Episode 96: The Last Pagan Epic

The last epic from Greco-Roman antiquity that survives in full, Nonnus’ fifth-century Dionysiaca tells of the wine god Dionysus’ journey eastward, to India.

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Nonnus’ Dionysiaca, Books 1-24

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Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 96: The Last Pagan Epic. In this program, we will read the first half of Nonnus’ Dionysiaca, the longest surviving poem from Greco-Roman antiquity, produced some time in the fifth century CE – scholars have often theorized the first few decades of the 400s, though it’s safest to simply say the 400s.1 The Dionysiaca, a 48-long epic of more than 20,000 lines in Greek hexameter, is substantially longer than any other extant epic poem from the Ancient Mediterranean world, and it tells the story of the god Dionysus’ legendary journey to India.2 The saga of the wine god’s journey to the east, however, is given both an enormous preface and a long epilogue, and along the way is woven together with dozens of embedded narratives, from brief asides, to book length excursions. Gigantic, meandering, and dense, the Dionysiaca is one of the strangest and most unique works in literary history, important within the small world of Late Antique studies, but seldom discussed, or even known about, beyond this.

When we think about the first few decades of the 400s CE – if we think of these decades at all, Greek epic poetry isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. This period encompassed many of the great works of Saints Jerome and Augustine, and following the death of Saint Ambrose in 397, popes and bishops had successfully politicked their ways into Roman imperial courts. The first few decades of the 400s also encompassed the beginning of the western Empire’s death spiral, with Visigoths and Vandals in particular sweeping through the territories of Italy, Gaul, and later, North Africa. So when we think about these decades, we think of Jerome finishing the Vulgate, of Augustine writing the City of God, of Alaric the Visigoth sacking Rome, of Britannia and then Gaul slipping out of Roman control. We do not think about Homer, or Greek myths. We don’t think about these things, but Late Antique Greek poets still continued to.

Nonnus – our author for this and the next episode – was a Greek speaking Egyptian writer, based in a town called Panoplis. Panoplis was located in modern day Akhmim, Egypt, a city roughly halfway down the Egyptian Nile, seventy or so miles north of Luxor, where the river meanders eastward and westward and is lined by a belt of irrigated flatlands that’s over ten miles wide in places. Egypt, as the 400s opened, was and would continue to be a territory administrated by the eastern, or Byzantine Empire. And within the territories of both halves of the Roman Empire, over the 200s, the 300s, and 400s, Greek and Latin epic literature continued to be produced. Leading up to the poet Nonnus, we have records of numerous long works of mythology – Scopelianus’ Gigantius, Dionysius’ Bassarica, the works of Nestor of Laranda, Pisander of Laranda, Triphiodorus of Panoplis, Quintus of Smyrna, Soterichus, Claudian, and the Orphic Argonautica.3 Almost all of this late epic poetry has been lost, and, but as we open the front cover of Nonnus’ Dionysiaca in a few minutes, it will be important to remember that our poet for today wasn’t just some weirdo stubbornly clinging to Archaic and Classical Greek traditions, but instead part of a very old movement in literature that had continued uninterrupted for over a thousand years. In fact, rather than calling the Dionysiaca “the last pagan epic,” as this episode’s title has, it would be more appropriate to call the Dionysiaca “the last surviving pagan epic.” Around 500 CE, we know that another Greco-Egyptian writer named Coluthus composed epic works about the abduction of Helen of Troy and the legendary Calydonian Boar hunt. In essence then, during the 300s, 400s and perhaps even 500s, in Egypt and the Greek-speaking east, a literary culture around epic poetry continued to flourish. Nonnus, however, has the distinction of being the final poet of pagan antiquity to have left behind a major epic, and because of the vastness of the Dionysiaca, and the fact that in it, Nonnus isn’t simply revisiting the familiar opera of the Trojan War Cycle, he should by all means be included in literary history like ours.

Let’s talk about Nonnus for a moment. Scattered references tell us that Nonnus was from that town called Panoplis, along the central Egyptian Nile, but we know almost nothing about him besides this. From reading his works, it’s clear that he was exceptionally educated. While the Dionysiaca is Nonnus’ most famous work, Nonnus also wrote a paraphrase of the Gospel of John, something we’ll discuss at the close of the next episode, meaning that fascinatingly, Nonnus was as happy to retell Christian narratives as he was the old Greek myths.4 Having read both of Nonnus’ surviving works and some modern scholarship on them, I will tell you here at the outset of our shows on Nonnus that he was a person who loved details – obscure myths and alternate versions of myths, epic conventions and variations of those conventions. With a prodigious memory, and a knowledge of 1,200 years of Greek and Latin poetry that included an additional four centuries of material that Virgil and Ovid never read, Nonnus was well positioned to write one of the most ambitious works of literature that the ancient world ever produced. The Dionysiaca, as it survives today in a 3-volume, 1,500 page Loeb edition, will perhaps always be an obscure work, glittering with a galaxy of proper nouns, too long and complex for most armchair enthusiasts, and like so much of Late Antiquity, not especially well at home either in Classics or Medieval Studies departments. But our epic for today is also, in spite its occasional density and narrative meanderings, quite simply one of the most singular and unforgettable works in all literature. Love it, or hate it, once you read the Dionysiaca, you never, never forget it.

I want to get into the story pretty quickly in a moment here – as I said this is quite a long work, and even in just exploring the first half of the epic together in this first of two shows, we’ll be covering a lot of ground. Before we do that, though, I want to offer you some mythological background. Most of us know that Dionysus was the Greek god of wine – but he has a surprisingly long and complex back story that’s worth quickly reviewing before we jump into the Dionysiaca. [music]

The Many Dimensions of Dionyusus

Nonnus is not a concise writer. If he can think of anything to add in, he will add it in – variants of legends, lineages, embedded narratives, long speeches – the Dionysiaca is as much a mosaic as it is a single narrative, at once a Metamorphoses as well as an Aeneid. Still, the book’s main subject is one guy – the wine god Dionysus – the circumstances leading up to his birth, his infancy and childhood, his great quest to bring wine to the world, and eventually his ascendancy into the Olympian pantheon, so let’s spend a moment thinking about Dionysus. In past episodes, we’ve learned a bit about the complexity of Dionysus in ancient Greek mythology. Dionysus was certainly the wine god, the darling of numerous ancient Greek festivals and annual traditions, and much-loved fountainhead of alcohol and the positive things we still associate with it today – fun, togetherness and a temporary respite from worries and cares. But Dionysus had two other sides we should consider prior to moving forward.

Baco, por Caravaggio

Carvaggio’s Bacchus (c. 1598). European painters depicting Dionysus have generally depicted a gentle sommelier or cherub figure, rather than the horned and roaring wine god we often meet in ancient Greek poet.

Just as alcohol changes human behavior, and not always for the better, Dionysus was also a god of transmutation and insanity. He was commonly depicted with horns, and described in epithets translated as bromios – “roaring,” or “howling,” and chthonius, or “of the underworld,” or omophagos – meaning “raw-eater,” or “the eater of raw flesh.” Ancient Greek literature, some of which we have read in our show, features scenes of the ecstatic celebrants of Dionysus having reached such dangerous altitudes of intoxication that they turn violent, tearing apart animals and other people with their bare hands and losing themselves in destructive rampages. A majority of the long work that we’re about to read is an epic war story – again a tale of Dionysus’ journey to the east to subdue populations there – and Dionysus’ armies, a motley mass of satyrs, centaurs, nymphs and maenads – these are followers of the roaring, ferocious Dionysus bromios, and not some junior level wine god offering bottle service to Mount Olympus.

While the amicable wine god Dionysus thus had quite a dark side, as well, there’s another thing about him we should get in our heads before beginning Nonnus’ Dionysiaca. This is that there were two different legends about Dionysus’ birth. In the first, Zeus raped his daughter slash niece Persephone to give birth to his son slash grandson slash nephew, who was called Dionysus Zagreus, or just Zagreus. The goddess Hera, by way of revenge for her husband’s infidelity, got a mob of titans to eat Dionysus Zagreus, after which Zagreus, in some versions, of the story seems to have been reincarnated, or humanity was made from his remnants.5 This first origin story of Dionysus was associated with a classical Greek religion called Orphism, a cult religion focused on the worship of Dionysus, sacred texts, mindful living and dietary restrictions, and various lost narratives that we have scraps in writers like Plato and Plutarch as well as grave goods from Macedonia and southern Italy attest to the worship of a primeval, lost Dionysus.6 Our poet for today Nonnus is familiar with this legend, and he puts it close to the outset of his epic.

There was another origin story of Dionysus as well, which Nonnus also recounts in the Dionysiaca. Dionysus was the patron deity of the city of Thebes, the mainland Greek town at the heart of Sophocles’ Oedipus cycle, and Euripides’ Bacchae, and Statius’ Thebaid. Thebes had a rich web of myths surrounding it, and at the outset of the Dionysiaca Nonnus tells us the story of Cadmus, the founder of Thebes. And the second origin story of Dionysus was that he was the grandson of Cadmus, founder of Thebes, born after Zeus tracked down Cadmus’ daughter Semele and raped her. After the rape of Semele, Zeus’ ever-jealous wife Hera tricked Semele into asking to see Zeus in his true form, and when Semele did this, Zeus appeared as a thunderous burning deity, Semele was incinerated, and Zeus had to carry the fetal Dionysus to term by sewing Dionysus up in his thigh. Weird, surely, but also a story we’ve heard before. Nonnus retells this second tale of Dionysus’ origins as well, as we’ll hear soon. So, to recap, the main point of all of this is that by the year 400 CE or so, anyone who wanted to write an epic about Dionysus had a lot of material to draw from – a god with multiple aspects, and multiple origin stories. When Nonnus sat down to write the Dionysiaca, he leveraged a lot of preexisting narratives – from literature that’s still extant, like Euripides’ The Bacchae and Ovid’s tales of the founding of Thebes, but also, from texts that we no longer have. Prior to Nonnus himself, a poet called Dionysius (and yes, his name was Dionysius) had already written an epic poem about Dionysus called the Bassarica around 200, and later, around 300, a poet called Soterichus had also written an epic about Dionysus, and so Nonnus was working comfortably within a very long tradition about a very complex deity.

With a good sense of the manifold nature of Dionysus out the outset here, I think there’s just one more thing we need to do before we actually begin reading the Dionysiaca. We need to talk about India in the poem – I should say “India” with quote marks. To repeat, a whole lot of Nonnus’ Dionysiaca is about a war between the forces of Dionysus, and those of India. This war begins, oddly, in western Anatolia, 2,700 miles northwest of present day India, and Dionysus advances eastward through Syria and Mesopotamia, fighting Indian forces along the way. To put it simply, to Nonnus, “India” seems to mean “people from the distant east who challenged Dionysus in the ancient mythological past.” When Nonnus was living and working, the Gupta Empire in India was flourishing, a generally prosperous and religiously tolerant empire that fostered the literary renaissance that canonized the Mahabharata and Ramayana. Nonnus doesn’t reveal any knowledge of this contemporary imperial Indian world, and he’s even sketchy on the geography of the Indus and Ganges rivers. He mentions Brahmins at one juncture, but he definitely believed that Indian people looked like sub-Saharan African people, and for whatever reason that they were allied with Ethiopians. We can get into Nonnus and India later – it’s always interesting to see how one culture writes about another culture that’s foreign to them – but for now it will suffice to say that when Nonnus describes India, he is envisioning a mythical culture from the legendary past, rather actual Indian folks from the 400s CE practicing Hinduism and Buddhism and writing Sanskrit texts. Generally, in the Dionysiaca, the Indians are just broadly distributed easterners.

