Bassareus is an interesting surname for Dionysos, derived from the words ‘bassara’ or ‘bassaris’, the long robe the god and his mainades wore in Thrace. Bassaris actually means fox, which leads one to conclude that the robe is made from fox-skins.
The fox is known for its love of grapes and other fruit and is even the subject of an Aesop’s fable:
“Driven by hunger, a fox tried to reach some grapes hanging high on the vine but was unable to, although she leaped with all her strength. As she went away, the fox remarked, ‘Oh, you aren’t even ripe yet! I don’t need any sour grapes”
Although I personally think the fox’s love of grapes is only one side of this Dionysian animal, rather than the be all and end all. The warm hues of the red fox’s fur are, to me, symbolic of fire, rebirth and the warmth. In mythology, when Semele died, “Zeus his father snatched him (Dionysos) up from the immortal fire and saved him in his thigh”.
The fox in folklore is typically associated with sexual, trickster spirits/characters. Reynard the fox, is such a character in European folklore and the Kitsune of Japanese folklore. I would even argue that the fox could be considered sacred to Hermes as well, because of its association with trickery.
According to Pausanias, Dionysos is even said to have unleashed a giant fox to destroy the Thebans:
There is also another legend, which tells of a fox called the Teumessian fox, how owing to the wrath of Dionysus the beast was reared to destroy the Thebans, and how, when about to be caught by the hound given by Artemis to Procris the daughter of Erechtheus, the fox was turned into a stone, as was likewise this hound.
-Description of Greece, 9.19.1
The red fox is also an animal I have contact with quite frequently. While I do not always see them, I often hear them at night. When I do see them, they are wandering on the local marshland, another area associated with Dionysos (Limnaios, ‘Of the Marshes’). But the fox is also just as active in urban areas as it is in rural areas. The red fox’s ability to adapt quickly to its surroundings is one of the reasons why, unlike its cousins, it is not endangered anywhere.
While one does not quickly think of the fox as a sacred animal of Dionysos; they are just as important as the others and have their own place in his retinue.
A Fox had by some means got into the store-room of a theatre. Suddenly he observed a face glaring down on him and began to be very frightened; but looking more closely he found it was only a Mask such as actors use to put over their face. “Ah,” said the Fox, “you look very fine; it is a pity you have not got any brains.”
- Outside show is a poor substitute for inner worth.