The myth that lurks behind Agrionia is perhaps one of the most gruesome in the Starry Bull repertoire – and that’s saying something!
After Dionysos had demonstrated to the Thebans that he was a God, he went to Argos where again he drove the women mad when the people did not pay him honour, and up in the mountains the women fed on the flesh of the babies suckling at their breasts. (Apollodoros, Bibliotheka 2.37)
It fell to Melampos, the second prophet of our tradition, to bring them down from the mountain:
Above Nonacris are the Aroanian mountains, in which is a cave. To this cave, legend says, the daughters of Proitos fled when struck with madness; Melampos by secret sacrifices and purifications brought them down to a place called Lusi. Most of the Aroanian mountain belongs to Phenios, but Lusi is on the borders of Kleitor. They say that Lusi was once a city, and Agesilas was proclaimed as a man of Lusi when victor in the horse-race at the eleventh Pythian festival held by the Amphictyons; but when I was there not even ruins of Lusi remained. Well, the daughters of Proitos were brought down by Melampos to Lusi, and healed of their madness in a sanctuary of Artemis. Wherefore this Artemis is called Hemerasia (She who soothes) by the Kleitorians. (Pausanias, Description of Greece 8.18.8-7)
In some versions he does this through his knowledge of magic charms and healing drugs:
Who has not heard of the lakes of Aethiopia: how those who drink of them go raving mad or fall in a deep sleep, most wonderful in heaviness. Whoever quenches thirst from the Clitorian spring will hate all wine, and soberly secure great pleasure from pure water. Either that spring has a power the opposite of wine-heat, or perhaps as natives tell us, after the famed son of Amythaon by his charms and herbs, delivered from their base insanity the stricken Proetides, he threw the rest of his mind healing herbs into the spring, where hatred of all wine has since remained. Unlike in nature flows another stream of the country, called Lyncestius: everyone who drinks of it, even with most temperate care, will reel, as if he had drunk unmixed wine. (Ovid, Metamorphoses 15.322)
This katagogia or bringing down of the maidens was ritually reenacted during the festival, sometimes with violent and unpredictable results as Plutarch relates:
They relate that the daughters of Minyas, Leukippe and Arsinoe and Alkathoe, becoming insane, conceived a craving for human flesh, and drew lots for their children. The lot fell upon Leukippe to contribute her son Hippasos to be torn to pieces, and their husbands, who put on ill-favoured garments for very grief and sorrow, were called ‘Grimy’ (Psoloeis); but the Minyads themselves were called ‘Oleiae,’ that is to say, ‘Murderesses.’ And even today the people of Orchomenos give this name to the women descended from this family; and every year, at the festival of Agrionia, there takes place a flight and pursuit of them by the priest of Dionysos with sword in hand. Any one of them that he catches he may kill, and in my time the priest Zoïlos killed one of them. But this resulted in no benefit for the people of Orchomenos; but Zoïlos fell sick from some slight sore and, when the wound had festered for a long time, he died. The people of Orchomenos also found themselves involved in some suits for damages and adverse judgements; wherefore they transferred the priesthood from Zoïlos’s family and chose the best man from all the citizens to fill the office. (Plutarch, Greek Questions 38)
Note that the myth has changed; rather than the Argive Proitides it is the Minyades commemorated at Orchomenos. Other poleis honored different groups of tragic maidens, but the elements and nature of the festival remained essentially the same. It was a gloomy, polluted day on which the dead were remembered and the community purged its pent-up and negative emotions through cathartic Bacchic rites. Or, as a popular encylopedia describes it:
An early spring month Agrionios and a corresponding festival called Agr(i)ania/Agr(i)onia are well attested among the Dorian Greeks and in Boiotia. The name seems to be related to the adjective agrios “wild, savage,” and the myths and rituals associated with this festival involve women who run wild under the influence of Dionysos. What distinguishes the Agriania from other mainadic traditions is the role played by men, who oppose and check the women’s ravings, yet are themselves led by the priest of Dionysos or his surrogate. At Boiotian Orchomenos, the three daughters of Minyas were driven mad when they refused to participate in Dionysiac dances. Tearing apart an infant in their care, they dashed outdoors, only to be chased away as murderers. During the Agrionia, women said to be descended from the Minyads were pursued by a sword-wielding priest of Dionysos who was empowered to kill any woman he caught. Yet if this power was ever more than symbolic, it had lapsed by Plutarch’s day (Quaest. Graec. 299c-300a), when the priest Zoilos actually killed a woman and his family was deprived of the priesthood as a result. At Argos, we are told, the Agriania was held to honor Iphinoe, another victim of the Dionysiac pursuit. According to Hesiod (fr. 131 M-W), the three daughters of Proitos refused to join Dionysos’ worship and fell into a murderous frenzy, soon joined by the other women and girls of the city. With the strongest youths of the city, the Dionysiac prophet Melampous pursued the women to Sikyon, where Iphinoe met her fate (a fourth-century inscription marking her tomb in the agora has been excavated). Other versions tell how Melampous cured the women of their madness and purified them, marrying one of the surviving daughters and succeeding to the kingship. Thus the Agriania, performed on a biennial basis like other mainadic rituals, enacted a dissolution of social order and gender norms followed by a return to stability. The ritual segregation of men and women, not unusual in itself, was escalated into an overt opposition between raving women and pursuing men. The earliest attested version is the Homeric story (II. 6.130-40) of Thracian Lykourgos, who drove the nurses of raving Dionysos over the sacred plain of Nysa, striking them with an ox-goad while the God himself leapt fearfully into the sea and was received in the bosom of Thetis. King Perseus of Argos carried out a similar pursuit, killing the mainadic Haliai (Sea Women), but ultimately honoring their tombs and founding a temple of Dionysos. These myths probably arose from pursuit rituals like those attested for the Agrionia.