# 5.3.1.5: The Set Text- Pentheus and Bacchus

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It will be clear from our discussion so far that the Pentheus episode lies at the heart of Ovid’s Theban narrative in a number of important respects. The setting for this episode is the city of Thebes, which, as we have seen, was founded by Cadmus, after his search for his abducted sister Europa proved fruitless.47 Cadmus is now an old man, and has abdicated the throne of his city in favour of his grandson Pentheus. Early in the reign of the young king, a new religious cult sweeps in from the East, that of the god Bacchus (Greek Dionysus), son of the god Jupiter and the Theban princess Semele (their explosive affair and Bacchus’ unusual birth were described earlier in Book 3, at 253–315). While nearly all Thebans welcome the new cult, Pentheus is obstinate in his scepticism and resistance, an attitude that leads to his doom.

5a. Sources and Intertexts

The story of Pentheus and Bacchus was well established long before Ovid’s day. The myth was a popular subject with writers and artists alike, and is famously the subject of the Bacchae, a tragedy by the 5th-century BCE Athenian playwright Euripides. This tragedy was, as far as we can tell, Ovid’s most important source and model.48

Euripides begins his play with Bacchus’ arrival at Thebes and a detailed exposition of his world, carefully elaborated in the prologue (1–63, spoken by the god himself) and the chorus upon their entry onto the stage (64–169, sung by Lydian women). The enthusiastic celebration of the Maenads in particular introduces the entire range of imagery and motifs commonly associated with Bacchic frenzy, highlighting notions of excess and boundary transgression.49 In the subsequent scenes, Euripides proceeds to delineate the character of Pentheus, who flatly denies Bacchus’ divinity and rejects his worship, and so resents all the more the enthusiastic reception of the god and his cult by the Theban populace. Euripides places particular emphasis on the Theban king’s obsession with the sexual license he associates with the worship of Bacchus.50 The story continues with Pentheus giving orders to his henchmen to capture Bacchus, who is presently brought on stage (Bacch. 432–42). In the initial interview Bacchus conceals his true identity, claiming merely to be one of the followers of the new deity, and he remains incognito until his final epiphany. His exchanges with Pentheus culminate in the key scene in which the god convinces Pentheus to cross-dress as a woman so he can spy on the Maenads on Mount Cithaeron — a grave offense given that their rites were both secret and an exclusively female matter. This leads to the grim denouement, in which Bacchus distorts the perception of Pentheus’ mother Agave and her sisters, as well as the other Maenads, so that they misrecognize the disguised king as a wild beast which, in accordance with Bacchic rites, they proceed to tear limb from limb with their bare hands. Euripides’ gruesome and haunting account of Pentheus’ dismemberment comes in the form of a messenger’s speech:

‘Then were a thousand hands laid on the fir tree [sc. in which Pentheus was perched], and from the ground they tore it up, while he from his seat aloft came tumbling to the ground with lamentations long and loud; for well he knew his hour was come. His mother first, a priestess for the occasion, began the bloody deed and fell upon him; whereon he tore the snood from his hair, that hapless Agave might recognize and spare him, crying as he touched her cheek, “O mother! it is I, your own son Pentheus, the child you bore in Echion’s halls; have pity on me, mother dear! oh! do not for any sin of mine slay your own son”. But she, the while, with foaming mouth and wildly rolling eyes, bereft of reason as she was, heeded him not; for the god possessed her. And she caught his left hand in her grip, and planting her foot upon her victim’s trunk she tore the shoulder from its socket, not of her own strength, but the god made it an easy task to her hands; and Ino set to work upon the other side, rending the flesh with Autonoe and all the eager host of Bacchanals; and one united cry arose, the victim’s groans while yet he breathed, and their triumphant shouts. One would make an arm her prey, another a foot with the sandal on it; and his ribs were stripped of flesh by their rending nails; and each one with blood-dabbled hands was tossing Pentheus’ limbs about. Scattered lies his corpse, part beneath the rugged rocks, and part amid the deep dark woods, no easy task to find; but his mother has made his poor head her own, and fixing it upon the point of a thyrsus, as if it were a mountain lion’s, she bears it through the midst of Cithaeron, having left her sisters with the Maenads at their rites. And she is entering these walls exulting in her hunting fraught with woe, acclaiming Bacchus her fellow-hunter who had helped her to triumph in a chase, where her only prize was tears’. (Eur. Bacch. 1109–47)

This is the ‘classic’ account of Pentheus’ demise, but here as elsewhere, Ovid is in literary dialogue with multiple predecessors. In certain respects his version of the horrific event bears closer resemblance to that of a poem included (probably wrongly) in the Theocritean corpus as Idyll 26. This deals with the initiation of a young boy into the mysteries of Dionysus, with the father giving the following account of Pentheus’ death and dismemberment:

[1] Ino, Autonoe and white-cheeked Agave, themselves three in number, led three groups of worshippers to the mountain. Some of them cut wild greenery from the densely growing oak trees, living ivy and asphodel that grows above ground, and made up twelve altars in a pure meadow, three to Semele and nine to Dionysus. Taking from their box the sacred objects made with care, they laid them reverently on the altars of freshly gathered foliage, just as Dionysus himself had taught them, and just as he preferred.

[10] Pentheus observed everything from a high rock, hidden in a mastic bush, a plant that grew in those parts. Autonoe, the first to see him, gave a dreadful yell and with a sudden movement kicked over the sacred objects of frenzied Bacchus, which the profane may not see. She became frenzied herself, and at once the others too became frenzied. Pentheus fled in terror and they pursued him, hitching up their robes into their belts, knee-high. Pentheus spoke: ‘What do you want, women?’ Autonoe spoke: ‘You will know soon enough, and before we tell you’. The mother gave a roar like a lioness with cubs as she carried off her son’s head; Ino tore off his great shoulder, shoulder-blade and all, by setting her foot on his stomach; and Autonoe set to work in the same way. The other women butchered what was left and returned to Thebes all smeared with blood, bearing back from the mountain not Pentheus (Πενθῆα), but lamentation (πένθημα).

[27] This is no concern of mine, nor should anyone else care about an enemy of Dionysus, even if he suffered a worse fate than this, even if he were nine years old, or just embarking on his teeth. May I myself act piously, and may my actions please the pious. The eagle gained honour in this way from Zeus who bears the aegis. It is to children of the pious, not to those of the impious, that good things come.

