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Liber, Bacchus

Dionysus and Bacchantes | Athenian black-figure neck amphora C6th B.C. | Cabinet des Médailles, Paris
Dionysus and Bacchantes, Athenian black-figure neck amphora C6th B.C., Cabinet des Médailles

DIONYSOS was the Olympian god of wine, vegetation, pleasure, festivity, madness and frenzy.

This page contains the story of Dionysos' wrath against the impious King Pentheus who attempted to drive him from Thebes, and the related tale of the daughters of Kadmos (Cadmus).

The first "Wrath" page contains stories of a similar theme including Lykourgos (Lycurgus), the Tyrrhenian pirates and the Minyades.


KADMEIDES (Cadmeides) The daughters of King Kadmos of Thebes (central Greece)--Ino, Agaue and Autonoe--each suffered the death of a son by dismemberment (sparagmos), possibly as punishment for slandering of Semele, mother of Dionysos, following her death. The three were also nurses of Dionysos, and later (or alternatively) received the blessings of the god.

PENTHEUS A King of Thebes in Boiotia (central Greece) who offended Dionysos with his blasphemies. When the god was introducing his cult to Greece, Pentheus denied his divinity, tried to prevent his subjects from honouring him, and even went so far as to try to have him apprehended. But when he sought to spy upon the orgies on Mt Kithairon, Dionysos drove the king's mother and aunts to tear him limb from limb (sparagmos).



The story of Dionysos' punishment of the sacriligeous Pentheus is most fully described in Euripides' play the Bacchae. Selected passages are quoted below (the work is not quoted in its entirety).

For OTHER versions of this story by classical writers see:
Dionysus Wrath: Pentheus (other sources)


Euripides, Bacchae 25 ff (trans. Buckley) (Greek tragedy C5th B.C.) :
"Dionysos: In the land of Hellas, I have first excited Thebes to my cry, fitting a fawn-skin to my body and taking a thyrsos in my hand, a weapon of ivy . . . I have goaded them [the daughters of Kadmos] from the house in frenzy, and they dwell in the mountains, out of their wits; and I have compelled them to wear the outfit of my mysteries (orgia). And all the female offspring of Thebes, as many as are women, I have driven maddened from the house, and they, mingled with the daughters of Kadmos, sit on roofless rocks beneath green pines. For this city must learn, even if it is unwilling, that it is not initiated into my Bakkheuma (Bacchic rites), and that I plead the case of my mother, Semele, in appearing manifest to mortals as a divinity whom she bore to Zeus.
Now Kadmos has given his honor and power to Pentheus, his daughter's son, who fights against the gods as far as I am concerned and drives me away from sacrifices, and in his prayers makes no mention of me, for which I will show him and all the Thebans that I was born a god. And when I have set matters here right, I will move on to another land, revealing myself. But if ever the city of Thebes should in anger seek to drive the the Bakkhai down from the mountains with arms, I, the general of the Mainaides, will join battle with them. On which account I have changed my form to a mortal one and altered my shape into the nature of a man.
My sacred band [of women Bakkhai] . . . take your drums . . . [and] about this palace of Pentheus beat them, so that Kadmos' city may see. I myself will go to the folds of Kithairon, where the Bakkhai are, to share in their dances."

Euripides, Bacchae 215 ff :
"Pentheus : I happened to be at a distance from this land, when I heard of strange evils throughout this city, that the women have left our homes in contrived Bakkhic rites, and rush about in the shadowy mountains, honoring with dances this new deity Dionysos, whoever he is. I hear that mixing-bowls stand full in the midst of their assemblies, and that they each creep off different ways into secrecy to serve the beds of men, on the pretext that they are Mainades worshipping; but they consider Aphrodite [sex] before Bakkhos.
As many of them as I have caught, servants keep in the public strongholds with their hands bound, and as many as are absent I will hunt from the mountains, I mean Ino and Agaue, who bore me to Ekhion, and Autonoe, the mother of Aktaion. And having bound them in iron fetters, I will soon stop them from this ill-working revelry. And they say that some stranger has come [Dionysos disguised as the mortal leader of the band], a sorcerer, a conjuror from the Lydian land, fragrant in hair with golden curls, having in his eyes the wine-dark graces of Aphrodite. He is with the young girls day and night, alluring them with joyful mysteries. If I catch him within this house, I will stop him from making a noise with the thyrsos and shaking his hair, by cutting his head off.
That one claims that Dionysos is a god, claims that he was once stitched into the thigh of Zeus--Dionysos, who was burnt up with his mother by the flame of lightning, because she had falsely claimed a marriage with Zeus. Is this not worthy of a terrible death by hanging, for a stranger to insult me with these insults, whoever he is?"


Euripides, Bacchae 345 ff :
"Pentheus : I will seek the punishment of this teacher of your folly [Dionysos in disguise]. Let someone go quickly to the seat where he watches the flights of birds, upset and overturn it with levers, turning everything upside down; and release his garlands to the winds and storms. In this way I will especially wound him. And some of you hunt throughout the city for this effeminate stranger, who introduces a new disease to women and pollutes our beds.If you catch him, bring him here bound, so that he might suffer as punishment a death by stoning, having seen a bitter Bacchic revelry (Bakkheusis) in Thebes."

