I got what I needed out of the Dionysiaca, in terms of the narrative of Semele’s apotheosis. However, as I was studying that text, I found myself resisting the urge to expound on the important themes in this text surrounding the idea of marriage between humans and deities.
I think it’s important to understand the author, a little, and to get some context. Nonnus is a relative late-comer, as a contributor to the Greek Mythos. He begins writing his Dionysiaca shortly after the death of the last Pagan Emperor of Rome, and was extremely learned in both Traditional Hellenic and Christian theology. His other great work which survives is his “Metabole kata Ioannou” or paraphrase of the Book of John (One of the Four Gospels).
Living in the era he lived in, knowing what he knew, he could not but be aware of the contrast between the two faiths, and cast the differences into much sharper relief. Things are explained in the Dionysiaca about Hellenic religion that are not as clearly explained elsewhere. Being, as he is, toward the end of Polytheism’s heyday in that area of the world, he has the benefit of living after and having read Homer, Hesiod, the mythographers and historiographers. Along with Claudian’s Gigantomachy, the Dionysiaca serves as one of the extant capstones of ancient Greco-Roman paganism.
Also somewhat informative is the Psyche narrative, appearing in The Golden Ass, by Apuleius, a Roman writer in the 2nd Century. While The Golden Ass is fiction, Apuleius is also famous for having written works about Greek philosophy, especially Platonism, and his work De Deo Socratis illustrates that he gave a great deal of thought to gods and mortals, their politics and the entities who served as their intermediaries.
In this article, I will explore a textually supported theological view of divine marriage within Roman and Hellenic religion, underscore the importance of the institution of divine marriage, and take a look at what makes someone a god spouse, according to Ancient Hellenic thought.
What Constituted Marriage According To Nonnus?
The first question that modern people ask about divine marriage is the qualifications. What do you have to do to become a god spouse? Who is qualified? How is it decided? Which people are legitimate spouses, and which ones are simply mistaken? Which deities actually take spouses? Do deities actually even do that with humans?
“Tell me who laid rough hands on your girdle – hide it not! Which of the gods has besmirched you, which has ravished your maidenhood?
‘If Ares has wedded my girl in secret, if he has slept with Semele and neglected Aphrodite, let him come to your bed grasping his spear as a marriage-gift – your mother knows her begetter, the terrible warrior! If quickshoe Hermes has made merry bridal with you, if he has forgotten his own Peitho for Semele’s beauty, let him bring you his rod to herald your wedding, or let him fit you with his own golden shoes as a gift worthy of your bed, that you too may be goldshod like Hera the bedfellow of Zeus! If handsome Apollo has come from heaven to be your husband, if he has forgotten Daphne because of his love for Semele, let him away with furtive guile, and come to your through the air drawn in his car by singing swans, and dancing delicately let him offer his harp as a gift for your favours, to show a trusty proof of the wedding! Cadmos will know that heavenly harp at sight, for he saw it, and heard the melodious tones, when it made music at his festal board for the wedding of Harmonia with a mortal.
‘If Seabluehair (Poseidon) went womanmad and forced you, preferring you to Melanippe the sage, sung by the poet, let him make merry in full view, and plant the prongs of his trident as a bridal gift before the gates of Cadmos; so let him bestow the same honour beside snakecherishing Dirce, as he gave to lionbreeding Lerna in the Argive country as a mark of his marriage with Amymone, where the place of the Lernaian nymph still bears the trident’s name. But why do I call you the bedfellow of Earthshaker? What tokens have you of Poseidon’s bed? Tyro was embraced in a flood by watery hands, when counterfeit Enipeus came with his deceitful bubbling stream.
