Thracian King

Lycurgus

Mosaic of Lycurgus fighting Ambrosia and Dionysus

Roman mosaic from Herculaneum showing Lycurgus fighting Ambrosia and Dionysus (first century CE)

National Archaeological Museum, Naples / AmphipolisCC BY-SA 2.0

Overview

Lycurgus, son of Dryas or Ares, was king of the Edonians in Thrace. He is best remembered for attacking Dionysus and his followers when he found them in his kingdom. For this act of impiety, Lycurgus was severely punished (though the exact punishment varies across ancient sources).

Where was Lycurgus from?

In most accounts, Lycurgus was a king of Thrace, a wild region northeast of the Greek peninsula. More specifically, a few authorities made him king of the Thracian Edonians. However, some sources connected Lycurgus with Syria, possibly even identifying him with a local Arabian god.

The "Lycurgus Cup"

The "Lycurgus Cup," showing the madness and death of Lycurgus (4th century CE)

British Museum, London / Marie-Lan NguyenCC BY 2.5

How was Lycurgus punished?

Lycurgus was punished by the gods for opposing Dionysus and committing violence against him and his followers. Though there were different versions of this punishment, it usually involved some element of madness.

According to one account, for example, Lycurgus was driven so mad that he killed his own son; in another, he killed his wife as well as his son before chopping off his own legs with an ax. Lycurgus’ punishment ended in his death (though one source asserts that he continued to be punished in the Underworld).

Mosaic detail of Bacchus reclining with lyre player

Mosaic detail of Bacchus reclining with lyre player, from a mosaic showing the punishment of Lycurgus (2nd/3rd century CE)

Musée Gallo-Romain, Saint-Romain-en-Gal / Carole RaddatoCC BY-SA 2.0

Lycurgus and Dionysus

Lycurgus was one of several mortals who famously (and foolishly) attacked Dionysus and his cult. According to most accounts, Lycurgus pursued the god and his followers with an ax and ox-goad (a type of cattle prod), causing them to flee in terror. Dionysus himself only managed to escape by jumping into the sea.

Lycurgus, like other mythical sinners, was severely punished for his impious behavior. In one early source, it was Zeus who punished Lycurgus, but most later sources claimed that Dionysus returned to bring about the downfall of the man who had dared to defy him.

Bacchus by Caravaggio

Bacchus by Caravaggio (ca. 1598)

Uffizi Gallery, FlorencePublic Domain

Attributes

Most ancient sources made Lycurgus a king of Thrace. More specifically, Aeschylus (in a lost set of tragedies) described Lycurgus as the king of a Thracian people called the Edonians. Subsequent sources often echoed this claim.[1]

In other traditions, however, Lycurgus’ kingdom lay elsewhere. Homer, for example, placed Lycurgus in the neighborhood of Nysa (whose location was unknown even in antiquity).[2] In some later sources, Lycurgus was a king of Syria, where he was worshipped locally as a god after his death.[3]

Lycurgus was a violent and impious figure. His motives for opposing Dionysus were either pride[4] or a hatred of wine[5] (though in some traditions, it was Dionysus’ enemy Hera who turned Lycurgus against the young god).[6] In much later accounts, Lycurgus was actually seen as an exemplar of temperance and abstention from wine.[7]

From an early period, Lycurgus’ defining attribute was his ox-goad (or double ax), with which he was said to have pursued Dionysus and his followers.[8] Curiously, a few sources also specify that Lycurgus wore only one sandal, for reasons that remain unclear.[9]

Iconography

A number of depictions of Lycurgus are known from ancient vases, paintings, reliefs, and mosaics.

Lycurgus was usually identified by the double ax or ox-goad he carried. Originally he was shown in Thracian dress (matching his identity as a Thracian king), but in later periods he wore different costumes, such as laced boots, or else was shown completely naked. In literature, he sometimes wore only one sandal.

