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Silenus

Silenus

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In Greek mythology
Greek mythology
Greek mythology is the body of myths and legends belonging to the ancient Greeks, concerning their gods and heroes, the nature of the world, and the origins and significance of their own cult and ritual practices. They were a part of religion in ancient Greece...

, Silenus (in Greek
Ancient Greek
Ancient Greek is the stage of the Greek language in the periods spanning the times c. 9th–6th centuries BC, , c. 5th–4th centuries BC , and the c. 3rd century BC – 6th century AD of ancient Greece and the ancient world; being predated in the 2nd millennium BC by Mycenaean Greek...

, Σειληνός) was a companion and tutor
Tutor
A tutor is a person employed in the education of others, either individually or in groups. To tutor is to perform the functions of a tutor.-Teaching assistance:...

 to the wine
Wine
Wine is an alcoholic beverage, made of fermented fruit juice, usually from grapes. The natural chemical balance of grapes lets them ferment without the addition of sugars, acids, enzymes, or other nutrients. Grape wine is produced by fermenting crushed grapes using various types of yeast. Yeast...

 god Dionysus
Dionysus
Dionysus was the god of the grape harvest, winemaking and wine, of ritual madness and ecstasy in Greek mythology. His name in Linear B tablets shows he was worshipped from c. 1500—1100 BC by Mycenean Greeks: other traces of Dionysian-type cult have been found in ancient Minoan Crete...

.

Evolution of the character


The original Silenus resembled a folklore
Folklore
Folklore consists of legends, music, oral history, proverbs, jokes, popular beliefs, fairy tales and customs that are the traditions of a culture, subculture, or group. It is also the set of practices through which those expressive genres are shared. The study of folklore is sometimes called...

 man of the forest with the ears of a horse and sometimes also the tail and legs of a horse. The later Sileni were drunken followers of Dionysus, usually bald and fat with thick lips and squat noses, and having the legs of a human. Later still, the plural "Sileni" went out of use and the only references were to one individual named Silenus, the teacher and faithful companion of the wine-god Dionysus. A notorious consumer of wine, he was usually drunk and had to be supported by satyr
Satyr
In Greek mythology, satyrs are a troop of male companions of Pan and Dionysus — "satyresses" were a late invention of poets — that roamed the woods and mountains. In myths they are often associated with pipe-playing....

s or carried by a donkey
Donkey
The donkey or ass, Equus africanus asinus, is a domesticated member of the Equidae or horse family. The wild ancestor of the donkey is the African Wild Ass, E...

. Silenus was described as the oldest, wisest and most drunken of the followers of Dionysus, and was said in Orphic hymns to be the young god's tutor. This puts him in a company of phallic or half-animal tutors of the gods, a group that includes Priapus
Priapus
In Greek mythology, Priapus or Priapos , was a minor rustic fertility god, protector of livestock, fruit plants, gardens and male genitalia. Priapus is marked by his absurdly oversized, permanent erection, which gave rise to the medical term priapism...

, Hermaphroditus
Hermaphroditus
In Greek mythology, Hermaphroditus or Hermaphroditos was the child of Aphrodite and Hermes. He was a minor deity of bisexuality and effeminacy. According to Ovid, born a remarkably handsome boy, he was transformed into an androgynous being by union with the water nymph Salmacis...

, Cedalion
Cedalion
In Greek mythology, Cedalion or Kedalion was a servant of Hephaestus in Lemnos. According to one tradition, he was Hephaestus's tutor, with whom Hera fostered her son on Naxos to teach him smithcraft...

 and Chiron
Chiron
In Greek mythology, Chiron was held to be the superlative centaur among his brethren.-History:Like the satyrs, centaurs were notorious for being wild and lusty, overly indulgent drinkers and carousers, given to violence when intoxicated, and generally uncultured delinquents...

, but also includes Pallas
Pallas (son of Lycaon)
In Greek mythology, Pallas was the son of Lycaon and founder of the Arcadian town of Pallantion. He was the teacher of Athena, yet also the father of Chryse, two manifestations of Athena....

, the tutor of Athena
Athena
In Greek mythology, Athena, Athenê, or Athene , also referred to as Pallas Athena/Athene , is the goddess of wisdom, courage, inspiration, civilization, warfare, strength, strategy, the arts, crafts, justice, and skill. Minerva, Athena's Roman incarnation, embodies similar attributes. Athena is...