So all of that should get us rolling as we turn to the first page of the longest surviving epic from Greco-Roman antiquity. There is still, to my knowledge as of late 2021, only one English translation of the Dionysiaca – this is again a massive poem and its range of subjects and vocabulary make it quite a task to translate – and the text I’m using is the W.H.D. Rouse translation in three volumes, published by Loeb in 1940. So here comes the first half of Nonnus’ Dionysiaca. [music]

The Dionysiaca, Book 1

Nonnus’ 48-book epic opens, as ancient epics tend to, with an invocation to the muse. Nonnus writes,
Tell the tale, Goddess. . . the gasping travail which the thunderbolt brought with sparks for wedding-torches, the lightning in waiting upon Semele’s nuptials; tell the naissance of Bacchos twice-born, whom Zeus lifted still moist from the fire, a baby half-complete born without midwife; how with shrinking hands he cut the incision in his thigh and carried [Bacchos] in his man’s womb, father and gracious mother at once. (1.1-9)7
The reference here, as you can see from what we discussed earlier, is to the birth of Dionysus, or Bacchus, salvaged from the burning remains of his human mother Semele, and carried to term in Zeus’ thigh. Nonnus asks not only for help from the muses in general, but also from the god Proteus, or as Nonnus puts it, “Proteus of many turns, that he may appear in all his diversity of shapes, since I twang my harp to a diversity of songs” (1.14-15). The epic, Nonnus acknowledges here, will be an enormous one, and will require some shape shifting on his part as a narrator. Asking for help with the many different parts of the epic to come, Nonnus begins his epic in the ancient past, some time before Dionysus ever came along.

Europa copy

Europa with Zeus in bull form, from a red-figure stamnos done around 480 BCE.

Once upon a time, Zeus was wandering along the beach in Phoenicia. He was in the form of a bull, and he saw a beautiful woman there on the sands. The woman was Europa, and with some amorous help from the god Eros, Europa climbed onto the back of Zeus in bull form, and she rode him out into the ocean. Zeus, half-submerged, paddled along, while Europa, who steered him with horns, watched the waves rise and fall around them, full of trepidation. A fisherman from the western Aegean saw the bull and the girl paddling away from the Phoenician coast and out into the open water, and asked what the unlikely pair were doing. Europa said she didn’t know where she was going, and she prayed that the ringlets that flew from her hair in the ocean breezes would find their way home and let her Phoenician parents know her fate.

By this point, Europa’s brother Cadmus had already gone after her, trekking overland through Anatolia, where he found a passage called the cave of Armia. Armia, according to legend, was where the great primordial monster Typhoios lived. And Typhoios, at this juncture of early history in the Greek myths, had stolen Zeus’ thunder and other powers. The creature was stomping and marauding all over the world, and smashing constellations into the earth and sea. Gods and demigods fought back against the raging titan, as the monster switched from attacking the starry skies to smashing at the ocean, which didn’t even reach his thighs. Typhoios then reached down and picked up an island with one enormous hand, and he flung it up toward Olympus.

Zeus, in response, fortified himself with his trademark thunderbolt. But high overhead, where the massive torso of Typhoios loomed above, there were no clouds, and Zeus’ weapon was powerless. Zeus, however, had a plan. First, he had sex with the girl Europa, eliciting an angry monologue from the ever-jealous Hera. And yes, the chronology here is weird – as to why Nonnus decided to juxtapose the Europa riding Zeus as a quadruped story and then the rape of Europa with the cataclysmic ravages of Typhoios in a literally overlapping timeframe, I am not sure. But anyway, Zeus raped Europa and then put his pants on and prepared to deal with the mile-high giant currently threatening Mount Olympus by throwing whole islands at it.

The plan to avert the end of the world involved young Cadmus himself. Cadmus, brother of the girl Zeus had just raped and future founder of the city of Thebes, was instructed by Zeus to dress up like a shepherd and play pipes for the giant monster Typhoios. Cadmus, Zeus said, would be rewarded with a glorious marriage and kingship. Cadmus agreed. Cadmus played his pipes, and Typhoios wandered out of a cave in which he’d been staying, leaving Zeus’ weaponry behind. Typoios loved what he heard, and he promised Cadmus great rewards as well if Cadmus would be the titan’s minstrel. Cadmus pretended to agree, and Cadmus asked giant Typhoios for Zeus’ special weaponry back as a guarantee. The monster Typhoios, being truly bewitched by Cadmus’ musicianship, surrendered the armaments of Zeus, evidently having more brawn than brains. [music]

The Dionysiaca, Book 2

Cadmus continued to play music a short while longer for the titan Typhoios, but soon Zeus, cloaked and unseen, retrieved his weapons, and then caused Cadmus to become invisible. Typhoios erupted into rage. He found that the divine weapons he had taken from Zeus were now missing from their hiding place, and vented his anger on the world, devouring animals and smashing the ground so hard that geysers of water burst upward from the earth’s crust. Various spirits and demigods were at a loss as to what to do – a dryad, or tree spirit, considered her options.

Zeus Typhon Staatliche Antikensammlungen 596

Zeus (left) aims a thunderbolt at Typhoios in this black-figured hydria, circa the 530s BCE.

Night fell, and seven sentinels stood ringed around Olympus. Meteors and shooting stars portended the confrontation that would soon unfold. In the small hours of the morning the goddess Nike, or Victory, told Zeus that the other deities had fled the rages of Typhoios, and that Zeus would face the titan alone. Dawn broke, and Nonnus at this point in the narrative describes Typhoios awakening: “Typhoeus stretched out his sluggish back and lay heavy upon his bed, covering his Mother Earth; she opened wide her bosom, and lurking lairs were hollowed out in a grinning chasm for the snaky heads which sank into the ground” (2.240-3). Typhoios’ dozens of multiform heads roared and hissed and yapped and howled, and he vowed to finish his destruction of Olympus. At the climax of a nearly 100-line speech, after proclaiming that he would overturn the whole order of the world, Typhoios vowed “I will forge a newer and better brand of lightning, with more fire and flashes. I will build another heaven up aloft, the eighth, broader and higher than the rest, and furnish it with brighter stars” (2.345-7).8

The battle between Typhois and Zeus began, rattling trees in half and shaking not only the four corners of the known world, but also the universe far beyond. Zeus wielded lighting and thunder, and Typhoios seized armfuls of water from winter rivers to cool the blazes. High overhead, the warring pair hurled crags and promontories of land at one another, and for a long time they appeared evenly matched, even with Zeus having regained his lightning. Soon, though, Zeus began to have the upper hand, the persistence of his white-hot lightning scorching the snakes atop Typhoios’ heads, and then the great titan’s eyes, then his hands, then his shoulders. Whirling winds and blasting bolts scoured the monster’s skin with hail and flecks of flying stone. At last, Typhoios crumpled down, limp, to the earth with a giant boom, and Zeus stood over his fallen enemy and mocked the dying titan.

Slowly, order returned to the earth, and it healed, nature sealing rifts and chasms in the earth, and the stars twinkling back into alignment. And Zeus, vaunted by all, did not forget his promise to Cadmus. He told Cadmus that Cadmus’ brothers would all go on to have honorable fates – as for Cadmus’ sister Europa, she would be a queen on the island of Crete. Cadmus himself would marry a woman named Harmonia, and, bringing us a few steps closer to the story of Dionysus, Cadmus would soon found the city of Thebes.[music]

The Dionysiaca, Book 3

Triumphant after successfully helping Zeus best Typhoios, Cadmus disembarked from Anatolia. Nonnus’ narration of the voyaging ship here is lovely in the Loeb Rouse translation:
The intertwined ropes whistled with a shrill hiss, the forestays hummed in the freshening wind, the sail grew big-bellied, enforced by the forthright gale. The restless flood was cleft, then fell back to its place; the water swelled and foamed, the ship sped over the deep, while the keep struck the boisterous waves with a resounding splash, and the end of the steering-oar scored the white-crested billows where the ship’s wake divided the curving back of the sea. (III.23-30)
After ten days out, Cadmus and his crew reached the island of Samothrace in the northeastern Aegean. The crew, tired after the voyage, settled in to sleep, and in the morning, they were awakened by a group of Corybants – or ritual worshippers of the goddess Cybele.9 Cadmus made his way through the noisy din of the new arrivals – the dancing and tamed animals and crowds of worshippers, to find the house of Harmonia, the woman he was to marry. Not a romantically experienced person, Cadmus made his way shyly through the house of Harmonia’s mother, the goddess Electra, not to be confused with Agamemnon’s daughter Electra in The Libation Bearers. The goddess Electra’s house on the island of Samothrace was lovely and profuse with interwoven plants, shady gardens, golden statues, figs, pomegranates, myrtles and laurels. Cadmus, intimidated, accepted Electra’s invitation to feast. Cadmus had been told by Zeus that he would marry Electra’s daughter Harmonia, but it seemed that the onus of impressing his future in-laws was still Cadmus’ to bear.

Over dinner, then, Cadmus told Electra and her household his origin story. Curiously omitting the part about how, just eleven or so days ago, he had helped Zeus himself save the universe from the cataclysmic ravages of Typhoios, Cadmus went into some detail about his lineage, and said he was just outbound, searching for his sister, who’d been kidnapped by a swimming bull. Electra replied that she, too, had been bandied about by fate, and that that was how things went sometimes, but that Cadmus should feel free to make a home for himself in a new land, as his father had once done before him.

As it turned out, Zeus did have a plan to help Cadmus woo Harmonia, after all. Zeus sent Hermes to tell Harmonia’s mother Electra to allow Harmonia to marry Cadmus. Cadmus, said Hermes, wasn’t just some wandering nobody from the Phoenician coast. He had saved the world with his music, Hermes explained, and the gods, and Zeus himself.

The Dionysiaca, Book 4


Evelyn De Morgan’s Cadmus and Harmonia (1877). In some versions of the founding of Thebes story, Harmonia is attacked by the dragon that lives there, and Cadmus rescues her. Nonnus deals with the dragon and dragon’s teeth story fairly quickly.

The envoy from Zeus had won Electra over. After Hermes departed, Electra took her daughter Harmonia to an upper chamber of the palace, and explained the situation. Harmonia, Electra said, had been ordered to marry Cadmus, by the directive of Zeus. Harmonia was not happy about it. Who was Cadmus? He was homeless! He appeared unstable. So what if he had helped Zeus? He ought to marry an Olympian, then! Hearing her daughter Harmonia’s understandable objections, Electra was torn – she didn’t want to cross Zeus, but she also didn’t want her daughter to marry some nobody from an eastern backwater, either.

The goddess Aphrodite, at this juncture, intervened. She disguised herself as a local Samothracian girl, and as a Samothracian girl from the neighborhood, she pretended to be absolutely smitten by young Cadmus. She sung all sorts of praises for Cadmus, comparing him to Apollo and saying that the young man was as good as pure gold. Cadmus, the disguised Aphrodite said, was better than any divine husband. Pulling out all the stops, the disguised Aphrodite envisioned all of the steamy things she’d like to do to young Cadmus, and have young Cadmus do to her. Aphrodite even ventured to say that if Harmonia decided to marry Cadmus, then Aphrodite – or the local girl Aphrodite was disguised as – would demand at least one night of passion with the handsome easterner.

Hearing all of this, then, Harmonia, conflicted, upset, and suddenly very horny, began to change her mind about Cadmus. She would marry him after all. And she would go wherever it was that her future husband was headed. Not long after, she told her mother the same thing. And so it was that the previously reluctant Harmonia kissed her native soil of Samothrace farewell, and was soon seated beside Cadmus in his vessel, westward bound to the Greek mainland among various other travelers who’d tagged along for the voyage. When the betrothed couple arrived on the mainland, they went to Delphi, to see the oracle of Apollo. And the oracle had advice for Cadmus. Give up the chase after Europa, the oracle said. It was time for Cadmus to move on with his new wife, and to found a city – a city named Thebes like the one along the Egyptian Nile, only a Thebes in mainland Greece.

