The resurrection of Dionysus every spring?

From time to time I come across curious claims online, which seem worth investigation to me.  At this link I find the following post, evidently responding critically — but perhaps not critically enough? — to some nonsense from the film “Zeitgeist” by quoting from this page:

Dionysus died each winter and was resurrected in the spring. Again, this is hardly December, much less the 25th of said month [23].

(The reference is merely to a webpage of no special interest here with no references). This drew the following belligerent response:

So both the Classical playwright Euripedes, Robert Graves – who translated numerous Classical Latin and Ancient Greek texts – and most 20th Century historians of the Classical period, are wrong, and your internet blogger is right? I doubt it.

No reference was given, and we may fairly suppose that the respondent never looked up any of what he states with such certainty.

So is it true?  Was there such a resurrection of Dionysus in ancient mythology?

My first possible reference for the resurrection of Dionysius is Plutarch, Isis and Osiris, 35.  But if you look, you don’t find our starting point.  Where next?

Many of these legends have some kind of link to J. G. Frazer’s Golden Bough.  In vol. 1 of the 1894 edition — later editions seem to omit this material — on p.318 I find a claim that Herodotus (book ii. 49) “found the similarity between the rites of Osiris and Dionysus so great, that he thought it impossible the latter could have arisen independently” — perhaps so — and then mention of Plutarch, Isis and Osiris, 35.  Do these give us what we want? 

But the Plutarch passage is not really the same idea.  On p.322 of Frazer we read:

Like the other gods of vegetation whom we have been considering, Dionysus was believed to have died a violent death, but to have been brought to life again ; and his sufferings, death, and resurrection were enacted in his sacred rites.

But no reference is given.  This follows on p.323-4.

Thus far the resurrection of the slain god is not mentioned, but in other versions of the myth it is variously related. One version, which represented Dionysus as a son of Demeter, averred that his mother pieced together his mangled limbs and made him young again. [5] In others it is simply said that shortly after his burial he rose from the dead and ascended up to heaven ;[1] or that Zeus raised him up as he lay mortally wounded ; [2] or that Zeus swallowed the heart of Dionysus and then begat him afresh by Semele,[3] who in the common legend figures as mother of Dionysus. Or, again, the heart was pounded up and given in a potion to Semele, who thereby conceived him.[4]

Turning from the myth to the ritual, we find that the Cretans celebrated a biennial [5] festival at which the sufferings and death of Dionysus were represented in every detail.[6] Where the resurrection formed part of the myth, it also was enacted at the rites, [7] and it even appears that a general doctrine of resurrection, or at least of immortality, was inculcated op the worshippers; for Plutarch, writing to console his wife on the death of their infant daughter, comforts her with the thought of the immortality of the soul as taught by tradition and revealed in the mysteries of Dionysus.[8]

[5] Diodorus, iii., 62. [See below]
[1] Macrobius, Commentarium in Somnium Scipionis i, 12, 12; Scriptores rerum mythicarum Latini tres Romae nuper reperti (commonly referred to as Mythographi Vaticani), ed. G. H. Bode (Cellis, 1834), iii. 12, 5, p. 246 [actually vol. 1 – RP [*]]; Origen, c. Cels. iv. 17 1 [see below], quoted by Lobeck, Aglaophamus, p. 713.
[2] Himerius, Orat. ix. 4.  [*]
[3] Proclus, Hymn to Minerva, [*] in Lobeck, Aglaophamus, p. 561 ; Orphica, ed. Abel, p. 235. [See below].
[4] Hyginus, Fabulae, 167. [See below]
[6] Firmicus Maternus, De err. prof. relig. 6. [*]
[7] Mythog. Vat. ed Bode, l.c.[*]
[8] Plutarch, Consol. ad uxor. 10.  Cp. id. Isis et Osiris, 35; id., De ei Delphico, 9; id., De esu carnium, i. 7. [*]

(Subsequent posts examining a particular reference are linked with [*]).

There are further related claims, but I think that’s enough for now. 

The references are quite a collection of obscure sources.  But then on this blog, we do obscure sources!  We treat references as an opportunity to read stuff that no-one ever reads.

Now if we look at the first reference, to Diodorus, we get a long series of legends about Dionysus.  But there is nothing in this about a death and resurrection; he undergoes three births, and he gets identified with vegetation as well as with the Earth-mother.  The labours of Bill Thayer have made the translation available to us all:

Furthermore, the early men have given Dionysus the name of “Dimetor,” reckoning it as a single and first birth when the plant is set in the ground and begins to grow, and as a second birth when it becomes laden with fruit and ripens its clusters, the god, therefore, being considered as having been born once from the earth and again from the vine.  And though the writers of myths have handed down the account of a third birth as well, at which, as they say, the Sons of Gaia tore to pieces the god, who was a son of Zeus and Demeter, and boiled him, but his members were brought together again by Demeter and he experienced a new birth as if for the first time, such accounts as this they trace back to certain causes found in nature. For he is considered to be the son of Zeus and Demeter, they hold, by reason of the fact that the vine gets its growth both from the earth and from rains and so bears as its fruit the wine which is pressed out from the clusters of grapes; and the statement that he was torn to pieces, while yet a youth, by the “earth-born” signifies the harvesting of the fruit by the labourers, and the boiling of his members has been worked into a myth by reason of the fact that most men boil the wine and then mix it, thereby improving its natural aroma and quality. Again, the account of his members, which the “earth-born” treated with despite, being brought together again and restored to their former natural state, shows forth that the vine, which has been stripped of its fruit and pruned at the yearly seasons, is restored by the earth to the high level of fruitfulness which it had before. For, in general, the ancient poets and writers of myths spoke of Demeter as Gê Meter (Earth Mother).

On to the next bunch of references.  Origen, in Contra Celsum iv, 17 is plainly comparing the resurrection of Christ with the rebirth of Dionysus.

But will not those narratives, especially when they are understood in their proper sense, appear far more worthy of respect than the story that Dionysus was deceived by the Titans, and expelled from the throne of Jupiter, and torn in pieces by them, and his remains being afterwards put together again, he returned as it were once more to life, and ascended to heaven?

We’re used to talking about the Saturnalia when we mention Macrobius, but he also wrote a commentary on the dream of Scipio.  An English translation does exist, but I don’t have access to it.  However an 1848 edition of the works of Macrobius is online, and in vol. 1, p.73, we find book 1, chapter 12, verse 12.

12. Ipsum autem Liberum patrem Orphaici νοῦν ὑλικὸν qui ab illo individuo natus in singulos ipse dividitur. Ideo in illorum sacris traditur Titanio furore in membra discerptus et frustis sepultis rursus unus et integer emersisse, quia νοῦς quem diximus mentem vocari, ex individuo praebendo se dividendum et rursus et diviso ad individuum revertendo et mundi inplet officia et naturae suae archana non deserit.

This seems to be discussing the cutting up of his body and reassembly and the return of his νοῦς, i.e. soul or mind.

On to the next claim that “Zeus raised him up as he lay mortally wounded”.  The reference is Himerius, Orat. ix. 4.  Unfortunately I can’t find a way to access this.  The Greek with a Latin translation is linked above.

Hyginus, Fabulae 167, is simple enough, and also died in AD 17 so is definitely pre-Christian and pre-dates the syncretism of later antiquity:

Liber, son of Jove and Proserpine, was dismembered by the Titans, and Jove gave his heart, torn to bits, to Semele in a drink. When she was made pregnant by this, Juno, changing herself to look like Semele’s nurse, Beroe, said to her: “Daughter, ask Jove to come to you as he comes to Juno, so you may know what pleasure it is to sleep with a god.” At her suggestion Semele made this request of Jove, and was smitten by a thunderbolt. He took Liber from her womb, and gave him to Nysus to be cared for. For this reason he is called Dionysus, and also “the one with two mothers.”

The Orphica edited by Abel (1885) gives the numeral ‘235’.  But this is not the page number, but the fragment number.  Fragment no. 235 is … merely a quotation of 4 verses from Macrobius, Sat. I. 23. 22.  Here they are.  They don’t relate to the claim made.

[22]. And in the following verses Orpheus too bears witness to the all-embracing nature of the sun:

Hear, O Thou who dost, wheeling afar, ever make the turning, circle of thy rays to revolve in its heavenly orbits, bright Zeus Dionysus, Father of sea, Father of land, Sun, source of all life, all-gleaming with thy golden light.

There’s still quite a number of references to verify there.  But this post has hung around long enough — almost two weeks — and I think I’ll post now, and return to this material later.


15 thoughts on “The resurrection of Dionysus every spring?

  1. Thank you very much. But of course it needs to be taken further, and all the details referenced.

    What I sense might be happening here is that the myth of Dionysus, during the late Roman period, is borrowing chunks of the myth of Osiris. So it will be important to organise sources by date, and not state as fact something that is merely a consequence of the break down of Roman religion into a syncretistic puddle in late antiquity. A table of sources will tell us, anyhow.

  2. If it’s about boiling or mangling wine/grapes, it’s surely a late summer/autumn/winter story. Like John Barleycorn. You might leave it till spring, I suppose, but in the ancient world there was a lot of drinking new beer and new wine, wasn’t there?

    …looking… People drink Beaujolais nouveau in November. So it’d be October or November for a “resurrection” date, more likely.

  3. I keep running into people comparing Dionysus’ to Christ’s death and resurrection as “exactly the same” including that Dionysus was killed by a mob. Are they confabulating Penthius and Dionysus. Checked in Graves and apart from Dionysus “ascending into heaven and sitting at the right hand of the father” (Zeus) couldn’t really find much of a similitude. What do you think?

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