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?