The Roman god Bacchus and his Greek counterpart Dionysos have long been associated with Nysa. The names Dionysos and Nysa are said to be etymologically related, though the exact connection is unclear.
Bacchus / Dionysos was the son of Jupiter and Semele. The pregnant Semele unwisely asked to see Jupiter in his flaming form, the sight causing her to burn to death. Jupiter rescued the embryonic Bacchus by placing him in his thigh to develop until birth. When Bacchus was born, Jupiter turned him over to the Nysiads, Oceanic nymphs, to raise. The Nysiads were associated with the mythic mount Nysa.
In the Iliad, Homer refers to Dionysos and associates him with this mountain. The speaker is Diomedes, stating his refusal to fight against any of the gods, as any victory against them is Pyrrhic:
οὐδὲ γὰρ οὐδὲ Δρύαντος υἱὸς κρατερὸς Λυκόοργος
δὴν ἦν, ὅς ῥα θεοῖσιν ἐπουρανίοισιν ἔριζεν:
ὅς ποτε μαινομένοιο Διωνύσοιο τιθήνας
σεῦε κατ' ἠγάθεον Νυσήϊον: αἳ δ' ἅμα πᾶσαι
θύσθλα χαμαὶ κατέχευαν ὑπ' ἀνδροφόνοιο Λυκούργου (6.130–134)
In Stanley Lombardo's translation:
Not even mighty Lycurgus lived long
After he tangled with the immortals,
Driving the nurses of Dionysus
Down over the Mountain of Nysa
And making them drop their wands
As he beat them with an ox-goad. (p. 116)
Since the worship of Dionysos entered Greece from either Asia Minor or neighboring Thrace, the god was associated with the east. Different mythographers located Nysa in different parts of Asia: Turkey, Arabia, or India. For ancient geographers, India meant the entire subcontinent east of the Hindu Kush and south of the Himalayas; this includes part of present-day Afghanistan as well as all of Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka.
Mythopoeic impulses during the time of Alexander the Great (356 BCE–323 BCE) associated the conquerer with Hercules, but W. J. Woodhouse observes that as his army moved eastward he began to be equated with Bacchus as well. Alexander made it as far as northwest India, leading to the belief that Bacchus was the conquerer of that land:
The triumphant irresistible bursting of Alexander the Great into the secrets of the Far East naturally appealed to the imagination of his generation as a sort of fabled progress of Bacchus through those same regions. The exploits of Alexander it was that give birth to the legend of the conquest of India and the East by Dionysus, rather than the converse; and the imagination of court flatterers was exercised to provide divine prototypes of Alexander's achievements. Being himself reputed son of Zeus-Ammon, and Dionysos also being, in some stories, a son of Ammon, it was altogether suitable that Alexander should tread literally in the footsteps of his divine predecessor, and at last come upon that very city of Nysa which had existed in the imagination of so many generations as built by Dionysos for his wearied Bacchanals, and upon that same Mt. Mēros on which his troops had refreshed themselves amid its ivy and laurels. (p. 428, internal citation omitted, emphasis added)
Mēros is the ancient Greek for thigh. Mythopoeists of Alexander's time equated Meros with Meru, a mythical mountain that is considered the center of the universe in Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain cosmology. The connection between Bacchus' birth from Jupiter's thigh and the name of this mountain proved irresistible. In The Anabasis of Alexander, the 2nd C CE historian Arrian relates the how Alexander reached Nysa and was greeted by its citizens. Arrian is rather skeptical that the Dionysos referred to is the god:
In this country, lying between the rivers Cophen and Indus, which was traversed by Alexander, the city of Nysa is said to be situated. The report is, that its foundation was the work of Dionysus, who built it after he had subjugated the Indians. But it is impossible to determine who this Dionysus was, and at what time, or from what quarter he led an army against the Indians. For I am unable to decide whether the Theban Dionysus, starting from Thebes or from the Lydian Tmolus came into India at the head of an army, and after traversing the territories of so many warlike nations, unknown to the Greeks of that time, forcibly subjugated none of them except that of the Indians. But I do not think we ought to make a minute examination of the legends which were promulgated in ancient times about the divinity; for things which are not credible to the man who examines them according to the rule of probability, do not appear to be wholly incredible, if one adds the divine agency to the story. When Alexander came to Nysa the citizens sent out to him their president, whose name was Acuphis, accompanied