One day not too many years after the Cretan sailors had become the custodians of Delphi, a young man who had the bearing of a prince but was dressed in the rags of a beggar came to the town at the head of a dozen or so similarly haggard-looking companions, asking humbly to see the oracle. When his wish was granted and he had knelt before her in the reception hall of Apollo’s temple, she bade him to sit with her, to introduce himself, and to tell her of the problems that had left such a clear mark on his countenance.
“My name is Cadmus, son of Agenor,” he began. “I am of a noble family; my grandfather was the deathless god Poseidon, although I and the rest of my family are of the mortal race. We are cattle herders who roam the desert lands far to the south and east of here. It was once a good, free life. But now sorrow has overtaken us.
“Some years ago, my only sister Europa — the most beautiful girl in our land or, I have to believe, in any other — was gathering flowers in a meadow near the seashore with several of her young friends, when there burst upon them a majestic bull with hide of brightest chestnut, with a small silver circle between his brows, with eyes that gleamed with a strange intelligence, with horns shaped like a perfect crescent moon, with a fragrance that seemed like the breath of heaven itself. He walked directly up to my sister, but she felt no fear. He licked her neck, and she felt compelled to kiss him on his lips. Then he bowed down before her, inviting her to mount him.
“‘Come, dear playmates,’ my sister said, ‘let us mount the bull here and take our pastime. For truly he will bear us on his back and carry all of us. How mild he is and dear and gentle to behold, no whit like other bulls. A mind as honest as a man’s possesses him, and he lacks nothing but speech.’
“With that, she hopped lightly onto the back of the bull. But before her companions could join her, the beast sprang up and galloped away. Europa looked back helplessly as the bull ran down to the beach and then — I can hardly believe the tale, but the maidens all insist it to be true — ran out onto the waves as if they were solid ground, disappearing beyond the horizon!
“My father was frantic with grief for the loss of his daughter. He ordered me and my four brothers all to go separately in search of her. My beloved mother Telephassa, whose favorite son I have always been, elected to travel with me. I now wish desperately that she hadn’t, for reasons I’ll soon explain.
“My brothers and I took separately to the sea, as the bull we sought had so recently done, albeit we were forced to sail in ships. After much hardship, my vessel arrived at the large island known as Rhodes. We scoured it from end to end, but could find no trace of my sister, despite our many prayers and sacrifices to my grandfather Poseidon. And so we sailed onward.
“We were disappointed again when we arrived at the island of Thera. Having heard no word at all of my sister among the southern islands of this part of the world, we decided to set our course northward, thinking perhaps her abductor had fled in that direction. But, after a long time at sea, a storm gathered itself and smashed our fragile vessel. My mother and I survived by clinging to a spar of wood from the wreckage, washing up at last upon the shore of the land known as Thrace. But my ship and many of my crew were lost, while my aging mother was made grievously ill by her exposure to the elements.
“The people of that faraway land were kind to us, as all just men should be to guests in such a reduced state as ours. They took me and my mother in, along with that remnant of my crew who had also washed up on their shore. Yet their kindness couldn’t save my poor mother from the illness she had contracted when she was adrift upon the open sea; she died there in Thrace, and there I buried her. It was a sorrow to me even greater than the loss of my beloved sister, for at least I still cherished some hope, forlorn though it may have been, of seeing her again.
“When I had recovered my own strength, I was left wondering what to do. These Thracians were good people, but they were anything but wealthy; after having nursed me back to health, there was little else they could do to aid me in my quest. So, I elected to make the long, hard overland journey to Delphi at the head of my erstwhile crew, to ask the oracle there for guidance. The journey has consumed several months, but at last we are come.
“And now I ask humbly of the great god Apollo: has one of my brothers already located my dear sister? If not, what has been her fate? What manner of being has carried her away? Have I still a chance to rescue her?”
Taking this tale of hardship to heart, the oracle promised to plead his case with Apollo. And so she withdrew into the inner sanctum of the temple, that space that was reserved for her alone, where the sacred vapor of the god welled up from the floor at those times when he chose to speak. Thankfully, this was one of those times. When he took form before her vision, magnificently clad in his raiment of silver and gold, she repeated Cadmus’s story and the questions with which it had concluded.