[35] Farewell to mighty Dionysus, for whom on snowy Dracanus mighty Zeus opened up his own great thigh and placed him inside. Farewell, too, to beautiful Semele and her sisters, daughters of Cadmus, much admired by women of that time, who carried out this deed impelled by Dionysus, so that they are not to be blamed. Let no one criticize the actions of the gods. ([Theoc.] Id. 26)

All three texts share the same basic plot; but there are noteworthy variations on the level of detail. In Euripides and Ovid, for instance, Pentheus spies upon the maenads from a tree; in the Theocritean Idyll, by contrast, he is poised on a prominent rock. And whereas in Euripides Agave initiates the slaughter, in the Idyll and Ovid it is Agave’s sister (and Pentheus’ aunt) Autonoe. If Ovid conforms closely to Euripides’ tragedy in narrative outline, then, there are clearly departures that look to other texts or versions.

Ovid’s most striking innovation vis-à-vis Euripides has to do with the captive arrested by Pentheus’ henchmen. This figure has a precedent in the Bacchae, but he is never explicitly identified as Bacchus-in-disguise, as he is in the earlier text. Indeed, he gives his name as Acoetes and provides a comparatively detailed autobiography that begins by describing his rise from the lowly profession of fisherman to that of helmsman (more on this in the following section). More crucially still, in explaining how he became a follower of the god, he tells the tale of how a group of wicked Tyrrhenian sailors, his erstwhile shipmates, were transformed into dolphins by Bacchus. This inset tale conveniently supplies the episode with the requisite metamorphosis (which was lacking in the narrative Ovid inherited from Euripides). It also constitutes a radical — and, it should be added, ingenious — departure from the tragic model.

The inset narrative is, in essence, an extended version of a Homeric Hymn to Dionysus.51 More specifically, it is a rendition of the longest of three hymns honouring Dionysus in a collection of some thirty such compositions, all anonymous, known as the Homeric Hymns. These Greek hexametric hymns vary in length from a handful of verses to several hundred lines. Each celebrates an individual deity. The collection’s titular epithet Homeric is misleading, as the Hymns do not share authorship with the Iliad or Odyssey (nor, for that matter, with each other in most cases, for they are not the work of a single hand).52 Here is the Hymn in question:

[1] I will tell of Dionysus, the son of glorious Semele, how he appeared on a jutting headland by the shore of the fruitless sea, seeming like a stripling in the first flush of manhood: his rich, dark hair was waving about him, and on his strong shoulders he wore a purple robe. Presently there came swiftly over the sparkling sea Etruscan pirates on a welldecked ship — a miserable doom led them on. When they saw him they made signs to one another and sprang out quickly, and seizing him straightway, put him on board their ship exultingly; for they thought him the son of heaven-nurtured kings. They sought to bound him with rude bonds, but these would not hold him, and the ropes fell far away from his hands and feet: and he sat with a smile in his dark eyes.

[15] Then the helmsman understood all and cried out at once to his fellows and said: ‘Madmen! What god is this whom you have taken and bind, strong that he is? Not even the well-built ship can carry him. Surely this is either Zeus or Apollo who has the silver bow, or Poseidon, for he looks not like mortal men but like the gods who dwell on Olympus. Come, then, let us set him free upon the dark shore at once; do not lay hands on him, lest he grow angry and stir up dangerous winds and heavy squalls’.

[25] So said he, but the master chided him with taunting words: ‘Madman, mark the wind and help hoist sail on the ship: catch all the sheets. As for this fellow we men will see to him; I reckon he is bound for Egypt or for Cyprus or to the Hyperboreans or further still. But in the end he will speak out and tell us his friends and all his wealth and his brothers, now that providence has thrown him in our way’.

[32] When he had said this, he had mast and sail hoisted on the ship, and the wind filled the sail and the crew hauled taut the sheets on either side. But soon strange things were seen among them. First of all, sweet, fragrant wine ran streaming throughout all the black ship and a heavenly smell arose, so that all the seamen were seized with amazement. And all at once a vine spread out both ways along the top of the sail with many clusters hanging down from it, and a dark ivy-plant twined about the mast, blossoming with flowers, and with rich berries growing on it; and all the thole pins were covered with garlands. When the pirates saw all this, then at last they bade the helmsman to put the ship to land. But the god changed into a dreadful lion there on the ship, on the bow, and roared loudly: amidships also he showed his wonders and created a shaggy bear which stood up ravening, while on the forepeak was the lion glaring fiercely with scowling brows. And so the sailors fled to the stern and crowded terrified about the right-minded helmsman, until suddenly the lion sprang upon the master and seized him; and when the sailors saw it they leapt out overboard one and all into the bright sea, escaping from a miserable fate, and were changed into dolphins. But on the helmsman Dionysus had mercy and held him back and made him altogether happy, saying to him: ‘Take courage, good mariner; you have found favour with my heart. I am loud-crying Dionysus whom Cadmus’ daughter Semele bore from union with Zeus’.

[58] Hail, child of fair-faced Semele! He who forgets you can in no wise order sweet song. (Hymn. Hom. 7)

Bringing the narrative matter of the Hymn in contact with Euripides’ tragic plot is an inventive touch, and not just from the point of view of Ovid’s metamorphic programme, as the tale told by Acoetes serves in addition as a cautionary tale for Pentheus.53

5b. The Personnel of the Set Text

The set text abounds with colourful characters, many of whom make only fleeting appearances. There is the heterogeneous crowd of Thebans who, having fallen under the spell of Bacchus, rush to perform his rites (3.529–30): men (viri), married women (matres), unmarried women (nurus), common people (vulgus), aristocrats (proceres). There are Pentheus’ relatives who vainly attempt to bring him to his senses, chief among them his grandfather Cadmus (avus) and his maternal uncle Athamas (3.564–65). There are the henchmen whom Pentheus sends out to capture Bacchus and who return, blood-spattered, with someone identifying himself as Acoetes (3.572–76). Within Acoetes’ inset narrative, we encounter a gang of wicked shipmates, many of whom are named (and some briefly delineated) with mock scrupulousness: Opheltes, Dictys, Libys, Melanthus, Alcimedon, Epopeus, Lycabas, Proreus, Aethalion, and Medon.54 In the grim denouement on Mount Cithaeron, Pentheus’ mother Agave and her sisters Autonoë and Ino, together with a miscellaneous crowd (turba) of fellow-maenads, lay violent hands on him. Ovid also reports in the episode’s concluding verses that all the women of Thebes (designated Ismenides, after a local river) flock to Bacchus’ altars to venerate his godhead (3.733–34). We may also add the old (senes) and young men (iuvenes) of Thebes whom Pentheus tries to rally against Bacchus (3.3.538–42), as well as a fleeting reference to the Bacchus-defiant Acrisius, king of Argos (3.559–60). Amidst this kaleidoscopic assortment of dramatis personae, four principal figures stand out: Tiresias, Pentheus, Bacchus, and Acoetes. Or perhaps we should say three, since the last two may in fact be one and the same figure.

