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?

Macrobius on Dionysius in the Commentary on the Dream of Scipio

The final text referenced by J. G. Frazer in the Golden Bough when discussing the “resurrection” of Dionysus was the Commentary on the Dream of Scipio by Macrobius.  A kind correspondant has emailed me a page or two from Stahl’s English translation of this.

Part of what Frazer said is this (see a fuller discussion earlier):

In other [stories] it is simply said that shortly after his burial he rose from the dead and ascended up to heaven;[1] …

[1] Macrobius, Commentarium in Somnium Scipionis i, 12, 12;

So what does book 1, chapter 12, verse 12 say?

12.   Members of the Orphic sect believe that material mind is represented by Bacchus himself, who, born of a single parent, is divided into separate parts.[20] In their sacred rites they portray him as being torn to pieces at the hands of angry Titans and arising again from his buried limbs alive [21] and sound, their reason being that nous or Mind, by offering its undivided substance to be divided, and again, by returning from its divided state to the indivisible, both fulfills its worldly functions and does not forsake its secret nature.

Stahl’s notes:

20.  Cf. Macrobius Saturnalia 1.xviii.15; Proclus (Diehl) 53C, 184E. See Lobeck, pp. 557, 711, 736; F. M. Cornford, From Religion to Philosophy (London, 1912), pp. 209-10; J. E. Harrison, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (Cambridge, England, 1922), pp. 489-90.

21. Following Eitrem’s reading vivus et integer, Nordisk Tidsskrift for Filologi, III ( r 915), 55. The MSS read unus et integer

How I wish this translation was online!

Verse 12 is a little brief, so some explanation may be in order.  The reference to “that material mind” is to the World Soul, and has been discussed in verse 6:

6.   This is the condition that Plato called “at once indivisible and divisible” when he was speaking in the Timaeus about the construction of the World-Soul. Souls, whether of the world or of the individual, will be found to be now unacquainted with division if they are reflecting on the singleness of their divine state, and again susceptible to it when that singleness is being dispersed through the parts of the world or of man. 

So lots of philosophical stuff there, but not relevant to Dionysus as such.

Returning to Macrobius Saturnalia, as the footnote suggests, we find this in book 1, chapter 18:

[ 1 3] Orpheus here has called the sun “Phanes” (φανερός), from its light and enlightening, for the sun sees all and is seen by all. The name Dionysus is derived, as the soothsayer himself says, from the fact that the sun wheels round in an orbit.  [14] Cleanthes writes that the name Dionysus is derived from the Greek verb meaning “to complete” (διανύσαι), because the sun in its daily course from its rising to its setting, making the day and the night, completes the circuit of the heavens. [15] For the physicists Dionysus is “the mind of Zeus” (Διὸς νοῦς), since they hold that the sun is the mind of the universe; and by the universe they mean the heavens which they call Jupiter — and that is why Aratus, when about to speak of the heavens, says:

From Zeus be our beginnings. [Phaenomena I]

[16] The Romans call the sun Liber, because he is free (liber) to wander — as Naevius puts it:

Here where the wandering sun flings loose his fiery reins and drives nearer to the earth.

[17] The Orphic verses, too, by calling the sun “Eubouleus,” indicate that he is the patron of “good counsel”; for, if counsel is the offspring of the Inind and if, in the opinion of our authorities, the sun is the mind of the universe from which the first beginning of intelligence is diffused among mankind, then the sun is rightly believed to preside over good counsel. [18] In the line:

The sun, which men also call by name Dionysus

Orpheus manifestly declares that Liber is the sun, and the meaning here is certainly quite clear; but the following line from the same poet is more difficult:

One Zeus, one Hades, one Sun, one Dionysus.

[19] The warrant for this last line rests on an oracle of Apollo of Claros, wherein yet another name is given to the sun; which is called, within the space of the same sacred verses by several names, including that of Iao. For when Apollo of Claros was asked who ‘among the gods was to be regarded as the god called Iao, he replied:

[20] Those who have learned the mysteries should hide the unsearchable secrets, but, if the understanding is small and the mind weak, then ponder this: that lao is the supreme god of all gods; in winter, Hades; at spring’s beginning, Zeus; the Sun in summer; and in autumn, the splendid Iao.

[21] For the meaning of this oracle and for the explanation, of the deity and his name, which identifies Iao with Liber Pater and the sun, our authority is Cornelius Labeo in his book entitled On the Oracle of Apollo of Claros.

