Dionysus (also spelled Dionysos) was an ancient Greek earth deity with a specialty for vegetation, wine, festivities and madness. As portrayed in his myths, he was a wide-traveling god who was said to have interacted with many cultures. During these travels, he encountered a Thracian king named Lycurgus (or Lycourgos), who ruled the Kingdom of the Edonians. This Lycurgus, by all accounts, was a formidable individual whose abilities—when used in the right way and at the opportune time—could rival or even overpower the talents of the gods. Unfortunately, King Lycurgus’ abilities were not clearly described in the ancient stories, and therefore the identities of the special talents or powers that allowed the king to be able to compete against the gods sadly remain unknown. Whatever the case, King Lycurgus did indeed have the ability to clash with gods, and he used that ability to impressive results. Unfortunately for the aforementioned Dionysus, he was the one who suffered the brunt of King Lycurgus’ talents.
Dionysus, it should be said, was not a weak god. He was a son of the high-god, Zeus, and had a wide variety of divine skills that he could use in battle. In addition to his natural affinity for the earth, animals and vegetation (and everything that derives from them), Dionysus had a masterful ability to control the minds of humans, easily making them inebriated, delusional, or violently insane. Like many other gods, Dionysus also had the ability to shapeshift, allowing him to change his appearance or form, and this power could additionally be used by the god to completely change his enemies. For example, in one prominent tale, Dionysus magically turned a crew of hostile pirates into dolphins. Also, he was known to control and move at will rope-like vines as a way to attack or restrain his foes. Such was the figure with whom Lycurgus would confidently clash. And Dionysus was not alone at the time—the god had with him an army of his zealous followers, consisting of Satyrs and Bacchai or Maenads (deadly female followers of Dionysus who were sometimes granted a share of Dionysus’ powers). Lycurgus, to win the day, would have to overpower or outwit not only mighty Dionysus, but also the god’s large band of powerful followers. Against all odds, he succeeded in his opening clash against the mighty god.
Due to Lycurgus’ maneuvers, Dionysus was thwarted and forced to flee. Whatever happened that day evidently occurred in such a way that the satyrs, Bacchai and Maenads that had been following Dionysus all ended up falling into the hands of King Lycurgus. Shocked Dionysus, meanwhile, fled to the sea and found sanctuary with the influential nymph, Thetis, and stayed with her while recovering from the astounding defeat. Yet, just because King Lycurgus had won the battle (and he did it overwhelmingly), it did not mean he would win the war. Dionysus would recover and, either with help or on his own, the god brought ruthless revenge on Lycurgus.
Although all the major ancient sources agreed that King Lycurgus initially managed to force Dionysus into retreating, the authors disagreed about how Lycurgus was ultimately destroyed by divine vengeance. The famous poet, Homer (flourished c. 700 BCE), envisioned the event happening when Dionysus was a still a child, and in this version of the tale it was Dionysus’ father, Zeus, who avenged his son by striking Lycurgus with a bolt of lightning. In The Iliad, Homer wrote:
“Why, not even powerful Lycurgus, Dryas’ son, survived his quarrel with the gods of the skies for very long. This murderous Lycurgus chased the nurses of the wild god Dionysus down from the holy hills of Nysa, and they all scattered the god’s emblems to the ground as he struck them with his ox-goad. Dionysus fled and found sanctuary under the salt sea waves where the Sea-nymph Thetis took him to her bosom, terrified and shaking violently from Lycurgus’ threats. But the immortals who live at ease resented what Lycurgus had done—and Zeus struck him blind. He did not live long after that…” (Homer, The Iliad, Book 6, approximately between lines 130-140).
Such is the account and explanation of Homer. In his account, Lycurgus was able to initially defeat Dionysus because the god was a child and his followers at that time were his nurses. Young and crying Dionysus ran off to the comforting embrace of motherly Thetis, and as the godling was recovering from the encounter with the scary king, Zeus fatally punished Lycurgus with a deadly lightning bolt. While this account by Homer was one of the earliest versions of the story, other variants of the tale (especially those recorded by later authors and mythographers) set the incident in Dionysus’ adulthood and they also removed Zeus from the drama, meaning that Dionysus, himself, would be the one to ultimately mete out revenge against Lycurgus. A scholar known as Pseudo-Apollodorus (c. 1st-2nd century) summarized the non-Homer accounts of the myth:
“Lycourgos, son of Dryas, the ruler of the Edonians, who live by the River Strymon, was the first to insult and expel him. Dionysos sought refuge in the sea with Thetis, daughter of Nereus, while the Bacchai were taken prisoner along with the crowd of Satyrs who followed in his train. But later the Bacchai were suddenly set free, and Lycourgos was driven mad by Dionysos. During his madness, Lycourgos, believing that he was pruning a vine branch, killed his son Dyras with blows from his axe and had cut off his limbs by the time he recovered his senses. When the land remained barren, the god declared in an oracle that it would become fruitful again if Lycourgos were put to death…he died through the will of Dionysos, killed by horses” (Apollodorus, Library, 3.5.1).
This account, vastly different from Homer’s, makes it seem as if Dionysus was initially caught off guard, ambushed, or somehow attacked in such a way that he could not defend himself or his followers. After recovering in the home of Thetis, Dionysus planned and executed a multi-faceted campaign of revenge against King Lycurgus and the Edonians. He directed this scheme of vengeance from afar, without ever directly confronting Lycurgus, which perhaps suggests that the king’s god-defeating abilities could only be used in close combat. Dionysus employed his divine and magical powers to free his imprisoned followers and cover their escape from their Edonian captors. He also used his power to manipulate the human mind, driving King Lycurgus into a homicidal madness, resulting in the king killing his own family. Finally, Dionysus used his control over nature and vegetation to drain fertility and fruitfulness from King Lycurgus’ lands. As the king grieved after his madness, and while the kingdom starved from its inability to feed itself, a message eventually arrived from Dionysus that proclaimed he would not lift his curses from the land until King Lycurgus was executed. Broken King Lycurgus did not stop his people from complying, and he was executed by the grisly method of being pulled apart by horses.
Although King Lycurgus had the rare privilege of being able to claim that he bested a major god of Dionysus’ caliber, it was a short-lived glory that came at a steep and deadly price. Lycurgus discovered that, despite being able to physically compete with the gods, he could not ultimately defeat or outlast his divine foes in a prolonged struggle. In the end, his dramatic death (either by a blinding lightning bolt or by Dionysus’ ruthless campaign of revenge) outshined his momentary early victory in his showdown with the wine-god.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Ancient Greek Krater depicting a scene with Dionysus, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the National Museum in Warsaw).
- Apollodorus, The Library of Greek Mythology, translated by Robin Hard. New York, Oxford University Press, 1997.
- The Iliad by Homer, translated by E. V. Rieu and edited/introduced by Peter Jones. New York: Penguin Classics, 2014.