IN Thebes, Bacchus or Dionysus, grandson of Cadmus, the son of Zeus and Semele, was born in a miraculous manner. This god of fruitfulness, the discoverer of the grape, was reared in India, but soon left the nymphs who had sheltered and cherished him and voyaged from land to land to spread his new teachings, to instruct people how to grow the vine which gladdens the heart, and bid them found shrines in his honor. Great was the measure of kindness he lavished upon his friends, and just as great the harshness he dealt those who refused to recognize his divinity. His fame had already reached Greece and penetrated to the city of his birth.
Thebes at that time was ruled by Pentheus, to whom Cadmus had given his kingdom. Pentheus was the son of earthborn Echion and Agave, the sister of the wine-god’s mother. This king of Thebes scorned the gods and most of all his kinsman Dionysus. And so when he approached with his retinue of exultant Bacchantes to reveal himself as a god, Pentheus ignored the warning of Tiresias, the blind and aged seer, and when he heard that Theban men and women and girls were flocking to adore the new god, he began to rage against them.
“What madness has come upon you?” he asked. “You Thebans, who are descended from the dragon, you who have never retreated from the trumpet that summons to battle, or from the death-bringing sword, will you now surrender to a mob of soft-handed fools and women? And you people of Phoenicia, who came from beyond the sea and founded a city in honor of your old gods, have you forgotten the race of heroes who begot you? Will you suffer an unarmed boy to conquer Thebes, a weakling whose locks drip with myrrh, who wreathes his tender brow with vine-leaves, who goes robed in purple and gold rather than in mail, who cannot master a horse, and is indifferent to wars and feuds? If only you will come to your senses, I shall soon force him to own he is mortal just like myself, who am his cousin; that Zeus is not his father, and that all these rites and mummeries are the invention of a pretender.” And he turned to his servants and commanded them to seize the author of this new madness, wherever they might come upon him, and bring him to the city in chains.
The friends and kinsmen of Pentheus were aghast at his insolent words. His grandfather Cadmus who was still alive though very old, shook his white head in disapproval. But counsel and dissent only served to swell the king’s rage, which leaped over all the stumbling-stones set in his path as an angry river breaks through a dam.
In the meantime his servants returned, and their faces were stained with blood. “Where is Dionysus?” Pentheus shouted to them.
“We could not find him anywhere,” they replied. “But we have brought you one of his followers. He has not been with him very long, it seems.”
Pentheus studied his captive with furious eyes and cried: “You are doomed! You must die on the instant, as a warning example to the rest. What is your name? Who are your parents? Where did you come from? And tell me also why you perform these silly, newfangled rites?”
The prisoner answered, and his voice was calm and without fear. “My name is Acoetes, Maeonia is my country, and my parents are of the common people. Neither fields nor flocks did my father leave me. All he taught me was how to fish with the rod, for this skill was the sole treasure he possessed. Soon I also learned how to manage a ship and to recognize the stars and the constellations, to know the winds, and what harbors are good. I became a seaman. Once, on a voyage to Delos, I came to an unknown coast where we cast anchor. I jumped from the ship, landed on the wet sand, and spent the night ashore without my comrades. The next morning I rose at early dawn and climbed a hill to find out what the winds held in store. In the meantime my comrades had also left the ship and, on my way back, I met them dragging with them a youth they had seized on the empty strand. The boy had a girlish beauty. He was dazed with wine and drowsy, and walked with faltering steps. When I looked at him more closely it seemed to me that his face, and the way he moved and bore himself, betrayed one more than mortal. ‘I do not know what god it is who is hidden within this youth.’ I called to the crew. ‘But I am wholly certain that it is a god.’ Then I turned to the boy. ‘Whoever you may be,’ I said, ‘I implore you to give us your favor and speed our work. Forgive these who carried you off!’