Euripides, Bacchae 435 ff :
"Enter a servant, Servant : Pentheus, we are here, having caught this prey for which you sent us, nor have we set out in vain. This beast was docile in our hands and did not withdraw in flight, but yielded not unwillingly. He did not turn pale or change the wine-dark complexion of his cheek, but laughed and allowed us to bind him and lead him away. He remained still, making my work easy . . . And the Bakkhai whom you shut up, whom you carried off and bound in the chains of the public prison, are set loose and gone, and are gamboling in the meadows, invoking Bromios as their god. Of their own accord, the chains were loosed from their feet and keys opened the doors without human hand. This man has come to Thebes full of many wonders. You must take care of the rest.
Pentheus : Release his hands, for caught in the nets he is not so swift as to escape me. But your body is not ill-formed, stranger, for women's purposes, for which reason you have come to Thebes . . . First then tell me who your family is.
Dionysos : [introduces himself as the human leader of the Bakkhai] . . .
Pentheus : Why do you bring these rites to Hellas?
Dionysos : Dionysos, the child of Zeus, sent me.
Pentheus [sarcastically] : Is there a Zeus who breeds new gods there?
Dionysos : No, but the one who married Semele here . . .
Pentheus : Did you come here first, bringing the god?
Dionysos : All the barbarians celebrate these rites.
Pentheus : Yes, for they are far more foolish than Hellenes.
Dionysos : In this at any rate they are wiser; but their laws are different.
Pentheus : Do you perform the rites (hiera) by night or by day?
Dionysos : Mostly by night; darkness conveys awe.
Pentheus : This is treacherous towards women, and unsound . . . You must pay the penalty for your evil contrivances.
Dionysos : And you for your ignorance and impiety toward the god . . . Tell me what I must suffer; what harm will you do to me?
Pentheus : First I will cut off your delicate hair . . . Next give me this thyrsos from your hands . . . We will guard your body within, in prison.
Dionysos : The god himself will release me, whenever I want.
Pentheus : Yes, when you call him, standing among the Bakkhai.
Dionysos : Even now he see my sufferings from close by.
Pentheus : Where is he? He is not visible to my eyes.
Dionysos : Near me; but you, being impious, do not see him.
Pentheus To attendants : Seize him; he insults me and Thebes!
Dionysos : I warn you not to bind me, since I am in my senses and you are not.
Pentheus : And I, more masterful than you, bid them to bind you.
Dionysos : You do not know why you live, or what you are doing, or who you are.
Pentheus : I am Pentheus, son of Ekhion and Agave.
Dionysos : You are well-suited to be miserable in your name [a pun on his name, penthos was Greek word for misery].
Pentheus : Go.
Pentheus To attendants : Shut him up near the horse stable, so that he may see only darkness.
Pentheus To Dionysos : Dance there; and as for these women whom you have led here as accomplices to your crimes, we will either sell them or, stopping their hands from this noise and beating of skins, I will keep them as slaves at the loom.
Dionysos : I will go, for I need not suffer that which is not necessary. But Dionysos, who you claim does not exist, will pursue you for these insults. For in injuring us, you put him in bonds."


Euripides, Bacchae 615 ff :
"Dionysos : I saved myself easily, without trouble.
Chorus Leader (Bakkhante) : Did he not tie your hands in binding knots?
Dionysos : In this too I mocked him, for, thinking to bind me, he neither touched nor handled me, but fed on hope. He found a bull by the stable where he took and shut me up, and threw shackles around its knees and hooves, breathing out fury, dripping sweat from his body, gnashing his teeth in his lips. But I, being near, sitting quietly, looked on. Meanwhile, Bakkhos came and shook the house and kindled a flame on his mother's tomb. When Pentheus saw this, thinking that the house was burning, he ran here and there, calling to the slaves to bring water, and every servant was at work, toiling in vain. Then he let this labor drop, as I had escaped, and snatching a dark sword rushed into the house. Then Bromios, so it seems to me--speak my opinion--created a phantom (phasma) in the courtyard. Pentheus rushed at it headlong, stabbing at the shining air, as though slaughtering me. Besides this, Bakkhos inflicted other damage on him: he knocked his house to the ground, and everything was shattered into pieces, while he saw my bitter chains. From fatigue, dropping his sword, he is exhausted. For he, a man, dared to join battle with a god. Now I have quietly left the house and come to you, with no thought of Pentheus. But I think--at any rate I hear the tramping of feet inside--he will soon come to the front of the house. What will he say after this? I shall easily bear him, even if he comes boasting greatly. For it is the part of a wise man to practice restrained good temper.
(Enter Pentheus) Pentheus : I have suffered terrible things; the stranger, who was recently constrained in bonds, has escaped me. Ah! Here is the man. What is this? How do you appear in front of my house, having come out? . . . How have you escaped your chains and come outside?
Dionysos : Did I not say--or did you not hear--that some one would deliver me? . . .
(Enter a messenger) Messenger : Pentheus, ruler of this land of Thebes, I have come from Kithairon . . . Having seen the holy Bakkhai, who goaded to madness have darted from this land with their fair feet, I have come to tell you and the city, lord, that they are doing terrible things, beyond marvel . . .
Pentheus : Speak, as you will have immunity from me in any case. For it is not right to be angry with the just. The more you tell me terrible things about the Bakkhai, the more I will punish this one here who taught the women these tricks.
Messenger : The herds of grazing cattle were just climbing up the hill, at the time when the sun sends forth its rays, warming the earth. I saw three companies of dancing women, one of which Autonoe led, the second your mother Agaue, and the third Ino. [He describes the magical wonders of the revelling Bakkhai.] . . . Agaue happened to be leaping near me, and I sprang forth, wanting to snatch her, abandoning the ambush where I had hidden myself. But she cried out : ‘O my fleet hounds, we are hunted by these men; but follow me! follow armed with your thyrsoi in your hands!’ We fled and escaped from being torn apart by the Bakkhai, but they, with unarmed hands, sprang on the heifers browsing the grass. and you might see one rending asunder a fatted lowing calf, while others tore apart cows . . . they proceeded along the level plains . . . and falling like soldiers upon Hysiae and Erythrai, towns situated below the rock of Kithairon, they turned everything upside down."


