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I have chosen as the first tragedy, not one from a profound religious believer but with a skeptic. Euripides presented the truth, but a naked truth not wrapped in glory. Although on one level The Bacchantes is about personal pleasure and authority’s resistance to it, the play is not just about maenadic rituals. The play also is about the nature of Dionysus as the god of tragic drama and his paradoxical realm of illusion and reality. In the final analysis, it’s about the fortunes of the god himself, the suffering and dying of Dionysus. He is the suffering, tragic god, the only divine being who could champion tragic theatre. 

The Bacchantes is about the relation between art and illusion, imagination and truth, the very nature of drama. Euripides explores the inner logic and spirit of the tragic form. His play explores the mythic imagination and constructive energies underlying tragedy and also reveals the nature of theatrical illusion.  


Dionysus (Bacchus)

As the play opens, Dionysus has just reentered Greece, for the first time since he was re-born, and taken on mortal form. Kadmos is still alive but has given the throne of Thebes to Pentheus, his grandson by his daughter Agave. The blind seer Teiresias, one of the most enigmatic characters in all Greek myth, also plays a part in the story. But this play is about the legend of Pentheus who was ripped limb-from-limb by Maenads as had been Dionysus by the Titans. It illustrates that denial of the god dooms one to the god’s fate.

What to look for in a Greek tragedy: 

* The play as a cultural lens: 

- religion: prayers, omens
- rituals: sacrifice, oaths
- family relationships
- marriage ceremonies
- funerals

* The play as story and history:

- people
- events
- places  

* The story as a political vehicle

          - political conflict
- authority figures
- group discrimination
- philosophical conflict  

What to look for in The Bacchantes: 

Storyline: First and foremost follow the story of the play. Story is the essence of myth.

Other myths told within the context of the story. 

Setting: note the physical details of Thebes and Mt. Kithaeron.

Play structure: Pick out the Prologue, Parodos, Scenes and the Choral Odes separating them, the Exodus. 

Culture: note the form of the ritual of Dionysus, the dress of the maenads. 

Note the elements of the play that might indicate a link between Dionysus and ancient theatre.

The Bacchantes:  The text.

The text to Euripides' The Bacchantes is presented at a website called the Classic Archives. I've provided a hyperlink below to their site, so you may go there to read the text. Then you should return to continue the discussion.

Discussion of The Bacchantes: 

The Hymn to Demeter presents the marriage paradigm and the myth holding all civilized life together. Euripides’ Bacchantes runs in direct contradiction to marriage and civilized life. This was one of the last tragedies written by the great classical poets. It was first produced posthumously and is considered by most to be Euripides’ best effort. The freshness and beauty of the language is unsurpassed, so they say. Too bad we can’t read it in ancient Greek. 

The play opens with the god Dionysus himself on stage. He has come from his wanderings in Asia to Thebes, his own birthplace, to establish his sacred rites. But Dionysus is controversial, even in Thebes. His mortal mother’s [Semele’s] own sisters have denied him; therefore, he sends them into a divine frenzy and drives them from their homes into the mountains as maenads. But the king of Thebes, Pentheus, Kadmos’ grandson, refuses to recognize the new god though Kadmos and the ancient seer Teiresias both say he should. This conflict then sets the characters in motion and drives the play to its conclusion.  

Note that Dionysus is plagued by problems of legitimacy and confusion over his origin. He is the god who suffers. This is exactly the problem Oedipus will face in our next play Oedipus Tyrannus. Keep in mind that Dionysus was born at Thebes but raised elsewhere and returns to confront, and in many ways undermine, the king of Thebes. Oedipus’ return parallels that of Dionysus, including his suffering. 

The nature of the conflict in The Bacchantes carries with it the philosophical underpinning of the play. The conflict is between order and disorder, between a structured society and frenzy, madness. Ironically enough, what Dionysus represents is the chaos within the order and seeks not to create a new society based on chaos but to bring the element of chaos within civilized society. As Charles Segal says in Dionysiac Poetics and Euripides’ The Bacchantes

Dionysus is the civic god who nevertheless brings strangeness and otherness into the heart of the city. He carries with him “aspects of eccentricity,” that is, marginality, or modes of life that lie outside or beyond normal civic behavior. 

Specifically, the rites of Dionysus strike at the heart of marriage, taking women from the home and family, from underneath male dominance and allowing them to participated in unbridled orgy. As we saw when we looked at the nature of theatre, Dionysus exists as the tension between opposites. He is the brother and antithesis of Apollo, the god of enlightenment, order and understanding. We’ll learn more about Apollo later, so I’ll just say at this point that the two brothers got along well together and even shared Apollo’s oracle at Delphi. Taken together the two constitute the complete picture of the human experience. 

After Dionysus sets the scene of the play he exits and immediately the chorus of maenads enters. They retell the life of Dionysus, but first they mention “heavenly mysteries” that purify from every sin. Dionysus had his own mysteries separate from Demeter though they were closely connected. The exact nature of them is also unknown.  

What follows then is a description of the maenads’ dress [coat of dappled fawn skin, crowned with ivy, a snake wound about their head and carrying a thyrsus] and something about the nature of the orgy [drinking blood and eating raw goat-flesh]. But also the chorus gives us a glimpse of the birth of Zeus himself. 

