The orations of Himerius and the resurrection of Dionysus

The name of Himerius is not one that most of us would instantly recognise.  In fact he was a pagan Greek orator of the 4th century, contemporary with Libanius and an ally of Julian the Apostate.  He was from Prusias in Bithynia, and ran a school of oratory at Athens.  His career is tied up with that of Julian.  When Julian passed an edict prohibiting Christians from teaching, the leading orator at Athens at the time was Prohaeresius, who accordingly felt obliged to resign.  It seems likely that this was a scandal which made Julian look bad in the eyes of the Athenians, for Julian tried to get Prohaeresius to accept a personal exemption from the edict.  Himerius remained at Athens; but when Julian died in 363, he found it necessary to leave Athens — one may suspect that he had become quite unpopular after the Prohaeresius episode –, and to stay away until Prohaeresius died in 366.  Thereafter he returned to Athens and remained there until he died.

In the 9th century a large number of his orations still survived, and Photius in the Bibliotheca, cod. 165 was able to list them from a copy before him, as well as giving long extracts in codex 243.  Today three manuscripts, the oldest 13th century, were used by Aristide Colonna, the first of which alone contains much of the material and is unfortunately damaged.  The mss are:

  • R — Parisinus bibl. nat. Suppl. gr. 352, thirteenth century.
  • A — Monacensis gr. 564, fourteenth century.
  • B — Oxoniensis Baroccianus gr. 131, fourteenth century.

The indirect tradition, besides Photius, consists of

  • Excerpta Neapolitana — Neapolitanus bibl. nat. gr. II C 32, fourteenth century.  This contains a set of excerpts from the orations.  See Schenkl, Hermes 46
    (1911), p. 414-30.
  • Lexicon Vindobonense — the Lexicon of Andrew Lopadiotes, fourteenth century.

In Frazer’s list of sources for the resurrection of Dionysus, one of the orations of Himerius is given as a source for the following statement:

…Zeus raised him up as he lay mortally wounded ; [2]

[2] Himerius, Orat. ix. 4. 

I linked to the Greek but Robert J. Penella has translated the orations in Man and the Word: the orations of Himerius, University of California Press, 2007.  This one is short, and I give it here.  The modern numbering of the oration is ’45’.

45. A Talk (λαλιὰ) Given upon His Student’s [Recovery of His] Health

[1] The swallow opens the theater of its voice after the winter’s cold and does not hide the song produced by its beautiful tongue once it sees that luscious spring has bloomed again. Cicadas sing in the walks once the month hostile to budding passes, the month I have heard poets call “leaf-shedding.” [2] Thus it is not unfitting for me to play my appropriate role too and once again to greet those I love with song after they have been ill.

What a day that was that recently presented itself to me, when an attack of fever seemed to plague everything! I shared in the suffering, my friends; I got a taste of the disease through my love [of its victim]. I was not physically ill, but my mental suffering was worse than any physical suffering. And I cannot fault my mind for having been in that state [3]; for, as Demosthenes said, when the head is ill, every ailment suddenly befalls you. So too, when the helmsman is ill, the whole ship suffers with him; and when the leader of a chorus lies sick, the chorus remains joyless. So naturally at that time I beheld the sun rather dimly. The Nile seemed to me to be dejected, even though it was in flood. It was as though I had exchanged my present existence for the very dark life of the Cimmerians. But now we have dismissed the envy [of fortune], and festivity takes over the future.

[4] My friends, I want to tell you a story that has a bearing on what has happened. Dionysus was still young, and the race of “Telchines” sprung up against the god. Bacchus started growing up, and all the Titans were bursting with envy. Finally, not able to contain themselves, they wanted to tear the god apart. They prepared snares and readied drugs and the stings of slander against him and tried to trick him about who they were. They hated Silenus and Satyrus, I believe, and they called them sorcerers because they pleased Bacchus. So what happened as a result of this? Dionysus lay wounded, I think, and bemoaned the serious blow he had suffered. The vine was dejected, wine was sad, grapes seemed to be crying, and Bacchus’s ankle was not yet in any condition to move. But crying did not win out in the end, nor did victory go to the enemy. For Zeus the overseer had his eye on everything. He got Dionysus back on his feet, as we are told, and let the myths drive the Titans off.

I think we can all see that this is a very fine translation.  You can even feel the rhetorical colouring that Himerius gave to his words in the opening, the swaying of the emotions at which he was aiming.

But … this doesn’t discuss any murder of Dionysus, or resurrection; just an injury and a healing.  So I feel obliged to look at the Greek.

