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The story appears to be a variant of the sparagmos of the Orphic Zagreus, with the difference being that Dionysus was in bull-calf form when he was slaughtered. Wikipedia mentions the story (1, 2), referencing this paragraph in Walter Burkert's Greek Religion:

Dionysus is an exception. In the cult hymn from Elis he is invoked to come as a bull, "with bull foot raging". Quite frequently he is portrayed with bull horns, and in Kyzikos he has a tauromorphic cult image. There is also a myth which tells how he was slaughtered as a bull-calf and eaten by the impious creatures of old, the Titans. In the Classical period, however, this myth is suppressed and kept secret since it is scarcely compatible with the public image of the divine.

Burkert, Walter, Greek Religion, 1985 pp. 64

Unfortunately, this is all I could find about it.

Do we know of a fuller version, one that would hopefully explain why Dionysus was in bull-calf form? Was it perhaps part of his punishment, or event an attempt to lessen his suffering? If a fuller version does not exist, do we at least know how old the story is?

  • 2
    Not often I see Burkert's name here... This passage is taken from the fairly excellent animal and god chapter (1.4) which is so cool it is difficult to not cite it in his entirety. That said there is a note in the book on this point which give those information. Providing I have the tome, I will translate here the note with full complete detail. And probably expand the section. – Gibet Jul 19 '17 at 10:13
  • @Gibet Please do! The 1985 Google Books version I extracted the quote from didn't have any notes on the bull-calf myth. – yannis Jul 19 '17 at 10:18
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As you note, Dionysus was associated with the Bull:

Appear as a bull or many-headed serpent or raging lion to see. Go, Bacchus, with smiling face and throw a deadly noose around the hunter of the Bacchae as he falls beneath the flock of Maenads.
Source: Euripides, Bacchae 1017

The associations with wild beasts, and his ability to transform, was in fact, a symbol and source of Dionysus' power. Walter Otto has a good deal to say on this subject in his book Dionysus: Myth and Cult.

But this power could not save him from the wrath of Hera:

But he did not hold the throne of Zeus for long. By the fierce resentment of implacable Hera, the Titans cunningly smeared their round faces with disguising chalk, and while he contemplated his changeling countenance reflected in a mirror they destroyed him with an infernal knife. There where his limbs had been cut piecemeal by the Titan steel, the end of his life was the beginning of a new life as Dionysos.
Source: Nonnus, Dionysiaca 6.169 | Greek Text

This source seems to indicate that the child was amusing himself with transformations when he was set upon. (Possibly the veal was the tastiest looking animal;)

On a more serious note, I suspect the choice of a calf relates to the many hecatombs of bulls sacrificed to the gods. In general, cattle seem to be the most prized sacrificial animal, and bovines figure prominently in many areas of Greek mythology.

Nonnus is using the Zagreus aspect of Dionysus, and Zagreus was still a child when he was dismembered and consumed by the Titans.

  • The depiction as a calf is a reference to his child status at the time of the sparagmos

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