Homeric Hymn (7) to Dionysus


I am taking a course in The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours offered by Harvard through Edx, which is quite fascinating (and has caused me to reevaluate some of my prejudice against academics).  We’re getting near the end (you could still access the archived version), and there have been a number of myths and plays that have provided fodder for future pages.

Kylix showing Dionysus on a ship, with steering oars in back.  Ca. 530 BCE, Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich

Kylix showing Dionysus on a ship, with steering oars in back. Ca. 530 BCE, Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich

There is one text that I thought would be good to share, since it has many of the elements of the Odyssey on a smaller scale–clueless crew, animal transformation, divine protection.  But the one that really jumped out at me was the metaphor of the steersman, whose steering oar adds another layer to the prophecy of Tiresias about planting the oar–it is not only a symbol of the sea, but a tool for steering one’s way over it, selecting which is the right way to go.

So here’s the poem in its entirety, as translated by Gregory Nagy, the Chairman of the Harvard department, and a formidable intelligence.

1 About Dionysus son of most glorious Semele 2 my mind will connect, how it was that he made an appearance [phainesthai] by the shore of the barren sea 3 on a prominent headland, looking like a young man 4 at the beginning of adolescence. Beautiful were the locks of hair as they waved in the breeze surrounding him. [5] They were the color of deep blue. And a cloak he wore over his strong shoulders, 6 color of purple.
Then, all of a sudden, men seen from a ship with fine benches 7 —men who were pirates—came into view, as they were sailing over the wine-colored [oinops] sea [pontos]. 8 They were Etruscans. And they were being driven along by a destiny that was bad for them. The moment they saw him [= Dionysus], 9 they gave each other a knowing nod, and the very next thing, they were ashore, jumping out of the ship. Quickly they seized him and [10] sat him down inside their ship, happy in their hearts 11 because they thought that he
was the son of a line of kings nurtured by the sky god. 12 That is what they thought he was. And they wanted to tie him up in harsh bondage, 13 but the ties of the bonds could not hold him, and the cords made of willow fell off him, all over the place, 14 falling right off his hands and feet. And he just sat there, smiling, [15] looking on with his deep blue eyes.
Meanwhile the steersman [kubernētēs] took note [noeîîn], 16 right away, and he called out to his comrades [hetairoi] and said to them: 17 “What kind of superhuman force [daimōn] has possessed you all! What kind of god [theos] is this that you have seized and tried to tie up, 18 powerful as he is? Why, he is too much for the well-built ship to make room for. 19 You see, he must be either Zeus or Apollo, the one with the silver quiver, [20] or Poseidon. I tell you, he is not like mortal humans, 21 he is not like [eikelos] them at all. Rather,
he is like the gods who have their dwellings in Olympus. 22 So come on, we should let him go, leaving him on the dark earth of the mainland. 23 Let us do it right away. Do not manhandle him. What if he gets angry 24 and stirs up winds that will make hardship, and a huge whirlwind?” [25] That is how he [= the steersman] spoke.
But the leader of the men reviled him [= the steersman], speaking with hateful words [mūthos]: 26 “No, [not we but] you are the one who is possessed by some kind of superhuman force [daimōn]. Just [do your work and] watch for the wind [to start blowing from behind, and, once it starts blowing], you start hoisting the sail of the ship 27 and hold on to all the ropes. As for this one [= the unrecognized Dionysus], he will be the concern [melein] of my men. 28 I expect he will arrive [with us] in Egypt or maybe in Cyprus 29 or maybe even in the land of the Hyperboreans or beyond. Wherever. In the end, [30] he will tell all: he will come around to saying who are his near and dear ones [philoi] and what are all the possessions he has 31 and he will tell about his siblings. And that is because a superhuman force [daimōn] has put him in our pathway.”
32 Having said this, he [= the leader himself] started hoisting the sail of the ship. 33 Now a wind came and blew right into the middle of the sail, and the ropes that held it at both ends 34 got all stretched to the limit. Then, right away, there appeared [phainesthai] to them things that would make anyone marvel.
[35] Wine. That is what happened first of all. It was all alongside the swift black ship. 36 Sweet to drink, it was splashing around [the ship as if it were inside a cup], smelling good, and the fragrance that rose up 37 was something immortalizing [ambrosiā]. The sailors were seized with amazement, all of them, at the sight. 38 And then, all of a sudden, next to the top of the sail on both sides, there reached out 39 a vine—here, and here too—and hanging from it were many [40] clusters of grapes. Around the mast, dark ivy was winding
around, 41 teeming with blossoms. And—a thing of beauty and pleasure [kharieis]—the berry sprang forth [from the ivy]. 42 The benches for rowing now had garlands [stephanoi] all over them.
Once they [= the sailors] saw all this, 43 they started shouting at the steersman [kubernētēs], urging him 44 to sail the ship back to land. Meanwhile, he [= Dionysus] turned into a lion for them, right there in the ship, [45] looking horrific [deinos], at the prow. It roared a mighty roar. Then, in the middle of the ship, 46 he [= Dionysus] made a bear, with a shaggy neck. Thus he [= Dionysus] made his signals [sēmata] appear [phainein]. 47 It [= the bear] reared up, raging, while the lion, at the top of the deck, 48 glared at them with its horrific looks. The men, terrified, were fleeing toward the stern of the ship, 49 crowding around the steersman [kubernētēs], the one who had a
heart [thūmos] that is moderate [sōphrōn]. [50] They just stood there, astounded [ek-plag-entes].
Then it [= the lion] all of a sudden leapt up 51 and took hold of the leader of the men, while they were trying to get out, rushing away from the bad destiny that was theirs. 52 They all together at the same time leapt out, once they saw what they saw, into the gleaming salt sea. 53 They became dolphins.
As for the steersman [kubernētēs] —he [= Dionysus] took pity on him, 54 holding him back [from leaping overboard]. He [= Dionysus] caused it to happen that he [= the steersman] became the most blessed [olbios] of all men, and he [= Dionysus] spoke for the record this set of words [mūthos]: [55] “Have courage, you radiant man, reached by a force that works from far away. You have achieved beauty and pleasure [kharizesthai] for my heart [thūmos]. 56 I am Dionysus, the one with the great thundering sound. The mother
who bore me 57 was Semele, daughter of Cadmus, and Zeus made love to her.”
58 Hail and take pleasure [khaire], [O Dionysus,] child of Semele with the beautiful looks. There is no way 59 I could have my mind disconnect from you as I put together the beautiful cosmic order [kosmeîîn] of my song.