‘Or if as you say, Cronion (Zeus) is your bridegroom, let him come to your bed with amorous thunders, armed with bridal lightning, that people may say – `Hera and Semele both have thunders in waiting for the bedchamber!’ The consort of Zeus may be jealous, but she will not hurt you, for Ares your mother’s father will not allow it. Europa is more happy than Semele, for a horned Zeus carried her on his back; the hoof of the lovestricken bull ran unwetted on the top of the water, and one so mighty was Love’s boat. O what a great miracle! A maiden held the reins of him who holds the reins of heaven! I call Danaë happier than Semele, for into her bosom Zeus poured a shower of gold from the roof, torrents of mad love in abundant showers! But that most blessed bride asked no gifts of gold; her lovegift was her whole husband. But let us be quiet, or your father Cadmos will hear.'” — Nonnus, Dionysiaca, Book 8, lines 217-263
The first thing that strikes me is exactly how many male deities are named. Of the Olympians who were eligible to have impregnated Semele, only Hephaestos was omitted.
The second thing that I want to draw out is what the qualifications listed here are. I think it is best summed up by this snippet: “‘If Seabluehair (Poseidon) went womanmad and forced you … let him make merry in full view, and plant the prongs of his trident as a bridal gift before the gates of Cadmos”
In otherwords, in so far as Nonnus is concerned, the deed is the only important qualification. Whether the sexual encounter was consensual or not, pre-meditated or not, conducted in one’s right mind or not, the encounter constituted a marriage.
The only qualification seems to be that a deity wanted to have sex with the person.
That’s actually quite a thing for me to wrap my head around as a modern Westerner. We have, in our culture, blown marriage up into something so much more than it ever was in the ancient world. Marriage, for us, requires pomp and circumstance, officiants, contracts and vows, maybe also a very expensive caterer. Marriage, especially since the recent SCOTUS ruling, is all about love, commitment, and partnership. To me, in particular, marriage is about a union of equals.
Yet here, “lay rough hands on your girdle” was equivalent to a wedding in secret.
You might say, and I am certainly tempted to say, “Ah, but what’s with the wedding gift? Surely they’ve allowed for the notion of a one-night-stand, right? They’ve got to seal it with a wedding gift to make it official.”
Yet, before Zeus gives Semele her requested “wedding gift” (which ultimately causes her demise), look at how he addresses her:
 Father Zeus heard, and blamed the jealous Portioners, and pities Semele so soon to die; but he understood the scheming resentment of implacable Hera against Bacchos. Then he ordered Hermes to catch up his newborn son out of the thunderfire when it should strike Thyone. He spoke thus in answer to the highheaded girl: “Wife, the jealous mind of Hera has deceived you by a trick. Do you really think, wife, that my thunders are gentle? Be patient until another time, for now you carry a child. Be patient until next time, and first bring forth my son. Do not demand from me the murderous fire before that birth. I had no lightning in my hand when I took Danaë’s maidenhood; no booming thunder, no thunderbolts celebrated my union with your Europa, the Tyrian bride; the Inachian heifer saw no flames: you alone, a mortal, demand from me what a goddess Leto did not ask.” — Nonnus, Dionysiaca, Book 8
While marriage was traditionally planned and celebrated, when it happened on the sly, it was nonetheless valid. The desire of the deity to be with the mortal, sexually, was the only requirement. Of course, there are those who doubt that deities lack capacity for such desire, but that belief was rare, if not nonexistent, in this mythology.
What Constituted Marriage According To Apuleius?
Interestingly, in the narrative of Psyche, ceremony does precede the marriage. In the Greco-Roman, and especially the Greek tradition, funerals and weddings are very closely related for women, symbolically. We see a bit of that: the parents of Psyche, and her community, lead her in procession to transfer her into the domain of her new husband, whom they expect to kill her.
But the warnings of heaven were to be obeyed, and unhappy Psyche’s presence was demanded for her appointed punishment. So amidst intense grief the ritual of that marriage with death was solemnized, and the entire populace escorted her living corpse as Psyche tearfully attended not her marriage but her funeral.
Then we have her carried into the house of her new husband. In a mortal marriage, this would have been done by the groom.
