by Dionysos in the pantheon and in the official art of Lagid Alexandria.9 This sumptuous celebration included several chariots, the first of which was devoted to Dionysos and his party: this impressive sight was supposed to embody the myth and triumph of the god, and therefore the power and wealth of the Lagids.10

A further step in the association between the Lagids and Dionysos was taken when Ptolemy III Euergetes was depicted with the features of a Dionysos Tauros, with a mitra and two short horns. This bust, found at Thmuis in the Delta, was dated to the early 2nd century BC.11

To conclude, the refinement of this piece of metalwork, the likely date of its production and the display of a well-known thema in Lagid Egypt suggest that it comes from an Alexandrine workshop which produced high-quality pieces.

The bull, symbol of unleashed brutality

What is the meaning of these bull horns at the forehead of Dionysos? The bull, which is a symbol for animal beauty, untamable strength and inexhaustible sexual power, was largely exploited in the symbolic of Greco-Roman Antiquity: Poseidon is sometimes riding a bull, a reference to the rumble of the sea, a noise reminiscent of the animal’s mooing. Zeus can also occasionally take the shape of a white bull, as he does to abduct princess Europe. As to Dionysos, the texts are unanimous about the fact that the god could display taurine features. For instance, in several places of the Greek world, he was called “Tauros”, and Plutarch also notes that the god was often depicted as a bull.12.

There was apparently a true liturgy in which Dionysos was worshipped as a bull.13. In his case, the concept of mutation, of a sudden transformation of the god in a wild animal is significant. The two bronze appliques then refer to Dionysos Tauros, one drunk with happiness, the other in a blind rage. The metamorphosis of this Dionysos was described by Euripides in 405 BC in his play The Bacchantes, one of the most popular tragedies in the Antiquity.

The scorned god and the unfortunate king

To broadly summarize this work still relevant today, Pentheus is king of Thebes, and also a cousin to Dionysos, whom he never met because of the circumstances surrounding the little god’s birth. He is a young king, sure of his beliefs and quite stubborn, a rigid personality as one would term nowadays. In the guise of a priest, Dionysos arrives in his palace, but the king refuses to embrace this new cult and the rituals advocated by this rather strange-looking priest. For the god, this was a capital offence committed by an unfortunate individual! Indeed, the name Pentheus derives from a Greek verb meaning “to cry”… As Dionysos ironically remarks, with such a name, he was doomed to suffer.14 Infuriated, Pentheus catches and chains him, and Dionysos does not resist: as a god, he knows that chains cannot hold him, and indeed he manages to escape. He suddenly appears to Pentheus, this time with bull horns. The king then shouts: “And you, methinks, are a bull going before to guide me, and on your head a pair of horns have grown. Were you really once a brute beast? You have at any rate the appearance of a bull!”.15.

Whether a hallucination of Pentheus provoked by the god or a real transformation of the god into a bull, in any case Pentheus sees the god as he really is.16 It is a forerunner of a pending defeat, which will climax with the killing of the young king by the Bacchantes. Dismembering him with their bare hands like a fawn, they proudly brandish his head skewered on the end of a pike. Dionysos, who is in turns described by Euripides as “very powerful” and “very sweet”, thus revealed himself under his two opposite and complementary aspects.

Red-figure lekanis, 450-425 BC, Pentheus dismembered by the Maenads, Paris, Louvre

Back to the banquet couch

The four fulcra of a banquet couch were usually formed with the head of a drunk male mule, which formed the upper end of the fulcrum, whereas the bust of Dionysos adorned the lower medallion (as can be seen on the fulcra of the British Museum, fig. 3). One can imagine that these two types of appliques, both representing Dionysos Tauros, one drunk and one frenzied, could refer to the two opposite aspects of the god of wine.

