Homeric Hymns to Dionysus

The Homeric Hymns give us some of our earliest information about Dionysus, the ancient Greek god of wine and revelry.

Joshua R. Hall

Josho has recently published an interesting article that looked at Ares as represented in the Homeric Hymns. This inspired me to write something similar, though looking at Dionysus, perhaps my favorite of the Greek gods. Modern perceptions of him typically center on his connections to wine and raucous revelry. But there is more to him than this.

Three of the so-called Homeric Hymns are dedicated to him. Two of these are rather short and only us some rather light biographical information. Interestingly, he is one of the deities who is neglected in the epic poems. He appears but twice in the Iliad, although Dionysiac themes are to be found more readily in it (see the chapter found here).

The hymns to Dionysus

The first hymn in the collection is twenty-one lines long, and gives us Dionysus’ family background. In the best tradition of divine figures, his exact origins are unclear (the translation is taken from the Perseus website):

For some say, at Dracanum; and some, on windy Icarus; and some, in Naxos, O Heaven-born, Insewn; and others by the deep-eddying river Alpheus that pregnant Semele bare you to Zeus the thunder-lover.

And others yet, lord, say you were born in Thebes; but all these lie. The Father of men and gods gave you birth remote from men and secretly from white-armed Hera.

The twenty-sixth hymn is also rather short, and is dedicated to Dionysus. At thirteen lines, it is worth repeating in its entirety here (again, from the Perseus website):

I begin to sing of ivy-crowned Dionysus, the loud-crying god, splendid son of Zeus and glorious Semele. The rich-haired Nymphs received him in their bosoms from the lord his father and fostered and nurtured him carefully in the dells of Nysa, where by the will of his father he grew up in a sweet-smelling cave, being reckoned among the immortals. But when the goddesses had brought him up, a god oft hymned, then began he to wander continually through the woody coombes, thickly wreathed with ivy and laurel. And the Nymphs followed in his train with him for their leader; and the boundless forest was filled with their outcry.

And so hail to you, Dionysus, god of abundant clusters! Grant that we may come again rejoicing to this season, and from that season onwards for many a year.

The longest hymn, by far, singing of Dionysus is the seventh (available on the Perseus website). It runs fifty-nine lines and provides us with one of the most iconic stories from the god’s life. He is kidnapped by pirates who saw him standing on a shoreline. He is described as having flowing dark hair, and looking “not like mortal men but like the gods who dwell on Olympus.” Despite the objections of the helmsman, the pirate crew took him onboard and attempted to bind him. The captain assumed that he was the wealthy son of a king, “bound for Egypt or for Cyprus or to the Hyperboreans.”

Certainly, this is enlightening in itself, that these three regions were thought of as where wealth was to be found. But, of course, the god did not let himself be taken prisoner. Rather, he made fragrant wine flow about the ship, vines grow up the mast, and bunches of grapes grow from a vine at the top of the sail. To put true fear into the sailors, he became a lion, and created a shaggy-haired bear, driving them to jump overboard. Once they were in the sea, Dionysus used his divine gifts to turn them into dolphins. Only the helmsman was spared this dire fate.

An Attic cup by Exekias

Almost as if made to illustrate an early version of this hymn, a mid-sixth century BC Attic cup by Exekias shows the aftermath of Dionysus transforming the pirates into dolphins. The so-called Dionysus Cup, now at the Staatliche Antikensammlungen in Berlin, preserves many of the details from the hymn.

This Attic black-figure cup by Exekias depicts the god Dionysus on a ship surrounded by dolphins. It’s almost certainly inspired by the same story as that recorded in Homeric Hymn 7. Dated to ca. 530 BC. Currently in the Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Berlin. Photo: Matthias Kabel.

On the inside of the cup, Exekias beautifully depicts the “dark ivy-plant” that ran up the mast. He skillfully painted the hanging clusters of grapes which drooped down from the top of the sail. And all around the ship are the pirates who have been turned into dolphins.

As noted on the website of the Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek, where the Attic kylix is now located, “whoever drank from this vessel had an unusual experience: the god emerged from the sea of red wine, swam on the top of the waves for a brief moment and then travelled with his ship into the open mouth of the person drinking” (found here). This is reminiscent of the fragrant wine with which Dionysus made pour fourth around the pirate’s ship.

A very similar scene is depicted in a Roman mosaic from Tunisia, now at the Bardo National Museum in Tunis. Here, some of the pirates are shown undergoing the process of transformation. The mosaic is used as this article’s featured image, displayed at the very top of the page (the image is taken from Wikimedia Commons).

Closing thoughts

It seems probable that the version of the story preserved in the Homeric Hymns was that known to Exekias, or at least one that was rather similar. Although the inspiration behind the cup and the hymn was certainly Dionysus’ divinity, they both are reflective of the anxiety caused by piracy in the ancient world.

In the Odyssey, newcomers to foreign lands are asked whether they were pirates or traders, a representation of how frequently both types of travelers were encountered. The Homeric poems of the Iliad and the Odyssey are rife with stories of pirates, plundering, and kidnapping (see e.g. P. de Souza, Piracy in the Graeco-Roman World (1999), pp. 17-26).

Of course, this was not a problem exclusive to the Greek world. In the first treaty between Rome and Carthage, for instance, we hear about restrictions being placed on piratical behavior for citizens of each city-state. The reputation of the Etruscans for practicing piracy, as well as just about all the other inhabitants of the Tyrrhenian Sea, means that the purchaser of the kylix painted by Exekias in Vulci would have had just an intimate connection to its theme as the Greek who painted it or any possible domestic owner.

The reflection of very real concerns in the divine life of Dionysus is an example of how society-wide anxiety can be represented in literary, and figurative, form. Perhaps in this case it was a collective exasperation at one of the more violent difficulties of ancient life.