Apollo looked more and more pained as she did so. When she was done, he spoke: “Alas, the Fates have not woven a reunion between Cadmus and Europa into their tapestry of existence. The being that carried her away was none other than my father, Zeus himself, and he is not to be defied by mortals. Still, her fate is not an unhappy one. Europa is already pregnant with Zeus’s son, the first of many children the two will have together. Zeus will in time install one of their sons as king of Crete. Europa will be honored throughout her life, and long after her death her name will become that of the great continent upon whose southern extent Delphi itself stands. But these things are not for Cadmus to know now. He need know only that his sister is well, but forever beyond his reach.”
With that, the oracle began to turn away, only to see Apollo raise his hand to stop her. “Wait — I do have something else to say to this young Cadmus. The blood of his family has been mingled with that of the gods on two occasions now, and those will not be the last times. This honor marks them for special triumphs and tragedies alike. The fates of many of their line will not be as happy as that of Europa — but Cadmus himself is marked for great things.
“The gods — even my all-knowing father — have learned to ‘tolerate’ mortal men.” Here he permitted himself a wry smile. “Thanks not least to my advocacy on their behalf, men will soon be allowed to build on a grander scale again, provided they do so this time whilst paying due homage to us who dwell on Mount Olympus. I wish for Cadmus to found a great city that shall be known as Thebes. It will be a holy city for me. Cadmus should wander until he comes upon a cow who will guide him to the site desired by me. There where she falls down in weariness shall mark the center of my city.”
And so the oracle left the inner sanctum and repeated the words of Apollo — those of them he wished her to share — to Cadmus. The young man grieved anew for the loss of his sister, but took heart that she was alive and well, and prepared to carry out Apollo’s instructions to the best of his ability.
So, he and his former crew trekked eastward from Delphi, across the region known as Phocis. Soon they encountered just what Apollo had predicted they would: a cow moving contrary to her herd, looking backward as if expecting them to follow her. When they did so, she led them ceaselessly onward, day and night, into the region known as Boeotia, until she collapsed on a flat plain sheltered between a lake to the north and a mountain range to the south — a perfect, easily defensible spot to found a city.
Piety demanded that Cadmus sacrifice the cow that had led him here to the glory of Apollo before he thought of doing anything else. He therefore sent his men to fetch some water for his ablutions from a nearby spring while he prepared his spirit for the ceremony.
But, unbeknownst to anyone in the party, the spring to which they went was sacred to Ares, the god of war, and was guarded by a dragon rumored to be a child of the god himself, the issue of one of his less auspicious unions. The dragon burst out of hiding and massacred the crew before they knew what was happening. When Cadmus, having heard the commotion, arrived at the scene and saw what had become of the loyal crew who had stayed by his side through all his adventures thus far, he flew into a rage against which even a dragon was helpless; he slew the beast with the same brutal efficiency with which the dragon had just dispatched his men.
Ares, the most merciless of all the gods, saw what Cadmus had done to his child, whereupon he immediately prepared to smite the impertinent mortal dead. But Apollo pleaded Cadmus’s case, as did Athena, who respected the wisdom inherent in the young man’s humble piety. In the face of their advocacy, Ares begrudgingly agreed to let Cadmus live, on the condition that he do eight years of penance to the god of war before founding his city.
Athena volunteered to carry the news to Cadmus. When she came upon him, still standing in a daze of anger and grief amidst the carnage all around him, she also gave him a special message of her own, delivered out of sympathy for the long period of penance that now lay before him despite his guiltlessness. Before he buried his own dead, she said, he should pull the dragon’s teeth and bury them in the earth. Pious as ever, he nodded his acceptance of the gods’ will and watched her fly away, back toward Mount Olympus.
When Cadmus had pulled and buried the last of the dragon’s teeth as instructed, he was shocked to see an armed-and-armored warrior spring out of the ground at each spot where he had planted a tooth. The warriors all drew their swords and attacked one another. They battled for hours, until only five of what had once been several dozen of them were left standing. These bowed to one another, calling a truce in honor of a battle well fought.
“Who are you?” Cadmus asked of them.
“I am Echion, and we are the Spartoi!” came the reply from their apparent leader. “We live to serve our lord in battle and in whatever else he requires of us!” And all of them presented their swords at his feet.
