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Bacchus Extra

A page of updates and new information intended especially for readers of Bacchus: a biography, also published as The Story of Bacchus (British Museum Press and John Paul Getty Museum Press)

The daughters of Minyas

This story is quoted from Bacchus pages 119-121. Click here for updates

Bacchus was the god of wine and of the special form of inspiration that wine brings. His divinity was eventually to be acknowledged across the ancient world, but that did not happen without opposition. The last of the myths of Bacchus belong to the period that followed his ascent to mount Olympos, and they tell how it came about that his divine power was asserted and his opponents were finally defeated.

Strangely, the opposition to Bacchus was at its strongest in the very region of Greece where he was conceived.

There is a small, ancient city in Boiotia, Orchomenos, forty miles from Thebes. Orchomenos, its founder, was the son of Zeus and Danae (one of Semele's predecessors). His son Minyas was now king of Orchomenos, and he had three daughters, Leukippe, Arsippe and Alkithoe.

They were good, hard-working, home-loving girls. They loved their husbands, says Aelian, who gives an outline of their story in his Miscellany. They loved their spinning, according to Ovid, and they saw no reason to interrupt their quiet pleasures because the priest of Bacchus had announced a festival for the new god. What was more, they saw no reason to give their servants a holiday.

Elsewhere in Orchomenos - and elsewhere in Boiotia - noblewomen and slaves side by side wrapped fawnskins around their shoulders and unfastened the ribbons that usually tied their hair. They put on wreaths of vine and ivy, and each carried a thyrsos, as they set out towards the mountains at nightfall to enact the traditional ritual that young Bacchus and his Mainads had established. The lines of ever-moving torches grew longer and reached higher towards the sky. The household of Minyas and his daughters worked as hard as ever. Can it be that they were worshippers not of Bacchus but of Hera, who favours married love and dutiful households? They spun and wove and made sure that their servants worked alongside them.

One unexpected detail is provided by Antoninus Liberalis in a collection of mythical tales called Metamorphoses; he drew on the work of a local Boiotian poetess, Corinna of Tanagra, according to whom Bacchus himself visited the recalcitrant household of Minyas and for this purpose temporarily adopted the shape and the persuasive tones of a young girl.

'All the women of Orchomenos are on their way to the mountains,' she said. 'Will you not join them in the worship of Bacchus?'

They seemed not to be listening.

'This new god is powerful,' she continued modestly, 'and he has much to offer to us mortals.'

They were not interested.

'It is said that he becomes impatient with those who reject him, and uses his power to punish such people.'

They changed the subject.

Bacchus found that he was becoming impatient. He turned into a lion cub, and that new shape, though it left him unable to use human speech for persuasion, did at least monopolise the attention of the household of Minyas. The lion cub glanced for a moment at the beams that formed the frame of the loom at which some of the women were working. In response to that glance, milk and honey began to drip from the ends of the beams. Then he turned into a leopard, and at the same moment the flow of milk became a river of wine. Then he became a bull. And during these transformations the noise of unseen drums, cymbals and flutes was heard through the house. The sacred scent of myrrh and saffron filled the air. The half-finished tapestry on the loom developed leaves and tendrils and turned itself into a flourishing vine.

The daughters of Minyas were never truly conscious of the powers of the god that they had scorned. Until this moment they had been composedly scornful of the new religion and its demands. Now, as the house was transformed around them, Bacchus entered their minds, as gods can, and their terror and confusion led them beyond all understanding.

They knew at once that a sacrifice must be made to lessen his anger. That was almost all that they knew ... but no: they remembered having had a way of choosing when some unwelcome task had to be allotted to one of the three. They threw three pebbles, each of a different colour, into an earthenware jug, and a servant reached in blindly to bring out one of them. It was Leukippe's. She must provide the sacrifice. So Leukippe called for her son, Hippasos, and when he came she seized hold of him and held him down. Then, helped by her two sisters, she tore him to pieces. As was proper at sacrifices, she burned the fat from his body on an altar; the flesh they themselves tasted. At last, with the blood of Hippasos still running from their lips and spattering all their clothes, the three sisters made their way towards the mountain. The rest of the womenfolk of Orchomenos were meanwhile returning, but the daughters of Minyas remained there, feeding on ivy leaves, bindweed and bay.

