Classical Texts Library >> Nonnus, Dionysiaca >> Book 7




Love of Zeus & Europa
Typhoeus & Cadmus


Battle of Zeus & Typhoeus


Cadmus on Samothrace


Winning of Harmonia
The Founding of Thebes


Wedding of Harmonia
Death of Actaeon


Birth & Death of Zagreus
The Great Deluge


Love of Zeus & Semele


Death of Semele


Birth & Fostering of Dionysus
Madness of Ino


Madness of Athamas
Love of Dionysus & Ampelus


Death of Ampelus
Love of Calamus & Carpus


Tablets of Phanes
Discovery of Wine


Human Army of Dionysus


Divine Army of Dionysus

BOOKS 15 - 48


The seventh sings of the hoary supplication of Time, and Semele, and the love of Zeus, and the furtive bed.

[1] Already Eros, love’s plowman, had plowed the seedless world, and mixt the man’s seed of generation in the woman’s furrow, with the fruit of everflowing life again renewed. Nature the nurse of the offspring took root again; earth mingling with fire and water interwoven with air shaped the human race with its fourfold bonds.1

[7] But sorrow in many forms possessed he life of men, which begins with labour and never sees the end of care: and Time his everlasting companion showed to Zeus Almighty mankind, afflicted with suffering and having no portion in happiness of heart. For the Father had not yet cut the threads of childbirth2 and shot forth Bacchos from his pregnant thigh, to give mankind rest from their tribulations; not yet did the libation of wine soak the pathways of the air and make them drunken with sweetsmelling exhalations. The Seasons, those daughters of the lichtgang,3 still joyless, plaited garlands for the gods only of meadow-grass. For Wine was lacking. Without Bacchos to inspire the dance, its grace was only half complete and quite without profit; it charmed only the eyes of the company, when the circling dancer moved in twists and turns with a tumult of footsteps, having only nods for words, hand for mouth, fingers for voice.

[22] But Time the maniform, holding the key of generation, spread his white shock of hair over the knees of Zeus, let fall the flowing mass of his beard in supplication, and made his prayer, bowing his head to the ground, bending his neck, straining the whole length of his back; and as he knelt, the ancient of days, the shepherd of life ever-flowing, reached out his infinite hand and spoke:

[29] “Lord Zeus! behold yourself the sorrows of a despairing world! Do you not see that Enyo4 has made the whole earth mad, mowing season by season her harvest of quick-perishing youth? We can yet see traces of that deluge which you brought upon all nations, when the streams of airy floods billowed in the air and boiled against the neighbouring Moon. Farewell to the life of men, since they perish so soon! I renounce the divine helm at their fate, I will no longer handle the world’s cable. Let some other of the Blessed, one better than I am, receive the rudder of life ever renewed; let another have the course of my years – for I am weary of pitying the luckless race of suffering mankind. Is not old age enough, which blights youth, and makes a man go slow with bowed head, when bent and trembling he goes on his way with a foot too many,5 heavy of knee and leaning upon a staff, the faithful servant of age! Is not fate enough, who often hides in Lethe the young bridegroom, companion of an agemate bride lately wed, and breaks the life-bringing cables of a union that cannot be broken! I know how delightful a marriage is when Athena’s hoboy sounds along with the panspipes: nevertheless, what boots it, when the loud sound of the sevenchord harp is heard twanging near the bridal chamber? Lutes cannot comfort a heavy heart: but Eros himself stops the dance and throws away the bridal torch, if he sees a wedding without joy.

[55] “But (some may say) a medicine6 has been planted to make long-suffering mortals forget their troubles, to save their lives. Would that Pandora had never opened the heavenly cover of that jar – she the sweet bane of mankind! Nay, Prometheus himself is the cause of man’s misery – Prometheus who cares for poor mortals! Instead of fire7 which is the beginning of all evil he ought rather to have stolen sweet nectar, which rejoices the heart of the gods, and given that to men, that he might have scattered the sorrows of the world with your own drink. But never mind the cares of the tempest-tossed life, just consider your own ceremonials brought to sadness. Are you pleased at the empty vapour of the burnt-offering that strays without libation?”