Bemused and confused, Cadmus set about burying each of the dead around him — whether a dragon, a Spartos, or an ordinary man — with the aid of his strange new servants. Then he started doing his penance. For eight years, he lived in complete isolation on the plains of Boeotia, avoiding all men, sacrificing every day to the gods, enlisting the five Spartoi to help him hold all would-be despoilers at a distance from the sacred carcass of Apollo’s cow.
When his penance was finally complete, Cadmus founded the city of Thebes there where the bones of the cow he had followed still lay. The gods were impressed with the patience and piety he had demonstrated, and came to him bearing gifts with which to celebrate the occasion. Zeus presented the most wonderful gift of all: the beautiful Harmonia, daughter of himself and a Titan named Electra, to be his queen. Aphrodite gave Harmonia a striking necklace which actually came from Europa, a loving if anonymous bridal gift for the brother who had journeyed so far and suffered so much for her sake.
The new city, so clearly blessed by the gods, grew rapidly, even as the Spartoi saw to its fortifications and trained a fine army. Cadmus proved a wise and evenhanded ruler, beloved by all his people. His greatest gift to them was that of letters: needing a way to record the government and commerce of his city in a permanent fashion, he devised a system of writing.
But Thebes wasn’t the only great new city being founded in the land that had now become known as Greece. Many of the other gods were also telling the mortals who lived there that they too had permission to build on a grand scale once again, and bestowing their divine favor upon some of the cities that resulted. Poseidon chose the city of Corinth in the region of Achaea; its people would honor the god of the sea by becoming superb sailors and traders. Athena naturally chose Athens, a city graced with her own name, in the region of Attica; it would honor the goddess of wisdom by becoming great in philosophy and literature. Ares chose Sparta in the region of Laconia; it would honor the god of war by fielding the most fearsome army ever assembled by mortals. Zeus himself chose the city of Olympia in the region of Elis; it would honor the greatest god of all through the Olympic Games, a quadrennial athletic festival of equal stature to Delphi’s Pythian Games. Even jealous Hera got in on the act, choosing Argos in the region of Argolis, a place without the obvious advantages of the other gods’ chosen cities but whose people possessed the pluck and grit of born survivors; in this way, then, Argos too would imitate its patron.
Thus did the Greeks as a whole become the most blessed of all peoples, the one chosen for greatness by the gods themselves. Like the Olympian gods, they would frequently squabble among themselves, but they would never forget that they were the Greeks, the rest of the world the barbarians. When push came to shove, they would hold fast to their Greekness above all other considerations.
Yet being the chosen people of the gods would not always be to their unmitigated benefit. These Greeks would often find themselves mixed up with forces that were normally far beyond mortal ken, and the result for them would be as often tragic as happy — for the gods were a capricious lot even with their favorite children.
All of this Cadmus would learn the hard way. After the glorious founding Thebes, the chosen city of Apollo, his family would be visited by endless sorrows for generations to come. Some would be the work of their own hands, but some — the worst of them — would be thanks only to the arbitrary whims of the gods and the inalterable tapestry of existence woven by the fickle Fates.
Cadmus and Harmonia had one son and four daughters; their names respectively were Polydorus, Autonoe, Ino, Agave, and Semele. All of them were comely, but the youngest daughter, the one named Semele, was the most beautiful mortal girl to be born since Europa. And so, inevitably, she too caught the attention of Zeus. Having by now grown bored with Europa, he decided to woo her instead. He came to her in the form of an impossibly handsome man, told her forthrightly who he was, and took her as his lover. Soon she was pregnant with his child — the third such child of a god in the family of Cadmus.
Of Semele’s three sisters, Ino was consistently kind to her, but the other two had always been jealous of their youngest sister’s beauty. When her pregnancy became obvious, Semele told her sisters that she bore the child of Zeus, only to be roundly mocked by these two jealous ones. She had merely fallen prey to some handsome scoundrel, they jeered, and must now pay the price. They gossiped to everyone they met about their wayward sister, such that word reached even Hera’s ears, who quickly put two and two together. Her spies soon confirmed that her husband had in fact impregnated Semele, and continued to lie with her every night. So, she put a deadly wish in the girl’s heart, one to which the constant mockery of her sisters made her all too receptive.