So Cadmus and Harmonia, together with a band of those loyal to them, came eastward down out of the mountains to the future site of Thebes. Thebes, though, was home to a ferocious dragon, and this dragon killed some of their entourage. Soon, it wound itself around Cadmus, but before it could eat the hero, Athena appeared and offered him heartening instructions and council. Cadmus, afterward, smashed the dragon’s head with a stone and cut its throat, and, abiding by Athena’s instructions, he tore its teeth out and planted them. Giants appeared, and Cadmus fought them off, in the end compelling them to fight and destroy one another. And that story, built with many prefabricated elements from Homer, Ovid, and Apollonius of Rhodes, together with some of Nonnus’ own touches, is the story of how the ground was cleared for the foundation of Thebes, which would later be the city of Oedipus, Antigone, Creon, Polynices, and Eteocles, and soon in Nonnus’ epic, the city of Dionysus. [music]

The Dionysiaca, Book 5

Now, Cadmus, as you may know, was the maternal grandfather of Dionysus, and the next part of the Dionysiaca deals with how Dionysus’ parents’ generation came about. It all began with the actual founding of Thebes, instantiated with a public animal sacrifice performed by Cadmus himself. Cadmus fought some territorial wars, and then the foundations were laid for Thebes, the city’s famous seven gates a part of its initial design. With all of this taken care of, it was finally time for Cadmus and Harmonia’s wedding. Plenty of illustrious divine guests were in attendance, and the music and festivities were second to none. With the union being ordained and blessed by Zeus himself, the couple received some fine gifts from the gods, including an elaborately described necklace with two intertwined serpents, given by Aphrodite to Harmonia. And at this point, the narrative picks up in speed a bit more.

Cadmus and Harmonia had five kids – four daughters and one son, and these five kids dominate the next five books of the Dionysiaca. The four daughters, from oldest to youngest, were Autonoë, Ino, Agauë, and Semele, and the youngest of the lot was the boy – Polydorus. With the five kids having come of age, Cadmus soon took it on himself to make sure they wound up in advantageous marriages. His oldest daughter Autonoë married a man named Aristaios, known for pioneering various arts associated with the wilderness and cultivation. Autonoë and Aristaios were the parents of Actaion, Cadmus’ firstborn grandson. But Actaion, as fans of the Greek myths know, came to an awful end. Out hunting, Actaion saw the nude Artemis and her virginal huntress companions bathing. As punishment, Artemis transformed Actaion into a young stag, and afterward Actaion was ripped to bloody shreds by his own hunting hounds. When the Theban royal family heard about it, the tragedy rocked the royal household, and when the poor boy’s mother went to find him, she never found a human body. Actaion, however, came to his father in a dream and explained what had happened, and following this, the dead boy’s parents were able to find the remains of the young stag into which he’d been transformed. That, then, is the story of Cadmus’ firstborn daughter Autonoë, her husband Aristaios, and their poor son Actaion.

Cadmus and Harmonia’s third eldest daughter was Agauë, and with her husband, she became the mother of Pentheus, a future king of Thebes and important figure much later in the epic we’re reading – Pentheus and his mother Agauë are also the central characters in Euripides’ play The Bacchae. Cadmus and Harmonia’s youngest daughter was Semele, a young lady with stunning beauty, and one destined, as we’ll soon see, to be the victim of Zeus and mother of Dionysus. Now we haven’t actually been through the full catalog of Cadmus and Harmonia’s kids yet – we’ve skipped the second eldest, Ino, and then the very youngest – the son, Polydorus. But at this point in the narrative, Nonnus dives into the ancient history of the Orphic Dionysus – that second and primeval Dionysus I mentioned at this episode’s outset – a fascinating little saga, if you haven’t heard it before. To be very clear, because this is confusing, once again Dionysus had two different birth stories in antiquity, and Nonnus is going to offer both of them to us, starting with the lesser-known tale of Dionysus Zagreus. In Nonnus’ poem, Dionysus Zagreus is an ancient ancestor of the main Dionysus who is the star of the epic, a sort of Dionysus version 1.0.

Nonnus begins the dark story of Dionysus Zagreus by telling us that when Zeus saw the beautiful Semele, youngest daughter of Cadmus and Harmonia, “Zeus ruling on high intended to make a new Dionysos grow up, a. . .copy of the older Dionysos; since he thought with regret of the illfated Zagreus” (5.563-5). And the story of Zagreus, which Nonnus now offers as Book 6 of the epic in a flashback sequence, all started with the goddess Persephone.

The Dionysiaca, Book 6

Frederic Leighton - The Return of Persephone (1891)

Frederic Leighton’s The Return of Persephone (1891). Persephone was the mother of Zagreus. A central figure in the Eleusinian Mysteries and one very common in vase paintings, Persephone was one of most important figures in ancient Greek religion.

All of the gods wanted to copulate with Persephone – Hermes, Apollo, Hephaestus, and most of all, Zeus. Zeus would watch his daughter slash niece weaving, and then, when Persephone became weary at the loom, watch her bathing in the nude. With all of the male gods clamoring to get in bed with her daughter, Persephone’s mother Demeter didn’t know what to do. She went to see the god of prophecy, and asked him what would happen to Demeter, and the god of prophecy went through astrological rituals to determine how Demeter might best guard her daughter from the throng of would-be divine seducers. Gathering all the information she could from the god of prophecy’s counsel, Demeter swept her daughter into a chariot and sailed over the ocean to a hidden cave near the city of Syracuse on Sicily, planning to secret the young woman away there. And deep in this cavern, young Persephone was hidden, protected by Demeter’s guardian dragons and cared for by a nursemaid.

But none of these evasive maneuvers deterred Zeus, lord of the unstoppable quote unquote thunderbolt. Zeus disguised himself as a dragon, and in dragon form, he raped the hidden Persephone. The result of their union was the elder Dionysus – as Nonnus describes, “Zagreus the horned baby, who by himself climbed upon the heavenly throne of Zeus and brandished lightning in his little hand, and newly born, lifted and carried thunderbolts in his tender fingers” (6.165-8). This is a memorable little description, as Zeus sires countless illegitimate children in the Greek myths, but we never really hear of a Zeus junior, wielding lightning just like his father.

To continue this flashback sequence, young Dionysus Zagreus was not fated for a long and happy life. Zeus’ wife Hera, ever severe in her revenge against her husband’s manifold infidelities, could not countenance baby Dionysus Zagreus waddling around. She summoned titans, who disguised themselves and then attacked the baby deity with knives. In the short struggle that followed, Zagreus took many shapes – Zeus himself, then the titan Kronos, then a downy-faced youth, then a lion, a horned snake, then a tiger, and then a bull, but in the end the titans were too strong, and little Zagreus was chopped to pieces.

Zeus was intensely angry. Persephone hadn’t just been a weekly fling – he had been drawn toward her, and their son’s death was awful to him. He scorched the offending titans and slammed them in prison of Tartarus, and scoured lands to the distant east and west with fire. The ocean itself was dismayed by the great heat, and so Zeus made it rain instead, thinking to souse the blazes and wash away the ashes all caused by his wrath. It rained and rained, and the oceans and lakes rose and rose, such that fish swam through mountains and dolphins looked into the eyes of alpine boars. Soon there was hardly any land left at all, and the sun’s chariot carried only a faint fire as it swung through the sky. Before the whole earth was consumed and destroyed by the water, though, Poseidon smashed a crack down through the earth, and water rushed down into the emptiness below it, allowing the seas to resume their former level. The sun then dried out the lands, and humans came into their former dominions, making their cities stronger and more soundly built than before. And that concludes Nonnus’ flashback story about the elder Dionysus – Dionysus Zagreus. [music]

The Dionysiaca, Book 7

The timeframe of the Dionysiaca now flashes forward once more to the present – Typhoios has been defeated, the city of Thebes has been founded, and Cadmus and Harmonia have had a crop of children. But, Nonnus tells us, all was still not well. The poet writes that:
sorrow in many forms possessed the life of men, which begins with labour and never sees the end of care: and Time his everlasting companion showed to Zeus Almighty mankind, afflicted with suffering and having no portion in happiness of heart. For the father had not yet cut the threads of childbirth. . .to give mankind rest from their tribulations; not yet did the libation of wine soak the pathways of the air and make them drunken with sweetsmelling exaltations. (7.7-14)
The meaning of that passage is that Zeus’ beloved son Zagreus, the subject of the previous book, has not yet been resurrected. The opening of Book 7, here, though, sounds faintly Christian – we have a fallen world, due to an as-yet unborn divine son, and as we move forward we’ll talk a bit more about Nonnus and Christianity. For now, let’s move forward with the epic, which takes us to the subject of Dionysus’ birth – or second birth – in Thebes.

Zeus spoke with Aion, the deity of time, and Zeus resolved to make everything better in the world through the rebirth of Dionysus and the gift of wine to humanity. As the epic has indicated thus far, and Nonnus’ original audience would have known, the mother-to-be of Dionysus was Semele, the beautiful youngest daughter of King Cadmus and Queen Harmonia of Thebes. Semele, one day, was out walking and witnessed strange signs – a tree consumed by pure fire. She made sacrifices to appease Zeus, and later, while she was washing the sacrificial blood away on an altar, nude alongside her attendants, Zeus caught sight of her. And at just that moment, he was hit by an arrow from Eros, intensifying his desire. He flew down to the river in which she bathed, leering at her naked body, and a water nymph recognized the voyeuristic deity, though Semele did not see him. Zeus planned to rape Semele. Night fell, and a long and sickening sex scene proceeds in which Zeus transformed into various creatures while he violated the princess, at one point winding around her breasts as a snake and licking her neck. As the rape took place vines and flowers blossomed around the Theban princess’ bed. Afterward, Zeus congratulated her on being raped by a god, telling her that while her sisters and her sisters’ children would fade into obscurity, the child that they had just conceived would give an eternal gift to humanity. [music]

The Dionysiaca, Book 8

Sebastiano Ricci - Dionysus (1695)

Sebastian Ricci’s Jupiter and Semele (c. 1695). One of the Dionysiaca‘s numerous rape stories, this juncture of the epic chronicles its main character’s actual birth, after having told the tale of Zagreus’ birth.

Semele’s pregnancy proceeded normally, though even from its earliest stages it changed her. She began weaving wreaths, and putting strands of ivy in her hair. Up on Mount Olympus, though, all was not well. The god Ares was incensed – angry at Zeus’ indiscretions. Zeus’ couplings had resulted in novel gods and demigods springing up in both the heavens and earth. The furious Ares considered leaving Olympus altogether. And Hera, as she tended to in such situations, planned horrific punishments for her husband’s victims, so as to assuage her jealousies. Hera met with the goddess Deceit. Admitting her jealousies and insecurities, Hera said that she feared Zeus would replace her with the Theban princess Semele. And so Hera, with help from the goddess Deceit, disguised herself as a friendly old nursemaid, and went to have a chat with her latest human rival, the pregnant Semele.

In disguise, then, Hera went to speak with Semele, and Hera told Semele that of course, everyone was talking about the Theban princess’ mysterious pregnancy. Hera asked Semele – had it been Ares, or Hermes, or Apollo? Had it been Poseidon? If it had been Zeus, said Hera, then indeed Semele had been triumphant – there was just one more thing to do to cement Semele’s triumph, and that was for Semele to see Zeus in his true form, armed with lightning, just as Hera herself did. Rather than saying, “Thanks, mysterious old nursemaid woman, now get the hell out of my bedroom please,” Semele took these words to heart. After Hera left, Semele wondered if Zeus even still had his thunder – he had recently lost it during the incident with Typhoios. Semele became fixated on the issue – she wanted to see Zeus in his true, thunderous form, and thus be an amorous equal to Hera. When Semele and Zeus met once again, Semele told Zeus that she wanted to see him armed with his thunders. Zeus conceded, and lightning exploded all over Semele’s room, burning her to ash, but not harming the fetus that was Dionysus. The ill-fated Theban princess ascended to be with the gods on Mount Olympus, and as for Dionysus, the next book of the epic tells us of the fate of the unborn deity. [music]

The Dionysiaca, Book 9

In one of the weirder episodes of Greek mythology – not unique to Nonnus’ Dionysiaca, by the way – Zeus lifted the unharmed fetus of Dionysus from the charred remains of his mother, cut an incision into his own thigh, and inserted the fetal god into his own thigh. After this, he sewed Dionysus up, and carried the youngster to term. When the time came, Zeus cut the stitches from his thigh, and Dionysus had a third birth – the first being his arrival as Dionysus Zagreus, the second his emergence from his burnt mother Semele, and the third, from the thigh-womb of Zeus, hence the fact that one of Dionysus’ epithets is thus “thrice-born Dionysus.”

