Ampelus is one of the lesser-known characters of Greek mythology. A young lover of Dionysus, the satyr was both beautiful and reckless.
Two versions of the story of Ampelus survive today. Both tell a different version of his death and how he was memorialized by the god who loved him.
These stories seem to be in keeping with older myths, and it is not unusual for early versions of some stories to be lost. Clues in the stories, however, indicate that this might not be the case with the tale of Ampelus.
It seems likely that Ampelus was not a figure from classical Greek mythology. Instead, he may have been the creation of a later poet.
Two sources recount the story of Ampelus in ancient mythology.
Both claim that he was a young satyr. While many of the rustic gods were unattractive, his youth made him appear quite beautiful.
Ampelus lived in the wilds of Thrace, and Dionysus often joined him there. Ampelus took part in the god’s revels and Dionysus sometimes left his retinue behind to spend time with the young satyr.
While his beardless face and youthful frame made Ampelus attractive, it also made him reckless. His impetuousness played a role in both versions of his story.
According to Ovid, Ampelus died while picking the grapes that were sacred to Dionysus. He climbed a tall elm tree to reach a particularly high vine and fell to his death.
Dionysus was so heartbroken by his young lover’s death that he immortalized the satyr in the stars. Ampelus was made into the constellation Vindamitor, the Grape-Picker.
Four centuries after Ovid’s story, Nonnus told a different version in the Dionysiaca. This story of the travels and wars of Dionysus was almost entirely original rather than taken from earlier accounts.
Nonnus’s story claimed that Ampelus was not killed by a reckless accident, but by impulsive arrogance. This version of the tale said that Selene was to blame for the death of Ampelus.
In his story, Ampelus was riding a wild bull through the forest under the light of a full moon. Looking up at the moon, he shouted to Selene.
Ampelus defied the goddess of the moon and challenged her to do the worst to him that she could. She was a horned goddess who drove a team of bulls, while the young satyr claimed that he had horns and was riding a bull.
Offended by this, Selene looked down from her place in the sky to find who had insulted her. Spotting Ampelus on the back of the bull, she sent a stinging gadfly after it.
Stung repeatedly by the gadfly, the bull went mad. It charged through the forest, throwing Ampelus from its back and goring him to death.
In this version of the story, Dionysus memorialized Ampelus by turning him into the first grapevine. The juice from the fruit, which was used to make wine, was the blood of the young satyr.
It is important to note that both versions of Ampelus’s story were told very late in Greek history. Ovid wrote in Rome at the turn of the 1st century, while Nonnus was a 5th century Egyptian-Greek writer.
The fact that the first mention of Ampelus occurs in the works of Ovid makes it likely that this was not an older, established myth before that time.
Ovid was known to not only embellish on known myths, but also to create new stories of his own. These were so in keeping with the themes and motifs of classical myths that they were easily mistaken for older legends.
The story of Ampelus appears to be one of those that Ovid imagined himself. It has themes from Greek myths, but there are clues that hint at its originality.
The accidental death of Ampelus in Ovid’s version, for example, seems out of place among other myths. In Greek mythology, it was much more common for a god’s lover to die because of another deity’s actions or a long-established fate.
For a character like Ampelus to simply fall out of a tree because of youthful recklessness does not seem to fit with other stories of the gods’ lovers. Instead, it seems likely that Ovid created a new myth to explain the existence of a constellation.
Even the constellation does not entirely fit the version of the story given by Ovid. The grape-picker in the stars was more commonly called the Vindiatrix, a female term.
Ovid’s stories were popular, however, and many came to be accepted as proper myths. Some of his most well-known stories were attested nowhere else but became incorporated into the canon of Greco-Roman mythology.
Nonnus seems to have accepted at least part of Ovid’s story. Although he changed many of the details, the young satyr lover of Dionysus was familiar to him.
Nonnus’s story is more in keeping with ancient myths in that the character was punished for his hubris. Rather than an accident, his version of Ampelus’s story had his death as a result of an insult against a goddess, a common occurrence in older myths.
There are also clues in his story, however, that indicate that it came from his own mind rather than an established tradition.
Nonnus, for example, describes Selene as a horned goddess. This was not a common theme in Greek mythology, but was the way the moon goddess was sometimes portrayed in Nonnus’s native Egypt.
This version of the story also contradicts myths that are known to be older. More ancient sources named another of Dionysus’s lovers as the origins of the grapevine.
It seems likely that the story of Ampelus was not an ancient legend of Greek mythology. Instead, the character was created, or at least repurposed, by Ovid and became popular enough to inspire a later retelling.
Ovid and Nonnus both told different versions of the story of Ampelus. He was a young Thracian satyr who became the lover of Dionysus.
In Ovid’s story, Ampelus died from a fall. He lost his balance while climbing a tree to reach a bunch of grapes.
Dionysus memorialized his lover by creating a new constellation. Vindemitor, the Grape-Picker, was put in the sky as the image of Ampelus.
The story told later by Nonnus, however, gave a different version of events.
He claimed that Ampelus died after recklessly insulting the moon goddess Selene. He was gored by a bull and immortalized as the first grape vine.
These two stories both have themes and images that are common in early Greek mythology, but details suggest that they were later versions. Ampelus may not have been a character from classical Greek mythology at all, but a creation of the inventive mind of Ovid.