AskDefine | Define silenus

Dictionary Definition



1 any of the minor woodland deities who were companions of Dionysus (similar to the satyrs)
2 the chief satyr in the service of Bacchus; father of Dionysus; usually depicted as drunk and jolly and riding a donkey

Extensive Definition

Ipotane redirects here.
The Silenoi were followers of Dionysus. They were drunks, and were usually bald and fat with thick lips and squat noses, and had the legs of a human. Later, the plural "silenoi" 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 satyrs or carried by a donkey. 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, Cedalion and Chiron, but also includes Pallas, the tutor of Athena.
When intoxicated, Silenus was said to possess special knowledge and the power of prophecy. The Phrygian King Midas 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 born, should die as soon as possible.
An alternative story was when lost and wandering in Phrygia, he was rescued by peasants and taken to King Midas, who treated him kindly. Dionysus offered Midas a reward for his kindness, and Midas chose the power of turning everything he touched into gold. Another story was that Silenus has been captured by two shepherds, and regaled them with wondrous tales.
In Euripides's satyr play Cyclops, Silenus is stranded with the Satyrs in Sicily where they have been enslaved by the Cyclops. They are the comic elements of the story, which is basically a play on Homer's Odyssey IX. Silenus refers to the satyrs as his children during the play.
Silenus was also possibly a Latin term of abuse around 211 BC, being used in Plautus' Rudens to describe Labrax, a treacherous pimp or leno, as "...a pot-bellied old Silenus, bald head, beefy, bushy eyebrows, scowling, twister, god-forsaken criminal"²



  • March, J., Cassell's Dictionary Of Classical Mythology, London, 1999. ISBN 0-304-35161-X
  • ²Plautus, Penguin Classics: The Rope and other plays, London. ISBN 0-14-044136-0

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. The Gods of the Greeks, 1951.
silenus in Catalan: Silè
silenus in Czech: Silénos
silenus in German: Silen
silenus in Modern Greek (1453-): Σειληνοί
silenus in Spanish: Sileno
silenus in Esperanto: Sileno
silenus in French: Silène (mythologie)
silenus in Italian: Sileno
silenus in Lithuanian: Silenai
silenus in Dutch: Silene (mythologie)
silenus in Japanese: イポタネス
silenus in Russian: Силены
silenus in Serbian: Силен
silenus in Finnish: Sileeni
silenus in Swedish: Silenus
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