The baby, just as Zagreus had been, was born with horns, and upon his birth the seasons crowned him with an ivy circlet. In a lovely little description, Nonnus tells us that as an infant, “the boy lay on his back unsleeping, and fixt his eye on the heaven above, or kicked at the air with his two feet one after another in delight; he stared at the unfamiliar sky, and laughed in wonder to see his father’s vault of stars” (9.35-6). As cute as he was, though, Dionysus still had vengeful Hera after him, and so he was taken to be raised by his aunt Ino (this was Semele’s second eldest sister, at that point married and conveniently already nursing a baby). Aunt Ino and her handmaiden together raised the baby Dionysus, having been told to keep him carefully out of sight. But as hard as they tired, the baby wine god exuded a divine light, and the goddess Hera, looking everywhere for her husband’s latest illegitimate child, saw this light, and came after him. Dionysus’ brother Hermes came to the rescue, spiriting the baby away, and through subterfuge and speed, Hermes and the baby Dionysus escaped from Hera, until Dionysus was in the care of his grandmother, Rhea.

Rhea was a titan, and one of the oldest and most powerful figures in Greek mythology, and so she proved to be a sturdier guardian than either Dionysus’ aunt Ino, or his half-brother Hermes. Little Dionysus was thereafter raised in the territories of the Anatolian goddess Cybele, surrounded by her wild and ecstatic dancers, and given a chariot of lions to drive. At nine years old, Dionysus was already hunting in the mountains, and as his teenage years passed, the wine god became the tamer and frequent companion of wild beasts in the wilderness of the Aegean’s eastern shore.

Up in the heavens, seeing Dionysus’ healthy, happy teenage years, Semele – now a goddess herself – taunted Hera. Hera, Semele said, hadn’t been able to prevent what had happened – Semele had birthed a powerful and a beloved god. Needless to say, the taunts didn’t make Hera any happier. Dionysus might be out of reach, but his aunt Ino, who had briefly nursed the baby – Hera could still go after her. Hera did so, and Ino fled, and she vanished. To make her plight even sadder, her husband Athamas decided to marry a new wife. And at this point, the poet Nonnus launches into a nearly book length story about the ex-husband of Dionysus’ aunt Ino, because, you know, if you’re going to write the longest Greek epic ever, you don’t want to leave anything out. [music]

The Dionysiaca, Book 10

The central subject of this book of the Dionysiaca is Dionysus’ aunt Ino, so let’s get her in our minds. Around the time Dionysus was a teenager, Ino fled the persecutions of Hera. Meanwhile, once again, Ino’s husband remarried. But in mutual fits of madness, Ino’s husband Athamas and his new wife became great threats to their children. One wonders where old, reasonably sensible King Cadmus was as all of this went down, but anyway, when Ino returned home four years later, she discovered that her husband Athamas had remarried and that he and his new wife were in the midst of taking up child murder as a pastime. Athamas’ new wife, thinking in her madness to murder her stepchildren, inadvertently killed her own children from a previous marriage. As for Athamas, he killed his and Ino’s son Learchus, he was about to cook his and Ino’s second son Melicretes in a cauldron, but, arriving just in the nick of time, Ino saved her second son, diving into the ocean while pursued and praying for solace. The ocean gods granted poor Ino’s wishes, and Ino was able to continue on as a sea nymph, along with her surviving son. Weirdly, Ino’s sister Semele, now installed in heaven as a goddess, insulted the recently departed Ino, saying that Ino’s dominion was the ocean, but that Semele dwelt in the heavens above. Strange words, considering that Semele’s sister Ino had taken in Semele’s baby son Dionysus in his hour of need, and that it was for this crime that poor Ino had lost her home and family.

Anyway, at this point in the epic we’re finally going to rattle out of the bloated 10-book long exposition and Theban palace drama, and begin concertedly focusing on the star of the show, Dionysus. Dionysus, at this point, was still living out in the sticks of Anatolia. He grew tall and handsome, and bathed in fresh river water, and he fell in love with a satyr named Ampelos, whose name means “vine.” Dionysus thought of Ampelos day and night, dreamt of him, and worried that the satyr would somehow be taken from him. While the tale of Dionysus and the satyr Ampelos is certainly a love story about one of Dionysus’ early affairs, Ampelos’ name, associating him with wine, also makes the episode a narrative about Dionysus’ awakening love of wine. Dionysus exclaims, “If I can have [Ampelos] to play with me. . .I wish not to be translated into the sky, I would not be a god. . .I want no ambrosia! I care nothing, if Ampelos loves me, even if [Zeus] hates me!” (10.282-7). On one hand these are the words of a lovestruck young person, and on the other, words of devotion toward earthly wine over heavenly ambrosia and deification.

In a prayer to Zeus, Dionysus said Ampelos was lovelier than Zeus’ male lover Ganymede, and Dionysus prayed that he might simply be left on earth to be with the satyr. And so their romance blossomed. Dionysus wrestled with Ampelos in the shallows of a warm river, Nonnus describing their loving horseplay in some truly beautiful lines (10.339-72). The young pair also enjoyed footraces, competing in athletic games among the horned and shaggy satyrs of the forest, Dionysus occasionally using his divine powers to aid his young lover in the contests. [music]

The Dionysiaca, Book 11

Komos Douris BM E768

A satyr balances a wine cup on his penis in this red-figured psykter, done around the 490s BCE. Satyrs are everywhere in the Dionysiaca.

Dionysus and his young lover Ampelos continued to have a grand old time in the Anatolian wilderness, with Ampelos having won a victory in a recent footrace. Dionysus invited his lover to a swimming competition, and after a good deal of splashing and picturesque sunshine on water, Ampelos was victorious over the other contestants. Yet just as the lovers were reunited, Dionysus had an unsettling vision – a dragon carried a dying fawn in its jaws onto a stone altar. It meant, Dionysus intuited, that Ampelos was in grave danger.

Soon enough, the frightening prophetic vision began to come true. A goddess, sent by Hera, met with Ampelos as Ampelos wandered through the woods. The goddess told Dionysus’ lover Ampelos that there was something Ampelos could do that would truly impress Dionysus and win his favor even further – Ampelos could ride a wild bull! On cue, a wild bull appeared, a magnificent creature drinking water from a stream. Excited and obviously gullible, the satyr Ampelos first made himself a goad from some nearby plants and then bedecked the bull with leaves and rushes, roses and daffodils. Then, tossing a spotted skin onto the bull’s back, he jumped astride the creature. But things took a turn for the worse. In a moment of braggadocio, Ampelos said that he was a horned satyr on top of a horned bull, and asked who could beat this. The moon goddess – and in Greek mythology the crescent moon is often said to have horns – the moon goddess became irritated at this claim, and sent a gadfly to bother Ampelos’ bull. The wild bull dashed ahead, and Ampelos realized he was doomed, begging the bull to stop and hoping that Dionysus would lament his passing. Soon, atop nearby mountains, the bull bucked, and Ampelos flew off, breaking his neck and only moments later being gored by the animal’s hooves and horns.

Another satyr found the tangled remains and brought word to Dionysus. Dionysus draped a fawn skin over his lover’s body, along with fresh flowers. He put a thyrsus staff – that pinecone-topped, ivy-woven staff which was the emblem of Dionysus in the Greek world – Dionysus put a thyrsus staff in Ampelos’ hand, lamented extensively, and vowed to avenge his death. Dionysus wished that he had not been born a god, so that he could follow his love to Hades, and then his thoughts turned once more darkly to revenge. But the satyr Silenus came and offered the bereaved Dionysus a story – a tale about two other male lovers. These were Carpos and Calamos – in a swimming competition, Carpos drowned, and in his lamentation, Calamos drowned himself and then turned into a bank of reeds, reeds which sung their requiem whenever breezes passed along the shoreline. The tale certainly didn’t cure Dionysus of his grief, but after it was told, the autumn winds carried the season’s passing to the house of the sun god Helios, and for the first time, something new in the world began. [music]

The Dionysiaca, Book 12

As Dionysus mourned Ampelos, deities converged in the house of Helios to determine how the first wine would be made, and who would be involved. Consulting ancient oracles, the council saw a prophecy that just as corn and grain would be the dominion of the goddess Demeter, wine would be that of Dionysus. A goddess went to tell Dionysus just this.

The wine god – or very-soon-to-be wine god – was at this juncture still lamenting his dead lover Ampelos. The messenger goddess told Dionysus not to be sad, for Ampelos, whose name once again means “vine,” had great things in store for him. Ampelos, she said, would prompt Dionysus to crown himself with vines, and afterward, to “dispense a drink, the earthly image of heavenly nectar, the comfort of the human race” (12.157-9), because this drink would soon be a delight to every corner of the world. And it was then that Ampelos transformed. He lengthened, his body planting itself, his limbs elongating, and everywhere, vines and runners and grapes of every hue burst out of him. This was only the beginning, though, as a whole vineyard followed, stretching as far as the eye could see. Dionysus crushed some of the new grapes into a drinking horn and savored the thick mixture, proclaiming it on par with heavenly ambrosia. Under the effects of the drink, Dionysus quickly proclaimed that his gift to humanity was better than Demeter’s grain, because wine made people savor foods at the table and lose themselves in dancing.

Under ecstatic inspiration, Dionysus changed his thyrsus staff into a sickle and harvested bunches of grapes, placing them into a hole in the ground – a makeshift wine press. Then, Dionysus and his satyr friends danced all over the pulpy masses of grapes, dipping their drinking horns down into the resulting mixture. Some form of instantaneous fermentation had taken place, because the satyrs quickly began showing signs of inebriation – one or two stumbling, and one or two suddenly chasing after water nymphs and nearby women. As for Dionysus, he gloatingly entered the cave of his grandmother Rhea, showing her the miraculous new creation of wine. Unlike all of the staggering satyrs, Dionysus was protected from inebriety, because his grandmother Rhea had given him an amethyst crystal – the Greek word αμέθυστος coming from the roots α, or “not” and μεθύσκω, or “intoxicate” – amethyst in the ancient world was a talisman designed to prevent drunkenness. I’ve tried that, by the way – wearing amethyst to prevent drunkenness. Totally works. Totally [hiccup] works. [music]

The Dionysiaca, Book 13

At this point – a quarter of the way through the Dionysiaca, by the way, the long epic’s exposition concludes and its rising action begins in earnest. Book 13 opens with the following words:
Father Zeus sent [the messenger goddess] Iris to the divine halls of Rheia, to inform. . .Dionysos, that he must drive out of Asia with his avenging thyrsus the proud race of Indians untaught of justice: he was to sweep from the sea the horned son of a river, Deriades the king, and teach all nations the sacred dances of the vigil and the purple fruit of vintage. (8.1-6)
Zeus, in other words, wanted Dionysus to lead a military campaign into India, to teach the Indians and their king about sacred Greek rites as well as wine. While I’m not convinced that a military campaign is strictly necessary to share cultural rituals and certainly not to introduce people to alcohol, which is quite a self-explanatory substance, Dionysus’ great eastward mission through Anatolia, Syria, Mesopotamia, Central Asia, and down into the western part of the subcontinent is hereafter the main subject of the remainder of the epic.