[67] When the ancient had ended, Zeus Allwise for a time turned over his infinite wisdom in thoughtful silence, and gave rein to his mind; one after another the meditations of that creative brain revolved before him; and at last Cronides addressed his divine voice to Time, and revealed oracles higher than the prophetic centre8:

[73] “O Father self-begotten, shepherd of the ever-flowing years! be not angry; the human race waxes and wanes like the moon, and never fails or forgets its season. Leave nectar to the Blessed; and I will give mankind to heal their sorrows delicious wine, another drink like nectar self-distilled, and one suited to mortals. The primeval world will sorrow still, until I be delivered of one child. I am father and mother both; I shall suffer the woman’s pangs in my man’s thigh, that I may save the fruit of my pangs. Yesterday at the nod of my Deo, lady of wide threshingfloors, the earth dug by the iron wooer of corn9 was delivered of the dry fruit of the sheafbearing soil. Now also my son, bringer of a glorious gift, shall plant in the earth the moist fragrant fruit of vintage the Allheal – my son Dionysos Alljoy will cherish the no-sorrow grape, and rival Demeter. Then you will commend me when you watch the vine reddening with wineteeming dew, herald of the merry heart; and the countrymen at the winepress treading the fruit with heavy feet; and the revelling company of Bassarids shaking their mad hair unkempt into the wind over their shoulders. Then all in wild jubilation will cry Euoi over the echoing table with mutual toasts, in honour of Dionysos the protector of the human race. This my son after struggles on earth, after the battle with the giants, after the Indian War, will be received by the bright upper air to shine beside Zeus and to share the courses of the stars. So the god shall wind a tendril of garden vines laid upon the bright ivy round his locks for his garland . . . having a serpent-coronet as a sign of new godhead. He shall have equal honour with the gods, and among men he shall be named Dionysos of the Vine, as Hermes is called Goldenrod, Ares Brazen, Apollo Farshooter.”

[106] The Father spoke, the Portioners applauded; at his words the lightfoot Seasons sneezed,10 as a presage of things to come. Their parley done they separated, Time to Harmonia’s house, the other to the fine-wrought chamber of Hera.

[110] Now Eros the wise, the self-taught, the manager of the ages, knocked at the gloomy gates of primeval Chaos. He took out the divine quiver, in which were kept apart twelve firefed arrows for Zeus, when his desire turned towards one or another of mortal women for a bride. Right on the back of his quiver of lovebolts he had engraved with letters of gold a sentence in verse for each:
"The first takes Cronion to the bend of heifer-fronted Io.”
"The second shall Europa woo for the bold bull abducting.”
"The third to Pluto’s bridal brings the lord of high Olympos.”
"The fourth shall call to Danaë a golden bed-companion.”
"The fifth shall offer Semele a burning fiery wedding.”
"The sixth shall bring the King of heaven an eagle to Aigina.”
"The seventh joins Antiope to a pretended Satyr.”
"The eighth, a swan endowed with mind shall bring to naked Leda.”
"The ninth a noble stallion gives unto Perrhaibid Dia.”
"The tenth three fullmoon nights of bliss gives to Alcmena’s bedmate.”
"The eleventh goes to carry out Laodameia’s bridal.”
"The twelfth draws to Olympias her thrice-encircling husband.” 11

[129] When Eros had seen and handled each in turn, he put back the other fire-barbed shafts, and taking the fifth he fitted it to the shining bowstring; but first he put a sprig of ivy on the barb of the winged arrow, to be a fitting chaplet for the god of the vine, and dipt the whole shaft in a bowl of nectar, that Bacchos might grow a nectareal vintage.

[136] While Eros was fluttering along to the house of Zeus, Semele also was out with the rosy morning, shaking the cracks of her silver whip while she drove her mules through the city; and the light straight track of her cartwheels only scratched the very top of the dust. She had brushed away from her eyes the oblivious wing of sleep,12 and sent her mind wandering after the image of a dream with riddling oracles. She thought she saw in a garden a tree with fair green leaves, laden with newgrown clusters of swelling fruit yet unripe, and drenched in the fostering dews of Zeus. Suddenly a flame fell through the air from heaven, and laid the whole tree flat, but did not touch its fruit; then a bird flying with outspread wings caught up the fruit half-grown, and carried it yet lacking full maturity to Cronion. The Father received it in his kindly bosom, and sewed it up in his thigh; then instead of the fruit, a bull-shaped figure of a man came forth complete over his loins. Semele was the tree!

[155] The girl leapt from her couch trembling, and told her father the terrifying tale of leafy dreams and fiery blast. King Cadmos was shaken when he heard of Semele’s fireburnt tree, and that same morning he summoned the divine seer Teiresias son of Chariclo, and told him his daughter’s firery dreams. As soon as he heard the seer’s inspired interpretation, the father sent his daughter to their familiar temple of Athena, and bade her sacrifice to thunderhurling Zeus a bull, the image of likehorned Lyaios, and a boar, vine-ravaging enemy of the vintage to come.

