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Characters:

Kadmos: Founder and king of Thebes


Harmonia: Daughter of Ares and Aphroditë and wife of Kadmos


Agavë: Their eldest daughter who marries Echion


Autonë: Their second daughter who marries Aktæon


Ino: Their third daughter, close to Semelë, married to Amphion


Semelë: Their youngest daughter, beloved of Zeus, mother of Dionysos


Labdikos: Son of Kadmos by a servant


Echion: A Savage warrior born of the earth when inseminated by the teeth of a dragon Kadmos killed.


Aktæon: Famous hunter, husband of Autonë. He spied Artimis naked whence she provoked his hounds to kill him.


Amphion: Theban leader with family connections in Kos, husband to Ino, father of Lykurgoös who is later king at Kos


Pentheus: Son of Echion and Agavë, successor to Kadmos as king when Kadmos retires,


Dionysos: Son of Semelë by Zeus, the embodiment of abandon to impulse, particularly violent and erotic, of various plants and animals, especially wine, other vines, goats and panthers, and of ecstatic dancing.


Lykurgoös: Son of Amphion and Ino, later king at Kos


Phylomedea: Dance leader, theologian, and lover to Semelë


Mopsos: Itinerant soldier and lover to Semelë


Iapetos: Zeus in disguise, lover of Semelë


Erumachia: A servant of Kadmos and mother of Labdikos. Later Hera disguises herself as Erumachia to gain access to Semelë.


Iupein: Servant and lover to Pentheus


The Lydian: The image of a young man created and sustained by Dionysos


Selenios: Irascible and ugly old servant of Dionysos


The book is divided into three large sections:


Part I Semelë and Zeus


When Zeus, in the form of a Bull, carried away Europa, her father sent her bothers to search for her. One of them, Kadmos, went to the Delphic oracle who instructed him to give up the search and found the city of Thebes. He had first to kill a dragon, sew its teeth, and contend with the crop of savage warriors that resulted. Kadmos then aided Zeus in the war with the Titans, and in recompense Zeus gave him to wife Harmonia, the mortal, illegitimate daughter of Aphroditë and Ares.


Kadmos and Harmonia had four children, all daughters. The eldest, Agavë, married the survivor or the savage warriors, Echion, whom Kadmos later betrayed to his death. They had a son, Pentheus. The second daughter, Autonë, married Aktæon, a famous hunter. The third daughter, Ino, married Amphion, a nobleman from the island of Kos and a skillful leader. Kadmos also had an illegitimate son by a servant, Labdikos (the grand father of Œdipus, but that is another story).


The book begins shortly before the birth of their fourth daughter, Semelë. Semelë was intelligent, beautiful, and compulsively curious. She struggled to create and satisfy herself in an increasingly metropolitan settlement passing from outward-looking, heroic values to more self-conscious, lyric values. After a series of love affairs that allowed and forced her to pursue herself further, Zeus became her lover and she became pregnant. Hera, Zeus' wife, disguised herself as an old servant and played upon Semelë curiosity to tempt her to ask Zeus to manifest himself in making love as he would to an immortal. He granted her wish and she was consumed to ashes. Zeus saved the unborn child, Dionysos, and provided for his upbringing in Lydia in Asia Minor.


Thebans generally believed the story from Semelë's sisters that her lover was mortal and that Zeus had struck her down for calumny in proclaiming his paternity.


There is a break in the narrative of about 20 years here.


Part II A Voyage to Kos


An opportunity arose for the son of Ino and Amphion, Lykurgoös, to claim the thrown of Kos, an Island off the coast of Asia Minor. Lykurgoös was afraid of the responsibility and did not want to leave his girlfriend, but agreed to go with his father and mother on an armed expedition. At Kos they joined with local noblemen allied to his family. They discovered that Dionysos had appeared at Kos and his followers formed a third party. At his fathers prompting Lykurgoös at first allied himself with the Bacchantes, but their orgies revolted him and he broke the alliance. The civil conflict developed into a battle between Lykurgoös supporters and those of the former king. The Bacchantes intervened and defeated Lykurgoös. Under pressure he renegotiated with the alliance and became king. A messenger reported the death of Aktæon by his own hounds.


Part III Pentheus and Dionysos


Amphion and Ino hurried back to Thebes, where Kadmos had retired and Pentheus was king. When Dionysos arrived Pentheus rejected him and struggled to stamp out his followers. Seeking revenge for the insults to his mother and himself, Dionysos toyed with Pentheus mind and then drove mad his mother an aunts (the daughters of Kadmos). In a frenzy these women dismembered Pentheus. Kadmos and then Agavë came to understand what had happened. Lykurgoös arrived from Kos to try to sort out the chaos. Dionysos blinded him and Labdikos became king.