One night in the midst of their frolics, Semele suddenly demanded that Zeus prove his love by promising to do anything she asked of him. Zeus was so besotted that he immediately agreed, swearing to his promise by the River Styx that runs through the underworld; this was an oath that even the king of the gods dare not break. Now Semele made her request: she wanted to see him in his true, divine form, so that she could know that it really was a god she lay with every night. Zeus pleaded with her to reconsider — his true form was not a sight fit for mortal eyes, he said — but Semele, growing more suspicious than ever, was implacable. And so, having pledged his troth, Zeus was forced to do as she demanded. And the sight was indeed too much for her mortal eyes; Semele died instantly of shock and fright, her very soul immolated by the god’s indescribable majesty. Grief-stricken, Zeus took the fruit of their union, a still-living baby three months short of birth, out of her womb and sewed it up inside his thigh.
When Semele’s jealous sisters came upon her charred body the next morning, they believed they knew just what had happened: the girl’s false boasting about bedding Zeus had angered the real god, who had destroyed her for her hubris. They spread this rumor too far and wide, much to the delight of Hera, whose vindictiveness toward her husband’s lovers stretched even beyond their graves.
After three months had passed, the child burst out of Zeus’s thigh to face the world. And now came the rarest chance of all: unlike the products of most mixed unions, this child proved to be of immortal rather than mortal stock. (While such ineffable matters are perhaps pointless to speculate about, we might guess that this was thanks to the quantity of divine blood that already coursed through the veins of the baby’s family, or thanks to the time it had spent inside its immortal father’s body, or both.) Zeus named the new god Dionysus. Dionysus was a boy, but Zeus, wishing a reminder of his sweet Semele, magically disguised him as a girl. Then he gave the baby to Hermes, the messenger of the gods, to deliver to Semele’s kindly sister Ino and her husband, whose name was Athamas, to raise. The couple came to love Dionysus as a daughter alongside the two sons they already had.
Hera, however, continued to pry into her husband’s affairs. In time, she discovered the true identity of young Dionysus, whereupon she cast a cloud before the eyes of Athamas, making him believe that his oldest natural son was a deer; he then shot and killed him. Then she made Ino believe that her youngest natural son was a piece of meat; Ino threw him into a boiling cauldron. Both parents went mad with grief when the scales fell away from their eyes and they realized what they had done. Athamas wandered off into the wilderness, while Ino cast herself into the sea, leaving behind the helpless infant Dionysus. In order to protect him from Hera’s continued wrath, Zeus disguised him as a goat. Then he gave him to Hermes once again, this time with instructions to deliver him to some nymphs who dwelt in a strange land far to the east beyond the sea, where neither Hera nor any of the other gods often ventured.
Dionysus grew up quickly, as gods tend to do, in that magical glade among the nymphs. He soon learned to transform himself back into his natural form. Yet said form was nothing like that of Zeus, so majestic as to kill any mortal who looked upon it. He looked merely like a slender, exceptionally attractive but oddly androgynous young man with long golden hair and striking dark eyes. He rejected the rarefied air of Mount Olympus in favor of remaining down below, in the world of men. He would become the god of ecstasy and revelry, of instinct and animal pleasures — the closest god of all to the mortal things of the world.
Dionysus made the first wine to come into the world by fermenting grapes, those gifts of Demeter, the other god of the earth. Wine, he knew, could become a more immediate antidote to the ills inflicted upon mankind by Zeus than Prometheus’s exalted Hope: “The flowing wine, drunk to the full, provides sleep and forgetfulness from daily pain.” The eyes of some who drank of his gift lit up with generosity and fraternity; the eyes of others darkened with rage and violence; some moved from one extreme to the other with unnerving speed. All of these emotions were of the earth, and thus a part of Dionysus himself.
This free-floating dichotomy applied to his notions of sex and gender as well. Although nominally male, his gender seemed a fluid thing; mortal males and females found him equally attractive. Still, he always felt a special kinship with women, perhaps because he had spent his earliest days on earth as one of them. Thus, while both men and women were allowed to dance to his music and travel with his procession, only the latter were allowed into his innermost sanctum of revelers. He felt keenly their dissatisfactions, the unmet needs of the body and the animal spirit that resulted from being constantly the subservient sex, subject to the whims of their male counterparts, deprived of any agency of their own. Accordingly, he liked nothing more than to help them throw off the shackles of social custom, to give vent to their libidinous urges. And for their part, women responded to him. They sensed that his desire wasn’t to take them — to possess them for his personal pleasure, as Zeus so loved to do. He was oddly altruistic; he desired release for them, desired for them to obliterate their tiresome selves in a timeless ecstasy. He told them that he would not demand that they be chaste, but neither would he demand the opposite; it was up to them as free spirits. If they wished, they could also satiate themselves by killing the wild animals he placed in their path, or by slaughtering the sheep, goats, pigs, and cows of their own villages with their bare hands, reveling in their usurpation of this prerogative that was normally reserved for males.
