Dionysus, the far-traveling ancient god of vegetation and wine, was one of the more amiable and benevolent figures from among the pantheon of ancient Greek deities. Nevertheless, if encountered on a bad day, he could also be vindictive and wrathful, especially if he was tested or challenged by communities that he encountered on his adventures. Such wrathfulness was a usual feature of ancient gods, but, to Dionysus’ credit, he seemed to resort to violence far less frequently than his other fellow major Greek gods and goddesses. Yet, even though he was often more peaceful than other deities, that did not mean that Dionysus held back if he did fall into one of his wrathful mood swings. In fact, he could be quite brutal and cruel when his personality made its relatively rare transformation from his usual joyful buzz to his darker side of drunken rage and madness.
One of the worst instances of Dionysus’ unleashed wrath occurred in the ancient Greek city of Argos, where Dionysus fell into a rage after he felt he had been treated dishonorably by the local population. Dionysus usually unleashed his wrath against men (such as King Lycurgus of the Edonians and King Pentheus of Thebes), but in the case of Argos it was the women who suffered the brunt of Dionysus’ power and its consequences. On what happened to the Argive women, a mythographer known as Pseudo-Apollodorus (c. 1st-2nd century) wrote, “Having shown the Thebans that he [Dionysus] was a god, he went to Argos, and there again, when they failed to honour him, he drove the women mad, and they carried their unweaned children into the mountains and feasted on their flesh” (Apollodorus, Library, 3.5.2). After delivering this horrific punishment on the people of Argos, Dionysus promptly departed the region for his next adventure, leaving the Argive women in their supernaturally-wrought state of madness.
Argos’ women were not left in their maddened state for long. They were, instead, released from their delirium by a most curious guardian from Greek myth and legend. As was told by the Greek-Sicilian historian, Diodorus Siculus (c. 1st century BCE), “Melampous, who was a seer, healed the women of Argos of the madness which the wrath of Dionysus had brought upon them…” (Diodorus Siculus, Library, 4.68). This Melampous figure (also spelled Melampus) was a miracle-performing hero with a knack for divination, magical healing, and the ability to talk to wildlife—snakes being his favorite animal comrades. Although Melampous could dispel the madness of the Argive women with his miraculous healing abilities, he was not able to, in this case, bring the dead back to life or cure their parents’ sorrow over the loss of the children. Even so, the Argive people were thankful enough for Melampous’ services to give him land and power in Argos.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Cropped and modified triumph of Bacchus, painted by Joseph Alexis Mazerolle (c. 1826-1889), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Paris Musees Collections).
- The Library of History, by Diodorus Siculus, edited by Giles Laurén (Sophron Editor, 2014).
- Apollodorus, The Library of Greek Mythology, translated by Robin Hard. New York, Oxford University Press, 1997.