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Month: July, 2021

“The Story of Pentheus” – Ovid

The Triumphal Procession of Bacchus, c.1536 - Maerten van Heemskerck

         The Triumphal Procession of Bacchus” (c.1536)


                   Maerten van Heemskerck





till now the separate stories in Ovid’s

Metamorphoses have been linked,

one being either a consequence of

the other,or its cause, but the story

of Pentheus, grandson of Cadmus,

king and founder of Thebes, who

earlier in this series had his own

tale told, starts, as my German

teacher used to say, from the



This sad event, therefore, in the

first line of the poem, refers to

what will follow, not what came



            This sad event gave blind Tiresias fame,

            Through Greece establish’d in a prophet’s name.


Tiresias, if you’ll remember, had been

blinded by Juno / Hera, goddess of the

gods, for having sided with Jove / Jupiter

/ Zeus, her husband, in a wager between

them he’d been called upon to decide,

Jove / Jupiter / Zeus, however, gave 

Tiresias, as consolation, having been

barred by a pact among the gods not

to undo each other’s spells, the gift

of insight, prophecy


the example that follows, of his divination,

establish[‘d] at that time his reputation

[t]hrough[out] Greece as a prophet

            Th’ unhallow’d Pentheus only durst deride

            The cheated people, and their eyeless guide.


unhallow’d, unholy, wicked, sinful


Pentheus, king of Thebes following

his grandfather, Cadmus, but that’s

an entirely other story


only, of all the people, none but

Pentheus durst, dared, deride,

mock, their eyeless guide, Tiresias

            To whom the prophet in his fury said,

            Shaking the hoary honours of his head:


hoary, grizzled, gray, aged

            “‘Twere well, presumptuous man, ’twere well forthee

            If thou wert eyeless too, and blind, like me:

            For the time comes, nay, ’tis already here,

            When the young God’s solemnities appear:


the young God[], Bacchus / Dionysus,

son of Semele and Jove / Jupiter / Zeus,

if you’ll remember, god of revelry,

intoxication, wild abandon


            Which, if thou dost not with just rites adorn,

            Thy impious carcass, into pieces torn,

            Shall strew the woods, and hang on ev’ry thorn.


impious carcass, dishonoured corpse, 

of any thou who wouldn’t’ve honoured

the celebrations


            Then, then, remember what I now foretel,

            And own the blind Tiresias saw too well.”


own, agree to, admit

            Still Pentheus scorns him, and derides his skill;

            But time did all the prophet’s threats fulfil.

            For now through prostrate Greece young Bacchus rode,


prostrate, beholden, reverent, observant

of the solemnities

            Whilst howling matrons celebrate the God:

            All ranks and sexes to his Orgies ran,

            To mingle in the pomps, and fill the train.


the rites of Bacchus were bacchanals,

orgies, celebrations of abandon, Mardi

Gras, for instance, in New Orleans,

annual Gay Parades, now everywhere,

or Hallowe’en since time immemorial


see above



            When Pentheus thus his wicked rage express’d:

            “What madness, Thebans, has your souls possess’d?

            Can hollow timbrels, can a drunken shout,


timbrels, tambourines

            And the lewd clamours of a beastly rout,

            Thus quell your courage;


quell your courage, overcome your

sense of discipline


                                            can the weak alarm

            Of women’s yells those stubborn souls disarm,


those stubborn souls, the Theban

spirit of pride and honour

            Whom nor the sword nor trumpet e’er could fright,

            Nor the loud din and horror of a fight?

            And you, our sires, who left your old abodes,


our sires, the older generation of

Thebans, of his grandfather

Cadmus‘ ilk

            And fix’d in foreign earth your country Gods;


foreign earth, very Thebes, from Tyre,

where Cadmus and his followers had

come from, in search of Europa, if

you’ll remember

            Will you without a stroak your city yield,


stroak, stroke


            And poorly quit an undisputed field?


undisputed field, there are no

military obstructions

            But you, whose youth and vigour should inspire

            Heroick warmth, and kindle martial fire,

            Whom burnish’d arms and crested helmets grace,

            Not flow’ry garlands and a painted face;


Remember him to whom you stand ally’d:


him, Pentheus himself, their king

            The serpent for his well of waters dy’d.


The serpenta reference here to the

dragon that Cadmus slew, which had

guarded the cavern where his crew

had been scouting for water, if you’ll



            He fought the strong; do you his courage show,

            And gain a conquest o’er a feeble foe.


a feeble foe, licentiousness, abandon,

undisciplined revelry


            If Thebes must fall, oh might the fates afford

            A nobler doom from famine, fire, or sword.


Pentheus appeals to a loftier reason

for defeat, famine, fire, or sword, than

mere, and ignoble, debauchery

            Then might the Thebans perish with renown:

            But now a beardless victor sacks the town;


beardless victor, the young Bacchus /


            Whom nor the prancing steed, nor pond’rous shield,

            Nor the hack’d helmet, nor the dusty field,

            But the soft joys of luxury and ease,

            The purple vests, and flow’ry garlands please.


