Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2023  Vol. 21  No.3
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An Introduction to Translations of the Dionysiaca

With the Dionysiaca, Nonnus of Panopolis lays claim to a small footing in the foundation of Western literature, a living artifact that cannot help but confess the influence of what has been lost. Wars, revolution, the pursuits of power, and the ephemeral forces of history make poetry’s inventions replete with loss. Only seven of over 120 verse plays Sophocles produced survive. Sappho’s poetry, which was widely celebrated in her lifetime, mostly exists only in fragments. Loss is particularly acute with the texts of ancient Greece, a civilization that endured roughly 1,500 years and has now been extinct almost the same span of time since it ended in 476 AD with the fall of the Western Roman Empire.

Nonnus was a Greek poet from Hellenized Egypt who lived sometime between the late fourth to mid-fifth centuries AD and would have been privy to the upheaval of empires around him. Little is known about him outside of his writing of the Metabole, a paraphrase of the Gospel of John, and the Dionysiaca, which recounts the narrative arc of the ecstatic wine god Dionysus. He was a native of Panopolis (modern day Akhmim, Egypt), a city along the Nile that today is 300 miles south of Cairo and 450 miles south of Alexandria. That two works of such contrasting religious implications were written by the same author reveals the constantly changing cultures of the Mediterranean throughout antiquity.

The influence of Homer and Hesiod on Greek and Roman poetic generations, including Nonnus, make ancient Greek poetry a touchstone that stabilizes ligatures all the way to Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Goethe, and their disciples. Nonnus’s chronicle of Dionysus is built upon traditions that in turn were built upon, and it is tradition that stabilizes movements. The contemplation of what poetry is lost is bewildering, particularly considering that the Dionysiaca, at forty-eight books at 20,426 lines, is the longest surviving poem from ancient Greece. That it was influenced by an expansive lost poetic catalog helps affirm its inherent value.

Immanuel Kant said a representation is automatically flawed as it cannot elucidate the full embodiment of the “thing in itself” or the thing as it truly exists in nature. Since all art is representative, which is to say flawed, this must be truer about art that arrived to this contemporary place missing large explanations about its own history. What is alive in the Dionysiaca is a foundling that must be adopted to assist the messy truth of our ancestry. These translations reclaim the Dionysiaca’s necessary concerns and partly recover lives and beliefs whose bounty remains in its words; it is also a way to honor the labor of scholars and teachers who saved the work from extinction. The voices in this poem cannot be read or heard anywhere else, and it took them 1,500 years to arrive here. They alternate between the fantastic and the quotidian, and instigate images and feelings that expose an ancient verisimilitude.

Each of the books of the Dionysiaca demonstrate the dreams and desires of its author1, which are the dreams and desires of his mercurial culture and our shared heritage. They are a reflection of the time they were written, and so carry failings we know to be abhorrent. Understanding how Nonnus and his fellow poets made rape and seduction synonymous is unsettling. The time when this poem was written was a brutal place filled with slaughter and instability. Yet, the Dionysiaca often offers staid renderings of its brutal discussions, as in Book 28:

Blood frenzy possessed all the fighters.
Some men danced, some shouted in anger.
The Fates counted those about to perish.

The work of translation is part excavation, part observation. While the whole of Nonnus’s interests are a concern, his mindset is itself fragmentary, and we rely on the tools we have to brush away the historical and linguistic sediment and piece back together ideas that were never intended to be uttered in English. What results is a compounding of dissimilarities—the flaw of no artist knowing the “thing in itself,” the issue with the lack of peer material to compare, and dated idioms that are perilous for any translation. This creates much dissonance between author, translator, and reader—furthered by the fact that we know next to nothing about Nonnus.

The value of a contemporary translation of the Dionysiaca may be most clear in that we can and should care about ancient experiences because they inform and elegantly ponder concerns addressed by poets today. The translations—(as in Books 7 and 38) desire to immerse the reader in texture of a highly tuned diction—“eclipses,” “coronet,” “transfixed,” “incarnadine,” “colossal,” “constellations.” These words have Graeco-Roman etymologies, so the environment of the translations is woven of their own matter.

