Tuesday, February 09, 2016


Bacchus Wept

Gods and goddesses aren't supposed to weep, although some do. See "Jesus Wept" and "Tears of a Goddess" for the rule and a list of exceptions.

To the exceptions can also be added Bacchus, in Nonnus, Dionysiaca 12.171 (tr. W.H.D. Rouse):
Lord Bacchos has wept tears, that he may wipe away man's tears!

Βάκχος ἄναξ δάκρυσε, βροτῶν ἵνα δάκρυα λύσῃ.
I haven't read all 48 books of Nonnus' Dionysiaca. I owe the reference to G.W. Bowersock, Hellenism in Late Antiquity (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990), p. 44, who writes (footnote omitted):
[A]t least one line in the Dionysiaca, from book 12, could never have been written in a Greek pagan poem before the Christian era: "Bacchus our lord shed tears, so that he might bring an end to the tears of mortals." Pagan gods had certainly not traditionally taken upon themselves the tribulations of mortals.
With all due respect to such an eminent scholar, I don't see any Christian influence here. In context, Bacchus was mourning the death of his favorite Ampelos. After Ampelos died, he was transformed into a grape vine (his name means grape vine in Greek). From grapes comes wine, and wine takes away the tears of mortals. All perfectly pagan, as Wolfgang Liebeschuetz, "Pagan Mythology in the Christian Empire," International Journal of the Classical Tradition 2.2 (Fall, 1995) 193-208 (at 207), and Alan Cameron, Wandering Poets and Other Essays on Late Greek Literature and Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 84, saw. Robert Shorrock, The Myth of Paganism: Nonnus, Dionysus and the World of Late Antiquity (2011; rpt. London: Bloomsbury, 2013), chapter 4 ("Dionysus and Christ: Nonnus' Dionysiaca"), ingeniously defends the theory of Christian influence on this verse, but I'm not convinced.

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