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This article is about the Greek god. For the audio drama of the same name, see Zagreus (audio drama).

In ancient Greek religion and mythology, Zagreus (Greek: Ζαγρεύς) was sometimes identified with a god worshipped by the followers of Orphism, the “first Dionysus”, a son of Zeus and Persephone, who was dismembered by the Titans and reborn.[1] However, in the earliest mention of Zagreus, he is paired with Gaia (Earth) and called the “highest” god [of the underworld?] and Aeschylus links Zagreus with Hades, possibly as Hades' son, or Hades himself.[2] Noting “Hades’ identity as Zeus’ katachthonios alter ego”, Timothy Gantz thought it “likely” that Zagreus, originally, perhaps the son of Hades and Persephone, later merged with the Orphic Dionysus, the son of Zeus and Persephone.[3]

Etymology and origins[edit]

In Greek a hunter who catches living animals is called zagreus, Karl Kerényi notes, and the Ionian word zagre signifies a "pit for the capture of live animals".[4] "We may justifiably ask," observes Kerenyi,[5] "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?" Kerényi 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".[6]


The early mentions of Zagreus, which occur only in fragments from lost works,[7] connect Zagreus with the Greek underworld. The earliest is in a single quoted line from the (6th century BC?) epic Alcmeonis:

“Mistress Earth [Gaia], and Zagreus highest of all the gods.”

Perhaps here meaning the highest god of the underworld.[8]

And apparently for Aeschylus, Zagreus was, in fact, an underworld god. In a fragment from one of Aeschylus’ lost Sysiphus plays (c. 5th century BC), Zagreus seems to be the son of Hades,[9] while in Aeschylus’ Egyptians (Aigyptioi), Zagreus was apparently identified with Hades himself.[10] A fragment from Euripides’ lost play Cretan Men (Kretes) has the chorus describe themselves as initiates of Idaean Zeus and celebrants of “night-ranging Zagreus, performing his feasts of raw flesh”.[11]

Orphic Dionysus Zagreus[edit]

The Zagreus from the Euripides fragment is suggestive of Dionysus, the wine god son of Zeus and Semele,[12] and in fact, although it seems not to occur anywhere in Orphic sources, the name “Zagreus” is elsewhere identified with an Orphic Dionysus, who had a very different tradition from the standard one.[13] This Dionysus was a son of Zeus and Persephone who was, as an infant, attacked and dismembered by the Titans, but later reborn as the son of Zeus and Semele.

The sparagmos[edit]

The dismemberment of Dionysus-Zagreus (the sparagmos) is often considered to be the most important myth of Orphism.[14] As pieced together from various ancient sources, the reconstructed story, usually given by modern scholars, goes as follows.[15] Zeus had intercourse with Persephone in the form of a serpent, producing Dionysus. He is taken to Mount Ida where (like the infant Zeus) he is guarded by the dancing Curetes. Zeus intended Dionysus to be his successor as ruler of the cosmos, but a jealous Hera incited the Titans to kill the child. Distracting the infant Dionysus with various toys, including a mirror, the Titans seized Dionysus and tore him to pieces. The pieces were then boiled, roasted and partially eaten, by the Titans. But Athena managed to save Dionysus' heart, by which Zeus was able to contrive his rebirth from Semele.

Although the extant Orphic sources do not mention the name “Zagreus” in connection with this dismembered Dionysus (or anywhere else), the (c. 3rd century BC) poet Callimachus perhaps did.[16] We know that Callimachus, as well as his contemporary Euphorion, told the story of the dismembered child,[17] and Byzantine sources, quote Callimachus, as referring to the birth of a “Dionysos Zagreus”, explaining that “Zagreus” was the poets’ name for a chthonic Dionysus, the son of Zeus by Persephone.[18] The first certain identification of Zagreus with the dismembered Dionysus, occurs in the writings of the late 1st century – early 2nd century AD biographer and essayist Plutarch,[19] while the c. 5th century AD Greek epic poet Nonnus' Dionysiaca, which tells the story of this Orphic Dionysus, calls him the "older Dionysos ... illfated Zagreus",[20] "Zagreus the horned baby",[21] "Zagreus, the first Dionysos",[22] "Zagreus the ancient Dionysos",[23] and "Dionysos Zagreus".[24]