A time came when Dionysus decided to return to the land where he had spent his earliest days. Accordingly, he set off on the long journey west, gathering to him followers as he went. People joined his party for a time and took part in his bacchanals, until they were sated and desired to return to the peace and orderliness of their everyday lives; this too he happily allowed them to do. On his journey, Dionysus invented the tambourine in order to be able to make music even when on the march — for rhythmic, percussive music was his favorite, not the delicate string music of Apollo.
Meanwhile, back in Thebes, the house of Cadmus had continued to labor under a cloud of tragedy. Autonoe, one of the jealous sisters of the unfortunate Semele, lost her son one day when, whilst out hunting, the youth came upon Apollo’s sister Artemis bathing in a forest pool and told her that his hounds were as capable as her own. To punish him for his pride, she turned him into a deer — whereupon he was set upon and devoured by the very dogs of whom he had just so unwisely boasted. The other sister Agave, who had married Echion, the leader of the Spartoi, became a widow when her husband was killed in one of his random brawls. The other Spartoi as well were killed one by one, in similar circumstances. The only replacement King Cadmus received for their active help was the quiet philosophy of one Tiresias, an old blind prophet who, claimed his detractors, spoke in riddles that obscured more than they clarified. Nevertheless, he became the king’s most trusted advisor.
King Cadmus, now an elderly man, stooped under the ever-growing weight of his sorrows, stepped down from his throne on the advice of Tiresias. Tiresias recommended additionally that he not give the throne to his son Polydorus, now passing middle age himself, but rather to his last surviving mortal grandson: Pentheus, the son of Agave and Echion. Pentheus was a fine, upstanding young man in all respects, who adored his grandfather as much as he was adored by him. He was the old man’s last, best hope for the future of his house.
And then the force of nature that was Dionysus swept into Thebes.
The strange figure and his procession of revelers were barred from entering the city by its guards,who laughed in his face when Dionysus told them he was a god. So, Dionysus conjured a swarm of bees, which he sent behind the city walls to drive the inhabitants out. Once outside, most of the populace, including all three of Cadmus’s surviving children, joined the revelries of the cult. The plains and forests around Thebes rang with their tambourines and kettle drums, their timpani and flutes, their singing and laughter, while the city itself stood deserted. Even old Tiresias set an ivy wreath upon his head and danced with the others, while Cadmus stood apart and looked on, utterly bewildered.
Tiresias came over to Cadmus and told him that it was pointless to resist the call of the young god. “He is immune to reason, however cleverly you try to argue,” said the prophet. “Why, you may ask, am I so unembarrassed to wear a wreath and dance, in my old age? The god makes no distinction. Young and old must dance together, everyone the same. He wants us to honor him together, and no one is excused from joining in.”
“But who is he really?” asked Cadmus.
“I will tell you a secret,” slurred Tiresias, leaning in so close that Cadmus grew light in the head from the aroma of wine on the old prophet’s breath. “This Dionysus is none other than your grandson — the long-lost son of your poor daughter Semele.”
“What? How can this be?” exclaimed Cadmus. “She died before she could give birth!”
But Tiresias had already rejoined the gyrating mass of dancers. Having smelled the wine on the prophet’s breath, being sick like unto death of sorrow and responsibility, Cadmus too dressed himself in skins and an ivy wreath and joined his immortal grandson’s bacchanal. “In all our joy, we have forgotten we are old!” he shouted to the heavens.
The ecstasy produced by Dionysus’s wine was simply irresistible to a people who had no experience with such things. The women of Thebes especially fell into its thrall. Indeed, among all the women in the city, only Cadmus’s wife Harmonia, a child of a god herself, seemed immune to the allure of the wine. Perhaps wisely, perhaps cowardly, she chose to leave Thebes to wait for the commotion to blow over.
