Dionysus, the Ptolemies, and the Mapping of the Callichorus River (Ap. Rhod., Arg. 2.904-10)

Michael Barnes, University of Houston


At Arg. 2.899 the Argonauts begin the twelfth day of their journey towards Colchis.  The first place they pass is the mouth of the Callichorus river, which Apollonius aetiologizes (904-10) as the spot where Dionysus, traveling from India to Thebes, stopped for several nights to celebrate secret rites and to set up dances.  The Argonauts do not put in there, as they do at other sites along the Pontic coast, nor does the narrator record their reaction to the site.  The audience is invited to consider why, beyond its seemingly routine mythological interest, Apollonius bothers to mention the river at all. 

The answer is to be found in a nexus of contemporary Ptolemaic religious interests.  Beginning at least with Philadelphus, and likely under Soter, the Ptolemaic house promoted their descent from Dionysus in order to align themselves with Alexander and the Argead line; at times this link shaded into outright identification between ruler and deity.  The important role of the god in Ptolemaic ideology seems to have centered around two distinct aspects of his mythology and character, both of which are directly relevant to the discussion of the Callichorus aition.  The mention of Dionysus’ conquest of India and the emphasis on the orgia the god established at the river (906-7) agree with the main lines, as far as we can discern them, of state-sponsored Dionysus-worship in contemporary Alexandria.  For instance, the central position in the Grand Procession of Philadelphus (c. 275 BCE) was occupied by Dionysus specifically in his role as conqueror of India (which was seen to link the god with Alexander); the god was accompanied in the procession by a personification of Nysa (cf. 905) and by Maenads and Bassarids, whose presence suggests that orgia were part of the cult’s royal patronage (cf. P. Fraser, Ptolemaic Alexandria, Oxford [1972], i:201 ff.).

The aition’s emphasis on these particular details reflects important aspects of Ptolemaic religious ideology and amounts to a figuring of the history of the Ptolemies’ divine ancestor: by locating Dionysus on the Pontic coast, we are invited to reflect on the extent of the god’s—and, through him, the Ptolemies’—influence in the oikoumenê.  That this is a deliberate strategy is confirmed by the repeated references to Heracles (2.911-1000) that follow the Callichorus aition: the Ptolemies, for many of the same political reasons, also claimed Heracles as an ancestor (cf. Theocritus, Id. 17).  The Argonauts, in an area unknown to them but of considerable strategic importance to the Ptolemies, will cross the divine and heroic footprints of the dynasts’ official ancestors.  Apollonius thus “maps,” to borrow Richard Hunter’s term, the politico-religious associations of his patrons onto the epic past (see, e.g., his “The Divine and Human Map of the Argonautica,” Syll. Class. 6 [1995]:13-27).  If that mapping is always in a sense “sponsored” by the political energy of Ptolemies, it seems only fitting that the long stretches of geographic and ethnographic detail still to come in Book 2 should commence with such an official reflection of it in the aition of the Callichorus river.

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