The Birth of Dionysus (84)

Hermes and the Infant Dionysus, Archaeological Museum of Olympia
Hermes and the Infant Dionysus, Archaeological Museum of Olympia

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This is episode 84 of Ancient Worlds: The Birth of Dionysus. I’m the olive in your antiqui-tini, Lucas Livingston. Ancient Worlds is the mostly audio series of the Ancient Art Podcast. If you’re listening to the audio episode, you can see the picture gallery at In each episode of Ancient Worlds I choose a single work of art to serve as a springboard for a discussion about the ancient world. Here we unpack the stories, history, myths, and culture from antiquity through a modern lens and with tongue firmly planted in cheek and a healthy dose of snark. So if you offend lightly, you might consider changing the channel. We may also encounter some full frontal ancient Greek male nudity both in stone and in words. I know many educators and parents take advantage of my podcast in their lessons. Some people find the conversation about nudity in art to be awkward with kids, but my best advice as an art museum educator is not to avoid the discussion. That’s about as damaging as misinformation. There are a number of helpful professional resources out there to help tackle that subject. One great starting point is Body Language: How to Talk to Students about Nudity in Art produced by the Art Institute of Chicago. You can download the 12-page PDF for free. You’ll find the link at [1]

Our artwork de jour is a statue of the Greek god Hermes holding the infant Dionysus. Hold on a sec. We’re calling this episode the “Birth of Dionysus.” So why, Lucas, didn’t you pick an image of the birth of Dionysus, because they’re out there? Yeah, I could have, but why follow a logical sequitur when the alternative is to not? And because when I think about this famous statue of Hermes holding the little baby god of wine, ecstasy, theater, and madness, it reminds me of the story of Dionysus’s birth.

Semele was on top of the world. She was a beautiful princess, daughter of King Cadmus of Thebes and the goddess Harmonia, so she had it pretty good. And on top of this, she was dating Zeus. Yes, the Zeus. What Semele didn’t know, though, was that the amorous eye of Zeus came with a catch. Zeus was married … and not to a delicate flower. Zeus’s wife was the goddess Hera and she never took kindly to the *many* mistresses of Zeus. Sometimes I imagine Zeus was the archetype object of every misogynistic ancient Greek husband’s divine bromance. The Olympian gods were generally horrible people, and I don’t mind saying that, because they’re all dead. Apologies to all my pagan friends.

Oh, side note, even though Semele’s mother was a goddess, apparently Semele didn’t inherit the divine gene, because she was mortal. I’m just saying. Surely that fact won’t come up again in our story.

So, Zeus and Hera. Despite all of Zeus’s dalliances with other goddesses, women, girls, and boys, she never sat down with him to have “the talk.” Instead, Hera would always exact her great vengeance and furious anger upon his lovers and their offspring. Different accounts by many authors have come down to us describing the details of what happened with Semele. The Roman Augustan-era poet Ovid makes the point of reminding us that Semele was related to Europa — specifically the niece of Europa — who also had an affair with Zeus, and Hera had vowed to make life hell for all of Europa’s kindred.

She hatched a plan to trick Semele into becoming “besties” and then sow the seeds of doubt about her relationship with Zeus. Ovid writes:

She rose up quickly from her shining throne,
and hidden in a cloud of fiery hue
descended to the home of Semele;
and while encompassed by the cloud, transformed
her whole appearance as to counterfeit
old Beroe, an Epidaurian nurse,
who tended Semele.
Her tresses changed
to grey, her smooth skin wrinkled and her step
grown feeble as she moved with trembling limbs;—
her voice was quavering as an ancient dame’s,
as Juno, thus disguised, began to talk
to Semele. [2]

In the guise of Beroe, Semele’s trusted nurse, Hera strikes up some small talk. “So, deary, are you seeing anyone special?”

“Oh! Well, yes, as a matter of fact, I am, and … uh … well, this is a little embarrassing, but actually I’m going steady with Zeus.”

“Really, now? Steady, you say? Well, that’s quite an honor.”

“I know, right? Yeah, he says he’s over Hera and that I’m totally the love of his life.”

Hera closed her eyes for a moment to compress the boiling rage within. “Well, ain’t that something? But tell me,” she said, “how do you know he is who he says he is? How do you know he’s Zeus?”

“Oh, well, um … I guess I just believe him. He’s very genuine and honest.”

“Is that so? If he is who is says he is, then he ought to show his true love for you, don’t you think? He ought to come to you in the manner in which he would comes to his divine wife, Hera, as a real man would, ‘so you may know what pleasure it is to sleep with a god.'” [3]

Semele stared through her companion off into the distance, thinking. Hera knew that her words had affected the young woman.

“Maybe I just will,” she said, “and I’ll prove it to you.” Though she really meant to prove it to herself. After all, if her new man were the almighty Zeus, why wouldn’t she be deserving of the same level of affection that he had given others before.

