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Oppian Of Apamea-Dionysus,The Leopards and Pentheus

A mosaic depicting Dionysus on a leopard, from the floor in the ‘House of Dionysus’ at Pella, late 4th century BC, Pella, Archaeological Museum.


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is an excerpt the ‘Cynegetica’ (Hunting treatise), book 4, written by Greco-Syrian poet, Oppian of Apamea (200 A.D.), during the reign of the emperor Caracalla: It is about Dionysus and Leopards and also telling the tragic story of mind-blinded Pentheus. This story is the central plot to Euripides’s masterwork, ‘the Bacchae’ and is most probably Oppian’s source for this impressive episode within his hunting treatise. The English translation is by Alexander William Mair (1875-1928).


§ 4.210  I have heard that with trenches and like devices men capture also the bold Jackals and deceive the tribes of Leopards: only with much smaller trenches, and they cut not a pillar of stone but a beam of oak. And they do not hang aloft a kid, but a puppy, the privy parts of which you bind with thin straps. In its agony it straightway howls and barks, and is cry is heard by the Leopards. The Leopard rejoices and rushes straight through the wood. As when fishermen set up a weel to ensnare fish, plaiting it of Salaminian broom, and in the inside of it put a Poulpe or Grey Mullet roasted in the fire; the savour thereof comes unto the flat ledges and brings the fishes of their own will to the weel, and they are unable to get out again and meet a terrible death; so the Leopard, hearing the puppy from afar, runs and makes his spring, suspecting no guile, and obeying the call of hunger, enters the recesses of the pit.

§ 4.230  Leopards are overcome also by the gifts of Dionysus, when crafty hunters pour for them the crafty draught, shunning not the anger of holy Dionysus. Leopards are now a race of wild beasts, but aforetime they were not fierce wild beasts but bright-eyed women, wine-drinking, carriers of the vine branch, celebrators of the triennial festival, flower-crowned, nurses of frenzied Bacchus who rouses the dance. For Ino, scion of Agenor, reared the infant Bacchus and first gave her breast to the son of Zeus, and Autonoe likewise and Agave joined in nursing him, but not in the baleful halls of Athamas, but on the mountain which at that time men called by the name of the Thigh (Μηρός). For greatly fearing the mighty spouse of Zeus and dreading the tyrant Pentheus, son of Echion, they laid the holy child in a coffer of pine and covered it with fawn-skins and wreathed it with clusters of the vine, in a grotto where round the child they danced the mystic dance and beat drums and clashed cymbals in their hands, to veil the cries of the infant. It was around that hidden ark that they first showed forth their mysteries, and with them the Aonian women secretly took paint rites. And they arrayed a gathering of their faithful companions to journey from that mountain out of the Boeotian land. For now, now was it fated that a land, which before was wild, should cultivate the vine at the instance of Dionysus who delivers from sorrow. Then the holy choir took up secret coffer and wreathed it and set it on the back of an ass.

§ 4.257  And they came unto the shores of the Euripus, where they found a seafaring old man with his sons, and all together they besought the fishermen that they might cross the water in their boats. Then the old man had compassion on them and received on board the holy women. And lo! on the benches of his boat flowered the lush bindweed and blooming vine and ivy wreathed the stern. Now would the fishermen, cowering in god-sent terror, have dived into the sea, but ere that the boat came to land. And to Euboea the women came, carrying the god, and to the abode of Aristaeus, who dwelt in a cave on the top of a mountain at Caryae and who instructed the life of country-dwelling men in countless things; he was the first to establish a flock of sheep; he first pressed the fruit of the oily wild olive, first curdled milk with rennet, and brought the gentle bees from the oak and shut them up in hives. He at that time received the infant Dionysus from coffer of Ino and reared him in his cave and nursed him with the help of the Dryads and the Nymphs that have the bees in their keeping and the maidens of Euboea and the Aonian women. And, when Dionysus was now come to boyhood, he played with the other children; he would cut a fennel stalk and smite the hard rocks, and from their wounds they poured for the god sweet liquor. Other whiles he rent rams, skins and all, and clove them piecemeal and cast the dead bodies on the ground; and again with his hands he neatly put the limbs together, and immediately they were alive and browsed on the green pasture. And now he was attended by holy companies, and over all the earth were spread the gifts of Dionysus, son of Thyone, and everywhere he went about showing his excellence to men. Late and at last he set foot in Thebes, and all the daughters of Cadmus are to meet the son of fire. But rash Pentheus bound the hands of Dionysus that should not be bound and threatened with his own murderous hands to rend the god.

§ 4.291  He had not regard unto the white hair of Tyrian Cadmus nor to Agave grovelling at his feet, but called to his ill-fated companions to hale away the god — to hale him away and shut him up — and he drave away the choir of women. Now the guards of Pentheus thought to carry away Bromius in bonds of iron, and so thought the other Cadmeans; but the bonds touched not the god. And the heart of the women worshippers was chilled, and they cast on the ground all the garlands for and the holy emblems of their hands, and the cheeks of all the worshippers of Bromius flowed with tears. And straightway they cried: Io! blessed one, O Dionysus, kindle thou the flaming lightning of thy faith and shake the earth and give us speedy vengeance on the evil tyrant. And, O son of fire, make Pentheus a bull upon the hills, make Pentheus of evil name a bull and make us ravenous wild beasts, armed with deadly claws, that, O Dionysus, we may rend him in our mouths. So spake they praying and the lord of Nysa speedily hearkened to their prayer. Pentheus he made a bull of deadly eye and arched his neck and made the horns spring from his forehead. But to the women he gave the grey eyes of a wild beast and armed their jaws and on their backs put a spotted hide like that of fawns and made them a savage race. And, by the devising of the god having changed their fair flesh, in the form of Leopards they rent Pentheus among the rocks. Such things let us sing, such things let us believe in our hearts! But as for the deeds of the women in the folds of Cithaeron, or the tales told of those wicked mothers, alien to Dionysus, these are the impious falsehoods of minstrels.

The Death of Pentheus
Detail from Attic Red Figure Kylix attributed to Dourix, c.480 BCE.
Text source: 🌿🌿
Oppian Of Apamea-Dionysus,The Leopards and Pentheus

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