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David Hernández de la Fuente on Nonnus of Panopolis

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We are delighted to speak with Davíd Hernández de la Fuente about Nonnus of Panopolis, late antiquity’s most prolific poet – in fact, Nonnus’ magnum opus, the Dionysiaka, is the longest extant poem from all of antiquity. Nonnus probably wrote in around the 450’s at Alexandria, and thus witnessed the rise of extreme Christian violence in that city, but seems quite comfortably to have devoted an extraordinary amount of effort, literary craft, and gem-encrusted rhetorical flourish to an epic poem on the life of the god Dionysus. And yet he was most probably a Christian himself, since we also have from his pen a poetic adaptation and exegesis of the Gospel of John in Homeric hexameters.

What is going on here?

We discuss the religio-philosophic scene at Alexandria in the early to mid fifth century which provides the likely background to Nonnus’ writings, the Dionysiac culture of the empire as late antiquity progressed, and then Nonnus’ two great works, the Dionysiaka and the poetic paraphrase of John. It turns out that the religiously-odd flavour doesn’t end with the mere fact that Nonnus wrote an epic devoted to the life of a polytheist deity: the Dionysiaka preserve a treasure-trove of initiatory lore concerning the ancient Orphic cult and the hieroi logoi of the god Dionysus, nominally available only to his bacchoi and bacchai, such that no history of the Orphism of the gold tablets which we covered in Episode 23 can be complete without referring to the evidence found in Nonnus a millennium later. And this is no mere mythological retelling of traditional stories; Nonnus mixes in Late Platonist ideas, Hermetic ideas, astrological ideas, theurgic ideas, and more.

Nonnus was also a literary innovator, setting a trend for a new epicism which would survive for centuries in the East Roman realm. Perhaps because of this popularity, or perhaps for other reasons as well, his great work thus served as another vector for Hellenic lore – and, significantly for this podcast, initiatory and esoteric Hellenic lore – to enter into Christian culture. Just when you think everyone’s finally going to be Orthodox, here comes Dionysus!

Interview Bio:

Davíd Hernández de la Fuente is Professor of Classics at Universidad Complutense in Madrid.  He has published very widely in the fields of ancient religion, literature, and culture, and is also engaged with modern cultural debates.

Works Cited in this Episode:

Our interview with Miguel Herrero de Jaregui on Orphism is here.

Gennaro D’Ippolito. Studi nonniani: l’epillio nelle Dionisiache. Presso l’Accademia, 1964.

David Hernández de la Fuente. Bakkhos anax: un estudio sobre Nono de Panopolis. Madrid : CSIC, 2008, 2008.

Miguel Herrero de Jáuregui. Orphism and Christianity in Late Antiquity. Number 7 in Sozomena. De Gruyter, Berlin, 2010.

Lee Francis Sherry. The Paraphrase of St. John attributed to Nonnus. Byzantion, 66:409-30, 1996.

Rosa Villarrubia. Orfeo y el orsmo en las Dionisíacas de Nono. PhD thesis, Universidad Complutense de Madrid, 2007.

The Quæstio Nonniana – Who was this guy, a bishop, a private individual, who? – has played out in a number of important articles, of which these are some key ones: Livrea, Enrico. Il Poeta ed il Vescovo. La questione nonniana e la storia. Prometheus 13, 1987, 97-123. Cameron, Alan. ‘The poet, the bishop, and the harlot. GRBS 41, 2000, 175-88. Livrea, Enrico. The Nonnus question revisited. In: Domenico Accorinti et Pierre Chuvin (edd.), Des Géants à Dionysos. Mélanges de mythologie et de poésie grecques offerts à Francis Vian. Allessandria: Edizioni dell’Orso, 2003 (Hellenica 10), 447-56. Gennaro D’Ippolito. Nonnus’ Poetic Activity as an Expression of a Unitary Ideological and Artistic Programme. In Berenice Verhelst, editor, Nonnus of Panopolis in Context IV: Poetry at the Crossroads, Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta, pages 3-22. Peeters, 2022.

Recommended Reading: Primary Access to Nonnus:

Koechly’s Teubner edition of the Dionysiaka is now way out of copyright, and available online here and here. The three volumes of W.H.D. Rouse’s Loeb Greek/English edition are also freely available online here, here, and here.

A massive Budé edition is now complete: F. Vian et al., editors. Nonnus de Panopolis: Les Dionysiaques. Les Belles Lettres, Paris, 1976-2006.

The Gredos Greek/Spanish edition is also good: S. D. Manterola, L. M. Pinkler, and David Hernández de la Fuente, editors. Nono de Panópolis. Las dionisíacas. Editorial Gredos, Madrid, 1995-2008.

Relevant Secondary Studies:

A bibliography for recent secondary work on Nonnus is maintained by Martine Cuypers here.

Also of relevance to Nonnus and to our interview in particular:

Domenico Accorinti, editor. Brill’s Companion to Nonnus of Panopolis. Brill, Leiden/Boston, MA, 2016.

Pierre Chuvin. Mythologie et géographie dionysiaques. Recherches sur l’oeuvre de Nonnos de Panopolis. Clermont-Ferrand, 1991.

David Hernández de la Fuente. Elementos órficos en el canto VI de las Dionisíacas: El mito de Dioniso Zagreo en Nono de Panópolis. Ilu. Revista de ciencias de las religiones, 7:1950, 2002.

Idem. La falsa biografía de Nono por el Pseudo Demetrio y las ficciones históricas. In Mundus vult decipi: estudios interdisciplinares sobre falsicación textual y literaria, pages 147-57. Ediciones Clásicas, 2012.

Idem. Dioniso a través del espejo: El mito de Zagreo en el Neoplatonismo. In La visión especular: el espejo como tema y como símbolo, pages 131-44. Calambur, 2018.

N. Hopkinson, editor. Studies in the Dionysiaca of Nonnus. The University Press, Cambridge, 1994.

R. Shorrock. The Myth of Paganism: Nonnus, Dionysus and the World of Late Antiquity. Bristol, 2011.