Document belonging to the Greek Mythology Link, a web site created by Carlos Parada, author of Genealogical Guide to Greek Mythology
Characters • Places • TopicsImagesBibliographyPDF Editions
AboutCopyright © 1997 Carlos Parada and Maicar Förlag.

Pentheus 1

King Pentheus 1 comes in person to stop Dionysus 2. 2629: Pentheus and Dionysus. Drawing from the 17C.

"Blessed is he who, being fortunate and knowing the rites of the gods, keeps his life pure and has his soul initiated into the Bacchic revels, dancing in inspired frenzy over the mountains with holy purifications, and who, revering the mysteries of great mother Cybele, brandishing the thyrsos, garlanded with ivy, serves Dionysus." (Euripides, Bacchanals 73).

"Will anyone say that I do not respect Old Age, being about to dance with my head covered in ivy? No, for the god has made no distinction as to whether it is right for men young or old to dance, but wishes to have common honors from all and to be extolled, setting no one apart." (Tiresias to Cadmus. Euripides, Bacchanals 205).

"One surpass another in different ways, in wealth or power. There are innumerable hopes to innumerable men, and some result in wealth to mortals, while others fail. But I call him blessed whose life is happy day to day." (Euripides, Bacchanals 908).

Pentheus 1 is the king of Thebes who denied the divinity of Dionysus 2, and was torn limb from limb by the MAENADS.

King Pentheus 1

King Pentheus 1 came to the throne of Thebes after Cadmus, the founder of the city. He was the son of Echion 2, who is one of the so called SPARTI, men born from the teeth of a dragon of Ares. The SPARTI were regarded, up to historical times, as an influential clan in the city of Thebes. Pentheus 1's mother was Agave 2, one of the daughters of Cadmus and Harmonia 1. On account of his noble birth, Pentheus 1 was a powerful king, but also because of this he was an arrogant man of insolent and impious character, and letting himself be led by such unfortunate features, he came to be punished by the the god of the vine Dionysus 2.

Previous unwise deeds of Pentheus 1

According to some, it was unwise Pentheus 1 who opened the gates of Thebes to the blood-stained brothers Nycteus 2 and Lycus 5, enrolling them as citizens, and allowing them to become influential, despite the fact that they had already killed a man, namely King Phlegyas 1, who reigned somewhere in Boeotia and was the grandfather of Asclepius. These two jewels, who in reality were outsiders since they came from the island of Euboea, usurped in time the government of Thebes, involved the city in foreign wars, and committed other crimes, as was the abduction, imprisonment, and torture by Lycus 5 and his cruel wife Dirce of Antiope 3, mother of Amphion 1 and Zethus. That was Pentheus 1's gift to his city. But the willingness with which he wished to regale Thebes with these ambitious brothers, he did not show when the god of the vine came to the city, and believing Dionysus 2 to be a mortal man and not a god, he opposed him and thus met his death.

Dionysus 2 in Thebes

Dionysus 2 came to Thebes after a long journey in Asian countries in the form of a mortal man, wishing to introduce his rites in the city where his mother Semele had died stricken by thunder because of Hera's wrath. And he also chose Thebes, as the first city in Hellas to know the vine and its rites because Semele's sisters, out of jealousy, denied that he was the son of Zeus. For they declared that Semele had consorted with a mortal man, and that Cadmus, in order to save his daughter's reputation, invented the story of Zeus' love for her, adding that because of that unholy lie Zeus had killed her. So, in order to punish the intriguers and show them what it meant not to be initiated in the Bacchic rites, Dionysus 2 came to the city, and made the Theban women leave their houses in frenzy, having them dwell in the mountains, out of their wits, and wearing the outfits of his mysteries. And he decided that this mad state of affairs should proceed until they acknowledged that Semele had borne a son to Zeus.

The obstinacy of Pentheus 1

However, no matter what happened, Pentheus 1 fought against the god, driving him away from all sacrifices, and making no mention of him in his prayers. And because of the obstinacy of the king, Thebes refused to crown itself with ivy branches, to twine the thyrsoi, and to wear fawn-skins. The city being in a state of disorder, Pentheus 1 decided to stop the ill-working revelry by hunting those feasting in the mountains, and having them bound in iron-fetters. And Dionysus 2, whom he saw glancing much in the manner of Aphrodite and spending day and night with young girls while he allured them with his mysteries, he called a sorcerer and a conjuror came from abroad. And yet the seer Tiresias had warned him long before, for he told him:

"Unless you worship Dionysus as is his due, you will be torn into a thousand pieces and scattered everywhere …" (Tiresias to Pentheus 1. Ovid, Metamorphoses 3.520).

