Dionysus’ Anger Against Thebes

At last Dionysus returned to Thebes, where he found that, while some happily embraced him, his cousin, King Pentheus, was determined to suppress his worship. Dionysus drove the Theban women mad and sent them on to nearby Mount Cithaeron, where they roamed as maenads. Meanwhile, letting himself be taken, then easily setting himself free, Dionysus hypnotized Pentheus into spying on the maenads. As Pentheus clung to the top of a high tree, the women (including his mother Agave and aunts, Ino and Autonoe) caught sight of him, mistook him for an animal and attacked him The description of Pentheus’ death in Euripides’ Bacchae is hair-raising.

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They stretched out their hands, all the mass of the bacchae, and tore the pine out of the earth. He was so high. He had so far to fall. And his scream seemed to go on for ever. And then the ritual of slaughter. As his mother closed in for the kill, he tore the ribbon from his hair so she would know him, so she’d spare him, and he screamed as he clawed at her cheeks in his terror. But foam was pouring from Agave’s mouth. Her eyes were rolling wildly; her reasoning all gone.

The god was riding her, and she was deaf to all his screaming. And she drove her foot hard down on Pentheus’ ribcage and grasped his left elbow and wrenched off his arm She never would have had the strength, but the god was in her and he gave her power. And then Ino was with her crouched, huddling over him, tearing his flesh, and Autonoe too, and the whole mob of bacchae, a bestial mass writhing, savage and feral and shredding him raw. And the noise was so deafening: Pentheus shrieking till all screams were silent, and the baying of the bacchae in triumph.

Swathed in leopard-skins, Bacchic women tear apart a male victim, perhaps Pentheus. (Red figure wine cup attributed to Douris, c. 480 BC.)

The soothing intervention of her old father, Cadmus, restored Agave to her senses; but Dionysus’ wrath was unappeased. He exiled Cadmus from his city, eventually turning him and his wife into snakes. It was an ignominious end for a great hero – for Cadmus had founded Thebes.

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