“ ‘What foolishness is this!’ cried one of the men. ‘Leave off praying to him.’ And the others laughed. Blinded by their greed for profit, they took hold of the boy and started dragging him on to the ship. It was in vain that I resisted. The youngest and sturdiest in the mob, a fugitive from a Tyrrhenian city where he had committed murder, took me by the throat and cast me overboard. Had I not caught my foot in the rigging, I would surely have drowned. All this time the boy lay on deck as though in a deep sleep. Suddenly, wakened perhaps by the noise, he started up, sobered, and went up to the sailors. ‘What is all this?’ he cried. ‘Tell me what destiny has brought me here and where you are taking me?’
“ ‘Do not be afraid, boy,’ said one of the men, falsely reassuring him. ‘Just tell us the port you wish to go to, and we will set you ashore wherever you say.’
“ ‘Then steer your course to the island of Naxos,’ the youth replied, ‘for that is my home.’
“They swore by all the gods to do as he bade them, and told me to set the sails. Naxos lay to our right, but when I shortened the sails accordingly, they signed to me and whispered: ‘What are you up to, you fool! Are you mad? Go left!’
“I was amazed and incredulous. ‘Let another take over and steer the ship,’ I said, and stepped aside.
“ ‘As if our welfare on this voyage depended upon you!’ a coarse fellow called to me derisively, and proceeded to set the sails in my stead. And he turned the ship away from Naxos and steered an opposite course. The young god stood at the stern and gazed out upon the sea. His lips curved to a scornful smile as though he had only just discovered the sailor’s crude deceit. At last he spoke, pretending to weep. ‘Alas! These are not the promised shores. This is not the land I asked to go to! Do you think that grown men ought to trick a child?’ But the impious crew made mock of his tears and mine and plied their oars with swift and lusty strokes. But suddenly the ship stood still in the ocean, as motionless as if it were beached. In vain did they strike the waves with their poles, spread all the sails, and strive on with redoubled effort. The oars were twined with ivy, and vines clung about the mast with delicate tendrils and, growing upward in wide curve, hung the sails with rich clusters of fruit. Dionysus himself—for it was he!—stood upright in divine splendor. A fillet of leaves bound his forehead, and in his hand was the thyrsus garlanded with vine. Around him, in unsubstantial vision, tigers, lynxes, and panthers crouched on the deck, and a stream of scented wine flowed through the ship. The crew recoiled from him in terror and madness. One was about to scream, but found his lips and nose grown to a fish’s mouth, and before the rest could give voice to their horror at the sight, the same thing happened to them. Their bodies dwindled, and the skin hardened to bluish scales. Their spines arched, their arms shrank to fins, their feet fused to a tail. All had turned into fish, leaped into the sea, and bobbed up and down with the waves. Of twenty men I was the only one left, and I trembled in every limb, thinking that on the very next instant I too should lose my human shape. But Dionysus spoke to me kindly, for I had done him no harm. ‘Do not be alarmed,’ he said. ‘Take me to Naxos.’ And when we reached the island, he initiated me into the mysteries of his service at his holy altar.”
“We have been listening to your chatter far too long,” cried King Pentheus. “Seize him!” he commanded his men. “Rend him with a thousand tortures and dispatch him to the underworld!” His henchmen obeyed. They shackled the seaman and cast him into a deep dungeon, but an invisible hand set him free.
This incident marked the beginning of the persecution visited upon the followers of Dionysus. Agave, mother of Pentheus, and her sisters had taken part in the wild rites of the god. The king sent for them and had all the Bacchantes thrown into the city prison. But they too slipped from their bonds without mortal aid. The gates of their jail flew open, and they rushed out into the woods, their veins hot with Bacchic frenzy. As for the servant who had been sent to capture the god himself with the aid of an armed force—he returned in utter bewilderment, for Dionysus had held out his hands for the shackles with a smile. And now he stood bound before the king, who could not help wondering at his radiant young beauty. Yet Pentheus obstinately held to his error and persisted in treating him as a vagabond, an adventurer who feigned to be a god. He had the captive weighed with chains and thrust into a dark cell at the back of the palace, where the horses had their mangers. But at a word from the god the earth shook, the walls crumbled, and his bonds dissolved. Unharmed and in even greater loveliness he appeared among his worshippers.
