This post is from Andrew Barrett, one of the students in the MA program in Literary Translation here at the University of Rochester. When he told me he was working on a translation of a poem from Ancient Greek, I though, “huh, OK,” but then when I found out it was an erotic epic poem about Dionysus, I thought, “interesting, must learn more.” When Andrew talks about this is sounds really strange and wild—a mess of forms and techniques all culminating in something that most Greek scholars dismiss as “trash.” (Which naturally makes it sound more interesting to me, personally.) Also intriguing is that Nonnus’ only other poem is about Christ. Yeah, WTF indeed.
Anyway, rather than try and explain this poem, I had Andrew write something up for us. So here you go:
The Dionysiaca of Nonnus is the longest surviving poem from classical antiquity and one of the most entertaining, outrageous and vivid epics ever conceived west of the Ganges. Despite its many points of interest, the Dionysiaca is largely unknown to today’s educated, reading public. Since one of my goals in translating a portion of the Dionysiaca for my Literary Translation Studies M.A. at the University of Rochester is to help bring this epic poem to a wider audience, I’d like to take a moment to outline a few of the literary pleasures and provocative questions that come with immersing oneself in Nonnus and his work.
The Dionysiaca: The Epic That Classicists Loved to Hate
The Dionysiaca is an epic poem from Late Antiquity written in hexameter verse on the topic of Dionysus, Greek god of fertility, art, wine and divine ecstasy. The general opinion of Nonnus’ numerous critics over the last several hundred years is that the Dionysiaca‘s intent is simply to regale the reader with all things Dionysus, from the life and times of the god himself to the various woes incurred by his genetic line, with little attention paid to the rigors of coherent storytelling or careful diction. Such critics have argued that in the final estimate, the Dionysiaca is nothing but a verbal monument to the frivolous and the baroque.
This tradition of the disparaging Nonnian critique is largely responsible for why the Dionysiaca is virtually unknown today. Nonnus’ epic, however, is much more than just a churning and chaotic narrative of Dionysian mythology and past dismissals of the poem are largely based on fundamental misunderstandings of the poem’s literary aims. Further inspection reveals that Nonnus has made a poem whose chaotic veneer conceals subtle narrative construction, vigorous engagement with abstract themes, and a deeply felt intuition for the numinous and ritualistic core of mythology. Thankfully, within the last thirty years a small number of scholars have begun to analyze the Dionysiaca as a work of literature instead of dismissing it as a mountainous heap of doggerel and have thus begun the long process of establishing the poem’s merits within the academy.
Nevertheless, the outdated Loeb Classical Library edition of the Dionysiaca, which embodies the old, contemptuous view of the poem (complete with H.J. Rose’s chastising, Victorian-minded mythological introduction), remains the only available English translation of the poem. I hope that continued academic analysis coupled with literary efforts such as my translation of the Dionysiaca (which seeks to be informed by a strong understanding of current academic attitudes towards the poem’s complexity and worth) will one day nudge the poem into broader literary consciousness.
The Pleasures of Mimesis and the Meta-Epic
Other than the plentiful and luxuriant imagery bestowed upon various acts of sex and violence, one of the most intriguing aspects of the Dionysiaca, for the modern reader, is Nonnus’ exploration of the nature of imaginative literature itself through a non-linear recounting of the mythology of Dionysus. Nonnus’ multifaceted and sophisticated form of narrative construction will often yield ruminations on the nature of literary mimesis and an overt awareness of the literary tradition in which he himself resides.
Mimesis subtly emerges as a major theme in the Dionysiaca once the reader observes that nearly every object and character in the poem is qualified as a dream, reflection or copy. Through crowding his pages with these elusive simulacra, Nonnus constantly reminds us that literature and mythology are not equivalent to the reality of life but only imperfect representations of that reality. While such abstract, philosophical concerns are not unknown to other ancient poets, only Nonnus manages to so consistently weave (in my humble opinion) shimmering, dreamlike textures out of the epistemological.
