“The mighty one, the dancer, whom the mount of Malea nurtured, husband of Nais, Silenus.” PINDAR QUOTED BY PAUSANIAS
Silenus was a deity of the forest and the foster father and loyal follower of the god Dionysus. He was a god of strong contradictions. On one hand, he was associated with musical creativity, ecstatic dance, and drunken joy. On the other, he was a wise prophet and the bearer of terrible wisdom that declared that “not to be born is the best of all.”
Who Was Silenus?
When Dionysus (Bacchus) was born from the thigh of Zeus, Hermes – the messenger of the gods – took the infant and gave it to Silenus or Seilenos, a minor forest god who loved getting drunk and making wine.
Silenus took young Dionysus under his care in a cave on mount Nysa, in Caria. The Nysiades – local deities/nymphs – helped raise the child which grew to become one of the most important gods of the Greek religion. Eventually, Silenus, from a foster father became a follower of Dionysus and his cult became inextricably linked with that of the wine god.
Silenus was the son of Hermes, or Pan, and Gaea, or another nymph, and was also born in Nysa like Dionysus. He enjoyed wine, music, dance, and sleep. He was the father and grandfather of multiple lesser deities including the satyrs and the nymphs, as well as the centaur Pholos and possibly the whole centaur species.
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In the same way that there were many satyrs, there were also many silenoi and quite often in mythology silenoi and satyrs were names used interchangeably for the same beings. Nevertheless, Silenus was the oldest and wisest of all those creatures.
In art, he was often depicted with a big belly, puck nose, balding hair, donkey ears, and donkey tail. He always carried his wine bag with him since he was constantly drinking.
Artists enjoyed depicting Silenus drunk and held up by satyrs. Popular was also the depiction of Silenus as old and covered in hair. In that form, he was known as Paposilenus.
He was also said to have played a role in wine cultivation, discovered honey, and invented the flute.
Silenus And The Cult Of Dionysus
Much like Dionysus, Silenus was a god related to orgiastic rituals and excessive wine drinking. When intoxicated he was a prophet with knowledge of the past and the distant future just like Dionysus was also a god of prophecy.
Silenus was commonly present in the train of Dionysus and was always drunk and jolly. He fought with the wine-god against the giants and always accompanied him in his adventures and travels. His most famous temple was in Elis, the city-state that organized the Games in Olympia where Dionysus was also honored.
At this point, it is worth mentioning that theatre in Greece evolved out of the Dithyramb, an ancient hymn danced and sung in honor of Dionysus. In the center of every Greek theatre one could always find the thymele, the altar of Dionysus.
As the foster-father and follower of Dionysus, Silenus also held a significant role in Greek theatre. In Athenian Satyr-Plays, Silenus was always the leader of the chorus which consisted of Satyrs. That is why many depictions of Silenus in Greek art present him as an actor wearing a mask in a theatrical play.
Midas And Silenus
Fond of drinking and sleeping as he was, Silenus was often found sleeping in the woods by random strangers. In these cases, the mortals could trap Silenus with chains of flowers and command him to sing or prophecy.
In one myth, Silenus was traveling in Phrygia. After his usual drunken frenzy, he laid down to rest. There, the men of the Phrygian King Midas captured the sleeping Silenus. In another version of the same myth, Midas was actively seeking to catch Silenus. To achieve this goal, he filled a spring with wine or made a wine fountain near his palace. Silenus was successfully lured out of the forest and got drank until he passed out.
Midas treated Silenus like an honored guest and organized a feast that lasted for ten days and nights. On the eleventh day, Midas returned Silenus to Dionysus who was getting worried about his favorite fellow. The god was pleased to hear that Midas had treated his companion with honor. For that reason, he offered Midas one wish.
Without thinking much, Midas asked for the ability to turn everything he touched into gold. Dionysus granted the wish and this was the start of Midas’ troubles. Very soon the king realized that it was impossible to eat, drink, or even embrace his loved ones since… everything he touched turned into gold. The wish had turned into a curse. In tears, Midas begged Dionysus to break the enchantment. Finally, the god heard the unfortunate king and Midas received a valuable lesson.
