A Descent into Hell: Orphism, Dionysus, and Answering the Zagreus Question
Updated: Jan 20
Over the past few months, I’ve become a gamer. My roommate plays a lot of video games, and after watching her play Legend of Zelda for hours on end, I’ve started to absorb her love for Nintendo-brand escapism. I’m also a big Greek mythology nerd, so for months, I’d been hoping to find a mythology-based game that would scratch that itch in my brain that craves Hellenistic content. Luckily for me, a friend of mine recently told me about Hades, a game centered around Greek Underworld mythology. Naturally, I bought it on impulse and have been playing it practically non-stop ever since.
The goal of Hades is simple: escape the Underworld. I’m not going to go into any more detail about gameplay, but the important information is that the player character in Hades is Zagreus, who is (spoiler alert!) the son of Hades and Persephone. When I started playing the game, I assumed that the game developers invented Zagreus as a way to avoid attaching the game’s story to a pre-existing figure from mythology, since using a well-known character as the main player character would probably invite criticism of how they interpreted that mythological figure. However, I googled Zagreus out of curiosity, and I found a LOT more information about him than I expected.
Zagreus is, in fact, a “real” mythological figure. However, when it comes to just exactly who he is, things get a bit more complicated. In one of his plays (of which we only have fragments), Aeschylus, an ancient Greek tragedian, claims that Zagreus is the son of Hades and Persephone, which is the version of the myth that the developers over at Supergiant Games decided to use. However, in another play, he suggests that Zagreus is actually just another name for Hades. Fragments of a lost Theban-cycle epic, the Alcmeonis, even calls Zagreus “above all other gods” and pairs him with the likes of Gaia, the earth itself. However, the most oft-repeated claim in scholarly work on Zagreus seems to be that he is actually the son of Zeus and Persephone and that he’s connected to the Orphic Dionysus. While there aren’t any ancient sources that tell us comprehensively who Zagreus is, this theory seems to have the most support from what we do have (1).
Now, what do I mean by "the Orphic Dionysus?" While not much is known about the true beliefs of the cult of Orphism, a small Greek religious sect centered around writings attributed to the mythical poet Orpheus, Dionysus seems to play a pretty important role. In the Orphic belief system, the creation of man was considered to be a direct result of the Titans eating Dionysus-Zagreus, who is the son of Zeus and Persephone in this version of the myth. Allow me to tell you the story.
A long time ago in a land far, far away, the gods lived alongside the Titans, an evil race of powerful beings who liked to eat little baby
gods for breakfast. One day, a young god named Dio
nysus-Zagreus was playing in the cave where he lived with his nymph caretakers. Young Zagreus was unfortunate enough to be an illegitimate son of Zeus and Persephone, meaning that Hera—Zeus’ wife—wasn’t the most excited about his annoying habit of being alive. Hera, ever the pacifist, enlisted the help of the Titans in getting her revenge, and thus the Titans lured the young Zagreus away from his caretakers using a mirror and some toys. Once Zagreus had been successfully lured, the Titans tore him limb from limb before eating him, which is why we must always remain vigilant about Stranger-Danger (2). When Zeus discovered what they had done, he became understandably miffed, so he struck them down with his lightning bolts in a fit of rage. From the ashes of the Titans, the human race was born; however, since our pal Zagreus had been consumed by the Titans, every human also had some small part of his ash included in their new forms, too.
In another version of the story, the Titans don’t actually eat Zagreus and instead simply stop after tearing him apart (which is a real win for Zagreus; personally, I always prefer not being eaten after having all of my limbs torn off). Athena is the one to find his disembodied heart, and she saves it by putting it in a spiritual box called a cista. She then creates a humanoid figure out of gypsum—a type of chalky rock—before placing the heart inside the figure, thus reanimating Zagreus. After this, she took Zagreus’ old, dismembered limbs to rest at Delphi (you know, just fun things you do with your nephew/half-brother). However, this version of the Zagreus myth also has variations to it, with some sources claiming that Athena instead took the heart of Zagreus to Zeus, who used it to impregnate Semêle (I’m not even going to try to explain this) and thus sire Dionysus. So, according to some sources, Dionysus was simply Zagreus 2.0 (3).
