The God Dionysus in India: The Epic You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

The epic poem about the god Dionysus’ journey to India, the Dionysiaca, was composed by Nonnus of Panopolis in the 5th century CE.

Sep 4, 2021By Danielle Mackay
god dionysus pella mosaic battle of giants
Olympus. The Battle of the Giants by Francisco Bayeu, 1767-8, via Museo del Prado, Madrid; with Dionysus riding a panther, mosaic floor from Pella, late 4th century BCE, from Archaeological Museum Pella, via Macedonian-heritage.gr

 

Nonnus of Panopolis was a Greek poet who wrote his primary work in the Egyptian city of Alexandria during the Roman Imperial period. Nonnus himself came from a Christian family. The only other notable surviving work from the poet is a paraphrase of the Gospel of John.  The epic poem about the god Dionysus, the Dionysiaca, consists of over 20,000 lines. The epic’s 48 books were composed in the then-archaic Homeric dialect, and in dactylic hexameter. Nonnus’ work is both a compendium of God Dionysus’ mythologies, and the singular source for his mythological conquest of India.

 

The Birth of the God Dionysus

infant bacchus bellini god dionysus
The Infant Bacchus by Giovanni Bellini, 1505-1510, via The National Gallery of Art, Washington

 

In his amalgamation of the Dionysian mythology, the poet begins with the birth of the god. In his narrative, Dionysus experiences three separate births. The first of these is based on a story attributed by scholars to Orphic mythology. In Nonnus’ account, the god Dionysus is born to Zeus and his daughter, Persephone. Demeter — fearing that her daughter would be kidnapped and violated — hid Persephone in a cave. Demeter employs snakes as the guardians of Persephone, and it is in the guise of a snake that Zeus rapes his daughter. From this incestuous union, Persephone gives birth to the horned baby Zagreus.

 

zeus and semele blanchard epic poem
Zeus and Semele by Jacques Blanchard, 1632, via Dallas Museum of Art

 

Zagreus is the first manifestation of the God Dionysus in the epic poem. This name in particular is typically used to refer to Dionysus as the son of Persephone. In a vengeful wrath, Hera urges the Titans to destroy the child. The Titans lure the baby god into a vulnerable position and subsequently dismember him.

 

In the second birth narrative, Zeus seduces a mortal Theban woman named Semele. Zeus visits the young woman’s bed, and together they conceive the second incarnation of Dionysus. Once more, Hera hatches a plan to sabotage Semele’s pregnancy. The goddess appears to Semele in disguise and convinces the woman to ask Zeus to appear to her in his divine form. Zeus gives in to Semele’s request and reveals his true form to the mortal. Unable to withstand the presence of divinity, Semele is immediately immolated by fire.

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The unborn yet godly infant is then expelled from his mortal mother’s womb, which serves as Dionysus’ second birth in the narrative. The final birth of the god comes after Zeus takes up his infant son and stitches him into his thigh. Once the baby is fully developed, Zeus experiences labor pains, and gives birth to the god Dionysus.

 

Dionysian Mythology in the Epic Poem

nurture of bacchus god dionysus
The Nurture of Bacchus by Nicolas Poussin, 1628, via The National Gallery, London

 

Besides the extensive birth narrative in the epic poem, the poet also includes various smaller and lesser-known myths of the god. Many of these myths involve the spreading of Dionysus’ cult to different parts of Greece. Others detail acts of retribution from the god towards those who would resist him. Some of these comprise stories of Dionysus’ childhood and adolescence, and the god’s various relationships in these formative years. One example is the story of the god Dionysus’ friendship, and love for, the young Ampelus. Upon his sudden death, Dionysus mourns for the mortal, and transforms him into a grapevine from which the god makes the first wine.

 

The 13th Book of the Dionysiaca

In the 13th book of the Dionysiaca, Dionysus is ordered by Zeus to prepare for war against the impious natives of India. Rhea, who had cared for Dionysus as a child, is ordered by the god to prepare troops for the conquest. In typical Homeric style, the epic poet provides the readers with a catalog of heroic and divine troops. The Dionysian army, made up of a large contingent of Bacchants or maenads, encounters the Indian troops led by one Astraeis.

 

The Indian army is annihilated by the Bacchic forces, and Dionysus takes pity on his foes. In sympathy, the god transforms the nearby lake of Astacid into wine. The Indians then quench their thirst in the lake and — tasting wine for the first time — they become inebriated and fall asleep. The unconscious Indian troops are then bound and imprisoned by Dionysus’ forces.

 

Dionysus and the Nymphs

dance of the nymphs god dionysus
The Morning. The Dance of the Nymphs by Jean-Baptiste Camille-Corot, 1850, via Musée d’Orsay, Paris

 

The epic poet also offers an interesting digression on Dionysus’ interactions with the nymphs. The first of these appears in the 15th book of the Dionysiaca, and involves a woodland nymph named Nicaia. The virginal Nicaia is an attendant of the goddess Artemis. In one scene, she drinks from a river of wine, and the god Dionysus drugs the nymph. He then takes advantage of the unconscious woman and impregnates her. From this union, the god’s daughter — Telete — is born. Telete, whose name is linked to the Dionysiac mysteries, becomes one of her father’s attendants. When Nicaia is forced from her position as a companion of Artemis, Dionysus names the city of ‘Nicaea’ in her honor.