(i) Tiresias

Ovid draws on this tradition and the more sober tragic antecedents in fleshing out Tiresias’ biography in the Metamorphoses, thereby making of him ‘an emblematic figure of both divine wisdom and sexual ambiguity’.56 Tiresias initially floats into the narrative in his role as ‘sexpert’. When first encountering him midway through Book 3, we get the tale of copulating snakes, sex changes, and erotic expertise, with the ensuing loss of sight and gain of fore-sight (Met. 3.316–38). Shortly thereafter, Tiresias proves his surpassing vatic ability by correctly, if riddlingly, foretelling the fate of Narcissus (an ingenious stand-in for Thebes’ most famous son, Oedipus, who does not appear in propria persona in Ovid’s Theban History).57 The seer warns Narcissus’ mother Liriope that the beautiful boy will only reach old age ‘if he does not come to know himself’ (si se non noverit, 3.348). Ovid frames the episode of Narcissus — who does come to know himself — with two references (one proleptic, one retrospective) to Tiresias’ unquestioned and welldeserved renown throughout Greece.58 This quasi-universal acceptance of Tiresias as a prophetic authority serves as cue for the Pentheusepisode: the Theban king is the odd-man-out, whose ill-considered mockery of Tiresias sets the stage for his tragic downfall (Met. 3.511–25). Tiresias’ vatic prognostications concerning Narcissus thus serve as pivot towards more ‘weighty’ narrative roles. In the Pentheus-episode, he appears in the guise of omniscient seer who confronts the reigning tyrant of Thebes — a scenario familiar from Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. This is, however, a noteworthy departure from Euripides’ Bacchae, in which, remarkably, the legendary seer utters no prophecies, but merely offers Pentheus advice, all the while acknowledging the scant hope that the young king will heed it (Bacch. 309–27). In this respect, then, by insisting on Tiresias’ prophetic role — note the seer’s explicit use of the verb auguror at 3.519 — Ovid ‘corrects’ the idiosyncratic choice of his primary model, and uses Tiresias’ vatic utterances as a unifying motif in the elaboration of his Theban History.

Overall, then, in the Metamorphoses, as elsewhere, Tiresias presides over dramas of blindness (literal and mental) and insight, (royal) power and (divinely privileged) knowledge, concealing and revealing, riddling speech and hidden meanings (not least in contexts of sexual deviance).

(ii) Pentheus

Like Tiresias, Pentheus is descended from the Spartoi: he is the son of Agave, one of the four daughters of Cadmus and Harmonia, by Echion, one of the five survivors of the Sown-men’s fratricidal slaughter, whose name means ‘serpent’ in ancient Greek.59 ‘Pentheus’, too, is a speaking name, being connected etymologically to the Greek word πένθος (‘grief, distress’), and so meaning something like ‘man of sorrows’.60 Given his gruesome demise, immortalized by Euripides in the Bacchae, the name can be considered an index of his destiny. To get a purchase on the figure of Pentheus in the Metamorphoses, it is useful to set Ovid’s characterization of the young Theban king against his delineation in the Bacchae.61

As already noted, Euripides places special emphasis on Pentheus’ obsession with the sexual license he associates with the worship of Bacchus. From his first reaction to the exodus of Theban women, who quit their homes for the mountains in order to take part in Bacchic rites, to his later rather puerile desire illicitly to catch a glimpse of these same rites, the issues of sexual transgression and the concomitant violation of household stability dominate Pentheus’ imagination.62 In the Metamorphoses Pentheus’ character is delineated rather differently. As in the Bacchae, the Theban king deeply resents Bacchus’ takeover of his city; but Ovid’s Pentheus conceives of the god’s advent in martial terms, tantamount to a military assault upon his city, which he, as king, is called upon to repel. He is dismayed by the inability of the citizenry to stand up to what he regards as a feeble and unworthy foe. The very idea that a group of revellers known for orgiastic noise, magical tricks, female ululations, alcoholic excess, and sexual license can overpower the population of a city descended from a dragon of Mars offends his martial pride (3.531–37). In his vain exhortation to his fellow Thebans he goes so far as to adduce the dragon of Mars, which his grandfather Cadmus slew, as a paragon of virtue that bravely gave its life in defence of its lair, fighting valiantly against overwhelming odds (3.543–46). Imagery of the battlefield dominates both Pentheus’ rhetoric and Ovid’s presentation of Pentheus to us in the narrative. So, for example, the response of Pentheus to the caterwauling of the Maenads on Mount Cithaeron is likened to that of a warhorse hearing the trumpeter of an army giving the signal to fight (3.701–07).

The shift away from the Euripidean preoccupation with sexual license (as well as Pentheus’ own subliminal erotic desires) is achieved in part through intertextual engagement with Ovid’s great Roman epic predecessor, Virgil.63 The Ovidian Pentheus enriches his rallying cry to the citizens of Thebes with allusions to the Aeneid:

vosne, senes, mirer, qui longa per aequora vecti
hac Tyron, hac profugos posuistis sede penates,
nunc sinitis sine Marte capi?
(Met. 3.538–40)

‘Should I wonder about you, old men, who, having crossed boundless seas, re-founded Tyre in this place, re-established your exiled household gods in this place, that you now allow yourselves to be captured without armed resistance?’