.

When intoxicated, Silenus was said to possess special knowledge and the power of prophecy. The Phrygian King Midas
Midas
For the legend of Gordias, a person who was taken by the people and made King, in obedience to the command of the oracle, see Gordias.Midas or King Midas is popularly remembered in Greek mythology for his ability to turn everything he touched into gold. This was called the Golden touch, or the...

 was eager to learn from Silenus and caught the old man by lacing a fountain from which Silenus often drank. As Silenus fell asleep, the king's servants seized and took him to their master.

Silenus shared with the king a pessimistic philosophy: That the best thing for a man is not to be born, and if already born, to die as soon as possible.

An alternative story was that when lost and wandering in Phrygia
Phrygia
In antiquity, Phrygia was a kingdom in the west central part of Anatolia, in what is now modern-day Turkey. The Phrygians initially lived in the southern Balkans; according to Herodotus, under the name of Bryges , changing it to Phruges after their final migration to Anatolia, via the...

, Silenus was rescued by peasants and taken to King Midas
Midas
For the legend of Gordias, a person who was taken by the people and made King, in obedience to the command of the oracle, see Gordias.Midas or King Midas is popularly remembered in Greek mythology for his ability to turn everything he touched into gold. This was called the Golden touch, or the...

, who treated him kindly. In return for Midas' hospitality Silenus told him some tales and Midas, enchanted by Silenus’s fictions, entertained him for five days and nights. Dionysus offered Midas a reward for his kindness towards Silenus, and Midas chose the power of turning everything he touched into gold
Gold
Gold is a chemical element with the symbol Au and an atomic number of 79. Gold is a dense, soft, shiny, malleable and ductile metal. Pure gold has a bright yellow color and luster traditionally considered attractive, which it maintains without oxidizing in air or water. Chemically, gold is a...

. Another story was that Silenus had been captured by two shepherds, and regaled them with wondrous tales.

In Euripides
Euripides
Euripides was one of the three great tragedians of classical Athens, the other two being Aeschylus and Sophocles. Some ancient scholars attributed ninety-five plays to him but according to the Suda it was ninety-two at most...

's satyr play
Satyr play
Satyr plays were an ancient Greek form of tragicomedy, similar in spirit to burlesque. They featured choruses of satyrs, were based on Greek mythology, and were rife with mock drunkenness, brazen sexuality , pranks, sight gags, and general merriment.Satyric drama was one of the three varieties of...

 Cyclops
Cyclops (play)
The Cyclops is an Ancient Greek satyr play by Euripides, the only complete satyr play that has survived antiquity. It is a comical burlesque-like play on the same story depicted in book nine of Homer's Odyssey.-Background:...

, Silenus is stranded with the Satyrs in Sicily
Sicily
Sicily is a region of Italy, and is the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea. Along with the surrounding minor islands, it constitutes an autonomous region of Italy, the Regione Autonoma Siciliana Sicily has a rich and unique culture, especially with regard to the arts, music, literature,...

, where they have been enslaved
Slavery
Slavery is a system under which people are treated as property to be bought and sold, and are forced to work. Slaves can be held against their will from the time of their capture, purchase or birth, and deprived of the right to leave, to refuse to work, or to demand compensation...

 by the Cyclops
Cyclops
A cyclops , in Greek mythology and later Roman mythology, was a member of a primordial race of giants, each with a single eye in the middle of his forehead...

. They are the comic elements of the story, which is basically a play on Homer
Homer
In the Western classical tradition Homer , is the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and is revered as the greatest ancient Greek epic poet. These epics lie at the beginning of the Western canon of literature, and have had an enormous influence on the history of literature.When he lived is...

's Odyssey
Odyssey
The Odyssey is one of two major ancient Greek epic poems attributed to Homer. It is, in part, a sequel to the Iliad, the other work ascribed to Homer. The poem is fundamental to the modern Western canon, and is the second—the Iliad being the first—extant work of Western literature...

IX. Silenus refers to the satyrs as his children during the play. Silenus also appears in Emperor Julian the Apostate's satire, The Caesars, where he sits next to the gods and offers up his comments on the various rulers under examination. He essentially serves as Julian's voice of critique for Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Augustus, Marcus Aurelius (whom he reveres as a fellow philosopher-king), and Constantine I.

