Dionysos and the Pirates

Published September 10, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

Hmm, that title sounds like a children’s book, doesn’t it?  Actually, as far as stories about Dionysos go, this is about as close to a children’s book as you’re likely to get.  (Certainly more child-friend,y than “Julius Caesar and the Pirates” would be, even though there’s more than a passing similarity to the two tales…)

Once, when he was still a fairly young god, not yet used to the ways of mortals, nor yet much worshiped by them, Dionysos decided to spend a while travelling the mortal realm in disguise,  spreading the vine to all the fertile lands, and teaching mortals how to convert grapes into precious wine.  If he also happened to spread his own worship a bit in the process, well…sometimes these things can’t be helped, after all!  It’s not as though he was only trying to promote himself…

Regardless of his motives, the truth of it was that he was having much more luck spreading grapes than he was spreading wine, or his own worship.  He hadn’t even been able to convince any pretty young maidens to become his devotees!  That just would not do!

Dionysos decided that the best way to convince maidens to join him would be to change up his disguise a bit.  He had been travelling with the appearance of a mortal man of a decent number of years, with a long and flowing beard, of such prodigious length that few mortals had ever seen its match.  It had gotten him a lot of attention, but not all of it was good:  in fact, many of the men he had encountered had mistaken him for a barbarian, and a few had even mocked him!  (They would come to regret that at the next harvest-time; Dionysos had seen to that!  Those foolish mortals would be facing nothing but barren fields for years to come!)

In order to prevent any further disrespect, Dionysos decided to make himself look young and handsome, with a beardless face that was perhaps just a touch more like his brother Apollo’s than his own…

Having adopted his new disguise, Dionysos boarded a ship, seeking passage to a nearby island.  (In fact, he wanted to go to Delos and show off his new disguise to his brother, and see what he thought of it…)  But because he was still so innocent of the ways of mortal men, Dionysos didn’t realize that the ship he had boarded was no ordinary vessel, but one that belonged to a group of blackguards who would commit any crime, no matter how heinous, if it would bring them a profit.

In short, he had boarded a pirate ship.

As the ship sailed out into the open waters of the sea, the pirates watched their young passenger warily.  The handsome youth stood at the side of the ship, staring out at the waves with a dreamy look on his face, seemingly oblivious to all around him.

“He’s got the look of a boy born to wealth and indolence,” the pirate captain remarked to his crew, keeping his voice low, lest their soon-to-be victim learn that they were plotting against him.  “I bet we’ll get a hefty ransom from his father if we capture him.”

“What if he isn’t actually rich?” one of the other pirates asked.  “Or if he won’t tell us where to find his father?”

“If that happens, well…”  The leader stopped, and gave his crew a ragged smile.  “I’m sure there are a great many men who’d want to buy such a handsome lad as a slave.  Bet he’d be worth at least ten or twenty oxen.”

The pirates all laughed at their captain’s terrific wit, and the whole lot of them quickly set about assailing their young passenger, and binding him tightly with ropes.

“Let’s get well away from here before we interrogate him,” the captain said.  “Don’t want any other ships hearing and trying to take away our good fortune for themselves!”

The pirates quickly resumed their posts at the oars, and began rowing away from the port as quickly as they could.  But as they did so, a most amazing thing happened:  the ropes binding the young prisoner simply fell away from him.  Of the pirates, only the helmsman saw what had happened, and he immediately became fearful.  No mortal could have caused that to occur, he was sure, so their prisoner must be something far more than mortal!

Alarmed, he tried to warn the others.

Their first reaction was to laugh at him.  Then their leader went to check on the prisoner.  The youth was sitting there near the helmsman’s post, docile and smiling vapidly, but his ropes had indeed fallen off him.

The captain cast a cold eye of aspersion on the helmsman, tied the ropes back around the young prisoner, and then gave the helmsman quite a lecture for having dared to free their prisoner, and accused him of having fallen for the boy’s pretty face.  No matter how much the helmsman assured his leader that he hadn’t touched the ropes, the man wouldn’t believe him.

Soon enough, the pirate captain went back to supervising the other pirates, and the helmsman resumed his duties, feeling ashamed of himself, and wondering if it had been his imagination, and if the prisoner had freed himself through some normal means.  But then–as he watched in disbelief–the ropes didn’t just fall off the imprisoned youth, but in fact vanished clean away.

Then the helmsman knew that their prisoner was surely a god in disguise, and he released the rudder, and went back once more in an attempt to persuade the others to let the young man go free.

He had no more success than before, and was sent back to his post under threat of being tied up and sold into slavery, too.

Glumly, the helmsman sat down by his post, unwilling to help his comrades in their madness, but unsure of any other course of action he could take.

As he sat there, pondering his dilemma, he soon heard the other pirates begin to complain as they rowed the boat.

“Where’s all this water coming from?” one of them shouted.  “I don’t like rowing with wet feet!”

“That’s not water,” another one exclaimed.  “Look at the color–it’s like blood!”

“But it smells sweet,” a third added.  “Blood smells salty and coppery.”

The helmsman soon felt the liquid lapping at his own feet, too, because the boat was slowly filling up with it.  He didn’t know what it was, but the smiling prisoner certainly did:  after all, he was the one who was causing the wine to appear within the boat!

The boat was growing so heavy with its new liquid burden that it was sinking lower in the water than it ever had before, no matter how many cattle they had stolen or treasure they had plundered.  Even the tiniest wave threatened to lap over the side of the boat and into the dark, heady brew.

Then vines began to grow up through the base of the ship, and wrap themselves around the mast, though most of the pirates were too busy using their helmets to bail wine out of the ship to notice the vines.

With an irritated frown, Dionysos relinquished his mortal disguise and took a new shape, putting on the appearance of being a fearsome lion.  The helmsman stared in wonder at the transformation, but retained his composure, since he had already realized that the youth was really a god.

The other pirates were terrified to hear the roar of a lion behind them, though, and when the saw the size and ferocity of the beast, they all leapt into the sea without a moment’s pause.  As soon as they entered the waves, they were transformed into dolphins, and swam away harmlessly.

Then Dionysos resumed his mortal disguise, and the wine drained out of the ship as though it had never been there at all.  He smiled at the staring helmsman.  “Now, will you take me to Delos as you agreed?” he asked, in as pleasant a tone of voice as a man chatting with his dearest friend.

“Of course,” the helmsman answered, leaping back to his feet.  “It may take a while longer with no one to row, but I’ll get you there!”

To the helmsman’s delight–but not to his surprise–they met with favorable winds for the rest of the voyage, and had soon fetched up at their destination.

Dionysos left an amphora of fine wine with the helmsman as payment for his passage, then disappeared into the crowd that had gathered to see the curious sight of a ship arriving with no one at the oars.


Okay, so I was in a hurry and only read the brief summary of this in Gantz instead of going to the source and reading the whole Homeric Hymn that it comes from.  (I believe he said it was number 7.)  So some of the details are probably wrong.  Particularly where Dionysos is going.  Gantz didn’t mention that, and so I just made something up.  If I’m way, way, horribly off base, I’ll come back and fix it later.  He did mention that the hymn does not, as such, identify Dionysos as the god of wine (though the fact that it was wine that filled the ship kind of clinches that he already had that role) so I thought making it take place while most mortals hadn’t started to worship him yet made sense.

I’ve been thinking of doing a post about Julius Caesar and the pirates, btw.  Not a narrative, of course.  More of a discussion.

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