The obvious parallels to the Aeneas-story are all the more striking for being in overt contradiction with the earlier narrative, where it was reported that Cadmus’ Phoenician companions were slain to a man by the dragon prior to the foundation of Thebes. But Pentheus here fashions Cadmus himself as an Aeneas avant la lettre, a leader of an exiled people, profugi from the East, who traversed the sea to settle his people and their penates in a new homeland. The Romanizing touches continue with the characterization of Thebans as a proles Mavortia (3.531).64 Somewhat later in his speech, Pentheus again uses language reminiscent of the Aeneid in chastising his derelict citizen body, deploring what he sees as its unconditional surrender to Bacchus, derisively styled as an unarmed and utterly unwarlike boy:

at nunc a puero Thebae capientur inermi,
quem neque bella iuvant nec tela nec usus equorum,
sed madidus murra crinis mollesque coronae
purpuraque et pictis intextum vestibus aurum.
(Met. 3.553–56)

‘But now an unarmed boy will conquer Thebes, whom neither weapons, wars nor horses delight, but hair drenched in myrrh, soft garlands, purple and gold woven into embroidered robes’.

Pentheus’ language here recalls that of the pugnacious African king Iarbas, who in a prayer to Jupiter denounces Aeneas when the latter has forgotten his epic calling and degenerated, together with Dido, into the world of illicit love (Aen. 4.215–18).

Ovid follows Euripides in having Pentheus issue orders for Bacchus’ arrest, and in both texts his henchmen return with one of the god’s followers instead (Bacch. 432–42; Met. 3.564–76) — though in the Greek drama this is in fact the god in disguise, and, as discussed below, the same may hold in the Metamorphoses. In the Bacchae, Pentheus’ interrogation of the prisoner leads to the latter convincing him to don female attire in order illicitly to witness the proceedings on Mount Cithaeron. This scene, with its emphasis on theatrical cross-dressing and gender-bending is crucial and emblematic for Euripides.65 It is thus significant that Ovid omits it from his account as not pertinent to his delineation of Pentheus. Instead, after the lengthy inset narrative of the prisoner Acoetes, the narrative focus returns to Pentheus, now more bellicose than ever. The defining emotion is wrath (ira). Without further ado, he storms to his doom. Ovid’s Pentheus, then, unlike his Euripidean counterpart, never succumbs to the temptation of genderbending or any other ‘Bacchic’ impulses. Rather, the emphasis on the king’s martial disposition coupled with allusions to the Aeneid serve to recast the Euripidean tragedy in a more Roman and a more epic key.66

Why does Pentheus resist Bacchus so vehemently? As ruler of Thebes, he identifies himself with his city; he is convinced that he is acting in the interest of the civic community (as the lone representative of law and order), entertains feelings of moral and intellectual superiority, and is beholden to the pursuit of power and honour. Although, as we have seen, Ovid chose not to develop some of Pentheus’ ‘Euripidean’ character traits, he retains other qualities, in particular those that speak to a somewhat tyrannical disposition, so that E. R. Dodds’ assessment of the Pentheus of the Bacchae holds true for his counterpart in the Metamorphoses: the Theban king exhibits an ‘absence of self-control, … willingness to believe the worst on hearsay evidence … or on none whatsoever, … brutality towards the helpless …; and a stupid reliance on physical force as a means of settling spiritual problems’.67 In a detailed study of Euripides’ Pentheus, Bernd Seidensticker characterizes the Theban king not just as a tyrant, but an ‘authoritarian personality’.68 A number of the traits adduced by Seidensticker recur in Ovid’s Pentheus, and contribute to his undoing in the confrontation with Bacchus:69

(a) Ethnocentrism, i.e. the belief in the superiority of one’s own nation or community, which coincides with fear of ‘the other’ and the irrational belief that contact with the foreign contaminates the self or the society one lives in. In both Euripides and Ovid, this is a key theme, as Pentheus endeavours to repulse Bacchus and his cult as something alien, Eastern, and corrosive of the norms and values he holds dear.70 He exhibits a xenophobia that manifests itself in the chauvinistic rejection of the non-Greek as inferior and decadent.

(b) Aggressiveness bordering on brutality to protect the self against others, i.e. ethnocentrism coupled with a tendency towards violence. While Euripides’ Pentheus takes a ‘camp’ turn into cross-dressing, Ovid’s figure remains a robust, masculine, independent individual who sticks to his views and escalates violence when met with resistance.71

(c) Belief that men are superior to women, who are conceived of as passive and as tied to traditional roles of wife and mother. In Euripides, female (sexual) license is a major concern for Pentheus, and whereas Ovid plays down the importance of gender, his Pentheus too is beholden to a narrow set of martial and masculine values.72

(d) Conventionalism, conformity, commitment to conservative values, which often goes along with thinking in prejudices and stereotypes, the tendency to generalize, the use of clichés, and a limited degree of creativity and flexibility. In both Euripides’ play and Ovid’s epic, Pentheus is committed to preserving the status quo and unable to adjust to new situations.73 He does not listen to his advisers and the warnings of his kin and proves incapable of viewing the world from another perspective. Confronted with the arrival of a new god, he mounts a stubborn resistance that includes the rhetorical denigration of his perceived adversary via a familiar set of prejudices about Easterners.

All in all, then, Pentheus is particularly lacking in the flexible intelligence that enables a person to respond in a healthy and balanced manner to the kind of divinity that is Bacchus — polymorphous, subversive of norms, destructive of boundaries, challenging the conventional order of things, and defying orthodoxy — in particular in the realm of gender-relations. Instead of pursuing a path of accommodation, Pentheus fatally opts for confrontation; instead of embracing his divine kin (Bacchus, after all, is his cousin — Semele and Agave are sisters), he chooses blanket rejection, turning himself into a blasphemous theomachos (‘someone who assaults the gods’) — and ultimately a victim of divine wrath.

(iii) Bacchus

Bacchus/Dionysus, god of wine, mystic ecstasy and theatre, is one of the oldest Greek divinities to leave a trace in our literary record: his name (di-wo-nu-so) features on linear-B tablets from Pylos and Crete, datable to c. 1250 BCE.74 Homer, too, knows of Dionysus, mentioning his female entourage (Il. 6.133), and alluding to his birth (Il. 14.325). Hesiod, in his Theogony (940–42), likewise recounts the birth of Dionysus, highlighting that a mortal woman gave birth to an immortal child. This is one of many remarkable aspects of the god: product of the sexual union of Jupiter with the Theban princess Semele, his foetus is in fact brought to term in his father’s thigh after his mother dies in pregnancy.75 Following a period of infancy, the god wanders the earth seeking recognition of his divinity. Unlike other Olympian deities, he encounters human defiance, deriving in large part from scepticism as to his godhood. Given his parentage, this is not altogether surprising: as the offspring of a mortal mother and a divine father, he might well have been expected to belong to the class of semi-divine ‘heroes’.76 There are many individuals with similar parentage who fall short of divine status, even though they may receive worship after death in the form of hero-cult.