Once the news of Dionysus’ looming campaign was delivered to the young god and his grandmother Rhea, Rhea and her lieutenants began gathering an army for Dionysus. The troops hailed from all over. There were satyrs and centaurs. Troops came from all over Boeotia, from Phocis and the territories around Delphi, Euboea, Crete, Attica and the islands of the Saronic Gulf, Arcadia, Sicily, Libya, Samothrace, Cyprus, Lydia, Phrygia, and more. In epic tradition, following Book 2 of Homer’s Iliad, there is a convention called “the gathering of armies,” in which the epic poet enumerates a list of heroes and their forces hailing from all over the place. To the modern reader, such catalogs are bewildering – the 13th book of the Dionysiaca assaults us with hundreds of proper nouns involving places, heroes, and heroic lineages. In the Iliad, at least, the Homeric Catalog of Ships in Book 2 of the Iliad gives us a sense of Archaic Greece’s conception of geography – modern scholars study the Homeric catalog of ships to understand what ancient Greeks knew about the world around 700 BCE. However, 1,200 years or so later, Nonnus’ catalog of Dionysus’ armies in Book 13 of the Dionysiaca is an odd anachronism – a faux-antique catalog of archaic Greek heroes, seeded with ancient names and places stemming more from thousand-year-old poetic traditions than the geographical knowledge of Nonnus’ contemporary Byzantine world. [music]

The Dionysiaca, Book 14

Now that Rhea had marshaled troops to fight for Dionysus – troops from all over the Aegean and western parts of Anatolia, she moved on to her next task. It wasn’t just human heroes who would fight on behalf of Dionysus – Dionysus also needed semi divine forces. These powerful auxiliaries included creatures from the ocean, cave dwellers, cyclopes, powerful satyrs and horned centaurs – side note, Nonnus seems to really love centaurs, as his catalog of them is extensive. Anyway, continuing on the powerful non-human forces Rhea gathered for her grandson Dionysus, there were also powerful forest dwelling beings shagged over with ivy and snakes, and a general to lead them – a creature called Eiraphiotes, armed only with a thyrsus, mug of wine, and a crown of leaves.

Achilleus Lyra

A fresco of the centaur Chiron offering instruction to the young Achilles in a first century Roman fresco from Herculaneum. Centaurs, a frequent fixture of visual art featuring Dionysus, are everywhere in the Dionysiaca.

Dionysus went to meet his troops, at the rock of Niobe – a place called Mount Sipylus near Izmir on the central west coast of Anatolia. And the rock itself cried out eastward, warning the Indian armies not to attempt making war on Dionysus and challenge the campaign of a god. To pause the narrative for just a moment here and repeat something from earlier, today, when we think of India today, we think of the modern country currently home to more than 1.3 billion people. To Nonnus, however, “India,” and “Indians” more generally means ancient folks from the eastern parts of Anatolia and beyond. Thus, when Dionysus marshals his armies and shows a display of force against the Indian nation in the Dionysiaca, and does so near the west coast of modern day Turkey, in Nonnus’ imagination, the god Dionysus was saber rattling right on the doorstep of the eastern, or Indian world – at least in ancient times of legend.

To continue with the plot of the Dionysiaca, every epic needs a divine antagonist. The goddess Hera, for the tangential reason that Dionysus was the offspring of her husband Zeus’ four hundred thousandth rape, decided that as much general revenge killing as possible was in order, and she stirred up the Indian forces against those of Dionysus. Specifically, Hera spurred on a powerful Indian leader named Aristaëis, an important Indian leader in the early part of this epic.

The Indian leader Aristaëis thus rallied his forces against those of Dionysus on the shore of a lake called Lake Astacid, putting his army into a defensive formation and awaiting the wine god’s attack. An important part of Dionysus’ forces were his Maenads – in ancient Greek culture a group understood as female celebrants of Dionysus whose ecstatic bouts of drunken revelry often descended into violence and the eating of raw flesh. These warriors spearheaded the first confrontation between Dionysus’ army and the army of the east, and Dionysus’ army dominated the enemy forces. The sound of the syrinx, or pan flute, rang over the battlefield and the blood of Dionysus’ enemies coursed into the nearby lake.

Dionysus, perhaps not a warrior in the core of his being, felt sorry for his massacred enemies, and so he changed Lake Astacid into wine. An Indian aristocrat who had survived the initial battle drank deeply from the lake, and he raved about the sensations that he was experiencing as a result. It was the first step in Dionysus’ long, weird quest to get the eastern world drunk through a violent military campaign. [music]

The Dionysiaca, Book 15

Curious about the wine in the lake, Indians ringed around the waterway and all tried it. Collectively, they became inebriated, some simply falling asleep, and other becoming so confused that they thought local animals were the forces of Dionysus, and variously attacked cattle and goats. Some of the drunken easterners picked olives, while others danced, and still others unsuccessfully tried to rape a stray Maenad. But gradually, sleep overtook more and more of them, until, staring out over the drunken stupor of his enemies, Dionysus laughed. He told his forces to tie up the enemy forces, and soon the whole enemy army was bound and defenseless.

And at this point in the narrative, a new character is introduced – one important to this juncture of the story. She was a huntress, and a virgin nymph, and her name was Nicaea. As Nonnus writes, the virgin huntress Nicaea did not “care for perfume: rather than honey-mixed bowls she preferred watery draughts from a mountain brook, as she poured out cool water; lonely cliffs with nature’s vaulted roof were the maiden’s inaccessible dwelling” (15.188-90). A standard- issue beautiful sylvan virgin huntress, then, Nicaea enjoyed companionship with animals over people. One day, an oxherd saw Nicaea – a young man named Hymnos. Hymnos, grazing his herd on the edge of the forest, saw the beautiful Nicaea, and he fell deeply in love with her, conniving to steal glimpses of her uncovered legs as she dashed through the forest and the wind lifted her robes aloft. With none-too-subtle innuendo, Nonnus puts these lines into the lovelorn Hymnos’ mouth, as the rural oxherd stares at the beautiful huntress Nicaea – young Hymnos says, “O that I were a shaft. . .O that I were a beast-hitting lance, that she might carry me in her bare hands” (15.258-60). Young Hymnos spoke longingly of the beautiful Nicaea for a page or so, and then he worked up his courage to steal her hunting gear, kissing her armaments with breathless devotion.

And then, finally, he told Nicaea how he felt, and he played her a wedding song on his shepherd’s pipes. Beautiful Nicaea, not being interested in a union with the lusty herdsman, gripped her lance. But the display of resolve only drove young Hymnos into further depths of passionate desperation – he told her that indeed she would kill him if she rejected him, and so to take his life right there and then. After two pages of Hymnos’ flowery rhetoric, Nicaea took him at his word, and shot him in the throat to shut him up, and he died.

It’s quite an unexpected ending, and in my opinion very amusing in a darkly humorous way, but Nicaea’s neighboring forest spirits were displeased that she had simply executed the young man who had so desperately attempted to woo her. Wood and water nymphs of all stamps, and soon Eros himself weighed in on what was to be done, until even Artemis, the grand dame of virginal woodland huntresses, felt a little sorry for the lovesick and departed Hymnos. [music]

The Dionysiaca, Book 16

Still reeling over the death of Hymnos and callus rejections of Nicaea, several divine beings sprang into action. And the god Eros – or Cupid – shot an arrow at our hero Dionysus. After being struck, Dionysus caught a glimpse of the lovely maiden Nicaea, and, unable to resist the whims of lust, he began to pursue her. As rapturous amatory monologues seem to be a compulsion of those pursuing virginal forest huntresses, Dionysus loosed a soliloquy several pages in length as to his newly awakened feelings for Nicaea. He reviewed all of the fine gifts that he could give her, and chased her, calling out, “Wait, maiden, for Bacchos your bedfellow!” (16.145-6). Presumptuous lines, certainly, and Nicaea deemed them so, too, telling Dionysus to get lost, and to definitely keep his grubby hands off of her gear, and in more clever innuendo, she told him, “I keep the bow, you the thyrsus” (16.165-6). Even if she wanted a man, said Nicaea, it wouldn’t be the soft-skinned wine god Dionysus.

Dionysus, however, persisted, following and chasing the annoyed huntress until she became parched with thirst. Eventually, Nicaea came to a strange river, and she drank from it. It seemed that crafty Dionysus had worked some of his magic, because the river was wine, and Nicaea was soon seeing double – there were two rivers, two lakes, and a hill became two hills, like a pair of breasts. Nicaea, a stranger to alcohol, passed out, and Dionysus leaned over the unconscious girl. As he did so, a grape arbor grew around them, and Dionysus raped her in her sleep. In the realm between dream and consciousness, the departed herdsman Hymnos taunted the just-deflowered girl who had murdered him, and then he vanished into the underworld.

When Nicaea awakened, she was stricken, tearing at her cheeks and hitting her thighs in rage, then crying and contemplating taking her own life. She fired arrows upwards, hoping that one of them would find its way to Dionysus, and even swore furiously at the river. She was also pregnant, and in due course gave birth to a baby girl. Near where these events had happened, Dionysus built the city of Nicaea – being the famous Late Antique city of Nicaea, about 60 miles southeast of modern-day Istanbul. [music]

The Dionysiaca, Book 17

In Book 17 of the Dionysiaca, the title character gets on the move. Dionysus and his forces packed their bags and tromped eastward through the great cities of Anatolia. The hero’s first major stop was in an obscure spot in the countryside. Dionysus paused his march at the hut of a country dwelling fellow named Brongus. Brongus was a shepherd, and he regaled the visiting Dionysus with all of the country fare he could muster up. Brongus even ingratiated the wine god by playing him some music on shepherd’s pipes, until Dionysus decided to give Brongos the gift of wine. The wine god showed the countryman how to plant and tend to a vineyard, but not long after this, Dionysus had other things to deal with.

If you’ll remember, Dionysus had earlier fought an Indian leader named Aristaëis. This Aristaëis had fled eastward to the river Orontes in Syria. There, the number two leader of all of the Indian people lived – he was a prince, and his name, somewhat confusingly, was Orontes. Aristaëis told Orontes about Dionysus plunging eastward into their territory through Anatolia. And Aristaëis told the Indian Prince Orontes about wine – how Aristaëis himself had not had any, but how those Indians who had partook of wine had become feeble and had their heads become clouded. Just as the Indian Prince Orontes became agitated with the news, Dionysus’ armies arrived, and a new battle broke out.

Dionysus’ satyrs attacked furiously, using their great strength to tear enemy troops to pieces. But Prince Orontes was no shrinking violet. He killed two full grown centaurs, and then more of Dionysus’ forces, until the Indian prince and the wine god squared off against one another in a showdown of leaders. A glancing blow to Dionysus’ horned head did nothing to slow him down, but Orontes was undaunted. He taunted Dionysus, telling Dionysus that the god was no burly martial deity, but instead a weak leader of a motley tribe. In response, Dionysus tapped a bunch of grapes on Orontes’ armor, and Orontes’ armor broke and flopped off with a clangorous thud, leaving the Indian prince completely naked! Humiliated, and suddenly aware of his defenselessness, Orontes gave a short speech, and then impaled himself on his sword before tumbling into the river, which is how, according to Nonnus, the river Orontes gets its name. Dionysus taunted his fallen adversary, but in spite of the Indian prince’s defeat, the battle raged on along the banks of the Syrian river, with Dionysus’ armies managing a victory after a fierce day of fighting. [music]

The Dionysiaca, Book 18

News quickly spread of the swift eastward incursions of Dionysus’ armies, and soon, the cities of Assyria heard word of the strange god from the Aegean. In case your antique geography isn’t crystal clear, Assyria was a large ancient civilization centered in the northern part of modern-day Iraq. So, thus far in the Dionysiaca, using the names of modern-day countries for ease of understanding, Dionysus was born in Thebes on the Greek mainland, came of age and fought initial military engagements in western Turkey, hustled down about 500 miles to the southeast, to the Orontes River in Syria, and then traveled eastward into northern or central Iraq.

