7. The pantherskin & Lycourgos


M.Detienne[1] has a chapter on “The perfumed panther” about the strange beliefs surrounding the panther. From the mountains in Armenia it sneaks down to hunt and by the strong scent it sends out (the lovely smell of the paradise mountain) it attracts its poor victims. But the maenad is also the perfumed panther.

Sophocles talks about the maenad in “pantherskin”[2] and Dilthey has shown[3] that this cloak of skin was the typical hunting-clothes for “the wild hunter” Zagreus and his hunting bitches.  Oppian quotes from older Orfic authors that the maenads were changed to panthers before they tore the bull to pieces[4]. The name of the great hunter in the Bible is Nimrod, the Assyrian name for the “panther” nimru.

Lycourgos is already mentioned in the Iliad as he, who attacks Dionysos with a bouplex, often trans. “the stick to drive the ox”, but it could also be the axe to kill the ox. Ovid Met. IV, 22 calls Lycourgos bipenniferus (“carrier of a double axe”), and Nonnos has acc to G.Zoega taken the bouplex to be a double axe[5] and calls it a weapon given by Hera to use against gods. Zoega brings this copper print of a sarcophagus now lost[6]:



In an article about gems Zoega describes the following piece[7]:

“A bearded and strong man, naked except for a panther's skin bound to his waist and waving behind him, so stands Lycourgos with a bipennis raised in both hands and turned against a vine tree”.

The fact that the victim of the violent bull-killer can also be seen as a tree, shows that the bull is the god of vegetation[8]. The last picture shows how Lycourgos is punished by the gods with blinding. Even though the Dionysos myth often fuses the “hunter” with his victim, Dionysos being the leader of the wild hunt, but also becoming its victim and getting torn to pieces, there is a faint memory that these two were originally opponents: “The ox-born” and “the ox-killer”. Like Orion, Lycourgos is punished with blindness.



The most prominent source to the Arabian Lycourgos are the friezes (now almost worn away) by the entrance to adyton in the Bacchus temple in Baalbeck[9] and Nonnos Dion. XX, 146ff.  Nonnos tells us how Lycourgos, king over the city situated on Mt.Nysa, has his gates adorned with heads and feet cut off from human bodies. He chases the Dionysos child into the sea and attacks Ambrosia, who by the intervention of mother Earth is changed into a wine tree, which immediately flings its runners around the king and keeps him bound to the spot. He is doomed by the gods to wander from place to place as a blind man, but at last he gets a place among the eternal gods, for the Arabs give libations to him on “smoking altars”. The friezes from the Bacchus temple show scenes with Lycourgos and the metamorphosis of Ambrosia.

All the traces of Indo-European wolf-warrior ideology (Lycourgos means “he who acts like a wolf”) have disappeared in this version, and the myth is concentrated on the confrontation between the goddess of vegetation and the man with the axe. Ambrosia is not an ordinary nymph. She is the tree of life-giving ambrosia, and Nysa is the paradise mountain in the land of the incense-trees.

Important is Lycourgos´ continued threat: that he will burn the wine leaf with “Arabian fire” (XX 237, XXI 135ff.). He is the summer heat, who threatens to dry out the vegetation. A mosaic from Djemila-Cuicul in Algeria shows Ambrosia being attacked by Lycourgos[10], cf. the coins from Afrodisias, where the sacred tree is also a female.



The coin is from A.B.Cook: Zeus II, fig. 620 & 621-3.

[1] Dionysos mis a mort, 1977

[2] Pardalephóros fragm.16, Scol. Aristoph. Av. 943

[3] Archaeol. Zeitschrift 31, p.90f.

[4] Cyneg. 4, 305

[5] “Lykurgos von den Maenaden bezwungen”, in: Abhandlungen, 1817, ed. by F.G.Welcker p.5n10

[6] ibd. p.353

[7] ibd. p.354n2

[8] ibd. t. I, 2

[9] Ch.Picard in: Mélanges Syriens off. a R.Dussaud, 1939, pp.319-43

[10] Picard, p.341