|Greek and Roman Mythology > Bacchus
resentment against Semele, contrived a plan for her destruction.
Assuming the form of Beroe, her aged nurse, she insinuated doubts
whether it was indeed Jove himself who came as a lover. Heaving
a sigh, she said, "I hope it will turn out so, but I can't help
being afraid. People are not always what they pretend to be. If
he is indeed Jove, make him give some proof of it. Ask him to
come arrayed in all his splendors, such as he wears in heaven.
That will put the matter beyond a doubt." Semele was persuaded
to try the experiment. She asks a favor, without naming what it
is. Jove gives his promise and confirms it with the irrevocable
oath, attesting the river Styx, terrible to the gods themselves.
Then she made know her request. The god would have stopped her
as she spake, but she was too quick for him. The words escaped,
and he could neither unsay his promise nor her request. In deep
distress he left her and returned to the upper regions. There he
clothed himself in his splendors, not putting on all his terrors,
as when he overthrew the giants, but what is known among the gods
as his lesser panoply. Arrayed in this he entered the chamber of
Semele. Her mortal frame could not endure the splendors of the
immortal radiance. She was consumed to ashes.
Jove took the infant Bacchus and gave him in charge to the
Nysaean nymphs, who nourished his infancy and childhood, and for
their care were rewarded by Jupiter by being placed, as the
Hyades, among the stars. When Bacchus grew up he discovered the
culture of the vine and the mode of extracting its precious
juice; but Juno struck him with madness, and drove him forth a
wanderer through various parts of the earth. In Phrygia the
goddess Rhea cured him and taught him her religious rites, and he
set out on a progress through Asia teaching the people the
cultivation of the vine. The most famous part of his wanderings
is his expedition to India, which is said to have lasted several
years. Returning in triumph he undertook to introduce his
worship into Greece, but was opposed by some princes who dreaded
its introduction on account of the disorders and madness it
brought with it.
As he approached his native city Thebes, Pentheus the king, who
had no respect for the new worship, forbade its rites to be
performed. But when it was known that Bacchus was advancing, men
and women, but chiefly the latter, young and old poured forth to
meet him and to join his triumphal march.
Mr. Longfellow in his Drinking Song thus describes the march of
"Fauns with youthful Bacchus follow;
Ivy crowns that brow, supernal
As the forehead of Apollo,
And possessing youth eternal.
"Round about him fair Bacchantes,
Bearing cymbals, flutes and thyrses,
Wild from Naxian groves or Zante's
Vineyards, sing delirious verses."
It was in vain Pentheus remonstrated, commanded, and threatened.
"Go," said he to his attendants, "seize this vagabond leader of
the rout and bring him to me. I will soon make him confess his
false claim of heavenly parentage and renounce his counterfeit
worship." It was in vain his nearest friends and wisest
counselors remonstrated and begged him not to oppose the god.
Their remonstrances only made him more violent.
But now the attendants returned whom he had despatched to seize
Bacchus. They had been driven away by the Bacchanals, but had
succeeded in taking one of them prisoner, whom, with his hands
tied behind him, they brought before the king. Pentheus
beholding him, with wrathful countenance said, "Fellow! You
shall speedily be put to death, that your fate may be a warning
to others; but though I grudge the delay of your punishment,
speak, tell us who you are, and what are these new rites you
presume to celebrate."
The prisoner unterrified responded, "My name is Acetes; my
country is Maeonia; my parents were poor people, who had no
fields or flocks to leave me, but they left me their fishing rods
and nets and their fisherman's trade. This I followed for some
time, till growing weary of remaining in one place, I learned the
pilot's art and how to guide my course by the stars. It happened
as I was sailing for Delos, we touched at the island of Dia and
went ashore. Next morning I sent the men for fresh water and
myself mounted the hill to observe the wind; when my men returned
bringing with them a prize, as they thought, a boy of delicate
appearance, whom they had found asleep. They judged he was a
noble youth, perhaps a king's son, and they might get a liberal
ransom for him. I observed his dress, his walk, his face. There
was something in them which I felt sure was more than mortal. I
said to my men, 'What god there is concealed in that form I know
not, but some one there certainly is. Pardon us, gentle deity,
for the violence we have done you, and give success to our
undertakings.' Dictys, one of my best hands for climbing the
mast and coming down by the ropes, and Melanthus, my steersman,
and Epopeus the leader of the sailors' cry, one and all
exclaimed, 'Spare your prayers for us.' So blind is the lust of
gain! When they proceeded to put him on board I resisted them.
'This ship shall not be profaned by such impiety,' said I. 'I
have a greater share in her than any of you.' But Lycabas, a
turbulent fellow, seized me by the throat and attempted to throw
me overboard, and I scarcely saved myself by clinging to the
ropes. The rest approved the deed.