But as Psyche wept in fear and trembling on that rocky eminence, Zephyrus’ (the West Wind’s) kindly breeze with its soft stirring wafted the hem of her dress this way and that, and made its folds billow out. He gradually drew her aloft, and with tranquil breath bore her slowly downward. She glided down in the bosom of the flower-decked turf in the valley below. In that soft and grassy arbour Psyche reclined gratefully on the couch of the dew-laden turf. The great upheaval oppressing her mind had subsided, and she enjoyed pleasant repose. After sleeping long enough to feel refreshed, she got up with carefree heart. Before her eyes was a grove planed with towering, spreading trees, and a rill glistening with glassy waters. At the centre of the grove and close to the gliding stream was a royal palace, the work not of human hands but of divine craftsmanship. You would know as soon as you entered that you were viewing the birth and attractive retreat of some god.
Eros/Cupid speaks to her about this place, announcing his intentions:
As she gazed on all this with the greatest rapture, a disembodied voice addressed her: ‘Why, may lady, do you gaze open-mouthed at this parade of wealth? All these things are yours. So retire to your room, relieve your weariness on your bed, and take a bath at your leisure. The voices you hear are those of your handmaidens, and we will diligently attend to your needs. Once you have completed your toilet a royal feast will at once be laid before you.’
Yet was this the marriage? Not as yet. We read on:
The pleasant entertainment came to an end, and the advent of darkness induced Psyche to retire to bed. When the night was well advanced, a genial sound met her ears. Since the was utterly alone, she trembled and shuddered in her fear for her virginity, and she dreaded the unknown presence more than any other menace. But now her unknown bridegroom arrived and climbed into the bed. He made Psyche his wife, and swiftly departed before dawn broke. At once the voices in attendance at her bed-chamber tended the new bride’s violated virginity. These visits continued over a long period and this new life in the course of nature became delightful to Psyche as she grew accustomed to it. Hearing that unidentified voice consoled her loneliness.
Yes. There is it. Neither the procession, nor the transference into a new Oikos had enacted the marriage, until the deity decided to make Psyche his wife.
How This Changes My Perspective
Previously, I had not identified as a god spouse. There were many reasons for this, including my disdain for marriage, generally, my view of “a union of equals” as being central to any marriage I would want to be a part of, a cynical view of marriage as being a thing of convenience, done for reasons of finance, household building and child-rearing. Then there was the “witnessed by the community” aspect which was important to me, and I am a sucker for ceremony.
I have to acknowledge, however, that if there was an epic poem or novel written about the Adventures of Thenea, by Nonnus or Apuleius, I would undoubtedly be called a wife of Hermes. In that narrative, I would probably already have a half a dozen children by now. Or. Actually. I’d probably have been chased around in circles by Athena, kicked by a mule, drowned and then deified. Whichever.
For these two authors, it is singularly the act of sexual passion that makes someone the spouse of a deity, that, and no other thing. There is no additional requirement. Community approval and ceremony are not required.
The Take Home
I have always contended that the hearts of our deities are big enough for all of us. This is just more evidence: yes, they love us. Yes, they feel passion for us. Yes, we can use human relationship models to deal with them. All the support for that idea we ever needed was in the ancient stories of these deities.
We do not have to accept the ancient Greek view of divine marriage as our own. However, these are some of many examples demonstrating that this phenomenon is not new, and that a great many things that people are saying about it are unfair and grounded in any sort of scholarship.
What I hope you take from these instances isn’t the fact that ancient Greeks were misogynistic and that therefore their gods are now. Rather, I want to draw your attention to what divine marriage does not require: it does not require community permission, it does not require a specific ceremony, it does not require outside validation.
The rest is up to us. Let’s learn from these narratives, though, and take note of the high cost of excessive skepticism. If someone isn’t asking for your money or your obedience on account of a UPG, you’ve got no reason to engage with their beliefs. On the off-chance that you are invalidating legitimate experiences, be charitable.