A lot of folks think that the myth of Dionysus, Pentheus, and Agave was made up to explain how the cult of Dionysus made its way into Greece. Some say that King Pentheus' resistance to accepting Dionysus represents how Greeks were suspicious at first of what came to them as a pretty crazy foreign religion. When the wine-god (spoiler alert!) conquers Pentheus in the end, it may represent how eventually the Greeks just couldn't help rocking out with Dionysus.
By the time this myth was finally written down, cults of Dionysus were bumpin' and grindin' all over the ancient Mediterranean. In tons of places, you could find Bacchantes out in the woods guzzling vats of wine, making bloody sacrifices, playing pipes, clashing symbols, and dancing like crazy, all just to be closer to their wild god. Well, at least we think that's what they did in their highly secretive Bacchanals (named after Bacchus, the Roman version of Dionysus). No one knows for sure exactly what went down, since these Dionysian Mysteries were only for the initiated.
All our info on the Bacchanals comes from ancient writers like Euripides, whose awesome and grisly tragedy, The Bacchae, is pretty much the definitive version of the myth. Big time Roman poet, Ovid, also puts his own spin on the story in The Metamorphoses. Other writers like Hyginius, Pseudo-Apollodorus, and Hesiod put their stamp on the myth as well, but if you ask us Euripides totally shows 'em all how it's done.
A lot of the myth takes place in the city-state of Thebes, a place where all kinds awful things happened according to legend. It's the place where Oedipus gouged his eyes out, the brothers Polyneices and Eteocles killed each other, and Antigone hanged herself while buried alive. (Tough town.) After the story of Thebes' founding by Cadmus, this is one of the oldest myths associated with the city. We wonder if the Thebans had an inkling that their city was in for a ton of woe, when awful things like Agave marching in with Pentheus' head on a stick happened so early in their history.
There's a whole mountain range called Cithaeron just south of Thebes. (Yup, both are still around these days.) These mountains were thought to be particularly sacred to Dionysus, so it's no wonder that the myth says the god drives all his newly recruited Maenads up these slopes to partake in his Bacchanal. The mountain WILDerness of Cithaeron seems like the perfect place to have a WILD Bacchanal. By going out into nature, the followers of Dionysus can shed all the laws of the human city of Thebes and get down with their primal animal selves. You can even say that the contrast between Thebes and Cithaeron represents the warring nature of all human beings.
The Hero's Journey is a framework that scholar Joseph Campbell came up with that many myths and stories follow. Many storytellers and story-readers find it a useful way to look at tale. (That's actually putting it lightly. Some people are straight-up obsessed.) Chris Vogler adapted Campbell's 17 stages of a hero's journey, which many screenwriters use while making movies. Vogler condensed Campbell's 17 stages down to 12, which is what we're using. Check out a general explanation of the 12 stages.
The story of Dionysus, Pentheus, and Agave doesn't fit perfectly into the Hero's Journey structure, but we're giving it a shot. As the gross old saying goes, there's more than one way to skin a cat.
Although most people would probably say that Dionysus is the main character of his story, "The Hero's Journey" doesn't work too well from his perspective. Although it still doesn't quite fit, it actually works better if you think about it from Pentheus' perspective. Here's how we've diced up the story:
For King Pentheus, the ordinary world is his orderly city of Thebes, which he rules without any major problems. Yay for peace! Too bad it won't last.
Pentheus' cousin Dionysus shows up from conquering Asia. Dude says he's a god and that the whole town ought to start worshipping him and join in his wild, wine-soaked Bacchanals.
The King is not amused with his crazy cousin, and he tells the D-Man to go back to Asia if wants to be all weird and stuff. The call is thoroughly refused.
Pentheus' granddad, Cadmus, and the blind seer, Tiresias, show up and advise the King to allow the worship of Dionysus. Unlike a lot of mentor/mentee relationships, Pentheus does just the opposite.
The King is shoved across the threshold by Dionysus when the god of wine makes all the ladies in town, including Pentheus' mom Agave, go crazy and run to the slopes of Mt. Cithaeron to get their Bacchanal on.