[166] Now the maiden went forth from the city to kindle the altar of Zeus Lord of Lightning. She stood by the victims and sprinkled her bosom with the blood; her body was drenched with blood, plentiful streams of blood soaked her hair, her clothes were crimsoned with drops from the bull. Then with robes discoloured she made her way along the meadow deep in rushes, beside Asopos the river of her birthplace, and plunged in his waters to wash clean the garments which ad been drenched and marked by the showers of blood.

[180] Erinys the Avenger flying by in the air saw Semele bathing in the waters of Asopos, and laughed as she thought how Zeus was to strike both with his fiery thunderbolt in one common fate.13

[184] There the maiden cleansed her body, and naked with her attendants moved through the water with paddling hands; she kept her head stretched well above the stream unwetted, by the art she knew so well, under water to the hair and no farther, breasting the current and treading the water back with alternate feet.

[175] There she received a new dress, and mounting upon the neighbouring river-bank, by the eastern strand which belonged to Dionysos the Guardian Spirit,14 she shook off into the winds and waters all the terror of her dreams. Now without God she plunged into the water, but she was led to that river’s flow by the prophetic Seasons.

[190] Nor did the allseeing eye of Zeus fail to see her: from the heights he turned the infinite circle of his vision upon the girl. At this moment Eros stood before the father, who watched her, and the inexorable archer drew in the air that bow which fosters life. The bowstring sparkled over the flower-decked shaft, and as the bow as drawn stretched back the poet-missile sounded the Bacchis strain. Zeus was the butt – for all his greatness he bowed his neck to Eros the nobody! And like a shooting star the shaft of love flew spinning into the heart of Zeus, with a bridal whistle, but swerving with a calculated twist it had just scratched his rounded thigh with its grooves15– a foretaste of the birth to come. Then Cronion quickly turned the ye which was the channel of desire, and the love-charm flogged him into passion for the girl.16 At the sight of Semele, he leapt up, in wonder if it were Europa whom he saw on that bank a second time, his heart was troubled as if he felt again his Phoinician passion; for she had the same radiant shape, and on her face gleamed as born in her the brightness of her father’s sister.17

[210] Father Zeus now deceitfully changed his form, and in his love, before the due season, he flew above River Asopos, the father of a daughter, as an eagle with eye sharp-shining like the bird, as he were now presaging the winged bridal of Aigina.18 He left the sky, and approaching the bank of the near-flowing river he scanned the naked body of the girl with her lovely hair. For he was not content to see from afar; he wished to come near and examine all the pure white body of the maiden, though he could send that eye so great – such an eye! ranging to infinity all round about, surveying all the universe, yet he thought it not enough to look at one unwedded girl.

[222] Her rosy limbs made the dark water glow red; the stream became a lovely meadow gleaming with such graces. An unveiled Naiad espying the nymph in wonder, cried out these words: “Can it be that Cronos, after the first Cypris,19 again cut his father’s loins with unmanning sickle, until the foam got a mind and made the water shape itself into a selfperfected birth, delivered a younger Aphrodite from the sea? Can it be that the river has rivalled the deep with a childbirth, and rolled a torrent of self-pregnant waves to bring forth another Cypris, not to be outdone by the sea? Can it be that one of the Muses has dived from neighbouring Helicon into my native water, and left another to take the honeydripping water of Pegasos the horse, or the stream of Olmeios!20 I spy a silverfooted maiden stretched under the streams of my river! I believe Selene bathes in the Aonian waves on her way to Endymion’s bed on Latmos, the bed of a sleepless21 shepherd; but if she has prinked herself out for her sweet shepherd, what’s the use of Asopos after the Ocean stream? And if she has a body white as the snows of heaven, what mark of the Moon has she? A team of mules unbridled and a mule-cart with silver wheels are there on the beach, but Selene knows not how to put mules to her yokestrap – she drives a team of bulls! Or if it is a goddess come down from heaven – I see a maiden’s bright eyes sparkling under the quiet eyelids, and it must be Athena Brighteyes bathing, when she threw the skin back at him after the old victory over Teiresias.22 This girl looks like a divine being with her rosy arms; but if she was the glorious burden of a mortal womb, she is worthy of the heavenly bed of Cronion.”