Euripides, Bacchae 780 ff :
"Pentheus : Already like fire does this insolence of the Bakkhai blaze up, a great reproach for the Hellenes. But we must not hesitate. Go to the Elektran gates, bid all the shield-bearers and riders of swift-footed horses to assemble, as well as all who brandish the light shield and pluck bowstrings with their hands, so that we can make an assault against the Bakkhai. For it is indeed too much if we suffer what we are suffering at the hands of women.
Dionysos : Pentheus, though you hear my words, you obey not at all. Though I suffer ill at your hands, still I say that it is not right for you to raise arms against a god, but to remain calm. Bromios will not allow you to remove the Bakkhai from the joyful mountains.
Pentheus : Do not instruct me, but be content in your escape from prison. Or shall I bring punishment upon you again?
Dionysos : I would sacrifice to the god rather than kick against his spurs in anger, a mortal against a god.
Pentheus : I will sacrifice, making a great slaughter of the women, as they deserve, in the glens of Kithairon.
Dionysos : You will all flee. And it will be a source of shame that you turn your bronze shields away from the thyrsoi of the Bakkhai.
Pentheus : This stranger with whom I am locked together is impossible, and neither suffering nor doing will he be quiet.
Dionysos : My friend, there is still opportunity to arrange these things well.
Pentheus : Doing what? Being a slave to my slaves?
Dionysos : Without weapons I will bring the women here.
Pentheus : Alas! You are contriving this as a trick against me.
Dionysos : What sort, if I wish to save you by my contrivances?
Pentheus : You have devised this together, so that you may have your revelry forever.
Dionysos : I certainly did--that is so--with the god.
Pentheus (To a servant) : Bring me my armor.
Pentheus (To Dionysos) : And you, stop speaking.
Dionysos : Ah! Do you wish to see them sitting together in the mountains?
Pentheus : Certainly. I'd give an enormous amount of gold for that.
Dionysos : Why do you desire this so badly?
Pentheus : I would be sorry to see them in their drunkenness.
Dionysos : But would you see gladly what is grievous to you?
Pentheus : To be sure, sitting quietly under the pines.
Dionysos : But they will track you down, even if you go in secret.
Pentheus : You are right: I will go openly.
Dionysos : Shall I guide you? Will you attempt the journey?
Pentheus : Lead me as quickly as possible. I grudge you the time.
Dionysos : Put linen clothes on your body then.
Pentheus : What is this? Shall I then, instead of a man, be reckoned among the women?
Dionysos : Lest they kill you if you are seen there as a man.
Pentheus : Again you speak correctly : how wise you have been all along!
Dionysos : Dionysos taught me these things fully.
Pentheus : How can your advice to me be well carried out?
Dionysos : I will go inside and dress you.
Pentheus : In what clothing? Female? But shame holds me back.
Dionysos : Are you no longer eager to view the Mainades?
Pentheus : What clothing do you bid me to put on my body?
Dionysos : I will spread out hair at length on your head.
Pentheus : What is the second part of my outfit?
Dionysos : A robe down to your feet. And you will wear a headband.
Pentheus : And what else will you add to this for me?
Dionysos : A thyrsos in your hand, and a dappled fawn-skin.
Pentheus : I could not put on a woman's dress.
Dionysos : But you will shed blood if you join battle with the Bakkhai.
Pentheus : True. We must go first and spy.
Dionysos : This is at any rate wiser than hunting trouble with trouble.
Pentheus : And how will I go through the city without being seen by the Thebans?
Dionysos : We will go on deserted roads. I will lead you.
Pentheus : Anything is better than to be mocked by the Bakkhai. We two will go into the house and I will consider what seems best.
Dionysos : It will be so; in any case I am ready.
Pentheus : I will go in. For either I will go bearing arms, or I will obey your counsels.
Dionysos : Women, the man is caught in our net. He will go to the Bakkhai, where he will pay the penalty with his death. Dionysos, now it is your job; for you are not far off. Let us punish him. First drive him out of his wits, send upon him a dizzying madness, since if he is of sound mind he will not consent to wear women's clothing, but driven out of his senses he will put it on. I want him to be a source of laughter to the Thebans, led through the city in women's guise after making such terrible threats in the past. But now I will go to fit on Pentheus the dress he will wear to the house of Hades, slaughtered by his mother's hands. He will recognize the son of Zeus, Dionysos, who is in fact a god, the most terrible and yet most mild to men . . . You who are eager to see what you ought not and hasty in pursuit of what ought not to be pursued--I mean you, Pentheus, come forth before the house, be seen by me, wearing the clothing of a woman, of an inspired maenad, a spy upon your mother and her company.
(Pentheus emerges in appearance you are like one of Kadmos' daughters.)
Pentheus : Oh look! I think I see two suns, and twin Thebes, the seven-gated city. And you seem to lead me, being like a bull and horns seem to grow on your head. But were you ever before a beast? For you have certainly now become a bull.
Dionysos : The god accompanies us, now at truce with us, though formerly not propitious. Now you see what you should see.
Pentheus : How do I look? Don't I have the posture of Ino, or of my mother Agaue?
Dionysos : Looking at you I think I see them. But this lock of your hair has come out of place, not the way I arranged it under your headband.
Pentheus : I displaced it indoors, shaking my head forwards and backwards and practising my Bacchic revelry.
Dionysos : But I who ought to wait on you will re-arrange it. Hold up your head.
Pentheus : Here, you arrange it; for I depend on you, indeed.
Dionysos : Your girdle has come loose, and the pleats of your gown do not extend regularly down around your ankles.
Pentheus : At least on my right leg, I believe they don't. But on this side the robe sits well around the back of my leg.
Dionysos : You will surely consider me the best of your friends, when contrary to your expectation you see the Bakkhai acting modestly.
Pentheus : But shall I be more like a Mainas holding the thyrsos in my right hand, or in my left?
Dionysos : You must hold it in your right hand and raise your right foot in unison with it. I praise you for having changed your mind.
Pentheus : Could I carry on my shoulders the glens of Kithairon, Bakkhai and all?
Dionysos : You could if you were willing. The state of mind you had before was unsound, but now you think as you ought.
Pentheus : Shall we bring levers? Or shall I draw them up with my hands, putting a shoulder or arm under the mountain-tops?
Dionysos : But don't destroy the seats of the Nymphai and the places where Pan plays his pipes.
Pentheus : Well said. The women are not to be taken by force; I will hide in the pines.
Dionysos : You will hide yourself as you should be hidden, coming as a crafty spy on the Mainades.
Pentheus : Oh, yes! I imagine that like birds they are in the bushes held in the sweetest grips of love.
Dionysos : You have been sent as a guard against this very event. Perhaps you will catch them, if you yourself are not caught before.
Pentheus : Bring me through the midst of the Theban land. I am the only man of them who dares to perform this deed.
Dionysos : You alone bear the burden for this city, you alone. Therefore the labors which are proper await you. Follow me. I am your saving guide: another will lead you down from there.
Pentheus : Yes, my mother.
Dionysos : And you will be remarkable to all.
Pentheus : I am going for this reason.
Dionysos : You will return here being carried -
Pentheus : You talk of a delicacy for me.
Dionysos : In the arms of your mother.
Pentheus : You will force me to luxury.
Dionysos : Yes indeed, such luxury!
Pentheus : I will get what I deserve.
Dionysos : You are terrible, terrible, and you go to terrible sufferings, so that you will find a renown reaching to heaven. Reach out your hands, Agaue, and you too, her sisters, daughters of Kadmos. I lead this young man to a great contest, and Bromios and I will be the victors. The rest the matter itself will show."


