Nonnus of Panopolis’s Dionysiaca: Book 7

Nonnus of Panopolis’s Dionysiaca: Book 7

At forty-eight books and 20,426 lines, Nonnus of Panopolis’s Dionysiaca is the longest surviving poem from Ancient Greece. Its life story of the ecstatic wine god Dionysus, whose worship played significant religious and societal roles throughout antiquity, is also notable for its inventive episodic structure and use of dactylic hexameters that fostered new words and phrases. Book Seven, which appears in translation below, describes how Aiōn (“Eternity” in this translation) pleaded with Zeus to create wine to ease human suffering and the highly ritualized courtship of Zeus and the human Semele that led to Dionysus’ conception.

Nonnus of Panopolis was a Greek poet from Hellenized Egypt who was heavily influenced by Homer and Hesiod and lived sometime between the late 4th to mid 5th centuries A.D. This translation is excerpted with permission from Tales of Dionysus: The Dionysiaca of Nonnus of Panopolis, edited by William Levitan and Stanley Lombardo, published by the University of Michigan Press, (c) 2022.


The seventh sings of the ancient prayer of Eternity––
And Semele, the desires of Zeus, and their secret intimacy.

Already the ever-flowing trees flower again
And sow the fertile plow-marks with seeds.
Untilled work of Eros waiting for the ploughman––
And growth takes root from the furrows’ offspring.
And earth and fire fuse, and air entwines with water
That shapes existence with its quadruple union.

But mortality was measured through shades of sorrow
Starting with suffering and endless worry.
And Eternity showed Zeus the misery of mortals
Who were unfamiliar with happiness in their lifetime.
Zeus had not yet found his threads for creation
That allowed Dionysus to surge from his charged thigh
Giving humanity the respite of the open field
Where the sweet smell of grape vines clung to the air
And drown the meadows in honeyed intoxications.
The Seasons were joyless daughters entwining months
With routine variations on mundane meadows.
Without Dionysus’s music their dance was half-hearted.
They did not know how solitary and graceless they turned
Dancing about in circles in a whirlwind of feet shuffling
With nodding platitudes, fumbled words, and no songs.

So, Eternity spread his ever-flowing hair across the knees
Of existence––his polychrome strands knew generations––
Suppliant to Zeus over whom his beard fell, and gave
His prayers––stretched and drawn to the ground, his head
Pressed down, his back fell bowed fully to his neck.
And kneeling without end, hands spread out
The Old Shepherd of life spoke clearly.


“Zeus, my lord, witness the natural order of sorrow and pain––
The truth of the whole world goes mad with conflict
That reaps grave concerns and quickly extinguished lives.
We accepted the remnants, after the mortal world went forth
Dowsed and you drowned its colonies in a colossal tempest,
Climates of blustering waves, and seas sputtering near rage.
Celebrate the brevity of existence that is their destiny.
Heavenly Pilot, no longer refuse them fortune before pain
Or I will let loose the cables binding life to land.
Let another of your kinsmen hold fast the suffering
And toil in the pity of humanity’s woeful inheritance.
To trust into existence the burden that withers youth
And slows life’s pace to a slumped and listless bow
Bent shaking in fear; walking foot then cane then foot.
The heavy-kneed gravity acquainting one with old age.
Trust into being a destiny that softens this knowledge
To the young groom mid-dance with his lover
And liberates the life-bearing cables of their union.
See the truth of this loving wedding with my clarity
Accompanied by songs and flutes to please Athena.
Besides, what advantage is the dissolution of love
When already melodic chords echo and ascend.
The instruments in ecstasy––two in one truth––
Since Eros will stop a dance of ephemeral passion
If he finds a wedding without burning desire.
But the toils of life speak of the knowledge––
The remedy of hope preserved from heaven,
And the debt of the lid pulled from Pandora’s jar
That contaminated lives with the stench of disease.
But from Prometheus we were born of despair
When he mourned for the wretched form of man
And gave them fire to bless and delight their minds.
If he was a thief with the gift of compassion
He would have poured nectar to soothe their troubles
And repair the wild uncertainties of their breathing.
You see with downcast eyes no joy in your festivals––
Without wine the offering is a vagrant of empty air.”


