This painting, by an unidentified 18th-century artist, strives to re-create the mythical birth scene of the ancient god, Bacchus—the Roman equivalent of the Greek Dionysus, a god of vegetation and wine. Despite the sense of peace and serenity displayed in the artwork above, Dionysus’ birth (as told in ancient myths) was anything but tranquil. There are two major birth myths attributed to Dionysus. Both myths share the same main godly figures, but they set the events differently. In both myths, Zeus is recognized as the father of Dionysus. Both myths also portray Hera as a character who wishes harm to be done against Dionysus and his mother. Additionally, Zeus saves his son in both of the stories, allowing the god of wine to be born again—which gave Dionysus the name, ‘Twice-born.”
In the normal origin myth, Dionysus was the son of Zeus and the Theban princess, Semele. For those not familiar with Greek and Roman mythology, Zeus was not married to Semele. No, he was already wed to another deity, the goddess Hera. By sleeping with Zeus, Semele brought upon herself the wrath of none other than the queen of the Olympian gods. Hera appeared to Semele and planted a terrible idea in the princess’ head. She convinced Semele that Zeus’ divinity needed to be proved, as Zeus had only met with the princess in a disguise. The next time Zeus visited Semele, the princess made the lightning god promise to reveal himself in all his godly radiance. When Zeus fulfilled the promise, Semele, who was pregnant with Dionysus, was either burnt to death by the incredible light, or she was struck dead by stray lightning. Dionysus was brought into the world by Zeus’ destructive power, but the young god was not yet fully developed. Zeus sewed Dionysus into his thigh until the god was old enough to be born again. The normal birth myth ends with Zeus tasking the messenger-god Hermes with the mission of delivering Dionysus to a group of nymphs, who would watch over him until adulthood.
The other Dionysus origin myth was attributed to the mythical singer Orpheus, for anonymous hymns and writings that were associated with Orpheus’ name eventually came to influence the cult of Dionysus. So-called Orphic hymns are believed to have been written in Imperial Rome, between the reigns of Augustus and Constantine. In the Orphic telling of the Dionysus origin myth, the wine god’s parents were Zeus and Persephone. In this myth, Hera let the young god be born and her wrath skipped Persephone to fall solely on the young Dionysus. To eliminate the unquestionable evidence of her husband’s infidelity, Hera hired the strongest possible killers available to assassinate Dionysus—the Titans. The infant Dionysus was lured away from the safety of his powerful father, and the titans ripped the boy-god into pieces and ate the scraps. A goddess (different accounts name Athena, Rhea or Demeter) was able to salvage Dionysus’ beating heart, which was then delivered to Zeus. The lightning god was then able to impregnate Semele with that heart, bringing Dionysus back to life.
These, then, are the grisly origin myths of Dionysus (or Bacchus) that inspired the artwork. Despite the painting being called “the Birth of Bacchus,” the artwork more likely shows the upbringing of the god. In particular, the image probably features the moments after Zeus tasked Hermes with taking Dionysus to be raised by nymphs.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Marvin W. Meyer. The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook of Sacred Texts. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 1987.
- Euripides. The Bacchae in The Ancient Mysteries edited by Marvin W. Meyer. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 1987.
- Livy. History of Rome in The Ancient Mysteries edited by Marvin W. Meyer. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 1987.
- Rule of the Iobacchoi in The Ancient Mysteries edited by Marvin W. Meyer. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 1987.