Tuesday, March 09, 2021

Dionysian Drunk Scene, Doubling Back


Dionysos with his Thyrsos on his Panther
By Unknown author - from Le Musée absolu, Phaidon, 10-2012, Public Domain

After a night of very serious drinking, far past the time reasonable people would have rolled off their couches in the triclinium and stumbled home, two strong young men helped the tipsy old man Silenus go outside and get up on his ass. This may have been the true source of the expression, “Drunk off my ass,” you think? Never understood that phrase, and anyway, it turns out the ass wasn’t the only animal Silenus rode on. 

When my copy of Ben Abed's Tunisian Mosaics arrived from the online used bookstore, it immediately opened up to page 199, where a well-preserved (thanks to overzealous preservationists?) mosaic vividly depicts a Dionysian procession. There, bringing up the rear, who could it be but Silenus, naked but bearded, his drinking implements on either side, ready to slide right off the side of his camel! Drunk off his camel? Get my point? There’s that camel again. Where have we seen that before?

Detail from the Dionysian Procession — El Jem, Tunisia

Meanwhile I at last received, with gratitude to its authors, an offprint of a very significant article I had mentioned in the more recent blog on the subject, “Who Is that Drunken Man?” even though I hadn’t read it yet, an article by Valenstein et al. Now that I have read it, I'm fairly convinced that the person I had taken to be Herakles ought to be seen for who he really is, Silenus. And what is that drunken man doing there on the saddlebags of that camel in Chang’an?

I learned from Rina Talgam’s splendid and informative book that the Dionysian room at Sepphoris in the Galilee was a kind of choice of patterns you could have been offered by mosaic makers back in those days. Its prototype was likely in Antakya, ancient Antioch, near the southern Turkish coast. It was one of the three or four largest cities in the late Roman empire. I’ll give you some links on Dionysus in Antioch below. The Galilean “Dionysian room” is most renowned for the bit of it that shows a woman’s face, so attractive it is often compared to the Mona Lisa.... 

But let’s force ourselves to turn our heads and look at another minor part of the mosaic in the same room.

Here below is a photo of “methe” or ‘drunkenness’ normally labelled as Herakles, although I see no clear signs of this identity, and it could just as well be Silenus. I wonder, are people taking the long brown object that seems to be falling off a pedestal to be a club that would establish his Herculean identity? I’m not saying I see it, just questioning if anyone else does. If it is a club and if it's his club, he’s totally lost it.

(*It’s said packed camels travel about 25 miles a day, so at around 5,300 miles, that would take about 212 days. Just guesstimating, no way you should think about trying it.)

"Drunkenness." Said to be Herakles. Sepphoris, Galilee 
I took this photo

To keep the story short, reining in my urge to teeter and meander, I now feel more sure that the drunken man depicted on the side of the Jokhang jug is Silenus, not Hercules, and this argument is to my mind fairly clinched by the fact that the Jokhang jug has a camel-head spout. We have observed that Silenus goes with a camel on both sides of Tibet, in Chang’an in the east and from there all the way west to the northern coast of Africa at El Jem, or about 8,528 kilometers distant. That’s a whole lot of mileage.* But as Silenus and Hercules both are drunken figures of significance to the Dionysian cult, I doubt it makes enough difference to impress anyone with how important it is, particularly for anyone already seeing double. So, my friends, I will leave it at this for now. Cheers!

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Investigate some more

Aïcha Ben Abed, Tunisian Mosaics: Treasures from Roman Africa, Getty Publications (Los Angeles 2006).

Lawrence Becker & Christine Kondoleon, eds., The Arts of Antioch: Art Historical and Scientific Approaches to Roman Mosaics and a Catalogue of the Worcester Art Museum Antioch Collection, Worcester Art Museum (Worcester 2005), especially pp. 27-28, 178-181.

The Antakya mosaic of the drinking contest ended up, through circumstances described in this book, in a museum in Massachusetts. There is much good information in this book, sometimes too much ”science“ to suit my taste, but one thing that does bother me is its unconvincing repetition of that boring idea that the Dionysian mosaic is supposed to be a moral plea for moderation. Just because some other Greek discussed moderation doesn’t make it relevant here, because if there was any place where Greeks threw rationalistic moderation out the window to the winds it was in the cult of Dionysus. It’s as if the work of art (or an essay for that matter) can only justify its creation if it makes its consumers better fit into the moral order they’re confined within, that they are trapped by. As if all art and literature has to share the aims of the new Puritans, enjoyment be damned. For entertainment purposes if nothing else, see the interesting takedown of post-colonialist literary productions by Sumana Roy in the February 18, 2021 Chronicle of Higher Education, an essay entitled “The Problem with the Postcolonial Syllabus: Against a Peculiarly Western Allergy to the Pleasure of the Text.” Tibetan studies, too, has lately exhibited signs if might succumb to the narcissistic exploration of the (supposedly post-) colonialist self, conveniently doing away with all necessity to learn a second language in order to secure a respectable job in the academy... blah blah blah blah ... Is that just me indulging in my own form of virtue signaling? You be the judge. I have no doubt you will!