Eventually Hermes, aware of their apparently endless confusion, ended it by turning them into three creatures of the air, a real metamorphosis succeeding the false one. Leukippe became a bat, Arsippe a little owl and Alkithoe an eagle owl. All three of these hate the sunlight, Antoninus Liberalis observes. Ovid, however, says that it was Bacchus himself, not Hermes, who effected the transformation, and all three became bats. As Ovid tells it, on a certain night so dark that they could not see what was happening to them, all three of the sisters felt that skinny membranes were growing along their arms and legs, and they themselves were shrinking. Although they had no feathers they found that they could fly, and that is what they have done ever since, every night, still continuing their complaints in thin, high-pitched, reedy voices. Appropriately, since they had been so reluctant to go to the woods and hills with the Mainads, they now do not haunt the woods and wild places, as birds do, but attics, roofs and barns.

The daughters of Minyas: sources and updates

If -- under the influence of Bacchus -- the daughters of Minyas sacrificed Leukippe's baby son Hippasos, tore his body apart, and tasted his flesh, they were doing things that participants in the mysteries of Bacchus were believed to do in historic times. Which is why, at one moment in the story of Euripides' Bakchai, when the mother and sisters of Pentheus return from their Bacchanal with Pentheus's dismembered body, they talk as if they are about to taste the raw flesh. In all probability participants in some mystery rites really did tear apart animal victims and eat their raw flesh; the practice is called omophagia, 'eating raw'. Cannibalism -- an accusation that could grow rather naturally out of observations of omophagia -- is suggested by Livy in his narrative of the suppression of the Bacchanalia in Italy in 186 BC, in which he alleges killings of participants, whose very bodies were never afterwards found for burial.

The story of the daughters of Minyas is told by Antoninus Liberalis, Metamorphoses 10, citing Korinna and Nikandros; also by Aelian, Miscellany 3.42; Ovid, Metamorphoses 4.1-415; Plutarch, Greek Questions 38. For the momentary idea of Pentheus's mother and sisters that they will feast on the flesh that they have killed -- on Pentheus himself, in effect -- see Euripides, Bakchai 1184 with E. R. Dodds's note in his commentary on this passage.

The suppression of the Bacchanalia in Italy

An addition to chapter 9: After-effects

Here's a quotation from Bacchus page 137: In 186 BC the men of the Roman Senate, distressed by the growing popularity of Bacchic initiation and ritual among their wives and daughters, banned the worship of Bacchus from Rome and its dependencies.

I could have said much more about this episode, for which there are two main sources. The first is the actual Senatorial decree, which survives in full on the bronze tablet which was erected by the magistrates of the Ager Teuranus, modern Tiriolo, in southern Italy. For a translation see Ancient Roman statutes tr. Allan Chester Johnson, Paul Robinson Coleman-Norton, Frank Card Bourne (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1961) pp. 26-27. The other source is the long and exciting narrative by the Roman historian Livy (From Rome's Foundation 39.8-19).

See the modern study by J.-M. Pailler, Bacchanalia: la répression de 186 av. J.-C. à Rome et en Italie: vestiges, images, tradition. Rome, 1988. And watch this space ...

The fresco at the Villa of the Mysteries near Pompeii

For bibliography and links on the Fresco of the Mysteries click here

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TODAY'S QUOTATIONLiterary MenusAlphabet of RecipesHistorical PrescriberIFAQs
Food in the Ancient World ExtraDangerous Tastes ExtraDictionary of Languages ExtraNotes in the Margin Extra

STREET OF THE BOOKSELLERS

HOMETHE BOOKSHELVESTHE WHOLE WORLD DICTIONARYLANGUAGE INDEXWORK BY ANDREW DALBYLINKS