[22] Again, Orpheus, pointing out that Liber and the sun are one and the same god, writes as follows of the ornaments and vestments worn by Liber at the ceremonies performed in his honor:…

The syncretism which destroyed late paganism is certainly present in all that, as myths melt down into a puddle of meaningless names.

But note how the material from the Saturnalia does not, in fact, connect to the statement in the Commentary for which Stahl gives it as a reference!

We seem to be largely done with the resurrection of Dionysus.  Nothing in this connects to the idea of a fertility god who rises in the spring.

The third Vatican mythographer and the resurrection of Dionysus

As I was saying earlier, J. G. Frazer in the Golden Bough made some claims (with references) about this.  In particular he said:

In other [stories] it is simply said that shortly after his burial he rose from the dead and ascended up to heaven;[1] … Where the resurrection formed part of the myth, it also was enacted at the rites, [7]…

[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.
[7] Mythog. Vat. ed Bode, l.c.[*]

The Macrobius is not yet in my hands.  I have written something already on the Third Vatican Mythographer here.  But thanks to a kind correspondant, who emailed me a couple of pages in PDF, I now have the translation of the relevant parts of the Third Vatican Mythographer made in 2008 by Ronald E. Pepin in The Vatican Mythographers.  The text is actually medieval, and seems to be by Alberic of London, who was a canon of St. Pauls in 1160.

So, what does 12:5 actually say?

5. I recall reading nothing that I have judged worthy to be handed on as to why it is said Bacchus was born of Semele, one of the daughters of Cadmus, when Jove’s lightning shone before her. But I have decided not to pass over the fact that there were four sisters: Ina, Autonoe, Semele, and Agave. And, as Fulgentius says, there are four kinds of drunkenness: from wine, forgetfulness of things, lust, and insanity. The first is Ina, which means “wine”; second is Autonoe, “not knowing herself”; third is Semele, which means “unfettered body”; fourth is Agave, whom I pass over, because the meaning of this name happens to seem unsuitable, or it was unknown to the Romans. But we shall compare her to insanity because, as we read in the story, the drunken Agave cut off the head of her own son, Pentheus.

Furthermore, so that we might seem to go more deeply, the story says that the Giants found Bacchus inebriated. After they tore him to pieces limb by limb, they buried the bits, and a little while later he arose alive and whole. We read that the disciples of Orpheus interpreted this fiction. They asserted that Bacchus should be understood as nothing other than the world-soul. The philosophers say that though this soul might be divided among the bodies of the world limb by limb, as it were, it always seems to make itself whole again, emerging from the bodies and forming itself. Always continuing one and the same, it allows no division of its singleness. Also, we read that they represent this story in his sacred rites.

OK: ” rose from the dead and ascended up to heaven” has connotations which are not here, but the idea of resurrection is definitely present, as is the representation of it in the rites.

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?

More sources on the resurrection of Dionysus

I’m still looking at J. G. Frazer’s list of sources.  The next one is this:

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 on 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]

[8] Plutarch, Consol. ad uxor. 10.  Cp. id. Isis et Osiris, 35; id., De ei Delphico, 9; id., De esu carnium, i. 7.

So, let’s look these up.  First Plutarch, Consolatio ad uxorem.   Bill Thayer again comes to our rescue with an online version here.  Bolding and paragraphing is mine.

10. Furthermore, I know that you are kept from believing the statements of that other set, who win many to their way of thinking when they say that nothing is in any way evil or painful to “what has undergone dissolution,” by the teaching of our fathers and by the mystic formulas of Dionysiac rites, the knowledge of which we who are participants share with each other.

Consider then that the soul, which is imperishable, is affected like a captive bird: if it has long been reared in the body and has become tamed to this life by many activities and long familiarity, it alights again and re-enters the body, and does not leave off or cease from becoming entangled in the passions and fortunes of this world through repeated births.

For do not fancy that old age is vilified and ill spoken of because of the wrinkles, the grey hairs, and the debility of the body; no, its most grievous fault is to render the soul stale in its memories of the other world and make it cling tenaciously to this one, and to warp and cramp it, since it retains in this strong attachment the shape imposed upon it by the body.

Whereas the soul that tarries after its capture but a brief space in the body before it is set free by higher powers proceeds to its natural state as though released from a bent position with flexibility and resilience unimpaired. For just as a fire flares up again and quickly recovers, if a person who has extinguished it immediately lights it again, but is harder to rekindle if it remains extinguished for some time, so too those souls fare best whose lot it is, according to the poet,

“Soon as they may pass through Hades’ gates”

before much love of the business of our life here has been engendered in them, and before they have been adapted to the body by becoming softened and fused with it as by reagents.

