This site is devoted to a review of over 36 years of my research into the longest epic to survive from antiquity, Nonnus' Dionysiaca. This 48-book poem is over 21,000 hexameters long, considerably longer than the works of the great forerunner that Nonnus sought to surpass, Homer, whose Iliad runs to over 15, 000 lines, and his Odyssey, over 12,000. Apart from his origin in Panopolis in Egypt, and being the author of a verse paraphrase of the St. John Gospel and living in the 5th Century C.E, little is known of a poet who was once widely dismissed as unreadable and decadent. His work offers many rewards and provides much to admire for those willing to lay aside requirements that an author be a master of plot and character, and who can accept that Nonnus is more about theme and motif.
I wish I could remember what first impelled me to start working on Nonnus back in 1979 but recall fails. Perhaps it was curiosity about where so strange, florid and baroque an author was coming from. What was behind the astonishing, often quite bizarre parade of fantasies, the uninhibited flow of primary process cognition that seems without parallel in any other ancient author? For me it has been a most interesting and worthwhile exploration of an author's imagination. Certain characteristics of Nonnus were evident early on but have provided opportunity for considerable fleshing out. Others took time to emerge. There was always something new to discover in a voluminous, comparatively untilled work (much less so now) that kept me coming back from my other areas of research activity. What follows is a summary and discussion of what I think are the most important aspects and contributions of articles published over a 36-year period. Inevitably, some emphases reflect the benefit of hindsight and subsequent understanding.
In my first article, no.1, I outlined the egocentric, child-like, involved, emotional viewing of the material, but very unstable, world that Nonnus presents. But there are also elements of insulation and detachment in the way space is represented and in what is experienced, so that there is an oscillation between absorption and detachment, fascination and distaste, attraction and fear, within and before a dynamic, ever-shifting world. A motif in the poem is that of wide-eyed, open-mouthed gaping, a facial expression that in everyday life is typically accompanied by shallow, panting breathing and is caused by both lust/desire and alarm/fear, wanting and not wanting. One easily flips over into the other: Mysterium fascinans et tremendum.
One way to consider the conflicting pulls towards both the physical (sensory, mimetic, transient, empirical) and the metaphysical (ideal, archetypal, permanent, supernal) in Nonnus is to see it in the tradition of the conflict between Platonism and Aristotelianism, a conflict that has informed and enriched Western civilization and which is explored at length by Arthur Herman in The Cave and the Light: Plato versus Aristotle and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization (2013). Herman never mentions Nonnus but Nonnus can be seen as a significant and emblematic figure in this conflict. Nonnus' poem, in its expansive and idiosyncratic way, recapitulates and illustrates this particular dialectical tension that preceded him for 8 centuries, and foreshadows its development over almost 16 centuries to our time. There are many reasons for studying this great poet. Nonnus' place in and contribution to this perennial debate is one of them.
Index to articles:
1. Space and Scenery in Quintus of Smyrna, Claudian and Nonnus, Ramus 10 (1981) 53-68.
This article deals with cognitive space (the way space is constructed by the perceiver) in 3 late antique authors. Quintus is rather like Homer in projecting an arena for the action he describes that relies heavily on reporting the responses of the characters to what they see, rather than projecting a canvas that securely locates an event or object in a field. An expanse can also be indicated by the echoing and resonant sound that rolls around and fills it. Claudian defines and designates space in a much more objective and malleable way. His space can be worked up, shaped and contained. It is full of colourful, glittering surfaces. Ecphrases and baroque elaboration of surfaces is present in Nonnus too, but so are voyeurism and a fascination with moving rather than static forms – spiralling, twisting, twining, scratching, scoring, dancing. It is as if Nonnus has grasped the truth declared by sages of old and confirmed by physicists today, that the cosmos is a dynamic plenum where everything gyrates in a gigantic, ceaseless dance. Insulation and detachment alternate with immersion as characters outline, shape, inform and galvanise space. "There is an articulately felt and pleasurable interaction with the positive stuff of space" (p. 68). Such a vision and insight into the nature of the universe is an astonishing revelation and very Dionysian, an achievement for which alone an obscure late antique epic poet should be better known.
Back to Index
2. Discipline, Bondage and the Serpent In Nonnus' Dionysiaca, Classical World 78(1984) 89-98.
Whipping and tying up or being tied up, beating or being beaten, are salient motifs in the poem and reflect an endemic struggle by the characters to dominate and to assert superiority. This sado-masochistic urge drives and connects much of the action and the personal relationships in a competitive, brutal, murderous world where infantile complexes and regressions are rampant. Related issues are those of identity and body image. Constriction and pain, for example, can help provide a sense of boundedness and combat depersonalisation. Sharp sensations on the skin are one way in Nonnus (there are numerous others) of coping with a pervasive sense of insecurity fostered by unreliable, dissolving surfaces, bastard, counterfeit appearances or sounds, porosity and shapeshifting. Such is the context for the many serpents that appear in numerous guises throughout the work. They are a constant, terrifying threat to order and individuality. They represent suffocation, constriction, smothering, incorporation, and ambivalence towards mothers, and erupt into consciousness as devouring, annihilating dragons. The Dionysiaca is populated by entities with a fragile sense of identity, acutely sensitive to shame and peeping timorously at potentially menacing sights. The serpent crystallises what threatens them. One response is to seek to strengthen psychic boundaries by intensifying physical ones.
Back to Index
3. Power Motivation in Sidonius Apollinaris, Eugippius and Nonnus, Florilegium 7 (1985) 1-16.
This article studies the strategies people employ to feel powerful, using David McClelland's 4-stage typology. These 4 stages, which can be found fully explained in his Power. The Inner Experience (New York 1975), are, briefly, as follows:Stage 1-Oral. Support or intake mode. One feels strong from an external source, such as a god or charismatic leader. Devotion. Stage 2- Anal. Autonomy or self-actualising model. One strengthens the self, from within. Emphasis on self-restraint, -will, -reliance. Stage 3-Phallic. Assertion mode. Strengthen the self by influence upon or control over others, drawing on an internal source of power. Stage 4-Mutual genitality. Moralised action mode. Drawing on an external source one influences others but in the line of principled duty or service. Alcohol is one way of feeling more powerful and is a Stage 1 mode highly relevant to Nonnus.
