Theasoi, Maenads and All That Jazz
Thiasos: In the earliest writings, thiasoi appear in literary sources in connection with Dionysus and with other ecstatic cults. How these earlier thiasoi were organized is unknown; possibly they were brought together for no longer than the duration of a particular rite. However that may be, the members were united by a strong sense of undergoing an experience in common: Euripides speaks, untranslatably, of θιασεύεσθαι ψυχάν, ‘entering the thiasos in soul’.
Thiasoi, clasically, were often defined as ‘groups of women’, with perhaps some men who attended to and also protected these groups. However, the word thiasos can also be defined with broader meaning. Euripides’ play The Bacchae makes clear, and abundant examples of early art attest, that appropriate men were also part of the retinue. The Bacchae is one of the few intact surviving documents from antiquity to tell us about thiasos, dionysian ritual, maenads, satyrs, silenuses and the problems of living with the ecstatic experience of the divine in a world of social controls.
There were also theasoi exclusively for women: Sappho’s Thiasos.
Maenads: ‘The Bacchae of Euripides gives us the most vital picture of the wonderful circumstance in which the god-intoxicated celebrants draw milk and honey from the streams. They strike rocks with the thyrsus, and water gushes forth. They lower the thyrsus to the earth, and a spring of wine bubbles up. If they want milk, they scratch up the ground with their fingers and draw up the milky fluid. Honey trickles down from the thyrsus made of the wood of the ivy, they gird themselves with snakes and give suck to fawns and wolf cubs as if they were infants at the breast. Fire does not burn them. No weapon of iron can wound them, and the snakes harmlessly lick up the sweat from their heated cheeks. Fierce bulls fall to the ground, victims to numberless, tearing female hands, and sturdy trees are torn up by the roots with their combined efforts.’
Walter Otto, Dionysus: Myth and Cult. Indiana University Press.(1965).p.96