The song of Nikaia, by Rachel Hadas

A translation of Nonnus, Dionysiaca 16.244–364

Content notification: God Dionysus, enamored with the nymph Nikaia, drugs her with river water transformed into wine and rapes her in her inebriated sleep. 

 The Dryad, having mocked the god, slipped back into her tree.
 But Dionysus ardently pursued the maiden; he
 Was passionate from head to toe, his feet were wild with love.
 The speedy-sandaled Amazon raced onward, high above,
 On mountain paths that hid her footsteps from him as she ran.
 But now the girl was thirsty, her lips baked dry by the sun
 Fiercely blazing overhead.  And being unaware
 That love-struck Dionysus uses liquor as a snare,
 And spying the amber waters of the river loved by men
 Who drink, she gulped from that sweet stream where Indians had been.
 Then Bacchically tipsy, and with her mind askew,
 She reveled, tossing back her head, and saw the world as two.
 Perceiving an expanse of lake, she thought she saw its twin,
 And, dizzy, saw a double hill instead of only one,
 Till, stumbling in the dust, she fell; and winged Sleep, beside
 Her, overtook the maiden, soon to be a slumbering bride.

 Seeing her asleep there, Eros pointed the girl out
 To Bacchus (Eros pitied Hymnos).  Nemesis at the sight
 Laughed. And wily Dionysus, wearing silent shoes,
 Tiptoed toward consummation, making not the slightest noise;
 Approached the girl and, moving slowly, gently, carefully
 Untied the belt whose knot protected her virginity
 So deftly that she never woke.  Whereupon Mother Earth
 Opened up her fragrant lap in a sweet burst-like birth
 For Dionysus’ sake.  Grape leaves tangled up together
 Around the vine poles that held up the bridal couch’s cover,
 So that the marriage bed became a trellised arbor whose
 Purple clusters hung and swayed in Aphrodite’s breeze,
 Covering the bridal pair, while drunken ivy clung
 And twined around the fruitful vines that over the lovers hung.
 Strange ceremony – like a marriage dreamed in someone’s sleep;
 The maiden lost her maidenhead and never once woke up,
 Sleep was Eros’ groomsman, as far as she could tell,
 Attendant of the ceremonials under wine’s sweet spell.
 And gently blowing here and there, each echoing little breeze
 Wove hymns to love among the branches of the forest trees;
 And to the windborne music of the mountain wedding song
 Modest Echo made reply and carried it along –
 Echo, the voice that follows Pan.  Flutes shrilled to dancing feet:
 “Hymen! Hymenaios!  Blessings on this marriage rite!”
 But then the soul of the slain shepherd, windblown, wandering,
 Addressed the sleeping, dreaming girl in words that bore a sting:
 “Lovers, oh happy bride, have their avenging furies too;
 Rejecting Hymnos, you chose Bacchus as the groom for you.
 But in the marriage sweepstakes, girl, your judgment is askew;
 You kill the one who loves you, while the one whom you pursue
 Will never marry.  Hymnos loved you; he sleeps with the dead.
 A different sleep, a deep sweet sleep, cost you your maidenhead.
 You only laughed when you beheld the dying shepherd’s blood;
 That laughter turned to groaning at your bleeding maidenhood."
 The love-lorn shepherd, weeping, spoke; and hard to catch as air
 Or mist or smoke, proceeded to the court of Tartarus (where
 So many go) still full of envy for the wine god, whose
 Intoxicating trickery had won him a fair spouse.
 And Pan, the music master, now piped a wedding tune
 On his shrill reed, but hid his secret envy deep within
 His heart, as to the ill-matched pair he sang of blame and blight.
 A lusty satyr in a grove spied the forbidden sight
 With greedy wonder – Dionysus and his bride in bed! –
 And was inspired to make a speech, and this is what he said:
 “O horned Pan, still solitary, chasing down desire,
 It’s Echo you pursue – but will you ever marry her?
 And could you manage such a trick to gain your marriage bed –
 A virgin wedding?  Better till the soil instead
 Of herding, Pan.  Put down your shepherd’s crook and leave your flocks
 Of sheep, and leave your oxen wandering among the rocks;
 Shepherds are useless.  Better far for you to plant a vine;
 For vines yield grapes, and grapes yield love’s enchanting wedding wine.”
 He’d hardly spoken when the goatherd god wailed in reply:
 “I wish my father had taught that craft of bridal wine to me!
 I wish that I, like Bacchus, could be master of the grape
 That dizzies minds, for then I could have lulled Echo to sleep,
 The wandering nymph who drives me wild, and had my way with her.
 No, goodbye, pasture; goodbye, spring.  I water my sheep here
 While Dionysus lures reluctant virgins to his stream;
 They drink of it and then, intoxicated, marry him.
 His plant’s an aphrodisiac.  Goat’s milk, sheep’s milk?  No more!
 You cannot make a virgin marry, nor can you lull desire.
 Eros and Aphrodite!  I am tortured; woe is me!
 Syrinx fled Pan’s courtship, left him solitary; she
 Now chants “Evoi!” for Dionysus’ marriage willingly.
 And to the sound of Syrinx as she pipes her wedding tune,
 Echo responds as usual with music of her own.
 Oh shepherd Dionysus who herd mortals with your spell,
 You’re blessed!  You’re happy!  You won over the unwilling girl
 With wine, love’s helper, to assist you in your nuptial.”
 Such were the words that mournful Pan in his frustration said,
 Envious of Dionysus, who’d attained his marriage bed.
 And having in that rustic bed satisfied all his lust,
 Stealthily the god got up.  The girl, now waking, cursed
 The river that had drugged her.  She was furious at all three –
 Sleep, Aphrodite, Bacchus – for even as her tears flowed, she
 Could still hear snatches of the wedding song the Dryads played,
 And see the herald of the god’s desire, the marriage bed.
 That couch, with vine leaves shaded and with piles of fawnskin strewn,
 Betrayed both the god’s passion and its consummation.
 But when she saw her maiden zone was moist with love’s own dew,
 She tore her cheeks and struck her thighs and cried “Ah, woe is me!
 Cursed be the drunken stream that took my maidenhood away!
 Lulled by love’s sleep, I’ve lost forever my virginity!
 That rascal Bacchus, vagabond, stole my virginity!
 Oh nymphs and hamadryads, which of you should be the first –
 And love and sleep and guile and wine, all worthy to be cursed – 
 You all have stolen my maidenhood.  And I’m abandoned too
 By Artemis, whom I have served faithfully.  And Echo –
 Why did she never warn me?  And why, whispering in my ear
 About this plot too low for Dionysus to hear,
 Why did not the pine tree and the laurel say ‘Beware!
 Don’t drink that water!  For a god has worked his magic there.’” 

Excerpted with permission from Tales of Dionysus: The Dionysiaca of Nonnus of Panopolis, edited by William Levitan and Stanley Lombardo, published by the University of Michigan Press, (c) 2022.

A detail from a textile panel with the Triumph of Dionysos. 4th–6th century CE, Egypt. Metropolitan Museum of Art 90.5.873