Sidonius' panegyrics on the 5th Century emperors Avitus, Marjorian and Anthemius, Eugippius' hagiography on the 5th Century saint Severinus, and Nonnus' glorification of Dionysus are all forms of encomium. Sidonius articulates the ideal of imperial service to the empire rendered by superhuman rulers. St. Severinus, too, exemplifies an ideal of selfless service, with even more emphasis on self-control. He can control nature, and has powers of clairvoyance and prophecy. His power is like the ideal emperor's in some ways, socialised, exerted on behalf of justice, but it rejects the overt trappings of power. Dionysus' constructive use of power is less clear-cut. He is a great conqueror, proselytiser, saviour and benefactor (joyous dance, wine, relief from pain) but also becomes a brutal betrayer, mired eventually in defeat, failure and destruction. This is not entirely surprising, given Dionysus' association with alcohol and alcohol's negative effects, especially when it is first encountered. One should not expect too many pleasantries on the battlefield but elsewhere efforts to dominate are often crude and unnecessarily cruel.
Nonnus' poem exemplifies Stage 1 power motivation, imbibing strength and salvation from outside not just from wine flasks and divine afflatus but from ubiquitous breasts. "Both vulnerable and invulnerable, Dionysus fosters a dependence on external power that mirrors his own" (p. 9). There is, however, considerable Stage 2 power in evidence. There are 35 different epithets for autonomous action, such as self-growing, -moving, -born, used 292 times. Stage 3 phallic behaviour, verbal and physical aggression, also abounds. There is some Stage 4 behaviour in Dionysus' labours and suffering and benefactions to humanity but this tends to be swamped by the prevalence of Stage 1, 2 and 3 behaviours. There are clear narcissistic elements in his campaign to spread the worship of himself and to win a place in heaven. The forceful imposition of his cult contrasts with the gentler evangelism and modesty of Severinus. The look-at-me, vainglorious, flighty, insecure, Icarus-like behaviour of Dionysus and other characters is not vintage Stage 4 power motivation. The service that Dionysus renders is undercut and overlaid by exhibitionistic and narcissistic tendencies.
What this study also raises is the question of how much Nonnus is projecting his own Dionysian personality into the poem and to what extent he has been able to capture from outside, as it were, and then delineate the nature and psychology of Dionysus worship.
Back to Index
4. Sensitivity to Shame in Greek and Roman Epic, with Particular Reference to Claudian and Nonnus, Ramus 14 (1985) 30-45.
Based on a study of 11 Greek and Roman authors of epic or quasi-epic (like Ovid's Metamorphoses), and prompted by observation of how suicidally extreme feelings of shame and shame avoidance can be in Nonnus, 3000 line samples from each of the 11 authors were analysed and scored for frequency in 16 categories. These categories can indicate concern and anxiety about shame, such as defilement, abandonment, hiding, shapeshifting and Icarian imagery (ascent, descent, flying, diving, leaping, tall structures). Ovid scored highest (175), with Claudian second (139) and Nonnus third (135). (The pathology of shame in Ovid was thought worthy of a separate study, which it received in my article, Shame in Ovid's Metamorphoses, Classicum. 23. 2 (1997) 38-41.). Claudian's shame score was characterised by a high proportion of protection and demarcation strategies, involving Barrier and Closure imagery that closes entities, objects or situations off from vulnerability and exposure. Nonnus' favoured strategy centred more round counterphobic aggression, exhibitionism and mockery, as well hypersensitive withdrawal, hiding, and refuge-seeking, peeping half-veiled from a screen or matrix. Masks and disguises are also attractive means of reducing exposure and vulnerability. Deceiving others puts them at a disadvantage and reduces their capacity to inflict shame. Focusing on shame quickly exposes the dynamics of narcissism, fragile self-esteem and insecure identity, as well as the immaturity and infantilism of the fantasy life that permeates the poem. It is as if the embryo's survival is at stake. Yet the poem also points in the direction of a transcendence of shame through creativity and high achievement if the enormous energy and exuberance that characterises the narrative can be harnessed and channelled to produce an epic worthy of comparison with a Homer.
Back to Index
5. Nonverbal Expressiveness in Late Greek Epic:Quintus of Smyrna, and Nonnus, in Advances in Nonverbal Communication (ed.) F. Poyatos, (Amsterdam 1992) 271-283.
6000 line samples were compiled from each author and 12 categories of nonverbal expressiveness (e.g., gesture, posture, gait, dance, nonvocal and nonverbal sounds) were devised. Into these categories were placed examples found in the sampled text of each author. Nonnus' total score was 963, considerably exceeding Quintus' 584. In 9 of the 12 categories Nonnus had the higher score. The general, and obvious, conclusion is that Nonnus evinces a much greater interest in nonverbal expressiveness. Quintus' treatment of this mode of communication is more limited and stereotyped. Given Dionysus' association with theatre and dance, and the often hysterical behaviour of many of Nonnus' characters, greater facial and bodily expression of emotion is to be expected. Nonnus likes to retail scenes where dancers choreograph a wordless mime. There is a certain style of architecture which can be described as "bold, exuberant, sensual, dynamic, reflecting an energy frequently on the brink of a flight from reality...(a) basically impassioned style" (p. 279). Such a description fits the antics of Nonnus' characters rather well.
Back to Index
6. Some Problems of Creativity in Nonnus' Dionysiaca, Classical Antiquity 12 (1993) 89-110.
Dionysus is a creator, the Dionysiaca is about many types of creation, including procreation. The study of creativity is an enormously complex and controversial issue but it is worth applying some of the scholarly insights and theories to better understand what is going on in Nonnus and the creating world he writes about. Dionysus brought 2 great boons to humanity, viticulture and new dances. The poem also mentions a number of other cultural advances, such as beekeeping and olive cultivation that Dionysus has to complement and excel. A feature of the world of the Dionysiaca is the frequency of references to unusual ways of life creation or sustenance. Many different substances can fertilise the earth and bring forth life forms, men and virgins can suckle infants. Interwoven with the issues of creativity rased by the content of the poem is that of Nonnus' narrative style and cognitive processes – paratactic, baroque, sensual, gestural, fluid, irrational, dreamy, primitive, analogous in some ways to the drunken state. Is this the authentic voice of Nonnus or an assumed Dionysian persona? Whatever the answer, "manner of exposition blends with content and illuminates...the levels of consciousness where imagination operates freely" (p. 93).