With respect to the broader mythological background, modern philology has shown that Greek mythology is at least to some degree inherited from a set of stories that were originally common to all IndoEuropean cultures. The name of the supreme Olympian deity, the sky god and father ‘Zeus’ has cognates in other Indo-European languages.77 Many of the other divinities worshipped by the Greeks seem to have been imported from other cultures. Those of importance tended to be placed in some kind of familial relation to the sky father Zeus/Jupiter. The last major such addition to the pantheon was the god Dionysus/ Bacchus, who became one of many of Zeus’ children born outside of the supreme god’s marriage with Hera/Juno. A good deal of Greek mythology tells of the struggles of Zeus’ progeny born, as it were, out of wedlock to gain recognition and assert their rights and status on either the divine or the human level; the story of Bacchus and Pentheus is a cautionary tale dealing with the latter.

Bacchus is then, despite the antiquity of his cult, a belated addition to the pantheon, a notorious latecomer, or ‘new arrival’ from the East. Ovid calls him advena, and the attributes novus (‘new’) and ignotus (‘unknown’) are programmatic.78

One of the unusual aspects of Bacchus’ cult is that he had predominantly female attendants and devotees (‘maenads’) to perform his rites, contrary to the overarching principle that women were restricted to the active worship of female deities. His physical representation is also noteworthy for its variation: early artistic depictions of Dionysus/ Bacchus show him as a fully developed man, complete with beard, but already by the 5th century BCE it had become the norm for writers, painters and sculptors to depict him as a more boyish figure, beardless, and with a softer, almost feminine, physique — which is how he is described in Ovid’s Pentheus episode.79 That this trend continued beyond antiquity can be seen in, for example, Michelangelo’s sculpture ‘Bacchus’ (fig. 3) and the painting of the same name (fig. 4) by Caravaggio.

The god’s proverbial androgyny and his entourage of maenads defy entrenched gender stereotypes and were thus bound to occasion anxiety in a patriarchal world. As such, writers and artists found Bacchus to be an ideal figure for the interrogation of notions of masculinity and related cultural norms. It has already been noted that Euripides makes fear of female sexual license, perceived as a threat to the patriarchal order of the city-state, one of the primary motivations for Pentheus’ resistance to the new cult. As we have seen, this aspect is toned down in the Metamorphoses, but it is not altogether effaced. Thus, even in Ovid’s version there are glimmers of the cult’s utopian appeal arising from the collapse of the distinctions that define the socio-political order.80 In the worship of Bacchus the indiscriminate mixing of categories means that age, gender, socio-economic class, and legal status become irrelevant. Ovid highlights this principle at the very beginning of the Pentheus episode:

Liber adest, festisque fremunt ululatibus agri:
turba ruit, mixtaeque viris matresque nurusque
vulgusque proceresque ignota ad sacra feruntur.
(Met. 3.528–30)

Ovid recalls this joyful beginning at the grisly end when Agave summons her maddened sisters: ‘o geminae’ clamavit ‘adeste sorores!’ (3.713) and shortly thereafter lets rip with ritual shrieking (ululavit Agave, 3.725). The indiscriminate crowd that initially rushed to worship Bacchus has become a band of Maenads rushing upon Pentheus: ruit omnis in unum | turba furens (3.715–16). Pentheus is singled out here, just as at the outset, when he was the lone individual (ex omnibus unus, 3.513) who refused to believe Tiresias’ prophecy about Bacchus. Such emphatic ring composition highlights the inherent duality of Bacchus’ nature, which combines carefree revelling with baneful doom, and once more exemplifies the ‘conversion of Dionysiac celebration into madness, death, and destruction’81 that is repeatedly fated to occur at Thebes. In his train, Bacchus brings hallucination and paranoia — surreal dissolution of identity, collapsing and re-doubling roles at will — and the story of Pentheus is a classic and exemplary case. The set text acts out one of the starkest instances in literature of consciousness made prey to delirium unknowingly beside itself.

Bacchus’ overt narrative presence is much reduced in the Ovidian episode vis-à-vis the Euripidean model. Ovid offers a brief notice of the god’s arrival at Thebes, simply declaring that the god has come (Liber adest, 3.528) and received a warm welcome as a new divinity that reaches across boundaries of class and gender (cf. 3.528–30). But we do not get the god himself as a speaking character — at least not at the outset. Indeed, a suggestive feature of the set text is that Bacchus, arguably the episode’s most important character, has no explicit narrative presence. Acoetes’ embedded narrative is the only place in the entire episode where the god appears in person. Bacchus nevertheless looms over narrative events as an ‘absent presence’. Given this curious state of affairs, Acoetes’ account of the god’s transformation of Etruscan pirates into dolphins takes on added significance. As we have seen, the embedded narrative is based on the account in the longest Homeric Hymn to Dionysus.

(iv) Acoetes

The internal narrator Acoetes is the last major character of the set text. In the Homeric Hymn to Dionysus, the helmsman, the one member of the crew not transformed into a dolphin, remains anonymous and devoid of background. Ovid’s internal narrator, the figure captured by Pentheus’ henchmen, claims to be this helmsman; he goes on to identify himself as a certain Acoetes from Lydia (3.582–83), an acolyte of the god (accessi sacris Baccheaque sacra frequento, 3.691). He provides a fairly detailed autobiography, culminating in the narrative of the Hymn. He claims to be of very humble origins, with a father so poor that he bequeathed to his son nothing beyond the art of fishing. Not wishing to win his livelihood in this humble manner, Acoetes learns the helmsman’s art and plies his trade on the sea until his encounter with Bacchus, which leads to him joining the god’s entourage. The encounter takes place when, en route to Delos, the ship puts in on the island of Chios. There, members of Acoetes’ crew kidnap a beautiful young boy who, according to Acoetes, turned out to be Bacchus (tum denique Bacchus | (Bacchus enim fuerat) …, 3.629–30). As in the Hymn, Acoetes is the lone member of his ship’s crew to recognize the divinity of the captive and, having been spared the metamorphic fate of his comrades, proceeds to join Bacchus’ entourage. The question arises: is Acoetes really who he claims to be? There is much to suggest otherwise.