Euripides, Bacchae 990 ff :
"Chorus [of Bakkhai] : Go to the mountain, go, fleet hounds of Lyssa (Madness), where the daughters of Kadmos hold their company, and drive them raving against the mad spy on the Mainades, the one dressed in women's attire. His mother will be the first to see him from a smooth rock or crag, as he lies in ambush, and she will cry out to the maenads: 'Who is this seeker of the mountain-going Kadmeans who has come to the mountain, to the mountain, Bakkhai? Who bore him? For he was not born from a woman's blood, but is the offspring of some lioness or of Libyan Gorgones.
Let manifest justice go forth, let it go with sword in hand, slaying through the throat this godless, lawless, unjust, earth-born offspring of Ekhion.
Whoever with wicked mind and unjust rage regarding your rites (orgia), Bakkhos, and those of your mother, comes with raving heart and mad disposition violently to overcome by force what is invincible - death is the discipline for his purposes, accepting no excuses when the affairs of the gods are concerned; to act like a mortal - this is a life that is free from pain. I do not envy wisdom, but rejoice in hunting it. But other things are great and manifest. Oh, for life to flow towards the good, to be pure and pious day and night, and to honor the gods, banishing customs that are outside of justice.
Let manifest justice go forth, let it go with sword in hand, slaying through the throat this godless, lawless, unjust, earth-born offspring of Ekhion.
Appear as a bull or many-headed serpent or raging lion to see. Go, Bakkhos, with smiling face throw a deadly noose around the hunter of the Bakkhai as he falls beneath the flock of Mainades . . .
Messenger [returning from Mt Kithairon] : When we left the dwellings of the Theban land and crossed the streams of Asopos, we began to ascend the heights of Kithairon, Pentheus and I--for I was following my master--and the stranger who was our guide to the sight. First we sat in a grassy vale, keeping our feet and voices quiet, so that we might see them without being seen. There was a little valley surounded by precipices, irrigated with streams, shaded by pine trees, where the Mainades were sitting, their hands busy with delightful labors. Some of them were crowning again the worn thyrsos, making it leafy with ivy, while some, like colts freed from the painted yoke, were singing a Bakkhic melody to one another. And the unhappy Pentheus said, not seeing the crowd of women : ‘Stranger, from where we are standing I cannot see these false Mainades. But on the hill, ascending a lofty pine, I might view properly the shameful acts of the Mainades.’
And then I saw the stranger [Dionysos in disguise] perform a marvelous deed. For seizing hold of the lofty top-most branch of the pine tree, he pulled it down, pulled it, pulled it to the dark earth. It was bent just as a bow or a curved wheel, when it is marked out by a compass, describes a circular course: in this way the stranger drew the mountain bough with his hands and bent it to the earth, doing no mortal's deed. He sat Pentheus down on the pine branch, and let it go upright through his hands steadily, taking care not to shake him off. The pine stood firmly upright into the sky, with my master seated on its back. He was seen by the Mainades more than he saw them, for sitting on high he was all but apparent, and the stranger was no longer anywhere to be seen, when a voice, Dionysos as I guess, cried out from the air : ‘Young women, I bring the one who has made you and me and my rites a laughing-stock. Now punish him!’ And as he said this a light of holy fire was placed between heaven and earth.
The air became quiet and the woody glen kept its leaves silent, nor would you have heard the sounds of animals. But they, not having heard the sound clearly, stood upright and looked all around. He repeated his order, and when the daughters of Kadmos recognized the clear command of Bakkhos, they rushed forth, swift as a dove, running with eager speed of feet, his mother Agaue, and her sisters, and all the Bakkhai. They leapt through the torrent-streaming valley and mountain cliffs, frantic with the inspiration of the god. When they saw my master sitting in the pine, first they climbed a rock towering opposite the tree and began to hurl at him boulders violently thrown. Some aimed with pine branches and other women hurled their thyrsoi through the air at Pentheus, a sad target indeed. But they did not reach him, for the wretched man, caught with no way out, sat at a height too great for their eagerness. Finally like lightning they smashed oak branches and began to tear up the roots of the tree with ironless levers. When they did not succeed in their toils, Agaue said : ‘Come, standing round in a circle, each seize a branch, Mainades, so that we may catch the beast who has climbed aloft, and so that he does not make public the secret dances of the god.’ They applied countless hands to the pine and dragged it up from the earth. Pentheus fell crashing to the ground from his lofty seat, wailing greatly: for he knew he was in terrible trouble.
His mother, as priestess, began the slaughter, and fell upon him. He threw the headband from his head so that the wretched Agaue might recognize and not kill him. Touching her cheek, he said : ‘It is I, mother, your son, Pentheus, whom you bore in the house of Ekhion. Pity me, mother, and do not kill me, your child, for my sins.’
But she, foaming at the mouth and twisting her eyes all about, not thinking as she ought, was possessed by Bakkhos, and he did not persuade her. Seizing his left arm at the elbow and propping her foot against the unfortunate man's side, she tore out his shoulder, not by her own strength, but the god gave facility to her hands. Ino began to work on the other side, tearing his flesh, while Autonoe and the whole crowd of the Bakkhai pressed on. All were making noise together, he groaning as much as he had life left in him, while they shouted in victory. One of them bore his arm, another a foot, boot and all. His ribs were stripped bare from their tearings. The whole band, hands bloodied, were playing a game of catch with Pentheus' flesh.
His body lies in different places, part under the rugged rocks, part in the deep foliage of the woods, not easy to be sought. His miserable head, which his mother happened to take in her hands, she fixed on the end of a thyrsos and carries through the midst of Kithairon like that of a savage lion, leaving her sisters among the Mainades' dances. She is coming inside these walls, preening herself on the ill-fated prey, calling Bakkhos her fellow hunter, her accomplice in the chase, the glorious victor--in whose service she wins a triumph of tears.
And as for me, I will depart out of the way of this calamity before Agaue reaches the house. Soundness of mind and reverence for the affairs of the gods is best; and this, I think, is the wisest possession for those mortals who adopt it.
Let us honor Bakkhos with the dance, let us raise a shout for what has befallen Pentheus, descendant of the serpent, who assumed female attire and the wand, the beautiful thyrsos--certain death--and a bull was the leader of his calamity. Kadmean Bakkhai, you have accomplished a glorious victory, but one that brings woe and tears. It is a noble contest to cover one's dripping hands with the blood of one's own son."