From the initial version of the Zagreus myth where he is eaten by the Titans, we can see that Orphism may have actually had a concept of original sin—the evil of the Titans being a part of all humans—and it may have shaped how its followers saw death (4). Orphics may have believed that the soul was made of the Zagreus ash, therefore making it divine and immortal, while the body was made of the ash of the Titans. In other words, they believed we were gods trapped in meat suits, and that birth was a curse and existence was a prison.
Some scholars posit that a central tenet of the Orphic belief system was that when humans died, they underwent "metempsychosis," or regeneration involving the movement of the soul from one body to the next. If you’ve ever read Plato’s Republic, first of all, I’m sorry and I hope you get well soon; but, you might recognize this concept from the myth in Book 10. If you haven’t read the Republic, please, never change; at the end, though, Plato describes a myth about a soldier, Er, who visits heaven and observes how people select the forms they want to take after being reincarnated. Plato notes that heroes and philosophers choose wisely in order to avoid the endless cycle of suffering (Orpheus chooses a swan, though it’s unclear how this is considered wise, unless an animal’s wisdom is measured by how much they scare me) while everyone else is doomed to continue the cycle.
Interestingly enough, this Platonic myth about the afterlife is almost identical to what is described in Orphic doctrine. The process would continue for at least 10,000 years, and every time someone returned to the Underworld, their soul would be purified for 1000 years in the Fields of Punishment, Asphodel, or Elysium according to how well they lived their life. Orphic doctrine gets even more complicated, but alas, I simply do not have the time nor desire nor word count to write a full dissertation right now (you can thank me later—and yes, I do accept thanks in the form of Meijer gift cards) (5). But, I digress; the important thing to note here is that Dionysus-Zagreus is a principal player in this belief system. While the Titans may have doomed humans to a long cycle of regeneration, the ash of his body is what gives humanity hope for release and the potential to join the gods if they live their lives well enough and practice the Orphic rituals.
Zagreus and Dionysus are related in more contexts than just Orphism, though. Zagreus is also said to be a mythological Cretan hunter-god that captures animals, and from that myth the Dionysus-Zagreus Orphic myth may have found its origin. A major piece of evidence towards this theory is the fact that the Greek word ζαγρεύς (zagreus) means “catcher of game,” and the word zagre means “pit for the capture of live animals.” This would naturally implicate Zagreus as a hunter god. On Crete, Dionysus was believed to be the son of Zeus and Persephone and thus at times called “Chthonios” or “Zagreus,” so there seems to be a fairly obvious connection between the Cretan hunter Zagreus, Dionysus, and
the Underworld in that context.
Some Dionysian rites in Crete—known as the “mysteries of Zagreus”—involved the raw consumption of captured game, and the participants in these rites may have identified themselves as animals or beasts during their feast days; though, similar practices in other cultures as far as Morocco suggest that this actually might be a remnant of prehistoric practice rather than purely Dionysian ritual. Eventually, these “mysteries of Zagreus” actually got lumped into worship of Zeus, which we can gather from fragments of Euripides’ lost play, Cretan Men. On Crete, not only was Zagreus a form of Dionysus, but he was also associated with Zeus himself. Zagreus is fun because once you think you understand him, you find one more piece of information and discover that he’s even more complicated than you originally thought. I think I understand engineering majors now.
But wait, you ask, why the hell (no pun intended) is Zagreus the prince of the Underworld in Hades? If he’s just Dionysus/the son of Zeus and Persephone/Zeus himself, then why does he show up in a video game centered around the Underworld gods at all? Well, the Orphics believed that Zeus and Hades were two sides of the same coin, so Zagreus technically could be considered the son of Hades in Orphism (6). But honestly, it all comes down, as it so often does, to Aeschylus. The playwright referred to Zagreus twice, once in a tragedy and once in a satire, and both times, he said something different about him. In Egyptians, he associates Zagreus with Hades himself, but in fragments of one of his lost Sisyphus plays, Aeschylus calls Zagreus the son of Hades. Other than Aeschylus, though, there isn’t much explicit evidence for Zagreus being an Underworld god besides the references to Dionysus as “Chthonios” and the consistent claim that Persephone is his mother.
