I'm part of a group of translators that present the first English verse translation of Dionysiaca (Tales of Dionysus) by Nonnus of Panopolis that will be a highlight of my literary life. More information is available at the University of Michigan Press website, but I repeat below:
Tales of Dionysus is the first English verse translation of one of the most extraordinary poems of the Greek literary tradition, the Dionysiaca of Nonnus of Panopolis. By any standard, the Dionysiaca is a formidable work. It is by far the longest poem surviving from the classical world, a massive mythological epic stretching to over 20,000 lines, written in the tradition of Homer, using Homer’s verse, Homer’s language, his narrative turns and motifs, and invoking his ancient Muses. But it is also the last ancient epic to follow a Homeric model, composed so late in fact that it stands as close in time to the Renaissance as it does to archaic Greece. Like its titular hero, Dionysus, with his fluidity of forms, names, and divine incarnations, the poem itself is continually shifting shape. Out of its formal epic frame spills a tumult of ancient literary types: tragedy, elegy, didactic, panegyric, pastoral idyll, and the novel are all parts of this gigantic enterprise, each genre coming to the fore one after the other.
Tales of Dionysus brings together forty-two translators from a wide range of backgrounds, with different experiences and different potential relationships to the text of Nonnus’ poem. All work in their own styles and with their own individual approaches to the poem, to translation, and to poetic form. This variety turns Tales of Dionysus into a showcase of the multiple possibilities open to classical translation in the contemporary world.
[Editor] William Levitan is Professor of Classics Emeritus at Grand Valley State University.
[Editor] Stanley Lombardo is Professor Emeritus of Classics at The University of Kansas.
Poet and translator Peter Valente has just written a review and I'm blessed to present it below:
A Review of The Tales of Dionysus
By Peter Valente
I just finished reading the group translation of the Dionysiaca (Tales of Dionysus) by Nonnus of Panopolis, who was born in Upper Egypt and flourished in the 5th century CE. It is an extraordinary, lavish, theatrical and baroque poem. Dionysus was born of a mortal and a god: princess Semele was impregnated by Zeus, but encouraged by Hera, Semele desired to see Zeus face to face; as a result, she is burned alive; but before she is simply a pile of ashes, Zeus takes the “unfinished foetus” from her womb; He then slits an opening in his thigh, which acts as a womb, and completes the term of Dionysus’ birth. So, Dionysus is “matripaternal” in Douglas Parker’s translation. He is the androgynous god of sex, wine and ecstatic madness. He travels the countryside, with his nymphs, satires and mortal women known as Bacchants or Maenads. These were the women who gave up their families and positions in order to follow Bacchus, and who surrendered themselves fully to an animalist, primitive state. Armed with thyrsi, giant fennel staves, these women were sexually aggressive and, when sufficiently roused, liable to rip apart and eat anything that crossed their paths, from lions to their own sons. If the inhabitants of a city failed to worship and give appropriate respect to Dionysus he would come to your town, lure the women away as Maenads, and if necessary, turn them loose on the men. This feminine presence is strong in the Dionysiaca.
The Dionysiaca is the longest surviving epic poem that follows the Homeric model: it is written in dactylic hexameter like the Iliad and contains a battle between Dionysus and the King of India, Deriades. But Dionysus has no real reason to be fighting against the Indians, except perhaps for his arrogance and his desire to spread the pleasures of intoxication throughout the arable world.
Wine emerged in the world for the first time following the death of Ampelos, one of Dionysus’ lovers. He was killed by a bull and from his blood grew the grape and the vine. With this new “drug” Dionysus became the god of magical intoxication. Nonnus writes: “So, Dionysus claimed again his / purpose, restored nature’s / throbbing pulse – he the god of / ravishment, of juicy jizm, / of glistening life-pumping pearls, / of ecstatic joyance.” Furthermore, “Those bees [responsible for honey] made art, but art is not / a trouble-killing brew.” And Dionysus is able to defeat the Indians using, along with his thyrsus, and his ability to transform himself, leaves and vines. In one scene, he simply uses a leaf and grazes the breastplate of an Indian soldier and it cracks and falls to the floor in pieces! In another scene, “as the king tried to stab him, / he shapeshifted into a multitude of forms” including a lion, a wild boar, a panther, a waterfall, and fire. Or he will use the vine to entangle an Indian warrior. Dionysus encourages his men to defeat the Indian king by saying:
Entangle that bold one
(you know his name but I’ll say it, Deriades) entwined
In windings of vine and clusters of
Sweet fruit hanging off him,
And soften his bronze-clad
Shoulders with a fawnskin….