Anyway, the Assyrians, and their king and prince, were absolutely on board with Dionysus, his entourage, and his trademark beverage, and they pulled out all the stops in terms of hospitality. Nonnus describes the Assyrian palace in a passage that could have come from the French decadent movement:
The walls were white with solid silver. There was the lychnite, which takes its name from light, turning its glistening gleams on the faces of men. The place was also decorated with the glowing ruby stone, and showed winecoloured amethyst set beside sapphire. The pale agate threw off its burnt sheen, and the snakestone sparkled in speckled shapes of scales; the Assyrian emerald discharged its greeny flash. Stretched over a regiment of pillars along the hall the gilded timbers of the of the roof showed a reddish glow in their opulent roofs. The floor shone with the intricate patterns of a tessellated pavement of metals. (18.72-83)
In this lustrous palace hall, Dionysus was treated to feasts, and the city broke out in celebrations of the visiting stranger. Palace guests danced jubilantly, and the revelers drank all day long, through twilight and then torchlight and deep into the night.

In the early hours of the morning, Dionysus had foreboding dreams of a lion assaulting him and his forces. Later, once everyone was awake, it was time for the wine god and his forces to set out for the day. The Assyrian king gave Dionysus parting gifts and bade him a very fond farewell for the day. The Assyrian king told Dionysus that Dionysus would be as mighty as Zeus and accomplish similar feats of strength. And with these royal blessings, Dionysus set out – it seems, just to march around the Assyrian capital offering his signature gifts of wine and revelry. After a long day of dashing around the Assyrian heartland and converting the locals to wine, Dionysus returned to his host’s palace. Once there, though, it was clear that something was wrong. The news, as it turned out, was dire indeed. The friendly King of Assyria, who’d played such a good and kindly host to Dionysus, had died.

The Dionysiaca, Book 19

Now, there are conventions in the tradition of the Greek epic. One is the catalog of armies, as we saw earlier. Another is ekphrasis, or very extensive descriptions of objects and works of art, as we’ll see soon. And a third is funeral games – athletic competitions for prizes in the wake of a fallen character, such as we see in Book 23 of the Iliad, when the whole momentum of history’s greatest epic sputters to a weird stop so that we can watch Ajax and Odysseus slip on singlets and sweat on the wrestling mat together. Funeral games, then, the fifteen-minute unaccompanied bass guitar solo of literature, are a narrative convention that allowed poets to write about athletic competitions in ways that they believed would impress other poets also indoctrinated heavily into the epic tradition. Nonnus, in Book 19 of the Dionysiaca, offers us a book full of funeral games for the recently departed minor character, the King of Assyria. I am tempted to simply say, “Funeral games, boom, done,” to summarize this entire book, but to give you your money’s worth, let me offer a quick summary paragraph of Nonnus’ particular iteration of this staple of the epic tradition.

Setting forth a bull and a goat next to the tomb of the departed Assyrian king, Dionysus began the affair with a musical contest. In this contest, the father of Orpheus was able to beat an early Athenian king, and the prizes were appropriately doled out. Next up was a dancing competition, during which a pair of prominent satyrs performed pantomime dances, which Nonnus describes in exhausting detail, down to the ancient satyr Silenus twirling and clicking his hoofed feet together. Following the lengthy dancing and pantomime competition, prizes were distributed appropriately, after which Nonnus gets his vast tale back on track. [music]

The Dionysiaca, Book 20

Following the splendid funeral games for the Assyrian king, Dionysus and his great army spent a final evening in the environs of the Assyrian capital. And that night, after further festivities, Dionysus had another prophetic dream. The goddess Eris, or Strife, came to the wine god in his sleep. It wasn’t time to repose by the Assyrian citadel, Eris told Dionysus. The great Indian king Deriades was as yet undefeated, and the goddess Hera was mocking Dionysus’ laggard progress. Other gods, too, were talking, and saying that maybe Dionysus was just indisposed to battle. What kind of a son of Zeus was Dionysus, as he had scarcely garnered any martial victories at all?

Dionysus took this speech to heart. He awoke with a sudden cry, and put on his most formidable accoutrements. His army, too, broke camp and began their journey onward. And their ranks were swelled, now, with new Assyrian forces – fighters who voluntarily joined them as they marched onward, further to the south. Passing through what is today Syria and Jordan, the army arrived in the territories of Arabia. Now, Dionysus and company had enjoyed a warm reception in Assyria, but in Arabia, their coming was not met with any friendly fanfare. A king called Lycurgus ruled there. Lycurgus was a bit of a psychopath. He liked to torture and kill for pleasure, and had even imprisoned his adult daughter for life, just for fun. His palace gates were decorated with severed heads and other body parts, and severed hands and feet ringed the doorways of his castle. He also enjoyed collecting scented candles. Just kidding, made that up.

Into the bloodstained halls of the cruel Arabian King Lycurgus came the news that Dionysus had arrived. The goddess Strife appeared disguised as Ares, promising King Lycurgus great things if Dionysus and his forces were defeated. And Strife also appeared to Dionysus, promising Dionysus – falsely – that King Lycurgus might be a valuable ally. And so Dionysus went to the palace of King Lycurgus, and, evidently not put off by the severed body parts stapled all over the place, had an audience with the stranger. Lycurgus, for his part, was immediately hostile. He attacked Dionysus and his forces with a poleaxe. Dionysus’ party, unarmed as they had expected a friendly reception, were caught off guard. His escort scattered, and Dionysus himself hurried away and hid in the waters of the Red Sea. The sea nymph Thetis comforted Dionysus. It wasn’t his fault, she said – Lycurgus had caught him unarmed, and Lycurgus had been aided by Hera herself. Meanwhile, far above the depths of the ocean, Lycurgus roared in anger at the ocean, telling fishermen to drag the water with nets to retrieve Dionysus. At this point, though, Zeus had to say something, warning the violent Arabian monarch to take it easy on the blasphemy and murderous attempts on the wine god’s life. [music]

The Dionysiaca, Book 21

Book 21 of the Dionysiaca opens with Dionysus still hidden underwater in the Red Sea, and Lycurgus chest beating about his partial victory over the wine god. Lycurgus attacked some of Dionysus’ maenads. But persistence and sheer violence beat Lycurgus back, until his armor was torn off and he was wound with vines and leaves. Backed only by Ares, and facing the full brunt of Zeus, Poseidon, Rhea, Dionysus, and more, Lycurgus was undaunted, and he prayed that he might burn his way into the ocean to attack Dionysus directly. Before Lycurgus could get himself in any more trouble, though, Hera came to his rescue.

Cornelis de Vos - The Triumph of Bacchus - WGA25311

Cornelius de Vos’ Triumph of Bacchus (17th century). While not exactly a warmongering deity like Mars, Nonnus’ Dionysiaca certainly isn’t the flabby sybarite shown here.

Meanwhile Dionysus remained hidden in the sea, as his satyrs and other forces searched for him. Slowly, their jocularity faded and they dropped their musical instruments, crestfallen at their leader’s departure.

As all this action was happening on the Arabian Peninsula, a courier had gone from Dionysus’ camp over the Hindu Kush to meet with the Indian King Deriades. Deriades, henceforward, will be the central antagonist of the epic, alongside Hera, so Deriades is a name to remember. King Deriades of India took a careful look at the satyr who had come to him on behalf of Dionysus, and mocked the satyr’s appearance. Still, Dionysus’ emissary delivered his message. He told the Indian King Deriades that Dionysus was coming, and that Dionysus “commands the Indians to accept the wine of his care-forgetting vintage, and to pour libations to the immortals, without war, without battle” (21.224-5). While I think a vast majority of us would concede to having a little wine in order to avoid a catastrophic war, the Indian King Deriades felt differently, and he scoffed at the notion of doing this. He wouldn’t pour out libations to Greek gods, he said – to him there were just two gods – earth and water. And if that sounds familiar, it’s because in Herodotus, earth and water are the two things that the Greeks are told to pay as tribute to the Achaemenid Persians in order to avoid war with them.10

King Deriades, then, was uninterested in any peacemaking with Dionysus’ envoys. He told the satyr that the poor satyr would stay with him and be forced to fan him with the creature’s great ears, and King Deriades dispatched a message to Dionysus that Dionysus would now have to face him in battle. The grim message, when it reached Dionysus’ camp, found the army of the wine god in a festive mood. Because Dionysus had finally arisen from the ocean and rejoined his forces. The celebrating Dionysus was soon greeted with the message from beyond the Hindu Kush. Perhaps not wanting to be surprised again in the way that the Arabian King Lycurgus had surprised him, Dionysus again had his forces prepare for travel, and the armies built a fleet of ships, while Dionysus himself sped eastward overland. The Indian King Deriades, no mere blowhard, prepared for the western army’s arrival. Along the banks of the Jhelum River, where the northern parts of India and Pakistan come together today, Deriades prepared an ambush – one carefully concealed by the close trunks and dense leaves of a silent forest. [music]

The Dionysiaca, Book 22

Dionysus and his forces arrived at the Jhelum River to face off against those of the Indian King Deriades, and the environs of the waterway broke out into celebration. Wine emerged from rocks, and honey appeared in streams, as animals began dancing, and tigers and elephants pranced about. The hidden Indian army watched all of these strange things happening, and quaked with fear. It was perfectly clear to them that the forces of Dionysus were no mere marauding foreign army, and that something strange and divine had come. They prepared to offer supplications appropriate to a visiting deity, but the goddess Hera urged them instead to fight. Before the Indian armies could pursue their ambush, though, a stray nymph from the river Jhelum saw the Indian forces, and rather than supporting the armies of her own territories, she hurried to tell Dionysus of the planned ambush.

The next day, just after dawn, battle broke out. A powerful Indian leader named Thureus commanded the forces from the east, while Dionysus himself commanded his motley battalions. Aiming his thyrsus staff into Indian ranks, Dionysus scattered them, and one of his lieutenants, the father of Orpheus, also distinguished himself in that day’s combat. Borrowing widely from the standards of epic war poetry, Nonnus treats us to several epic similes, exceedingly violent deaths and dying men’s teeth gnashing the bloody turf, the aristeia, or invincible battle frenzies, brief confrontations between prominent captains, and nearby waterways becoming clouded with blood. And once again borrowing from the standards of earlier epic poetry, eventually the nearby river, in this case again the Jhelum, became so clouded with blood that the local spirits and indeed river itself elected to rise up against those making war on its shores. [music]

The Dionysiaca, Book 23

Dionysus and his lieutenant Aiacos fought enemy forces fiercely in the reddening waters of the river Jhelum. Enemy forces slogged through the mud, sinking to their ankles and then feet and then torsos, and lower still. As the hours went by, Nonnus tells us, “The carnage was infinite; [the River Jhelum] covered the dead with his reluctant flood, and became their tomb” (23.76-8). But the river itself became furious – its banks were becoming completely clogged with swollen corpses, and with armor, weaponry. And living warriors also churned in the rivers – cavalrymen mounted on horses, foot soldiers, chariots and elephants.

The river struck back. It amassed its water on the land and threw a cataract of fluid at Dionysus and his forces. Dionysus, undaunted, taunted it in return, and the river prepared to drown the western army altogether. But Dionysus fought water with fire, drawing flames from a nearby embankment and pressing an inferno directly into the river itself. It was an extreme move, this hurling a burning blaze into a river, and various water deities balked at Dionysus’ attack on the river Jhelum, including the water gods Tethys and Oceanos. The latter, in particular, planned a severe counterattack against Dionysus – they couldn’t have water being burned with fire, for goodness sake! – and Oceanus summoned the great water deities, including Poseidon himself, to destroy Dionysus and his armies with a catastrophic flood.