G.W. Bowersock, Mosaics as History: The Near East from Late Antiquity to Islam, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (Cambridge 2006). 

This book really impressed on me how culturally important Antioch was in late antiquity. It does have a brief treatment on the Dionysian mosaic in the triclinium of a wealthy family’s house in Sepphoris in the Galilee (one archaeologist, Ze’ev Weiss, says he believes it was home to a Jewish high priest).

Örgü Dalgiç, “The Triumph of Dionysos in Constantinople: A Late Fifth-Century Mosaic in Context,” Dunbarton Oaks Papers, vol. 69 (2015), pp. 15-48. 

This has some marvelous examples of processional scenes. One of them has Silenus drunk on his ass (or, as it says, a mule). There’s also a nice one of Dionysos as a child riding on a goat. A Gandharan frieze shows the Sage of Shakya as a child riding on a ram on his way to his first day in school. Another important and much-depicted episode shared by the two heroic beings is the giving of a bath, and in each case it seems to correspond to or inspire cultic enactments in actual practice.

Dionysius as a child, riding on a goat
I took this photo

E. Gruber & J. Dobbins, “Illuminating Historical Architecture: The House of the Drinking Contest at Antioch,” contained in: F. Contreras, et al., eds., Proceedings of the 38th Annual Conference on Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology (2010), pp. 71-76.

Hava Sevillia-Sadeh, “Heracles’ Drunkenness in the Sepphoris Mosaic: Debasement or Consecration?” [in Hebrew]  Cathedra, vol. 127 (2008), pp. 5-32. 

Thanks to Y.B. for her help, as my own language skills are not up to it, but this article is worthy of attention precisely for disagreeing with those experts who keep on saying that the image of Heracles drunk bears a moral message encouraging temperance or at least moderation. The drunken Heracles depiction doesn't mean to tell us, as many have also argued, that there was a Dionysian rivalry with the cult of Hercules. Instead, it wants to tell us that Heracles reached the ultimate aim of the Dionysian cult, the state of complete and total self-abandonment to ecstatic transcendence. It may even explain how he could be turned into a god. Well, I guess technically he was a half-god all along, and was only made a complete god after his death.

Rina Talgam, Mosaics of Faith: Floors of Pagans, Jews, Samaritans, Christians, and Muslims in the Holy Land, Yad Ben-Zvi Press (Jerusalem 2014). 

This has a very extensive explanation of the House of Dionysos at Sepphoris at pp. 27-43. The whole book has color photographs of mosaics on almost every page. Here is an emphasis on the “moral” to the drinking contest, which is: Herakles is the strongest, most able man in the world, so strong he could become a god, but unlike Dionysos he just can’t handle his drink (ironic, isn’t it, that the normal image of Dionysian cult is one big party its whole point being to get stupid drunk, dance across the countryside with wild abandon, vomit and pass out).

R. Talgam & Z. Weiss, “The Mosaics of the House of Dionysos at Sepphoris,” Qedem, vol. 44 (2004), pp. 1-136 plus illustrations.

Suzanne G. Valenstein with Annette L. Juliano and Judith A. Lerner, ”Hellenism in Sui-Tang Chang’an: Dionysiac Imagery on Mortuary Camels,” New Research on Central Asian, Buddhist and Far Eastern Art and Archaeology (a special issue of Inner and Central Asian Art and Archaeology, vol. 2), Brepols (Turnhout 2019), pp. 319-334. Thanks to Amy for pointing this out and helping me get access.

Overview of the Triclinium floor in Sepphoris
with Dionysian scenes 
Photo by myself

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If you need to go over the issues surrounding the Jokhang jug, you should look back at the on-line 2002 article by Amy Heller.  It evoked a further discussion in 2009 by Ulrich von Schoeder and Joachim Karsten that you can see here.

The Drinking Contest of Dionysos and Heracles.” — https://www.worcesterart.org/collection/Ancient/1933.36.html

Mosaic Pavement: Drinking Contest of Herakles and Dionysos, Early 3rd Century A.D.”  — https://artmuseum.princeton.edu/collections/objects/29551

El Jem (Thysdrus): 


The Villa of the Mysteries at Pompeii:



Mosaics at Zeugma:


There is also a “Triumph of Dionysus” procession scene in the “House of Dionysus” in Paphos, Crete. Do a web search and you will find it.

Antakya has built a hotel that hovers directly above a huge number of excavated mosaics. There is a long video about it on YouTube.  Just type something like hotel Antakya mosaics into their search box, or better yet do a general video search outside YouTube. I try to never link commercial sites or advertisements, and why should I?

Dionysus lecture (the first half may be useful as an introduction to the subject):


For video entertainment that comes with some serious education in Indian and Tibetan art history, with a certain emphasis on foreign and even Greek connections, go to this site and view lectures by Osmund Bopearachchi and Amy Heller by clicking on the link:

Tung Lin Kok Yuen Buddhist Art Online Lecture Series.