Access to such levels, radiant and vital but often murky and gruesome too, often poses serious problems for the creator that are reflected in their behaviour, and are sufficient to raise questions about their mental health. As one observes the stream of consciousness, with its frequent signs of infantile perceptions and concerns, that runs through the poem, one can't help wondering how well integrated was the creative personality responsible for it, and how capable it was of producing a coherent exposition of genuine insights about he nature of Dionysus worship, and the role of a deity like Dionysus in expressing certain truths about the nature of life and its generation (that is, that goes beyond the broad vision of a dance-cosmos). Dionysus himself has the sort of upbringing that breed narcissistic, deceitful, emotionally retarded impostors who love to impress and win applause through glorious deeds but who are plagued by identity problems and doubts as to what is real/true and unreal/false. Paradox, androgyny and ambiguity are, however, aids to creativity if combined with volcanic energy and divine assistance, provided that one is not blown away, as Semele was, by an excess of fiery spirit. The poem throbs and pullulates with often bizarre life forms, as if advertising the fecundating powers that Dionysus embodies.
Nevertheless, all the growth and change that occurs may be more about frenetic rearranging the furniture on one level rather than ascent and exploration of new levels of awareness. Proteus is the paradigm of infinite capacity to assume new forms but failing to achieve genuine transformation or movement to more enlightened ways of living. As Jack Lindsay puts it, in Nonnus "changes spiral in a void", like a car engine revving in neutral. One looks in vain for clear signs of moral development in the poem. Instead, along with the whirr of creativity there is much savagery, madness and lust. The vision of the cosmos as a glorious, spiralling, form-generating dance, or a grand, vibrant orchestra are discernible (mind altering drugs may open doors to such perceptions) but not the harmonising with the cosmos that promotes a particular form of creativity, viz., the shaping and growth of the self. Attempting a great revelatory poem on the universe, Nonnus cannot quite deliver and reveal the process whereby the insights are applied to conduct.
Back to Index
7. Flights of Fancy in Nonnus and J. M. Barrie, Electronic Antiquity 3.5 (October1996)1-9
The issue of infantile perspective is further explored in the next 2 articles, the first of which involved a comparison with J. M. Barrie (1860-1937), creator of the archetypal puer aeternus, Peter Pan. Although Barrie lived a life that was the antithesis of Dionysian frenzy and revelry, he displayed marked characteristics of the Icarian syndrome, where amongst other things, fantasies of flight figure prominently. Peter Pan, the little flying boy who could and would never grow up and who preferred to live in a Neverland of egocentric, arrested development, exhibits attitudes that can be discerned in much of Barrie's work and indeed in his life. Other characteristics of the syndrome include ambivalence towards the mother, denial of or wilful ignorance of sex (Barrie has been described as The Sexless Sentimentalist), and a craving for immortality. Issues of creativity arise too because Barrie split off from himself a fanciful alter ego, a bird-like creative spirit he called M'connachie. Nonnus composed an epic on the god of drama, Barrie was most famous as a playwright, and both authors worried away at the issues of reality and illusion.
Nonnus goes way beyond the conventional requirements of epic in the frequency and emphasis he gives to episodes of flight, by gods and animals, and by humans and demigods who ascend or leap or describe a trajectory through the air, such as Phaethon. Ascension is combined with immortality in the catasterisms of Semele, Ariadne, Chalcomede, Phaethon, Icarius and Erigone. Glorious deeds, graven epitaphs, contemplation of vast vistas of time are other ways of lessening death's sting. Frequent fantasies of spontaneous generation of life forms and numerous instances of blurred gender differences can be found in Nonnus, beginning with the effeminate Dionysus and the masculine Bacchant women. This ambiguity is a major motif. The Great Mother archetype, which can be nurturant and fruitful but also oppressive and cruel, infanticidal and filicidal, is strongly present. Dionysus is both nursed by protective, surrogate parents and persecuted by his "stepmother", Hera. The ambivalence of the relationship manifests in breasts which can both nurture and poison. A common infantile fantasy is the omnipotent child warrior (yet protected by nurses) who can best adults. The young Dionysus and Peter Pan typify this, as they do self-absorbed narcissism and exhibitionism.
The article acknowledges some important differences between Nonnus and Barrie but concludes that in the Icarian character of the fantasy life evident in their work they have a signal trait in common.
Back to Index
8. Fear of Sex in Nonnus' Dionysiaca, Electronic Antiquity 4.2 (April 1998) 1-15.
Relations between the genders are not particularly harmonious in the Donysiaca and this tends to show up in the sexual arena where men fear sex with women and resort to perversions and paraphilias such as fetishism and voyeurism to satisfy some of their curiosity and make the whole experience of sex less threatening. Women have reason to fear rape but it is the male perspective and male fears that Nonnus illuminates. There are 23 episodes of voyeurism, plus 3 quasi-episodes (e.g., a serpent gazes at a woman's genitals). A fantasy that is supposedly at the core of many paraphilias is that of the phallic woman. Missiles and serpents erupting from the breasts and groins of women deter potential rapists and preserve female virginity in the Dionysiaca. In real life, male children often take some time to realise how anatomically different they from their mothers and assume women too have penises. According to psychoanalytic theory, if women do not have penises, that is a potential source of anxiety for males because it is clear evidence of non-identity with the mother. And if women do not have penises, it must be because they have been castrated, a fate which could befall the young male too. He could lose the precious token of his individual identity. Fetishism arises when a substitute object takes the place of the "missing" female phallus, serving to reassure the child and later adult that women are not really that different from men and can be safely approached.
In Nonnus, it is the breast that assumes fetishist status because, by transference upwards (cross-culturally, semen and milk are often equated), it takes on phallic properties, a site of power that can shoot missiles and threaten injury. While such fetish theory might seem bizarre, it is no more bizarre than other infantile ideas readily apparent in the poem, such as the omnipotent child warrior, and spontaneous generation. One explanation of voyeurism is a compulsive checking and rechecking to see if phallic women/mothers really exist. Dionysus employs such strategies to reduce the distance between himself and women, and their serpentine powers of suffocation and incorporation. Another strategy is to become effeminate. By doing this and by wearing serpents he becomes like a phallic woman himself. And throughout the poem there is a plethora of irregular lactations, births, and non-coital reproductions that serve to blur gender differences and reduce the importance of normal, genital sexuality. One scholar has likened the behaviour of humans and gods in the poem to the unreal characters of Alice in Wonderland. "Seen, however, as an illustration of unresolved conflicts and arrested development, such behaviour is merely commonplace " (p. 11).