The Dionysiaca, Book 24

Fortunately for everyone, a global flood was prevented. The River Jhelum asked Dionysus to relent with Dionysus’ blazing assault against the waterway. In a lengthy monologue, the river told Dionysus that it was not opposed to the wine god, and that it had once even washed Dionysus Zagreus, the wine god’s primal progenitor, in bygone times. Hearing the river’s appeal, Dionysus relented, and so Dionysus and his armies were finally able to traverse the River Jhelum, and cross more deeply into Indian territories. There, they made themselves at home, hunting and foraging and making their way further eastward.

And speaking of eastward, the Indian King Deriades heard word of his forces’ defeat at the River Jhelum. One of Deriades’ captains gave him the terrible news – Dionysus himself had fired leaves in volleys at the Indian army, and through shaking his thyrsus staff, he had beaten legions of the eastern king’s forces. Sorrowful, and yet resolved, Deriades went to consult with some of his Brahmins, and Nonnus’ use of this word, as scholar H.J. Rose writes in a note, is “The first indication that Nonnos knows anything of India.”11 Anyway, so, King Deriades retreated to an Indian city, leading his elephants away from the war torn banks of the Jhelum. Hearing news of India’s defeat in battle, citizens of the city lamented and wept together, wives and brides-to-be consoling one another, some of them vowing not to come near the River Jhelum again, as it had been the site where those they loved were massacred.

Meanwhile, Dionysus and his army guzzled endless amounts of wine and celebrated their victory. They sang songs, and one minstrel from Lesbos offered an 80-line song about a weaving contest between Aphrodite and Athena which, while not strictly relevant to the events of the story nor thematically appropriate to the solemn aftermath of an awful battle, was most certainly – um – a song performed in Nonnus’ ever-digressive Dionysiaca. As uneven as some of the Dionysiaca is sometimes, though, Nonnus concludes book 24, the halfway point in the epic, with some rich and haunting lines that demonstrate the strange beauty of the story. Nonnus says of Dionysus’ army that:
when they had surfeit of this table so well furnished with liquor, they fell on their beds in the wilderness spluttering wine: dropping on dappled fawnskins, or on spreads of leaves, or just spreading goatskins on the ground amid the deep dust. Some stretched their armoured bodies in the soldier’s sleep, and held traffic with battlerousing dreams. . .Tribes of leopards and wild packs of lions and hunting-dogs took turns in guarding Dionysos in the wilderness with sleepless eyes; all night they kept vigil in the mountain forest. . .Long lines of torches flashed up to Olympos, the lights of the dancing Bacchants which had no rest. (24.330-6, 342-7)
And that concludes the first half of Nonnus’ epic. [music]

Nonnus’ Unique Style

So that takes us through the first 24 books of the Dionysiaca, a mass of poetry that in itself is nearly the length of Homer’s Odyssey. In the remainder of this first program on the epic, I want to talk about two things. The first is Nonnus’ unique style, and the second is the way that he writes about India, and moreover easterners from beyond Mesopotamia. Let’s begin by discussing Nonnus’ style for a moment.

P.Berol. inv. 10567

A sixth or seventh century papyrus featuring lines from Book 15 of the Dionysiaca.

The 24 books that I have just distilled into an audio narrative for you are not light reading. Ancient Greek and Latin poetry was always written for an initiated culture – a culture familiar with at least the main points of a huge mythological web. I think that today, after we invest time in studying ancient literature, it’s easy to forget just how challenging the Iliad and Odyssey are to first time readers – how many names and characters and place references are in these early epics. These are works that mesmerize us and make us think about what it is to be human, but they’re also the products of a bygone culture that’s not our own, and the ancient Aegean can be cold and bewildering when you first jump in. But as challenging as Homer can be, later centuries of ancient Greek poetry can be even denser still. As time passed in the classical world, in no small part due to a broad transition from sung epic poetry to verses written on printed papyrus scrolls, by the 200s BCE, most famously in Alexandria, Greek poetry became more complex and allusive, with authors like Callimachus writing poetry for other poet-scholars like themselves. In the late Roman republic, Catullus and others continued the tradition of what we might call erudite poetry – verse that seeks to exhibit a poet’s knowledge more than to offer a narrative or message to an average literate person.12 In ancient literature, then, there were stage works by writers like Plautus and Terence, designed for mass circulation. And there were dense poems by writers like Callimachus and Catullus, intended for an in-group of literary readers. And there was of course everything in between, with silver age Latin authors like Statius capable of being unbearably pedantic, but also of just throwing down a good story.

Johann Friedrich Dieterich - The Triumph of Bacchus, 1826-1829

Johann Friedrich Dietrich’s The Triumph of Bacchus (1826-9). The thiasus scene has been a fixture of more modern art featuring Dionysus, as well as ancient art.

The point of all of this background is to introduce Nonnus’ style. Nonnus, as you’ve gathered throughout this program, is encyclopedic in his range of mythological knowledge, and not at all shy about showing this knowledge off. The range of his erudition, and his willingness to include enormous nested speeches, side tracks, etiologies, and tales within tales within tales sometimes create an incredibly difficult poem to read. Accordingly, Nonnus has not, until recently, had a very positive reputation in modern scholarship.13 The vastness and the diversity of the Dionysiaca – the poem’s narrative digressiveness, to put it in hopefully evenhanded terms – have inspired an increasing amount of scholarship, and the tone of this scholarship has changed over the past two generations. Much of the more recent scholarship has sought to valorize elements of Nonnus’ poetry that have traditionally proved challenging or annoying to readers, and thus in more recent scholarship we hear of how the poet shares a “game of connivance” with various subgroups of readers, that he writes in fugues, or rings, that he sets epyllion, or mini-epic, in the midst of full epic, that his style is baroque, or a “jeweled style,” and that he tells “the story behind the story,” in the words of some modern critics.14 In literary criticism, we are always valuing and revaluing things, generation after generation, and that’s the way it goes, and thus the critics of yesteryear kicked Nonnus to the curb, and modern scholarship is helping him back on his feet.

To do my small part in the current generation of scholarship’s revaluation of Nonnus, I want to simply read a couple of longer passages from the Dionysiaca to you. These are passages that make me think of artwork by Aubrey Beardsley and John William Waterhouse – passages with incredible detail and vinous, flowing lines, eeriness and danger, but at the same time fairytale beauty. Here’s a description from Book 14 of Dionysus’ army decamping and heading out for a day’s march.
[T]he warriors with the hillranging Bacchants hastened to meet the lord of the vine. The drivers of wheeled wagons carried shoots of the new plant of Bacchos. Many lines of mules went by, with jars of the viney nectar packed on their backs: slow asses had loads of purple rugs and manycoloured fawnskins on their patient backs. Winedrinkers besides carried silver mixingbowls with golden cups, the furniture of the feast. The Corybants were busy about the bright manger of the panthers, passing the yokestraps over their necks, and entrusted their lions to ivybound harness when they had fastened this threatening bit in their mouths. One Centaur with a bristling beard stretched his neck into the yoke willingly, unbidden; and the man mingled with horse half and half, craving the delicious wine even more than a Satyr, whinnied eager to carry Dionysos on his withers. (14.251-68)
That’s again the W.H.D. Rouse translation, published by Loeb in 1940. The army of Dionysus, in scene after scene in the Dionysiaca, is described like this – largely non-human, colorful creatures who appear from the shadows of the forest or the shallows of waterways. His centaurs, satyrs, maenads, and nymphs are capable of gory violence, but they are also not entirely of this world. To offer another example from today’s text, I want to read a passage about Dionysus and his entourage arriving in Assyria. This image, by the way, of Dionysus and his army arriving – usually from the east back into the Aegean – was common in ancient Greek art. Dionysus and his escort had a name – the thiasus, or throng of drunken and wild revelers, and so when Nonnus writes vignettes of the Dionysian army arriving or departing, he’s working within a tradition of visual as well as literary art.

So here’s a second passage – this one from early in Book 18, in which the wine god and his posse roll up to the Assyrian capital.
[T]he god’s charioteer took up the golden reins of the Mygdonian chariot, and drove the team of stormswift panthers with yokestraps on their necks, sparing not the whip, but whizzing a lavish lash to manage the beasts. Satyrs ran in front, striking up a dance and skipping round and round the hillranging car of [Dionysus]; troops of flowerloving Bacchant women ran on this side and that side, treading the rough tracks afoot, climbing with quick feet the narrow steps of the mountain-side, while their shoes beat in time with their rattling hands – thus they beguiled the labour of the steep stony path, stung with madness. And the Pans, high on their familiar rocks, danced in the dust with nimble feet, passing over the headlands of those untrodden precipices. (18.46-61).
There is an estrangement effect in passages like these. We look for a hero, or a moral cause to latch onto in the Dionysiaca, like brave Hector in the Iliad, wily Odysseus in the Odyssey, and long-suffering Aeneas in the Aeneid. Instead we find a protagonist who is constantly changing shape and agenda, and always, eerie, restless images – images of strange creatures, half concealed by ivy and river water, and nouns and lineages – a forest of names, places, parentages, and anecdotes within stories within stories. The net effect of it all can, once again, make for extremely difficult reading, but as I said at the outset of this program, it’s also reading that we don’t soon forget.

India and Indians in the Dionysiaca

There’s a lot to still discuss with the Dionysiaca, but before we wrap up this opening episode, to keep things at a manageable length, I want to end by briefly telling you a bit about how Nonnus describes India and Indian people in his epic. To repeat a third time, when Nonnus uses the word “India,” he is describing an ancient and mythological foreign body geographically east of Mesopotamia and the Arabian Peninsula, and not the Gupta Empire that was actually ascendant on the subcontinent when Nonnus lived and wrote in the 400s.

South Asia historical AD450 EN

The Gupta Empire and Vakakataka Kingdom, circa 450 CE, map by Woudloper. Nonnus’ epic, much of which is set in India, doesn’t reveal any knowledge of the subcontinent beyond the names of some rivers and a mention of brahmins.

Nonnus, as I mentioned earlier, doesn’t appear to know much about the real Late Antique Indian world east of where he lived on the Egyptian Nile. Nonnus mentions Brahmins at one point (24.162). But he also seems to think that the Indus River is close to the Red Sea (33.323), and that Ethiopians were part of the Indian army (26.339). Needless to say, as of the 400s when Nonnus was living and working, reliable geographical texts with full color maps weren’t exactly falling off of the shelves of neighborhood bookstores. As we learned in earlier episodes of this sequence on Lucian of Samosata and Heliodorus, ancient works of Greek and Latin history and geography made liberal use of fiction. Herodotus assures us that giant ants live in India and create golden ant hills, that headless creatures live in Libya, and that winged snakes dwelt on the Arabian Peninsula, and other, later ancient geographers wrote even sillier stuff than this.15 Nonnus thus came of age in a time when Greek language writers had been setting down bizarre fables about India for a thousand years, and being nothing if not bookish, Nonnus likely sopped up a lot of myths and legends about the subcontinent through codices and scrolls.16

Since Aeschylus produced The Persians way back in 472 BCE, Greek writers had been setting down stories about the east. Nonnus, like Aeschylus did a thousand years before him, gives Indian characters Greek names, and assumes that they were familiar with Greek gods and myths – something that strains our suspension of disbelief as modern readers, but in Nonnus’ time was quite an old convention. But there is another element of the way that Nonnus describes India and Indians that is much more difficult to ignore. This is the way that he describes the appearances of Indian people, and connectedly Dionysus’ overall mission abroad in India.

