Hoaxed! “Dionysus, the son of the virgin, … His blood, the blood of the grape…”

I got scammed today.  Doesn’t happen that often.  It was on twitter, and a very respectable person tweeted:

From his blood, Dionysus created the first grapes and so the drinking of wine was the drinking of the God’s blood. It’s not the only parallel between Dionysus and later religious figures.

Of course I was all over this, and replied:

Does any ancient source make this link… drinking the god’s blood? (I can just see the headbangers incoming….!)

To which my friend replied:

How about Euripides?

“Next came Dionysus, the son of the virgin, bringing the counterpart to bread: wine & the blessings of life’s flowing juices. His blood, the blood of the grape, lightens the burden of our mortal misery.  Though himself a God, it is his blood we pour out to offer thanks to the Gods”  (Bacchae)

Well, there’s no arguing with that; and I expressed my thanks.  Until a kindly stranger butted in and asked:

Why does your translation replace the name “Semele” with “virgin”?

Silly me, not to check.  I googled, and quickly found the translation above given by “quote” sites; and also, ominously, by Christian-hating crank Tom Harpur in his 2007 book Water into Wine, p.125 (or so I find from Google Books).

At this point, as any of us might, and I should have done first, I reached for Perseus.  I quickly found the quote in the English, part of the speech by Tiresias in Bacchae line 266 here:

This new god, whom you ridicule, I am unable to express how great he will be throughout Hellas. For two things, young man, [275] are first among men: the goddess Demeter—she is the earth, but call her whatever name you wish; she nourishes mortals with dry food; but he who came afterwards, the offspring of Semele, discovered a match to it, the liquid drink of the grape, and introduced it [280] to mortals. It releases wretched mortals from grief, whenever they are filled with the stream of the vine, and gives them sleep, a means of forgetting their daily troubles, nor is there another cure for hardships. He who is a god is poured out in offerings to the gods, [285] so that by his means men may have good things.

Hardly “the son of the virgin”, eh?  And where is the “blood of the god” stuff in this?  As I tweeted, it was now easy enough to find the Greek, line 278, thanks to Perseus:

οὗτος δ᾽ δαίμων νέος, ὃν σὺ διαγελᾷς,
οὐκ ἂν δυναίμην μέγεθος ἐξειπεῖν ὅσος
καθ᾽ Ἑλλάδ᾽ ἔσται. δύο γάρ, νεανία,
275) τὰ πρῶτ᾽ ἐν ἀνθρώποισι: Δημήτηρ θεά–
γῆ δ᾽ ἐστίν, ὄνομα δ᾽ ὁπότερον βούλῃ κάλει:
αὕτη μὲν ἐν ξηροῖσιν ἐκτρέφει βροτούς:
ὃς δ᾽ ἦλθ᾽ ἔπειτ᾽, ἀντίπαλον Σεμέλης γόνος
βότρυος ὑγρὸν πῶμ᾽ ηὗρε κεἰσηνέγκατο
280) θνητοῖς, παύει τοὺς ταλαιπώρους βροτοὺς
λύπης, ὅταν πλησθῶσιν ἀμπέλου ῥοῆς,
ὕπνον τε λήθην τῶν καθ᾽ ἡμέραν κακῶν
δίδωσιν, οὐδ᾽ ἔστ᾽ ἄλλο φάρμακον πόνων.
οὗτος θεοῖσι σπένδεται θεὸς γεγώς,
285) ὥστε διὰ τοῦτον τἀγάθ᾽ ἀνθρώπους ἔχειν.

Which clearly indicates that Semele, not “virgin”, is given; that there is no reference to wine as the blood of Dionysus; rather that the wine itself is the god, not his blood.

So where did the original quotation come from?  I found an attribution here: to Michael Cacoyannis, a film maker.  It looks as if Mr Cacoyannis took liberties in order to sell his film!  His translation was published in 1987.  I’ve not been able to access it to verify the quote, but I do believe it.  Sadly the link is for an Indiana University class; which suggests that the university has fallen for this one too.