Fig.3 © The Trustees of the British Museum

Moral of the story: let us submit ourselves to Dionysos and enjoy the fumes of drunkenness, or else…

Dr Isabelle Tassignon
Curator of the Archaeology Collection

Notes and references

  1. Athens, national museum, Inv. 15209: Karouzou, “Eine Bronzestatuette des Dionysos”, p. 205-216; Manfrini-Aragno, Bacchus, p. 56, n° 17; Barr-Sharrar, “How important is Provenance? Archaeological and Stylistic Questions in the Attribution of Ancient Bronzes”, in Small Bronze Sculpture from the Ancient World. Papers Delivered by the Departments of Antiquities and Antiquities Conservation and Held at the J. Paul Getty Museum, March 16-19, 1989, Malibu, The J. Paul Getty Museum, California, 1990, p. 209-236.
  2. Kept at the University of London, it is deemed to be of Egyptian origin: Richter, Ancient Plaster Casts, p. 373 and pl. 92, fig. 21; Manfrini-Aragno, Bacchus, p. 57.
  3. Barr-Sharrar, “Towards a Chronology”, p. 44.
  4. Barr-Sharrar, “Towards a Chronology”, p. 44.
  5. Tunis, Bardo Museum, Inv. F 247/8.
  6. Manfrini-Aragno, Bacchus, p. 57-58, no 18-23.
  7. Manfrini-Aragno, Bacchus, p. 171.
  8. Paris, Cabinet des Médailles, Inv. Br 475 ; Manfrini-Aragno, Bacchus, p. 100, fig. 147.
  9. Callixenus of Rhodes, cited by Athenaeus, The Banquet, V, 201 a-c; Dunand, “Fêtes et propagande sous les Lagides”, p. 13.
  10. Dunand, “Fêtes et propagande sous les Lagides”, p. 14-15.
  11. Cairo, Egyptian Museum, Inv. JE 39520, from Tell el-Timai: Götter und Pharaonen. Roemer- und Pelizaeus Museum, Hildesheim, 29. Mai - 16. September 1979, Mainz am Rhein, von Zabern, 1979, n° 91; Manfrini-Aragno, Bacchus, p. 166.
  12. Plutarch, Greek Questions, 244 a-b; see Gasparri, Dionysos, no 154-159.
  13. Sergent, Le dieu fou, p. 140-141 (where all literary occurrences of Dionysos Tauros are compiled).
  14. Euripides, The Bacchantes, v. 508.
  15. Euripides, The Bacchantes, v. 920-922.
  16. McDonald, « L’extase de Penthée », p. 229.


Barr-Sharrar, Beryl, « Towards a Chronology of the Roman Imperial Decorative Bust », in Ulrich Gehrig (éd.), Toreutik und figürliche Bronzen römischer Zeit. Akten der 6. Tagung über antike Bronzen 13.-17. Mai 1980 in Berlin, Berlin, Staatliche Museen, 1984, p. 41-49.

Dunand, Françoise, « Fêtes et propagande à Alexandrie sous les Lagides », Annales littéraires de l’Université de Besançon, 262, 1981, p. 13-40.

Euripide, Les Bacchantes (traduction Henri Gregoire), Paris, Les Belles Lettres, 1975.

Faust, Sabine, Fulcra. Figürlicher und ornamentaler Schmück an antiken Betten, Mainz, 1989 (Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archaeologischen Instituts Roemische Abteilung, 30).

Gasparri, Carlo, «Dionysos», in Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, III, 1986, p. 414-514.

Karouzou, Semni, « Eine Bronzestatuette des Dionysos aus Aetolien », in Wandlungen. Studien zur Antiken und Neueren Kunst. Festschrift Ernst Homann-Wedeking, München, Bayern Stiftland-Verlag, 1975, p. 205-216.

Manfrini-Aragno, Ivonne, Bacchus dans les bronzes hellénistiques et romains. Les artisans et leur répertoire, Lausanne, Bibliothèque historique vaudoise, 1987 (Cahiers d’archéologie romande, 34).

McDonald, Marianne, « L’extase de Penthée : ivresse et représentation dans les Bacchantes d’Euripide », Pallas, 38, 1992, p. 227-237.

Richter, Gisela M. A., Ancient Plaster Casts of Greek Metalware, American Journal of Archaeology, 62, 1958, p. 369-377.

Sergent, Bernard, Le dieu fou. Essai sur les origines de Šiva et de Dionysos, Paris, Les Belles Lettres, 2016.


See also