Bacchus / Dionysus is not impressed

by armour, military accomplishments,

prowess, but by grace, elegance, and


            Stand then aside, I’ll make the counterfeit

            Renounce his god-head, and confess the cheat.


the counterfeit, Bacchus / Dionysus

            Acrisius from the Grecian walls repell’d

            This boasted pow’r; why then should Pentheus yield?


Acrisius, a king of Argos, who must’ve

also repell’d from his city Bacchus /

Dionysus, according to the poem

            Go quickly drag th’ impostor boy to me;


th’ impostor boy, the counterfeit,

Bachus / Dionysus

            I’ll try the force of his divinity.”


try, test

            Thus did th’ audacious wretch those rites profane;


th’ audacious wretch, Pentheus

            His friends dissuade th’ audacious wretch in vain:

            In vain his grandsire urg’d him to give o’er

            His impious threats; the wretch but raves the more.


his grandsire, Cadmus

            So have I seen a river gently glide,

            In a smooth course, and inoffensive tide;

            But if with dams its current we restrain,

            It bears down all, and foams along the plain.


nature will have its way, so will the

gods, watch out, the narrator says,

who it is that you challenge

            But now his servants came besmear’d with blood,

            Sent by their haughty prince to seize the God;


his servants, Pentheus‘ men


the God, Bacchus / Dionysus

            The God they found not in the frantick throng,

            But dragg’d a zealous votary along.


votary, follower, adherent,



the servants, Pentheus‘ men,

who did not, apparently, deliver


stay tuned



R ! chard

“The Story of Narcissus” (lll) – Ovid

The Metamorphosis of Narcissus, 1937 - Salvador Dali


         The Metamorphosis of Narcissus” (1937)


                   Salvador Dali





              This said, the weeping youth again return’d

              To the clear fountain, 


This said, you’ll remember that Narcissus

had pondered suicide, but was afraid that

such an act would also have an impact on

his reflection


                                          where again he burn’d;


burn’d, from the unusual fire that kindled
his breast


                His tears defac’d the surface of the well,

                With circle after circle, as they fell:


disfiguring reverberations in the water

from the tears


               And now the lovely face but half appears,
               O’er-run with wrinkles, and deform’d with tears.
               “Ah whither,” cries Narcissus, “dost thou fly?
               Let me still feed the flame by which I die;


the flame by which I die, the fire which

burns in his chest

              Let me still see, tho’ I’m no further blest.”


Narcissus will not willingly forego the

sight of his reflection though it will

manifestly not at all still his desire,

nor quell his fate


              Then rends his garment off, and beats his breast:
              His naked bosom redden’d with the blow,
              In such a blush as purple clusters show,
              Ere yet the sun’s autumnal heats refine
              Their sprightly juice, and mellow it to wine.


bruises the colour of wine blush in

purple clusters on his chest where

Narcissus has struck himself


              The glowing beauties of his breast he spies,
              And with a new redoubled passion dies.


The glowing beauties, the throbbing

discolorations left by the redoubled



              As wax dissolves, as ice begins to run,
              And trickle into drops before the sun;
              So melts the youth, and languishes away,
              His beauty withers, and his limbs decay;
              And none of those attractive charms remain,
              To which the slighted Echo su’d in vain.


slighted, rebuffed


Echo, the nymph who’d pursued him,

in vain, if you’ll remember


su’d, sued, implored

              She saw him in his present misery,
              Whom, spight of all her wrongs, she griev’d to see.


spight, in spite

              She answer’d sadly to the lover’s moan,
              Sigh’d back his sighs, and groan’d to ev’ry groan:
              “Ah youth! belov’d in vain,” Narcissus cries;


to his reflection

              “Ah youth! belov’d in vain,” the nymph replies.


Echo can only echo

              “Farewel,” says he; the parting sound scarce fell
              From his faint lips, but she reply’d, “farewel.”


Narcissus, interestingly, is reproduced

not only visually in the water by his

own reflection, but audibly as well by

Echo‘s reverberating sounds


see above

              Then on th’ wholsome earth he gasping lyes,
              ‘Till death shuts up those self-admiring eyes.
              To the cold shades his flitting ghost retires,
              And in the Stygian waves it self admires.


Stygian, of the river Styx, which forms

the boundary between Earth and the


              For him the Naiads and the Dryads mourn,


Naiads, water nymphs


Dryadstree nymphs

              Whom the sad Echo answers in her turn;


Echo also mourns

              And now the sister-nymphs prepare his urn:
              When, looking for his corps, they only found
              A rising stalk, with yellow blossoms crown’d.


corps, corpse, dead body


rising stalk, with yellow blossoms

crown’d, the narcissus, the flower



R ! chard