Back to Index
9. Chaos Theory in Nonnus' Dionysiaca, Scholia 8 (1999) 37-51.
This article revisits the thesis that Nonnus had an insight into the nature of the universe, however inchoately he may have communicated it. Chaos theory, better known as hidden-order or dynamical systems theory, is a new way to think about order and disorder, and can be applied to all manner of fields, including literature. With Nonnus it is particularly effective for illuminating the hidden order of a work that too easily appears to be a shapeless sprawl. The trend in recent Nonnian scholarship is to see rather more structure in his poem than some earlier critics have allowed but with chaos theory one can discern not simply a coherent overall outline but themes and motifs that serve as binders where plot and characterisation do not.
Apparent chaos usually contains all kinds of patterns for those who know what to look for. It is more like a creative matrix that is characterised by a nonlinearity and unpredictability which in turn are the prerequisites for creativity. Too much order in nature is the prelude to disintegration, stagnation and death. (Note:There is a serious typo on p. 39, line 18. It should read "a violent, imposed order (not disorder) is really disorder"). Within the swirl and flux of Nonnus' narrative there are frequent (occurring scores or hundreds of times) references to spirals, serpents, vortices, dances and circles. These are the dynamic paths and flows of energy, the deeply encoded binders of a work for which the metaphor of a rushing, twisting torrent rather a masonry edifice is more appropriate. The prominence of the spiral is particularly significant because it is today considered to be the basic form of the universe. It is a form with much potential for movement, growth and rapid escalation, spontaneity, self-organisation, self-movement. There are many auto-compounds in Nonnus (36 words, occurring 292 times) that convey a ubiquitous impulse to move and to generate new forms. Such words, together with the common motif of weaving, transmit a sense of underlying pullulating power that bubbles and boils but eventually translates into a form or pathway. The very precarious equilibrium of forces so evident in the poem provides the flexibility and adaptability required to deal with change and unpredictability.
Chaos theory enables one to see the Dionysiaca as a dialogue between order and disorder, growth and stasis, unity and multiplicity that puts Nonnus in the ranks of those pre-20th Century figures who intuited the nature on nonlinear dynamics.
Back to Index
10. Breasts and Milk in Nonnus' Dionysiaca, Classical World 94 (2000) 11-24.
This article elaborates upon a feature of the Dionysiaca that was discussed in the article on fear of sex (no. 8, 1998) in connection with fetishism and the phallic woman. 121 references to mazos, 65 to kolpos, 11 to thêlê, 82 to sternon and stêthos, plus 51 to gal, glagos and cognate adjectives give some idea of the salience of breast fixation in the multi-nippled cosmos that Nonnus projects. The oral bias of the poem would be evident from the importance of wine drinking which is portrayed as a rival to milk as a means of gratification, and superior to it in some ways (it does not go off as readily). Infantile splitting of the world into good and bad objects starts with mothers and breasts – comforting, nurturant and good, frustrating, identity-submerging and bad. The breast can be a source of solace and salvation but also be a site of power and danger. Epithets applied to breasts are many and various, and even personify them as, e.g., wise, crafty, jealous, evil-averting.
The references to breasts and milk were grouped in 8 categories. Breasts can serve as straightforward nurturers and comforters but also as healers and saviours. They can be a source of status and privilege (has one suckled, or been suckled by, a prestigious being?), erotic or critically appraised objects, loci of dangerous and aggressive power (shooting forth missiles). There are also striking irregularities, such a woman suckling her father, men and virgins nursing infants, women suckling animals.
An element in the Dionysiaca as an oral paradise is the spontaneous flow of milk, not just from women but from the earth, as fountains of milk gush forth. But there are cases when the breast is denied, withheld, and paradise is lost. Passively, breasts are suckled, lauded, exposed, ogled, fondled, bitten, wounded. Actively, they nourish, heal, arouse apprehension and erotic interest, pour forth wine, light, lightning, fire, serpents, arrows of love. By synecdoche this extends to women who are self-sufficient, powerful, full, rich, like lionesses in their capacity to both nourish and destroy life. The infantilism of much of the fantasy in the poem revolves around not just endless opportunities for ingesting food and drink, but around women and, macrocosmically, the earth, as nurturant and fertile (some typical infantile confusion of parturition and lactation is evident) as well as potentially dangerous. Breasts are enviable sources of power in a consciousness where residues of infantile confusion and ignorance about "the facts of life" and just how males and females differ are evident.
Back to Index
11. Narcissism and Leadership in Nonnus' Dionysiaca, Helios 28 (2001) 173-190.
Narcissism is one of the most striking of the traits of Nonnus' rather undifferentiated cast of characters, and has already been explored to some extent. After providing some evidence for the prevalence of self-centred thinking and behaviour, the article examines some of the defining characteristics of pathological narcissism contained in the 3rd edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, such as grandiosity, exhibitionism, entitlement, over-idealisation of others (to the point of idolatry) alternating with devaluation of them. Narcissism explains much of the feelings of rage, shame and humiliation that the fragile egos display. Dionysus' grandiosity is amply attested and difficult for him to avoid, given his background, lineage, and entourage of worshippers. He is idolised because followers want a charismatic leader to identify with and draw strength from in order to enhance their own self-esteem. Dionysus' self-esteem, co-dependently, feeds on the esteem emanating from his worshippers.
As a manifestation of the ruler archetype he does progress to the messiah-saviour stage but such a stage is fraught with perils and temptations, both for leader and for followers who invest much, and who therefore stand to lose much in any betrayal or falling short of the ideal. And the career and progress of Dionysus in the last 7 books after his victory over the Indians is dismaying to follow – a catalogue of murder, infanticide, brutality, destruction, defeat, failure, not all of it directly connected with Dionysus but occurring in his brave new world. Modern leadership studies are utilised to evaluate Dionysus' performance as leader. His superhuman powers paper over some of the personality fissures in a work where the general standard of behaviour is not specially elevated, and there is no guarantee that Dionysus' followers will use on behalf of their community whatever ego fortification they have attained.