But Cadmus’s mortal grandson Pentheus also proved resistant. He happened to have been away from Thebes on a mission of state when Dionysus’s party arrived. Marching back toward the city with his guards, he was appalled at the debauchery he saw taking place all around him; he arrested the revelers whenever he encountered them, binding them in chains. When he chanced upon his father cavorting just outside the city walls, he pronounced the sight “embarrassing.” He believed not at all in Dionysus’s divinity. Cadmus wasn’t so sure about it himself, but had decided under the influence of the wine that it really didn’t matter: “What if you’re right and he is not a god? You still should say he is. White lies can bring our Semele the glory of having borne a god, which glorifies us all. Remember how another of my grandsons died at the hands of Artemis? Don’t share his fate!”
A frustrated Pentheus turned his rage at his father upon Tiresias. “You talked him into this!” he bellowed. “You want to introduce this new divinity to profit from new trade in prophecies. Your white hair alone saves you. Were it not for that, I’d chain you up for introducing wicked mystery rites. Festivals with sparkling wine and women are an unhealthy cult.”
“No words can tell how great this new divinity will become throughout the land of Greece,” warned Tiresias. “There are two human needs that are more basic than all of the others. Goddess Demeter feeds mortal men on dry and solid food. Dionysus provides the liquid counterpart, the juice of grapes, his gift of relief to suffering souls. The flowing vine, drunk to the full, provides sleep and forgetfulness from daily pain. There is no other cure for many troubles. Through this god, then, comes human happiness. Don’t mock him! Accept the god into your land and pour libations, wear his wreath, belong to him. It’s insane to fight against a god.”
But the steely-eyed young man, so similar in so many ways to the man Cadmus had been at that age, was unmoved. He ordered his soldiers to scour the landscape around Thebes, breaking up the revels wherever they found them, arresting the revelers, including his own mother and aunt and uncle, if they could find them. As for Dionysus: “If you catch him, bring him here in chains. Let him be stoned! He’ll see a bitter end for introducing drunkenness into Thebes. Wine makes people act indecently.”
In response to this, Tiresias only shook his head. He foresaw tragedy, but he knew not how to prevent it. He shuffled sadly away into the woods, unwilling to witness what he knew must now come to pass.
Pentheus’s soldiers did indeed quickly find Dionysus, who had made no attempt to hide his location. Nor did he attempt to run away or resist arrest. He simply smiled and held out his hands to accept the chains. He seemed so peaceful, so benevolent, that one of his guards was moved to say, “Stranger, I didn’t want to catch you. I’m obeying Pentheus’s orders.” To this, Dionysus only nodded, as if to absolve him. But while the soldiers were making their way back to the city gates with their prisoners, a strange thing happened: the chains binding all of the mortals who had been arrested dissolved into thin air, and the prisoners skipped away to resume their bacchanals. Only Dionysus remained bound, and in this state he was brought before Pentheus.
Pentheus mocked Dionysus’s androgyny: “Well, stranger, I can see you are attractive to women anyway — that’s why you came here. Your hair is long, unsuitable for wrestling; it ripples down your cheek so alluringly. Your skin is white. You must take care of it, avoiding sunlight, staying in the shade, hunting Aphrodite with your beauty.” And with that final jeer, he threw the god into prison to await execution.
But that very night, Dionysus made his escape in spectacular fashion. The palace shook as a massive earthquake began directly under its foundations. As the lintels broke apart and the columns collapsed, a great tongue of fire sprang out of its middle. Pentheus ran out of the inferno toward the prison brandishing his sword, determined to slay Dionysus then and there. But the god had made a phantom of himself, and this Pentheus now proceeded to attack instead of the real Dionysus. While the two figures, highlighted by the flames of the palace behind them, performed a clumsy pantomime of combat, the real god sauntered over to speak to the people cowering on the other side of the burning ruin: “Stand up, be confident, no need to tremble! Come and watch the show!” And so they all watched as Pentheus battled the phantom, which he couldn’t possibly kill but which was equally unable to hurt him. At last, he collapsed to the ground in exhaustion and despair — whereupon the phantom, rather than landing the killing stroke he had expected, simply disappeared. Baffled, Pentheus stood and shook himself and began to walk back toward what remained of his palace — only to see the real Dionysus standing before him amidst the crowd.