Vase painting of the maddened Lycurgus attacking his wife

Apulian red-figure calyx-krater by the Lycurgus Painter (ca. 350–340 BCE) showing the maddened Lycurgus attacking his wife

British Museum, London / JastrowCC BY 2.5

When he appeared in art, it was usually in scenes of his struggle with Dionysus. Lycurgus can be seen, for example, attacking Dionysus and his entourage, chopping down vines, receiving his punishment from Dionysus, or killing his own family in a fit of divine madness (likely part of his punishment).[10]

Etymology

The name Lycurgus (Greek Λυκοῦργος, translit. Lykoûrgos)[11] is a compound of two Greek words: λύκος (lýkos), meaning “wolf,” and εἴργω (eírgō), meaning “to ward off.” It therefore means “he who wards off wolves.” The name was given to several figures from Greek mythology.

  • English
    Greek
    LycurgusΛυκοῦργος (Lykoûrgos)
  • Phonetic
    IPA
    [lahy-KUR-guhs]/laɪˈkɜr gəs/

Family

Lycurgus was the son of Dryas, a figure who is otherwise unknown in Greek mythology.[12] There was an alternative genealogy, however, in which Lycurgus’ father was said to be Ares, the Greek god of war.[13]

The Death of Pentheus by Antonio Tempesta and Wilhelm Janson

The Death of Pentheus by Antonio Tempesta and Wilhelm Janson (1606)

Los Angeles County Museum of ArtPublic Domain

Lycurgus had a wife and at least one child, both of whom played an important role in his myth. Lycurgus’ wife is not named in any extant sources, but according to Apollodorus, his son was called Dryas (after Lycurgus’ father).[14] Alternatively, Lycurgus may have had two sons named Ardys and Astacius.[15]

Mythology

Origins

Scholars have long debated the origins of the Lycurgus myth. In most ancient texts, the myth is set in Thrace, leading many authorities to argue that this is where Lycurgus originated.[16]

But other scholars have interpreted Lycurgus as a figure of Syrian extraction, pointing to the fact that some sources depict him as a Syrian king. There is also epigraphic evidence linking Lycurgus with an Arabian deity worshipped in Syria.[17]

Like other opponents of the cult of Dionysus (including the mythical Pentheus), Lycurgus has been interpreted by modern scholars as a manifestation of the tension between divine madness and human order. This tension was central to the mythology and worship of Dionysus.[18]

Borghese Ares

The "Borghese Ares," a 2nd-century Roman sculpture after a Greek original

Louvre Museum, Paris / ShonagonCC0

Lycurgus’ Attack on Dionysus

At the heart of Lycurgus’ myth is his ill-advised attack on Dionysus, and on the god’s domain of wine. Ancient sources report several different versions of Lycurgus’ crime:

1. In an early version of the myth that goes back to Homer, Lycurgus attacked Dionysus and his nurses, either by himself or at the head of an army. Wielding an ox-goad, he pursued the group across Nysa. Dionysus only managed to escape by diving into the sea and seeking refuge with the Nereid Thetis. In some accounts, the god’s nurses were rescued by Zeus, who turned them into stars.[19]

Thetis Transporting Arms for Achilles (detail) by William Theed the Elder

Thetis Transporting Arms for Achilles (detail) by William Theed the Elder (ca. 1804–1812)

The Metropolitan Museum of ArtPublic Domain

2. In what became the most common version of the myth (popularized by the tragedian Aeschylus in his Lycurgea tetralogy, now lost), Lycurgus’ attack upon the entourage of Dionysus was concentrated on the god’s frenzied female worshippers, known as the Bacchae.[20]

3. In later versions, Lycurgus’ attack on Dionysus and his followers culminated in Lycurgus taking up an ax and chopping down Dionysus’ vines.[21]

4. Some texts connected Lycurgus’ attack on Dionysus with the nymph Ambrosia, one of Dionysus’ nurses. Confronted by Lycurgus, Ambrosia prayed to the earth goddess Gaia, who took pity on her and transformed her into a vine whose tendrils restrained her attacker.[22]

Lycurgus’ Punishment

Just as there were different versions of Lycurgus’ attack on Dionysus and his followers, there were also different versions of his punishment. According to most accounts, Dionysus punished Lycurgus himself with some form of madness, though in early traditions it was Zeus who punished him. Some sources even claimed that Lycurgus’ punishment was delegated to a minor deity.[23]

