I regularly get asked by readers of my Wind-begotten Iakchos of the Distaff how Iakchos could be the son of Persephone and Dionysos when the Orphic Dionysos is the son of Persephone.
Well, you see, Dionysos put his doo-dad into Persephone’s hoo-ha and nine months later, give or take, baby Iakchos came out!
In all seriousness, I don’t believe that the Orphic Dionysos was the son of Persephone. Ancient sources make it pretty clear that the Dionysos associated with Orphic rites is the son of Semele:
Orpheus also took part in the expedition of the Argonauts, and because of the love held for his wife he dared the amazing deed of descending into Hades, where he entranced Persephone by his melodious song and persuaded her to assist him in his desires and to allow him to bring up his dead wife from Hades, in this exploit resembling Dionysos; for the myths relate that Dionysos brought up his mother Semelê from Hades, and that, sharing with her his own immortality, he changed her name to Thyonê. (Diodoros Sikeleiotes, Library of History 4.25.2-4)
Now at a later time Orpheus, who was held in high regard among the Greeks for his singing, initiatory rites, and instructions on things divine, was entertained as a guest by the descendants of Kadmos and accorded unusual honours in Thebes. Out of regard for the descendants of Kadmos he instituted new rites and thenceforth initiates were given the account that Dionysos had been born of Semele and Zeus. (Diodoros Sikeliotes, Library of History 1.23.6-7)
We have several bearers of the name Dionysus; the first is the son of Jupiter and Proserpine while the fourth is the son of Jupiter and Luna, and it is in connection with him that the Orphic rites are believed to be celebrated. (Cicero, De Natura Deorum 1.23)
Radcliffe Edmonds III believes that Cicero mistook Selene for Semele, though I’m not so sure as the next Dionysos mentioned is the son of Nilus and Thyone and Thyone is an allonym of Semele. Either way, the Dionysos associated with Orphic rites is explicitly stated not to be the son of Persephone in both instances.
But aren’t they the same?
No, not really.
You see, in ancient times several myths circulated:
- Dionysos is the son of Zeus and Persephone.
- Dionysos is the son of Zeus and Semele.
- Dionysos is torn apart by a group of chthonic spirits whom Onomokritos called Titans.
- Mankind is formed from the blood of the Titans.
Each of which was completely separate until modern scholars stitched them together, trying to pawn this Frankenstein’s monster off as an ancient Orphic myth even though it doesn’t make a lick of sense chronologically since Semele comes many generations after the formation of man and in most traditions the Titans we’re descended from aren’t the ones who sparagmatize Dionysos.
It also doesn’t make sense for the initiate to come before Persephone and claim descent from the murderers of her child if that’s the ancient grief that must be atoned for, meaning that some other relationship between Dionysos and Persephone must be sought. Considering that there are almost no allusions to the Zagreus myth in Southern Italy – where many of the gold lamellae were uncovered – and in fact we find an adult Dionysos attending the wedding of Haides and Persephone at Lokroi Epizephyrii, with hints of a little something-something going on between them (and Dionysos has a habit of cuckolding kings), I think it safe to say that although Orphism has plenty of incestuous myths this wasn’t one of them. (I mean mother-son incest, of course, since they’re still sibling offspring of Zeus.)
Personally, I’m not bothered by Persephone and Dionysos being both brother and sister, mother and son, and romantic partners as well, but it does solve other mythical and theological dilemmas and also helps us see deeper and different nuances in their relationship. In fact, I’m even prepared to take the sexual component off the table, in light of Dionysos’ paradoxical (and even asexual) yearnings.
Why? Bricolage, bitches.
Or in other words, Bacchic Orphism is like a theater production staged by a group of lunatic actors with constantly rotating masks and roles. And yet the more the story changes the more it remains the same. As Peter Milligan said in Greek Street:
I’ve been doing this dance for thousands of years. This is the old dance. This is the old story. You see, those old stories aren’t through with us. No matter how many different names or masks we might wear … they’re just not finished with us yet. I’m talking about recurrences. What you might call eternal recurrences. Running through the generations … like blood. We think our science means we’re different or better than we used to be. We think we’re actually making progress. Every new Dafur reveals just how little we really change. Medea and Agamemnon are still playing at the temple of Dionysus. It’s standing room only.