The first point to observe is that, as noted in the previous section, Pentheus’ capture of Acoetes in Ovid has a precedent in Euripides’ play, where the stranger who is brought before Pentheus is undoubtedly Dionysus himself, though disguised as one of his followers. Euripides prepares this scene in which the god of the theatre dons a mask (as it were) from the outset.82 To ensure that the audience is able to follow along, the god broadcasts his subterfuge in the prologue speech:

μορφὴν δ᾽ ἀμείψας ἐκ θεοῦ βροτησίαν
πάρειμι …
(Eur. Bacch. 4–5)

And having taken a mortal form instead of a god’s, I am here …

Towards the end of the same monologue, the deity reiterates the point, to make quite sure that everyone in his audience has grasped what he is up to:

ὧν οὕνεκ᾽ εἶδος θνητὸν ἀλλάξας ἔχω
μορφήν τ᾽ ἐμὴν μετέβαλον εἰς ἀνδρὸς φύσιν.
(Eur. Bacch. 53–54)

On which account I have changed my form to a mortal one and altered my shape into that of a man.

When later on in the play Pentheus’ henchmen bring the anonymous stranger on stage (Bacch. 434–519), even the least attentive audience member will have been able to identify the stranger as Dionysus.

In a poignant exchange later in the tragedy, Pentheus asks the stranger, who claims to have seen Dionysus, of what nature he was (477). The disguised god’s response, ‘whatever person he wished’ (ὁποῖος ἤθελ᾽, Eur. Bacch. 478), archly evokes his own protean nature. If Euripides’ god is explicitly a master of disguise and deception, Ovid’s would appear to be so by implication — and with the effect, by a characteristic stroke of metapoetic ingenuity, projected beyond the narrative frame. In the Greek tragedy the riddle of Bacchus’ identity remains confined to characters within the play (in particular, of course, Pentheus) and does not concern the audience, for whom, as we have just seen, Euripides clarifies the situation before the action begins. In the Metamorphoses, by contrast, the god remains an enigmatic and elusive figure for us, the readers.83 Ovid provides nothing equivalent to the prologue scene in Euripides that would give the game away, but rather tantalizes us with the possibility that Bacchus does appear in the narrative in disguised form. This possibility is raised when Pentheus’ henchmen, having been ordered to arrest Bacchus, return instead with a captured stranger who, as we have just seen, identifies himself as Acoetes. But the fact that Acoetes has the same narrative function as the disguised Euripidean god strongly suggests, by intertextual parallelism, that Acoetes is indeed Bacchus.84 Further support for this view can be found in his statement of Lydian origins (3.582–83) and the miraculous circumstances of his liberation (3.699–700). But while this identification seems probable for various reasons, the fact remains that Acoetes is never explicitly equated with the god anywhere in the text. Indeed, apart from the narrator’s general pronouncement that Bacchus has reached Thebes (Liber adest, 3.528), the only moment in which we encounter the god in person in the entire episode occurs during the inset narrative about the Tyrrhenian sailors told by Acoetes. Paradoxically, if we accept that Acoetes is indeed the god in disguise, then the veracity of his inset narrative — which again features a deceptive and dissembling Bacchus — would be thrown into doubt, inasmuch as it would then be nothing more than the autobiography of a mortal persona assumed by the deity.

The plot thickens further if we take into account a piece of information preserved in Servius’ ancient commentary on the Aeneid. The crucial titbit concerns a Virgilian simile featuring Pentheus as ‘vehicle’:

… Eumenidum veluti demens videt agmina Pentheus
et solem geminum et duplicis se ostendere Thebas …
(Aen. 4.469–70)

… even as raving Pentheus sees the bands of the Furies, and a double sun and twofold Thebes rise to view …

In his annotation to this simile, Servius reports that Virgil derived this image from the (now lost) tragedy Pentheus by the early Roman playwright Pacuvius, arguably modelled on Euripides’ Bacchae. The commentator goes on to mention that in Pacuvius’ play the name of the stranger who was brought on stage by the henchmen happened to be Acoetes:85

Pentheum autem furuisse traditur secundum Pacuvii tragoediam. de quo fabula talis est: Pentheus, Echionis et Agaves filius, Thebanorum rex, cum indignaretur ex matertera sua Semele genitum Liberum patrem coli tamquam deum, ut primum comperit eum in Cithaerone monte esse, misit satellites, qui eum (i.e. Bacchum) vinctum ad se perducerent. qui cum ipsum non invenissent, unum ex comitibus eius Acoeten captum ad Pentheum perduxerunt. is, cum de eo graviorem poenam constitueret, iussit eum interim claudi vinctum; cumque sponte sua et carceris fores apertae essent et vincula Acoeti excidissent, miratus Pentheus, spectaturus sacra Liberi patris Cithaerona petit … (Serv. on Aen. 4.469)

Pentheus’ madness is drawn from a tragedy by Pacuvius. The plot of which is as follows: Pentheus, son of Echion and Agave, king of Thebes, resented that Father Liber, born from his aunt Semele, was worshipped as a god; as soon as he heard that Liber was on Mount Cithaeron, he sent servants to bring Liber bound to him. When they did not find Liber himself, they captured Acoetes, one of his comrades, and brought him to Pentheus. While Pentheus pondered a worse punishment for him, he ordered him to be locked away in the meantime, bound as he was, when out of their own accord the doors of the prison flew open and the bonds fell off Acoetes. Pentheus was astonished and set out for Mount Cithaeron to spy on the rites of Father Liber …

This annotation, while not solving the riddle of Acoetes’ identity in the Metamorphoses account, offers some interesting insights into the metaliterary game of hide-and-seek being played here. In essence, Ovid endows his Acoetes with a triple intertextual identity, insofar as he recalls three literary figures at once: (i) the helmsman of the Homeric Hymn to Dionysus (who, in the hymn, remains anonymous); (ii) the disguised god Dionysus of Euripides’ Bacchae (who operates in human guise but doesn’t assume a pseudonym); and (iii) the homonymous character from Pacuvius’ tragedy Pentheus (since the play has survived only in pitiful fragments, it is impossible for us to know whether Acoetes in Pacuvius was Bacchus in disguise).