Nonnus’ awareness of his place in literary tradition comes through in the many episodic digressions, which fragment the conventional coherence of his narrative. Through the heavily allusive style of these digressions, which can focus on both obscure and well-known episodes of Dionysian and non-Dionysian mythology, Nonnus reveals his deep knowledge of Ancient Greek literature. Homer’s presence is the most keenly felt in the Dionysiaca through the very epic form of the poem itself and the numerous linguistic and episodic allusions that Nonnus makes to the Iliad and Odyssey while the Alexandrian poets of the Hellenistic age take second place.
Intertwining with his abstract investigations into literature and literary mimesis are Nonnus’ fascination with archaic ritual and his numinous awe for the natural world. This is the hue of the Dionysiaca that I personally find to be the richest and most mesmerizing. The Dionysiaca is made replete with references to catasterism, blood sacrifice, magic, and an apparent awareness of ancient mystery religions (most likely those of the Greco-Egyptian Hermes Trismegistos and Orphic variety), while the natural world in which the bulk of this ritualistic activity is set quivers with a life of its own. Thus, the Dionysiaca skirts mere comic-book mythology while maintaining a view that the living world is a ritual stage worthy of fear, respect and poetry.
Nonnus: Christian or Pagan?
The evidence for Nonnus’ historical existence is scant. We know that he was a resident of the Egyptian city of Panopolis (modern day Akhmim) and that his dates fall somewhere in the late fourth to early fifth century CE. Other than those two tenuous facts, all we have are the surviving literary poems that bear his name: the Paraphrase of the Gospel of John and the Dionysiaca. That’s correct—Nonnus not only composed a raucous pagan epic but also a tidy little poetic paraphrase of the New Testament’s most mystical Gospel.
The fact that one man composed these two works (which to the modern sensibility seems strange and contradictory) provides unique insight into the socio-religious atmosphere of Late Antiquity. Nonnus wrote his poems at a time when the Near East, North Africa and Southern Europe were roiling cauldrons of Paganism and Christianity, with no one set of religious beliefs achieving widespread dominance.
Nonnus’ poems reflect this state of affairs with more clarity than any other Late Antique author’s works. The Dionysiaca is a work of rampant Paganism with hints of Christian imagery (if one looks close enough) but not a trace of Christian moralizing. There is nothing within the text that suggests that Nonnus does not believe in the mythopoeic reality of his characters and scenarios due to a Christian faith.
On the other hand, the Paraphrase of the Gospel of John is an utterly sincere poetic re-imagining of John’s New Testament Gospel and bears no mark of pagan affiliation other than the hexameter verse in which it was composed.
Did Nonnus convert to Christianity after writing the Dionysiaca and present his Paraphrase of the Gospel of John as literary proof of his new faith? Or was it the other way around? The texts themselves are moot on this point, and we have no choice but to consider a hypothesis that is dissonant with our modern understanding of Christianity but perhaps perfectly consonant with the multifaceted Christianity of Late Antiquity and supported by current archaeological evidence: Nonnus was both Pagan and Christian.
I leave you with two excerpts from the Dionysiaca. The first excerpt is the proem of the Dionysiaca, wherein Nonnus calls on a goddess, the standard muses and the Mimallons (an obscure people associated with Dionysus and also a sly reference to the themes of mimesis and literary allusion) before properly starting his epic.
Of Cronides’ messenger in a blaze of light,
The sky’s breaking from hard deliverance in coital spark,
And the lightning flash, bridegroom of Semele.
Tell of the generations of twice-born Bacchus,
A half-formed infant delivered without midwife,
Whom Zeus raised from the flames dripping wet
After cutting open his thigh with flinching hand
And carried, as father and queen mother, within his male womb
While recalling vividly another birth:
When, after his brow was planted and he carried a sharp weight,
Adulterous yet unsown, in his pregnant temple,
He launched forth Athena, her armor glinting in the light.