 Is it me, or is this about reincarnation or the transmigration of souls, rather than “resurrection”? 

Next, Isis and Osiris 35:

35. That Osiris is identical with Dionysus who could more fittingly know than yourself, Clea? For you are at the head of the inspired maidens of Delphi, and have been consecrated by your father and mother in the holy rites of Osiris. If, however, for the benefit of others it is needful to adduce proofs of this identity, let us leave undisturbed what may not be told, but the public ceremonies which the priests perform in the burial of the Apis, when they convey his body on an improvised bier, do not in any way come short of a Bacchic procession; for they fasten skins of fawns about themselves, and carry Bacchic wands and indulge in shoutings and movements exactly as do those who are under the spell of the Dionysiac ecstasies. For the same reason many of the Greeks make statues of Dionysus in the form of a bull; and the women of Elis invoke him, praying that the god may come with the hoof of a bull; and the epithet applied to Dionysus among the Argives is “Son of the Bull.” They call him up out of the water by the sound of trumpets, at the same time casting into the depths a lamb as an offering to the Keeper of the Gate. The trumpets they conceal in Bacchic wands, as Socrates has stated in his treatise on The Holy Ones. Furthermore, the tales regarding the Titans and the rites celebrated by night agree with the accounts of the dismemberment of Osiris and his revivification and regenesis. 

Similar agreement is found too in the tales about their sepulchres. The Egyptians, as has already been stated, point out tombs of Osiris in many places, and the people of Delphi believe that the remains of Dionysus rest with them close beside the oracle; and the Holy Ones offer a secret sacrifice in the shrine of Apollo whenever the devotees of Dionysus wake the God of the Mystic Basket. To show that the Greeks regard Dionysus as the lord and master not only of wine, but of the nature of every sort of moisture, it is enough that Pindar be our witness, when he says

May gladsome Dionysus swell the fruit upon the trees,
The hallowed splendour of harvest time.  

For this reason all who reverence Osiris are prohibited from destroying a cultivated tree or blocking up a spring of water.

 Again, how does this justify the claim made?

Next, De ei Delphico, 9 (On the word ‘ei’ engraved over the gate of the temple of Apollo at Delphi, from the Moralia).  This I was unable initially to locate online, but is in fact here.

IX. “If, then, anyone should ask, What has this to do with Apollo? We reply: It has to do not only with him, but with Bacchus, who has no less property in Delphi than Apollo himself.

We therefore hear theologians, partly in verse, partly in prose, setting forth and chanting how that the god, though by nature incorruptible and eternal, yet, as they tell, through some decree of fate, submitted to changes of condition, at one time set all Nature on fire, making all things like to all; at another time he was metamorphosed and turned into various shapes, states, and powers, in the same way as the universe now exists—but is called by the best-known of all his names.

The wiser sort, cloaking their meaning from the vulgar, call the change into Fire ‘Apollo,’ on account of the reduction to one state, and also ‘Phoebus’ on account of its freedom from defilement and purity: but the condition and change of his turning and subdivision into airs and water and earth, and the production of animals and plants, they enigmatically term ‘Exile’ and ‘Dismemberment.’ They name him ‘Dionysos’ and ‘Zagreus’ and ‘Nycteleos’ and ‘Isodi’; they also tell of certain destructions and disappearances and diseases and new births, which are riddles and fables pertaining to the aforesaid transformations: and they sing the dithyrambic song, filled with sufferings, and allusions to some change of state that brought with it wandering about and dispersion.

For Aeschylus says: ‘It is fitting the dithyrambus, with its confused roar, should accompany Dionysos: but Apollo, the orderly and sober paean.’ The latter god they represent in pictures and images as exempt from age and youthful; but the other, under many guises and forms; and, generally, to the one they assign invariableness, order, and unmixed seriousness; whilst ascribing to the other a mingled playfulness and mischief, gravity and madness, they proclaim him ‘Evius inciter of women, flourishing with frenzied honors, Dionysos!’—not wrongly taking what is the characteristic of either change.

For, since the duration of the periods of such changes is not equal, but that of the one which they call ‘Satiety’ is the longer of the two, and that of the oracle giving the shorter, they observe the due proportion here, and during the rest of the year they employ the paean at the sacrifices; at the beginning of winter they revive the dithyramb and put a stop to the paean, and invoke the god with the former instead of the latter chant for the space of three months: which makes three to one the space of time they believe that the creation lasted compared to that of the conflagration.”

Um.  Not much here either.

Next, De esu carnium i.9 (On eating meat — it seems to be i.7 in fact).  After rejecting eating the bodies of animals he goes on.