Let me quote a nice stanza from Ovid here:

With artful words as these the goddess worked
upon the trusting mind of Semele,
daughter of Cadmus, till she begged of Jove
a boon, that only hastened her sad death. [2]

“Zeus, do you love me?”

“Why sure, my dear, absolutely. You’re just the bee’s knees.”

“Then will you promise me something?”

“Absolutely, Semele, anything your heart desires?”

“Then, come to me, Zeus, in all the splendor of your glory as you would come to Hera in intimate embrace.”

“Oh, jeez, Semele, anything but that!”

“Now Zeus, you promised me anything!”

“Yes, but Semele…”

“Zeus, you said you love me!”

The god of thunder and lightning was trapped. His word was his bond. He could do nothing. In bittersweet grief, Zeus ascended aloft to dark skies already swirling with thunderous clouds. He called forth a majestic maelstrom with brilliantly destructive lightning and devastating gale winds. Worlds quaked from deep Hades to lofty Olympus. Yet even so, he restrained himself and did not call upon the devastating bolts that felled the hundred-handed monster Typhon or that embraced his divine bride Hera. Zeus released a lesser lightning of milder heat, but this was all too great for mortal Semele. In pangs of agony, she burnt to ash before his sad, mournful gaze. But there curled within the cinders that were once her shapely form, the fetal infant Dionysus lay, torn prematurely from his mother’s womb, from Semele’s womb.

Few authors go into the narrative beyond the bare bones facts of the matter. Semele asked, she received, she died, and there was Dionysus. Did Zeus know Semele was pregnant? Not necessarily, although the 2nd century Greek mythographer Pseudo-Apollodorus comments in his Bibliotheca that Semele was six months pregnant. So either Pseudo-Apollodorus didn’t really know much what six months pregnant looks like or he figured Semele wasn’t hiding this from anyone. [4]

Zeus carefully plucked his premature son from the smoldering fire of his mother and hastened to hide him from his jealous wife. By all accounts, to see that his child would be properly carried to term, Zeus stitches up Dionysus into his thigh. One of Dionysus’s many epithets, though, is Enorches, which some scholars interpret as a reference to male private parts. So it’s possible that somewhere, sometime, somehow the legend transformed from Zeus’s privates to Zeus’s thigh. Scholars certainly enjoy a field day with discussions around the idea of the pregnant male in ancient myths. And this wasn’t even Zeus’s first pregnancy. Remember Athena?

So, Zeus carried the fetal god Dionysus to term in his … let’s stick with thigh … until Dionysus was born a second time. Hence, another one of Dionysus’s epithets is Dimētōr, meaning “born of two mothers” — born once of Semele and then again of Zeus. Hyginus calls him that in the Fabulae. [3] While in the Metamorphoses, Ovid also calls Dionysus the “twice-born god,” which is a nickname you might hear a little more often, probably because it translates well. [5]

After the second birth of Dionysus, Zeus was still wary of Hera’s wrath and wasn’t quite ready to parade his new son around Olympus. Diodorus Siculus lets us know that Zeus handed the infant over to Hermes and ordered the messenger god to take him to a cave on Mount Nysa, which lay between Phoenicia and the Nile. [6] There he would find the nymphs of the mountain, who will nurse and raise the infant god. [7] And this brings us to our sculpture de jour, Hermes Carrying the Infant Dionysus, a second century Roman-era marble copy of an alleged 4th century BC sculpture by the noted Hellenistic sculptor Praxiteles. We are already experts on Praxiteles. We met him back in episode 26 looking at another one of his famous sculptures, the Aphrodite of Knidos. Unlike the Aphrodite, our Hermes Carrying Dionysus seems perhaps not to have been too terribly celebrated in antiquity. We have only a passing reference to it in Pausanias’s Description of Greece from the 2nd century of the Common Era, and he says:

… other images were dedicated in the Heraion, including a marble Hermes carrying the baby Dionysus, a work of Praxiteles… [8]

It’s much more celebrated today than in antiquity, because of a debate that raged in the 1930’s as to whether this marble sculpture that we have today is a Roman era copy or the original by Praxiteles. For the bibliography to that debate, check out the footnotes to this episode at [9] Opinion today seems to lean toward it being a Roman homage to the original, but we’re not going to get into that discussion here. The tall, lean, muscular Hermes stands casually in the Classical contrapposto with his weight shifted to his right leg, his left knee bent, and his hips tilted at a sharp angle. Contrapposto is an Italian term describing this prevalent Classical and Renaissance-era bend of the human figure. His torso tilts to the right, realigning his center of gravity, as his head turns down and to the left at the infant Dionysus perched daintily on Hermes’s left arm.