Several accounts of the myth involved the Titans cooking and/or eating at least part of Dionysus.[25] In the account attributed to Callimachus and Euphorion, the dismembered pieces of Dionysus were boiled in a cauldron, and Euphorion is quoted as saying that the pieces of Dionysus were placed over a fire.[26] The 1st century BC historian Diodorus Siculus also says that the pieces were "boiled",[27] and the late 2nd century Christian writer Clement of Alexandria says that the pieces were "first boiled" in a cauldron, then pierced with spits and roasted.[28] Arnobius, an early 4th century Christian apologist, says that Dionysus' severed parts were "thrown into pots that he might be cooked".[29] None of these sources mention any actual eating, but other sources do. Plutarch says that the Titans "tasted his blood",[30] Olympiodorus says that they ate "his flesh",[31] and according to the 4th century euhemeristic account of the Latin astrologer and Christian apologist Firmicus Maternus, the Titans cooked the "members in various ways and devoured them" (membra consumunt), except for his heart.[32]

In the version of the story apparently told by Callimachus and Euphorion, the cauldron containing the boiled pieces of Dionysus, is given to Apollo for burial, who "stowed it away beside his tripod" at Delphi.[33] And according to Philodemus, citing Euphorion, the pieces of Dionysus were "reassembled by Rhea, and brought back to life", while according to Diodorus Siculus, the reassembly and resurrection of Dyonysus was accomplished by Demeter.[34] Later Orphic sources have Apollo receive Dionysus' remains from Zeus, rather than the Titans, and it was Apollo who reassembled Dionysus, rather than Rhea or Demeter.[35]

In the accounts of Clement, Firmicus Maternus cited above, as well as Proclus,[36] and a scholium on Lycophron 355,[37] Athena manages to save the heart of Dionysus, from which, according to Clement and the scholium, Athena received the name Pallas from the still beating (πάλλειν) heart. In Proculus' account Athena takes the heart to Zeus, and Dionysus Is born again from Semele. According to Hyginus, Zeus "ground up his heart, put it in a potion, and gave it to Semele to drink", and she became pregnant with Dionysus.[38]

Diodorus Siculus relates an Egyptian myth of the dismemberment and resurrection of Osiris, which parallels that of Dionysus Zagreus.[39] Diodorus also says that according to “some writers of myths” there were two gods named Dionysus, an older one, who was the son of Zeus and Persephone,[40] but that the “younger one [born to Zeus and Semele] also inherited the deeds of the older, and so the men of later times, being unaware of the truth and being deceived because of the identity of their names thought there had been but one Dionysus."[41]

Diodorus says further that this older Dionysus “excelled in sagacity and was the first to attempt the yoking of oxen and by their aid to effect the sowing of the seed, this being the reason why they also represent him as wearing a horn”,[42] that the younger Dionysus was “called Dimetor (Of Two Mothers) … because the two Dionysoi were born of one father, but of two mothers”,[43] and that Dionysus “was thought to have two forms … the ancient one having a long beard, because all men in early times wore long beards, the younger one being youthful and effeminate and young."[44]

Diodorus also knew of a different tradition whereby this Orphic Dionysus was the son of Zeus and Demeter, rather than Zeus and Persephone.[45] This parentage was explained by identifying Dionysus with the grape vine, Demeter with the earth and Zeus with the rain, saying that "the vine gets its growth both from the earth and from rains and so bears as its fruit the wine which is pressed out from the clusters of grapes", while his dismemberment by the Titans represented the harvesting of the grapes, and the subsequent "boiling" of his dismembered parts "has been worked into a myth by reason of the fact that most men boil the wine and then mix it, thereby improving its natural aroma and quality."

