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The Birth of Bacchus

Brace yourselves! The birth of Bacchus is a mental story!

I’m starting this blog with this gorgeous arcadian scene, featuring the nymphs of Nysa, or the Nysiads and, erm, a dead body in the foreground. It’s called The Birth of Bacchus.

Birth of Bacchus Poussin

Nicolas Poussin, The Birth of Bacchus, 1657, Harvard Art Museums

So basically, ignoring the dead person, these nymphs have been going about their business (also ignoring the dead person) when they are delighted and excited by a visit from the messenger of the gods, Hermes.

Hermes, has quite a big message – he has a baby for them to look after. Spoiler alert, it’s Bacchus.

The god pan is happily presiding over the scene playing his flute and then we have a couple of figures up on a cloud. The man sitting on the bed is Zeus. We know it’s Zeus because his attribute, an eagle, is sitting on the end of the cloud. He’s recuperating and happily accepting a drink by the cup bearer to the gods, Hebe. What’s he recuperating from? Drum roll…..GIVING BIRTH TO BACCHUS.

Here are two images of Zeus giving birth.

Karater depicting birth of Dionysus

Apulian red-figure krater, depicting the birth of Dionysus, 4th century B.C., National Archaeological Museum of Taranto

The Altamura Painter, krater depicting the birth of Dionysus, c. 460 B.C., National Archaeological Museum of Ferrara

Yep, Zeus gave birth to Bacchus out of his leg.

The Greek name for Bacchus is Dionysus. Dionysus means ‘twice born’. So Zeus didn’t gestate this baby but just kept him safe in his leg until he was ready to come out. Is there a back story? You bet there is!

Here’s Rubens giving us the drama…

Rubens Death of Semele

Rubens, Death of Semele, between 1630 and 1640, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Belgium

Obviously it starts with Zeus falling in love with a lovely young girl called Semele, getting her pregnant and making his wife Hera insanely jealous, which was her default emotion.

Now Semele is a mortal and so Zeus has to protect her from his full godly brightness for reasons which will become obvious.

Hera knows this and in her anger and jealousy, she disguises herself as Semele’s old nurse and pretends that she’s really worried about her because, actually, does she really know who she’s sleeping with? How does she know it’s Zeus and not some mortal taking advantage of her by pretending to be the god?

She advises Semele to insist that Zeus properly reveals himself. Here she is doing just that in this image from an illustrated version of Ovid’s Metamorphosis from 1677.

Illustrated Ovid

Illustration of Hera and Semele from an illustrated version of Ovid’s Metamorphosis from 1677

So, the seed is planted and the next night, as she’s running her fingers through his hair, Semele says ‘darling, will you do anything I ask?’. Zeus wakes up (!) and says that he loves her so much that he absolutely will and for good measure, he swears an oath on the river Styx.

You can’t break an oath to the river Styx.

Semele starts to state her request and as soon as Zeus realises what it is, he frantically tries to stop her saying the words that will kill her. She’s a woman on a mission so all Zeus can do is literally blow her mind.

You’ll notice an eagle with a thunderbolt at the end of this bed too. When your lover is the main man with thunderbolts at his fingertips, it’s pretty intense.

As Semele died, Zeus took the unborn child from her womb and stitched it into his thigh until he was born again and we come full circle to Poussin.

But what of the dead person?

It might be a reference to a slightly different myth concerning Dionysus’s birth.

In this story Persephone gave birth to Dionysus, Hera decides the kill the baby and lures him to her with all the latest toys at which point the Titans pounce, rip him to shreds and eat him. Except for his heart. (I have no idea why I can’t find this story depicted in art). Zeus is really upset and decides that he remake his little boy by implanting the heart into Semele’s womb. She’s not dumb enough in this story to ask to see the god behind the mask and she gives birth to Dionysus but clearly can’t be trusted to raise him because in every story he’s raised by nymphs.

So birth, death, rebirth? Maybe that’s what Poussin was getting at?

Actually the dead person is a mystery. We know he’s Narcissus because of the flowers, and this weeping woman is Echo who was in love with Narcissus but there isn’t really a satisfactory theory to my knowledge as to why they’ve painting-bombed the birth of Bacchus, although their story does come next in Metamorphosis

The video of this episode can be viewed here. To view the entire ‘Elevenses with Lynne’ archive, head to the Free Art Videos page.

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Lynne Hanley

Author Lynne Hanley

Sassy art historian with a mission to put the story into art history.

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