Know the mark of eternal wisdom that draws silence.
This knowing turned endlessly before almighty Zeus.
His heart took the reins unbound by the swelling counsel
Fruitful in his head and whirling by his eager desire.
Then Zeus, whose divine discourse resonated
Across the celestial expanse, spoke by elucidated decree.
“My Eternal Creator, clansmen and self-sown shepherd,
Do not resent their misfortune since humanity’s truth
Ripens or fades with nature just like the moon.
Nectar is for Gods, but I will give mankind a defense for grief
Whose taste flows sweetly, but it is more suitable
For drinking and speaking and existing on earth.
I order yesterday’s grief to find a new dawn in this child
That I will deliver from myself as a father that endures the pangs
Of childbirth in a way that saves others from agony.
Yesterday, at my command, grain was removed from chaff
And the fruit of the earth was cut by the reaper’s iron teeth.
I am the harvester who delivers the fruit of my fields
And now bestows my dear child, Dionysus, to remedy
Grief with the fragrant juice of the late summer grape.
My child frees them from sorrow with his bountiful fruit
That softens death as I proudly keep a close watch
While the grapevine is flushed with the liquid of wine
That heralds cheer from pastures to the wooden vats where
Talon-like feet grasp and squeeze the growing season.
Then wine’s disciples intensely shout in joyous revelry
Shaking wild tresses across legions of frenzied shoulders.
Their hearts are full goblets toasting Dionysus’s mysteries.
I honor him with melodic cries of my own. For his resolve
Will lead the battle to protect humans against Indian hordes.
And as reward these trials will elevate him to where stars
Monitor the earthborn––and their battle-heavy exhaustion
Flashes below from the nimble grace of my heaven.
His hair will grow entwined with incarnadine-laden vines
To crown his head turning around with creeping verdures.
He will possess this youthful sign of a serpent-like coronet.
His name and fortune will be honored by the living now––
Vineyard-rich Dionysus, said as if Golden-footed Hermes,
Bellicose Ares, Marksman Apollo. His name too will never die.”


The patriarch spoke and the Fates agreed with his words.
The Seasons quickly saw the harmony and knew this was
A noble omen. Their dialogue finished, Eternity and Zeus
Parted carrying the truth of their assembly homeward.

Now the art of Eros, the self-taught inciter of life,
Battered the melancholy signals of first-born Chaos.
His quiver held divine arrows that changed loneliness
Into longing desire to encourage terrestrial unions.
These fire-fed gifts for Zeus disseminated life––
Twelve arrows engraved in golden words prescribing
How his heart will be pierced by love’s affliction.
One holy arrow makes Zeus yearn for a heifer-eyed Io.
One marks him a rapacious bull seducing Europa.
One satisfies his cupidity for the nymph Pluto.
One brings Zeus as a golden rain bedfellow to Danaë.
One allows Semele to burst aflame as a bridal song.
One brings the Heavenly King as an eagle taking Aegina.
One morphs him into a satyr that rapes Antiope.
One makes his mind a swan swooning over nude Leda.
One spurs Zeus as a horse to run around adoring Dia.
One disguises him as Alcmene’s husband for three nights.
One brings Zeus tenderly to Laodamia’s bedchamber.
And one lays with Olympias in her dream of serpents.
One by one, Eros looked over and felt along each,
But chose the lone inflamed arrow that could find Semele
And nocked its fiery feathers to his bowstring
As a sprout of ivy creeped around the point––
The seedling of the god clothed and crowned in vines––
And dips the arrow in a fount of nectar to temper its aim––
So when the sweet harvest arrives, Dionysus is exalted.

Eros easily fluttered along to Zeus’s house
While Semele was outside in the rosy daybreak.
Her silver whip flew and cracked over the city
As she drove her mules up a dusty hilltop
Well-worn and rutted by frequent wagon wheels.
She strained to keep sleep out of her tired eyes
And her thoughts and soul wandered to a vision
Spoken by prophesy of dappled green leaves
Vined with hope around her house. Of a garden
Pregnant, heavy with the weight of nascent grapes
Nourished and bathed by the fertile rain of Zeus.
Suddenly, divine flames were cast downward
And upturned the garden, but left its fruit whole.
Then in revelation a bird longingly descended
And took the wanting unripe fruit to deliver
To the fatherly bosom of Zeus, who reached out
And handstitched it inside his thigh. The fruit gestated
And emerged bellowing as a bull-horned infant
Completed over his groin and perfect with his parts.
Semele knew she was the lightning-stricken garden.
She leapt from her bed trembling, and told her father
About the wreaths of green leaves clouded in light
And the flames and fruit that birthed the horned man.
King Cadmus listened, then summoned seer Tiresias.
Cadmus told him about Semele’s burning dream,
And with authority he received prophecy
That sent Cadmus’s daughter to the temple of Athena
To sacrifice to the deity of hurtled thunderbolts
A fine and noble bull whose large appearance
Evoked the horned man of the razed harvest vines.

Semele walked out from the city to sanctify the altar
Of the Lord of Lightning. She stood by her sacrifice,
Its blood in service spattering across her chest
And hair that was saturated by rivulets of stunning red.
The gushing bull unsparingly soaked her clothes.
She then raced down through the meadow grasses
And waded into the Asopos River where she was born
To wash her mottled dress in the water’s current.
The gore and stains lifted from the billowing cloth.

