Bronze mask of Dionysus

Here he is – dramatic, arresting, with his beard like spokes radiating to the world … a bronze mask of Dionysus, also known as Bacchus, his hair alive with bunches of grapes.  The eyes still have the gravity of the ancient cult, a seriousness that has been lost in our popular culture.

This mask, displayed with pride in the archaeological museum, was found in 1980 in the remains of a shipwreck in waters around Antibes.  It is estimated that this ship, heavily laden with amphora of wine, came to grief between 80 and 60 B.C.  The mask was saved from the plunderers.


Homer names him a lesser god, but Dionysus, even though his mother was a mortal, was part and parcel of the Greek pantheon, the greatest soap opera in the world.  And before too many centuries had passed the cult was bursting at the seams.  By 300 b.C. the cult was widespread and had a vast following.

Dionysus in British Museum. Note the people.

Dionysus is linked to fertility, agricultural and human.  He is the patron of theatre and the creative arts.  He embodies ecstatic religion, strongly promoted by his status as the god of vineyards, wine-making and, probably, the intake of wine.  Under him there is a hierarchy of personages, some of them beautiful and sensual, not wearing too much, others sporting horns from their foreheads and who play the flute to gazelle.  Still others are half human, half horse.  Interesting company.


With the rise of the Romans, Dionysus not only gets a new name, but a smaller hat.  Another few centuries and dour Christians would put a stop to all this jollity.  Two millennia later his bronze mask would be lifted from the seabed around Antibes.

Here he is and I don’t know why I think of it now, but a long time ago, before I was a teen, and long before I knew about Nietszche’s thoughts on Dionysus, I wondered how it would be if they pushed the pews aside in the church.  And danced.


© Will van der Walt


Les Semboules, Antibes

July, 2017



Delaval, R. Thernot : Objets d’Antipolis. (Mémoire Millénaire, Antibes. 2011

Delaval, R. Thernot (ed.): Aux Origines d’Antibes (Musée d’Archeologie, Antibes.

M. Cazenave (ed.) : Encyclopédie des Symboles (La Pochothéque, Műnchen, 1996.)



Dionysus photo of poster – Will  

Dionysus head  –  Wikipedia

Bacchus image –  crystalinks.com








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