Back to Index
12. Gifts and Hospitality in Nonnus' Dionysiaca, Classical Bulletin 77 (2001) 159-176.
The gift-giving economy and hospitality practices portrayed in the poem follow and contrast with those of Nonnus' model and avowed rival, Homer. In the bountiful and fertile world of the Dionysiaca gifts and boons can be and are lavished freely. However, benefactions of any kind are commonly laden with values and expectations that make the reception of them problematic. Delicate calculations may be made as to whether more kudos accrues to the giver or the recipient. Motives for giving can be flagrantly manipulative, competitive, deceitful and exploitative. The Dionysiaca provides numerous such examples, involving humans and deities. Sought gifts can bring all manner of trouble but so can unsought ones. The great boon of wine is particularly problematic for a ruler such as the Indian king, Deriades, for introduction of it would radically affect the values and customs, even the religion, of his subjects. Yet to reject it entirely is to reject a possible cultural advance that aids the rites of fellowship, hospitality and celebration. Dionysus' new dances too could add to the quotient of a society's joy but they may be seen as a threat to tradition. Dionysus does not take kindly to rejection of what he has to offer.
As the son of Zeus Xenios Dionysus had a particular interest in fostering pleasant hospitality. Lycurgus and Pentheus on the one hand, and Brongus and Staphylus on the other, offer contrasting illustrations of the bad and good host. The tragedy of the hospitable and wine-accepting Icarius and his daughter Erigone, and the fate of Aura, however, show what a lethal gift wine can be and justify to some extent the recalcitrance of Deriades. In Homer, gifts and hospitality can lead to disaster but, in general, are to be welcomed and boasted about. They do not come with the threat of cultural subversion. In Nonnus, they may do, and they blight as well as delight the lives of recipients.
Back to Index
13. The Character and Content of Water in Nonnus and Claudian Ramus 30 (2001) 169-189.
Water can be quite anthropomorphic. Rivers, springs, the sea are readily personified. But, further than that, when water is imagined, it can also reveal many of the fantasies, wishes, fears and preoccupations of the person who does the imagining. The rich symbolism of water comes about, at least in part, because of the readiness of people to project onto it, as if onto a screen, the contents of their psyche, the character of their inner lives. Sadistic or lustful drives, nostalgic longings, and much more may emerge in dreams, fantasies and images associated with water. Even when an author's work teems with traditional aquatic imagery, such images have to be selected from the larger cultural storehouse and the consequent array and treatment of these has a particular cumulative effect. Certain attitudes may reveal themselves. This article examines some of the ways in which water is presented in Nonnus' Dionysiaca, what it does and what is done to it, and then compares this with water's presentation and treatment in Claudian. Its purpose is not to demonstrate that references to water in Nonnus (or Claudian) are more common or important than in other authors. Its purpose is to show how water imagery reflects a set of concerns in the two authors that to some extent overlap, partly, and simply, because they are human, and partly because they are heirs to a common tradition. But the respective concerns are also quite distinct from each other.
In Nonnus, water may be a matrix of creation and procreation, a bed to be sowed, a great symbol of life, an ally or antagonist of fire, a rival but also an essential component of wine. Achievement and maturation issues are important and inform much of the water imagery. One can observe there the drive to remain in prenatal security struggling with the drive to ascend and cross over water and water deities towards independence and glory. This struggle encapsulates a theme that pervades the work, the conflict, on the one hand, between exhibitionism, shaming, assertion and boastfulness, (outside water contexts there is much dancing, fighting, roaring, shouting, banging, ascension etc.) and, on the other, withdrawal, self-doubt and withering shame. The struggle recurs and is reflected with characters and in contexts not immediately concerned with Dionysus, such as when nymphs peep timorously from the water, half-visible, and when Nonnus externalises tremors about the boldness of his challenge to Homer.
In Claudian water is less of a threat to integrity and welfare, more a contributor to cosmic harmony and to Roman security and welfare. Within that presentation, water appears more as a contained and containing force, within or upon which occur images of intimacy. Nostalgic yearning for a powerful and protective mother figure finds some of its expression in water imagery but also in the transcendent goddess Roma.
Back to Index
14. The Power of Sound in Nonnus' Dionysiaca, Des Geants a Dionysos. Melanges offerts a F.Vian, D. Accorinti and P. Chuvin (edd.), (Alessandria 2003), pp.457-468.
The Dionysiaca is a very noisy poem. Dionysus' epithet, Bromios, "noisy, roaring", occurs 117 times and Nonnus likes to use words that suggest boom, resonance, echo. Dionysus of the booming voice is himself god-as-sound and the many musical sound effects of the poem are reminders of his existence. Sound is a weapon in warfare. The battle between Zeus and Typhon at the beginning of the poem reverberates throughout the cosmos. The capacity to project noise and invade the minds and bodies of people is one of the most striking ways of declaring power and prestige. Religious worship can feature many different types of sound, including sacred dance and chant (Euoi!), that appear strange and alarming to those unaccustomed to them. Instances of fear and anger, even paralysis and flight, occur throughout the work. Dionysus and his forces repeatedly dance into and dance during battle, making it a martial revel.
Many of the references to sound, music, song are pleasurable, to the point of entrancement. Cadmus' pipe playing bewitches Typhon. Beroe's voice flowed sweeter than honey and charmed senseless men who were otherwise impervious to charm. Dionysus and the sounds created by his worshippers have the power to affect nature to the point of entrainment so that, for example rocks, not only bounce back in echoes the sounds of revelry but emit their own sounds. Along with hills and trees they not only dance in step with the Dionysian revellers but sing or chant in harmony with them. The overall effect of so many and varied references to sound makes it possible "that Nonnus has grasped and expressed, poetically and inchoately, the age-old intuition, corroborated by modern science, that sound is all there is in the universe, that all things are created and sustained by sound. If Nonnus is indeed the author of the St. John Paraphrase, it is fitting that he chose to put into verse the gospel that begins, "In the beginning was the Word", or the sound thereof" (p.468).
Back to Index
15. Nonnus, Dionysus and Christianity, Appendix III, pp. 239-247, in M.A. Prost, Nonnos of Panopolis. The Paraphrase of the Gospel of St. John, The Writing Shop Press, 2003.