Faced with this intertextual jigsaw puzzle, some scholars consider the solution to be obvious: ‘Ovid does not identify Acoetes with the god, but clearly expects his readers to do so’.86 Others feel that Ovid has constructed his text in such a way that an unequivocal resolution of the riddle remains deliberately beyond our reach:

The narrative parallels to Euripides’ play strongly suggest that we take Acoetes to be the god in disguise, but he is never identified as such directly. There are hints in this direction, but by leaving out an epiphany and keeping his god firmly offstage, Ovid ensures that we recognize Bacchus only when he appears as what he is not, as a character who recedes ever further back into the realm of miraculous narrative.87

Taking Acoetes to be Bacchus results in some delicious ironies, while offering degrees of metaliterary enrichment. To begin with, as Acoetes, Bacchus would perform an ingenious generic encroachment by incorporating into the central part of his own tragedy (Euripides’ Bacchae) the very Hymn in which his transformative powers are celebrated — a shift in emphasis very much in line with the thematic outlook of the Metamorphoses, i.e. the text in which he is currently operating. While the author of the Hymn to Dionysus disposed of the transformation of the crew into dolphins in two and a half words (δελφῖνες δ᾽ ἐγένοντο, ‘they became dolphins’ Hymn. Hom. 7.53), Acoetes gives one of the most striking descriptions of transformation in Ovid’s entire epic (3.671–82).

Concerning the hymn narrative, Philip Hardie well observes that ‘as a god whose identity is founded on doubling, Bacchus has the space within himself to address a successful hymn to himself … (“Acoetes” speaks)’.88 If Bacchus hymns himself, as it were, then several places in the hymnic narrative, in which he refers to himself, sparkle with Dionysiac wit. For example, ‘Acoetes’ reports that the first time he set eyes on the drunken Bacchus he immediately recognized his (own) divine essence:

ille mero somnoque gravis titubare videtur
vixque sequi; specto cultum faciemque gradumque:
nil ibi, quod credi posset mortale, videbam.
(Met. 3.608–10)

Somewhat later, ‘Acoetes’ sounds another arch note in professing the veracity of his account:89

per tibi nunc ipsum (nec enim praesentior illo
est deus) adiuro, tam me tibi vera referre
quam veri maiora fide …
(Met. 3.658–60)

If Acoetes is indeed Bacchus, then there is an amusing double-entendre in his parenthetical remark that ‘no god is closer than he’ (nec enim praesentior illo | est deus), appended to an appeal to his own godhead for the veracity of his tale. At the same time, the duplicitous nature of Acoetes-as-Bacchus gives the overall utterance a rather ominous force. Within Ovid’s Pentheus episode, the story of the Tyrrhenian sailors functions anyway as a speech-genre the Greeks called ainos (the English ‘enigma’ and ‘enigmatic’ derive from it), i.e. ‘an allusive tale containing an ulterior purpose’.90 The understanding or misunderstanding of the ainigma (‘riddle’) in the ainos (‘riddling tale’) can serve as a kind of ethical litmus test, dividing people into ‘better’ and ‘worse’ categories. By not understanding the message implicit in the embedded narrative, namely that Bacchus is a god who demands recognition and respect, Pentheus proves that he belongs among the latter. It is undoubtedly significant that he never considers the possibility that there may be more to the stranger than meets the eye, thus committing an offense with fatal consequences in classical literature, from Homer to tragedy and beyond.91

While the hymnic material displaces the tragic from the narrative center of the episode, Ovid, by creating an intertextual ‘mask’ with metapoetic significance for Bacchus, nevertheless manages to rehearse crucial preoccupations of the Euripidean play. The god’s status as author figure who coordinates the generic terms of his narrative existence closely resembles the ‘metadramatic’ powers Vernant ascribes to the god in Euripides’ Bacchae: ‘It is as if, throughout the spectacle, even as he appears on stage beside the other characters in the play, Dionysus was also operating at another level, behind the scene, putting the plot together and directing it towards its denouement’.92

The ambiguities of identity surrounding Acoetes-Bacchus are also emblematic of Bacchus’ presence in Ovid’s Theban History more generally:

Bacchus’ presence is problematic: it is not always easy to tell when he is present, or in what shape or form, and a suspicion arises that he has been present in Thebes from the beginning. We know already of his earlier intermittent presence in the city, at first in Semele’s womb before the embryo was snatched up to heaven to gestate in Jupiter’s thigh, and then again briefly as the nursling of Ino, before being whisked off to India for the rest of his infancy (310–15). But as the god of drama, he has been present from the first act of the Theban story, the birth of the Sown Men, compared in a simile as they rise from the earth to the figures appearing on a theatre curtain as it is raised (3.111–14). Like the famous simile at Aeneid 4.469–73 comparing Dido in her frenzy to mythological characters on stage, Ovid’s simile alerts us to a generic switch within a hexameter epic into a dramatic mode.93

By not featuring Bacchus (explicitly) as a protagonist in the Pentheusepisode, Ovid captures something important about the god: ‘Dionysus wants to be seen to be a god, to be manifest to mortals as a god, to make himself known, to reveal himself, to be known, recognized, understood … But Dionysus reveals himself by concealing himself, makes himself manifest by hiding himself from the eyes of all those who believe only in what they see’.94 In Ovid’s narrative, Bacchus’ presence is thus pervasive yet elusive: he (as it were) invites you to spot and capture the god in his text! And this is not a challenge to be undertaken lightly — or in the ham-fisted fashion of a Pentheus.