The death of Pentheus | Athenian red-figure kylix C5th B.C. | Kimball Art Museum, Fort Worth
The death of Pentheus, Athenian red-figure kylix C5th B.C., Kimball Art Museum


LOCALE : Thebes, Boiotia (Central Greece)

Aeschylus, Pentheus or Bacchae (lost play) (Greek tragedy C5th B.C.) :
According to Weir Smyth (L.C.L.) : "The Pentheus anticipated Euripides' Bacchae, in which play Dionysos, angered at the refusal of Pentheus, ruler of Thebes, to recognize his godhead, inspired with frenzy the prince's mother Agave and her sisters. In their madness the women tore Pentheus to pieces."

Aeschylus, Xantriae (lost play) (Greek tragedy C5th B.C.) :
Weir Smyth (L.C.L.) summarises evidence for the plot of this lost play : "The subject of this play is the rejection of the newly instituted worship of Dionysus either by Pentheus or by the daughters of Minyas. The Scholiast on Eumenides 24 states that the death of Pentheus took place, in the Xantriai, on Mt. Cithaeron; and Philostratus (Images 3. 18) describes a picture in which the mother and aunts of Pentheus rend asunder (xainousi) the body of the unbelieving prince. Hera appeared in the play in the guise of a priestess begging alms (Fragment 84); and Bacchic frenzy was incorporated as Lyssa (Fragment 85). By some the drama is regarded as satyric."

Aeschylus, Eumenides 24 ff (trans. Smyth) (Greek tragedy C5th B.C.) :
"Bromios [Dionysos] has held the region . . . ever since he, as a god, led the Bakkhai in war, and contrived for Pentheus death as of a hunted hare."

Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 2. 36-37 (trans. Aldrich) (Greek mythographer C2nd A.D.) :
"Dionysos crossed Thrake and came to Thebes, where he compelled the women to leave their homes and cavort in a frenzy on Kithairon. Now Pentheus, Ekhion's son by Aguae and current lord of the land after Kadmos, tried to prevent these goings-on. He went up on Kithairon to spy on the Bakkhai, but was torn to pieces by his mother Agaue, for in her madness she thought he was a wild animal. After Dionysos had demonstrated to the Thebans that he was a god, he went to Argos." [N.B. Apollodorus is apparently summarising the contents of Euripides Bacchae.]