Parallels between Dionysus and Christ have been drawn. For example, Nietzsche saw them both as suffering, persecuted saviours, and one can see in Dionysus a liberator, boon-giver and advancer of civilization, a divine being who subverted and challenged old ways. Several times in the poem Dionysus changes water into wine and the Christian eucharistic consumption of bread and wine, the symbolic body and blood of Christ , may have some relationship to what occurred in Dionysian cultic practice, that is, ingestion of flesh and blood in order to partake of the god's divine power. But resemblances which are often adduced are insufficient to outweigh key differences. Dionysus is not really a saviour god in Nonnus. He does not use the word soter at all of Dionysus. Although there are instances of love and compassion in the epic, much behaviour, including that of Dionysus and his followers, is simply heartless and cruel. There is no evidence of any behavioural advance. There is nevertheless in the poem a vision of the cosmos as a great sounding dance and revel. A gospel that began with "In the beginning was the Word (logos)" may have appealed to an author who sensed the eternal vibration that underlies all life.
Christianity, by Nonnus' day, had sullied its founder's message by, amongst other things, an excessive willingness to use force to "save" pagans and heretics. Dionysus was commissioned to bring wine, new dances and the worship of a new god to communities who were sometimes far from receptive. Considerable force was applied to achieve this end. The Dionysiacacould have been written by someone who set out to discredit and subvert paganism. If so, it was done by someone (a Christian bishop?) who must have been uncomfortably aware that Christian proselytism and the drive for orthodoxy led to some all-to-familiar excesses.
(Note: in line 9 of the first paragraph on p. 239, it should read "given that Homer's work together filled 48 books" (not 24).
The book's author, Tony Prost, can be contacted at email@example.com
Back to Index
16. Life and Death in Nonnus' Dionysiaca: Filling the Void and Bridging the Gap Ramus 32 (2003) 148-170.
The thesis of this paper is that the void, the sense of emptiness, created by some form of loss, is, to a considerable extent, filled and bridged by a number of activities and motifs that pervade the Dionysiaca. Nonnus projects a vision of life so resonant, full and fertile that it mostly overwhelms forces and behaviour that make for sterility and emptiness. However, constant effort is needed by various individual entities to harmonise polarities, and to keep the cosmos orderly and busy spinning cycles of germination, growth, death and reseeding/rebirth. Immortals, especially deities, have a greater capacity to relieve their own bereavements, separations and loss, including the gaining of forms of immortality for favoured individuals. For most mortals, reminders of the nature and power of life's eternal flow is no guarantee of individual post-mortem survival or of the healing of wounds incurred by the loss of someone or something precious. But the intimations of immortality and the resources for solace and recovery are persistent and insistent in Nonnus' narrative.
Winning fame that endures in human memory, being honoured and respected when dead, graven epitaphs, metamorphosis into an ongoing form, such as a river or plant, offer partial victories over death. Otherwise, apart from catasterism in a celestial vault that can accommodate new arrivals, mortals can only assume that the sounds they utter, the patterns their movements create and the rituals they perform really do harmonise with the macrocosm and align with the higher levels, and thus hope that they will thereby remain a sentient part of some greater living whole. Imitating cosmic creators means participating in activity that sustains life everywhere. It is a generalised, diffuse immortality that is on offer, not a guaranteed abode in a discrete heaven or paradise. It is a celebration of transcendent life. Those who, like Silenus, dance into death, who deathleap into a new life, or who were initiated into the mysteries, would appear to have fair or good prospects of being reborn on the wave of an ever-flowing cosmos.
In the Dionysiaca, only Dionysus reaches Olympus and only a favoured few live on as stars, plants, rivers or landmarks, in some cases thereby cushioning immortals from a sense of loss. Hades is the presumed destination of the rest but the supercharged power of the drive towards rebirth, possibly in a new shape, suggests that sojourns there will only be temporary, unless something happens in heaven or from above to render barren and infertile the soil that contains the seeds that are like celestial gateways to new life. We cannot know, as dancers whirled, spun and gyrated, and ate, drank and chanted together, whether, as they did this, they thought, or were imagined by Nonnus as thinking much beyond enhancing the fertility of the land and its inhabitants, and elevating their mood and honouring deity. We cannot know to what extent they pondered, or were meant to ponder, like Dervishes do, upon the cosmic, harmonising significance of their movements, and just what it meant for their own futures.
Back to Index
17. Nonnus' Fiery World, Electronic Antiquity 10.1 (November 2006) 1-21.
There are almost 1000 references to the various forms and manifestations of fire (e.g including sparks, lightning, stars, pyre) in the Dionysiaca, appearing in the sky, in water and under ground. The fire that consumed Semele and brought Dionysus into the world is, in many ways, the foundation myth of the whole work. Fire is a richly polyvalent symbol of life and power in almost all cultures. Fire in Nonnus has some peculiar properties and is able to exist in some unexpected places. It can behave in unusual ways such not burning and being inextinguishable by water.
Besides electric, solar, combustion and volcanic fire in the poem, there is a special type of divine fire with unique properties Dionysus must master and not be harmed or destroyed by. In the Indian War, books 13-40, there is frequent employment of fire and lightning by combatants. His father Zeus is an exemplar of fire-mastery except that Dionysus explicitly eschews becoming a caster of thunderbolts. His progress through the poem can be seen as a journey to mastery of fire and the reward of a place in heaven. Typhon, Zagreus, Semele, Deriades, Phaethon and Pentheus are the cautionary failures who attempt to handle or withstand fire. The ubiquity of literal and metaphoric fire in a work not just about Dionysus but about the Dionysian world-view is one of the reasons why the Donysiaca is so full of life, restless movement and mania, as if in a continuous state of sexual arousal. As a god associated with dance, serpents, wine, water, divine afflatus, fertility and creativity, fire and heat fall naturally within Dionysus' purview, and inform the creativity of numerous other beings, such as Hephaestus and his helpers at the forge.
Back to Index
18. Curiosity and Exposure in Nonnus, Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 48 (2008) 71-94.
This paper deals with how Nonnus portrays the quest for (possibly taboo) knowledge, and the interplay between curiosity and its associated risks. Also, how does exposure, whether it involves emergence from a refuge or a display of more of the body, create a sense of nervous vulnerability both in the subject and in others? The theme of scopophilia, love of looking, in Nonnus is illustrated by 26 voyeur or quasi-voyeuristic episodes. To the extent that they represent infantile researches into sexual knowledge, these episodes are one of the several issues of ego development that are contained in the poem. Curiosity in humans and animals is vital for survival and for growth but inevitably involves some risks, especially when it becomes improper prying, as Actaeon, Semele and Pentheus egregiously exemplify. But peeping by predatory males can have consequences, sometimes dire, for the espied when it leads to rape, pregnancy and suicide (Persephone, Semele, Nicaea, Aura).