Taking complete leave of his senses, Pentheus shouted for his soldiers to kill the stranger immediately, then to do the same to any in the surrounding countryside who refused to repent of following him: “I’ll slaughter the women — even my mother and aunt, when I find them!”
Dionysus meekly showed his empty hands: “Do not raise your arms against the god. Peace, now.” The men hesitated, unable to decide whether to follow Pentheus’s call to duty or Dionysus’s call to the heart — and then it became clear that even Pentheus himself was starting to feel the same way. He was feeling… curious about the complete freedom the cult promised, and this Dionysus could sense. “No need to search for your womenfolk,” said the god. “I’ll take you to them. But you’ll need a disguise. Here’s a dress. You put it on.”
“What?” exclaimed Pentheus. “Will my status change, from man to woman?”
Dionysus didn’t answer this question. “Come inside with me,” he urged instead. “I’ll get you dressed.”
“Dressed — in a woman’s dress? I’d feel ashamed.”
“Don’t you want to see the show?”
Slowly, Pentheus bowed his head in assent, an odd gleam in his eyes. He stood passively as Dionysus stripped him naked, then clad him anew in dress, wig, and cape, all while the people around them looked on in shock. “How is my look?” asked Pentheus when the god was finished. “How is my posture? Is it like my aunt or mother’s way of standing?”
“When I look at you, it’s them I see,” swore Dionysus. “But this curl of yours is out of place, slipped from where I fixed it in your headband. Let me fix it again. Lift up your head.”
“I’m all yours now,” said the acquiescent young man. “Go on, you can arrange it.”
“Your belt needs tightening. Your pleats are crooked. Here, let me straighten them.”
When all had been adjusted to his satisfaction, Dionysus led Pentheus toward the glade that was his movable cult’s current inner sanctum, a place where only women were allowed. Pentheus, eager to see what was going on in the glade of the women, climbed a tree at its edge.
But Dionysus, like all of the gods, was vengeful. He burst in upon the women and betrayed Pentheus’s presence at the same time that he confused their vision: “Girls, a succulent young lion looks upon your revels from that tree over there. Take the prize!”
Led by Pentheus’s mother Agave, the women shook and clawed at his tree from below, and finally managed to drag him bodily from it. He found himself staring directly into his mother’s maddened eyes, red-rimmed with intoxication and blood lust. Frantically, he ripped off his disguise: “Mother, I am your child, son of Echion. Mother, pity me! Don’t kill me, Mother. I made mistakes, but I am still your child.” But she saw before her only the young lion which Dionysus had described her son to be. She and the other women ripped him limb from limb.
When it was all over, Agave put her child’s head on a stake and ran down to cavort through the streets of Thebes with it. “I caught this creature with my hands alone, and with my bare hands I tore his limbs apart,” she shouted as the people looked on in horror. “Where is my father? Call him here! And where is Pentheus, my son? He must set a ladder firm against the house, and nail this lion’s head up there on the frieze, this prize of mine, the spoils of my hunt.”
When old Cadmus came forth, he collapsed to the ground at the sight of his daughter, stark naked, her body smeared with his grandson’s blood, waving his head about on a stick. “You must be very proud of us now, Father!” she said. “Your daughters are the best by far, the best of all humanity — especially me! I left the loom and shuttle, and I rose to greater things. I hunt with my bare hands. Now, as you see, I’m carrying in my arms this prize I’ve caught. I’ll hang it on your house. But first, dear Father, wouldn’t you like to hold it?”
Cadmus shied away, retching: “Poor daughter, you hold slaughter in your arms.”
“Old men are always grumpy, full of scowls,” Agave pouted. “Bring my son to me to see my happiness!”
“Turn your head and look up at the sky,” Cadmus said quietly, gesturing to the encroaching dawn. “Does it seem the same to you or different?”
“It looks brighter than before. It’s clearer now.”
“Do you still feel troubled and excited?”
“I don’t know what you mean — but I suppose I am aware of it. My mind is somehow changing.”
“Whose head, then, are you holding in your arms?”
She too sank to her knees as the reality of what she held there reached her eyes for the first time. “Who killed him?” she whispered sickly. “How did he get here, in my hands?”
“You killed him,” said Cadmus. “You’re the one.”
