A Ridiculous Etymology for ‘Dithyramb’?

While spending my early morning hours in the too-often ignored world of Byzantine Greek scholarship, I encountered a striking etymology for dithyramb in the introduction to the Scholia to Lycophron’s Alexandra [attributed either to John Tzetzes or his son Isaac].


Scholia to Lykophron’s Alexandra, Introduction

“In addition to these, here are the characteristics of prominent poets, the lyric ones who sing their songs to a lyre and who may have a chorus of fifty men set up in a circle, those who also used to take a bull as a prize. These features are shared with the dithyrambic poets. The dithyrambic poets are in the habit of composing their fine hymns do Dionysus and they used to take tripods [as gifts?]. These poems are called dithyramboi thanks to the “two exit doors” of Dionysus, Semele’s stomach and Zeus’ thigh. “

καὶ ταῦτα μὲν τὰ γνωρίσματα τῶν καλουμένων κατ’ ἐξοχὴν ποιητῶν, λυρικῶν δὲ γνωρίσματα τὸ πρὸς λύραν τὰ τούτων ἄδεσθαι μέλη καὶ χορὸς ἑστὼς κυκλικῶς ἄνδρας ἔχων πεντήκοντα, οἵπερ καὶ δῶρον ταῦρον ἐλάμβανον.

καὶ διθυραμβικοῖς δὲ τοῦτο κοινόν. οἱ διθυραμβικοὶ δὲ τῶν λυρικῶν εἶχόν τι πλέον τὸ πρὸς τὸν Διόνυσον πολυστρόφους πλέκειν τοὺς ὕμνους καὶ τρίποδας ἐλάμβανον διὸ καὶ διθύραμβοι ἀπὸ τοῦ Διονύσου ἐλέγοντο τοῦ διὰ δύο θυρῶν βάντος, τῆς τε γαστρὸς τῆς Σεμέλης καὶ τοῦ μηροῦ τοῦ Διός.

If you didn’t get the joke, it is because di-thura-ba- [here, duo-thuron-bantos; “two-doors-walking”] presents the essential sounds of dithyramb.  Byzantine etymological text repeats the origin and explains it a bit, not without adding another on its own.


Etymologicum Magnum, s.v. dithyrambos

“Dithyrambos: Dionysus. It is an epithet of Dionysus because he was raised in a cave with two doors in Nussê. This is also the hymn named for the god and dedicated to him.  It comes from “coming through two doors”, the womb of his mother Semele and Zeus’ thigh—since he was born twice: once from his mother, and once from Zeus’ thigh. This is how he exited the ‘door’ twice.”

Διθύραμβος: ῾Ο Διόνυσος. ᾿Επίθετόν ἐστι τοῦ Διονύσου, ὅτι ἐν διθύρῳ ἄντρῳ τῆς Νύσσης ἐτράφη· καὶ ὁμωνύμως τῷ θεῷ ὁ εἰς αὐτὸν ὕμνος. ῍Η ἀπὸ τοῦ δύο θύρας βαίνειν, τήν τε κοιλίαν τῆς μητρὸς Σεμέλης, καὶ τὸν μηρὸν τοῦ Διός· ἀπὸ τοῦ δεύτερον τετέχθαι, ἀπό τε τῆς μητρὸς, καὶ ἀπὸ τοῦ μηροῦ τοῦ Διός· ἵν’ ᾖ ὁ δὶς θύραζε βεβηκώς.


Birth 2/2. The first was from Semele…



9 thoughts on “A Ridiculous Etymology for ‘Dithyramb’?

  1. As you know, I LOVE these kinds of etymologies; this sort of stuff is always far more interesting than sound etymology, perhaps because it involves more mental ingenuity to contrive something so totally (but actually not at all) ridiculous.

  2. Dionysus was the first man to completely destroy the goddess cultures. He entered the mystery of the circles and lured the maidens out of the trinity circles (maiden, mother and grandmother) by getting the maiden drunk and high which was a destructive pathological technique of spiking emotional states through alcohol, rape, sex (orgies) of young maidens. These were unheard of before the Dionysus’s Cults which spread like wildfire to almost all countries. It was impossible to destroy the leadership of prehistory grandmother but his was so successful it spread like wildfire to may cultures. Where ever you see the winter and summer solstice symbols of the goat, fires, alcohol and white dresses worn by maidens, that is this symbolism of his cult. We still have in all pagan and some religions, these symbols during these festivals and carnivals. When Dionysus completed his overthrown, the Apollo Cults brought in the Political power into the once sacred temples of women which then were not sacred anymore and only figureheads of a destroyed matriarch. That cycle is now over as the patriarch begins to crumble.

    1. You generalize too much, “Elder Mountain Dreaming”.

      1) The Goat is interchangeable with the Bull in much of the Ancient Middle East and the Mediterranean.

      2) Alcohol itself was not the first brew used in Mystery rituals; we know that the kykeon of the Eleusinian Mysteries, for example, was likely a tryptamine-based sacrament (cf. ambrosia of the “Homeric Hymn to Demeter”) derived from ergot and other “fruits.”

      3) Dionysus himself, and his etymology, like “Dithryambos”, is mostly wrong; but thankfully it was deduced by the first famous female British Classical scholar: Jane Ellen Harrison, in her 1912 “Themis.” If you wish to understand the Minoan origin of Dionysus and the patriarchal Greek pantheon as a whole, I highly recommend it.

      1. You know nothing about the demonic Dionysus and Apollo cult and the Rape of Europa (women) back then. You stick to your History and I will stick with Herstory. Men ALWAYS back the patriarch, be it pagan, religious or otherwise.

Leave a Reply