The vocabulary that carries the story revives lineages of words from Nonnus’s time, but they are also words we use today. “Colossus” was Herodotus’s term for thirty-feet-tall Egyptian temple sculptures. And many larger-than-life figures, the original Greek deities and monsters, move through these books. Zeus himself. Eros, with his piercing arrows. Ares and Helios. Prometheus, Cyclops, and Pandora. To read the Dionysiaca is to repopulate the Pantheon and recall ancient records of Western storytelling.

The gods are not unfamiliar to Nonnus’s original and meandering approximation of Homer’s dialect, which is dated a thousand years before the Dionysiaca. These translations take Nonnus’s Greek, with its embedded cultural references, and revives it for a modern audience. The scholar of epic literature, Albert B. Lord, discusses the connection between performance and creation of verse as “composition and performance in oral poetry are aspects of the same process, in that each performance is an act of recomposition.”2 This is an idea that thrives in the slam and performance poetry traditions of today; what made oral poetry captivating to the Greeks is elementally the same in Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem for President Biden.

These translations also recompose the original verse in the polyglot language of Anglo-English. They entwine the Latinate vocabulary with Anglo-Saxon words like “shuffle,” “clutches,” “whirlwind,” “smoldering,” “ploughman,” and “death.” The goal is to blend these into a tight fabric that is pleasing yet does not draw attention away from the story. The translators desire to provide literary structure of depth and intensity. In the parlance of electronic musicians, this is a “mixing” that lays down another track of this song, with clear reference to the lineage. It is nagged by the question of how to follow and perhaps improve Nonnus’s epic for the contemporary English-language reader.

The translation of Book 7, which works to render a literal meaning of the Dionysiaca word for word, uses free verse to approximate Nonnus’s line length while retaining his stanzas.3 Book 28 and 38 work differently, but they are still faithful to the plotline, and the six-beat lines of the original dactylic hexameter form continues, aided by the parsing into sections with subtitles. The translations of 28 and 38 compress the original content of Nonnus’s epic, subtracting from the original Greek. Book 28, about a battle between the armies of India and the Greeks, becomes another kind of battlefield not just with wounded and dead soldiers littering the field, but with losses suggested by open spaces—omissions of lines. This book describes deaths of heroes, and rather than enumerate each, blank spaces memorialize unnamed dead. In finding the lyric nugget within a scene, much has been felled in a series of erasures.

Book 38 is Phaeton’s story of usurping his father Helios’s chariot, the vehicle that hitches the sun across the sky each day. This translation omits some of the texture and background to focus on action. At the climax of Phaëton’s prideful journey, he overturns the order of the sky, and at this point the translation breaks with the orderly lines to approximate cosmic chaos on the page by using jumbled lines and keyboard characters. The initial interest was to use astrological glyphs, but they did not reproduce consistently in print media, so carets, parentheses, and tildes are introduced instead. Ovid in the Metamorphoses describes Chaos as complete confusion, “discordant elements confused.”4 The alphabetic representation of words in Book 38 is interrupted by special characters used out of context. They are a typology that replicates the idea of chaos in broken lines. Throughout this section, set rhymes are replaced with repetitions of sounds within sections. The desire was for the reanimated verse to sing, to have lyric qualities equal to or greater than the narration. For these translations, compression, focus on dramatic moments, highlighting of imagery—these were ways to shift focus from head to heart.

It is not lack of originality that links the themes of the Dionysiaca with modernity, but rather that the biggest philosophical questions have changed little over time. Book 7 details how human misery and hardship made Aiōn (“Eternity” in this translation) plead with Zeus to create wine to ease suffering. Translating Book 7 while millions died from COVID-19 made it hard not to think how true in our imaginations this may be. The National Institutes of Health stated that 60% of survey respondents reported increased alcohol consumption during the pandemic.5 Because all things of value and comfort need to have an origin story, Nonnus writes how Zeus creates Dionysus, who creates wine, to “give mankind a defense for grief / whose taste flows sweetly.”

