I continue to be deep, deep in my mythological mood, so today I’m addressing a question that I’ve been wondering about since I first played Hades: who the heck is Zagreus?
Fans of the game will recognize Zag as the protagonist–his quest to escape the underworld forms the basis of Hades. I’m pretty up on my Greek myths (not an expert by any means, but I like to think I know a fair bit), but Zagreus was the one character I didn’t recognize at all. In fact, I half-wondered if he was an original creation of Supergiant Games. Turns out, he isn’t! Let’s talk about the real mythical Zagreus.
Zagreus actually has a pretty complicated history. The earliest references to a god called Zagreus have him paired up with Gaia (you know, the earth goddess) and list him as “the highest of all the gods.” It’s unclear if that references is meant to paint him as the Big Boss Daddy of all the gods, or merely the greatest god in the Underworld, which he has long been associated with; texts have cited him both as a son of Hades or as merely another name for Hades himself. Then again, he’s also been referred to as an incarnation of Dionysus, a son of Zeus! Whether he’s descended from Zeus or Hades, though, both versions of the character have Persephone as a mother.
One of the main surviving myths of Zagreus is that “incarnation of Dionysus” version. It has its roots in Orphism–a religion that is based on the poetry of the mythological hero Orpheus, who went into the Underworld and returned. Orphism deals quite heavily with Dionysus. Dionysus was the son of Zeus and Persephone, and Zeus was going to make the kid his heir. As one might imagine, Hera wasn’t thrilled about that, so she convinced the Titans to eat the kid up. In anger, Zeus turned the Titans to ash with his lightning; the ash then became humanity. Humanity thus inherits the physical body from the Titans, and a spark of the divine from Dionysus, whose remains were still inside the Titans when they were struck down. Meanwhile, Zeus takes the one remaining part of Dionysus–his heart–and creates a new body for the god.
So, where does Zagreus fit into the Orphic tradition? He’s the ‘original’ Dionysus. The son of Zeus and Persephone, and future ruler of the gods. After he’s devoured and reincarnated, his new form is Dionysus. So, same guy, different bodies. A lot of Orphism revolves around the practitioner attempting to reach enlightenment by undergoing the suffering that Zagreus went through to become Dionysus.
The weird thing is, Orphic texts don’t really refer to a Zagreus; it’s mostly other surviving Greek stories that say that Zagreus was the same as Orphic Dionysus. Or, at least, that’s what the internet is telling me.
A less-pleasant aspect of mythological Zagreus: he’s associated with the capture and consumption of live animals (one text refers to “night-ranging Zagreus and his feasts of raw flesh”). Yuck! However, it does mirror Orphic Zagreus’s own death at the hands of the Titans: devoured alive until only his heart remained.
There’s one more aspect of Zagreus I want to touch on, because its one that the game Hades takes and runs with: he’s apparently pretty dang handsome. That aspect of the character is well-represented in the game!
I wish there was more information out there about this god, especially outside of the Orphic tradition. He sounds interesting, and just the right level of creepy. On the other hand, if the mythology around him hadn’t been so vague, Supergiant might not have picked him as their protagonist; apparently, the ‘blank slate’ nature of his mythology was a major reason why he was chosen as the player character, as it gave the writers freedom in how they used him. I guess it all worked out for the best!