Pentheus set out, and I went behind him—
sightseers, with the Stranger as our guide.
When we had left the city of Thebes behind us
and crossed the river Asopus, we went up
and marched along a spur of Mount Cithaeron.
We settled first inside a grassy hollow
and kept our feet muted, our tongues in check,
so we could see and not ourselves be seen.
There was a rocky dale where springs were flowing,
and pines spread shade, that’s where we found the Maenads—
they all just sat there busying their hands
with pleasant tasks. Some of them wound the threadbare
wreaths atop their fennel stalks with ivy;
others, like fillies loosed from fancy saddles,
were singing Bacchic songs to one another.
Since he could not make out the band of females
well enough, poor Pentheus fretted, “Stranger,
from where we are, my eyes can’t quite discern
those phony Bacchants. If I climbed the tallest
fir tree on that ridge, though, I could fully
investigate the Maenads’ shameful acts.”
That’s where I saw the Stranger work a wonder:
he grabbed the high tip of the pine in question
and bent it down, down to the level earth.
It bellied like a short bow, like a circle
drawn by the arcing motion of a compass.
That’s how the stranger bent the mountain pine
down to the earth—a labor no mere mortal
could have performed. Once Pentheus was set
among the topmost boughs, he let the trunk
and lower branches slide up through his fingers
until the whole tree stood upright again.
He did it gently, so as not to topple
Pentheus, and it rose straight up toward heaven,
my master on its back. The Maenads now
saw Pentheus better than he could see them.
When he was obvious atop his perch,
the Stranger up and vanished, and a sudden
voice, the voice, I think, of Dionysus,
roared from the upper air:
……………………………………….. “Women, I’ve brought you
the man who has been mocking you and me
and all our holy rites. Avenge me now!”
While he spoke these words, a sacred fire
struck sky and earth. The upper sky was calm;
the wooded hollow hushed its sundry leaves;
and forest beasts were nowhere to be heard.
The Maenads hadn’t fully taken in
that order with their ears—they stood erect
and swung their eyes around. A second time
the bull-god roared his order. When the daughters
of Cadmus knew at last the god’s commandment,
swift as doves, they darted at the man,
and all the Bacchants darted in behind them.
Driven to madness by the breath of Bacchus,
they hurdled boulders as they bounded down
the rain-choked valley.
…………………………………. When they saw my master
sitting in the fir-tree, they ascended
a ridgeline opposite and started launching
rocks at him. Next they threw, like javelins,
the branches they had ripped from nearby pine trees.
Others hurled their fennel wands at him,
a most unlucky target, but they missed.
Though treed and helpless, Pentheus was far
too high for them, for all they strained to reach him.
So they started ripping up the roots
beneath the tree with crowbars not of iron
but oakwood. When this effort failed as well,
Agave shouted, “Make a circle round it,
Maenads; grip the trunk and we will snare
the beast beyond our clutches. Otherwise
he will divulge our secret sacred dances
to all the world.” A hundred hand-grips seized
the fir-tree, ripped it straight out of the earth.
Tumbling earthward from his lofty perch,
Pentheus hit the ground and shrieked and groaned.
His end was coming, and he knew it well.
His mother, as priestess, led the sacrifice—
she leapt at him. He wrenched his headdress off
so that the cursed Agave would perceive
he was her son and stop attacking him.
He touched her cheek and pleaded, “Mother, look,
it’s me, your dear son Pentheus, the child
you bore in Echion’s palace. Pity me.
Do not destroy me to avenge my errors!”
Her lips were dripping foam; her eyes were rolling;
her thoughts were scarcely what they should have been.
The Bacchic power was there possessing her,
so all his pleas were moot.
……………………………………….Gripping his hand,
she dug her foot into the poor man’s side
and tore his arm off at the shoulder. No,
her strength was not her own—the god had put
the power to kill with ease into her hands.
Ino was also shredding Pentheus—
she ripped the flesh out on the other side.
Autonoë and all the other Bacchants
joined in as well. War-whoops were everywhere.
He groaned out all the breath he still had in him.
The women trilled. One of them held an arm;
One held a booted foot. Their raw-meat-madness
had stripped the ribcage naked, and they all
were rearing bloody hands to catch and throw
morsels of flesh like they were playing ball.
The bulk of him was scattered, parts out under
the rugged cliffs, parts in the forest brush—
it won’t be easy to collect it all.
As for the wretched head Agave claimed,
well, she has fixed the thing atop her staff
and carries it about on Mount Cithaeron
as if it were a prize, a lion’s head.
Her sisters stayed behind among the Maenads.
Glorying now in her accursed hunt
and back inside of Thebes, she is invoking
the Bacchic god as mighty victory-giver,
sharer-in-the-quarry and fellow hunter
with whose assistance she has won her prize
of lamentation. I am leaving now
before Agave marches back into the palace.
I want to get away from the disaster.
Self-control and reverence toward the gods—
these are the best possessions for us mortals,
the wisest virtues we can cultivate.
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