Semele watched the Asopos’s waters flow.
As she bathed, the Furies flew overhead laughing
And recalled Zeus who delivered destiny
With flashes and strikes of doubtless thunderbolts.
Semele busily washed her naked body with joy
And swam through the swift water floating––
Her dry head deftly raised above the surface.
She rode––the waterline lapping at her hair ends,
Her wetted breast buoyed on the river flow.
She kicked her feet propelling over the water.
Attendants set her clothes on the eastern shore
That later honored Dionysus, Warder Off of Evils.
She took to the breeze without the fear of dreams.
Unaware of divine aid that flows among all things––
The farsighted Seasons carried her into this current.

Here the omniscient eye of Zeus’s found her
From his eminent perch. His limitless vision
Charged Eros’s bow-sight to where she stood.
The archer readied his stand and stared eagerly.
His skills were unrivaled with feathered arrows
And the string of the bow was drawn confidently
Then let whistle through the air its shrewd art.
Zeus watched the lesser god with approval––
Spying the arrow arc like a shooting star
And it arrived piping the passionate joy of union
Into his heart and then turned suddenly pulsating
To where the point swerved to graze his thigh
Foretelling the birth from this son of a Titan.
Restless, Zeus looked for what drew his need.
Stimulated and secured to the girl he longed for––
He leapt at the sight of Semele on the river bank
Unsure if he again found his desire in Europa
And would labor back to her Phoenician splendor.
For the girl had a similar face and silhouette
And the natural radiance of Europa’s family.

Devious Zeus transformed his appearance
And let his desire shape him into a darting eagle.
From high above the Asopos River he soared
Portending his airborne union to Aegina.
Eagle-eyed, he looked over the girl’s shape in measure.
Wanting her near, he left the air for the riverbank.
He found and studied her fair-haired naked body
For he could no longer behold her only from afar.
Close at hand, he wished her whole body his wife.
His vast power was everywhere and without bounds,
Yet her eyes baited him with their ornamentation.
He knew the truth only when near the unmarried girl.

Framed by her healthy color, the dim river reddened.
The water became a lovely meadow coursing
With lightening’s grace seducing the young bride.
A bare nymph called out wondrously remembering––
“When Cronus commanded a birth in Cypriot seas;
Tossing his father’s castrated genitals into the foam
Causing a spontaneous form in the brackish tide
Where young Aphrodite self-delivered in the surge.
Would this river command a birth like the open sea
And in waves swell an unaided childbed to breed––
Begetting another Cypris-like yield from the river?
Have the Muses chose these home-waters
And leapt from the neighboring Mount Helicon
Forsaking the honeyed fount carved by Pegasus’s hoof
Or the Olmeius whose stream is bent by its own flow?
I spy a silver-footed virgin dwelling about my waters
Persuaded to walk upon the bed of Mount Latmos
Into a marriage like the eternal shepherd, Endymion,
Who washed his body in a deluge of moonlight––
Since Selene, indifferent to the Asopos, is brightened
For the delighted shepherd by bathing daily in the ocean.
Her body is as white as the snows of heaven.
With an aching mark, Selene shows on Semele
Whose mule stands harnessed to the cart’s silver wheels
On the riverbank subjugated to the broad yoke strap
While Selene’s moonlight rides above pulled by oxen.
For the maiden might be mistaken for a goddess
Whose gleaming eyes sparkle as the source of silver;
Such a sight caught elderly Tiresias in his feud
With Athena who blinded him for watching her bathe.
The girl charms any envy with her godlike body.
She is proud of her earthly burden of a womb.
She is worthy to come to Zeus’s heavenly bed.”

From under the rushing water the voice testified.
Zeus was shaken with stinging flames of longing
When he gazed at the rosy hands of the girl swimming.
Restless, his vision wandered about her appearance.
Transfixed, he stared upon her blushing face––
Transfixed at her big coruscating eyes and long hair
Flickering in the breeze. Her hair fell from her head
Leaving bare her neck that he watched ardently.
He knowingly cast his sight over her naked breasts;
Exposed, they were fortified with everlasting passion
And youthful skin hiding her sex that he left overlooked.
The secret mysteries of her sex made him avert his eyes.
Zeus carefully abandoned his lordly elevation
To join Semele awash in her own enchantment.
And he felt the full sweetness of her inborn spark.
He knew he was defeated by the struck arrow––
The small flames of Eros truer than his thunderbolt.
Not the deluge of flashing storms he created
Nor lightening could protect him from the conquering
Calm whose peaceful fire erupted like a great flame.
Cherubic petite Eros now turned to confront
The shield of Zeus stitched in quarrel with affection.
The echo of his thundering din was enslaved
To the spurred excitement and longing Semele incited.
He was amazed to find cherished wonder so near.

