In ancient Greek religion and myth, the obscure and ancient figure of Zagreus (Greek: Ζαγρεύς) was identified with the god Dionysus and was worshipped by followers of Orphism, whose late Orphic hymns invoke his name.
A single early appearance of Zagreus is in a quoted line from the lost epic Alkmeonis, written in the sixth century BC if not earlier: "Mistress Earth and Zagreus who art above all other gods." An invocation linking him with the earth goddess Gaia and placing him above all other gods, could not fit easily into the Olympian religion of Zeus.
Greeks in Crete preserved a tradition that Zagreus was the son of Zeus and Persephone. Two passing references by Aeschylus link Zagreus with Hades (Pluto) and identify him as Hades' son; in his Cretan Men, which survives in quoted fragments, Aeschylus mentions the "thunders of the noctural Zagreus". "We may justifiably ask," observes Kerenyi, "Why was this great mythical hunter, who in Greece became a mysterious god of the underworld, a capturer of wild animals and not a killer?" Kerenyi links the figure of Zagreus with archaic Dionysiac rites in which small animals were torn limb from limb and their flesh devoured raw, "not as an emanation of the Greek Dionysian religion, but rather as a migration or survival of a prehistoric rite."
According to the followers of Orphism, Zeus had lain with Persephone—who, by the tradition ascribed to Orpheus, was the daughter of Zeus and Demeter—in the form of a serpent. The result of their union was Zagreus.
Zeus had intended Zagreus to be his heir, but a jealous Hera persuaded the Titans to kill the child. Like the infant Zeus in Cretan myth, the child Zagreus was entrusted to the Titans who distracted him with toys. While he gazed into a mirror they tried to seize him and he fled, changing into various animal forms in his attempt to escape. Finally he took the form of a bull, and in that form they caught him, tore him to pieces, and devoured him.
Zeus, discovering the crime, hurled a thunderbolt at the Titans, turning them to ashes, but Persephone (or in some accounts Athena, Rhea, or Hermes) managed to recover Zagreus' heart. From the ashes of the Titans, mixed with the divine flesh they had eaten, came humankind; this explains the mix of good and evil in humans, the story goes, for humans possess both a trace of divinity as well as the Titans' maliciousness.
Zeus implanted the still-beating heart into the mortal woman Semele, from whom the child was eventually born again, despite Hera's intervention. Some accounts say that he was reassembled and resurrected by Demeter; others, that Zeus fed his heart to Semele in a drink, making her pregnant with Dionysus.
In Orphic tradition, Persephone was the mother of Zagreus (Dionysus) by Zeus; in the Iliad, Persephone's consort Hades, king of the underworld, is called Zeus Katachthonios, "Underground Zeus". In Hesiod's Theogony and the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Zeus granted that Hades could abduct Persephone, suggesting that their roles are sometimes interchangeable. Both Zeus and Poseidon were occasionally consorts of Demeter. "Underworld Zeus" is linked with Demeter by Hesiod. It is this that has generated some suggestions that Zagreus may be a son of Persephone with her husband Hades. The name Zagreus is also an old epithet of Hades.
- Karl Kerenyi, Dionysos: Archetypal image of indestructible life, (Princeton University Press) 1976:esp. pp 80–89.
- Fragment in G. Kinkel, ed. Epicorum Graecorum fragmenta, quoted in Kerenyi 1976:83.
- Kerenyi (1976:82) quotes Hesychius, who gives characteristically Ionian Greek endings.
- Diodorus Siculus, v. 75.4: "they allege that the god was born of Zeus and Persephone in Crete, and Orpheus in the mysteries represents him as torn in pieces by the Titans"; Julius Firmicus Maternus, De errore profanarum religionum, vi 5 (noted by Kerenyi 1976:83 note 109.
- Kereny 1976: "The Cretan core of the Dionysos myth", 83f.
- Kereny 1976:85.
- The scattered references to Zagreus are given in Eugenius Abel, Orphica 1885:230ff.
- Powell, Barry (2007). "Chapter 11: Myths of Death". Classical Myth, Fifth Edition.
- Campbell, Lewis (1898). "Chapter 11: The Mysteries". Religion in Greek Literature.
- Hesiod. Theogony 914; H.H.Dem. 3.
- Hesiod, Works and Days 465.
- Zagreus Ridge. SCAR Composite Antarctic Gazetteer.
- March, J., Cassell Dictionary Of Classical Mythology, London, 1999. ISBN 0-304-35161-X