1. In the earliest version, transmitted by Homer, Zeus punished Lycurgus by striking him blind. The sinful king died shortly thereafter.[24]

2. In other versions, Dionysus took matters into his own hands by driving Lycurgus mad. In this frenzied state, Lycurgus killed his son Dryas, mistaking him for the grapevines he despised so much. Afterwards, the Edonians, at Dionysus’ prompting, put their king to death by restraining him and leaving him on Mount Pangaeum to be devoured by wild horses.[25]

Mount Pangaeum

Photo of Mount Pangaeum (Pangaion) as seen from Philippi

MarsyasCC BY-SA 3.0

In some accounts, the maddened Lycurgus also killed his wife and tried to rape his mother before chopping off his own legs, which he mistook for vines (after which he was devoured not by the horses of Mount Pangaeum but by the panthers of Rhodope).[26]

3. In one tradition, the mad Lycurgus was imprisoned in a cave until his madness subsided.[27]

4. In another version, Lycurgus’ divinely inflicted madness caused him to kill himself.[28]

5. In what appears to have been a later development, Lycurgus was bound in vines and suffocated.[29] Nonnus, elaborating on this version in his epic Dionysiaca, added that the vines that suffocated Lycurgus were none other than the tendrils of the metamorphosed Ambrosia, one of the nurses of Dionysus whom Lycurgus had attacked. 

6. Nonnus’ Lycurgus eventually escaped these vines with the help of Hera, though Zeus still saw to it that he was banished and wandered the world mad and blind (before becoming a god after his death).[30]

According to an anonymous hymn composed around the third century CE, Lycurgus was sentenced to eternal torment in the Underworld after his death, “drawing water into a broken pitcher”[31] whose stream poured out endlessly into the realm of Hades.

Worship

The fifth-century CE poet Nonnus claimed, rather surprisingly, that Lycurgus became a god after his death, and that the people of Syria worshipped him with blood rituals.[32] There is some epigraphic evidence that Lycurgus was identified with a local Arabian deity in parts of the Near East; this may be the cult that is reflected in Nonnus’ text.[33]

References

Notes

  1. Aeschylus, Lycurgea (Edonians frags. 57–67 Radt, Bassarides frags. 23–25 Radt, Neaniskoi frags. 146–49 Radt, Lycurgus frags. 124–26 Radt). See also Sophocles, Antigone 956; Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History 3.65.4–6; Apollodorus, Library 3.5.1; Hyginus, Fabulae 132; Vatican Mythographer 1.123.

  2. Homer, Iliad 6.133.

  3. Antimachus, frag. 127 Wyss; Nonnus, Dionysiaca 20.149–52; Etymologicum Magnum, s.v. “Δαμασκός (Damaskós).”

  4. Homer, Iliad 6.128–29; Sophocles, Antigone 956; Nonnus, Dionysiaca 20.152.

  5. Timon of Phlius, Poetarum Philosophorum Fragmenta (PPF) 185 frag. 4; Servius on Virgil’s Aeneid 3.14; Plutarch, How to Study Poetry 15e; Eustathius on Homer’s Iliad 6.130.

  6. Eumelus, frag. 1 Davies; Nonnus, Dionysiaca 20.186–210.

  7. Firmicus, On the Error of Profane Religions 6.7; Vatican Mythographer 1.129; scholia on Horace’s Odes 2.19.16.

  8. Homer, Iliad 6.135. Cf. Eumelus, frag. 1 Davies, where Lycurgus is armed with a whip, and Firmicus, On the Error of Profane Religions 6.7, where he is armed with a sword.

  9. Ovid, Ibis 345–46; Palatine Anthology 16.127.

  10. On Lycurgus in ancient art, see Alexandre Farnoux, “Lykourgos (1),” in Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae (Zurich: Artemis, 1992), 6.1:309–19.

