Different Versions of the Birth of Dionysus

Dionysus, from genius of Year surrounded by four Seasons, mosaic from Thysdrus, El Djem, Tunisia, Roman civilization, 2nd century AD, Detail
De Agostini / Archivio J. Lange / Getty Images

In Greek mythology, there are often different and conflicting versions of mythological events. The story of the birth of Dionysus is no different, and Dionysus complicates matters by having different names. Here are two versions of the birth of Dionysus and one of the related birth of Zagreus:

  • From a union between Persephone and Zeus in serpent form sprang the horned god Zagreus. Jealous Hera persuaded the Titans to attack the infant god as he looked into a mirror. Not only did they tear him to pieces, but the Titans ate him --all but his heart which Athena rescued. From this organ, the rest of the god was resurrected.
  • Semele is impregnated by drinking a preparation made from the heart of Dionysus who had been torn to pieces by the Titans. [Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 167]
  • Most familiar is the story of Semele's impregnation by Zeus but failure to live long enough to give birth to the child. To save the fetus, Zeus sewed him inside himself and gave birth through his leg when the time came.
  • (ll. 940-942) And Semele, daughter of Cadmus was joined with him in love and bare him a splendid son, joyous Dionysus, -- a mortal woman an immortal son. And now they both are gods.
  • Hesiod, Theogony (trans. Evelyn-White)

Homeric Hymn 1 to Dionysus

(ll. 1-9) For some say, at Dracanum; and some, on windy Icarus; and some, in Naxos, O Heaven-born, Insewn; and others by the deep-eddying river Alpheus that pregnant Semele bare you to Zeus the thunder-lover. And others yet, lord, say you were born in Thebes; but all these lie. The Father of men and gods gave you birth remote from men and secretly from white-armed Hera. There is a certain Nysa, a mountain most high and richly grown with woods, far off in Phoenice, near the streams of Aegyptus.
(ll. 10-12) '...and men will lay up for her many offerings in her shrines. And as these things are three, so shall mortals ever sacrifice perfect hecatombs to you at your feasts each three years.'
(ll. 13-16) The Son of Cronos spoke and nodded with his dark brows. And the divine locks of the king flowed forward from his immortal head, and he made great Olympus reel. So spake wise Zeus and ordained it with a nod.
(ll. 17-21) Be favourable, O Insewn, Inspirer of frenzied women! we singers sing of you as we begin and as we end a strain, and none forgetting you may call holy song to mind. And so, farewell, Dionysus, Insewn, with your mother Semele whom men call Thyone.
Source: The Homeric Hymns I. To Dionysus
[3.4.3] "But Zeus loved Semele and bedded with her unknown to Hera. Now Zeus had agreed to do for her whatever she asked, and deceived by Hera she asked that he would come to her as he came when he was wooing Hera. Unable to refuse, Zeus came to her bridal chamber in a chariot, with lightning and thunderings, and launched a thunderbolt. But Semele expired of fright, and Zeus, snatching the sixth-month abortive child from the fire, sewed it in his thigh. On the death of Semele, the other daughters of Cadmus spread a report that Semele had bedded with a mortal man, and had falsely accused Zeus and that therefore she had been blasted by thunder. But at the proper time, Zeus undid the stitches and gave birth to Dionysus, and entrusted him to Hermes. And he conveyed him to Ino and Athamas, and persuaded them to rear him as a girl."
- Apollodorus 3.4.3
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Gill, N.S. "Different Versions of the Birth of Dionysus." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/birth-of-dionysus-117975. Gill, N.S. (2020, August 26). Different Versions of the Birth of Dionysus. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/birth-of-dionysus-117975 Gill, N.S. "Different Versions of the Birth of Dionysus." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/birth-of-dionysus-117975 (accessed June 9, 2023).