[255] So spoke the voice from under the swirling waters. But Zeus shaken by the firebarbed sting of desire watched the rosy fingers of the swimming girl. Unrestingly he moved his wandering glance, now gazing at the sparkling rosy face, now bright eyes as full as a cow’s under the eyelids, now the hair floating on the breeze, and as the hair blew away he scanned the free neck of the unclad maid; but the bosom most of all and the naked breasts seemed to be armed against Cronides, volleying shafts of love. All her flesh he surveyed, only passed by the secrets of her lap unseen by his modest eyes. The mind of Zeus left the skies and crept down to swim beside swimming Semele. Enchanted he received the sweet maddening spark in a heart which knew it well. All father was worsted by a child: little Eros with his feeble shot set afire this Archer of Thunderbolts. Not the deluge of the flood, not the fiery lightning could help its possessor: that huge heavenly flame itself was vanquished by the small fire of unwarlike Paphia; little Eros faced the shaggy skin, his magical girdle faced the aegis; the heavy-booming din of the thunderclap was the slave of his lovebreeding quiver. The god was shaken by the heartbewitching sting of desire for Semele, in amazement: for love is near neighbour to admiration.

[280] Zeus could hardly get back to his imperial heaven, thinking over his plans, having now resumed his divine shape once more. He resolved to mount Semele’s nightly couch, and turned his eye to the west, to see when sweet Hesperos would come. He blamed Phaëthon that he should make the afternoon season so long, and uttered an impatient appeal with passionate lips:

[286] “Tell me, laggard Night, when is envious Eos to set? It is time now for you to lift your torch and lead Zeus to his love – come now, foreshow the illumination of night-ranging Lyaios!23 Phaëthon is jealous, he constrains me! Is he in love with Semele himself and grudges my desire? Helios, you plague me, though you know the madness of love. Why do you spare the whip when you touch up your slow team? I know another nightfall that came very quickly! If I like, I will hide you and the daughter of the mists24 together in my clouds, and when you are covered Night will appear in the daytime, to speed the marriage of Zeus in haste; the stars will shine at midday, and I will make rising Hesperos, instead of setting Hesperos, the regular usher of the loves. Coem now, draw your own forerunner Phosphoros to his setting,25 and o grace to your desire and mine; enjoy your Clymene26 all night long, and let me go quick to Semele. Yoke your own car, I pray, bright Moon, send forth your rays which make the trees and plants to grow,27 because this marriage foretells the birth of plant-cherishing Dionysos; rise over the lovely roof of Semele, give light to my desire with the star of the Cyprian, make long the sweet darkness for the wooing of Zeus!”

[308] Such was the speech of Zeus, even such commands as desire knows. But when in answer to his eagerness, a huge cone of darkness sprang up from the earth and ran stretching into the heights, bringing a shadow of darkness opposite to setting Eos,28 Zeus passed along the starry dome of the sky to Semele’s bridal. Without leaving a trace of his footsteps, he traversed at his first bound the whole path of the air. With a second, like w wing or a thought,29 he reached Thebes; the bars of the palace door opened of themselves to let him through, and Semele was held fast in the loving bond of his arms.

[319] Now he leaned over the bed, with a horned head on human limbs, lowing with the voice of a bull, the very likeness of bullhorned Dionysos. Again, he put on a shaggy lion’s form; or he was a panther, as one who begets a bold son, driver of panthers and charioteer of lions. Again, as a young bridegroom he bound his hair with coiling snakes and vine-leaves intertwined, and twisted purple ivy about his locks, the plaited ornament of Bacchos. A writhing serpent crawled over the trembling bride and licked her rosy neck with gentle lips, then slipping into her bosom girdled the circuit of her firm breasts, hissing a wedding tune, and sprinkled her with sweet honey of the swarming bees instead of the viper’s deadly poison. Zeus made long wooing, and shouted “Euoi!” as if the winepress were near, as he begat his son who would love the cry. He pressed love-mad mouth to mouth, and beaded up delicious nectar, an intoxicating bedfellow for Semele, that she might bring forth a son to hold the sceptre of nectareal vintage. As a presage of things to come, he lifted the careforgetting grapes resting his laden arm on the firebringing fennel30; or again, he lifted a thyrsus twined about with purple ivy, wearing a deerskin on his back – the lovesick wearer shook the dappled fawnskin with his left arm.

[344] All the earth laughed: a viny growth with self-sprouting leaves ran round Semele’s bed; the walls budded with flowers like a dewy meadow, at the begetting of Bromios; Zeus lurking inside rattled his thunderclaps over the unclouded bed, foretelling the drums of Dionysos in the night. And after the bed, he saluted Semele with loving words, consoling his bride with hopes of things to come:

[352] “My wife, I your bridegroom am Cronides. Lift up your neck in pride at this union with a heavenly bedfellow; and look not among mankind for any child higher than yours. Danaë’s wedding does not rival you. You have thrown into the shade even the union of your father’s sister with her Bull; for Europa glorified by Zeus’s bed went to Crete, Semele goes to Olympos. What more do you want after heaven and the starry sky? People will say in the future, Zeus gave honour to Minos in the underworld, and to Dionysos in the heavens! Then after Autonoë’s mortal son and Ino’s child – one downed by his dogs, one to be killed by a sonslaying father’s winged arrow31 – after the shortlived son of mad Agauë, you bring forth a son who shall not die, and you I will call immortal. Happy woman! you have conceived a son who will make mortals forget their troubles, you shall bring forth joy for gods and men.”