The anthropogony[edit]

Commonly presented as a part of the myth of the dismembered Dionysus Zagreus, is an Orphic anthropogony, that is an Orphic account of the origin of human beings. According to this traditional view, as punishment for the crime of the sparagmos, Zeus struck the Titans with his thunderbolt, and from the remains of the destroyed Titans humankind was born, resulting in a human inheritance of ancestral guilt for this original sin of the Titans, and forming the "basis for an Orphic doctrine of the divinity of man."[46] However, when and to what extent there existed any Orphic tradition which included these elements is the subject of open debate.[47]

The only ancient source to explicitly connect the sparagmos and the anthropogony is the 6th century AD Neoplatonist Olympiodorus, who writes that, according to Orpheus, after the Titans had dismembered and eaten Dionysus, "Zeus, angered by the deed, blasts them with his thunderbolts, and from the sublimate of the vapors that rise from them comes the matter from which men are created." Olympiodorus goes on to conclude that, because the Titans had eaten his flesh, we their descendants, are a part of Dionysus.[48]

The 2nd century AD biographer and essayist Plutarch, does make a connection between the sparagmos and the punishment of the Titans, but makes no mention of the anthropogony, or Orpheus, or Orphism. In his essay On the Eating of Flesh, Plutarch writes of "stories told about the sufferings and dismemberment of Dionysus and the outrageous assaults of the Titans upon him, and their punishment and blasting by thunderbolt after they had tasted his blood".[49]

Earlier allusions to the myth possibly ocurr in the works of the poet Pindar, Plato, and Plato's student Xenocrates. A fragment from a poem, presumed to be by Pindar, mentions Persephone accepting "requital for ancient wrong", from the dead, which might be a reference to humans' inherited responsibility for the Titan's killing of Dionysus.[50] Plato, in presenting a succession of stages whereby, because of excessive liberty, men degenerate from reverence for the law, to lawlessness, describes the last stage where "men display and reproduce the character of the Titans of story",[51] a passage, often taken as a referring to the anthropogony, however, whether men are supposed by Plato to "display and reproduce" this lawless character because of their Titanic heritage, or by simple imitation, is unclear.[52] Xenocrates' reference to the Titans (and perhaps Dionysus) to explain Plato's use of the word "custody" (φρούρα), has also been seen as possible evidence of a pre-Hellenistic date for the myth.[53]


Zagreus Ridge on Oscar II Coast in Graham Land, Antarctica is named after Zagreus.[54]