  11. Epic Λυκόοργος, translit. Lykóorgos; Latin Lucurgus or Lycurgus.

  12. Homer, Iliad 6.130; Apollodorus, Library 3.5.1.

  13. Nonnus, Dionysiaca 20.149, passim.

  14. Apollodorus, Library 3.5.1.

  15. Hymn to Dionysus, in Greek Literary Papyri (GLP) 129.32

  16. Paul Perdizet, Cultes et Mythes du Pangée (Paris: Berger-Levrault, 1910), 33, 48.

  17. René Dussaud, “La Mythologie Phénicienne d’après les Tablettes de Ras Shamra,” Revue de l’histoire des religions 104 (1931): 353–408, at 401–5; Dominique Sourdel, Les cultes du Hauran à l’époque romaine (Paris: Guethner, 1952), 81–84.

  18. Livy, Roman History 39.13.13. See also the discussion in Walter Burkert, Homo Necans: The Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual, trans. Peter Bing (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), 1297–99.

  19. Homer, Iliad 6.128–40; Eumelus, frag. 1 Davies; Asclepiades, Fragmente der griechiscen Historiker (FGrH) 12 frag. 18; Vatican Mythographer 1.120; Stesichorus, frag. 234 Poetae Melici Graeci (PMG); Pherecydes, FGrH 3 frag. 90. Some of these texts note that Lycurgus’ attack interrupted a sacrifice, a detail that adds to the magnitude of his impiety. According to Stesichorus, Dionysus rewarded Thetis for her help with an urn that he had received from the smith god Hephaestus; it was in this urn that Achilles’ ashes were interred after the hero’s death. See also Homer, Odyssey 24.73–77, as well as the François Vase (Beazley Archive Pottery Database no. 300000), where Dionysus is shown carrying an urn or amphora, usually interpreted as the urn he gifted to Thetis.

  20. Aeschylus, Edonians frags. 57–59 Radt; Sophocles, Antigone 963–65 (where the Muses are added to Dionysus’ entourage); Naevius, Tragicorum Romanorum Fragmenta (TRF) frags. 2–4; Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History 3.65.5; Apollodorus, Library 3.5.1; Servius on Virgil’s Aeneid 3.14; Firmicus, On the Error of Profane Religions 6.7; cf. Nonnus’ account, where Dionysus’ nurses are conflated with the Bacchae.

  21. Apollodorus, Library 3.5.1; Palatine Anthology 9.561.

  22. Nonnus, Dionysiaca 21.1–168; Asclepiades, FGrH 12 frag. 18.

  23. For example, Lyssa (the personification of madness) is said to destroy Lycurgus in the anonymous Hymn to Dionysus (GLP 129.39), while Lucan ascribes Lycurgus’ downfall to one of the Erinyes, or Furies (Civil War 1.572).

  24. Homer, Iliad 6.138–40. See also Eumelus, frag. 1 Davies; Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History 3.65.4–6; Nonnus, Dionysiaca 20.149–402, 21.1–168.

  25. Apollodorus, Library 3.5.1; cf. the anonymous Hymn to Dionysus (GLP 129), where Lycurgus’ sons are named Ardys and Astacius.

  26. Hyginus, Fabulae 132; Ovid, Fasti 3.722; Servius on Virgil’s Aeneid 3.14; Vatican Mythographer 1.23; scholia on Lucan’s Civil War 1.575; scholia on Horace’s Odes 2.19.16. Several vase paintings also show Lycurgus attacking his son or wife (e.g., National Museum, Cracow, no. 1225 = Beazley Archive Pottery Database no. 214835; Antikensammlungen, Munich, no. 3300; British Museum, London, no. 1849.0623.48; National Museum, Naples, no. 3237).

  27. Sophocles, Antigone 958 (with scholia ad loc.).

  28. Hyginus, Fabulae 242.

  29. Propertius, Elegies 3.17.23; Statius, Thebaid 4.386; Hymn to Dionysus (GLP 129.47–49); Geoponica 12.17.16 (citing Nestor of Laranda). This version of the myth is also represented on the “Lycurgus Cup,” a carved Roman dichroic glass from the fourth century CE (British Museum, London, no. 1958.1202.1).

