Europa’s father, Agenor, threatens Cadmus with exile if he does not find Europa. Cadmus tries and fails. He can’t go home, so he prays to Apollo about where he should live. Apollo says he a pristine heifer will lead him to a place where he will establish a city. Apollo’s prophecy is born out. However, Cadmus’s men encounter an enormous serpent, which kills them. Cadmus slays the serpent and, at Minerva’s request, buries its teeth in the ground. Immediately, a group of belligerent men emerge from the land and begin to kill each other. The five remaining men agree to live in peace, and Thebes is established.
Cadmus’s household is plagued. While hunting, his grandson, Actaeon, stumbles upon Diana bathing in her sacred grove. Diana is so offended that she transforms Actaeon into a deer, and Actaeon’s own hunting dogs kill him. Semele, Cadmus’s daughter, is pregnant with Jupiter’s child. Juno, filled with rage at yet another dalliance of Jupiter’s, disguises herself as an old woman and convinces Semele to ask Jupiter to make love to her with all his power as a god, just as he makes love to Juno. Semele gets Jupiter to promise her an unspecified gift. When she makes her request, Jupiter cannot go back on his word. He makes love to her with all his power. She cannot withstand it, and she dies. Jupiter brings their son, Bacchus, to full term in his thigh.
The scene changes. Jupiter and Juno banter about which gender enjoys sex more. Jupiter says women do, and Juno says men do. They decide to ask Tiresias, who reportedly has experienced life as both a man and woman. Tiresias agrees with Jupiter. In her anger, Juno strikes Tiresias blind. Jupiter compensates Tiresias by giving him supernatural foresight. Ovid records Tiresias’s first prediction: that Narcissus will live a long life as long as he does not know himself. These cryptic words were born out when Narcissus, who had rejected all would-be lovers, fell in love with his own reflection.
Ovid returns to the story of Cadmus’s family. Pentheus tries to persuade his family and others not to worship Bacchus. No one is convinced, but Pentheus stands firm. Not even Acoetes, a convert to the worship of Bacchus, can change his mind. Pentheus threatens to make Acoetes into an example by killing him. Pentheus sets out for Mount Cithaeron to spy on the rites of Bacchus. When he arrives, his own aunt and mother mistake him for an animal and hunt him. His aunt, Autonoe, rips off his arms, and his mother tears off his head and lets out a shout of victory.
This book begins auspiciously, with the founding of Thebes. However, divine revenge soon takes center stage. The gods punish nearly every major character for a crime, regardless of whether the crime was committed wittingly or unwittingly. Diana punishes Actaeon for accidentally stumbling upon her when she is naked. Juno punishes Semele for her love affair with Jupiter. She also punishes Tiresias with blindness for agreeing with Jupiter. And Bacchus punishes Pentheus for failing to worship him. By focusing on the theme of revenge, Ovid invites comparisons with Virgil’s Aeneid, which portrays Aeneas’s quest to establish a city, and Juno’s resulting wrath. Ovid outdoes Virgil, whose sole villain was Juno. In Ovid’s account, three divine figures damn the household of Cadmus and the founding of Thebes: Diana, Juno, and Bacchus.
Each act of revenge is accompanied by an ironic twist at the expense of the victim. Actaeon, a hunter, becomes the hunted. The reversal is completed when Actaeon’s own dogs tear him apart. Semele is killed by sex, the very act that drew her and Jupiter together. She is slain by her lover’s overwhelming prowess, and she requests her own manner of death. Tiresias extensive knowledge causes his blindness. Narcissus, who has rejected all suitors, is rejected by himself. He becomes both the object and the subject of spurned love. Pentheus’s death is ironic for three reasons. First, his threat to kill Acoetes is turned against him when he himself is killed for impiety. Second, Bacchus’s worshipers mistake Pentheus for an animal—ironic, considering that Pentheus is not an animal or even a transformed animal, as are many of the characters in the poem. Finally, despite his refusal to worship Bacchus, Pentheus becomes a central figure in a worship rite, as he is sacrificed at the hands of his mother and aunt.
In this book, Ovid focuses on the danger of transgression. In almost all of the episodes, boundaries are crossed, sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally. Semele, a human, sleeps with Jupiter, a married god; Actaeon stumbles into the sacred and secret grove of Diana and sees something he should not; Tiresias lives as both a man and a woman and offers a verdict on pleasure and sexuality from the perspective of both; and Pentheus witnesses and unwillingly takes part in the secret the rites of Bacchus. The result of each of these boundary-crossings justifies Ovid’s dictum, “do not call someone happy until he dies and his funeral is over” (III.136–137). When people cross boundaries, the result is blindness, death by sex, death by dogs, or an equally horrible fate. While Thebes is founded happily, its subsequent history quickly grows grim.
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