Dionysus in Firmicus Maternus

In 350 AD Firmicus Maternus dedicated a diatribe against paganism to the emperor Constantius.  In the process he recorded various details of pagan mythology, some not otherwise known.

Now as we have seen, J. G. Frazer makes the following statement, while discussing the resurrection of Dionysus:

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]

And the reference is to Firmicus Maternus 6.  So what does FM say?  He says that Liber — Dionysus — was a human being.  He then give two different stories about Dionysus, each with a different death.  Neither mentions any form of resurrection.  Here’s the first.

Well then, Liber was the son of Jupiter—I mean the Jupiter who was king of Crete. In spite of being the progeny of an adulterous mother, Liber was reared under his father’s eye with more zealous attention than was right and proper. Jupiter’s wife, whose name was Juno, goaded by the fury of a stepmother’s mentality,plotted in every sort of way to encompass the murder of the child.

2. When the father was on the point of going abroad, he took steps, since he was aware of his wife’s concealed indignation, to keep the angry woman from any treacherous behavior, and entrusted his son to the protection of guards whom he deemed suitable. Then Juno had just the right opportunity for her designs, and she was all the more violently infuriated because the father at his departure had handed over the throne and scepter of the realm to the boy. First she corrupted the guards with bribes and gifts; then she stationed her minions, called Titans, in the inner apartments of the palace. With a rattle and a mirror of ingenious workmanship she so beguiled the fancy of the boy that he left his royal seat and let his childish desires lead him to the place of ambush.

3. There he was intercepted and killed; and to insure that no trace of the murder might be found, the gang of minions chopped his members up into pieces and divided them among themselves. Next, piling one crime upon another, as they were egged on by mortal terror of their despot’s cruelty, they cooked the boy’s members in various ways and devoured them, thus feeding on a human cadaver, a banquet unheard of up to that day. The boy’s sister Minerva (for she too was a party to the crime) saved his heart, which had fallen to her share; her double purpose was to have unambiguous evidence as she turned informer and likewise something to soften the brunt of her father’s impetuous fury. When Jupiter returned, his daughter unfolded the tale of the crime.

4. Thereupon the father, infuriated by the gruesome and calamitous act of butchery and by the anguish of his bitter grief, put the Titans to all manner of torture and killed them. In vengeance for his son he left untried no form of torment or punishment, but plunged madly through the whole gamut of penalties, thus avenging the murder of his so-called “son” with a father’s affection but a despot’s display of power. Then, unable longer to bear the pangs of paternal grief, and seeing that no solaces could assuage the sorrow caused by his bereavement, he had a statue of the boy molded in plaster; and the artist placed the heart, whereby the crime had been revealed by the tattling sister, just in the spot where the contours of the breast were shaped. The next thing he did was to erect a temple in lieu of a tomb, and as priest he appointed the boy’s paedagogus.

5. The latter’s name was Silenus. Now the Cretans, wishing to allay the savage passion of their furious despot, established the anniversary of the death as a holyday, and arranged recurring sacred rites celebrated every two years, wherein they rehearse seriatim all that the boy did or suffered at his death. They tear a live bull with their teeth, representing the cruel banquet with this regular commemoration; and amid the forest fastness they howl with dissonant outcries, feigning the insanity of madmen to create the belief that the crime was not done in treachery but in madness. In front of them is borne the basket in which the sister had secretly concealed the heart, and by the tootling of flutes and the din of cymbals they counterfeit the rattle which was used to beguile the boy. So, by way of doing honor to a despot, a subservient rabble took a person who was unable to have any burial and made him into a god.

The text then continues immediately (I abbreviate all the stuff about drunken followers)

6.There was also another Liber in Thebes, a tyrant famed for his magical powers. Gaining control of the women’s wits by certain potions and charms, thereafter at his own sweet will he bade the frenzied creatures commit atrocious deeds, so that he might have crazed women of noble rank as accomplices of his lusts and crimes. … Liber was caught by Lycurgus and hurled into the sea over a nearby cliff which formed an immense precipice with impassable rocks. And this severe punishment was designed to let the mangled corpse, long tossed by the waves of the sea, restore the errant wits of the populace to sanity and sobriety.

I’m not comfortable that Frazer’s comment in context does not mislead his reader.


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