Silenus was also possibly a Latin
Latin
Latin is an Italic language originally spoken in Latium and Ancient Rome. It, along with most European languages, is a descendant of the ancient Proto-Indo-European language. Although it is considered a dead language, a number of scholars and members of the Christian clergy speak it fluently, and...

 term of abuse around 211 BC, being used in Plautus
Plautus
Titus Maccius Plautus , commonly known as "Plautus", was a Roman playwright of the Old Latin period. His comedies are the earliest surviving intact works in Latin literature. He wrote Palliata comoedia, the genre devised by the innovator of Latin literature, Livius Andronicus...

' Rudens to describe Labrax, a treacherous pimp
Pimp
A pimp is an agent for prostitutes who collects part of their earnings. The pimp may receive this money in return for advertising services, physical protection, or for providing a location where she may engage clients...

 or leno, as "...a pot-bellied old Silenus, bald head, beefy, bushy eyebrows, scowling, twister, god-forsaken criminal".

In art


Silenus commonly figures in Roman bas-reliefs of the train of Dionysus, a subject for sarcophagi
Sarcophagus
A sarcophagus is a funeral receptacle for a corpse, most commonly carved or cut from stone. The word "sarcophagus" comes from the Greek σαρξ sarx meaning "flesh", and φαγειν phagein meaning "to eat", hence sarkophagus means "flesh-eating"; from the phrase lithos sarkophagos...

, embodying the transcendent promises of Dionysian cult. The figure reappears with the Renaissance
Renaissance
The Renaissance was a cultural movement that spanned roughly the 14th to the 17th century, beginning in Italy in the Late Middle Ages and later spreading to the rest of Europe. The term is also used more loosely to refer to the historical era, but since the changes of the Renaissance were not...

: a court dwarf
Court dwarf
Early dwarfs, whose histories were recorded, were sometimes employed as Court Dwarfs. They were owned, exploited, and traded amongst people of the court, and delivered as gifts to fellow kings and queens. Ancient Egypt saw dwarfs as being people with significant sacred associations, so owning a...

 posed for the Silenus-like figure astride a tortoise at the entrance to the Boboli Gardens
Boboli Gardens
The Boboli Gardens are a park in Florence, Italy, that is home to a collection of sculptures dating from the 16th through the 18th centuries, with some Roman antiquities.-History and layout:...

, Florence. The Drunken Silenus, Peter Paul Rubens, painted in 1616-17 is conserved in the Alte Pinakothek
Alte Pinakothek
The Alte Pinakothek is an art museum situated in the Kunstareal in Munich, Germany. It is one of the oldest galleries in the world and houses one of the most famous collections of Old Master paintings...

, Munich.

In later literature and art


Silenus appears in the writings of Arthur Schopenhauer
Arthur Schopenhauer
Arthur Schopenhauer was a German philosopher known for his pessimism and philosophical clarity. At age 25, he published his doctoral dissertation, On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, which examined the four separate manifestations of reason in the phenomenal...

, who endorsed his most famous dictum that "the best thing for a man is not to be born". Via Schopenhauer, Nietzsche discusses the "wisdom of Silenus" in The Birth of Tragedy
The Birth of Tragedy
The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music is a 19th-century work of dramatic theory by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. It was reissued in 1886 as The Birth of Tragedy, Or: Hellenism and Pessimism ...

.

During late 19th century Germany and Vienna
Vienna Secession
The Vienna Secession was formed in 1897 by a group of Austrian artists who had resigned from the Association of Austrian Artists, housed in the Vienna Künstlerhaus. This movement included painters, sculptors, and architects...

, symbolism from ancient Greece was reinterpreted through a new Freudian
Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud , born Sigismund Schlomo Freud , was an Austrian neurologist who founded the discipline of psychoanalysis...

 prism. Around the same time Vienna Secession
Vienna Secession
The Vienna Secession was formed in 1897 by a group of Austrian artists who had resigned from the Association of Austrian Artists, housed in the Vienna Künstlerhaus. This movement included painters, sculptors, and architects...

 artist Gustav Klimt
Gustav Klimt
Gustav Klimt was an Austrian Symbolist painter and one of the most prominent members of the Vienna Secession movement. His major works include paintings, murals, sketches, and other art objects...

 uses the irreverent, chubby-faced Silenus as a motif in several works to represent "buried instinctual forces".