To never venture forth and risk exposure is to court boredom and stagnation. Revelling, exhilarant Bacchantes are typically unveiled, unshod, loose-haired and mountain-seeking. As exhibitionists they become both vulnerable and dangerous objects of the gaze of the imperfectly hidden male peeper. Being a voyeur is akin to being an invisible divine watcher, and the forbidden nature of it all adds to the sadistic sexual excitement, the erotic thrill of domination, of catching someone when they are vulnerable. Nonnus' characters crave security and secrecy as well as novelty, freedom and the self-exposure that marks a degree of self-esteem. While to some extent it is formulaic to describe nymphs and nature spirits as erotically half-visible, unshod, unveiled, loose-haired, this image informs much behaviour in the poem and captures a sense of furtive, nervous exploration, invasive scrutiny, and vulnerable, immodest assertion.
Back to Index
19. Shamanism in Nonnus' Dionysiaca, pp. 56-62, in Written in Wine. A Devotional Anthology, Sannion (ed.), Bibliotheca Alexandrina (2008).
In the Dionysiaca there are numerous residues of shamanism, its practices, its concepts, its way of regarding and relating to the seen and unseen worlds. Dionysus emerges as a shamanic figure, as do some other characters to a lesser degree. We cannot say how intentional the presence of shamanic material was on Nonnus' part, since the mythological, pagan tradition, which he drew upon, stretching back millennia to the tribal, pre-kingdom societies that once inhabited Greece, was itself infused with shamanic elements. Therefore, in one way, the presence of at least some shamanic features is to be expected. However, in creating a work infused with the shamanic world-view, Nonnus, intentionally or otherwise, sees with the eye of a shaman, so that the poem not only contains shamanic residues but functions as a shamanic exposition. Clear shamanic residues, for example, can be found in references to the smith-god Hephaestus and his assistants who, while engaging in a discrete craft activity, have several things in common with shamans. Alchemy too, elements of which are discernible in the poem, has features in common with both shamanism and metallurgy.
Fire-born and fire-proof, ultimately a fire-master and therefore one with enhanced power to destroy and create, Dionysus both undergoes the path of shamanic mastery and attains the abode of celestial power in the last lines of the poem, taking his place on Olympus as a full god. Others attempt and, for various reasons, fail shamanic trials and tests. To be a master of fire is to be a master of renewal, a force for irreversible change and cultural progress, like a smith or an alchemist, and is to be a participant in the spirit and divine worlds, like a shaman. While imbibing fire-in-water wine affects a temporary transformation, the embrace of the producer-activity, viticulture, permanently changes a culture. While Dionysus seems closer to the figure of the shaman, he has elements in common with the secondary, specialised form of shamanism that Hephaestus represents, and with the androgynous hermaphroditism of alchemy.
Back to Index
20. Contests and Competitiveness in Nonnus, Scholia 19 (2010) 111-125.
Nonnus is interested in creativity, innovation, bravura artistry, technical virtuosity, and in retailing contests of skill. An interest in competition and in what is truly original, inherent in his own challenges to earlier authors, is present in the Dionysiaca's numerous portrayals of the drive to achieve excellence and to be the first. This need to achieve, this intrinsically driven intentional competitiveness, is often swamped by an extrinsically driven structural competitiveness which needs to dominate and defeat, even humiliate, rivals.
He is very aware that competition raises issues of identity, honesty and imitation that threaten to undercut efforts to make a name for one-self. He is equally aware that interpersonal competition is enjoyable, suspenseful and a major stimulus to creative endeavour. The trajectory of his narrative, however, is determined much more by the themes of aggression, violence, domination, submission, boasting, mockery, responding to challenges to see what one can get away with (fooling people), and to show to the world,by any means, that one is the top dog. The Dionysiaca does not appear to stigmatise vainglory and cut-throat, zero-sum pursuit of renown and victory to register one's social worth, although it could be read by the humble and self-effacing as an object lesson in what to avoid.
Back to Index
21. Mimesis and Illusion in Nonnus. Deceit, Distrust and the Search for Meaning, Helios 37 (2010) 81-106.
Nonnus shows a concern with, an obsession even, with the epistemological issue of mimesis and the instability of representation, and with elusive relationship between the true and the false, the original and the replica, the trustworthy and the delusory. In this concern he joins millennia of artists, theologians and philosophers who ponder how and whether the world of physical forms offers a useful means of accessing the sacred and archetypal.
To explore this issue, examples of and statistics for deceit, trickery, and falsity are presented and discussed. A cognate theme, that of hiding, is also discussed. Nonnus' preoccupation with and use of words for false and illegitimate, and with words that connote delusive, flickering and crafty/craftsmanlike, are likewise integral to a perception that regards the material world and its pagan denizens (deities, nature spirits, humans) as untrustworthy – fascinating but untrustworthy. Because so many surfaces and appearances are unreliable, even treacherous, a fair amount of paranoia is inevitable, and is indeed evident. In the end, Nonnus furnishes more questions than answers but seeing his work as riven by the perennial tension between the urge to ascend to the transcendent and the One, and the drive to manifest as the immanent in the Many, explains some of the paradoxical content and unresolved conundrums. Partly, it is the Christian in Nonnus that accounts for the former drive, the pagan in him that accounts for the latter.
Back to Index
22. The Psychology in the Dionysiaca, in Brill's Companion to Nonnus of Panopolis, ed. D. Accorinti (Leiden 2016) 193-212.
The extraordinary nature of Nonnus' poem owes much to unresolved conflict, the constant tension between merging and emerging, between descent into the maelstrom of the material and transitory and mimetic, and ascent to the sublimity of the eternal and archetypal and spiritual. While Nonnus' sensory world is celebrated and elaborated, it is also distrusted and, to a degree, repressed and denied. This flamboyant tension creates some of the classic psychological signs of repression of the lower body by the higher spirit, and also creates massive ambivalence over whether it is best to remain hidden and merged (communion) or to step forth and boldly assert the self (agency), thereby taking risks and then incurring doubts that can lead to merging and hiding once more; and whether to shrink from sexual activity, or to engage in it, and if so, how. All this results in some very regressive, infantile themes and preoccupations.
