When the god of madness entered his native city of Thebes, expecting that his royal family would acknowledge him, he was rejected by king Pentheus, by the king’s mother Agave and by his aunts, but not by Cadmus, grandfather of both the god and the king. Angry, the god introduced his cult of madness to women of the city, among them Agave, who gathered out of the city, in Bacchic trance. God of madness but also god of tricks, he lured Pentheus into a trap, since the king wanted to spy on these women who were insanely conquered by the new madness. In a woman’s disguise, Pentheus tried to hide and check on the wild behaviour of the group of maenads. When the women from the group discover him, even his own mother, possessed by the god, cannot recognise him.
In this part of The Bacchae written by Euripides, fury and madness have erased the memory of a mother’s love for her son. The divine rage brings mothers against sons. The instrument of the god’s revenge is also the victim, for the mother’s violence when she is blinded and possessed, will bring her a sorrow as strong as her unwilled crime.
Here are the words of the servant depicting the bloody scene.
As they saw my master sitting in the fir-tree,
at first they stood upon a towering rock
and threw at him with mighty-pelting stones,
and with the boughs of fir-trees cast at him;
others let fly their thyrsus through the sky
at Pentheus, a cruel shooting, but without success,
since higher than their eagerness could reach
he sat, poor man, caught in uncertainty;
finally they sheared off branches from an oak-tree
and tore at the roots with crowbars not of iron.
And when they could not achieve their labour’s goal,
Agave said: Come on, stand round in a circle
and grab the trunk, maenads, that we may take
this climbing animal, so he’ll never tell
of the god’s secret choruses. A thousand hands
pulled at the fir and ripped it from the earth,
and, hurled from the height where high above he sat,
down to the ground and with a thousand screams
fell Pentheus, close to evil, and he knew it.
First came his mother, high priestess of the murder,
and fell upon him, while he threw the ribbon
from his hair so she might recognise him and not kill him,
poor Agave, touching her cheek and saying:
It’s me, mother, me, your son
Pentheus, whom you gave birth to in Echion’s house;
take pity on me, mother, and for my
trespassing do not kill your own son.
But she foamed at the mouth, twisting her eyes
about, not thinking as she ought to think,
possessed by Dionysos, and would not listen.
She took hold of his left arm below the elbow
and braced her foot against his ribs, poor man,
and ripped the shoulder out — and with no effort;
the god had made it easy for her hands.
Then Ino set to work on the other side,
rending his flesh, and Autonoe and all the throng
of bacchae set on him, shouting together,
he groaning out whatever breath he had left
while they were cheering. One carried off an arm
and one a foot, shoes and all; the ribs
lay naked through the mangling, and all the women
bloodied their hands, playing with Pentheus’ flesh.
The body lies in pieces, some of it hidden
under rocks, some in the deep-wooded foliage of the trees,
no easy search; and his wretched head,
that his mother chanced to be holding in her hands,
fixed to the end of her thyrsus like a lion
of the mountains, she bears it through the midst of Cithairon,
leaving her sisters in the maenads’ chorus,
and comes prideful of her ill-fated hunt
within these very walls, invoking the Bacchic One
her Huntsman, Partner of the Catch,
the Triumphant — but tears will be her triumph.
Euripides, The Bacchae, translated and versified by Matt Neuburg