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 WorthThe 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 onEumenides 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.”



  • Aeschylus, Eumenides – Greek Tragedy C5th BC
  • Aeschylus, Fragments – Greek Tragedy C5th BC
  • Euripides, Bacchae – Greek Tragedy C5th BC
  • Apollodorus, The Library – Greek Mythography C2nd BC
  • Pausanias, Guide to Greece – Greek Geography C2nd AD
  • Hyginus, Fabulae – Latin Mythography C2nd AD
  • Ovid, Metamorphoses – Latin Epic C1st BC – C1st AD
  • Seneca, Oedipus – Latin Tragedy C1st AD
  • Oppian, Cynegetica – Greek Poetry C3rd AD

Source: Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology


About sooteris kyritsis

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