Two ways to kill a man

Dionysus 2: too sensual, too effeminate, too foreign to be a god, according to Pentheus 1. 0329: Bacchus Richelieu. Roman copy from Greek original from 320 BC. Archaeologie Staatssamlung.

In particular, Pentheus 1 was disgusted with the way Dionysus 2 used to shake his hair, and he considered to put a remedy to that kind of provocative insolence by cutting his head off. At other times, the king thought that Dionysus 2 was rather worthy of a terrible death by hanging, since claiming to be the son of Zeus was a formidable crime, and he also thought that he Pentheus 1 was the one to punish impiety, as if the gods could not avenge themselves if and when they wish. But the method of execution was not the only concern of Pentheus 1:

"… where women have the delight of the grape-cluster at a feast, I say that none of their rites is healthy any longer." (Pentheus 1 to Tiresias. Euripides, Bacchanals 261).

Tiresias' lecture

The seer Tiresias attempted to persuade the king:

"This new god, whom you ridicule, I am unable to express how great he will be throughout Hellas. For two things, young man, are first among men: the goddess Demeter …—she nourishes mortals with dry food; but he who came afterwards … discovered a match to it, the liquid drink of the grape, and introduced it to mortals. It releases wretched mortals from grief, whenever they are filled with the stream of the vine, and gives them sleep, a means of forgetting their daily troubles, nor is there another cure for hardships." (Tiresias to Pentheus 1. Euripides, Bacchanals 275).

Tiresias also tried, being a seer, to show the king that revelry and madness may have in them prophetic skill. He advised Pentheus 1 to celebrate the rites of Dionysus 2, for, he said, the power that government may have over men is weaker than the power of the god when he enters the body in full force. And as to the corruption of women, Tiresias added:

"Dionysus will not compel women to be modest in regard to Aphrodite, but in nature, where modesty always dwells, you must look for that. For she who is modest will not be corrupted in Bacchic revelry." (Tiresias to Pentheus 1. Euripides, Bacchanals 315).

A third way to kill a man

Tiresias was supported by old Cadmus, but Pentheus 1 was not likely to be persuaded, for when power goes along with arrogance it sees a foe in whatever or whoever escapes its limitless thirst for control. And since Pentheus 1 could not see in Dionysus 2 but an effeminate stranger corrupting the women and polluting the Theban beds, he just thought that it was time to invent yet a third way of executing the stranger, and so he thought that stoning him would be appropriate.

Crazy thoughts

But, as it has been said, who can think of cutting heads, hanging, or stoning to death, but an insolent maniac? For this was not a god of destruction and lawlessness, in whose banquets the guests wore garlands, and joined in dances, laughing with the music of the flute. This was a god who brought relief from all cares, for life is short; and by permanently pursuing great things, there are many who do not achieve what is present, and they themselves would not deem many other things better than having their hearts soothed by both Aphrodite and Dionysus 2. For these have led many to the presence of the MUSES and the CHARITES, and have calmed their Desire. Dionysus 2 does not know of ugly strife, but instead is a lover of Peace, who nourishes youth and gives riches. That is why Dionysus 2 abhors only those, who unable to keep away from the over-wise, do not care about leading a happy life by day and by night.

Guards against Garlands

Pentheus 1 was not a reasonable man, but instead an arrogant ruler with confused ideas about law and order. So he sent guards in order to release the garlands to the winds, and to carry bound in the chains of the public prison those who wore them. And that is how Dionysus 2 himself, looking as a Bacchant, was taken chained to the king, who neither appreciated his long hair scattered over his cheeks, nor his soft skin, nor his whole appearance, which Pentheus 1 judged to be "hunting after Aphrodite."

The MAENADS killing Pentheus 1. 8829: Pentheus' død. Originalen i fresko findes i Vettiernes hus, Pompeii. Romersk ca. 70 e. Kr. (Royal Cast Collection, Copenhagen).

Marvels in the mountain

Pentheus 1, despite all warnings, imprisoned Dionysus 2, but he, being a god, set himself free when he wished, and having put Pentheus 1's home on fire, knocked it to the ground. In the meantime, a messenger reported to the king that marvels were taking place in Mount Cithaeron where the Theban women had been dancing. For, to begin with, they were not drunk with the goblet, or entranced by the flute, and there was no, as the king used to call it to all who would listen, "hunting of Aphrodite." But instead there were women, old and young, who were a marvel of orderliness to see, giving milk to gazelles and wolf-pups, for among them there were several, who having abandoned their new-born children, had their breasts swollen. And they put on garlands of ivy and oak, and in the place where one of them stroke the ground with her thyrsos, which is a staff that is crowned with ivy, there came forth a stream of wine. And when they scratched the earth with their fingers, they obtained streams of milk, and honey dripped from the thyrsoi. This is what happened when the MAENADS were left in peace. But when they were ambushed and persecuted by the king's men, they could tear apart whoever came in their way, man or animal. For when the guards escaped their fury, the women sprang on the heifers, and rent asunder the calves, while others tore apart cows and stumbled fierce bulls to the ground. And in the same way, resembling soldiers, they could fall upon towns, turning everything upside down, and snatching the children from their homes. And they could also carry heavy objects on their shoulders without holding them with bounds, and they were seen carrying fire on their locks without being burned. And when those who were thus plundered by the MAENADS opposed them with their arms, they were unable to wound them, for no blood came forth when they were touched by weapons, whereas the MAENADS continuously wounded their enemies by hurling the thyrsoi at them.

