The Cult of Dionysos in Nysa-Scythopolis

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by Jochen1, Jun 1, 2019.

  1. Jochen1

    Jochen1 Well-Known Member

    Der Friends of ancient mythology!

    Here I want to discuss another coin related to Dionysos.

    The Coin:
    Samaria, Nysa-Scythopolis, Gordian III, AD 238-244
    AE 25, 13.2g, 180°
    struck AD 240 (year 304)
    Bust, draped and cuirassed(?) , laureate, r.
    Rev.: NVC - C - KVΘ IEP ACV
    Dionysos, nude, nebris waving behind, tripping forward, head l., holding
    thyrsos in raised r. hand like reaching back for a throw, his l. hand laying on the
    head of a small figur, which is kneeling before him; behind him the panther stg.
    l., head turned r.
    in r. field palm-branch,
    in lower l. and r. field Δ - T (year 304 of Pompeian era)
    Ref.: Spijkerman 206, 59; SNG ANS 1054 var. (has bunch of grapes in field); BMC
    Rare, about VF

    Nysa is todays Bet-Shean in Israel.
    Bet-Shean with its Tell (Wikipedia)

    I have purchased this coin because I suggested that there could be something interesting behind the reverse depiction which was not clear at the first view. And I was right! The information is not sure because the scientific dispute is not yet closed. But I think it is plausible at least. Here are the results of my research:

    Depiction and interpretation:

    Dionysos' association with the city of Nysa-Scythopolis apparently originated from the Hellenistic period, and is connected to the city's re-foundation by the Ptolemies, who claimed to be descendants of Herakles and Dionysos. The cult of Donysos played a central role during the Ptolemaic period , reaching its climax under Ptolemy IV (222-204 BC).

    It seems that the cult of Dionysos at Nysa-Scythopolis was also founded on the legend which identified the city as the burial place of Nysa, Dionysos' nurse. According to Greek mythology Nysa is also the name of the area where Dionysopolis grew up.
    Dionysos' appearance , like the myths about him, changed through the ages. At first he was depicted as an elderly, bearded person, while later on he appears more often as a young naked god with long flowing locks.

    Under Commodus, Nysa-Scythopolis minted coins with a wide range of Dionysiac themes. The earliest of these is a medal struck under Marcus Aurelius showing the head of young Commodus on the obverse. The medaillon was most probably issued to commemorate the voyage of Marcus Aurelius and his son Commodus to the east in AD 175/176.

    Rachel Barkays describes the coin as follows:
    It shows Dionysos naked but with a chlamys flying behind him, he may also be wearing a panther's skin. He is shown here in a violent scene, advancing to right, holding in his right hand a short tyrsus pointing down towards the head of a small figure, in his left hand is the forelock of the small figure, which is spreading its hand and trying to escape. On the left is a panther attacking a small figure. The same scene appears on an unpublished medal minted under Septimius Severus.

    Another violent scene resembling the one on the medal is represented on coins of Elagabal and Gordian III, where Dionysos is swinging a thyrsos; the pine-cone can sometimes be seen clearly at the top of the thyrsos, touching the head of the small figure. In coins issued under Gordian III this small figure seems to be a herma. The panther seems to be running with its head turned backwards. These descriptions of Dionysos may be connected with the violent aspects of the Dionysiac cult. They are associated with the image of Dionysos as a god who hurts people while in a state of exstasy, under the influence of wine.

    Hill described the scene as "An unexplained episode of Dionysiac legend...where the god seems to be threatening a small primitive idol with his thyrsos (which looks, however, more like a spear)." On the other hand , Eckhel identified the small figure as Priapus, while according to Seyrig [it may be a corybant, or a Scyth, who is dancing in front of the young Dionysos].

    In the city of Nysa-Scythopolis we find the richest descriptions of Dionysopolis and depictions of episodes from the cycle of his life on city-coins. Nysa-Scythopolis was indoubtedly an important center of the cult of Dionysos, a fact which is also reflected in the archaelogical finds from the excavations there. The cult of Dionysos in Nysa-Scythopolis is not indicated in the literary sources, and we do not know from them that the city claimed any special status as a result of its connection with the tradition linking it to the history of Dionysos. Thus the coins of Nysa-Scythopolis are the main source of our knowledge about the role played by the cult of Dionysos in the history of the city.

    One may, however, - according to Haim Gitler - interpret the scene in an entirely different way. It very probably illustrates a Dionysiac procession related to the festival of the Anthesteria.