  1. ^ Gantz, p. 118; Hard, p. 35; Grimal, s.v. “Zagreus” p. 456.
  2. ^ Sommerstein, p. 237 n. 1; Gantz, p. 118; Smyth, p. 459.
  3. ^ Gantz, p. 118.
  4. ^ Kerényi, p. 82, quotes Hesychius, who gives characteristically Ionian Greek endings.
  5. ^ Kerényi, pp. 8384.
  6. ^ Kerényi, p. 85.
  7. ^ Gantz, p. 118; West 1983, p. 153.
  8. ^ Alcmeonis fr. 3. According to West 2003, p. 41 n. 17: “The line perhaps comes from a prayer in which Alcmaon called upon the powers of the earth to send up his father Amphiaraus.”
  9. ^ Aeschylus, fr. 228 (Sommerstein, pp. 236, 237).
  10. ^ Aeschylus, fr. 5; Sommerstein, p. 237 n. 1; Gantz, p. 118; Smyth, p. 459.
  11. ^ Euripides, fr. 472 (Collard & Cropp, pp. 538, 539); West 1983, p. 153.
  12. ^ West 1983, p. 154.
  13. ^ According to Gantz, p. 118, "Orphic sources preserved seem not to use the name "Zagreus", and according to West 1983, p. 153, the "name was probably not used in the Orphic narrative". Edmonds 1999, p. 37 n. 6 says: "Lobeck 1892 seems to be responsible for the use of the name Zagreus for the Orphic Dionysos. As Linforth noticed, 'It is a curious thing that the name Zagreus does not appear in any Orphic poem or fragment, nor is it used by any author who refers to Orpheus' (Linforth 1941:311). In his reconstruction of the story, however, Lobeck made extensive use of the fifth-century CE epic of Nonnos, who does use the name Zagreus, and later scholars followed his cue. The association of Dionysos with Zagreus appears first explicitly in a fragment of Callimachus preserved in the Etymologicum Magnum (fr. 43.117 P), with a possible earlier precedent in the fragment from Euripides Cretans (fr. 472 Nauck). Earlier evidence, however, (e.g., Alkmaionis fr. 3 PEG; Aeschylus frr. 5, 228) suggests that Zagreus was often identified with other deities."
  14. ^ Nilsson, p. 202 calls it "the cardinal myth of Orphism"; Guthrie, p. 107, describes the myth as "the central point of Orphic story", Linforth, p. 307 says it is "commonly regarded as essentially and peculiarly Orphic and the very core of the Orphic religion", and Parker 2002, p. 495, writes that "it has been seen as the Orphic 'arch-myth'.
  15. ^ West 1983, pp. 73–74, provides a detailed reconstruction with numerous cites to ancient sources, with a summary on p. 140. For other summaries see Morford, p. 311; Hard, p. 35; Marsh, s.v. "Zagreus" p. 788; Grimal, s.v. “Zagreus” p. 456; Burkert, pp. 297–298; Guthrie, p. 82; also see Ogden, p. 80. For a detailed examination of many of the ancient sources pertaining to this myth see Linforth, pp. 307–364. The most extensive account in ancient sources is found in Nonnus, Dionysiaca 5.562–70, 6.155 ff., other principle sources include Diodorus Siculus, 3.62.6–8 (= Orphic fr. 301 Kern), 3.64.1–2, 4.4.1–2, 5.75.4 (= Orphic fr. 303 Kern); Ovid, Metamorphoses 6.110–114; Athenagoras of Athens, Legatio 20 Pratten (= Orphic fr. 58 Kern); Clement of Alexandria, Protrepticus 2.15 pp. 36–39 Butterworth (= Orphic frs. 34, 35 Kern); Hyginus, Fabulae 155, 167; Suda s.v. Ζαγρεύς. See also Pausanias, 7.18.4, 8.37.5.
  16. ^ Gantz, pp. 118–119; West 1983, pp. 152–154; Linforth, pp. 309–311.
  17. ^ Callimachus, fr. 643 Pfeiffer (= Euphorion, fr. 14 Lightfoot); Gantz, p. 118–119; West 1983, p. 151; Linforth, pp. 309–310.
  18. ^ Callimachus, fr. 43.117 Pfeiffer (= fr. 43b.34 Harder); Harder, p. 368; Gantz, p. 118; West 1983, pp. 152–153; Linforth, p. 310.
  19. ^ Linforth, pp. 311, 317–318; Plutarch, The E at Delphi 389 A.
  20. ^ Nonnus, Dionysiaca 5.564–565.
  21. ^ Nonnus, Dionysiaca 6.165.
  22. ^ Nonnus, Dionysiaca 10.294.