Pausanias, Description of Greece 9. 5. 4 (trans. Jones) (Greek travelogue C2nd A.D.) :
"Now Pentheus the son of Ekhion [the king of Thebes who succeeded Kadmos] was also powerful by reason of his noble birth and friendship with the king [Kadmos]. Being a man of insolent character who had shown impiety to Dionysos, he was punished by the god."

Pausanias, Description of Greece 1. 20. 2 :
"There are paintings here [in the temple of Dionysos at Athens] . . . there are represented Pentheus and Lykourgos paying the penalty of their insolence to Dionysos."

Pausanias, Description of Greece 2. 2. 6-7 :
"They say that Pentheus [king of Thebes] treated Dionysos spitefully, his crowning outrage being that he went to Kithairon, to spy upon the women, and climbing up a tree beheld what was done. When the women detected Pentheus, they immediately dragged him down, and joined in tearing him, living as he was, limb from limb. Afterwards, as the Korinthians say, the Pythian priestess commanded them by an oracle to discover that tree and to worship it equally with the god. For this reason they have made these images from the tree."

Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 184 (trans. Grant) (Roman mythographer C2nd A.D.) :
"Pentheus, son of Echion and Agave, denied that Liber [Dionysos] was a god, and refused to introduce his Mysteries. Because of this, Agave his mother, along with her sisters Ino and Autonoe, in madness sent by Liber [Dionysos] tore him limb from limb. When Agave came to her senses and saw that at Liber's instigation she had committed such a crime, she fled from Thebes. In her wanderings she came to the territory of Illyria to King Lycotherses, who received her."

Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 239 :
"Mothers who killed their sons . . . Agave, daughter of Cadmus, killed Pentheus, son of Echion, at the instigation of Father Liber [Dionysos]."

Ovid, Metamorphoses 3. 513 ff (trans. Melville) (Roman epic C1st B.C. to C1st A.D.) :
"Pentheus Echionides (son of Echion), who scorned the gods, spurned him [the god Dionysos] and mocked the old man's [the seer Teiresias'] prophecies, taunting him with his blindness and the doom of his lost sight. Then shaking his white head, ‘How lucky you would be,’ the prophet warned, ‘If you too lost this light, and never saw the rites of Bacchus [Dionysos]. For the day shall dawn, not distant I foresee, when here shall come a new god, Liber Semeleia [Dionysos]. Unless you honour him with holy shrines, you shall be torn to pieces; far and wide you shall be strewn, and with your blood defile the forests and your mother and her sisters. So it shall come to pass. You will refuse the god his honour due and mourn that I in this my darkness saw too certainly.’
Even as he spoke, the son of Echion [Pentheus] thrust him away. His words proved true; his forecast was fulfilled. Liber [Dionysos] is there. The revellers' wild shrieks ring through the fields. The crowds come rushing out; men, women, nobles, commons, old and young stream to the unknown rites. ‘What lunacy has stolen your wits away, you Race of Mars (proles Marvotia), you Children of the Serpent (Anguigenae)?’
Pentheus cried. ‘Can clashing bronze, can pipes of curving horn, can conjuror's magic have such power that men who, undismayed, have faced the swords of war, the trumpet and the ranks of naked steel, quail before women's wailing, frenzy fired by wine, a bestial rabble, futile drums? You elders, you who sailed the distant seas and founded here a second Tyros [Thebes], made here your home in exile--shame on you, if you surrender them without a fight! You too, young men of sharper years, nearer my own, graced by your martial arms, not Bacchic wands, with helmets on your heads, not loops of leaves! Recall your lineage, brace your courage with the spirit of that Snake (Serpens) who killed, alone, so many. For his pool and spring he died. You, for your honour, you must fight and win! He did brave men to death. Now you must rout weaklings and save your country's name! If fate refuses Thebes long life, I'd wish her walls might fall to brave men and their batteries, and fire and sword resound. Our misery would have no guilt; our lot we'd need to mourn, not hide; our tears would never bring us shame. But now an unarmed boy [Dionysos] will capture Thebae, and in his service not the arts of war, weapons and cavalry, but tender garlands, myrrh-scented tresses and embroidered robes of gold and purple. Only stand aside, and here and now I'll force him to confess his father's name is false, his rites a lie. Why, if Acrisius [King of Argos] was man enough to spurn his sham divinity and shut the gates of Argos in his face, shall Pentheus and all Thebae shudder at this newcomer? Quick, now’ he bade his servants, ‘bring him here, their ringleader, in chains, and waste no time.’
His grandfather [Kadmos] and Athamas [his uncle] and all his courtiers upbraided him and tried their best to stop him, but in vain. Their words of warning whetted him and his wild rage, stung be restraint, increased; endeavours to control him made things worse. So I have seen a stream, where nothing blocks its course, run down smoothly with no great noise, but where it's checked by trees or boulders in its way it foams and boils and flows the fiercer for the block. Look now, the men come back spattered with blood, and when he asks where Bacchus [Dionysos] is, they say Bacchus they did not see, ‘But this man here, his comrade and his acolyte, we seized’; and hand over a Tyrrhenian, his arms bound behind his back, a follower of the god. Pentheus, with terrible anger in his eyes, glared at the man, and hardly could delay his punishment. ‘Before you die,’ he cried, ‘And, dying, give a lesson to the rest, tell me your name, your family, your country, and why you practise this new cult of yours.’
He answered undismayed, ‘My name's Acoetes [and he tells the story of Dionysos and the pirates] . . .’
‘We've listened to this rigmarole,’ said Pentheus, ‘To give our anger time to lose its force. Away with him, you salves! Rush him away! Rack him with fiendish tortures till he dies and send him down to the black night of Stygia.’
So there an then Acoetes Tyrrhenus was hauled off and locked in a strong cell; but while the fire, the steel, the instruments of cruel death, were being prepared, all of their own accord the doors flew open, all of their own accord the chains fell, freed by no one, from his arms. Echionides [Pentheus] stood firm.
This time he sent no scout, but sallied forth himself to where Cithaeron, the mountain chosen for the mysteries, resounded with the Bacchantes' shouts and songs. Like a high-mettled charger whinnying when brazen-throated trumpets sound for war, and fired with lust for battle, so the noise of long-drawn howls that echoed through the air excited Pentheus, his anger flared. In the encircling forest, half-way up, there lies a level clearing, bare of trees, open and in full view from every side. Here, as his impious gaze was fixed upon the mysteries, the first to see him, first to rush in frenzy, first to hurl her staff, her Bacchic staff, and wound her Pentheus was his mother. ‘Here!’ she called her sisters, ‘Here! That giant boar that prowls about our fields, I'm going to kill that boar!’
The whole made throng rush at him, all united, and pursue their frightened quarry, frightened now for sure, now using less fierce language, blaming now himself, admitting now that he's done wrong. Wounded, he cries, ‘Help, Aunt Autonoe! Mercy! Actaeon's ghost should move your mercy!’
Actaeon's name's unknown. She tore away his outstretched hand, and Ino seized and wrenched the other off. With no hands left to stretch out to his mother, ‘Look, mother!’ he cried, and showed the severed stumps. And at the sight Agave howled and tossed her head and hair, her streaming hair, and tore his head right off, and, as her bloody fingers clutched it, cried ‘Hurrah for victory! The triumph's mine!’
As swiftly as the winds of autumn strip form some tall tree its lightly-hanging leaves that frosts have fingered, so those wicked hands tore Pentheus limb from limb. That lesson learnt by his example, the Theban women throng the novel rites, honouring the god divine, and offering incense in his holy shrine."

