Introduction: Pentheus, the Victim of Bacchanalia
In his famous tragedy “The Bakkhai,” Euripides brings back the famous story of Pentheus and Dionysos. Although the mythology of the Ancient Greece is full of murder, the story of Pentheus’s death is one of the most shocking of all, which already says a lot, given the shocking brutality of Ancient Greek myths.
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Although it is traditionally considered that the key reason behind Pentheus’s death was his denial of Dionysos as a god, it can also be argued that Pentheus’s non-acceptance of Dionysos was only the factor, while the key reason behind his death was taking the tradition of bacchanalias away from the citizen, as well as his acceptance of a feminine role and the resulting mistakes in political strategy, as well as the fact that Pentheus obviously underestimated the power of the crowd.
“The Bakkhai”: Summary and Mythological Background
Though the tragic event known as the death of Pentheus, which was later on described by Euripides in his “the Bakkhai” is notoriously famous all over the world, recalling the key events will help analyzing the reasons behind Pentheus’s death more efficiently. Known as the monarch of the Thebes, Pentheus was against bacchanalias as very sinful and indecent events.
After Pentheus captures Dionysos, the latter feels outraged and makes Agave lose her mind and join him. Trying to stop the mother, Pentheus attends the bacchanalia, but his insane mother murders him, thinking he was a lion. As soon as the bacchanalia is over, however, she realizes what she has done and cries. Dionysos turns Agave’s father into a dragon and her mother into a snake, exiling Agave and her sisters forever.
The Reasons for Pentheus’s Downfall: Where It All Started from
Though the reasons for Pentheus’s defeat are obvious, there might be some arguments concerning his own fault in what had happened. Even though Pentheus should have given Dionysos more credit, there are other factors that predetermined Pentheur’s downfall.
Pentheus’s refusal to accept Dionysos
The given reason for Pentheus downfall seems the most obvious. Indeed, according to the plot of the tragedy, the monarch is murdered by his own mother in the midst of bacchanalia that has got completely out of control:
AGAVE: Men are hunting us! We’ll fight them with our wands! (Euripides line 1000).
To start with, unless Panthos had prohibited the tradition of bacchanalia and mocked Dionysos, the latter would have not feel the urge to take his revenge on Pentheus; his priestesses and followers would have never become so enraged:
[…] Here’s the truth:
He’s a ‘god’ lightning burned up with his mother as a punishment for her great lie (Euripides lines 358–360).
Therefore, the bacchanalia feats would have not become so uncontrollable; in her turn, Pentheus’s mother would have not decided to join the protesting Bacchantes and, therefore, would have never gone so insane that she would devour her own son.
Playing a more feminine role: Pentheus’s retreat
It could also be argued that the downfall of Pentheus can be explained by the change in his policy as a monarch. If comparing the Pentheus of the first part of the story and the Pentheus that the readers encounter in the final part of the poem, one will see that these two have nothing in common with each other. The Pentheus that the readers see at the start of the poem is strong, powerful and confident:
I have arrested a handful already, they’re tied up now in a public stable (Euripides 336–337).
However, the Pentheus that appears in the final part of the poem is weak and doubting, performing a role that can be viewed as much more feminine:
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DIONYSOS: […] hallucination fed his desires. That was how I humiliated him (Euripides 854–856).
Such weakness cost Pentheus a life.
When the power of the crowd is underestimated
Another reason for Pentheus to lose not only his throne, but also his life was the fact that he underestimated the power of the crowd. Considering himself above the people who technically were his subjects, he made a huge mistake. Once a crowd is out of control, there is nothing that a single person can do – the crowd will smash the person and continue protesting until it finally gets what it wants:
their voices swelling together, then the whole mountain started to dance for Bakkhos (Euripides lines 995–996).
Dionysos, his pride and his inferiority complex
It would be wrong, however, to believe that Dionysos was the only person to blame for what had happened; no matter how weird and irrational his actions might have become, there was still another person who actually had a lot to deal with the bacchanalia.
As long as Dionysos felt that he was underestimated and, in fact, was not considered a legitimate member of the Greek Pantheon, he would feel the urge to take his revenge on the people who were standing in his way. Therefore, Dionysos’ inferiority complex can also be considered the reason for Pentheus’s downfall:
DIONYSOS: But you, Pentheus, can be certain
That the God you call “dead” –
Is Dionysos, a god so real
He’ll make you answer for every
Outrage you do to him (Euripides lines 718–722).
Indeed, if Dionysos had not felt the urge to prove his divinity, he would have never gone so far as to make Pentheus’s mother kill her own son. The more power one has, the more responsible one becomes, realizing that his powers can be the source of not only justice, but also grief and sorrow if used irresponsibly. Therefore, Dionysos obviously lacked self-assurance and responsibility, which cost Pentheus his life.
Discussion: Picking the Most Legitimate Reason
When defining the point at which Pentheus’s fate becomes obvious, one must admit that Pentheus died because of his refusal to accept Dionysos as a god. If Pentheus did not prohibit bacchanalias, he would have stayed alive and would not have had been torn limb to limb to the enraged bacchantes. However, unless Dionysos would not have felt the urge to establish himself as a god, there would have been no conflict between him and Dionysos, which means that the inferiority complex of the latter serves as a prerequisite to the tragedy.
Conclusion: Pentheus and His Untimely Death
Though it is generally accepted that Pentheus was murdered by his mother as a result of his refusal to accept Dionysos, it can also be claimed with certainty that the cause of Pentheus’s death was prohibiting the bacchanalian feasts to honor Dionysos. On the one hand, it is clear that Pentheus’s stubbornness led to his tragic and untimely death.
On the other hand, it would be a mistake to think that the denial of Dionysos was the only reason for Pentheus’s downfall. Also caused by the politics that Pentheus preferred to rule the land, the moods that were brewing among the Dionysos’s adepts, and many other reasons, this death is a graphic example of an unreasonable policy that lacked wisdom and caution. That said, the death of Pentheus still remains one of the most notorious monarch deaths in the Greek mythology.
Euripides. “Bakkhai.” Classical Tragedy, Greek and Roman. Ed. Robert W. Corrigan. New York, NY: Applause Theater and Cinema Books, 1990. Print. 367–431.