beneath the beast skin


Oppian, Cynergetica 4.354‑424
Leopards are overcome also by the gifts of Dionysos, when crafty hunters pour for them the crafty draught, shunning not the anger of holy Dionysos. 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 Dionysos who delivers from sorrow. Then the holy choir took up secret coffer and wreathed it and set it on the back of an ass.

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 Dionysos 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 Dionysos 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. Otherwhiles 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 Dionysos, 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 am to meet the son of fire. But rash Pentheus bound the hands of Dionysos that should not be bound and threatened with his own murderous hands to rend the God. 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 Dionysos, 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 Dionysos, 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!


3 thoughts on “beneath the beast skin

    1. No clue. I mean, Aonia is the region in Thebes that contained both Helicon and Cithaeron, so the term is often applied to the Mousai:

      One can certainly imagine what painted rites could mean in that context, but I haven’t seen any literature on the subject, nor did a quick search turn up anything. Maybe that’d be more evident in the original Greek?


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