 

Similarly, another nymph endures the same treatment in the final book of the epic poem. Aura, a Titaness in the service of Artemis, is also pursued and impregnated by Dionysus. However, rather than accepting her role as the mother of the god’s child, she refuses to accept her pregnancy. Aura continues to take part in activities with the other nymphs despite her compromised chastity.

 

Eventually, the nymph gives birth to twins. However, in her abject refusal of motherhood, she cannibalizes one of her own children. Her remaining son — Iacchos — is saved by Athena. Aura is then transformed into a spring, as punishment for a separate incident wherein she taunts Artemis. Aura’s son Iacchos is another figure that features in the religious mysteries of Dionysus. His name is also used in connection with the Eleusinian mysteries. These are but a few of the exploits of Dionysus that can be found in the Dionysiaca, and there are many more of interest.

 

Hera and Dionysus

god dionysus pella mosaic dionysiaca
Dionysus riding a panther, mosaic floor in the ‘House of Dionysos’ at Pella, late 4th century BCE, from Archaeological Museum Pella, via Macedonian-heritage.gr

 

Throughout the narrative, the goddess Hera consistently attempts to hinder the god Dionysus’ efforts to be accepted as an Olympian. At his birth, Hera attempts to kill the child by inciting the Titans against him, and by convincing Semele to ask Zeus to appear in his true form. During Dionysus’ march to India, Hera encourages the Thracian king Lycurgus to fight the Bacchic troops passing through Arabia.

 

Dionysus escapes into the ocean where he is comforted by Nereus, a sea-god. Lycurgus, spurred on by Hera, attacks the bacchants, but is nearly killed, before he is saved by Hera. As punishment for his crimes against the bacchants, Zeus transforms Lycurgus into a blind wanderer. When Dionysus and his companions arrive in India, Hera orders the River Hydaspes to drown the Bacchic troops during their crossing. The river obeys and attempts to drown the Bacchants in a flood, but Dionysus punishes the river by setting its banks on fire.

 

the arrival of god dionysus dionysiaca
The Arrival of Dionysus in Attica by Johann Nepomuk Schödlberger, early 19th century, via Sotheby’s

 

The Hydaspes eventually surrenders to the god. Throughout Dionysus’ conquest of the east, Hera attempts to thwart any forward movement of his troops. The goddess even becomes the patron of the Indian king Deriades, aiding him in his defense of India. In the second half of the epic, the Indian king is once again spurred on to take up arms against the god and his contingent of bacchants. Up until the 30th  book, the main narrative is concerned with scenes from the battle between the Indians and the Bacchic army. Eventually, Dionysus massacres the Indian defenders, and Hera can no longer prevent the expansion of the god’s cult. Instead, she tries to attack the god by other means.

Hera enlists the help of a Fury named Megaira, who she instructs to madden Dionysus, while Hera puts Zeus into a deep sleep. Megaira successfully drives Dionysus mad, and he disappears. During his absence, the Indian king Deriades and his son-in-law, Morpheus, successfully rout the bacchants. With their god still absent from the battlefield, some of Dionysus’ troops are driven into the city walls, where they are slaughtered by the Indians. The god Hermes, however, releases many of them from the city.

 

Zeus awakens to see what has happened during his slumber, and immediately orders Hera to release Dionysus from his madness. To do this, she must breastfeed him, and anoint him with ambrosia — a sign of his adoption as her child. The battle between the bacchants and the Indians culminates in a duel between the god Dionysus and Deriades. Dionysus wounds the king, and forces him to escape by jumping into the River Hydaspes, ending the war.

 

The Homecoming Of The God Dionysus: Dionysiaca’s Finale

battle of the giants epic poem
Olympus. The Battle of the Giants by Francisco Bayeu, 1767-8, via Museo del Prado

 

While war is raging between the Indians and the bacchants, another conflict plays out on Mount Olympus, between the deities that sympathize with Dionysus, and those that support the Indians. Hera defeats Artemis, but Athena, who sides with Dionysus, defeats Ares. Apollo confronts Poseidon, but both gods are calmed by Hermes to prevent any further conflict.

 

Once these individual duels are concluded, Dionysus makes his way back to Greece to take his place on Olympus. However, Hera, still enraged, enlists the help of the Giants to attack Dionysus. Dionysus once again emerges victorious, thwarting Hera’s final attempt to prevent his ascendance. The culmination of the epic poem is found in Dionysus’ final, unobstructed homecoming to Olympus, where he is enthroned as an Olympian god.

 

Despite the rich mythological content of the Dionysiaca, the poem is rarely studied. Some classicists claim that the work is mediocre and unoriginal in its subject matter. Others, however, disagree with this analysis. Scholarly work continues on the poem itself, and on its notable position as a pagan epic published during the rise of Christianity. As a compendium of Dionysus’ exploits, the Dionysiaca provides a great resource for scholars and students with a keen interest in the god Dionysus.



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By Danielle MackayDanielle is currently completing her MA in Classical Studies at Rhodes University in South Africa. She earned her BA degree in Classical Studies and Linguistics and completed her studies of the Ancient Greek language as well as Latin. Her research focuses on Ancient Greek Religion and Mythology, specifically found in Late Antiquity Egypt, with a focus on the god Dionysus.