Ovid, Metamorphoses 4. 22 ff :
"You, most worshipful [Dionysos], sent to their doom Lycurgus with his two-edged battleaxe, and Pentheus, both blasphemers."

Ovid, Metamorphoses 4. 422 ff :
"[Dionysos] had power to . . . make a mother [Euadne] murder the son [Pentheus] she bore."

Seneca, Oedipus 435 ff (trans. Miller) (Roman tragedy C1st A.D.) :
"Now midst Cadmean dames has come a maenad [Agaue, mother of Pentheus], the impious comrade of Ogygian Bacchus, with sacred fawn-skins girt about her loins, her hand a light thyrsus brandishing. Their hearts maddened by thee, the matrons have set their hair a-flowing; and at length, after the rending of Pentheus' limbs, the Bacchanals, their bodies now freed from the frenzy, looked on their infamous deed as though they knew it not."

Seneca, Hercules Furens 484 ff :
"[On the conquests of Dionysos:] Sacred Cithaeron has flowed with the blood of Ophionian slaughter [i.e. Pentheus]."

Oppian, Cynegetica 4. 230 ff (trans. Mair) (Greek poet C3rd A.D.) :
"Ino, scion of Agenor, reared the infant Bakkhos and first gave her breast to the son of Zeus, and Autonoe likewise and Agaue joined in nursing him, but not in the baleful halls of Athamas, but on the mountain which at that time men called by the name Meros (Thigh). For greatly fearing the mighty spouse of Zeus [Hera] and dreading the tyrant Pentheus, son of Ekhion, they laid the holy child in a coffer of pine and covered it with fawn-skins and wreathed it with clusters of the vine, in a grotto where round the child they danced the mystic dance and beat drums and clashed cymbals in their hands, to veil the cries of the infant [see the birth of Dionysos for this section from Oppian] . . .
And now [grown up] he was attended by holy companies [of Bakkhantes], and over all the earth were spread the gifts of Dionysos, son of Thyone, and everywhere he went about showing forth his excellence to men. Late and last he set foot in Thebes, and all the daughters of Kadmos came to meet the son of fire.
But rash Pentheus bound the hands of Dionysos that should not be bound and threatened with his own murderous hands to rend the god. He had not regard unto the white hair of Tyrian Kadmos nor to [his mother] Agaue grovelling at his feet, but called to his ill-fated companion to hale away the god--to hale him away and shut him up--and he drave away the choir of women. Now the guards of Pentheus thought to carry away Bromios [Dionysos] in bond of iron, and so thought the other Kadmeians; but the bonds touched not the god. And the heart of the women worshippers was chilled, and they cast on the ground all the garlands from their temples and the holy emblems of their hands, and the cheeks of all the worshippers of Bromios flowed with tears. And straightway they cried : ‘Io! Blessed one, O Dionysos, kindle thou the flaming lightning of thy father and shake the earth and give us speedy vengeance on the evil tyrant. And, O son of fire, make Pentheus a bull upon the hills, make Pentheus of evil name a bull and make us ravenous wild beasts, armed with deadly claws, that, O Dionysos, we may rend him in our mouths.’
So spake they praying and the lord of Nysa speedily hearkened to their prayer. Pentheus he made a bull of deadly eye and arched his neck and made the horns spring from his forehead. But to the women he gave the grey eyes of a wild beast and armed their jaws and on their backs put a spotted hide like that of fawns and made them a savage race. And, by the devising of the god having changed their fair flesh, in the form of leopards they rent Pentheus among the rocks. Such things let us sing, such tings let us believe in our hearts! But as for the deeds of the women in the glens of Kithairon, or the tales told of those wicked mothers [Agaue, mother of Pentheus and her sisters, usually blamed for the sparagmos of Pentheus], alien to Dionysos, these are the impious falsehoods of minstrels."