He continues: “And after a lifetime of war, bloody clangor / let him at last be taught how to dance. / and through the dark night relieve the bodily rhythms, / grate, toss his hair, stomp the grapes.” Dionysus uses ecstatic dance to give pleasure to his followers: Nonnus writes, “I follow Lord Bacchus, not sober Apollo, / whose sad Cretan dirges are unknown to me, / those weepy laments for his lover Atymnius.” During one ecstatic dance rite, with the sounds of cymbals, tambourines, and hornpipes of Pan echoing the air, even bears begin to dance, as well as snakes, and perfume is released in a garden bursting with many-colored flowers. All of nature is alive. An Indian warrior witnessing this scene is terrified. Even the roar of Dionysus and the Bacchants is sometimes enough to kill many men. A warrior tells King Derieades: “What miracle, Deriades, is this? / My warriors hit the dust, and how felled / by thyruses and leaves of no account.” Indeed, this war is between “vegetable love” and the “überman” Deriades! Dionysus and his Bacchants are like flower children, confronting the police by holding up a daisy. We are as far away from the world of Iliad as possible. In one sense, what Nonnis is doing in this epic poem is feminizing the epic poems of Homer, Statius and Lucan: Eileen R. Tabios writes in her collaboration with Denise Low on Book 28: “Manhood when defined / as dying into a stance / ‘poised to throw a lance’ / begets poetry, but who / needs such impotent beauty.” The maenads want to free “themselves from / their manly dispositions” and become women again. Is the Dionysiaca in fact a kind of an anti-war poem?
Indeed, the Dionysiaca presents strong female characters who will protect their virginity at all costs. For example, the Bacchant, Chacamede drives the Indian warrior Morrheus crazy with lust and in a fit of madness he says: “But when I see Chalcomede near me, / my spear goes limp, / I’m not afraid of Dionysus, but I / cower before a woman.” She is beautiful but dangerous. She enters the battle and throws a boulder at Morrheus. This leads an Indian warrior to remark: “The Bacchants / have no need for cold steel” and also that “These women rip coats of mail apart with their fingernails.” These Bacchants refuse to be subject to men and domesticated by them, to obey, for example, Lycurgus, king of Arabia who desires to bind his slaves, “in forced marriage to each row / of girl-crazy Dionysus’ followers and not seek a dowry, proper custom for those taken by the spear.”
But the ecstatic intoxication and dance have a dark and sinister aspect and can lead to violence and rape. The nymph Nicea rejects Hymnus in order to preserve her virginity but is then, while asleep, raped by Dionysus. The farmer and his men, during a scene late in the poem, are given cups of wine until they are intoxicated and in a frenzy the men murder the farmer. Books 44 to 46 relate the story of Euripides’ Bacchae; in the play, Pentheus is murdered by his own mother, Agave, because during an ecstatic frenzy she mistook him for a lion. And finally, the mountain nymph, Aura, is raped by Dionysus while she is in a drunken sleep. When she discovers that she has been violated, her rage causes her to go on a murderous rampage, killing farmers, shepherds, and eventually, one of her own sons who she eats. Sparagmos is an act of rending, tearing apart, or mangling usually understood in a Dionysian context. During a Bacchic rite an animal, or even a human being, is sacrificed by being dismembered. Sparagmos was often followed by omophagia (the eating of the raw flesh of the one dismembered). It is associated with the Maenads or Bacchantes and the Dionysian Mysteries. There is a scene, near the end of the Dionysica, where Bacchants in a wild frenzy tear apart and disembowel animals. After this extremely bloody series of acts, Nonnus describes these very same Maenads suckling little children. The Bacchants can be both violent and gentle.
It is said by scholars that one of the important aspects of the Dionysiaca is the alternate myths that Nonnus describes that would be otherwise lost. One concerns the myth of Aphrodite. In many epics and poems of the ancient world, Aphrodite is said to emerge from the sea at Cypris. But Nonnus writes: “The Cypriots claim that the goddess / made first landfall there, and / they point to her footprints. They’re liars.” In fact, according to Nonnus, Aphrodite first landed in Beirut, a land “coeval with Time.” When Harmonia reads from the “oracular tablets” where “each one is named for a planet” she refers to Aphrodite in the following manner: “Tablet number three is rose-colored / and named after you, for it bears the stamp of your Eastern Star.” Furthermore, for arranging the marriage of Zeus and Hera, Aphrodite is given, by Zeus, the gift of choosing which city she could “hand over the precepts of Justice.” Harmonia consults the oracle, and reads that the oldest city, Beirut is chosen. The oracle speaks of the reign of Augustus…and a later period of violence and destruction and continues: “until Beirut, the muse of gentler living, dispenses justice on the land and upon the salt ocean, / fortifying towns with a wall that cannot be shaken, / the wall of Law, one city for all the world’s cities.” Of course, Dionysus was born on Mt Nysa, which was identified with eastern holy mountains in Phoenicia, Egypt, Arabia, and India. Giovanni Hojeije writes, in “Dionysus and the East: The Importance of Theatre and the God of Tragedy,”
From Tyre to the Northern areas in Lebanon, to Anatolia or Libya, sculptures and mosaics, both in public sites and household shrines, are extensively found. The importance of Dionysus, especially in the Levantine region, is so evident that he has a considerable portion in the biggest Roman Temple — the Temple of Bacchus and Jupiter, in Baalbek — dedicated to his worship in Roman Phoenicia.
