Study Guide

Dionysus, Pentheus, and Agave

How It (Supposedly) Went Down

The Short Story

After some wild years in Asia, Dionysus, god of wine and revelry, shows up in his hometown of Thebes. When party pooper King Pentheus refuses to recognize Dionysus as a god, the D-man gets his revenge by making the women in town go crazy, run out into the woods of Mt. Cithaeron, and let loose in Dionysus' wild, wine-fueled Bacchic rituals. This crew of new Maenads (followers of Dionysus) includes Pentheus' mom, Agave.

The King tries to lock Dionysus up in the dungeon for his shenanigans, but the god just destroys the palace with fire and lightning. Then the god of wine bedazzles Pentheus, and convinces him it's a good idea to dress like a woman, climb up a tree, and spy on the Maenads. This works out pretty terribly for Pentheus, when his maddened mom, Agave, spots him and thinks he's a lion. She leads the rest of the Maenads in ripping Pentheus limb from limb, and she finishes the job by tearing off his head with her bare hands.

Moral of the story: Do. Not. Mess. With. Dionysus.

The Less Short Story

  • Dionysus, god of wine and revelry, shows up in his hometown of Thebes with a few chips on his shoulder.
  • Chip One: His mom, Semele, a lover of his dad, Zeus, was obliterated when Hera tricked her into asking Zeus to reveal himself in his godly form: thunder and lightning. 
  • Zeus scooped fetal Dionysus from Semele just in time, but still... that's got to leave a few mental scars.
  • Chip Two: Since Semele's death, her sisters Agave, Ino, and Autonoe have been spreading the rumor that their dad Cadmus just made up the fact that Zeus was Dionysus' father to cover up that Semele got knocked up by some random mortal dude. 
  • Not only is the D-man ticked that his aunts are talking trash about his mom, he's extra mad because this rumor makes it seem like he has no godly blood at all. 
  • Chip Three: Agave's party pooper son Pentheus is now king of Thebes. 
  • The King believes his mom's nasty rumor, so he refuses to allow anybody in town to worship Dionysus, even though Dionysus has mustered up quite a following in his recent travels in Asia.
  • For Dionysus this is one chip too many.
  • It's payback time. 
  • The god of wine gets back at his aunts Agave, Ino, and Autonoe by making them go crazy and run onto the slopes of Mt. Cithaeron along with the rest of the women in Thebes.
  • Out in the wilderness, the Theban women become Maenads, female followers of Dionysus.
  • The job requirements of your typical Maenad:
    1. Dressing in fawn or leopard skins
    2. Wearing garlands of oak and pine
    3. Drinking gallons and gallons of wine
    4. Dancing and singing until they reach a state of ecstasy
    5. Breastfeeding wild animals (This just got weird.)
    6. Ripping apart animal sacrifices and unlucky men with their bare hands 
  • As you might have guessed, King Pentheus is more than a little ticked off at what his cousin is making his mom and all the other ladies do. 
  • His granddad, Cadmus, and Tiresias, the blind seer, both advise him to ease up on Dionysus a bit.
  • They think if the King will recognize that his cousin is a god, then Dionysus will chill out about the whole thing.
  • Pentheus is not having it, though. 
  • When Dionysus shows up for a chat, the King locks the god up in the dungeon. 
  • Here's a helpful hint: never lock a god up in a dungeon. 
  • Dionysus obliterates Pentheus' palace with fire and lightning, and he strolls out of the wreckage without breaking a sweat.
  • Then the god puts Pentheus in a trance, making the King think it's a good idea to dress up like a girly Maenad and go spy on all the shenanigans going on up on the mountain. 
  • Pentheus climbs a tree to peep in on the Maenads.
  • Agave spots him, though, and in her frenzied state thinks he's a lion. 
  • So, she rallies the rest of the Maenads, and the madwomen drag the king from the tree. 
  • The King's aunts Ino and Autonoe take the lead in ripping off Pentheus' legs and arms. 
  • His mom finishes him off by tearing his head from his shoulders with her bare hands. 
  • Agave puts her son's head on a stick and marches the other Maenads down to Thebes to show off her kill. 
  • When they run into Cadmus in the town, Dionysus finally breaks his spell.
  • Agave is absolutely horrified at what she's done to her own son, and Thebes has learned that it's best not to mess with Dionysus.