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Classical Mythology

Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle of Wine!

Once Tyrrhenian pirates spotted young Dionysus standing alone on the shore of the island Icaria. Believing he was a prince and hoping to ransom him for a handsome price, the pirates kidnapped Dionysus and sailed off with him. His captors tried to shackle Dionysus, but found it impossible. The shackles kept slipping off his wrists, while Dionysus just sat and smiled at them.

Acoetes, the helmsman for the pirate ship, realized that this divine-looking young man must be a god. Acoetes urged his fellow pirates to treat Dionysus gently. He even suggested that they drop him back off on the nearest shore and be done with him.

But the captain would not listen, and called the helmsman crazy. To the rest of the crew, the pirate captain explained away the god's exotic looks by insisting that he probably came from Egypt or Cyprus. Perhaps he received his looks as a gift from some god, the captain claimed, but he was no god himself. So he ordered the crew to hoist the sails and set off.

Almost immediately after setting sail, the miracles began:

  • Despite strong winds, the ship halted, frozen in the water.
  • Streams of wine, sweet and fragrant, flowed throughout the ship.
  • A vine, rich with grapes, spread across the top sail.
  • Ivy, bearing lush flowers and luscious berries, entwined itself about the mast.
  • Wreaths crowned the thole pins where the oars rested.

Now the crew agreed with the helmsman. They wanted to get rid of this god before they made him so angry that he destroyed them all. But their change of heart came too late.

Dionysus transformed into a growling lion. A large bear—or bears, panthers, and lions—instantly materialized on the ship. The roaring of animals so frightened the crew that they retreated to the stern of the ship. When the lion Dionysus leapt on the pirate captain, the crew quickly abandoned ship. They all dived into the water, where they turned into dolphins. Acoetes was about to join them when the god—in human form once again—halted him, insisting that the helmsman had nothing to fear. Due to his kindness toward Dionysus, Acoetes had become dear to the god's heart.

Homecoming Queen: Pentheus of Thebes

After years of wandering, Dionysus finally returned to Thebes, his birthplace. Yet he did not receive much of a homecoming. Semele's sisters—whether through jealousy or disbelief—had spread the rumor that she had never slept with Zeus at all. Indeed, they insisted that Zeus had killed her with a lightning bolt to punish her for that false claim.

When Dionysus arrived announcing that he was not only a god, but the son of Semele and Zeus, few of the men of Thebes believed him on either count. Only the wise seer Teiresias and Semele's aged father Cadmus—who hoped it was true for the honor it would bring to his family—accepted Dionysus for what he said he was.

Unfortunately, Cadmus had already stepped down from the throne of Thebes. His grandson, King Pentheus, not only disbelieved the claims of Dionysus, he found the fervor of his followers and the nature of their rites distasteful. He banned the participation of Theban women in the rites of Dionysus, rounded up the maenads, and threw them and their priest (who was probably Dionysus himself in disguise) into prison.

To punish his aunts, Dionysus drove them—and all the women of Thebes—mad. Ignoring Pentheus's edict, the Theban women abandoned their homes and families and joined in the frenzied rites on Mount Cithaeron. Dionysus and the maenads easily escaped their jail cells and returned to the mountain, where Dionysus tricked his unknowing cousin Pentheus to dress up as a maenad in order to spy on the Bacchants.

His mother, Agave, and two aunts, in the grips of Dionysian madness, caught the transvestite voyeur in the act. They uprooted the tree in which Pentheus had been hiding and the king fell to the ground. Seeing him as a mountain lion, the revelers then ferociously tore Pentheus limb from limb and scattered his body parts all over the mountainside. Agave herself speared her son's head with her thyrsus and paraded back home with it. When she returned to her senses and recognized the “lion's head” as that of her own son, Agave recoiled in horror. For their crimes, Dionysus then exiled Agave and her sisters from Thebes.

Pentheus was succeeded to the throne by his uncle Polydorus (Semele's brother), who quickly and prudently chose to honor Dionysus. Polydorus officially instituted the Dionysian rites and established Thebes as the center of Dionysian worship in Greece.

Madness Is the Best Revenge

Continuing his mission, Dionysus left Thebes for the neighboring kingdom of Orchomenus. But the daughters of King Minyas would neither recognize him as a god nor take part in his rites. Insulted again, Dionysus drove them mad. The daughters chose one of their infant sons by lot and ripped him apart. Dionysus then transformed them into bats.

Moving on to Argos, the god again met with disbelief as the three daughters of King Proetus also refused to recognize him as a deity. Again, Dionysus afflicted the disbelievers with madness. Thinking they were cows, the three young women grazed on the mountainsides.

Proetus sent for the great seer Melampus to cure the women. But when Melampus demanded one third of the kingdom as his payment, Proetus angrily turned him away. As a result, the madness soon spread to all the Argive women. When the young mothers of Argos began feasting on the infants that they had nursed and loved the day before, Proetus begged Melampus to return. Though the seer now demanded another third of the kingdom for his brother Bias, Proetus had no choice but to accede. Using herbs and purification rites, Melampus managed to cure the women of Argos.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Classical Mythology © 2004 by Kevin Osborn and Dana L. Burgess, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book direct from the publisher, visit the Penguin USA website or call 1-800-253-6476. You can also purchase this book at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.

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