So, as surprising as it seems that Aphrodite first landed in Beirut, the historical evidence seems to back up the claim and, of course Aphrodite was a goddess important to Dionysus. But in the Dionysiaca, Bacchus is ultimately unable to win the love of Beroe, Aphrodite’s daughter; instead, Poseidon is victorious. Dionysus is promised by Eros “Ariadne of the Minos Clan” and so leaves the East: “Then, departing the rich river / and the Phrygian plain, that land of easy living, / he established his vine on the northern plain / and passed from Asia’s villages to Europe’s cities.” He will then have to fight Perseus, a battle that Hermes stops and later the Giants whom Dionysus defeats. The poem concludes with his rising to the realm of the gods: “the vine god ascended to his ancestral heaven / and at table with the father who had given him birth, / after all the mortals’ banquets, after all the wine poured out, / he drank celestial nectar from nobler goblets, / and sat with his brothers, / Leto’s son Apollo, / and Hermes, son of Maia.”
The Dionysiaca does not present a world of strong men, with complex emotions. Dionysus is not Achilles, or Odysseus, or Agamemnon. Or rather he is each of them, but in drag. Many of the battle scenes appear stylized and theatrical. The Dionysiaca is exaggerated, effeminate, even bombastic. Finally, it is a camp masterpiece. It is the Iliad in drag. It is excessive, wild, vivid, hallucinatory and fantastical. Just a couple of examples of some marvelous descriptions. This is the ecstatic music that accompanies the dance:
There was the dance. Throughout the hall
accomplished lyrists played, and aromatic breezes blew,
and wafted up and down the city’s pleasant-smelling streets.
Free-flowing streams of wine intoxicated the whole house.
There was a clattering of cymbals, pan-pipes whistling
melodious across the table, and a clamoring
of double flutes, two-headed drums of oxhide thundering
in double rhythm in the hall; and following the feast,
the din of rattles.
This is the music of free improvision at its best! Then there is the strange and lavish description of Zeus and Hera’s lovemaking that almost reads like science fiction:
Then he conjured up a pleasure dome of golden cloud,
swirling around them and arching into place;
the parti-colored bow of Iris crowned the whole.
A bed materialized for the lovemaking Zeus
and his ivory-armed bride, concealed in their bower.
Within the bonds of gracious marriage they conjoined,
and Gaea diffused her many fragrances, strewing
the bridal bed with beautiful flowers: the crocus from Cilicia,
wrapped about by leaves of morning glory, like lover
embracing his beloved, in floral monogamy.
Thus earth bestrewed Zeus with saffron, & Hera
with purple blooms. Narcissus overgrew
anemone, as silent emblem of the god’s eager love.
No immortal spied the Divinities in their retreat,
No nearby nymphs, nor watchful sun,
Nor moon’s mild eyes spied the deathless bed,
For walls of cloud enclosed it, and Sleep and Love
Had clouded the eyes of Zeus, in deep slumber now,
Holding his wife in his arms and out like a light.
It is an epic poem that also bristles with Nonnus’ encyclopedic knowledge of mythology. It is said that he might have visited the Library of Alexandria.
The Dionysiaca has had its critics, and before this book was published, the only translation of the poem was by W.H.D. Rouse for the Loeb editions, published in 1940. The Dionysiaca was often compared to the Iliad and this led to “scorn among professional classicists” which “became at least in the anglophone world, a long-running tradition.” This is not the case in, for example, in France where Francis Vian wrote an eighteen volumes survey of various arguments and evidence regarding the poem. There continue to be studies published in Italy and Germany as well. At last, with the publication of Tales of Dionysus: The Dionysiaca of Nonnus of Panopolis edited by William Levitan and Stanley Lombardo, with an introduction by Gordon Braden, this extraordinary work is available for English readers. The poets, without any help from the scholars, understood the value of Nonnus. In his poem, “Exiles” Cavafy writes, “The other day we read some lines by Nonnos: /what imagery, what rhythm, what diction and harmony! /All enthusiasm, how we admired the Panopolitan.” And Stefan George wrote in a eulogy for Mallarmé, in 1898, about their mutual love for the works of Nonnus, “how the hard-born verses of the hot-blooded Egyptian, which hum and hurry along like Maenads, filled us with more delight than those of old Homer.” In terms of the reading and despite its length, the Dionysiaca of Nonnus of Panopolis is the most enjoyable epic poem I have ever read.
Peter Valente is a writer, translator, and filmmaker. He is the author of twelve full length books. His most recent books are a collection of essays on Werner Schroeter, A Credible Utopia (Punctum, 2022), and his translation of Nerval, The Illuminated (Wakefield, 2022). Forthcoming is his translation of Antonin Artaud, The True Story of Jesus-Christ (Infinity Land Press, 2022), a collection of essays on Artaud, Obliteration of the World: A Guide to the Occult Belief System of Antonin Artaud (Infinity Land Press, 2022), and his translation of Nicolas Pages by Guillaume Dustan (Semiotext(e), 2023).