You have to be so careful, don’t you?


9 thoughts on “Hoaxed! “Dionysus, the son of the virgin, … His blood, the blood of the grape…”

  1. Yes! Always good to ask for (or, if encountered simply as text, search for) reference details – in this case, just where in The Bacchae? (and, e.g., in what edition or according to just what conventions of reference – for example, I encounter different verse numbers sometimes, looking up Bible quotations in different languages, and know there are more than one convention out there for Koran references).

    I haven’t tried to wrestle with the Greek, but a fascinating passage in your more scholarly English translation – not merely a contrast with Demeter’s “dry food” as fresh water – or fresh grape juice – would be (or, indeed, the grapes, growing like grain from the earth), but obviously the fermented product, releasing “wretched mortals from grief,” and giving “them sleep”, and “He who is a god” presented not merely as vintner but (simply? wholly?) become such an ‘artefact’ as wine.

  2. Actually, there seems to be a lot of use of “spendetai” for making peace or making treaties. For example, Arrian’s Anabasis has Alexander making a treaty with some Selgians, in Anabasis I, 28. And it says “Kai pros totous spendetai Alexandros.”

    So obviously Arrian is not as old as The Bacchae. But “a god makes peace with the gods” seems like a pretty normal thing to say — wine turned out to be something the gods liked, so Dionysus helps men get along with the gods.

    (And you could still compare Christ and Dionysus as reconcilers, if that was what you wanted to do.)

    So I looked it up at Perseus, and sure enough, that’s a prominent secondary meaning — “pour libations one with another, and, as this was the custom in making treaties or agreements, make a treaty, make peace.”

    So maybe, “A god, along with the rest of us, pours out libations and makes peace for us with the gods, including himself.”

  3. OTOH, when I read the same dictionary entry, the Bacchae passage is specifically cited as being meant in a passive, “being offered” sense. There’s also a first person citation of a person metaphorically saying he’s being poured out as a libation — ie, St. Paul.

    So…yeah, probably I need to study more.

    But it also means that the phrase probably is discussed by classicists elsewhere, and is obviously of interest to them.

  4. Coleridge (not the famous one) translated line 284-285 as “God though he is [that’s the ‘gegos’ part], he serves all other gods for libations, so that through him mankind is blest.”

    He also notes, “Dindorf regards lines 284-297 as spurious. On this whole obscure passage, Sandys’ note may be consulted with advantage.”

  5. Sandys’ edition of The Bacchae has some notes about Muir on Hindu gods, and how Soma was the god that inhabited the gods’ drink of soma.

    But his note on the passage says:

    “spendetai – used in a double sense, being grammatically applicable in the middle voice to the god himself, who ‘makes peace with’ the other gods; but also involving a reference to his gift of wine which ‘is poured out’ in libations.”

    Mwahaha! I am not doing so badly after all!

    The next note is a long discussion about whether 286-297 are genuine. It mentions that Dindorf’s Poetae Scenici places 284-297 all in brackets. Most of the argument seems to be that readers don’t like the passage as much as other bits of Euripides, although there is some etymological age argument.

  6. Oh! Forgot to notice that line 285 and other lines from the passage seemed to be referenced in some late 500’s Christian work called Christus Patiens, which is “a play in 2,610 verses describing the Passion of Jesus Christ, bearing the name of Gregory of Nazianzus.”

  7. On the subject of the Byzantine play mentioned by suburbanbanshee, there is an article by K. Pollmann “Jesus Christ and Dionysus: Rewriting Euripides in the Byzantine Cento Christus Patiens” in her collection “The Baptized Muse: Early Christian Poetry as Cultural Authority” (2017). it deals with the literary as well as theological aspects of this type of composition. Apart from the very interesting discussion, it provides an up-to-date bibliography.

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