Dionysos, Lykourgos, and a Murder in the Sanctuary

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve spent the last several weeks focusing on some vase paintings that show the madness of Lykourgos, a mythical king of Thrace who seems to have been best known in the Classical period for the gruesome murder of his young son Dryas. To judge from the surviving vases, the Lykourgos myth was of interest to both Athenian and South Italian artists, but since my larger project is concerned with Athenian perceptions of the foreign and exotic, I am limiting my current investigation to the Attic material. It is a small corpus, consisting of a few red-figure hydriai and a column krater, all dating from roughly the middle to the end of the fifth century BC. There is other evidence, however, that suggests the centrality of the Lykourgos myth to the Greek understanding of Dionysos, so the small number of vase paintings is clearly not indicative of the level of interest that Lykourgos held for Athenians of the Classical period. According to Pausanias (1.20.3), for example, an Athenian sanctuary of Dionysos that is believed to date to this period displayed paintings of both Lykourgos and the Theban king Pentheus being punished for their offenses against the god. We also know that the madness of Lykourgos was the subject of the Edonoi, a tragedy by Aeschylus, although much of that play has now, unfortunately, been lost. Since most of the surviving images of Lykourgos’ madness show him wearing the patterned mantle (and sometimes the tall fringed boots) that the Athenians associated with Thracians, I am treating these vase paintings as one case study through which I can explore some of the questions I outlined in my last post.

To begin with a little background on Lykourgos and his son: as is frequently the case, our knowledge of this myth has been pieced together from art and literature of various periods, regions, and genres. The most complete surviving version is the one Apollodoros preserved in his Library (3.5), but given the fragmentary state of the earlier evidence, we will probably never know all the details of the version (or versions) with which the fifth-century Athenians were most familiar. Still, it seems fairly safe to suggest that the general outlines went something like this: Lykourgos was king of Thrace when Dionysos arrived in that region, and in a pattern that is familiar from other Dionysian myths, he rejected this strange newcomer to the local pantheon. He chased the god’s nurses down to the sea, and Dionysos punished him with madness. In his madness, and thinking that he was cutting down a vine, Lykourgos killed his son Dryas; this is the moment we see depicted on the vases. Two images show the king about to bring the axe down upon the boy, who sits helplessly on an altar (Italy, Private Collection, BAD 9022291; Cracow, National Museum 1225, ARV2 1121.17, BAD 214835); in another scene, Dryas is already beheaded, and maenads dance wildly around the frenzied Lykourgos, who still holds his axe mid-swing (Rome, Villa Giulia 55707, ARV2 1343, BAD 217561). What initially caught my attention about these scenes was the decision to set the murder in a sanctuary (and in two cases, upon an altar), especially given the general prohibition against dying in Greek sanctuaries. I wondered what Lykourgos’ use of ritual space—a use that turns a number of Greek religious norms on their heads—could tell us about Athenian perceptions of Thracians in this period. As it turns out, this is not a question that previous scholarship has addressed in much detail. Scholars concerned with the ritual setting of the scenes have looked for connections between the images and fifth-century drama, while those concerned with the king’s ethnicity have tended to stress ancient stereotypes about the savagery of Thracians. While there may be some truth to each of these positions, I believe that what is happening in the images is a little more complex than either would imply. I will discuss some of my thoughts about this problem in next month’s post.