There’s an affectionate gaze between the gods. The infant Dionysos leans forward slightly. His arms are missing, but his right hand delicately rests on Hermes’s shoulder. From what remains at the break on his left shoulder, we can tell that he was reaching forward toward Hermes. Hermes, in contrast, reaches his right arm high. It’s broken just above the elbow, but it’s clear that he’s reaching away from the infant. What’s going on here? These aren’t relaxed poses. We’re definitely seeing them in the middle of some intentional action, but what could that be? Pausanias’s comment doesn’t help us at all, so we’re forced to look elsewhere.

There are other sculptures that are stylistically similar to our Hermes here, like the Hermes Ludovisi. Rhys Carpenter gives us a quick rundown of those works with images in his 1954 article “Two Postscripts to the Hermes Controversy.” [9] These sculpted figures gesture somewhat similarly to Hermes, but they tend not to be doing much with the outstretched arm. Well, not doing much other than shepherding the souls of the dead to the underworld. But in our Hermes and Dionysus we have two figures, so we need to read them together. Baby Dionysus leans and reaches forward, bracing himself on Hermes’s shoulder for support. It’s as if Dionysus wants whatever Hermes has. What if Hermes is pulling away, trying to keep something from Dionysus? It’s almost like he’s teasing him.

Well, my money’s on Hermes playing a game of “got your nose” and Dionysus wants it back, but various authorities have postulated an alternative reconstruction. Similar to an ancient wall painting from the ashen ruins of Pompeii, Hermes likely once held a bunch of grapes. [10] Dionysus, god of wine, infant though he may be, is instinctually drawn to the grapes. This playful pairing of youthful gods in a casual context removed from the elevated grandeur of divinity fits right in with the humanistic ethos of 4th century late Classical Greece. We met a similarly humanizing rendering of a god with the Apollo Sauroktonos back in episode 48, also by Praxiteles. Gone are the moralistic black and white days of the glorious victory of Periclean Athens over the barbaric Persian forces. The 4th century Greek world is one of warring states and backstabbing governments vying for supremacy in the wake of the Persian and Peloponnesian wars. In a world of conflict, corruption, and depravity, the authority of divinity is reduced as the gods sit on their thrones and watch the mortal game play out … and the winning goal will be scored by a young MVP named Alexander.

Thanks for tuning in to Ancient Worlds. Check out for references, footnotes, and a gallery of images for this episode. If you have anything to add to the conversation, you can add a comments there or on YouTube. You can get in touch with me directly at or on the web at If you enjoy the podcast, please consider sharing some fiscal love. Whether it’s the cost of a cup of coffee or more, your donations help keep this ship afloat on our odyssey sailing the wine-dark seas. Just click the donate button at And if you can’t donate a drachma, you can help the podcast by adding an iTunes review. Maybe it’ll even get you on the air, like LittleBrownMouse, who wrote: “Clearly, an exceptional amount of time and effort goes into these podcasts. Well scripted, but doesn’t sound like someone reading you a lecture. Truly excellent presentation, great images, and enjoyable even to someone who knows nothing at all about ancient art. Take the time to have a listen.”

And I thank you for listening. See you next time.


[1] Art Institute of Chicago. Body Language: How to Talk to Students about Nudity in Art.

[2] Ovid. Metamorphoses III.251ff. Brookes More. Boston. Cornhill Publishing Co. 1922.

[3] Hyginus. Fabulae 167.

[4] Pseudo-Apollodorus. Bibliotheca 3.26-29.

[5] Ovid. Metamorphoses III.304.

[6] Homeric Hymn 1 to Dionysus.

[7] Diodorus Siculus. Library of History 4.2.3.
Pseudo-Apollodorus. Bibliotheca 3.26-29.

[8] Pausanias. Description of Greece 5.17.3.

[9] Carpenter, Rhys. “Who Carved the Hermes of Praxiteles?” American Journal of Archaeology, vol. 35, no. 3, 1931, pp. 249–261.

Casson, Stanley. “The Hermes of Praxiteles.” American Journal of Archaeology, vol. 35, no. 3, 1931, pp. 262–268.

Gisela M. A. Richter. “The Hermes of Praxiteles.” American Journal of Archaeology, vol. 35, no. 3, 1931, pp. 277–290.

Carpenter, Rhys. “Two Postscripts to the Hermes Controversy.” American Journal of Archaeology, vol. 58, no. 1, 1954, pp. 1–12.

[10] See Carpenter 1954, fig. 5. Also House of Zephyr and Flora. Also Pompeii in Pictures. VI.10.11 Pompeii. Casa del Naviglio o di zefiro e flora.


Colocate by Podington Bear

Nova by Go Ask Alice from the album Perfection is Terrible

The Shout by Go Ask Alice from the album Perfection is Terrible

Lightfeet by Podington Bear

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