Daughter of Cadmus. Sister of (the late) Semele. Mother of Pentheus. Because she blasphemed Dionysus when she said Semele was not pregnant with the child of Zeus, she is one of the targets of Dionysus' vengeance. Possessed, she mistakes Pentheus for a wild beast and, with the help of her sisters and the other Maenads, rips Pentheus to pieces with her bare hands. She returns to Thebes, splattered with her son's blood and carrying his head impaled on a stick, believing that she has killed a lion. Cadmus, grief-stricken, speaks with her gently until the madness passes; only then does she look at the thing she carries.
The bull is one of Dionysus's most common incarnations in Greek art and religious imagery. It expresses the god's power, leadership, virility, and his potency as a force of nature. The epithets used for him in cultic practice and in poetry often allude to his bullish form. Crucially, the shape of the god and his victim is sometimes the same, as in the case of the bull, often offered as a sacrifice in his honor. In the play, the maenads tear apart bulls in the frenzy of their sparagmos (the ritual dismemberment of animals) in the cowherd's speech. Pentheus, in particular, sees Dionysus in his bull-like form. When he thinks he is tying up the Stranger, he finds himself wrestling with a bull in the stables of the palace. Once he goes mad, he sees the Stranger as a bull.
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