In ancient Greek religion and myth, Zagreus (Greek: Ζαγρεύς) was a god, usually but not always identified with Dionysus. He was especially worshipped by followers of Orphism, whose late Orphic hymns invoke his name. The earliest appearance of Zagreus is in a quoted line from the sixth century BC lost epic Alkmeonis. The works of Aeschylus link Zagreus with Hades (Pluto) and identify him as Hades' son. Although the later Orphics claim that Zagreus was the offspring of Zeus and his daughter Persephone.
Etymology and origins
In Greek a hunter who catches living animals is called zagreus, Karl Kerenyi notes, and the Ionian word zagre signifies a "pit for the capture of live animals". "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".
Two 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 nocturnal Zagreus".
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.
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.
- J. B. Bury. A History of Greece. p. 301.
- Kerenyi (1976:82) quotes Hesychius, who gives characteristically Ionian Greek endings.
- Kereny 1976: "The Cretan core of the Dionysos myth", 83f.
- Kereny 1976:85.
- 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).
- Fragment in G. Kinkel, ed. Epicorum Graecorum fragmenta, quoted in Kerenyi 1976:83.
- 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.
- Zagreus Ridge. SCAR Composite Antarctic Gazetteer.
- March, Jenny (1999). Cassell Dictionary of Classical Mythology. London: Cassell. ISBN 0-304-35161-X. OCLC 41926057.
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