 Yet perhaps it is not unsuitable to set the pitch and announce the theme by quoting some verses of Empedocles. . . . By these lines he means, though he does not say so directly, that human souls are imprisoned in mortal bodies as a punishment for murder, the eating of animal flesh, and cannibalism.  This doctrine, however, seems to be even older, for the stories told about the sufferings and dismemberment of Dionysus and the outrageous assaults of the Titans upon him, and their punishment and blasting by thunderbolt after they had tasted his blood — all this is a myth which in its inner meaning has to do with rebirth. For to that faculty in us which is unreasonable and disordered and violent, and does not come from the gods, but from evil spirits, the ancients gave the name Titans, that is to say, those that are punished and subjected to correction. . . .

This seems again to be about reincarnation.  There might even be an implication of reincarnation into the bodies of animals in this.

So … do these passages back up the comments of Frazer?  It seems unlikely. 

The terms “resurrection” and “immortality”, loaded with Christian significance as they are, give an impression somewhat at odds with the comments of Plutarch.  Reincarnation, yes, into the bodies of animals and men, yes — resurrection,  no.  Immortality of the soul, yes — of the body, no.  We need not consider this portion of Frazer’s claims, useful though it is to see these passages.

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.

Proclus, Hymn to Minerva, on the resurrection of Dionysus

The next source given by Frazer is the Hymn to Minerva of Proclus.  Here I find myself mildly embarassed — it turns out that I scanned this and placed it online long ago, here.

Once by thy care, as sacred poets sing,
The heart of Bacchus, swiftly-slaughtered king,
Was saved in aether, when, with fury fired,                       15
The Titans fell against his life conspired;
And with relentless rage and thirst for gore,
Their hands his members into fragments tore:
But ever watchful of thy father’s will,
Thy pow’r preserved him from succeeding ill,                     20
Till from the secret counsels of his sire,
And born from Semele through heav’nly fire,
Great Dionysus to the world at length
Again appeared with renovated strength.

This again is a version of the “killed by giants” myth.  Again it’s very late in date.

The third Vatican mythographer on the resurrection of Dionysus

In my last post, we saw that one of the sources given by J. G. Frazer for the ‘resurrection’ of Dionysus was an anonymous text found in a medieval Latin manuscript in the Vatican.

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];

The text is as follows:

5. Cur de Semele, una fíliarum Cadmi, Jove fulminante, natus perhibeatur, nihil me quod tradi dignum judicaverim legisse memini. Hoc tamen non praetermittere duxi, quod IV erant sorores, Ino, Autonoë, Semele et Agave; et IV sunt, ut ait Fulgentius, ebrietatis genera, id est vinolentia, rerum oblivio, libido, insania. Prima namque est Ino, quae vinum interpretatur; secunda Autonoë, id est, se ipsa non cognoscens; tertia Semele, quae corpus solum solutum interpretatur; quarta Agave, quam, quia nominis ejus interpretatio vel incongrua fortasse visa est, vel Latinis incognita, praetereo; tamen insaniae comparabimus, quia Penthei filii sui caput, sicut in fabula legitur, violenter abscidit. Ut autem paulo altius ordiri videamur, habet fabula, Gigantes Bacchum inebriatum invenisse, et discerpto eo per membra, frusta sepelisse, et eum paulo post vivum et integrum resurrexisse. Quod figmentum discipuli Orphei interpretati leguntur, nihil aliud Bacchum quam animam mundi intelligendum asserentes; quae, ut ferunt philosophi, quamvis quasi membratim per mundi corpora dividatur, semper tamen se redintegrare videtur, corporibus emergens, et se formans, dum semper una eademque perseverans, nullam simplicitatis suae patitur sectionem. Hanc etiam fabulam in sacris ejus repraesentasse leguntur.


… the fable says that the giants found Bacchus drunk, and after tearing him limb from limb, he could not be buried, and a little time afterward he was resurrected alive and intact. … They say that this fable was (re)enacted in his rites.

The narrative goes on to give the Orphic interpretation of this, that Bacchus is to be understood as the soul of the world.

There’s no resurrection of Dionysus in the spring here, although there is certainly a resurrection, and also its representation in the mysteries of Dionysus.

I wish we knew when this text was written.  I have not been able to find any information on this.  But I note the mention of “Fulgentius”.  This must be Fulgentius Mythographicus, the 5th century writer of a compendium of myths and legends in Vandal Africa.  The text, therefore, cannot be earlier than this, and is probably medieval rather than ancient.

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.