The Terrible Wisdom
Although at a first glance, Silenus seemed nothing more than a lazy drunkard, he was actually one of the darkest characters in Greek mythology. As we have already noted, when drunk, Silenus could access knowledge unobtainable by humans through his prophetic insight. This way, the jolly wine god had become the bearer of a disturbing truth regarding life and existence.
More specifically, Silenus held that life was not worth living at all. In fact, he had deduced that the only way to obtain happiness, was not to be born in the first place! This antinatalist philosophy was a conclusion that he had reached after observing the pain and vanity of existence. This was a theme that appeared in Greek mythology known as the wisdom of Silenus.
For a god associated with laziness and excessive wine drinking, this terrible wisdom appears quite inconsistent at first. Yet, If we think carefully about it, there is not really a contradiction. Just like Dionysus, Silenus was a god of orgiastic mysticism which could be obtained through music, dance, and wine drinking. This excessive celebration of life was parred with a profound understanding of its vanity. Like yin contains yang in Taoism, Silenus’ affirmation of life contained a disillusionment about its value and a fascination with death and inexistence.
Of course, there was also another aspect of Silenus’ wisdom. Silenus was immortal. What for most men would sound like a blessing, for a god holding that existence is pain, immortality was nothing more than eternal suffering. While Mortals are born, live, and then die, Silenus could never find peace. His eternal agony was tamed with intoxication, enriching Silenus’ character with a dramatic psychological layer.
Not To Be Born Is The Best Of All
The wisdom of Silenus is described in a conversation that took place in a lost dialogue attributed to Aristotle and quoted by Plutarch.
According to this dialogue, when Midas captured Silenus, he questioned the god about what is the best thing and what should humans go after. Silenus remained silent refusing to answer. However, Midas did not give up. After persistently inquiring the god, finally, he got an answer:
“Ephemeral offspring of a travailing genius and of harsh fortune, why do you force me to speak what it were better for you men not to know?
For a life spent in ignorance of one’s own woes is most free from grief. But for men it is utterly impossible that they should obtain the best thing of all, or even have any share in its nature (for the best thing for all men and women is not to be born); however, the next best thing to this, and the first of those to which man can attain, but nevertheless only the second best, is, after being born, to die as quickly as possible.”
Except for his antinatalist philosophy, Silenus here also exposed another idea; that ignorance is bliss. This explains why Silenus, the wisest of Dionysus’ followers, was also the bearer of the terrible wisdom.
The idea that death or inexistence is better than life was widespread in Greek philosophy and tragedy. A classic example comes from Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus (line 1225), where the chorus sings:
“Not to be born is, beyond all estimation, best; but when a man has seen the light of day, this is next best by far, that with utmost speed he should go back from where he came.”
Nietzsche’s Reception Of Silenus’ Wisdom
Silenus’ wisdom plays a key role in Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth Of Tragedy (1872). In this work, Nietzsche held that “it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified”. This meant that without art, life itself is not worth living.
For Nietzsche art is not simply good. It is a necessity. Existence is horrible, full of pain and misery. In this terrible reality, life becomes unbearable. The only thing that can provide solace is art and, for Nietzsche, the perfect art is a balance between what he called Apollonian and Dionysian. These were two opposite artistic tensions that were based on Apollo and Dionysus, the two Greek gods of music.
Dionysian art is associated with an orgiastic mysticism and madness that Nietzsche describes as intoxication. This art is the closest to the original truth that for Nietzsche was expressed with Silenus’ terrible wisdom. Humans are hopelessly alone, crushed under the burden of their own existence. Once they discover that, it is better not to be born at all, they find meaning in the art of Dionysus. This conceals the truth about the world with an orgiastic affirmation of life. This art is then further concealed with the calm, dreamy art of Apollo until Silenus’ voice can no longer be heard.
For Nietzsche, the affirmation of life can only come from Dionysian art which is the one that understands the wisdom of Silenus and actively seeks to escape it. As a result, Nietzsche agreed with Silenus’ pessimism. However, he believed that humanity must find a way to affirm its existence, and that way was art.