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In Greek mythology, Silenus was a minor god of dance, drunkenness and the wine press. He is best known as the companion, tutor and foster-father of Dionysus, the god of wine. A popular character in Greek and Roman mythology, Silenus was also the wisest and oldest of all Dionysus’ followers. As a minor god, he played an important role in the myths of famous figures such as in those of Dionysus and King Midas.
Who was Silenus?
Silenus was born to Pan, the god of the wild, and Gaea, the goddess of the Earth (In other versions, he is the son of Hermes). He was a satyr, but appears to have been somewhat distinct from the other satyrs. Silenus was usually surrounded by satyrs known as the ‘Sileni’ and he was said to have been their father or grandfather. While satyrs were a hybrid of man and goat, the sileni were said to be a man and horse combination. However in many sources, the two terms are often used interchangeably.
In appearance, Silenus looked like an old, stout man with the tail, ears and legs of a horse. He was known to be an wise individual and even the greatest kings often came to him for advice. Some say he also had the ability to predict the future.
Silenus subsribed to an antinatalist philosophy, which views that birth is negative and that procreation is morally bad.
Representations of Silenus
Although Silenus was said to be half-animal, half-man, he wasn’t always portrayed the same way. In some sources, he’s commonly referred to as a satyr but in others, he’s depicted as just a chubby old man with a balding patch, covered in white hair, and seated on a donkey.
Often a jovial character, Silenus didn’t chase nymphs to satisfy his sexual urges like the other normal satyrs did. Instead, he and his ‘Sileni’ spent most of their time getting drunk. Silenus would drink until he went unconscious, which is why he had to be caried around on a donkey or supported by satyrs. This is the most popular and well known explanation as to why he rode a donkey. However, there are a couple of other explanations as well.
Some say that Silenus got incredibly drunk at the wedding of Ariadne and Dionysus and to entertain the guests, he enacted a humorous rodeo act on a donkey. Others say that during the Gigantomachy, the War between the Giants and the Olympian gods, Silenus showed up seated on a donkey, in an attempt to confuse those on the opposite side.
Silenus and Dionysus
Silenus was the foster-father of Dionysus, the son of Zeus. Dionysus was entrusted to his care by Hermes, after the young god was born from the thigh of Zeus. Silenus raised him with the help of the Nysiad nymphs and taught him all he could.
When Dionysus reached adulthood, Silenus stayed with him as his companion and mentor. He taught Dionysus to enjoy music, wine and parties, which some say had something to do with Dionysus becoming the god of wine and partying.
Silenus was described as the oldest, drunkest and yet the wisest of all Dionysus’ followers.
Silenus and King Midas
One of the most famous Greek myths featuring Silenus is the myth of King Midas and the Golden Touch. The story relates how Silenus got separated from Dionysus and his retinue, and was found in King Midas’ gardens. Midas welcomed him into his palace and Silenus stayed with him for several days, partying and enjoying himself immensely.
He entertained the King and his court by telling them many fantastical stories as a way of paying Midas back for his hospitality. When Dionysus found Silenus, he was very grateful that his companion had been treated so well and decided to grant Midas a wish as a reward.
Midas wished that everything he touched would turn to gold and Dionysus granted him his wish. However, as a result, Midas wasn’t able to enjoy food or drink anymore and had to ask Dionysus’ help to rid himself of the gift.
An alternate version of the story tells of how King Midas learned of Silenus’ prophetic abilities and wisdom and decided that he would like to learn all he could from him. He ordered his servants to seize the satyr and bring him to the palace so he could learn all his secrets. The servants caught Silenus while he was lying drunk near a fountain and they took him to the King. The king asked, What is man’s greatest happiness?
Silenus makes a very gloomy, unexpected statement that dying as soon as possible is better than living and the best thing to happen to someone is to not be born at all. In other words, Silenus suggests that the question we should be asking is not why some commit suicide, but why those alive continue to live.
Silenus and the Cyclops
Silenus and his fellow satyrs (or sons, according to some versions of the story) were shipwrecked while on the search for Dionysus. They were enslaved by the Cyclops and forced to work as shepherds. Soon, Odysseus arrived with his sailors and asked Silenus if he would agree to trade food for their wine.
Silenus couldn’t resist the offer since he was Dionysus’ servant after all, and wine was a central part of the Dionysus’ cult. However, he hadn’t any food to give Odysseus in return for the wine so instead, he offered them some of the food from the Cyclops’ own storeroom. Polyphemus, one of the Cyclops, found out about the deal and Silenus quickly pinned the blame on the guests, accusing them of stealing the food.
Although Odysseus tried hard to reason with Polyphemus, the Cyclops ignored him and imprisoned him and his men in a cave. Later the Cyclops and Silenus drank wine until they both got very drunk. The Cyclops found Silenus very appealing and took the terrified satyr to his bed. Odysseus and the men escaped from the cave, burning Polyphemus’ eye out which gave them the chance to get away. However, what became of Silenus isn’t mentioned but some say that he too managed to escape from the clutches of the Cyclops with his satyrs.
Silenus in the Dionysia Festivals
The Dionysia festival, also called the Great Dionysia, was a dramatic festival held in ancient Greece. It was at this festival that comedy, satyric drama and tragedy is said to have originated. The Dionysia was held every year in March in the city of Athens, to honor the great god Dionysus.
During the Dionysia festival, plays featuring Silenus often appeared to add comic relief amidst all the tragedies. After every third tragedy, a satyr play followed starring Silenus, which lightened the mood of the crowd. The satyr plays were said to be the cradle of the comedy or satirical comedy that we know of today.
The myths in which Silenus appeared were usually centered on his ability to predict the future, his knowledge or mainly his drunkenness, which is what he was most famous for. As the companion of Dionysus, Silenus was a tutor of antinatalist philosophy and an important figure in the religious traditions of Greece.