Nicolas Poussin: "The Infant Bacchus Entrusted to the Nymphs of
Nysa; The Death of Echo and Narcissus" (1657). The painting shows Mercury delivering the newly born baby Bacchus to Ino.
Click on image for full size
Image courtesy of the Fogg Art Museum. Gift of Mrs. Samuel Sachs in memory of Mr. Samuel Sachs. To be reproduced only by permission of the Harvard University Art Museums. (c) President and Fellows of Harvard College, Harvard University Art Museums.
Mercury and the Birth of Bacchus
Mercury was the
prankster of the gods. And yet, in spite of his pranks, he won the affection of all
gods because of his playfulness, innocence, and helpfulness. He was particularly
his father, and became his official messenger and trusted aide.
It was Mercury who drove the herd of Agenor, with Jupiter disguised as
a bull mingled in with them, towards the Princess Europa
on the Phoenician shores of the Mediterranean. It
was Mercury who lulled Argos to sleep, then slew him
and freed Io.
Mercury came again to the aide of his father on the occasion of the
birth of Bacchus, god of wine. Now Semele was the daughter of Cadmus,
brother of Europa, and
Harmonia, daughter of
Mars and Venus.
site of Semele one spring day, and as was his habit, fell
in love with her. Jupiter came to her in
simple attire, wooed her, and won her.
Jupiter's jealous wife, Juno, plotted revenge against this
new rival for her husband's affections. She
assumed the guise of Semele's aged nurse, and, as the trusted servant, suggested
that perhaps her lover was not who he claimed to be.
Semele had to know, so she extracted
an oath from Jupiter, the next time she saw
him, that he would come to her in all his glory,
to prove that he was really who he claimed to be.
"Kill me if you can with one fierce Divine embrace!"
she cried out. By this time Semele was already
pregnant by Jupiter with the child Bacchus.
Jupiter, having sworn on the sacred River Styx
to grant Semele any wish she desired, had no
recourse but to come to Semele as she had desired.
Clothed in all his splendor, including lightning and thunder,
Jupiter entered the bedchamber of Semele, embraced her with
searing and divine radiance, and in an instant she was
consumed to ashes. As Semele was engulfed in brilliant
rapture, Jupiter plucked the unborn infant Bacchus from
her womb, and sewed him into his thigh. In due time
Jupiter drew forth Bacchus from his thigh-womb, with
the help of Ilithyia, and Bacchus was born again.
To protect Bacchus from the hostility of his jealous
wife Juno, Jupiter entrusted the infant to his loyal
son and servant Mercury, who took him to Orchomenus
and placed him in the care of Semele's sister Io.
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