There's not really a lot of testing of allies and enemies here. Pentheus is pretty darn convinced that Dionysus is a Grade A enemy and locks the god up. This lasts like two seconds, though, because Dionysus just obliterates the jail with his super god power and puts a spell on Pentheus.
After Dionysus puts a spell on his cousin, he convinces him that it's a good idea to dress up in the girly clothes of a Maenad and go spy on the Bacchanal. The march up the slope of Cithaeron totally counts as "The Approach to the Innermost Cave."
Uh yeah, Pentheus totally goes through an ordeal when the Maenads rip his arms and legs off, and Agave finishes the deal by tearing off his head. (Yikes!)
Pentheus' reward is being dead as a doornail. Hm, that doesn't seem like much of a reward.
The King's head makes the journey back to Thebes at the top of a stick carried by Agave. Not too fun a journey, if you ask us.
There's no real resurrection here, unless you count the fact that Agave snaps out of Dionysus' spell and suddenly realizes that she's killed her son.
Pentheus doesn't return with any kind of elixir, but the city of Thebes sure gets one: wine! Dionysus has totally made his point. He's a god, and his wine-fueled Bacchanals are totally here to stay.
It just wouldn't be a myth about Dionysus if it didn't include a little dismemberment. In this story, you've not only got the dismemberment of Pentheus, you've also got the dismemberment of some bulls. Turns out that ritual dismemberment (sparagamos as the Greeks called it) of bulls is thought to have been a fixture of Bacchic rituals. It was said to recreate the way that Dionysus himself was dismembered as a child by Titans and later reborn. This death by sparagamos and resurrection was a key part of the cult of Dionysus.
The myths of Dionysus aren't the only ones to include a little dismemberment though. Lots of ancient religions practiced their version of sparagamos on sacrificial animals. There are also other gods who were said to have died by dismemberment and been resurrected. The most famous example is probably the big time Egyptian god, Osiris, who was said to have been torn apart by Set. His sister and lover Isis hunted all over the world and put his body back together again, and later the higher gods resurrected Osiris as the Lord of the Underworld. (A gloomy post, but alright.)
Don't go thinking that the followers of Dionysus were the only one to use wine and other substances to get closer to their god. For example, wine is an essential part of the communion of the Catholic Church. Catholics ritually drink wine after it is blessed by a priest, believing that it then becomes the blood of Christ.
Of course, wine is only one of the substances used in religious practices throughout the world.
One famous example is the hallucinogenic peyote cactus of the indigenous tribes of Mexico and the Southwestern United States. For thousands of years, various native tribes have eaten the cactus to reach out to their gods and their ancestors. These days, Peyote is an official part of what is known as the Native American Church and can be used legally by members.
Then, of course, there's the Rastafai, who are widely know to smoke marijuana as part of their spiritual practice. Though marijuana is still illegal in their home of Jamaica, the dreadlocked Rastas smoke it as an act of spiritual cleansing, and they believe it brings them closer to their prophet, Haile Salassie, and their God, Jah.
The battle between Dionysus and Pentheus is the main conflict in the myth, and it's also chock full of some pretty deep symbolism about the nature of human beings. Dionysus is all wild and crazy, right? He wants everybody in town to come party at one of his crazy Bacchanals and worship his wine-swilling ways. Pentheus on the other hand, wants everybody to chill out and obey the law.
So in a way, you could say that wild Dionysus represents the chaotic side of human beings, whereas level-headed Pentheus represents our more orderly side. There's no doubt everybody deals with this conflict in themselves. We've all got that part of us that just wants to let loose and maybe do crazy things, but we've also got that logical part of us that knows the wild side will get us in a ton of trouble if we let it get too out of control.
It's no accident that the Maenads dismember bulls in the story. The bull was a sacred animal of Dionysus, and he was said to sometimes appear in bull form. Some say that by dismembering the bull, the followers were symbolically recreating the myth of how Dionysus was ripped apart by Titans when he was a child and was later resurrected. The death and resurrection motif was just as important to the cults of Dionysus as it is to modern day Christians. Some see direct parallels in the eating of the raw flesh of the bulls coupled with the drinking of wine to the Catholic ritual of Communion, in which believers drink wine that symbolizes the blood of Christ and eat wafers symbolizing his body.