by thirty of their most distinguished men as envoys, to entreat Alexander to leave their city free for the sake of the god. The envoys entered Alexander's tent and found him seated in his armour still covered with dust from the journey, with his helmet on his head, and holding his spear in his hand. When they beheld the sight they were struck with astonishment, and falling to the earth remained silent a long time. But when Alexander caused them to rise, and bade them be of good courage, then at length Acuphis began thus to speak: "The Nysaeans beseech thee, king, out of respect for Dionysus, to allow them to remain free and independent; for when Dionysus had subjugated the nation of the Indians, and was returning to the Grecian sea, he founded this city from the soldiers who had become unfit for military service, and were under his inspiration as Bacchanals, so that it might be a monument both of his wandering and of his victory, to men of after times; just as thou also hast founded Alexandria near mount Caucasus, and another Alexandria in the country of the Egyptians. Many other cities thou hast already founded, and others thou wilt found hereafter, in the course of time, inasmuch as thou hast achieved more exploits than Dionysus. The god indeed called the city Nysa, and the land Nysaea after his nurse Nysa. The mountain also which is near the city he named Meros (i.e. thigh), because, according to the legend, he grew in the thigh of Zeus. From that time we inhabit Nysa, a free city, and we ourselves are independent, conducting our government with constitutional order. And let this be to thee a proof that our city owes its foundation to Dionysus; for ivy, which does not grow in the rest of the country of India, grows among us." (V.1)
Pleased that he had reached as far as Dionysos, Alexander granted the Nysians their wish and allowed their city to remain "free and independent." He then took his army on a picnic to the fabled mountain:
He was now seized with a strong desire of seeing the place where the Nysaeans boasted to have certain memorials of Dionysus. So he went to Mount Merus with the Companion cavalry and the foot guard, and saw the mountain, which was quite covered with ivy and laurel and groves thickly shaded with all sorts of timber, and on it were chases of all kinds of wild animals. The Macedonians were delighted at seeing the ivy, as they had not seen any for a long time; for in the land of the Indians there was no ivy, even where they had vines. They eagerly made garlands of it, and crowned themselves with them, as they were, singing hymns in. honour of Dionysus, and invoking the deity by his various names. Alexander there offered sacrifice to Dionysus, and feasted in company with his companions. (V.2)
This city of Nysa has been identified with a couple of sites in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Ptolemy mentions a city named Nagara, also known as Dionysopolis; both this name and Nagara's location between the Cophen [Kabul] and Indus rivers make it a strong candidate. The exact location of Nagara is not known, but it is associated with an archaeological site known as Nagara Ghundi, about four miles from Jalalabad in Afghanistan. The present-day city of Nisatta in Pakistan, some 100 miles away from Jalalabad, is another viable candidate.
Some 300 years after Arrian (and 800 years after Alexander's time), the Hellenistic poet Nonnus wrote an epic poem, the Dionysiaca, which narrates the life of Dionysos, his conquest of India, and his return to the West. Nonnus, however, situates Nysa in Arabia.
References (except Wikipedia)
- Arrian. The Anabasis of Alexander. Trans. E. J. Chinnock. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1884. Wikisource. Accessed 27 March 2021.
- Ball, Warwick. "Nagara Ghundi." Archaeological Gazetteer of Afghanistan, n. 756. 1982. Cultural Property Training Institute, Afghanistan. aiamilitarypanel.org. Accessed 27 March 2021.
- Black, John. "Mount Meru: Hell and Paradise on One Mountain." 3 April 2013. ancient-origins.net. Accessed 27 March 2021.
- Homer. Iliad. Trans. Stanley Lombardo. Intro. Sheila Murnaghan. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997.
- ———. The Iliad. The Chicago Homer. Accessed 27 March 2021.
- "Nisatta." Jatland.com. Accessed 27 March 2021.
- Nonnus. Dionysiaca. Trans. W. H. D. Rowse. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1940–1942. 3 vols: one two three. Archive.org. Accessed 27 March 2021.
- Woodhouse, W. J. "Nysa". pp. 427–428. Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics, ed. James Hastings. Vol. IX, Mundas–Phrygians. pp. 427–428. Google Books. Accessed 27 March 2021.