Lycurgus of Thrace was a mythical king of the Edoni people in southern Thrace, and he had a beef with Dionysus, the Greek god of grapes and wine. According to Greek mythology, Lycurgus got drunk on wine and tried to forcibly slake his lust upon his own mother. When he sobered up and realized what he had almost done, he swore off the drink, became a teetotaler. He also enacted a version of Prohibition in his kingdom: he banned wine, and ordered the destruction of all grape vines throughout the realm. Lycurgus also banned the religious cult of Dionysus, whom he refused to acknowledge as divine, and prohibited the worship of the grape god in his kingdom.
Dionysus was a god, and was thus not inclined to heed the dictates of a mortal, not even a mortal king. So when his disciples, the Maenads, threw a festival in honor of the wine god atop the sacred mountain of Nyseion in Lycurgus’ kingdom, Dionysus took on human form and attended as the guest of honor. When Lycurgus heard that his command had been defied and that Dionysus was in his kingdom, he flew into a rage and rushed to Mount Nyseion to break up the party. There, he slew with an ax a Maenad who had nursed Dionysius as a child, and chased the festival attendants out with an ox goad.
3. In Greek Mythology, the God of Wine Was Not All Fun and Games
To save himself from the livid Lycurgus, Dionysus in human form was forced to flee, and to escape the wrath of the angry king, leapt into the sea. There, Dionysus was rescued by the sea nymph Thetis, who kindly received the wine god and sheltered him in an undersea cave. In the meantime, Lycurgus conducted an anti-Dionysian purge throughout his kingdom. He carried out a persecution in which the Maenads and other followers of Dionysus were rounded up, arrested, and imprisoned. Understandably, Dionysus was greatly angered by Lycurgus disrespect and impiety. His divine punishment was take away the Thracian king’s sanity, and reduce him to a raving loon.
In Greek mythology, a crazed Lycurgus slew his wife and family. He had ordered all grape vines cut down, and in a fit of insanity, the deranged monarch mistook his own son for a vine. He chopped him up with a sword, and pruned away his ears, nose, fingers and toes. Dionysus was still not done with him, however. The wine god laid a curse upon Lycurgus’ kingdom, which rendered its soil barren and unable to produce fruit. The desperate Edonians sought advice from an oracle, who informed them that fertility would not return to their land while Lycurgus was alive. So the Edonians seized their king, tied him up, and flung him to a man-eating horse, which tore Lycurgus to pieces.
The Ancient Greeks’ worldview and mythology differed greatly from the orderly worldview of the major monotheistic religions, which worship an omniscient, omnipotent, and infallible God. The Ancient Greeks often saw their gods as arbitrary and capricious, and few myths depict that conception of the Olympians’ arbitrariness and capriciousness as does the myth of Actaeon. His fate differs from that of those described in most entries in this article, mortal or immortal beings who did something to invite the wrath of the gods.
If those unfortunates did not actively invite the wrath of the gods, then they at least found themselves in a situation in which the wrath of a good was understandable, even if unjustified. Actaeon on the other hand, endured a divine punishment despite the fact that he had not done anything of his own volition that could have justified his fate. In Greek mythology, Actaeon was a famous Theban hero, who loved to hunt in the outback of his native region of Boeotia. Like the hero Achilles, of Iliad fame, Actaeon had been taught to hunt by the centaur Chiron.
Although the extent of Actaeon’s sin, if it could even be called that, was to simply have had the misfortune of bumping into a naked goddess, Artemis was livid that a mortal saw her naked. So in her wrath, she turned him into a stag. The terrified Actaeon bounded into the woods, but his own dogs detected the scent of a stag. They failed to recognize their master in his new body, chased him down, and tore him to pieces.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading