Written on January 6, 2009 by Administrador de IE Blogs in Arts & Cultures & Societies

Miguel Herrero de Jáuregui

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This mosaic dates from the 325-350 AD. It’s in Nea Paphos, Cyprus, where Aphrodite was born and venerated. It would seem a familiar portrait of the Epiphany, celebrated on January 6th in many countries. The shepherds and the Magi adore and offer presents to the new-born Messiah. In Spain these Magi, called the Three Kings, still bring gifts to the children (and to their parents).

But the names written in Greek over the characters tell a very (?) different tale. The child is Dionysus and the other people are, from left to right: Nysa, Anatrophe, Nymphs, Tropheus, Ambrosia, Nektar and Theogonia. They all refer more or less allegorically to the birth of Dionysus in Nysa and to the raising (trophein) of the new- born god.

This could be interpreted as a Pagan prefiguration of the Christian scene. Yet the allegorical nature of the characters and the late date of the mosaic rather suggest the opposite explanation: Christian influence over late Greek religion. Dionysus was the god raised by Pagans as heir own Saviour against the increasingly prevailing new religion. And of course, the late representations of Dionysus were much influenced by those of the rival religion. This Dionysus has little to do with the maddening leader of the Bacchic thiasos which was so popular in Classical and Hellenistic times.

As George Lakoff uses to say about political discourses in the USA, these last Pagans were already speaking the language of their rivals: they had lost the conceptual battle, and they were, therefore, doomed to lose the war. 


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