Q: Can the etymology of Πενθεύς truly be divorced from divinity?

Here's a name that even Graves translates merely as "grief". But as a student of Graves, this is one his translation may be too conservative. Allow me to make my case:

Yes, -εύς (Πενθεύς) is merely a genitive ending. There would be no reason to look deeper were there not a very important story about him.

But, when this word form is combined with θ, it becomes cognate with words meaning divinity and god.*


The suffering of Pentheus is not merely human suffering, it is the suffering of the god Dionysus/Zagreus, who is ritually torn apart (σπαραγμός) and consumed raw (ὠμοφαγέω). In the case of Dionysus, it is the Titans; in the case of Pentheus, it is the Maenads.

For this reason, even under the argument that that -εύς is merely an ending, translation of Pentheus simply as "suffering" is factually inaccurate, based on the circumstances of his death.

*or "false cognate", although I'm not sure there's a hard distinction when we're dealing with reconstructions, especially in the context of poetry and mythmaking.

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    As I mentioned in my answer to your question about Loki's name on the Mythology SE, the way you are using the term "etymology" in this question, although not invalid from certain points of view, is likely to be confusing and grating to people familar with the science of historical linguistics in its present-day form. People have (fairly successfully) struggled to rescue etymology from being a matter of subjective interpretations and irregular, intuitive, unfalsiable connections "où les voyelles ne font rien, et les consonnes fort peu de chose."... – Asteroides Jan 22 '18 at 20:59
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    Because of this, if you want an answer based on literary analysis and consideration of wordplay in addition to (or instead of) accepted scientific principles of etymology (such as phonetic theory, the regularity of sound change, and the comparative method), I think it might be better to frame your question as primarily not about etymology, but about something like "understood meaning" or something like that. (The problem is that I doubt we have much ability to understand what the ancient Greeks would have thought, either; but maybe someone could give an educated guess.) – Asteroides Jan 22 '18 at 21:01
  • @sumelic I would say I'm definitely in the realm of mythopoesis and a narrative conception of language formation, and that is definitely, at best, alchemical (intersection of art and process.) I'm going to have to do some more data mining on πένθος and πάθος, to support the idea that the type of pain in the former, when not used euphemistically, is in reference to extremity, mortal agony, as opposed to common suffering. There's also the idea that many mythical names are compound words, which makes me wonder if the declined ending might be a permutation. – DukeZhou Jan 22 '18 at 21:40

Not every theta automatically makes a word cognate with 'god.' If the apparent etymology of the name Pentheus is correct, it's just formed from the noun πένθος, 'grief'/'misery,' and the -εύς suffix (which, according to Smyth's Greek grammar, §843, denotes 'the person concerned or occupied by [a] thing'). In this case, the theta belongs to the root itself and is very unlikely also to denote 'god' at the same time. Conversely, if the theta does indeed denote 'god,' it's unlikely also to belong to the root (which would mean that the root is no longer the root that means 'grief'/'misery'). I just don't think it's possible to have it both ways. I'd want to see other examples of words that are widely understood (on the basis of linguistic principles) to work in the manner you're describing.

Also, I'm not familiar with any story where Dionysus suffers at the hands of the Titans, and where this suffering is so closely connected to Pentheus's suffering that it would be 'encoded' in Pentheus's own name. Certainly, in the versions of Pentheus's story that I'm familiar with, Dionysus suffers no consequences at all for what happens to Pentheus. Maybe I'm misunderstanding your point, though. Perhaps you can expand that section of your question to clarify the connection: how is Pentheus's human suffering also Dionysus's divine suffering? Perhaps you can also indicate where one would go to find the story of Dionysus and the Titans that you refer to.

  • This relationship of Zagreus/Dionysus and Pentheus/Dionysus is very well documented. (I felt the links I included were sufficient, but as a supplement: [Zagreus] wiki](en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zagreus), Zagreus, the Bacchae of Euripides, and Ovid Metamorphosis, Book 3. Pentheus, like Dionysus, is torn, alive, limb from limb, and his flesh eaten bloody. – DukeZhou Jan 19 '18 at 20:09
  • So, while I don't necessarily disagree if we are talking πένθος (making the case for a divine aspect will require research into πέν, θ and εύς), we're talking about Πενθεύς. I'm not entirely sure we can attribute the relationship merely to a brilliant wordplay insight by the Greek Dramatist regarded as the wisest of that triumvirate, as the story and name are almost certainly much older than 5th century Athens. – DukeZhou Jan 19 '18 at 20:21
  • This Greek myth extends into the Christian sacrament (Dionysus sacrifice for humanity?), and there is another Greek parallel in Pentheus' cousin, Actaeon, who is torn apart by his own hounds after offending Artemis. Also worth regarding the relationship of πένθος to πάθος, which has a divine element (see "passion"), because it's a "suffering of the soul". – DukeZhou Jan 19 '18 at 20:23

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