It is an act of kindness and concern that begins Book 7, and this continues where Nonnus describes the highly ritualized courtship of Zeus and the human Semele that leads to Dionysus’s conception. It is idealized human love and longing Nonnus conjures, where water is a symbol of renewal and purification—where after sacrificing a bull to her god, Semele “waded into the Asopos River where she was born / To wash her mottled dress in the water’s current.” This is the preparation for a kind of love that is endemic to poetry and no less romantically hyperbolized than Emily Dickinson’s “Wild Nights—Wild Nights! / Were I with thee / Wild Nights should be / Our luxury!” Likewise, Nonnus builds the tension of Zeus’ passion for Semele until it is uncontrollable:

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.

One of the revelations of this project was the importance of dance. Book 7 recounts how “Without Dionysus’s music [humanity’s] dance was half-hearted.” In Book 28 as Greek soldiers prepare to engage the Indian army, they rehearse with war music and rhythmic movement. A review of the Pyrrhic war dance shows the tradition of quick footwork, swordsmanship, and mock duels continues among cadets of the Hellenic Army Academy.6 Drums, stringed instruments, and flutes of the present day suggest the spectacle of the original. This dance music was a consistent muse in the background while translating Book 28. The description of its military parade to battle, then, gained more dimensions through the recomposition process, even if that music does not sound overtly. The translator’s own dance is solitary; yet it combines with the chorus of other Dionysiaca translators. Eileen R. Tabios translated the italics section of Book 28, and this provides a counterpoint, a duet not unlike the mano a mano movements of the dance and battlefield, and the dialogue affirms that poetry, from Homer to the present, is a shared genre incomplete without a reader and responder.

Narratives of the Greeks suggest ways of sorting the chaotic kaleidoscope of experience. The Dionysiaca proceeds like one of the battle processions, with exotic terms introduced, perhaps, yet it also circles back to its origins, as human consciousness changes little through the centuries of wars, romances, prideful sons, and lustful beings like Zeus and Dionysius. It also partly describes a culture of colonialism, patriarchy, and conquerors that has been misappropriated by bigots desperately and erroneously seeking to justify demagoguery and hate.7 But to ignore the text because of unethical adherents would be to ignore its influence on writers of all backgrounds. We can appreciate the writers’ work while recognizing the terrible flaws of the time period and know that, too, is part of our history and the history of literature.

The Dionysiaca is a poem where language signifies human frailty and desires in all their complications. This sentiment is at the heart of nostalgia, that word of Greek origin that arrived to English from nostos, meaning homecoming and algos, or suffering. From his hometown in Egypt, Nonnus pondered these things while Germanic tribes marched south through a terrorized Europe, and future Christian saints and martyrs spread evangelized messages of the early gospel in the waning days of the Roman Empire. Columbus was a thousand years away from reaching Caribbean shores. At that time the need to express longings was as fundamental to Nonnus as any contemporary poet.

We float along in awareness of just a fraction of our histories and present time as well. Our poor retinas can only see part of the spectrum. Ears cannot hear what dogs hear. We think we know more than we actually know. So, we question, we wonder about our surroundings and their origins to determine more of who we are and where we have come from. It is an essential part of living to incompletely express human wonder and heartache. To turn our back on the fraction of ancient Greek poems that exist would be an anathema to our past and what it means to be alive.  


1Levitan, William, and Stanley Lombardo, editors. Tales of Dionysus: The Dionysiaca of Nonnus of Panopolis.
 University of Michigan Press, 2022.

2Nagy, Gregory. Pindar’s Homer: The Lyric Possession of an Epic Past. E-book, Johns Hopkins University
 Press, 1990.

3Teresi, Christian. “Nonnus of Panopolis’s Dionysiaca: Book 7.” At Length.

4Ovid. Metamorphoses. Brookes More, editor. Cornhill Publishing Co.

5Bejamin-Neelon, Sara E., Elyse R. Grossman, and Susan Sonnenschein. “Alcohol Consumption during the
 COVID-19 Pandemic: A Cross-Sectional Survey of US Adults,” 9 December 2020.

6“Greek War Dance, Bloody & Violent (Pyrrhic Dance).” YouTube, uploaded by Arms Control Center, 19 May

7Poser, Rachel. “He Wants to Save Classics from Whiteness. Can the Field Survive?” New York Times,
 2 February 2021.

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