Dionysus isn’t exactly the most powerful or well-known god of the Greek Pantheon. But as the god of wine, fertility, and ecstasy, he was bound to have his followers.
Now, archaeologists working in Turkey have uncovered an excellently-preserved terracotta mask depicting Dionysus dating from 2,400 years ago. The researchers believe the mask was used in wine-making rituals.
According to legend, a Dionysus mask would free the wearer from his inner desires, passions, and regrets.
The ancient city of Daskyleion must have been a very interesting place. Located in the western part of Turkey, it was first settled by the Phrygians before 750 BC, and it is mentioned as a prosperous city in the times of the Trojan War. Some 200 years later, it was conquered by Cyrus the Great who went on to form the first Persian Empire. Daskyleion changed rulers between the Persians, Spartans, and the army of Alexander the Great — but culturally, the Hellenistic influence was obvious.
The ruins of Daskyleion were discovered in 1952 and since 1988, archaeologists have been digging continuously at the site, without getting even close to finishing. In 2005, archaeologists found a thrilling palace and since then, the artifacts have kept flowing. In more recent years, the dig has mostly focused on the acropolis — the religious citadel built on a large hill. That’s where the mask of Dionysus was also found, says Kaan Iren, an archaeologist at Mugla Sitki Kocman University.
“Excavations at Daskyleion are 32 years old, and this is the first time that we [have] unearthed a mask which is nearly intact,” the archaeologist says.
“This is possibly a votive mask,” Iren tells the Anadolu Agency; a votive mask would be donned when making a sacrifice or during a ritual. “More information will become available over time with more research.”
Dionysus is mostly known today as a god of wine, but he was also a deity of agriculture and vegetation, with connections to grape-harvest and orchards. Wine, as well as the vine from which it was made, was seen not only as a symbol of the god — but a symbolic incarnation of the god himself (something which may sound a bit familiar). Performance art and drama was also important to Dionysus, and the Dionysian festivals would have featured an abundance of both. It is believed, in fact, that Greek theater started out from Dionysian festivals, where actors would draw support from the god to embody their roles and transform into the characters. Dionysus also fostered a “cult of the souls”, and the maenads who served him were said to make blood offerings.
Far from being the simple drunkard he is sometimes portrayed as, Dionysus was a complex and mysterious god, and his cult has spread far and wide in the Ancient world.
The terracotta mask is one of the many intriguing artifacts uncovered at Daskyleion. Just earlier this year, Iren and colleagues discovered a 2,700-year-old kitchen cellar, which they are now analyzing to understand more about the ancient city’s cuisine.
Daskyleion would have been a very multicultural city, at the crossroad of several cultures. Archaeologists believe these different cultures lived together in peace, as suggested by the different types of artifacts uncovered every year.
“Daskyleion was a multicultural city,” Iren said. “Mysians, Phrygians, Lydians, and Persians were living peacefully together in this city. Earliest finds go back to the 3rd Millenium BCE.”
“The peak time of the city was when it became a satrapal (administrative) center of the Persian Empire in 546 BCE,” Iren continued. “After the arrival of the Macedonians under the leadership of Alexander the Great (334 BCE), the city started to be ‘Hellenized.’”