Comparative Guts

Athenian red-figure cup attributed to Douris

death of Pentheus (detail)​, c.480 B.C.

Cervetri, Museo Nazionale Cerite
Photo: 2023@photo Scala, Florence, Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas /Art Resource, NY/Scala, Florence

The death of Pentheus is most familiar in the description given by Euripides in Bacchae. There a messenger speech describes how Pentheus’ mother, Agave, and the other Bacchants tore his body apart: ‘One of them was flaunting a severed arm, another held a foot still shod for hunting, his ribs were being bared by clawing nails, and all with bloodied hands were playing games by tossing hunks of the flesh of Pentheus’ (Euripides, Bacchae 1133–6, trans. Gibbons and Segal). The tearing apart of Pentheus appears on a small number of Athenian pots from the end of the sixth century until late in the fifth century. This cup attributed to Douris and painted around 480 BCE, three-quarters of a century before Euripides’ play, is both the best preserved and the most graphic of the scenes. It is notable on the one hand for the inclusion of satyrs (one on the other side of the cup playing the double aulos next to a seated Dionysos in front of whom are two maenads with a lower leg and a thigh of Pentheus; one of this side frontal-faced and dancing), and on the other for the indication of blood pouring out of the upper part of the torn-apart body. But it appears that it is indeed blood that we have here, rather than innards.