Sunday, November 08, 2020

Who is that Drunken Man?


If you haven’t seen any “Curators’ Corner” videos yet, some of them are both amusing and informative, so I warmly recommend watching. One in particular made me think in a new way about a Tibetan article kept in the Jokhang that may illuminate its artistic background. I’m referring to a short presentation by the Western Curator of Roman Britain for the British Museum, specifically his video on the Tantalus Cup. The Tantalus Cup is an oddly made drinking vessel that, after being filled up to a certain point, suddenly and unexpectedly reverses course and drains all of its wine out on your lap. I do think you need to start at the beginning, but if you are in a hurry you can see the object that most interests us right now by moving about eight minutes into it. The even more interesting thing is the Mildenhall Bacchic Platter. It’s not the main point of the video, just a tangent taken when explaining the Tantalus Cup. This byway is our highway.

The drunken man in the Jokhang Jug, attributed to the early
7th-century era of Emperor Songtsen the Wise

If you are inclined, you might see as I did a strong typological similarity, regardless of other differences, with Emperor Songtsen the Wise’s beer jug, something we’ve talked about six years back. Have a look here. This wine jug, a kind of decanter with a bulbous bottom and a tall narrow top ending in a camel’s head, most people think to be in some way Sogdian. There’s a musician-dancer doing something like what is known as the Sogdian Whirl, no longer taught in dance classes anywhere, although you can see paintings of it in Dunhuang. There is something about the style of the artwork that says somewhere outside Tibet in Central Asia, at least, and likely Sogdian inspiration.  

But I believe the inspiration may go deeper than that. It had occurred, as I’m sure it did to everyone, that the depictions on the jug are somehow Dionysian in nature, about partying with wild abandon, but also about paying the price of excess imbibing. What hadn’t occurred to me is that the motif could have roots beyond Sogdia, even in the classical world of Greece and Rome. And we do find Dionysian scenes and depictions of Hercules in Gandharan Buddhist art.

Dionysian scene from Gandhara, in Tokyo National Museum

But just to let some of the enthusiasm for Greek origins die down a bit, I ought to say that if Hercules were intended, we ought to see his trademark club and lion-skin cloak either on his body or close by. And we don’t. And it could just as well, or even preferably — I am not the one to judge — be Silenus, seeing he is a plump and balding old man, without the physique we normally associate with Hercules. So at best we can justifiably imagine that prior artistic conceptions of Hercules losing the drinking contest (or Silenus ready to be loaded on his ass) could have influenced our Jokhang jug. Surely no Tibetan of centuries past would have thought to see Hercules in it, although they must have recognized the scene as one of drunkenness, it's a beer jug after all. Well, it is now used to dispensed blessed beer, the spigot being a late addition I suspect,  but it was probably originally used for wine.

For extra credit points, or just because you find it interesting, there are some places around the web you can visit, with pictures worth book-loads of words.

There is a well-known Paul Rubens painting called The Drunken Hercules, that you can see in several websites, including this one. It depicts him with two women on one side, his drinking buddy Silenus on the other, and a wine pitcher dangling empty from his left hand.

Compare this early 16th-century artwork by Raimondi. Here two young men are supporting the drunken man, identified in this case as Silenus, a Dionysian figure if there ever was one.

Sometimes he's shown taking a whiz, as drunken men often do, even in the most public of places.

Go have a look at this Gandharan example of a drunken Herakles supported by two people, in this case women.

The Mildenhall Bacchic Platter in the British Museum is what got this train of thought going.

Given the Jokhang jug has a camel head spout, I was wondering if camels might not have some Dionysian associations. Have a look here. And tell me if you don’t see what I’m seeing.

I asked Amy Heller what she thought about this blog several days before putting it up, and she said something she had seen before came to mind, an object that forms a subject for a paper I haven’t yet seen — Suzanne G. Valenstein with Annette L. Juliano and Judith A. Lerner, “Hellenism in Sui-Tang Chang’an: Dionysiac Imagery on Mortuary Camels.”  You can see the object itself at the Met website: 

Go there to see the description and to supersize the photo 
as you must

So let’s see, as a conclusion... Are we right to see Hercules — the James Bond of his day, a man’s man who succeeded in every difficult or impossible task he ever undertook, the single exception being this one drinking contest — there on that Jokhang jug or not? The conclusion is nowhere better made than in your own mind. I suppose you’ve guessed that I, for one, think it is a possibility worth considering further.

§§§   §§§   §§§

There is more literature about Buddhist uses of Herakles and Asian adaptations of Bacchic/Dionysian art than you may think. To get started, have a look at one or another of these sterling essays:

Piu Brancaccio and Xinru Liu, “Dionysus and Drama in the Buddhist Art of Gandhara,” Journal of Global History, vol. 4 (2009), pp. 219-244. 

Martha L. Carter, “Dionysiac Aspects of Kushan Art,” Ars Orientalis, vol. 7 (1968), pp. 121-146. 

Martha L. Carter, “Dionysiac Festivals and Gandhâran Imagery,” contained in: Banquets d'Orient (=Res Orientales, vol. 4 [1992]), pp. 51-60.  

Martha L. Carter, “The Bacchants of Mathura: New Evidence of Dionysiac Yaksha Imagery from Kushan Mathura,” Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art, vol. 69, no. 8 (1982), pp. 247-57.

F.B. Flood, “Herakles and the ‘Perpetual Acolyte’ of the Buddha: Some Observations on the Iconography of Vajrapani in Gandharan Art,” South Asian Studies, vol. 5 (1989), pp. 17-27.

Jonathan Homrighausen, “When Herakles Followed the Buddha: Power, Protection, and Patronage in Gandharan Art,” The Silk Road, vol. 13 (2015), pp. 26-35. 

I-Tien Hsing, “Heracles in the East: The Diffusion and Transformation of His Image in the Arts of Central Asia, India, and Medieval China,” translated by William G. Crowell, Asia Major, 3rd series vol. 18, no. 2 (2005), pp. 1-52.

Richard Stoneman, The Greek Experience of India: From Alexander to the Indo-Greeks, Princeton University Press (Princeton 2019), chapter 3: “Herakles and Dionysus.” It has to seem to us a bit odd to see that the two Greek gods Alexander of Macedonia (356-323 BCE) is said to have noticed among the Indian gods were exactly these two. Many have tried to decide which Indian gods would have reminded him of them, but it’s just too difficult to be sure.


• With this blog I celebrate the electoral defeat of reality television celebrity Donald Trump and the intellectual dullness, parochial narrowness and the pretend/hypocritical religiosity he brought with him. I say this because I can say whatever I want to say here. It’s a free medium in a free zone, and it’s way past time for a party. Cheers to the failure of the teetotaler!

• • • During the U.S. election days when the votes were being counted, the only people who visited Tibeto-logic were spammers or wannabe spammers. I decided to be more diligent about weeding them out, but even so will try to avoid turning on those pesky spam-guards that so many detest so much with good reason. If you get an idea, please share it in the comments, the sooner the better. Comments and contributions are particularly welcomed if you are an actual person, with or without a clear identity.

Follow me on