Bring me the fennel stalk, crash the cymbals
And place in my hand Dionysus’ thyrsus turned to song.
But for the circular dance rouse for me a partner
From the nearby island of Pharos: Quicksilver Proteus.
May he appear in shape myriad
Since I work an intricate, mercurial hymn.
For if, as a serpent he steals in trailing a spiral path,
I will celebrate in song and step the God’s triumph
And how with the ivy-twined thyrsus he incinerated
The horrifying race of serpent-haired Giants.
If as a lion, he shakes his waving mane, I will shout Euoi
To Bacchus on the arm of voluptuous Rhea,
Who slyly nurses at the lion-rearing Goddess’ breast.
If as a leopard, he springs into the air from his heels,
Altering his variegated form with a furious leap,
I will sing a hymn to the son of Zeus
Who trampled the elephants with his saddled leopards
When he slaughtered the Indian race.
If he likens his body to the image of a boar,
I will sing of Thyone’s son sick at heart
For seductive Aura, killer of boars, daughter of Cybele
And mother of the late-born third Bacchus.
If he is the image of water in a mirror, I will sing Dionysus’ name
When he plunged beneath the sea’s undulating surface
With Lycurgus in armed pursuit.
If, as a rustling tree, he draws out an artificial whispering,
I will remember Icarius, his feet stomping in the divine wine vat
When he competed with the grape.
Bring me the fennel stalk and, instead of the chiton,
Drape over my shoulders and cinch about my chest
A mottled fawnskin awash in the sweet smell of Maronian Nectar.
Eidothea and Homer can keep the burden of Menelaus’ sealskins,
Grant for another the honeyed song of the double aulos
And give me the Bacchic drums and goatskins.
But, I do not wish to insult my patron, Phoebus Apollo.
For he spurns the echo of the reeds’ breathing
Ever since, he humiliated Marsyas’ god-combative aulos
And draped the skin of the flayed shepherd on a tree,
Rippling in the breeze after he skinned his every limb.
(Translation By Andrew Barrett)
The second excerpt is from the middle of Book One, wherein the monstrous, asymmetrical Typhoeus attacks the constellations as part of a bid to usurp universal authority from Zeus. The saturated, almost hallucinogenic quality that can often be found in Nonnus’ poetry in the Dionysiaca is particularly evident in this scene.
After Taurus was restrained, he checked Dawn
And that timeless Hour, horse-driver, rested incomplete.
Brightness was tempered by darkness
Within the shaded web of his head’s coiling vipers
As the Moon rose at daybreak and glowed with the Sun.
The Giant did not rest.
He turned back and went from north to south, leaving one Pole to stand at another.
After he grasped Auriga with his far-reaching fingers,
He whipped the back of hail-bearing Capricorn.
And as he dragged Pisces out of the shining air and into the sea,
He upended Aries, navel-center star of Olympus, which evenly balances
Day and darkness high above the luminous sphere of its vernal neighbor.
His feet dragging behind, Typhoeus vaulted near to the clouds
And, fanning out his multitude of arms, he shadowed the silvery radiance
Of the cloudless upper air.
The tangled army of serpents quivered.
One of his arms climbed upwards and traced the edge of the pole’s rotation,
Hissing tones of discord as it jumped along the spine of celestial Draco.
One came upon Andromeda, Cepheus’ daughter,
And, braiding with star-shot hands a ring like those that already bound her,
Cinched her with another slanting fetter under her coiled bonds.
Another, a bristling spiky serpent, encircled horned Taurus of a similar shape
And struck the facing Hylades with jaws open like the horns
Of a crescent moon as it coiled above the bull’s brow.
Strands of venomous serpents plaited together as one and girded Bootes.
One darted briskly and, after spotting another serpent on Olympus,
Slid around the arm of Ophiuchus, which grasped Serpens
And wove a second crown around Ariadne,
Curving his throat and coiling his belly into a spiral.
(Translation By Andrew Barrett)