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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”, Gantz thinks 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]

Early sources[edit]

The early mentions of Zagreus occur only in fragments from lost works.[7] 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[edit]

The Zagreus from the Euripides fragment is suggestive of Dionysus, the wine god son of Zeus and Semele, 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.[12] 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.

As pieced together from various ancient sources, the reconstructed story of the dismemberment (or sparagmos) of the infant Dionysus, usually given by modern scholars, goes as follows.[13] 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.

Diodorus Siculus relates an Egyptian myth of the dismemberment and rebirth of Osiris, which parallels that of the Orphic Dionysus.[14] 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,[15] 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."[16]

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”,[17] that the younger Dionysus was “called Dimetor (Of Two Mothers) … because the two Dionysoi were born of one father, but of two mothers”,[18] 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."[19]

Diodorus also knew of a different tradition whereby this Orphic Dionysus was the son of Zeus and Demeter, rather than Zeus and Persephone.[20] 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."

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.[21] We know that Callimachus, as well as Euphorion, told the story of the dismembered child,[22] 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.[23]

The first certain identification of Zagreus with Dionysus, occurs in the c. 5th century AD Greek epic poet Nonnus' Dionysiaca, which tells the story of this Orphic Dionysus, calling him the "older Dionysos ... illfated Zagreus",[24] "Zagreus the horned baby",[25] "Zagreus, the first Dionysos",[26] "Zagreus the ancient Dionysos",[27] and "Dionysos Zagreus".[28]


Zagreus Ridge on Oscar II Coast in Graham Land, Antarctica is named after Zagreus.[29]


  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. 83–84.
  6. ^ Kerényi, p. 85.
  7. ^ Gantz, p. 118.
  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.
  12. ^ 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, p. 376 n. 6 says: "Lobeck 1892 seems to be resonsible 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."
  13. ^ See West 1983, pp. 73–75, which provides a detailed reconstruction with numerous cites to ancient sources, and p. 140, which gives a more concise summary. 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; also see Ogden, p. 80. 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, 3.64.1–2, 4.4.1–2, 5.75.4; Ovid, Metamorphoses 6.110–114; Orphic Hymn 29, 30, 46; Athenagoras of Athens, Legatio Pratten; Clement of Alexandria, Protrepticus 2.15 pp. 36–39 Butterworth; Hyginus, Fabulae 155, 167; Suda s.v. Ζαγρεύς. See also Pausanias, 7.18.4, 8.37.5.
  14. ^ Diodorus Siculus, 4.6.3.
  15. ^ Diodorus Siculus, 4.4.1.
  16. ^ Diodorus Siculus, 4.4.5.
  17. ^ Diodorus Siculus, 4.4.2, see also 3.64.1–2.
  18. ^ Diodorus Siculus, 4.4.5.
  19. ^ Diodorus Siculus, 4.5.2.
  20. ^ Edmonds, p. 51; Diodorus Siculus, 3.62.6–8; 3.64.1.
  21. ^ Gantz, pp. 118–119; West 1983, pp. 151–154.
  22. ^ Callimachus, fr. 643 Pfeiffer; Euphorion, fr. 14 Lightfoot; Gantz, p. 118–119; West 1983, p. 151.
  23. ^ Callimachus, fr. 43.117 Pfeiffer [= fr. 43b.34 Harder]; Harder, p. 368; Gantz, p. 118; West 1983, pp. 152–153.
  24. ^ Nonnus, Dionysiaca 5.564–565.
  25. ^ Nonnus, Dionysiaca 6.165.
  26. ^ Nonnus, Dionysiaca 10.294.
  27. ^ Nonnus, Dionysiaca 39.72.
  28. ^ Nonnus, Dionysiaca 44.255.
  29. ^ Zagreus Ridge. SCAR Composite Antarctic Gazetteer.


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