Dionysiaca, Book One (lines 137–162)

Andrew Barrett translating Nonnus from the Ancient Greek

Translator’s Note

Cadmus wandered in circles from land to land,
as he followed the erratic tracks
of a bull in the shape of a bridegroom.
He approached the blood-spattered Armian cave
when the mountains roved madly
and pounded the gates of inviolate Olympus
and the gods had grown wings
and oared a weird path upon the high winds,
like distant birds above the rainless Nile
and the seven zones of the firmament were battered.

This is how it happened:

Zeus Cronides crept off to the nymph Pluto’s bed
to father Tantalus, that maddened thief of heaven’s cups,
and slid his luminous armor deep into a rocky crevice,
concealing even his lightning bolts.

His thunder darkened the white cliff-face,
bellowing smoke from beneath the crags
while the hidden sparks from his flame-tipped arrow
boiled the underground springs.
Soon, mountain streams came in torrents,
and the Mygdonian ravine resounded,
brimming with froth and steam.

Then, when his mother the tilled Earth gave the sign,
Cilician Typhoeus opened his hands
and seized Zeus’ tools for rain and fire.

Typhoeus opened wide his row of cavernous throats
and let loose a battle-shriek that was every cry
from every creature of the wild sounded at once.
Snakes waved over the faces of leopards
and licked the bristling manes of lions
as they braided their spiraling tails
into a crown around the horns of bulls.
The poison that darted from their long tongues
mingled with the foam on their cheeks.

All were fused and grown together.

Andrew Barrett is a translator and musician who lives in Rochester, NY, where he is pursuing a Master of Arts in Literary Translation degree at the University of Rochester. He is currently translating a portion of the Dionysiaca—a lush and expansive Late Antique Ancient Greek epic composed by Nonnus of Panopolis. Andrew has also translated poems by Christophoros Kontonikolis, a Modern Greek poet who writes in Ancient Greek. Several of these translations are set to be published in the October 2011 issue of Words Without Borders. In June of 2011, Andrew had the honor of working on his translation of the Dionysiaca at the Banff International Literary Translation Centre.

Nonnus was most likely born during the fifth century A.D. in the Upper Egyptian city of Panopolis. The Dionysiaca, a 48 book epic poem composed in ancient Greek hexameters, which takes the mythological exploits and ancestry of the god Dionysus as its inspiration, is Nonnus' magnum opus. The only other surviving work attributed to Nonnus is a hexameter paraphrase of the Gospel of John.