Back to Index
23. Discussion and Overview.
One perspective on the Dionysiaca is that its author has, however imperfectly, grasped the essential nature of the universe, where space is a vibrant, resounding plenum and where everything is alive and a-dancing. The scale of his work and the breadth of his cosmological vision are awesome. His poetically expressed insights are worthy of the philosophical, rational expositions of the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Zeno, Epicurus and Plotinus. He would appear to be much closer to the real nature of the universe than another poetic expounder of cosmology, Lucretius. At the same time, the stream of consciousness that runs through the work and gives it its trademark shape and feel has markedly infantile, regressed features, suggesting a creative personality that captures much of the conflicted nature of the traditional Dionysus. This might be regarded as a triumph of successful identification but the free association that animates material not closely related to Dionysus makes one wonder how necessary a parade of paraphilias like voyeurism, fetishism, primal scene fascination, sado-masochistic discipline and bondage, and phallic women are to the Gospel of Dionysus. Perhaps no other work in Greco-Roman antiquity (if there is another, what is it?) exceeds the Dionysiaca in the range and persistence of infantile and immature pre-occupations that make it fertile territory for psycho-analytic approaches.
Some creators, whether in the fields of music, literature, painting, science, work from a stable emotional base and well-integrated, mature personalities as they intuit and then expound sublime, transcendent truths. Numerous others, however, produce work of stunning genius or show advanced cognitive capacity yet exhibit a standard of behaviour (this is not to suggest Nonnus was necessarily badly behaved) and a pathological range of fantasies and complexes that hovers near, if it does not, temporarily or permanently, cross into unrestrained right hemisphere fantasy, anti-social conduct and serious mental disorder. A mystical or even a drug-induced vision that reveals certain great truths about the cosmos is no guarantee that behaviour will improve. As Ken Wilber (Ken Wilber in Dialogue, edd. D. Rothberg and S. Kelly, (Wheaton 1998) p. 334), puts it, it is possible to "make strides in the spiritual line of concern (for others) or in the cognitive line of insight, only to see those insights gobbled up by the low centre of gravity operating in the rest of the psyche". Or, as Wilber more colloquially puts it, an enlightened schmuck can still remain a pretty awful schmuck. Progress in one area does not automatically flow to the other areas of the ego or self-system, but can be pulled back, dragged down by those less advanced areas. Wilber goes on to note that a common experience for spiritual teachers is to attract people who respond positively to transpersonal spirituality (and the kind of cosmic insights that Nonnus provides) but who are otherwise quite regressed and immature as persons. Sensing the interconnected web of life, Nonnus does not show behaviour in the poem that lives out that intuition. Paranoia, for example, is rampant. One should acknowledge, however, that Nonnus is drawing on a corpus of mythology that, for all the higher interpretations one can apply to some of the tales, contains a bedrock of narcissistic, childish, selfish, callous, cruel behaviour and primitive theology difficult to entirely expunge. It is hardly surprising that the low tone of much of the transmitted content infects what gods and demi-gods do in the Dionysiaca.
Spirituality has many levels and takes many forms, ranging from the archaic, sensorimotor, where one's religion is food and nourishment of the body, to the cosmic and transcendent insights where concerns, if acted upon, lead to action on behalf of not just all humanity but all sentient beings. Much worship of Dionysus, and the way it is explicated and implied by Nonnus, clearly operates at the lower levels of physical fertilisation and creation. But its soteriological (although the word soter does not occur in the poem, an awareness of the nature of Christ's mission does), global-welfare aspect, present too, is distorted by a readiness to resort to forceful imposition (inevitable for the time), and impatience with the recalcitrant and those who see things differently, as if too many narcissistic reflexes persist.
Wilber's important and voluminous work on the spectrum of consciousness, which accords with the models of human development devised by people such as Don Beck and his theory of Spiral Dynamics (http://www.wie.org/j22/beck.asp) offer a means by which one can attempt to evaluate and understand what is happening in Nonnus' work. (Beck's first tier developmental levels beige, purple and red, and second tier level yellow are the most clearly evident in the Dionysiaca.). Wilber's work has been described as comprising "a Grand Theory of human consciousness and its evolution towards...'Spirit', the animating and unifying force and intelligence of the universe that humans may know in many ways, for instance, through love, recognition of the commonality of the other, or mystical experience" (S. Krippner, in Rothberg and Kelly, above, p. ix). Wilber believes that one of the most profound shifts in the way the world is viewed has occurred in the last 300 years, "the shift from a static (or, at best, devolutionary) world view to a process-oriented, developmental, dynamic, holarchical, evolutionary world view" (ibid. p. 337). Although there are clear signs of an evolutionary world view in the Dionysiaca, and indeed in Greek mythology, as the gods and great human benefactors bestow innovations and cultural advances upon humanity, the process tends to stall, unable to find sufficient inspiration from the environing culture to keep it progressing, not to mention narcissistic and infantile obsessions that don't help the evolutionary process. (The halting nature of the advance, the tendency for changes to spiral in a void, is addressed and partly explained in several of my articles, notably nos. 6, 9, 11, 18, 19, 21, and 22). If there is a development of social structures, for example, that goes from the foraging to the horticultural to the agrarian to the industrial to the informational, and one is writing back in the agrarian stage, it is difficult to capture with confidence the élan that so evidently impels the latter stages of this development. Similarly, the great Eastern and Kabbalistic traditions have for millennia postulated grand evolutionary schemes that have not translated into clear progress across a range of domains. It has only been recently that some of the insights have been more fully realised and manifested as various technological and scientific advances build on and reinforce each other. Pre-modern insights and wisdom, for example, that the cosmos is a great symphony and dance, combine with these advances and the accelerating growth of knowledge to widen circles of concern and make it easier today than it was for Nonnus and his followers to shift from the egocentric and ethnocentric to a firmer sense of the worldcentric and cosmocentric.
Back to Index
Ron Newbold, Classics Discipline, School of Humanities, University of Adelaide, Australia 5005. If you would like to contact me to discuss Nonnus and/or my work on him, or would like an offprint of any of the above articles, mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org