Zeus reluctantly returned to his celestial sphere
And reverted back to his supreme nature,
But swore to lay in Semele’s bed nightly.
He looked to the west awaiting the warm evening-star.
He cursed the long daylight preventing eventide
And spoke about the torments of desire, crying out––
“Tell me, unhurried Night, when will daylight sink?
Lift your burnt-out torch and lead Zeus to his desire.
Let your dark beacon wander to foretell Dionysus.
Let jealous Helios hurry his languorous self––
Honor my unbearable yearning, my desire for Semele.
Helios, you harass me, yet you have known lovesickness.
Why do you spare your sluggish horses the whip?
I know a way to make you sink by accident or force,
And if I choose, I will conceal morning in fog
And cover your light to show you distorted in darkness
In order to urge and make this romance happen.
Stars will shine at midday to guide my passion,
And the evening-star will rise and cause to wane
The lagging morning-star unless my favor is found.
For I yearn to do pleasurable things all night
And immediately start to enjoy Semele nocturnally.
Selene, I command you, yoke your bright chariot
Whose shine makes gardens grow and reproduce.
Prophesy speaks of the plant-zealot Dionysus’s birth.
Climb and rise over the rooftop of lovely Semele.
Give light to my longing with the star of Aphrodite.
Lengthen your sweet darkness for my waiting maid.”

Confident in his commands, Zeus finished speaking.
At his urging, sunlight rushed from earth, springing
An immense cone of cloudlike darkness to traverse all
With plunging gloom that vanquished the waning day.
Starbright, Zeus piloted the infinite sky above the house
Into Semele’s bridal chamber without any footsteps.
At once, he leapt over the whole distance between them.
He crossed the whole sky instantly to arrive at Thebes.
He flashed through her rooftop like a thought on wings
And beneath his laurel crown they rejoiced in his embrace.

With welcoming hand, Zeus lifted and held Semele
In her bed with the bellowing voice of a bull
And the form of human limbs with a horned head
In an imitation of ox-headed Dionysus––
Then he changed to look like a shaggy-headed lion––
Then a leopard that fathered a son who just as boldly
Was a charioteer, a constellation-driven predator.
With perfect vision he sowed his movements.
As the groom, he bound his hair with vines.
The wine-colored ivy twisted about his mane
In the glory of Dionysus like a slowly coiling snake
Whose tongue playfully licked Semele’s rosy throat.
Gentle lips slid down to her trembling breast
And circled them as they were held in a girdle.
He hummed a bridal hymn as serene as bees forming
To merrily pour honey instead of a viper’s poison.


Zeus in wedlock lingered joyfully as if drunk
And in a wailing love-cry implanted his son.
Mouth touched mouth maddened by tender desire,
And Semele grew from her inamorato’s nectar
So she would bear a son who herald the kindly harvest.
To signal the coming relief, Zeus cradled grape bunches
And braced his laden forearm with fire-bringing fennel.
He raised a pinecone-crowned scepter covered with ivy.
Overcome by infatuation, he wore a fawnskin
And its speckled hues shook over his pleasure.
All the earth laughed, and self-budding leaves
Wrapped their garden around the marriage-bed.
The walls blossomed, teeming like a dewy meadow.
From the bed, Zeus swelled and climaxed from within
And let the cloudless sky thunderclap all around
Forecasting the night-ritual beating drums of Dionysus.
Between bedsheets he held beloved Semele and spoke
Consoling the young girl with the hope of his release.

“My darling, I am your heavenly groom, Zeus.
Lift your head to rejoice this assured union
That offers a child mightier than mortal offspring.
In contrast, my passion for Danaë does not compare.
Your aunt was seduced by my bullied desire,
But you outshone Europa who when glorified in bed
Went back to Crete. You, Semele, will go to Olympus.
You will sail beside me star-like in the vault of heaven.
And when anyone says that Zeus ferried honor
To Cretan underlings, they will recall divine Dionysus.
Your sisters will only bear flawed human children.
One is felled, killed by his young dogs. One is born
Cursed––destined to be die from his own father’s arrow.
And one is murdered by his own raging-mad mother.
You deliver an immortal son, and you too are immortal.
Happiness is yours, pure woman, bring forth joy––
A son conceived for mortals and immortals to forget worry.”


Christian Teresi is a poet and translator whose work has appeared in many literary journals, including AGNI, The American Poetry Review, The Kenyon Review, The Literary Review, Literary Hub, Narrative, and Subtropics. He lives in Washington, DC and works for an international education and cultural nonprofit.


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