So, you might again ask, why use Zagreus as the player character for Hades? If he’s just sort of an Underworld god, and his relationship to Hades and Persephone is only based on a couple of fragmentary sources from one guy and the supposed duality of Zeus and Hades in a pretty small cult religion, why use this particular child of the Underworld king and queen? This question might have a surprisingly simple answer: Greg Kasavin of Supergiant just thought Aeschylus’ reference to him was interesting. Also—though this wasn’t explicitly stated by Supergiant—when it comes to Hades and Persephone’s relationship, they only had two kids, and the other was the goddess of nightmares who rolled with a bunch of ghosts (7). Though, playing as Melinoë sounds pretty baller. Maybe I should send Supergiant a suggestion for a DLC...
Anyways, in a nutshell, the answer to the question of “Who is Zagreus?” is that Zagreus is Dionysus is Hades is Zeus is Dionysus again. Research into this guy has really given me a new understanding of the phrase, “it’s all Greek to me.” After spending all this time learning more about who he is has given me a new appreciation for the developers’ attention to detail and the amount of work they put into the game (8). If you made it all the way through this article and haven’t played the game, I hope this inspires you to give it a try; if you have played the game before, have fun playing it now with all of this lore living in your head rent-free. Give Cerberus a little pat too, while you’re at it.
(1) Much of what we know about Zagreus and Orphism comes from gold tablets found in gravesites, brief literary references, and information pulled from fragmentary texts, so there really isn’t much to go on in comparison to the amount of sources we have about the Olympian gods.
(2) This dismemberment is known as the sparagmos (σπαραγμός).
(3) There are approximately a billion versions of this myth, but I’m only including the ones involving Athena since they seemed the most relevant to the discussion.
(4) The Orphic story of anthropogony is a contested topic; Radcliffe Edmonds has a very interesting article available on JSTOR that suggests much of what is believed to have been Orphic doctrine may have been fabricated by later, Christian-era scholars. However, in this article, I’m more concerned with providing the background information about Zagreus that may have influenced the game developers of Hades, even if it is contested.
(5) If you’re interested in reading more about Orphism, I recommend “The Doctrines of the Orphic Mysteries” by George Norlin and “Plato, Pederasty, and the Zagreus Myth” by Sarah Burges Watson. If you want to read more on the connection between Zagreus and Dionysus in particular, Watson’s article goes more in depth about how Dionysus and Orphism are related, so that would be a good place to start. The articles are on JSTOR, if you have access!
(6) This claim also seems to go against the anthropogony myth where Zeus strikes down the Titans with his thunderbolts, so it calls into question the validity of one of these beliefs. Personally, I’m inclined to believe the anthropogony myth is a Christianized fabrication like Edmonds suggests, but it’s hard to say.
(7) Do yourself a favor and do a google search on Melinoë. You won’t regret it.
(8) Since originally writing this article, I’ve gotten further in the game, and there is a song that Orpheus composes about Zagreus that includes a lot of the lore I’ve just described. The ballad includes the story of the Titans consuming Dionysus-Zagreus and the creation of man afterwards, the rebirth of Zagreus as Dionysus through Semêle, and a myth about Zagreus being born from Zeus in the form of a snake (which I didn’t mention for lack of viable sources).
Aeschylus, “Fragments,” Edited and translated by Alan H. Sommerstein. Loeb Classical Library 505. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009. https://www.loebclassics.com/view/aeschylus-attributed_fragments/2009/pb_LCL505.237.xml?result=1&rskey=f0foz8.
Belden, H. M. “The Jew’s Daughter and the Myth of Zagreus,” Modern Language Notes, Vol. 39, No. 3 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1924). https://www.jstor.org/stable/2915153.
Kerényi, Carl. Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976.
Matos, Clinton. “Supergiant explains how Zagreus became the protagonist of Hades.” Hypertext, September 23, 2020, https://www.htxt.co.za/2020/09/23/supergiant-explains-how-zagreus-became-the-protagonist-of-hades/.
Norlin, George. “The Doctrines of the Orphic Mysteries, with Special Reference to the Words of Anchises in Vergil's Sixth Aeneid 724-51.” The Classical Journal, Vol. 3, No. 3 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1908).
Sallust et al. “To Minerva,” in Sallust on the Gods and the World: and the Pythagoric Sentences of Demophilus and Five Hymns by Proclus. Trans. Thomas Taylor. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2017.
Wypustek, Andrzej. Images of Eternal Beauty in Funerary Verse Inscriptions of the Hellenistic Period. Leiden: Brill Publishers, 2013.