THIASOI is a term in Greek religious cults that designates the followers or adherents of a deity who, as a more or less formally organized group, participate in communal and private celebrations. While the Sanskrit root-word dhiyaindhas denotes devout and reverent supplication, the Greek term thiasos has become most strongly associated with the orgiastic and ecstatic frenzy of the worshipers of Dionysos, with features made famous through Euripides' The Bacchae, such as omophagia (tearing animals apart and eating their raw flesh). The Dionysian thiasoi comprise such groups as the Maenads and Thyiads, which during the winter months performed their frenzied dances in trancelike states beyond "civilized" regions (i.e., cities and temple precincts) in the "wilderness," in order to reenact the mythic fate of Dionysos himself (who was torn apart by Titans) as well as to reawaken the god of spring and fertility. While the thiasoi may have originated with the celebrations of any deity of the polis, after the fifth century bce they seem to become more privatized, to be divorced at the same time from any specific sanctuary, and to lose their gender-specific separation of initiation rituals through which an individual becomes conversant with the mystery.
Thiasoi could be interpreted as the sometimes more public, sometimes more esoteric and secret fraternities, guilds, or clubs that are devoted and dedicated to any deity: in short, they are cult associations. Most commonly these associations were segregated by gender and age: as we find female attendants of Dionysos, we have also male clubs such as the Corybantes and Curetes for Zeus. The tendency toward dramatic representation and enactment of a deity's mythic deeds appears in all such cult associations. All of them seem to have used such paraphernalia as masks and costumes.
Thiasoi may be closely related to such phenomena as women's and men's initiation clubs as found in the form of secret societies in many extant cultures. The Greek understanding would have come close to such dramatization of mythic events through imitation and identification: Plato mentions that the human thiasoi imitate their divine prototypes (Plato, Laws 815b). The initiation ordeals and actions of some cult associations can be historically verified, while the content and existence of many other such organizations must remain conjectural, such as the Idaean Dactyls, the Telchines, or the Cyclops, which could all have been mythic representations of existing secret craft associations of smiths.
What is certain is the development from purely religious and mystical cult associations to guild and craft associations (technitai ), which continue to have religious characteristics. These guilds enjoyed many privileges, such as the right to asylum and freedom from taxation or military service. They were led by a priest of the Dionysos cult. In many ways the Greek development of clubs organized by gender and age seems to run a similar course, from mystical initiation and dramatic enacting of sacred history to rational organization of crafts and guilds, as we find in the development of fraternities and sororities in the history of Christianity.
Burkert, Walter. Griechische Religion der archaischen und klassischen Epoche. Stuttgart, 1977. Fine summary of the diverse interpretations of religious associations.
Der kleine Pauly: Lexikon der antike. 5 vols. Munich, 1964–1975. Encyclopedic collation on the basis of Paulys Realencyclopädie ; emphasizing the secularization of religious associations in Hellenistic times.
Avram, Alexandru. "Der dionysische thiasos in Kallatis: Organisation, Repräsentation, Funktion." In Religiöse Vereine in der römischen Antike. Untersuchungen zu Organisation, Ritual und Raumordnung, edited by Ulrike Egelhaaf-Gaiser und Alfred Schäfer, pp. 69–80. Tübingen, 2002.
Gentili, Bruno. "Il Partenio di Alcmane e l'amore omoerotico femminile nei tiasi spartani." Quaderni Urbinati di Cultura Classica 22 (1976): 59–67.
Kloppenborg, John S. "Collegia and Thiasoi: Issues in Function, Taxonomy and Membership." In Voluntary Associations in the Graeco-Roman World, edited by John S. Kloppenborg and Sthephen G. Wilson, pp. 16–30. London-New York, 1996.
L'association dionysiaque dans les sociétés anciennes. Actes de la table ronde organisée par l'École française de Rome (Rome 24–25 mai 1984). Paris, 1986.
Schlesier, Renate. "Die Seele im Thiasos: zu Euripides, Bacchae 75." In Psukhe - Seele - Anima: Festschrift für Karin Alt zum 7. Mai 1998, ed. by Jens Holzhausen, pp. 37–72. Stuttgart, 1998.
Villanueva Puig, Marie-Christine. "Le cas du thiase dionysiaque." Ktèma 23 (1998): 365–374.
Klaus-Peter KÖpping (1987)