Thyrsus: the new hipster accessory

Ancient thyrsus on left, modern hipster version on right.

The traveling exhibition Pompeii and the Roman Villa, currently at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, has a few nice tchotchkes worth considering for those of us attempting to garden in Mediterranean places. One of the centerpieces of the show, a large fresco depicting a garden, includes many familiar plants: chamomile, oleander (who knew oleander existed before freeways!), strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) and date palms.

But what kept capturing my eye in multiple pieces, was a ceremonial stick carried in Bacchic processions called a thyrsus. Consisting of a stalk of giant fennel topped with a pine cone, occasionally accessorized with a grape or ivy vine, I realized that, here in Los Angeles thanks to our similar climate, I could step out the back door and make my own thyrsus, which I promptly did. For my modern thyrsus I drilled a hole in the pine cone and fennel stalk and inserted a metal pin to hold the pine cone to the stalk.

The combination of a pine cone and fennel stalk symbolizes the unity of farm and forest, of the cultivated and the wild. And you don’t need to be a Freudian to grasp, shall we say, the meaning of a long shaft topped by a bunch of seeds. Roman homes and gardens were, in fact, full of phallic fertility symbols that seem crass to our modern eyes. Exhibitions like Pompeii and the Roman Villa, sadly, censor this imagery. You’ve got to visit the secret cabinet in Naples to see this stuff (way not safe for work!).

Censorship of these ancient fertility symbols is related in my mind to modern fears of the fecundity of nature. It’s these fears that lead landlords to pour copious amounts of concrete and gravel to smother every living thing. It’s what causes neighbors to launch irrational tree and bush killing rampages over the property line lest any bit of foliage fall and mar their precious SUVs.

As rampaging forest fires send Vesuvian plumes of smoke over Los Angeles, it’s time to wave our freak thyrsi high to counter the naturefobic forces out there! As Euripides says, “To raise my Bacchic shout, and clothe all who respond/ In fawnskin habits, and put my thyrsus in their hands–/ The weapon wreathed with ivy-shoots.”

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16 Comments

  1. How cool! I got to go to Pompeii in college and it was honestly one of the coolest places I have ever been. I am glad that you got to see some of the treasures in LA- what an interesting observation about the Thrysus.

  2. Ah, how I do miss the Mediterranean climate of Half Moon Bay where a sprinkling of the seeds would produce a bounty with little effort.

    Here in Colorado I can’t imagine any fennel stalk growing to such heights but I would find the snow prick quite amusing in winter!

  3. One of my favorite gods, Dionysus, proudly carries the thrysus. Well-done in carrying out a beautiful, ancient tradition of natural potency/fertility.

  4. Hi there, do you know of any areas I can find the Fennel stalk so I can make my own? I’m going to an event on New Years and i’d like to drive down to California and cut one to make a Thyrsus.

    Thanks!
    Steve

  5. Steve:

    Gosh–fennel grows all over California. It’s past its season, and the old stands may be falling over or half rotted with the rains. It’s hard to say–it will depend on the microclimate. But fennel grows everywhere–look on roadsides and vacant lots.

    Where are you coming from? Fennel surely grows all up and down the west coast, not just CA, but maybe you’re coming in from the east? Just for the hell of it, here’s some specific tips: In our neighborhood in Los Angeles there’s a big stand in the parking lot behind the church on Benton Way and Temple. I also know of a huge stand out on the Lands End Trail in San Francisco.

  6. Oops! Steve: I see now you posted twice. You’re in Vegas. So you’ll be driving more toward LA. I’m a little worried about you perhaps not being able to spot the fennel. In June or thereabouts it is very tall and easy to spot with its yellow flowers. What will happen now is that the old stalks will be on the ground, and short little baby stalks will be sprouting. You have to have a sharp eye to spot them. And as I said, I worry the old stalks will be rotten. Unless you’re trying to be historically or ritually correct, you’d be far better off using a dowel or perhaps a slender tree branch, or maybe a yuca pole for a southwest style thyrsus?

    Erik has slightly retracted his statement about the fennel patch in our neighborhood–he clarifies it was there last time he looked, but can’t promise it is there now. But really, fennel grows everywhere: along highways, parks, vacant lots.

    If you are crazy enough to drive to LA looking for fennel, email us (see the contact info) and we’ll try to help.

  7. @Wolf: That’s pretty funny. We’d like to think we could start a new line of business providing fennel stalks to would-be thrysus owners. But seriously, we’d give our stalks to locals. Shipping one? More complicated. We’ll email you.

  8. @Johnjx: Excellent! It’s easy stuff to grow, and once you grow one crop, it will self seed and you’ll always have plenty of thyrsus material. It’s a great plant for beneficial insects, too.

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