1. The four elements.
2. The threads which sewed up the infant in his father’s thigh.
3. See note on xi. 486, cf. ix. 284.
4. The goddess of war.
5. The staff is the third foot. It was proverbial: see Hesiod, Works and Days 531.
6. Hope. Pandora, the first woman, brought with her a jar containing all manner of evils; when it was opened these flew out to afflict mankind, but hope remained in the jar. See Hesiod, Works and Days 90 ff.
7. For his theft of fire see Hesiod, Theog. 561, Works and Days 50 ff.
8. This alludes to the Delphic oracle, at the centre, or, as Nonnos here calls it, the axle of the earth. Being Apollo’s oracle it gave Zeus’s wisdom at second hand; this prophecy is from Zeus direct.
9. The plow-share.
10. A good omen, signifying that the words just spoken should come true. See Hom. Od. xvii. 541.

11. Io, daughter of the Argive river Inachos and mother by Zeus of Epaphos; she was turned into a heifer in an attempt to hide her from Hera. Europa, see bk. i. 45 ff.; Pluto, a nymph, mother by Zeus of Tantalos; Danaë, daughter of Acrisios of Argos, mother of Perseus; Zeus visited her in the form of a shower of gold; Semele, see inf., 137 ff.; Aigina, daughter of he river Asopos, mother by Zeus of Aiacos; Antiope, daughter of Nycteus of Boeotia, mother of Amphion and Zethos; that Zeus approached her as a satyr is a detail rarely found; Leda, daughter of Tyndaros of Sparta, visited by Zeus in the form of a swan; mother of Castor and Polydeuces, Helen and Clytamestra; Dia, daughter of Deioneus, mother of Peirithoös; the allusion hippia lektra is unexplained. Alcmene, mother of Heracles, the night of whose begetting by Zeus was a thrice normal length. Laodameia, daughter of Bellerophon, mother by Zeus of Sarpedon, Il. vi. 197-199. Olympias, mother of Alexander the Great. The legend was that she dreamt she lay with a sperent.
12. Compare v. 411.
13. Aigina was a daughter of Asopos, and he suffered that fate. Graefe suggests that a line has fallen out which mentioned Semele and her son; but the son was not destroyed.
14. No one has explained this line, and it is thought to be out of place here.
15. The grooves in which the feathers were set, not the notch at the end of the shaft for the bowstring. The babe is to be sewn into his thigh under the skin.
16. The cestus is described as a magical strap or bit of leather full of charms, which Aphrodite carried under her bosom: eni men philotês, en d’ himeros, en d’ oaristus, Hom. Il. xiv. 216; teô egkattheo kolpô, she says. Here it is a magical charm.
17. Hera. Some of Hera’s precious ointment had been given to Europa: but in Semele the white skin is natural.
18. He approached her (cf. note on 117 ff.) in the form of an eagle.
19. Aphrodite, called Cypris because of her important shrine at Cyprus, was born of the sea, fertilized by Cronos flinging into it the cut-off genitals of his father Uranos; see Hesiod, Theog. 188 ff.
20. This runs from Helicon into Lake Copaïs. The fountain Hippocrene was struck out by the hoof of Pegasos.

21. An odd variant: usually Endymion never wakes, see note on iv. 196.
22. Teiresias saw Athena bathing, and she blinded him by sprinkling water in his face. The “skin” would be the aegis-cape.
23. “Deliverer,” a title of Dionysos.
24. The Homeric epithet of Eos, Dawn.
25. Whatever planet was there, morning star would by evening be in the west, a little behind the sun, and would therefore set, as evening star, shortly after him.
26. Loved by the Sun-god, to whom she bore Phaëthon.
27. The idea that growing things on earth are affected by the waxing and waning of the moon is ancient and widespread.
28. i.e., when the conoid shadow of earth darkened the skies and dawn rose (set, from the point of view of the Northern hemisphere) in what we call the West (East to those living beyond our western horizon).
29. From Hom. Od. vii. 26.
30. The fennel, in which Prometheus brought fire for men, and which also was used in the rites of Dionysos as the shaft of the thyrsus.
31. Actaion (see v. 301 ff.) and Learchos (see x. 52 ff.).