  23. ^ Nonnus, Dionysiaca 39.72.
  24. ^ Nonnus, Dionysiaca 44.255.
  25. ^ Linforth, pp. 312–313; West 1983, pp. 160–161.
  26. ^ Callimachus, fr. 643 Pfeiffer (= Euphorion, fr. 14 Lightfoot).
  27. ^ Diodorus Siculus, 3.62.6.
  28. ^ Clement of Alexandria, Protrepticus 2.15 pp. 38, 39 Butterworth (= Orphic fr. 35 Kern).
  29. ^ Arnobius, Adversus Gentes 5.19 (p. 242) (= Orphic fr. 34 Kern).
  30. ^ Plutarch, On the Eating of Flesh 996 B–C.
  31. ^ Olympiodorus, In Plato Phaedon 1.3 (= Orphic fr. 220 Kern); translated by Edmonds 1999, p. 40.
  32. ^ Firmicus Maternus, De errore profanarum religionum ("The Error of Pagan Religions") 6.1–5 pp. 54–56 Forbes (= Orphic fr. 214 Kern).
  33. ^ Callimachus, fr. 643 Pfeiffer (= Euphorion, fr. 14 Lightfoot); West 1983, p. 151; Linforth, pp. 311–312.
  34. ^ Euphorion, fr. 40 Lightfoot (= Orphic fr. 36 Kern); Diodorus Siculus, 3.62.6. Some Orphic texts identify Demeter and Rhea, see West 1983, pp. 72–74, 81–82, 93, 217.
  35. ^ West 1983, p. 152; Linforth, p. 315; Orphic frs. 34, 35, 209–211 Kern.
  36. ^ Proclus, Hymn to Athena 13–24; In Plato Timaeus 35a (Taylor 1820b, pp. 37–38) (= Orphic fr. 210 Kern).
  37. ^ Quoted by Linforth, p. 311.
  38. ^ Hyginus, Fabulae 167.
  39. ^ Diodorus Siculus, 4.6.3.
  40. ^ Diodorus Siculus, 4.4.1.
  41. ^ Diodorus Siculus, 4.4.5.
  42. ^ Diodorus Siculus, 4.4.2, see also 3.64.1–2.
  43. ^ Diodorus Siculus, 4.4.5.
  44. ^ Diodorus Siculus, 4.5.2.
  45. ^ Edmonds 1999, p. 51; Linforth, p. 316; Diodorus Siculus, 3.62.6–8; 3.64.1.
  46. ^ Linforth, p. 307. For presentations of the myth which include the anthropogony, see Dodds, pp. 155–156; West 1983, pp. 74–75, 140, 164–166; Guthrie, p. 83; Burkert, pp. 297–298; Marsh, s.v. "Zagreus" p. 788; Parker 2002, pp. 495–496; Morford, p. 313.
  47. ^ See Spineto pp. 37–39; Edmonds 1999, 2008, 2013 chapter 9; Bernabé 2002, 2003; Parker 2014.
  48. ^ Edmonds 1999, p. 40; Olympiodorus, In Plato Phaedon 1.3 (= Orphic fr. 220 Kern); Spineto p. 34; Burkert, p. 463 n. 15; West 1983, pp. 164–165; Linforth, pp. 326 ff..
  49. ^ Plutarch, On the Eating of Flesh 1.996 C; Linforth, pp. 334 ff. Edmonds 1999, pp. 44–47.
  50. ^ Pindar , fr. 133 Bergk, apud Plato, Meno 81bc (= fr. 127 Bowra); This interpretation, first proposed by H. J. Rose, is discussed by Linforth, pp. 345–350, who while raising several objections and giving other possible explanations, concludes by saying "but after all, and in spite of these objections, one must acknowledge that there is a high degree of probability in Rose's interpretation." Others have agreed: Dodds, pp. 155–156, says the line is "most naturally explained as referring to human responsibility for the slaying of Dionysus", Burkert, p. 298, says this "ancient grief" of Persephone "can only be the death of her child Dionysos"; Parker 2002, p. 496 says "No myth is known which really explains the allusion except that of the murder of Persephone's son Dionysus by man's ancestors". However, West 1983, p. 110 n. 82, Seaford, JSTOR 311457 pp. 7–8, who sees "difficulties" in Rose's interpretation", and Edmonds 1999, pp. 47–49, who rejects Rose's reading, all offer different interpretations.
  51. ^ Plato, Laws 3.701bc (= Orphic fr. 9 Kern).
  52. ^ Linforth, pp. 339–345; Edmonds 1999, pp. 43–44; Edmonds 2013, pp. 326–334.
  53. ^ Xenocrates, fr. 20 Heinze (= Damascius, In Phaedo 1.2); Linforth, pp. 337–339; Dodds, p. 156; West 1983, pp. 21–22; Burkert, p. 298; Edmonds 1999, p. 46; Parker 2002, p. 496
  54. ^ Zagreus Ridge. SCAR Composite Antarctic Gazetteer.


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