A “Melian” relief: Drunk Dionysos

UnknownCa. 480 BC

Altes Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Altes Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Berlin, Germany

The subject of this piece, a flat and not particularly ambitious relief, is the wine god Dionysos. To all appearances the god seems to have overindulged in his own drink: with a kantharos in his right hand and a thyrsos firmly clutched in his left, he sits side-saddle on the back of a mule. A chiton and himation drape his sprawling body. His head lolls onto his left shoulder, where one of his companions, a satyr, wraps his arms around the god to support him – without which Dionysos would surely fall off his mount. Several of the satyr’s distinctive traits stand out even in the indistinct contours of the low relief: a wrinkled forehead, a pug nose, and a bushy horsetail. Other features are less distinguishable, such as the satyr’s legs and the mule’s own legs and thin tail. The details in the left half of the relief are similarly hard to read. At first it appears that a naked youth is leading the mule by the reins; but the licking flames over the mule’s muzzle suggest that he is actually holding a torch in his right hand. Thus the scene is likely meant to take place at night, as Dionysos returns home from a symposium.
Although reliefs like this one take their name from the presumed site of production, the Cycladic island of Melos, they were made in other sites as well – such as Athens and Attika. They were produced over a little more than a half century, from approximately 500 to 440 BC. Among the most popular subjects were mythological scenes – Orestes and Elektra, Ajax and Kassandra, Odysseus and Penelope, and Helle on the ram – as well as hybrid creatures like sirens, sphinxes, and gorgons. The Olympian gods were much less frequently represented; the Berlin relief, in fact, is the only extant one of Dionysos. The reliefs served primarily as votive offerings in sanctuaries, hung by string or nails or simply leaned against a wall. Other evidence indicates that they were also given as grave goods. While some scholars have proposed that the plaques may also have decorated private homes, this usage remains hypothetical.


  • Title: A “Melian” relief: Drunk Dionysos
  • Creator: Unknown
  • Date Created: Ca. 480 BC
  • Location: Probably from Athens
  • Physical Dimensions: w14,5 x h16 cm
  • Type: Relief
  • Medium: Clay
  • Object acquired: Acquired in 1873
  • Inv.-No.: TC 6297
  • ISIL-No.: DE-MUS-814319
  • External link: Altes Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
  • Copyrights: Text: © Verlag Philipp von Zabern / Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / Maisch. || Photo: © b p k - || Photo Agency / Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / Johannes Laurentius
  • Collection: Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin - Preußischer Kulturbesitz

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