As the war between Dionysus and the peoples of the east intensifies, at one point Zeus announces, “I alone fight for Dionysus with my blazing fire. . .until Bacchos shall destroy the black nation root and branch” (27.314-5). The Indians are called a “black army” (29.5), and a “black nation” (29.47) led by a “blackskin king” (28.209). The epic’s second invocation announces Dionysus’ mission to “slay the race of. . .Indians” (25.22), and a deity later reminds Dionysus of the wine god’s quest to “destroy the wollyheaded nation of Indians” (25.326). Again and again throughout the epic, and I mean dozens and dozens of times, Nonnos emphasizes that the forces arrayed against Dionysus had black skin, at one point calling them “the blackskin nation of earthborn Indians” (29.47).17 And at several points, even though Dionysus’ armies are largely made up of creatures with horns and hooves, Nonnus even describes the conflict in the east as a race war between those with pale skin and those with dark skin. Among Dionysus’ forces is a hero named Hymenaios, and in one passage Nonnus describes how “Longhaired Hymenaios fought swinging his sword. . .and cut down black Indians with his rosy hand. He blazed in radiance: you might see him in the midst of the Indians, like the bright morning star against ugly darkness” (29.15-17). A little later in the epic, when the Dionysian armies are losing as easterners breach their siege walls, “the blackskin men had wild uproar of defensive battle within the city, destroying the snow-white host” (34.356-7).

There is a lot of this sort of thing in the epic, up until the war’s closing moments when the Dionysians take captives and “Many a blackskin bride was dragged out of her chamber by the hair, her neck bound fast under the yoke of slavery, spoil of war along with her newly wedded husband” (40.269-71). As a point of contrast, the central conflicts of earlier epics – the Iliad, the Aeneid, and the Thebaid – these are wars between equally human and equally valorous groups – Greeks and Trojans, Trojans and native Italians, followers of Polynices and followers of Eteocles. They are not conflicts in which a group of heroes overmasters a group of largely homogenous and villainous enemies. The Dionysiaca, however, is a different story – the tale of a holy war led by a god, more akin to Yahweh and Moses smashing Egypt and its Pharaoh in Exodus, or the destruction of Canaan in the Books of Joshua and Judges than the Trojan War or settlement of the Italian Peninsula in Homer and Virgil, respectively. Dionysus’ mission is one of cultural and theological imperialism – to kill and enslave a dark-skinned foreign population until they are subdued. This isn’t a minor feature of the Dionysiaca, but instead the grounding motivation of most of the epic.

Nonnus, obviously, didn’t invent nationalistic rhetoric about destroying foreign nations. The easterners in the Dionysiaca are also sometimes just called “barbarians” or “barbarian hordes” (23.3), and Greek and Latin language texts had often made pejorative generalizations about foreign bodies in the past. To some extent the Dionysiaca is just a fairytale, and intended as such. Scholar H.J. Rose writes that “As early as the [200s B.C.] the traditional stories of the doings of gods and heroes had ceased, save perhaps as allegories, to command belief among educated people, the only class for whom. . .authors [like Nonnus] wrote” (x). Thus, Nonnus’ geography is sketchy and his unflattering depictions of dark-complexioned people are startling in the familiar prejudices that they suddenly bring to the old epic tradition. But while some elements of the Dionsyiaca indeed make it a sort of “Drunk White Man’s Burden” poem of the 400s CE, many elements do not. The epic’s heroes are occasionally – pointedly – alabaster skinned nymphs and heroes campaigning abroad. But they are also drunken satyrs, priestesses clashing cymbals together, tree spirits, and centaurs, led by an erratic and insane deity whose cardinal mission is to make everyone on earth experience what it’s like to be inebriated. They shoot vines of ivy at assailants and fight with magic leafy wands, they wear animal skins and enjoy interspecial fornication, they ride panthers and cast magic spells, and they spend much of the vast epic shaking twigs and flowers at their foes while almost black out drunk. There is thus a familiar varnish of racism over much of the Dionysiaca, but the epic itself is so persistently bizarre that we’re constantly reminded that it’s an elaborate fable, and not a work intended as actual history. Additionally, if our sources are correct and Nonnus was indeed from the middle Egyptian Nile, he wouldn’t have exactly been from some backwater where everyone looked the same, but instead a transcontinental highway with all sorts of folks going up and down river. The tradition of quote unquote “India” as a realm of dark-skinned people reluctant to accept Dionysus may have been a centuries-old convention Nonnus inherited and recycled, and not something endemic to his version of the story.

I am ultimately not sure what to make of Nonnus’ particular iteration of the old east and west dichotomy that dates back to Herodotus and Aeschylus a thousand years earlier. It is something that you cannot possibly miss or ignore when you read the Dionysiaca today, and so as a presenter of course I didn’t want to pass over it. If Nonnus indeed intended to make nasty generalizations about Central or South Asia, then fittingly, much later in literary history, he himself was denounced as the product of eastern, and Byzantine decadence.18 As you may know, long before the Great Schism of 1054 split the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, the Latin-speaking clergy of western Europe, and moreover Imperial Roman and Late Antique authors writing in Latin didn’t always have positive remarks to make about the Byzantine Empire. Latin prejudices against the Greek east as effeminate and overwrought date back to at least the works of Cato the Elder in the second century BCE. Throughout Late Antiquity, Byzantium, and then Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire, in the western European imagination became associated with decadence and degeneracy, with eunuchs in gilded robes, with elaborate court culture and the decay of sexual morality. Ironically, then, Nonnus, who had once created or recycled disparaging stereotypes about an eastern culture, eventually fell prey to disparaging stereotypes about an eastern culture, his notoriously convoluted style being maligned, in the words of scholar H.J. Rose, as “The Greek myths in their final stage of degeneracy.”19 Incredibly, this is a phrase in the very first sentence of the introduction to the three volume Loeb edition I’ve used throughout this program – quite a condemnatory remark to launch a 1,500 page work of ensemble scholarship. [music]

Moving on to Books 25-48 of the Dionysiaca

Well, I don’t want to end on such a low note with poor old Nonnus, a poet who has only rarely enjoyed a very positive reputation. The Dionysiaca, all in all, being such a long work, has some rough spots. But it is still an absolutely enormous swathe of text, and a curio cabinet from Late Antiquity that shows us pagan literary culture, like so many blossoms and sprouts and seedlings within the poem, continuing to burgeon alongside the newer traditions of Christianity. So next time, we will wrap up the narrative of the Dionysiaca, including a nearly eight book long epilogue that follows the close of the central war. And we’ll also take a look at Nonnus’ paraphrase of the Gospel of John, a work which was actually more famous than the Dionysiaca up until the beginning of the 17th century.20 While readers have had very different reactions to Nonnus’ Dionysiaca, we all seem to agree that Nonnus was a grandmaster of the ancient Mediterranean myths and their many variations, and so it’s especially interesting to hear the way that he retells the intellectual Greek world’s favorite Gospel. Setting Nonnus’ version of John next to the Dionysiaca we will see a famous, and in my opinion very touching example of Late Antique culture having it both ways, and embracing the great narratives of paganism as well as Christianity. So join me next time for the rest of the longest surviving epic from pagan antiquity as we bring Nonnus’ Dionysiaca to its conclusion. Thanks for listening to Literature and History. There’s a quiz on this program in the details of your podcast app if you want to review. For you Patreon supporters, with this show coming out on October 31st, I’ve recorded two more stories by Edgar Allan Poe – “The Masque of Red Death” and the “Cask of Amontillado” for your Halloween fun. Got a song coming up – stick around to hear it, and if not, bring your wine and thyrsus staff, and Dionysus and a whole bunch of hammered satyrs and I will see you next time.

Still here? Well, I have never done this before, but I would actually like to play a number, again, that was featured a while back in Literature and History – specifically in Episode 34 on Euripides’ play The Bacchae. For that episode I wrote a tune called “Interview with Dionysus” in which the titular character tells us all about what it’s like being the god of wine, and, harkening back to the gory ending of The Bacchae, emphasizes that sometimes, it’s fun to get drunk and dismember people. While in the three thousand or so years that people have revered Dionysus, I’m sure there have been better songs about him than mine, I’m equally sure that I probably can’t top this number about the world’s most famous wine god. So this one is again called “Interview with Dionysus” – hope it’s a fun throwback to the early days of L&H, and we’ll wrap up this Late Antique epic in a couple of weeks.

[“Interview with Dionysus” Song]


1.^ Nonnus references Claudian’s Gigantomachy (Claudian died a few years after 400), and in the mid-550s the Byzantine historian and poet Agathias Scholasticus mentions the work of Nonnus. L. Robert Hind (“The Date of Nonnos of Panoplis.” Classical Philology Vol. 29, No. 1 (January 1934), p. 73) after extensive discussion, describes the poet’s active phase as most likely being “from 450 to 490 A.D.”

2.^ The book length is certainly the length of the Iliad and Odyssey combined, though many of Nonnus’ books are relatively short. The Dionysiaca weighs in at about 20,500 lines whereas the combined mass of the Iliad and Odyssey add up to 28,000 lines.

3.^ See Sherry, Lee Francis. “The Paraphrase of St. John Attributed to Nonnus.” Byzantion. Vol. 66, NO. 2 (1996), p. 410.

4.^ There is some evidence that perhaps a student of Nonnus, rather than the poet himself, wrote the Paraphrase – on this see Sherry, Lee Francis. “The Paraphrase of St. John Attributed to Nonnus.” Byzantion. Vol. 66, NO. 2 (1996), pp. 409-30.

5.^ This tale of reincarnation and humanity being constituted by the essence of Dionysus was told in full around 550 CE in Olympiodorus the Younger – see Edmonds, Radcliff. Redefining Ancient Orphism. Cambridge University Press, 2013. Kindle Edition, Location 13701.

6.^ Specifically the Derveni Papyrus (266 fragments, c. 340 BCE) and the Totenpässe tablets of Thurri (c. 400-200 BCE).

7.^ Nonnus. Dionysiaca, Books I-XV. Translated by W.H.D. Rouse, and with an Introduction and Notes by H.J. Rose. Loeb, 1940, p. 3. Further references to this text will be noted with line numbers in this episode transcription.

8.^ The line may engage with apocryphal Christian apocalyptic literature describing seven heavens, like the Apocalypse of Paul.

9.^ The Loeb edition (pp. 104-5n) notes that Samothracian indigenous worshippers were elsewhere recorded as Cabeiroi, but that by Nonnus’ time, Cabeiroi and Corybants had become confused with one another, Corybants being associated with Crete, rather than Samothrace.

10.^ Histories (6.48).

11.^ Nonnus. Dionysiaca, Books 16-35. Translated by W.H.D. Rouse and with an Introduction and Notes by H.J. Rose Loeb, 1940, p. 234.

12.^ The term this generation used was neoterikoi.

13.^ For a reception history discussion see Accorinti, Domenico. “The Poet from Panoplis: An Obscure Biography and a Controversial Figure.” Printed in Brill’s Companion to Nonnus of Panoplis, ed. Domenico Accorinti. Brill, 2016, pp. 9-53.

14.^ See Chuvin (2017), p. 10. The quoted references refer to Roberts, Michael. The Jeweled Style: Poetry and Poetics in Late Antiquity (Cornell, 2010) and Shorrock, Robert. The Myth of Paganism: Nonnus, Dionysus and the World of Late Antiquity. Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.

15.^ Histories (3.102, 4.191, 3.110). Ctesias’ Indika, as we learned in Episode 88, contains some pretty goofy fables about India.

16.^ On this subject see Nonnos. Dionysiaca Books 16-35. Translated by W.H.D. Rouse and with an Introduction and Notes by H.J. Rose, pp. 296-99n.

17.^ E.g. 14.296, 14.394, 15.1-2, 15.44, 15.84, just to list a few at the epic’s outset.

18.^ See Chuvin, Pierre. “Introduction.” In Nonnus of Panopolis in Context II: Poetry, Religion, and Society. Edited by Herbert Bannert and Nicole Kröll Brill, 2017, p. 6.

19.^ Rose, H.J. “Introduction.” In Nonnus. Dionysiaca, Books 1-15. Loeb, 1940, p. x.

20.^ See Chuvin (2017), p. 3.