And so father and daughter returned in the sober light of day to the place where Pentheus had died during the drunken ecstasy of the night. They gathered up his grisly remnants as best they could and buried him. When they were done, Dionysus came to them once again. Cadmus, past caring in his grief, looked upon him fearlessly: “You are too harsh.”
“I was insulted,” Dionysus shrugged. “I, who was born a god.”
“Even in anger gods should not resemble mortals,” said Cadmus, and turned his back upon him. Dionysus, chagrined in spite of himself by the old man’s dignity in extremity, chose to ignore this latest insult and leave quietly.
Thus did the most excruciating tragedy yet come upon the house of Cadmus. Unable to face their people after what they had done, Agave and her sister Autonoe wandered into exile. And after Harmonia returned to learn what horrible things had occurred in her absence, she and her husband Cadmus left Thebes forever as well. But Zeus took pity upon their desolation; he turned them into a conjoined serpent so that they would always be able to comfort one another, and sent them to a place called Elysium, normally accessible only to the gods, a land of eternal peace and beauty where only the most worthy mortal souls were sent when their time on earth was finished. Meanwhile, back in the world we know, Cadmus’s son Polydorus, the last remaining member of the house of Cadmus in Thebes, became that city’s king.
Tiresias became Polydorus’s closest advisor, as he had been his father’s. In fact, there was a strange thing: Tiresias remained as old, feeble, and sightless as ever, but he never declined further and never died, not even when Polydorus himself grew old and gray and finally went to his rest. The people of Thebes whispered to themselves about their resident prophet. What kind of being was he? Was he himself a god, or like unto one?
Dionysus, for his part, was pleased at having so dramatically demonstrated for the Thebans and all the Greeks the two sides of his nature — the winsome, light, joyous side, and the vengeful, dark, violent side. He continued to travel around the land, continued to introduce the Greeks to the profoundly mixed blessing that is wine, which contains within it all of its inventor’s contradictory impulses.
And so it was that he came one day skipping up the rocks of Mount Parnassus to reach Delphi. There he caused much the same sort of chaos he had prompted everywhere else in Greece, provoking the ire of Apollo. But the gods were generally loathe to raise their hands directly against one another; the terrible war of the elder days between the young gods and the Titans still remained too vivid in their familial memory.
Further, Apollo was wise enough to recognize the strange bond he had with Dionysus: that of being gods genuinely, deeply concerned with the lives of mortal men. This was true even as Dionysus was Apollo’s polar opposite in all other things, reflecting all of the other sides of human existence. Apollo was of the sky, Dionysus was of the earth; Apollo was the logos, Dionysus was the physis; Apollo was order, Dionysus was chaos; Apollo was cool, Dionysus was heated; Apollo was the daytime, Dionysus was the nighttime; Apollo was most at home in one of his stately temples, Dionysus was most at home gyrating before a bonfire in the deepest forest, at one with his own worshipers — because, as he liked to say, “Any leader of the dance is a god.” While Apollo urged his followers to strive toward eternal achievements despite the numbered span of days allotted to them, Dionysus’s message to mortals was simpler: “A truly happy life is happiness day by day. If, in your little span of life, you seek ambitious goals, you’ll miss what lies to hand.”
Despite it all, Apollo at least could see that the opposites which he and his half-brother represented were ultimately both necessary in the lives of mortal men. While men needed to be able to take the long view of things — needed the sense of idealism and ambition which Apollo provided — they also needed to be able just to live at times in the moment — needed to make space for the spontaneity and instinctual pleasures of Dionysus. The truly wise mortal life balanced the Apollonian against the Dionysian.
So, Apollo struck a bargain with his younger half-brother. The two gods and the things which each represented agreed to live together at Delphi in a symbiosis. For most of the year, the temple and the town continued to function in the old orderly harmony. But during the winter months of every year, Apollo’s oracle fell silent. Then the residents of the town — especially the women, whose duties, here as everywhere, tended to weigh more heavily upon them than those of the men — made their way up to the old Corycian Cave of Python, a natural home to wild things, and engaged in orgiastic reveries. And then, when spring came again, they resumed their duties as Apollo’s faithful, sober-minded stewards of order. In this way did the people of Delphi maintain balance in all things.
(This series's cover art is by Dorte Lassen, who hereby releases it under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)