Exhortation to Pentheus 1

So seeing how unarmed women were defeating armed men, some began to understand that such things cannot be achieved without the help of a god, and that is why they exhorted Pentheus 1 to do as follows:

"Receive this god then, whoever he is, into this city, master. For he is great in other respects, and they say this too of him, as I hear, that he gives to mortals the vine that puts an end to grief. Without wine there is no longer Aphrodite or any other pleasant thing for men." (Messenger to Pentheus 1. Euripides, Bacchanals 770).

Helmets better than wreaths

But why should the king let himself be humiliated by weak women, when he had shield-bearers,riders, horses, and the power to deploy them and stage a devastating assault? This original thought occurred in the mind of Pentheus 1, and he decided to order such an attack in an attempt to make a great, and as some would say "historic" slaughter of the women. For clashing cymbals, tricks of magic, hysterical cries, drunkenness, and vulgarity, he thought, are nothing compared to drawn swords, trumpets, horsemen, and lines of spears. And all the same, helmets are a better shelter than garlands or wreaths.

Hopes to watch what will disgust him

But before he passed into action, he was persuaded by Dionysus 2, who was disguised as a priest of his own rites, to go first and spy the MAENADS in the woods, being advised by the god to go dressed as a woman, for otherwise they would kill him. And when he came, hiding as spies do and (strange enough) hoping to watch what would disgust him, that is, the shameful acts of the MAENADS, Dionysus 2 placed him on the top of a pine, thus exposing him, and ordered the women to punish him.

Torn limb by limb

5107: Head of Maenad, Cerveteri 4C BC. Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen.

And Pentheus 1's own mother Agave 2, for she and her sisters, having lost their minds, were among the MAENADS, was the first to fall upon him, having dragged him down. And seizing one of his arms at the elbow and propping her foot against her son's side, she tore out his shoulder, for that is the kind of strength that the god bestows on his followers. Having torn him limb from limb, one of the MAENADS bore one arm, another a foot, and his ribs were stripped bare from their tearings. When Pentheus 1 was thus turned into pieces, they started playing a game of catch with his flesh, while Agave 2 fixed the king's head on the end of a thyrsos, carrying it through Mount Cithaeron and believing she had hunted a savage lion. It was not until later, when she recovered her mind, that she learned what she had done to her son.

Daughters of Cadmus also punished

This is how Dionysus 2 punished both Pentheus 1, his mother, and her sisters, letting them destroy each other by means of their own violence, and joining all of them in one ruin for having failed to revere him as a god.

Fateful Mount Cithaeron

These events occurred in Cithaeron, the mountain between Boeotia and Attica, called after King Cithaeron of the Plataeans, a fateful mountain for the Thebans, for there Actaeon lost his life, the male NIOBIDS were slaughtered by Apollo, the child Oedipus was exposed by his parents, and the ultimatum of the SEVEN AGAINST THEBES was issued. After Pentheus 1's death, Cadmus, along with his wife Harmonia 1 and their daughter Agave 2, left Thebes, and having come to Illyria, he took the throne from King Lycotherses, whom Agave 2 killed, and reigned there until the end of his life. The death of Agave 2 has not been reported.

Another Pentheus

Pentheus 2 was also a Theban. He was among those who laid an ambush for Tydeus 2, the ambassador of the SEVEN AGAINST THEBES, when he returned from the city. Pentheus 2 was killed by Tydeus 2 on the same occasion.



Echion 2 & Agave 2

Echion 2 is one of the SPARTI, and Agave 2 was daughter of Cadmus.
Besides Pentheus 1, Echion 2 and Agave 2 had a daughter Epirus, who was journeying with Cadmus and Harmonia 1, bearing the remains of Pentheus 1, when she died. The country of her death was called Epirus after her.

Related sections Thebes, Madness  

Apd.3.5.2; Eur.Bacc. passim; Hyg.Fab.76, 184, 239; Nonn.5.555, 44.74, 46.258; Ov.Met.3.712ff.; Pau.2.2.7; Prop.3.17.24.