Professor Bopearachchi has especially pertinent illustrated discussions about Herakles and Dionysus and their representations in Gandharan art.  Near the end of his lecture he presents the beautifully intact 2nd-century Begram Stupa, and tries to explain why it contains a continuous band around it with Dionysian scenes, while yet another band shows scenes from the life of the Buddha. He also shows one Roman sarcophagus with its Dionysian procession somewhat resembling the one in El Jem, not neglecting Hercules — I mean Silenus — drunk off his ass.

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Roman era mosaic from Antioch, the Greek says “Enjoy yourself!”*
It was discovered just a few years ago by accident while constructing a cablecar line

(*Notice how the skeleton is reclining as if on a couch in the triclinium, supporting itself with the left elbow, the right hand free to reach for the wine and the bread. If you have long felt a longing to experience a Greek or Roman dinner party, try this page at the MET and notice these words even if you know them to be true: “Imagery associated with Dionysos, the Greek god of wine, intoxication, and revelry, was popularly used on objects designed for serving and imbibing wine.”)

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Finally, an experiential exercise for fully intoxicated Tibeto-logicians only:

I know some of my ideas have met with skepticism, and I am aware that some Tibetanists out there are swiftly dismissive of anything in post-10th century said to date back to the imperial era. In the case of the emperor’s beer jug, attributed to the early 7th century, we can see there is a date equivalent to 1946 CE or 16th Fire Dog inscribed on it (it’s partly effaced making it difficult to understand), so you might be thinking with your well-cultivated skepticism, Is 1946 the real date of its production? So I invite you to look into some of the evidence.  First, go to BDRC.

Then, in BDRC's own local search box, type (or if it’s simpler do a cut-and-paste) in either Tibetan or Wylie script the following string: dngul dam rta mgo ma. Or: དངུལ་དམ་རྟ་མགོ་མ་

By the way, that syllable “dam” is a foreign loan from Persian or Chinese meaning jug or carafe (look into it and let me know your conclusions). We are more likely to be familiar with it in the modern expressions ja-dam, a jug meant for tea (likely a thermos made in China), and shel-dam for bottle.

In recent studies on the jug we are likely to find it called: chang snod rta mgo can. Or: ཆང་སྣོད་རྟ་མགོ་ཅན་

Go ahead and put that in the same search box and see what pops up. You may be surprised at the results of this experiment, but I’m not about to spoil it for you.

No doubt there are a few of you who, like me, will insist that the head on that jug is not that of a horse, but a camel. So you could try replacing rta (རྟ་) with rnga-mong or rnga-mo (རྔ་མོ་ or རྔ་མོང་), and see where that gets you.

Once you’ve found what you’ve found, look back at this five-year-old Tibetologic blog with the title The Emperor’s Beer Jug. The story’s not over yet. They rarely are.



Drunken Hercules (?) supported by young men.
Polychrome stucco, 1st century CE,
National Museum of Archaeology,
Naples — Photo by Y.B.

Silenus, once again, drunk on his ass or mule.
Roman mosaic in National Museum of Archaeology, Naples.
Photo by Y.B. You can also look here.


  1. Dan, thanks as always for your fine reflections and so many references to the supposed Greek gods in their inebriated states - Your comments on Silenius seem most cogent to me in this context, as does the camel head - which is encountered in some of the Tibetan historical sources. Certainly camels are native to the shores and hills around the Qinghai lake, Kokonor. It is believed that one of the earliest Tibetan platters - with a centaur holding two sprigs of grapes at center - is to be associated with this region - no camels surround him, only several varieties of deer ( mythical and natural). See Ancient Art from the Shumei Family collection, catalog of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1996:80-83, discussion by Boris MArshak of the imagery and by L. van der Kuijp of the Tibetan inscriptions on the reverse of the platter. All this to say that incitement to inebriation goes back very far in Tibetan artefacts, this platter attributed to Tibet, 8th or 9th century A.D.


  2. Dear Amy,

    Thanks for sending your comment in this way. I hope there weren't too many obstacles in the way. I looked for the reference, and I could see all the pages in the Googlebooks version, but not the illustrations of the silver object. I understand it doesn't show a camel?

    I've always seen the head on the Emperor's jug as a camel. This might be ascribed to my Middle Eastern bias,so I thought a lot about how to justify myself. Contemplating the head in profile, the overall shape resembles actual camels. Both in the arch on top of the snout, and the somehow enlarged lower lip area. Real camels are able to wrap their lower lips around things, practically grasping things like a hand. It tends to hang a bit or protrude beyond the upper lip, which is what I think I'm seeing.

    But at the same time I'm attracted to the idea of seeing the lingzhi deer of Chinese art in this head. If you look at the top of the head it does have what looks a little like a cockscomb or a "mohawk" haircut. I know the lingzhi deer does appear in that 1286 CE Hetum lectionary in Armenian that Dickran Kouymjian studied. Go here, then figure 2, upper right corner. So if we accept that it's a mushroom growing out of that head, then it becomes a deer, just because nobody ever heard of a lingzhi camel!

    Any more thoughts on this?

    Your D.


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