    The Anthesteria:

    The Anthesteria, the Blossom Festival, were celebrated in the early spring in Athena and many Ionian towns. On the second day, which fell on the twelfth of the month of Anthesterion (February/March), new wine was ceremonially blessed before Dionysos and throughout the city the day was celebrated by drinking from special jugs of a peculiar shape known as choes. This day, the most important of the festival, was called Choes, after these squat jugs with a trefoil mouth.

    Many of the choes dating to the fifth and fourth century BC were decorated with scenes of the different phases of mirth and play during the festival. One was a ceremony of initiation, parastasis, when three-year old children were admitted to the religious community. This was the first time in their lives that the children smelled and tasted wine, and for this purpose specially designed miniature choes were produced. Festal tables were placed in the sanctuary of Dionysos where the children received a choice of dainties and toys before joining the public Dionysiac procession. By the end of the ceremony the children had become a part of the civic community. On the basis of the above description the following interpretation is suggested:

    Dionysos is half-covered by the nebris, a skin of a panther, hanging from his left shoulder. Flying behind him is one of the panther's paws and its tail; in front there is probably another paw. The boy on Dionysos' right holds a choes in his outstretched left hand and a rattle in his right hand. To the left of Dionysos, another boy with bent knees carries a small panther. This identification seems certain since a small panther also appears on the medaillon struck under Septimius Severus.

    It seems therefore preferable to regard the detailed representation on the medaillons of Commodus and Septimius Severus, as well as on the coins of Elagabal and Gordian III, as illustrations of parts of a Dionysiac procession at the Anthesteria. Most elements in these scenes have their parallels on fifth-fourth century BC Attic choes, which were used by children at the festival of the Anthesteria. Although the Nysa-Skythopolis medaillons and coins were produced approximately six centuries later, there is a remarkable resemblance of representations on the coins of the Syrian city and the Attic choes. Especially noteworthy is the similarity in the postures of the children's bodies and their handling of the choes.

    Meshorer believed that the increase in the depictions of Dionysos on coins of some Palestinian cities during Commodus' reign reflects the introduction of a new syncretistic cult of Dionysos. The similarities between the representions on the coins od Nysa-Scythopolis and the much earlier depictions of the Anthesteria on the choes, however, would indicate that the ceremony derives from the much older tradition.

    Unfortunately, there is neither epigraphic nor literary evidence of such a festival in
    Nysa-Scythopolis.It is interesting that up to the reign of Commodus, there were only one type featuring Dionysos on coins of the city. During the next 65 years, until the city stopped minting coins in 240/41 AD, no less than seven different coin types from Nysa-Scythopolis show Dionysiac scenes. It is difficult to say what prompted them but we may safely assume that the city was one of the most important centers of Dionysiac worship in the region. This is no surprise, after all, the city was named after Dionysos' nurse Nysa who, according to a popular tradition, was buried at Beth-Shean (Plinius, Hist.nat. V,18,74).

    I have added a pic of a choes of the Oinokles painter, c. 475-450 BC, showing an interesting episode which could be seen at the vinous Anthesteria. Anyone who could explain what is depicted on the choes? Is that really what I think it is?


    (1) Der kleine Pauly
    (3) Barkay, Rachel "The Dionysiac Mythology on Coins of Nysa-Scythopolis (Beth Shean) in the Roman Period", Proceedings of the XIth International Numismatic Congress I,Louvain-la Neuve 1993, pp. 371-375.
    (4) Haim Gitler, New aspects concerning the Dionysos cult in Nysa-Scythopolis, SNR 70, 1991, 23-28 (Schweizerische Numismatische Rundschau, ISSN 0035-4163)

    For more information of the Anthesteria you can look at Apollonius Sophistes:
    or with another suggestion:

    Best regards
    eparch, Johndakerftw, Factor and 4 others like this.
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  3. PeteB

    PeteB Well-Known Member

    Weird. It looks like the figure on the left in the choes image is urinating into the jug!
  4. Jochen1

    Jochen1 Well-Known Member

    @PeteB That was my suggestion too.
  5. Factor

    Factor Well-Known Member

    Very interesting analysis, thank you! I tend to agree with Haim Gitler, it does look like Anthesteria. This tradition was existing in the area, for example beautiful mosaics depicting it was found in Sepphoris nearby. Cult of Dionysus was very strong in Nysa, as we see from its coinage. Moreover, recently Yoav Farhi suggested to reattribute to Nysa all tetradrachms currently associated with Aelia Capitolina. All of them are bearing Dionysus attributes, such as grapes, grape leafs or amphora. Actually very same differents are found on later Nysa coins of Gordian III, in addition to palm branch. In Aelia cult of Dionysus was never that important, at least not dominant as in Nysa.
    eparch, Jochen1 and PeteB like this.
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