Messenger after messenger came to King Pentheus and brought him tidings of the miracles the bands of frenzied women, led by his mother and sisters, were working in the wood. They had only to strike the rock with their wands, and clear water or fragrant wine bubbled and gushed from the barren stone. Beneath the touch of the thyrsus, streams turned to milk, and hollow trees dripped with pale honey. “And had you, yourself, been there, O king,” said one of the messengers, “and seen the god against whom you rail, you would have thrown yourself on the earth at his feet, and your lips would have uttered prayers.”
All this only served to make the hatred of Pentheus more bitter. He ordered his riders and armed troops, heavy and light, to pursue the host of women. At this Dionysus returned of his own accord and came before the king as his own emissary. He promised Pentheus to bring back the Maenads, if the king would don woman’s raiment, lest seeing him—a man, and uninitiate—they tear him to pieces. Reluctantly and full of suspicion Pentheus accepted this proposal. In the end he followed the god out of the city, already stricken with the madness Dionysus had sent upon him. He seemed to see two suns, a twofold Thebes, and each of the city gates doubled. Dionysus looked like a bull to him, a beast with great horns on his head. Against his will he fell under the Bacchic spell. He begged for a thyrsus and, when it was given him, stormed away in frenzy and exultation.
In this fashion they came to a deep valley, rich in springs and shaded with pines, where the priestesses of Bacchus were assembled, some singing hymns to their god, others twining their staffs with fresh ivy. But either Pentheus was stricken with blindness, or his guide had succeeded in leading him by such roundabout ways that he did not observe the throngs of women. And now the god lifted his hand and—a marvel having come to pass—it reached to the top of a tall pine, which he curved as one twists a willow withe. Then he perched Pentheus in the topmost boughs and gradually, and with due care, allowed the tree to return to its upright position. Oddly enough, the king did not fall and suddenly appeared in full sight, high up in the pine where the Bacchantes could see him without being seen themselves. And now Dionysus called down into the valley, and his voice rang loud and clear: “Behold him who made mock of our holiest rites! Behold and punish him!”
The air was still. No leaf quivered on its stem, no creature made a sound. The Maenads lifted their heads. Their eyes were glazed with wild light as they listened to the voice which came a second time. When they knew it for their master’s, they sped swifter than doves. In divine madness they forded the rivers which had overflowed their banks, and thorny thickets parted to let them pass. At last they were close enough to recognize their king and persecutor clinging to the topmost boughs of the pine. First they hurled stones, boughs torn from trees, and their wands, but they could not reach the height where he hung precariously among the green needles. Then they took the hard wood of oak and dug around the pine until the roots were laid bare, and Pentheus, groaning aloud, fell with the falling trunk. His mother Agave, on whose lids the god had laid a spell so that she did not recognize her son, signed for the slaughter to begin. Terror had restored the king to his senses. “Not you, Mother! Let it not be you who punishes the sins of her own child!” he cried, throwing his arms about her neck. “Do you not know your own son, your son Pentheus, whom you bore in Echion’s house?” But the frantic priestess of Bacchus foamed at the mouth and stared at him with wide-open eyes. And what she saw was not her son but a mountain lion, and gripping his right shoulder she tore out his arm. Her sisters wrested out his left, and then the whole raging band closed upon him, each seizing some part of his body until he was wrenched limb from limb. Agave herself clutched his head in her bloodstained hands, fastened it upon her thyrsus, still believing it to be the head of a lion, and carried it triumphantly through the woods of Cithaeron.
Thus did the god Dionysus take revenge on one who had scoffed at his sacred rites.