47    See Comm. on 513–14 for a fuller account of these preliminaries.
48    It needs to be borne in mind, though, that, as discussed earlier (§3a), the vicissitudes of textual survival do not allow absolute certainty on this point. Many other ancient tragedians, both Greek and Roman, wrote        plays about the confrontation of Pentheus and Bacchus; but only Euripides’ has survived in full.
49    See Otto (1933) on Dionysiac religion in general and Segal (1982) on Euripides’ Bacchae.
50    Cf. Seidensticker (1972) 42.
51    Other versions or references to the tale include Apollod. 3.5.3; Prop. 3.17.25; Sen. Oed. 449.
52    The titular epithet arose from a misattribution by the Greek historian Thucydides (3.104), which has remained immune to correction through the ages.
53    John Henderson offers a valuable observation here: ‘Setting a hymn in a narrative context, which is precisely lacking in the “prayerbook” Homeric Hymn collection, dramatizes the nature of hymns as motivated “in         the moment” vehicles for rhetorical intervention. The same goes for all tales, not least mutant myths about mythmaking and mutation’.
54    For discussion of this group, see Comm. on 605–07.
55    Hesiod’s poem has not survived, but Apollod. 3.6.7 offers a summary of the tale (with attributions). Another tradition explains his loss of eyesight as the result of seeing the goddess Athena naked at her bath;         infuriated, she struck him blind, but then felt remorse and granted him the gift of prophecy in recompense.
56    Michalopoulos (2012) 236, arguing earlier in the same work (p. 229) for an interrelation between Tiresias’ sexual oscillations and his predictive powers: ‘since prophetic knowledge stands on the verge between         “here” and “there”, between the human and the divine, we might argue as well that the seer’s bisexuality becomes an emblem, or better, constitutes a metaphor for Tiresias’ prophetic transcendence’. On the other         hand, John Henderson cautions that ‘even referring to Tiresias’ “bisexuality” is already to fall into the trap set by the riddle of gendering sex!
57    For Narcissus as a substitute for Oedipus see Gildenhard and Zissos (2000a).
58    Met. 3.339–40; 3.511–12, i.e. the opening two lines of the set text. ‘Typically, however, Ovid’s Tiresias is first to tell Narcissus’ tale, and to let our bard make Echo try to “get it together” with Narcissus in one         impossible dis-joint tale of love scorned and twisted (see 386–87). New fame, then, for the old seer’. (John Henderson)
59    See Comm. on 513–14.
60    See Eur. Bacch. 367 with Dodds (1960) ad loc. Note also the etymological figure on ‘Pentheus’ (Πενθῆα) and ‘lamentation’ (πένθημα) at [Theoc.] Id. 26.26 (the poem is quoted in full above, §5a): πένθημα καὶ οὐ         Πενθῆα φέροισαι.
61    That Pentheus has come to the throne at a very young age is evident in Ovid’s as in Euripides’ account: see Comm. on 540–42.
62    Cf. e.g. Bacch. 233–38, 260–62, 352–54, 453–59, 487, 957–58.
63    The lives of Virgil (70–19 BCE) and Ovid (43 BCE–17 CE) overlap, but only during the latter’s youth. In any event, Virgil’s Aeneid became an instant ‘classic’ and is treated as such in the Metamorphoses — that is to         say, it is frequently the focus of Ovid’s intertextual engagement.
64    A point emphasized by Hardie (1990) 229. Ovid similarly characterizes Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, as Martia proles at Fast. 3.59.
65    Cf. Zeitlin (1990) 74–75.
66    At the same time, as John Henderson points out, ‘Ovid’s merging of Thebes and Troy threatens the “triangulation” formula for ROME (see above, n. 46) — while picking up on the way Virgil has merged his         “Thebes” (tragic Carthage) with Troy to-be-reborn-as-ROME’.
67    Dodds (1960) xliii and ad 214.
68    Seidensticker (1972) 57.
69    The following is based on Seidensticker (1972) 57–61.
70    See e.g. 3.555–56 with Comm.
71    Pentheus’ lack of self-control is apparent throughout the episode, and in particular at 3.566–67 (with following simile), 578–79, 692–95, 704–07. For Euripides’ treatment, see e.g. Bacch. 214 with Dodds (1960) ad         loc
72    See Comm. on 531–63, 532–37 and 536–67.
73    See Comm. on 520.
74    Der Neue Pauly III (1997) 651–52 (Schlesier).
75    Ovid provides a decidedly salacious version of this birth story earlier in Book 3 at 253–315.
76    There was, in fact, a tradition that presented Dionysus/Bacchus as a vigorous demigod who won a place in heaven through military conquest and the bestowal of benefits upon humankind (e.g. Cic. Leg. 2.19, Virg.         Aen. 6.804–05; Hor. Carm. 3.3.13–15, Val. Fl. 1.566–67). A legendary cycle (gradually assimilated to the career of Alexander the Great) featuring eastern expeditions and, above all, conquests in India, rose to         prominence in the Hellenistic period and passed into popular art, as well as the iconography of various Hellenistic kings and Roman generals: see further Zissos (2008) 325.
77    Compare ‘Zeus pater’ and ‘Jupiter’, whom the Romans also called ‘Diespiter’ and understood as ‘Dies pater’, i.e. ‘father of the day’ or ‘sky father’.
78    Cf. Pentheus’ sneering reference to τὸν νεωστὶ δαίμονα | Διόνυσον [‘the new god Dionysus’] at Eur. Bacch. 219–20; on the god’s newness and strangeness, see also Comm. on 520.
79    See Comm. on 607 virginea … forma.
80    This utopian appeal works in tandem with various Golden Age motifs, such as life without toil, that were associated with the god.
81    Zeitlin (1993) 158
82    Acting a part is of course appropriate to the god’s identity as divine patron of the theatre. Cf. Cole (2007) 234: ‘Dionysus is a god who plays many roles, and he can change his appearance at will. As god of the         theatre, he is associated with the process of transition actors undergo when taking on a new role, because the actor puts on a new identity with each new mask’.
83    The point is made by Feldherr (1997) 29: ‘the audience of this narrative … faces the same challenge as the characters within it’.
84    Note that in Euripides’ play Bacchus/Dionysus states that he hails from Lydia both in his own form (Bacch. 38–39) and when disguised (Bacch. 464): see further Comm. on 582–83.
85    The issues surrounding this testimonium are complex (some scholars have even suggested that Servius Auctus draws on Ovid for his summary of Pacuvius’ play!); Schierl (2006) 418–22 offers a survey of the         secondary literature on Pacuvius’ Pentheus (vel Bacchae).
86    Kenney (1986) 394.
87    Feldherr (2010) 187.
88    Hardie (2002a) 170.
89    Cf. Eur. Bacch. 500 (Dionysus speaking about himself): καὶ νῦν ἃ πάσχω πλησίον παρὼν ὁρᾷ (‘Even now he is near and sees what I am experiencing’).
90    Verdenius (1962) 389, cited by Nagy (1979) 237 in his discussion of the term.
91    Cf. Murnaghan (1987) 68: ‘Both in the Homeric epics and in the Homeric Hymns, failure to recognize a disguised god often brings mortals to disaster, and this disaster is frequently accompanied by a display of         divine anger, as in the case of the sailors in the Hymn to Dionysus or of Metaneira in the Hymn to Demeter’.
92    Vernant (1988) 381–82.
93    Hardie (2002a) 166–67.
94    Vernant (1988) 391.

5.3.1.5: The Set Text- Pentheus and Bacchus is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.