  30. Nonnus, Dionysiaca 21.1–168.

  31. GLP 129.53–54, trans. T. E. Page.

  32. Nonnus, Dionysiaca 21.158–61.

  33. Dominique Sourdel, Les cultes du Hauran à l’époque romaine (Paris: Guethner, 1952), 81–84.

Primary Sources

Primary Sources

Greek

The myth of Lycurgus is first mentioned in Book 6 of the Iliad, one of the epics attributed to Homer (eighth century BCE). Here Lycurgus is said to have attacked Dionysus’ nurses with an ox-goad before being blinded by Zeus for his impiety.

During the Classical period, the tragedian Aeschylus (ca. 525/4–ca. 456/5 BCE) wrote a tetralogy on the myth of Lycurgus and his conflict with Dionysus, sometimes known as the Lycurgea. This tetralogy, which was probably based on an earlier work by Polyphrasmon (early fifth century BCE), was made up of the plays Edonians, Bassarides, Neaniskoi, and Lycurgus, none of which survive today.

The most important surviving summaries of the Lycurgus myth are from later prose sources—most notably, the Library of History of Diodorus of Sicily (before 90–after 30 BCE) and the Library of Apollodorus or “Pseudo-Apollodorus” (first century BCE or later).

Lycurgus also appears in much later literature. An anonymous Hymn to Dionysus, composed around the third century CE, recounts the myth of Lycurgus and Dionysus, as do Books 20 and 21 of the Dionysiaca, a lengthy epic by Nonnus (fifth century CE).

Roman

Lycurgus is mentioned in passing by a handful of Roman authors. The most important of these is the mythographer known as Hyginus or “Pseudo-Hyginus” (first century CE or later), who recorded a few different versions of the Lycurgus myth in his Fabulae. The scholar and Christian apologist Firmicus (fourth century CE) also summarized the Lycurgus myth in Book 2 of his On the Error of Profane Religions.

Other

Additional information on Lycurgus, including his role in works that are now lost, can be found in texts, reference works, and commentaries produced during the Byzantine and medieval periods. For further references, see the notes.

Secondary Sources

Farnoux, Alexandre. “Lykourgos (1).” In Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, vol. 6.1, 309–19. Zurich: Artemis, 1992.

Gantz, Timothy. Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

Hard, Robin. The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology. 8th ed. New York: Routledge, 2020.

Heinze, Theodor, et al. “Lycurgus (1).” In Brill’s New Pauly, edited by Hubert Cancik, Helmuth Schneider, Christine F. Salazar, Manfred Landfester, and Francis G. Gentry. Published online 2006. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/1574-9347_bnp_e714060

Marbach, E. “Lykurgos (1).” In Realencyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, edited by Georg Wissowa and August Friedrich Pauly, vol. 13, 2433–40. Stuttgart: Metzler, 1927.

Rapp, A. “Lykurgos (1).” In Ausführliches Lexikon der griechischen und römischen Mythologie, edited by W. H. Roscher, vol. 2.2, 2191–205. Leipzig: Teubner, 1894–97.

Rose, Herbert J., and Antony Spawforth. “Lycurgus (1).” In The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 4th ed., edited by Simon Hornblower, Antony Spawforth, and Esther Eidinow. Published online 2015. https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780199381135.013.3818.

Smith, William. “Lycurgus (1).” In A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Spottiswoode and Company, 1873. Perseus Digital Library. Accessed April 12, 2023. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0104%3Aentry%3Dlycurgus-bio-1.

Citation

Kapach, Avi. “Lycurgus.” Mythopedia, July 18, 2023. https://mythopedia.com/topics/lycurgus.

Kapach, Avi. “Lycurgus.” Mythopedia, 18 Jul. 2023. https://mythopedia.com/topics/lycurgus. Accessed on 13 Dec. 2023.

Kapach, A. (2023, July 18). Lycurgus. Mythopedia. https://mythopedia.com/topics/lycurgus

Authors

  • Avi Kapach

    Avi Kapach is a writer, scholar, and educator who received his PhD in Classics from Brown University

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