Steuermann of Dionysus

2017.04.26 | By Gregory Nagy

My colleague and friend Albert Henrichs died on Easter Sunday, 16 April 2017. He was at home, attended by his dear wife Sarah Nolan. Thanks to Sarah, my wife Holly (Olga Davidson) and I were fortunate enough to visit him just the day before. To ease my sadness, I share here a short essay that I had written for a collection of essays written by many other colleagues and expertly edited by another dear colleague and friend of Albert’s, Kathleen Coleman. Our plan had been to surprise Albert with a formal presentation of this collection on Wednesday, 26 April. When it became apparent, however, that Albert could not hold on to life for that long, Kathy worked out an alternative plan. Together with our colleagues Mark Schiefsky and Ivy Livingston, she presented Albert with a spiral-bound proof copy on Thursday, 13 April 2017. With Kathy’s kind permission, I present here an online version of what I contributed to that collection.

Dionysus and the steersman.Image courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes.
Dionysus and the steersman.
Image courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes.


Steuermann! Lass die Wacht!
Steuermann! Her zu uns!
Ho! He! Je! Ha!
Hisst die Segel auf! Anker fest!
Steuermann, her!
Fürchten weder Wind noch bösen Strand,
wollen heute mal recht lustig sein!
Jeder hat sein Mädel auf dem Land,
herrlichen Tabak und guten Branntwein.

Richard Wagner, Der Fliegende Holländer, dritter Aufzug, erste Szene

The song sung by the chorus of Norwegian sailors in Wagner’s Flying Dutchman will always remind me of you, dear Albert.[*] With you in mind, I attempt a translation, into americanized English, of the first few lines of the song, taking a few liberties with Wagner’s irreplaceable German wording:

Hey, steersman! Take some time out, leave behind your vigil for a while.
Hey, steersman! Over here! Come join us!
Yo! Hey! Yay! Ha!
Furl that sail! Drop anchor!
Hey, steersman! Over here! Come join us!
Fearing neither gale nor dangerous reef,
we’ll be merry today and do it right!
Everyone will have his own girl on shore,
and great tobacco, with fine mulled wine.

I translated Steuermann here as “steersman,” not as “helmsman,” because the second English word makes me think of a steering wheel—and that would not fit the mental connection I want to make now with steersmen of the ancient Greek world, who steered their ships so deftly with one single steering oar.

I have one particular Steuermann in mind, and that is the κυβερνήτης in the Homeric Hymn to Dionysus. He is the true steersman of the god Dionysus, and he is the truest of models for you, dear friend. You once told me you liked my translation of the Homeric Hymn to Dionysus, as I previewed it in my 2013 book The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours (hereafter H24H).[1] So, what you said then encourages me now to quote for you here my rendering of the verses so relevant to you. I’m thinking of the verses at the end, where the god Dionysus gives the gift of salvation to the κυβερνήτης “steersman”:

. . . καί μιν ἔθηκε πανόλβιον εἶπέ τε μῦθον·
Θάρσει δῖ’ ἑκάτωρ τῷ ἐμῷ κεχαρισμένε θυμῷ·
εἰμὶ δ’ ἐγὼ Διόνυσος ἐρίβρομος ὃν τέκε μήτηρ
Καδμηῒς Σεμέλη Διὸς ἐν φιλότητι μιγεῖσα.
Χαῖρε τέκος Σεμέλης εὐώπιδος· οὐδέ πῃ ἔστι
σεῖό γε ληθόμενον γλυκερὴν κοσμῆσαι ἀοιδήν.

Homeric Hymn (7) to Dionysus 54–59

. . . He [= Dionysus] caused it to happen that he [= the steersman] became the most blessed of all men, and he [= Dionysus] spoke for the record this set of words: “Have courage, you radiant man, reached by a force that works from far away. You have achieved beauty and pleasure for my heart. I am Dionysus, the one with the great thundering sound. The mother who bore me was Semele, daughter of Cadmus, and Zeus made love to her.” Hail and take pleasure, child of Semele with the beautiful looks. There is no way I could have my mind disconnect from you as I put together the beautiful cosmic order of my song.

When I first presented this translation (H24H 24§13), I said about the verses or “lines” in the original Greek text:

Following the narration up through line 58, we come to a point where the narrator appears to break off: he now turns to the god Dionysus and addresses him directly, asking the god to stay mentally connected with the performance. In addressing the god, the performer is calling out to him with the salutation khaire (again, line 58), which is the imperative of the verb khairein, meaning ‘to take pleasure’. So, I translate the salutation khaire as ‘hail and take pleasure!’ (again, line 58), adding the word ‘hail!’ because the imperative khaire (plural khairete) is used in contexts of marking the beginning or ending of a personal encounter. In the Homeric Hymns, this salutation khaire (plural khairete) marks a transition from focusing on a god or on an aspect of a god to focusing on the rest of the song. This verb khairein, ‘to take pleasure’, is related to the noun kharis, which is analogous to the Latin noun gratia in combining the ideas of pleasure (‘gratification’) and beauty (‘gracefulness’) by way of reciprocity (‘graciousness’). . . . [I]n the case of khaire at line 58 of this Homeric Hymn to Dionysus, we can interpret this salutation even more precisely as ‘hail and take pleasure in the beauty’.

By way of his salutation, the speaker asks to be connected to the god. That way, the god will be actively connected to the speaker. Such a salutation, as I went on to say (H24H 24§14), implies salvation:

At lines 55–57 of the Hymn, we can read how the steersman who is saved at sea is addressed by the god who granted him his salvation. But then, as we have already seen at line 58, the narrator who performs the narration turns right around and addresses this saving god, Dionysus, asking him to stay mentally connected with the performance. It is as if the saving words of the saving god can now extend their saving grace or kharis to the performer as well, who prays for the god’s grace or kharis by calling out: ‘Hail and take pleasure in the beauty’. And such pleasure is already being experienced by Dionysus in the words that he addresses at lines 55–57 to the steersman whom he has just saved: as the god says to the steersman at line 55, ‘You have achieved beauty and pleasure [kharizesthai] for my heart [thūmos]’. It is as if the steersman and the performer were one and the same persona.

I won’t go on, dear Albert, with the rest of my argumentation. You already know it. Instead, I seize on the words that the god addresses to the Steuermann: “You have achieved beauty and pleasure for my heart.” For me, dear friend, you will always be that Steuermann of Dionysus. Ringing in your ears forever, it is my fondest wish, will be the words of the song sung by the chorus of sailors to the Steuermann. I share with all here a favorite rendering of that song in performance by St. Martin’s Symphony of London. I hope you like it, dear Albert.


Online Epilogue

by Greg 2017.04.21 about Albert, Easter 2014:
The occasion was a visit from Albert and Sarah to Greg and Holly at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, DC. Also visiting was Bernd Seidensticker, a dear friend to all four of us. The four of us were all feeling sad about the recent death of Bernd’s beloved Trudi, who was another dear friend to all four of us, and Holly thought that we could cheer ourselves up with a childlike diversion. Here was Holly’s lighthearted idea: how about organizing an Easter egg hunt? As we all expected, Holly became the organizer. When I sent to Sarah the small essay for Albert that I posted above, I asked her whether she had any pictures of the event, and she wrote back:

Sarah 2017.04.21 back to Greg about Albert, Easter 2014:
Coincidentally, Albert and I had just been talking, not long before he died, about that Easter egg hunt, and I dug up the pictures. I only have photos of Bernd, Holly, and Albert separately (and not you and me), perhaps because I took them, or perhaps because my—and presumably your—haul of eggs was so embarrassingly small.  I remember that I thought I was way ahead of Albert but then it turned out he was putting the many eggs he found in his pocket.

AH and eggs


Holly 2017.04.21 chimed in:
My eggs were eggs that I confiscated from Albert &co. to re-hide for the children of the Center’s fellows.



Sarah 2017.04.22 wrote back to Holly:
That explains it—I didn’t see how there could have been so many eggs (see Bernd’s haul as well—almost looks like he has more, although I distinctly remember Albert winning) . . . even accounting for the fact that I got about five, and I don’t think Greg did too well either.



Holly 2017.04.22 wrote back to Sarah:
Hahahaha!!!! Yes. I had dyed 24 Easter eggs. Albert and Bernd were getting ridiculously all north European, butter culture, happy with the eggs and how lovely they looked in their stark wooden (not colorful ceramic) bowl. However, we were also surrounded by GREEKS, with their olive oil culture and ceramic (Ottoman-ish bowls), who don’t go around looking for eggs but want to socialize. We wanted to go out for lunch but we also did not want to act like cold-hearted, butter-culture, egg-hunting northern Europeans. At least this was all going through my mind. So we went and gave the eggs to the Greeks and explained what the point of it all was supposed to be. They were puzzled: why are grownups so happy about eggs in the first place? But . . . . never mind. Then we hid eggs for the Greeks. Something tells me this is very much my own narrative or memory, and I am using “we” as the royal we.


Greg 2017.04.23 concludes with a favorite picture:
I got permission from Sarah to post this lovely photo, which Sarah describes this way:
“a selfie of Albert and Sarah on the black sand beach near Jökulsárlón in the south of Iceland towards the end of our 2014 journey around the tiny country”

AH+SN jokulsarlon



[*] The original publication of this essay is as follows:
Gregory Nagy, “Steuermann of Dionysus,” in Albert’s Anthology, ed. Kathleen M. Coleman (Cambridge, MA: Department of the Classics, Harvard University, 2017) 121–124.

[1] Gregory Nagy, The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2013) =