In 1884 Thomas Woolner
Thomas Woolner
Thomas Woolner RA was an English sculptor and poet who was one of the founder-members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. He was the only sculptor among the original members....

 published a long narrative poem about Silenus. In Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde
Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was an Irish writer and poet. After writing in different forms throughout the 1880s, he became one of London's most popular playwrights in the early 1890s...

's 1890 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray
The Picture of Dorian Gray
The Picture of Dorian Gray is the only published novel by Oscar Wilde, appearing as the lead story in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine on 20 June 1890, printed as the July 1890 issue of this magazine...

, Lord Henry Wooton turns praise of folly into a philosophy which mocks "slow Silenus" for being sober.

Silenus is a character, along with Bacchus
Dionysus
Dionysus was the god of the grape harvest, winemaking and wine, of ritual madness and ecstasy in Greek mythology. His name in Linear B tablets shows he was worshipped from c. 1500—1100 BC by Mycenean Greeks: other traces of Dionysian-type cult have been found in ancient Minoan Crete...

, in the C.S. Lewis fantasy novel Prince Caspian
Prince Caspian
Prince Caspian: The Return to Narnia is a novel for children by C. S. Lewis, written in late 1949 and first published in 1951. It is the second-published book in the Chronicles of Narnia series, although in the overall chronological sequence it comes fourth.-Plot summary:While standing on a...

, the second book (or fourth, depending on the order they are arranged) in The Chronicles of Narnia
The Chronicles of Narnia
The Chronicles of Narnia is a series of seven fantasy novels for children by C. S. Lewis. It is considered a classic of children's literature and is the author's best-known work, having sold over 100 million copies in 47 languages...

series.

In the Percy Jackson series written by Rick Riordan
Rick Riordan
Richard Russell "Rick" Riordan, Jr. is an American author best known for writing the Percy Jackson & the Olympians series. He also wrote the Tres Navarre mystery series for adults and helped to edit Demigods and Monsters, a collection of essays on the topic of his Percy Jackson series...

, Silenus is a satyr who dies during the battle against Cronus
Cronus
In Greek mythology, Cronus or Kronos was the leader and the youngest of the first generation of Titans, divine descendants of Gaia, the earth, and Uranus, the sky...

.

Martin Silenus is the satyr-like and alcohol-appreciating poet-pilgrim in American writer Dan Simmons
Dan Simmons
Dan Simmons is an American author most widely known for his Hugo Award-winning science fiction series, known as the Hyperion Cantos, and for his Locus-winning Ilium/Olympos cycle....

' Hyperion Cantos
Hyperion Cantos
The Hyperion Cantos is a series of science fiction novels by Dan Simmons. Set in the far future, and focusing more on plot and story development than technical detail, it falls into the soft science fiction category...

.

Silenus appears as an amorous satyr in the children's story "Odysseus in the Serpent Maze," by Jane Yolen
Jane Yolen
Jane Hyatt Yolen is an American author and editor of almost 300 books. These include folklore, fantasy, science fiction, and children's books...

 and Robert J. Harris.

Professor Silenus is a Character from Evelyn Waugh's first novel, Decline and Fall
Decline and Fall
Decline and Fall is a novel by the English author Evelyn Waugh, first published in 1928. It was Waugh's first published novel; an earlier attempt, entitled The Temple at Thatch, was destroyed by Waugh while still in manuscript form. Decline and Fall is based in part on Waugh's undergraduate years...

. He features as the disaffected architect of King's Thursday and provides the Novel with one of it's primary motifs. In the prophetic style of the traditional greek Silenus he informs the protagonist that life is , "a great disc of polished wood that revolves quickly. At first you sit down and watch the others. They are all trying to sit in the wheel, and they keep getting flung off, and that makes them laugh, and you laugh too. It's great fun . . . Of course at the very centre there's a point completely at rest, if one could only find it. . . . Lots of people just enjoy scrambling on and being whisked off and scrambling on again. . . . But the whole point about the wheel is that you needn't get on it at all. . . . People get hold of ideas about life, and that makes them think they've got to join in the game, even if they don't enjoy it. It doesn't suit everyone . . ."

Further reading

  • Guy Michael Hedreen, 1992. Silens in Attic Black-figure Vase-painting: Myth and Performance (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan) Catalogue of the corpus.
  • Karl Kerenyi
    Karl Kerényi
    Károly Kerényi was a Hungarian scholar in classical philology, one of the founders of modern studies in Greek mythology.- Hungary 1897–1943 :...

    . The Gods of the Greeks, 1951.