Dionysos and Lycourgos

Published September 3, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

Okay, I realize this is a bit of a jump from all the Prometheus stories, but it seemed nice and short, and that was key.  Plus I’m running out of myths that aren’t part of one of the major cycles.  (Well, there’s Phrixos and Helle, but it makes sense to leave that for when I’m about to start the Argonautica cycle.)

Just as a reminder, I left off the tale of Dionysos’ birth almost immediately after he was born, with Hermes taking the infant to his aunt Ino for protection from Hera’s jealous wrath.  (You know, I really need to write a novel about Hera to tell the myths from her point of view and point out that she’s really not the one at fault…)

Ino was a tender nursemaid to her infant nephew Dionysos–even though she had no idea that he was actually a god–and continued to be so after her marriage.  But marriage is the special province of Hera, and when Ino became a wife, the jealous goddess learned where her husband’s latest bastard was hiding, and began to plan vengeance upon him, all the more so since she could see that Dionysos–unlike Zeus’ other offspring by mortal women–was immortal, and possessed the full power of a true god, making him an even worse affront to her.

Worried for the baby’s safety, Zeus sent Hermes down once more to fetch Dionysos.  This time, Hermes stealthily delivered the young god to a group of Thracian nymphs in the mountains of Nysa.  They watched over the growing young god, raising him among their fertile grape vines.

As Dionysos grew from an infant to a small child, the nymphs were surprised to find that the juice they made from their luscious grapes was turning into something altogether different.  Though they didn’t yet know what to call it, they found that they quite enjoyed drinking it–much more than they had enjoyed drinking the simple juice!–and it made them want to dance and shout and shake staves in the air above their heads.

These nymphs became so noisy in their ecstasies that the local king, Lycourgos, became quite irate with them for making such a terrible racket, and decided that he would run them off his land once and for all, because they were disrupting his sleep with all that shouting and screaming and loud music late at night.

So Lycourgos raised an army and chased the nymphs away, making such a terrifying din of the clatter of weapons that the young–and slightly inebriated–Dionysos leapt right into the sea to escape the frightening sight.  Down at the bottom of the sea, quivering in fear, he was found by Thetis, who clasped the frightened child in her arms and cooed words of consolation at him, and cheered him up with words of comfort and revenge.

These actions did not go unnoticed by Zeus on Mt. Olympos.  He was grateful to Thetis for her kindness, but mostly he was enraged with Lycourgos for daring to raise a hand against his son.  How dare a mortal raise a weapon against a god?!  Such effrontery could not go unpunished!  But simple death was not enough to discourage others from repeating Lycourgos’ folly.

No, Lycourgos would have to suffer.

Of course, Dionysos would need to avenge himself, in the long run.  If he could not avenge himself, the mortals would never accept him as a true god.  Zeus knew that much.  But Dionysos was not yet old enough to take vengeance for himself.  He was barely old enough to keep from trying to suckle at Thetis’ breasts–though Zeus rather wanted to do that himself, and he wasn’t exactly in need of milk–and hardly ready to go about tormenting mortals to death.

For the moment, Zeus struck Lycourgos blind, to show everyone that the man had enraged the gods, to leave the real punishment to Dionysos himself.

Once Dionysos grew up, and obtained full control over his powers, he did indeed return to take vengeance on Lycourgos.  First, he let the man think he had been forgiven, by letting him once more have his sight.

But it didn’t work properly.

Lycourgos went out one day to cut vines, or so he thought.  Only after he laid down his axe did Dionysos clear the fog from his eyes and let him see that it hadn’t been vines beneath the blade, but Lycourgos’ own son, Dryas.


It’s weird.  Dionysos is usually a pretty mellow god–well, duh, he’s always drunk, right?–but man, he’s vicious to the people who cross him!  I think the people who tick off Dionysos get some of the nastiest punishments in all of Greek mythology.

Anyway, the main body of this story is primarily told in a brief snippet in the Iliad, and it doesn’t actually say how old Dionysos is in it; according to Gantz he’s described as “maddened,” implying that he’s caught up in his usual revels, but in the random translation I consulted at the library here (seriously, there’s like 20 different translations on the shelves here, but I didn’t see the ones I’m familiar with, so I just picked one at random) it implied he was still a baby.  So I compromised and made him a drunk kid.  Is there such a thing as “the worst of both worlds”?  I think that’s what I did there….

Anyway, there are quite a few other minor Dionysos myths–mostly stemming from mortals not accepting him as a god–so I’ll probably do those for the next few weeks.



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