Immortalised in play by Euripides, The Bacchae is my favourite mythological tale of Dionysos: it tells of Dionysos’ return to his birthplace Thebes:
The common people and some nobles follow Dionysos. However the young king of Thebes (and the cousin to Dionysos), Pentheus, rejects the divinity of new god and quite literally has a hissy fit that his family and friends are honouring the “supposed” god and ignoring him.
Dionysos enters the city in which Pentheus thinks him only a priest, not a god. Pentheus confronts Dionysos and the two engage in a debate. Dionysos pleads to the king to concede to his divine argument and gives him a fair warning about the hubris being committed against the godly family member, but Pentheus does not listen, in fact he takes it to the next step and imprisons Dionysos.
Thus invoking the wraith of Dionysos.
Dionysos destroys the Theban palace (scaring the crap out of everyone). Somewhere between then (I’m doing verbatim here!) a herder appears informing Pentheus of the marvels of the Maenads, their powers and witnessing miracles.
Dionysos emerges from his prison as the great god, intoxicating the king, he convinces the Pentheus to dress as a maenad in order to spy upon the women. He then leads the king into the woods. Pentheus climbs a pine tree to view upon the mysteries of the women – only to have his disguise transmuted into a lion by Dionysos who then informs the mad women of the intruder. Thinking the king a lion, the frenzied women hunt and kill Pentheus, tearing him limb from limb.
The maenads, which include Pentheus’ mother and other female family members, enter the city with their trophy, proud of their hunt. To then realise from the shock and horror of others that the lion is their king, son and brother…
What follows is the exile of the royal family. Their neglect and crimes against the king is unforgivable.
The Bacchae is one of the most usual and violent plays in the Greek tragic cycles. It is also one of the most important tales to Dionysians. At face value it is easy to think this play is simply about the pride and hubris committed by a tyrant king. But with analysis it is apparent that Pentheus is the victim of his own family’s neglect. His family do not take the him seriously and refuse to counsel and teach him of his hubris, instead they only offering vague warnings before abandoning him to his own demise. Dionysos therefore is an agent, a force of nature. In the process of the debate between king and god and further with Pentheus’ intoxication and the manner of his death Pentheus is initiated into the Dionysian cult. Pentheus becomes Dionysos, the two merge into one as the Pharmakos, the sacrifice, which teaches the ills of the citizens of Thebes.
His death, as horrific as it is, is a blessing and cathartic. This is exemplified in later pottery where Pentheus stands amongst the Blessed Dead as a Dionysian hero.
Compared to other Greek gods, who’s wraith typically involve smiting – death and eternal punishment in Tartarus – a quality of Dionysos is that he converts his victims. His enemies become him, he forgives them and teaches them of their ills. He is also an indirect god in his wraith, he is the agent of his foes demise and thus works through others, the effect of his wraith is contagious to those that are influenced by him as they also learn of their own ills.