Other references not currently quoted here: Nonnus Dionysiaca 5.555 & 44.74 & 46.258, Propertius 3.17.24.

For the related MYTH of the blasphemy of Pentheus' mother Agaue see:
Dionysus Wrath: Cadmeides


The three sisters of Semele, Agaue, Autonoe and Ino appear to have suffered their family calamities as punishment for slandering Dionysos' mother Semele after her death. The son of Agaue, Pentheus was torn apart by the Bakkhantes while spying on the rites of Dionysos, Autonoe lost her son Aktaion in another sparagmos, torn apart by his hounds, and Ino's son Learkhos was dismembered by his own father Athamas in a state of madness.

Euripides, Bacchae 23 ff (trans. Buckley) (Greek tragedy C5th B.C.) :
"Dionysos: I have come to this Hellene city [Thebes] first, having already set those other lands to dance and established my mysteries (telete) there, so that I might be a deity manifest among men. In this land of Hellas, I have first excited Thebes to my cry, fitting a fawn-skin to my body and taking a thyrsos in my hand, a weapon of ivy. For my mother's sisters, the ones who least should, claimed that I, Dionysos, was not the child of Zeus, but that Semele had conceived a child from a mortal father and then ascribed the sin of her bed to Zeus, a trick of Kadmos', for which they boasted that Zeus killed her, because she had told a false tale about her marriage. Therefore I have goaded them from the house in frenzy, and they dwell in the mountains, out of their wits; and I have compelled them to wear the outfit of my mysteries (orgia). And all the female offspring of Thebes, as many as are women, I have driven maddened from the house, and they, mingled with the daughters of Kadmos, sit on roofless rocks beneath green pines. For this city must learn, even if it is unwilling, that it is not initiated into my Bacchic rites (Bakkheuma), and that I plead the case of my mother, Semele, in appearing manifest to mortals as a divinity whom she bore to Zeus."

Euripides, Bacchae 1275 ff :
"[Dionysos drives Agaue into a Bakkhic frenzy on Mt Kithairon, and she believing her son Pentheus to be a wild beast, rips the head from his body--see Dionysus Wrath: Pentheus (above). Upon returning to Thebes, Kadmos reveals to her the truth :]
Kadmos : Whose head do you hold in your hands?
Agaue : A lion's, as they who hunted him down said.
Kadmos : Examine it correctly then; it takes but little effort to see.
Agaue : Ah! What do I see? What is this that I carry in my hands?
Kadmos : Look at it and learn more clearly.
Agaue : I see the greatest grief, wretched that I am.
Kadmos : Does it seem to you to be like a lion?
Agaue : No, but I, wretched, hold the head of Pentheus.
Kadmos : Yes, much lamented before you recognized him.
Agaue : Who killed him? How did he come into my hands?
Kadmos : Miserable truth, how inopportunely you arrive!
Agaue : Tell me. My heart leaps at what is to come.
Kadmos : You and your sisters killed him.
Agaue : Where did he die? Was it here at home, or in what place?
Kadmos : Where formerly dogs divided Aktaion among themselves.
Agaue : And why did this ill-fated man go to Kithairon?
Kadmos : He went to mock the god and your revelry.
Agaue : But in what way did we go there?
Kadmos : You were mad, and the whole city was frantic with Bakkhos.
Agaue : Dionysos destroyed us--now I understand.
Kadmos : Being insulted with insolence, for you did not consider him a god . . .
Agaue : What part did Pentheus have in my folly?
Kadmos : He, like you, did not revere the god, who therefore joined all in one ruin, both you and this one here, and thus destroyed the house and me, who am bereft of my male children and see this offspring of your womb, wretched woman, most miserably and shamefully slain. He was the hope of our line - your, child, who supported the house, son of my daughter . . .
Agaue : O father, I will go into exile deprived of you.
Kadmos : Why do you embrace me with your hands, child, like a swan for its exhausted gray-haired parent?
Agaue : For where can I turn, banished from my father-land?
Kadmos : I do not know, child; your father is a poor ally.
Agaue : Farewell, house, farewell, city of my forefathers. In misfortune I leave you, a fugitive from my chamber.
Kadmos : Go now, child, to the land of Aristaios [her husband]
Agaue : I grieve for you, father.
Kadmos : And I for you, child, and I weep for your sisters."

Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 3. 26 (trans. Aldrich) (Greek mythographer C2nd A.D.) :
"After Semele's death the remaining daughters of Kadmos [Ino, Agaue, Autonoe] circulated the story that she had slept with a mortal, thereafter accusing Zeus, and because of this had been killed by a thunderbolt."

Ovid, Metamorphoses 4. 416 ff (trans. Melville) (Roman epic C1st B.C. to C1st A.D.) :
"Bacchus' [Dionysos'] divinity was hymned through all Thebae, and Ino everywhere told of the god's (her nephew's) mighty power. Of all the sisters she alone was spared sorrow except her sorrow for her sake. Her pride was high, pride in her children, pride in Athamas, her husband and the god, her foster-child."

For the MYTH of the death of Agaue's son see Dionysus Wrath: Pentheus
For the MYTH of the death of Ino's son see Dionysus Favour: Ino
For the MYTH of the death of Autonoe's son see Artemis Wrath: Actaeon





A complete bibliography of the translations quoted on this page.