"Then Bacchus, for it was indeed he, as if shaking off his
drowsiness, exclaimed, 'What are you doing with me? What is this
fighting about? Who brought me here? Where are you going to
carry me?' One of them replied, 'fear nothing; tell us where you
wish to go and we will take you there.' "Naxos is my home,' said
Bacchus; 'take me there and you shall be well rewarded.' They
promised so to do, and told me to pilot the ship to Naxos. Naxos
lay to the right, and I was trimming the sails to carry us there,
when some by signs and others by whispers signified to me their
will that I should sail in the opposite direction, and take the
boy to Egypt to sell him for a slave. I was confounded and said,
'Let some one else pilot the ship;' withdrawing myself from any
further agency in their wickedness. They cursed me, and one of
them exclaiming, 'Don't flatter yourself that we depend on you
for our safety,' took my place as pilot, and bore away from
"Then the god, pretending that he had just become aware of their
treachery, looked out over the sea and said in a voice of
weeping, 'Sailors, these are not the shores you promised to take
me to; yonder island is not my home. What have I done that you
should treat me so? It is small glory you will gain by cheating
a poor boy.' I wept to hear him, but the crew laughed at both of
us, and sped the vessel fast over the sea. All at once strange
as it may seem, it is true the vessel stopped, in the mid sea,
as fast as if it was fixed on the ground. The men, astonished,
pulled at their oars, and spread more sail, trying to make
progress by the aid of both, but all in vain. Ivy twined round
the oars and hindered their motion, and clung with its heavy
clusters of berries to the sails. A vine, laden with grapes, ran
up the mast, and along the sides of the vessel. The sound of
flutes was heard and the odor of fragrant wine spread all around.
The god himself had a chaplet of vine leaves, and bore in his
hand a spear wreathed with ivy. Tigers crouched at his feet, and
lynxes and spotted panthers played around him. The sailors were
seized with terror or madness; some leaped overboard; others,
preparing to do the same, beheld their companions in the water
undergoing a change, their bodies becoming flattened and ending
in a crooked tail. One exclaimed, 'What miracle is this!' and as
he spoke his mouth widened, his nostrils expanded, and scales
covered all his body. Another endeavoring to pull the oar felt
his hands shrink up, and presently to be no longer hands but
fins; another trying to raise his arms to a rope found he had no
arms, and curving his mutilated body, jumped into the sea. What
had been his legs became the two ends of a crescent-shaped tail.
The whole crew became dolphins and swam about the ship, now upon
the surface, now under it, scattering the spray, and spouting the
water from their broad nostrils. Of twenty men I alone was left.
The god cheered me, as I trembled with fear. 'Fear not,' said
he; 'steer toward Naxos.' I obeyed, and when we arrived there, I
kindled the altars and celebrated the sacred rites of Bacchus."
Pentheus here exclaimed, "We have wasted time enough on this
silly story. Take him away and have him executed without delay."
Acetes was led away by the attendants and shut up fast in prison;
but while they were getting ready the instruments of execution,
the prison doors opened of their own accord and the chains fell
from his limbs, and when the guards looked for him he was no
where to be found.
Pentheus would take no warning, but instead of sending others,
determined to go himself to the scene of the solemnities. The
mountain Cithaeron was all alive with worshippers, and the cries
of the Bacchanals resounded on every side. The noise roused the
anger of Pentheus as the sound of a trumpet does the fire of a
war-horse. He penetrated the wood and reached an open space
where the wildest scene of the orgies met his eyes. At the same
moment the women saw him; and first among them his own mother,
Agave, blinded by the god, cried out, "See there the wild boar,
the hugest monster that prowls in these woods! Come on, sisters!
I will be the first to strike the wild boar." The whole band
rushed upon him, and while he now talks less arrogantly, now
excuses himself, and now confesses his crime and implores pardon,
they press upon and wound him. In vain he cries to his aunts to
protect him from his mother. Autonoe seized one arm, Ino the
other, and between them he was torn to pieces, while his mother
shouted, "Victory! Victory! We have done it; the glory is
So the worship of Bacchus was established in Greece.
There is an allusion to the story of Bacchus and the mariners in
Milton's Comus, at line 46. The story of Circe will be found in
"Bacchus that first from out the purple grape
Crushed the sweet poison of misused wine,
After the Tuscan mariners transformed,
Coasting the Tyrrhene shore as the winds listed
On Circe's island fell; (who knows not Circe,
The daughter of the Sun? Whose charmed cup
Whoever tasted lost his upright shape,
And downward fell into a grovelling swine.)"