There is an interesting note at the bottom of p.560 on “Dionysus”:

Bacchus is meant, not the Theban son of Semele, but surnamed Zagreus, more ancient, son of Jove and Proserpina; whom the Titans and the Curetes, impelled by Juno, tore to pieces and threw the bits into the fire.  When from the fire emerged Apollo, Jove ordered that the bits be buried.  Ceres collected them, and Jove restored life, struck the Titans with a thunderbolt, scorching their mother the Earth.  This is related in Nonnus, Dionysiaca VI, 170; Hyginus fabulae 167 and 155; Diodorus III, p.137; Tzetzes Ad Lycophronem 208; Arnobius I, p.24 and V p.169; Firmicus Maternus p.9; Clement of Alexandria Paraenet . p. 11.

Now that’s useful also, and I need to consult those sources.  But back to the text, which comes with a Latin translation.  Unfortunately I don’t know the ligatures in the text, so pardon me if I get these wrong.  (I did find a list of ligatures here which helped.) 

Τί οὔν ἐπι τούτοις Διονυσος; Ἔκειτο μὲν αἶμαι πλαγεὶς καὶ τὴν πληγὴν καιρίαν?έναζεν·

Bacchus jacebat quidem lethali plaga ictus, et calamitatem suam deplorabat: … (Which I would render as: Bacchus indeed was lying, struck by a deadly blow, and mourning his misfortune: …)

Dionysus lay wounded, I think, and bemoaned the serious blow he had suffered.


καὶ τὸν Διόνυσον ἐγείρας, ὡς λόγος, …

Bacchum, ut fama habet, resuscitabat, … (i.e. Bacchus, so the story has it, he reawakened)

He  got Dionysus back on his feet, as we are told, …

I think that Penella has rendered it differently to the Latin (and Frazer); but then I don’t have Colonna’s text before me, and there must be a textual change in this, I think.  Whether Dionysius had suffered a “fatal blow” or a “serious blow” seems to be up for interpretation.  Comments anyone?

7 thoughts on “The orations of Himerius and the resurrection of Dionysus

  1. This is quite fascinating – and a text I’d never come across before, so thank you for posting it! What makes it so fascinating, of course, is its deviation from the standard form of the myth which is accomplished by collapsing events into a single “scene”. Generally speaking the Orphics held that Zeus transformed himself into a serpent and seduced his daughter Kore-Persephone, producing the bull-horned child Zagreus. Hera was upset by this and loosed the Titans on him. They tore the infant god to pieces and consumed his flesh (when his blood splattered out it became wine) except for his heart or phallos which was preserved by Athene. This was used to create Dionysos proper who was nearly destroyed a second time by fire while in the womb of Semele. Zeus saved the fetus from the flames and preserved him by stitching him into his thigh and carrying him to full term. Afterwards he was whisked off to the fabulous Mount Nysa by Hermes to avoid further attempts on Hera’s part to destroy him. He was raised on Nysa by the nymphs, satyrs and Seilenos. Himerius, however, is having the sparagmos take place in the company of Seilenos and the satyrs with wine already in existence. (Of course there was a late and somewhat artificial strain of myth which posited that wine wasn’t the blood of Dionysos, but something he discovered or in Nonnos that the vine was originally a young satyr-boy he loved who died and was transformed into the plant.) It’s interesting, too, that Himerius accuses Seilenos and the satyrs of being magicians since this is a plot device found in Euripides’ Cyclops. Although the Titans are usually represented as killing Zagreus with shark knives or tearing him apart with bare hands and teeth – there is a minor variant tradition where he suffered a blow to the head. (This is no doubt because Dionysos is often the bull-god and thus could be identified with the sacrificial bull.)

    Anyway, very interesting stuff!

  2. Thank you very much for these notes, which are very useful. I must take the time to get the sources for Zagreus.

    Himerius WAS hard to access, and there was no translation until very recently, in 2007. But I always find that J. G. Frazer’s “Golden Bough” is somewhere close to the root of many of these stories, and thankfully he referenced his stuff pretty copiously. So if in doubt, he’s a good starting point!

  3. Minor comments
    First of all the Bithynian city is called Proussa (and the Turks call it today Bursa) not Prusias. Prusias was the king who founded the city and gave it its name. Second the part you highlighted (at least the Greek) is translated as “strong blow”, nothing about death.

  4. Thanks for these notes! I’m reproducing Penella — at least I think I am! on Prusias.

    Thank you for the note on “strong blow” — interesting! But there might be some ancient poetic usage here — looking in LSJ gave me the impression that this was a possible?

  5. “ikokki” is confusing Prusa and Prusias–and he’s not the first to do so. Check out page 1 of my book!

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