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N.S. Gill

Myth Monday - The Death of Pentheus

By October 15, 2012

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Dionysus and Panther in the Domus dell'Ortaglia 2nd C. A.D.
Dionysus and Panther in the Domus dell'Ortaglia 2nd C. A.D
CC Stefano Bolognini at Wikimedia.

This week's Myth Monday is prompted by an error I heard that I hope was a slip of the tongue. Before you go further, see if you already know what the right answer to this question is:

Here is a hint: A technical term used to describe his death is sparagmos. And here is another: While that was, indeed, a hint, the right answer is not quite so obvious.


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I described sparagmos in an earlier Myth Monday, but before you read it, see if you can remember the answer to a related question (bust picture is a hint):

Dionysus is usually said to be the god of wine, which he was, but he was important for the Greeks for other reasons, including the festivals in his honor at which playwrights competed. One of his mortal cousins was King Pentheus of Thebes, the same city that earlier saw the blinding and exile of the incestuous King Oedipus. Pentheus failed to honor his cousin as a god, cast aspersions on the god's mother, and tried to bind him with shackles.

"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."
Bacchae ('Bacchantes'), Buckley translation

Pentheus may have been a king, but he was no match for a god.

[The aforementioned earlier Myth Monday: Dionysus, Dismemberment, and the Origin of Humans.]

In Greek tragedy, the horrible murder and mayhem happens offstage, with messengers bringing news to the other actors, the chorus, and the audience.

"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."
Bacchae, Buckley translation

The author of this gruesome play was already dead when the play was performed at the Athenian festival honoring Dionysus. Appropriately, but likely without basis in fact, this same author was said to have suffered sparagmos as well, at the hands of a pack of hounds.

Read more about the tragedy:

Previous 2012 Myth Mondays:

  1. Hercules Hurls His Guest
  2. Scylla
  3. Olympics Origins II: Myrtilos
  4. Hercules the Giant-Killer
  5. The First Tyrant
  6. The King and the Harpies
  7. The Dawn Goddess Loves a Mortal
  8. Vediovis
  9. Even a Boar Wishes to Kiss Adonis
  10. Hero and Leander
  11. Who Were the Argonauts?
  12. The Chimera
  13. Narcissus and Echo
  14. How Perseus Fits In
  15. Hesiod and the Bestiary
  16. The First Olympics Origins I
  17. Dionysus and the Return of Hephaestus
  18. Zeus, the Recent Victor of the Titanomachy, Wins Once More in Hesiod's 'Theogony'
  19. Atlas, the Titan Who Didn't Shrug
  20. Troilus and ... Polyxena
  21. Who Is the Virgo?
  22. Pandora's Box
  23. Achilles and His Heel
  24. Hercules and His Labors
  25. The First Humans

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