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Monday, February 1, 2016

The Role of Wine in Nonnus’ Dionysiaca


I have here used the same forms of Greek names as Rouse’s Loeb Library edition of the Dionysiaca (thus Nonnus. Dionysus, etc., but Ampelos).



The sprawling and ornately decorated hexameters of what is perhaps the greatest little-read book of antiquity, Nonnus’ Dionysiaca, [1] detail the adventures of Dionysus with many narrations of sexuality and violence and violent sexuality as well as ecstasy and intoxication. In the first third of the over 20,000 line poem one encounters monsters like Typhon and Ares’ dragon, murders such as Zagreus’ death derangement of Ino, Themisto, and Athamas, while numerous characters are bewitched by love. At the outset the author invokes not only the Muses but also Proteus of many turns (polytropon) to guide the poem’s composition as a manifold or richly-wrought song (poikilon hymnon). (I, 14) Some find it difficult to reconcile this massive and disorderly work which goes far to define “decadent” to the same author’s grave paraphrase of the gospel of John. [2] Their styles may differ widely, but there is little in the epic celebration of the unruly god that would ill-fit a Christian believer.

Dizzyingly extravagant in content and style, Nonnus’ poem concerns the deity known in antiquity for his followers’ transports of enthusiasm and specifically identified with the grape, with wine, and drunkenness. It is true that the verse gains some stability with its quite regular clopping hexameters (written when quantitative verse was already being abandoned) and its archaic Homeric dialect (itself freshened with a great many neologisms), but the themes themselves are ultimately a safe distance from the transgressive.

The role of wine itself is a case in point. Though used in small quantities ritually by many groups including ancient Chinese, Jews, and Christians and more generously in observances by groups including ancient Egyptians, old Norsemen, and, surprisingly, early Mormons, alcohol has proven a far poorer alternative than many other psychoactive drugs for religious inspiration. Even the Greek Dionysia is distinguished more by the dithyrambic (and later theatrical) contests and by the processions of phalluses than by drunkenness. (If one believes Livy, the Roman Bacchanalia was a far more licentious festival, in need if civic regulation since 186 C.E.)

Surprisingly, wine appears in Nonnus’ Dionysiaca not as a gateway to altered consciousness but only as an amelioration of suffering, a simple anodyne. Indeed, the poem’s Book VII prophesies that Dionysus’ advent will ease the trials of human life as Semele is told “You have conceived a son who will make mortals forget their troubles.” (367) Her offspring will not cause their suffering to vanish nor will she grant a transcendental wisdom from the height of which suffering will seem trivial; rather, he will allow them to temporarily escape the woes inevitable in life.

Dionysus, who was often depicted as a beardless youth and was ridiculed as effeminate by Pentheus, falls in love with “the rosy form of a young comrade” Ampelos (X, 175) and takes him as his “playmate” (homepsion). (X, 193) Like many Greek men the god delights in the boy’s dancing (X, 240) and fears rivals of his beloved’s own age. (X, 248) Indeed Ampelos inspires the love of a satyr (X, 278). Dionysus begs Zeus to be allowed to possess Ampelos’ love exclusively, saying that his favorite outshines even Zeus’ choice Ganymede. (X, 317) Ampelos and his divine lover enjoy each other’s company, joining, for instance, in “honey-sweet wrestling” (X, 345) and other athletic contests.

Ate interferes then in their idyllic relationship, suggesting to Ampelos that he has received insufficient favors from his lover (XI, 113) and raising again the comparison to Ganymede: “The Trojan wine-pourer had the better of you -- he is at home in the court of Zeus.” (XI, 138) Ampelos allows himself to be persuaded to ride a bull, presumably to impress Dionysus, but he is thrown from the animal’s back, breaking his neck. (XI, 217)

Thrown into uncharacteristic mourning, Dionysus hears Atropos telling him that Ampelos lives yet in the wine (XII, 142) in which form he will be worshiped with song and dance and the triumphant cries of the Muses. (XII, 152) Wine is called “the heavenly nectar, comfort of the human race.” (XII, 152) Wine is contrasted with war, its red juice a pleasure utterly unlike the blood of battle. (XII, 164) [3] Dionysus’ suffering is nearly Christ-like, though his wounds are those of the lovelorn rather than the victim of judicial torture: “Lord Bacchus has wept tears, that he may wipe away tears.” (XII, 171)

The virtue of this ability of wine to overcome suffering is sufficient that the grape becomes the chief plant of all, receiving the homage of lesser greenery. [4] Its divine qualities betray the fact that it grew from ichor. (XII, 295) But is it not expecting very little of god to provide some temporary surcease of sorrow and grief? Drunkenness is a modest compensation for mortality, more like the psalmist noting that wine “gladdens men’s hearts,” Christ’s miracle at Cana, [5] or the wine promised in Paradise in the Koran [6 ] than like Jesus Christ, "the true vine" [7] Numbers, chapter 13, Christ in the winepress What sort of benediction Euripedes had in mind when he said in The Bacchae “When we pour libations out, it is the god himself we pour out, and by this bring blessings on mankind.”

If there is less of the tremendum of the Grail symbols, there is more of the usable in everyday life. In Nonnus wine is well represented in the repeated image of Ganymede offering a glass. (XII, 40; XII 105) That convivial drink promises no enlightenment or even transport, but it does provide a reliable anaesthetic, an insulation against the harsher of life’s blows as well as a positive source of pleasure in better times (though neither use would be sanctioned by modern psychologists). If one thinks with the Living Theatre that Dionysus should be in a more ambitious business, at least this more modest one possesses the convenience of remaining still within reach.



1. The 1940 Loeb Library edition was translated by W. H. D. Rouse. The entire text of Northrup Frye’s copy with his marginalia is conveniently available at archive.org.

2. Though some readers choose to think the apparently pagan work was written before the writer’s conversion, I prefer to think of Nonnus as a figure like Snorri Sturluson, a good Christian but an antiquarian as well who saw value in the old beliefs and the art to which they had given rise.

3. See also line 252 which again contrasts the blood offered to Ares to the grape juice which is Dionysus’.

4. XII, 273 ff.

5. See Psalm 104:15 and John II, 1-11.

6. Surah XLVII, 15 promises wine in paradise Quran, XVI, 67 recommends it.

7. John 15:1.

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