But nowhere in the play is Dionysus put in his proper place as in Teiresias’ statement to Pentheus: 

Two things there are, young prince, that hold first rank among men, the goddess Demeter, that is, the earth, call her which name thou please; she it is that feedeth men with solid food; and as her counterpart came this god, the son of Semele, who discovered the juice of the grape and introduced it to mankind, stilling thereby each grief that mortals suffer … the sovereign charm for all our woe. God though he is, he serves all other gods for libations, so that through him mankind is blessed. 

Dionysus is a god of vegetation but more specifically the god of the grape and wine. He dissolves the cares of mankind that weigh so heavily upon us and provides the way, through the pouring of wine libations which the ancient Greeks did before each prayer, to discourse with the other gods. Reading this, you might get the wrong impression of how Greeks viewed the drinking of wine. The ancient Greeks abhorred drunkenness. Before consuming it, they always mixed two-thirds water to one-third wine. As a medium for libation, wine was used as was olive oil, honey and water. Even from the time of Homer, the libation cup was filled to pray and sacrifice. The supplicant poured the wine and, while looking up to the sky, prayed. For a sacrifice, the wine was poured at the god’s altar over the flames consuming the sacrificial animal. 

Pentheus takes Dionysus [in his mortal form] into custody and has him imprisoned with the Kadmia. But an earthquake hits the city, crumbling the walls of the prison and releasing Dionysus. While Pentheus and Dionysus argue, a messenger, who has seen the maenads on Mt. Kithaeron, enters. The messenger gives a vivid description of the happenings on Mt. Kithaeron where the raving maenads tear apart wild animals and even route men in armed combat. Pentheus then orders the men of Thebes to take up arms against the maenads, but Dionysus offers Pentheus a peek at the maenads during their frenzy, an opportunity Pentheus can’t refuse. “Of all things, yes! I would give untold sums for that,” the young king says.

Then follows the most telling scene in the play, for Pentheus has fallen under Dionysus’ spell. Dionysus dresses Pentheus as a maenad, as Dionysus himself is dressed. This is the famous “robing of Pentheus” scene where Dionysus gets Pentheus to cross-dress so he might view the maenads during their ritual. In doing so, Pentheus has become a double of Dionysus and will suffer his fate. 

Dionysus tells Pentheus that he “resemblest closely a daughter of Kadmos.” Pentheus responds: 

Of a truth I seem to see two suns, and two towns of Thebes, our seven-gated city; and thou, methinks, art a bull going before to guide me, and on thy head a pair of horns have grown. Wert thou really once a brute beast? Thou hast at any rate the appearance of a bull.

The importance of these lines cannot be overstated. Herein lies the key to understanding the influence of Dionysus. Dionysus tells Pentheus, “now thine eyes behold the things they should.” Pentheus sees the dual world of the twice-born god. The feminine has merged with the masculine, the animal with human. Truly, Pentheus is firmly in the grasp of the realm of Dionysus. He now plans to become a spectator in the drama of the maenads, but he doesn’t come as a willing participant in their rites and plans to destroy them. Thus he is destroyed himself. We have then seen Dionysus as god, mortal and animal. Dionysus, as patron god of theatre, represents an infinite regress of illusions. 

Then, following an ode by the chorus, a second messenger enters to tell of the events on Mt. Kithaeron. He tells of the maenads continued revelry and also of Pentheus’ own mother, Agave Kadmos’ daughter, ripping her son’s arms from his body, decapitating him and putting his head atop her thyrsus.

Thus with her son’s head streaming gore she, thinking it a lion’s head, hastens back to the city to boast of her glorious deed. Once inside the city walls, however, Agave comes to her senses and realizes what she’s done. Much of the ancient text is missing here, but the central point is clear. The failure of Thebes to recognize Dionysus, and through him the dual nature of each individual and the city, has led to this atrocity. 

Weaving as a Metaphor of Marriage. Several times during the play the women say something about leaving their weaving to participate in the rites of Dionysus. Weaving is meant to suggest the presence of the Fates, the divine beings who determined the course of human events. The Fates (Moerae as the Greeks called them) were three in number: Clotho who spun the Thread of Life, Lachesis (the Apportioner) who measured the length of it, and Atropos (the Inevitable) who cut it. The Roman poet Catullus provides a glimpse of the Fates at work, singing, hair gleaming with gold, as they spin out destiny: 

The left hand held the distaff clothed with soft wool; then the right lightly drawing out the threads with upturned fingers shaped them, then with downward thumb twirled the spindle poised with rounded whirl…. They then, as they struck the wool, sang with clear voice, and thus poured forth the Fates in divine chant. That chant, no length of time shall prove untruthful. 

But as the women of Thebes were engaged in their weaving, it was a metaphor for marriage. The vertical-hanging warp was considered the man’s thread of life and the horizontal woof the woman’s, the two then being woven into a nuptial blanket that was a symbol of their life together, a weaving of the male and female spirits. They embroidered their life on its surface. The first night together, the married couple slept beneath that blanket. Therefore according to this tradition, by leaving her weaving a woman symbolically violated her marriage. 

Greeks saw their society as a fabric and the nature of social cohesion, to unite, bind. Plato describes statesmanship as a weaving of aggressive courage and moderation. In the two contradictory gods, Apollo and Dionysus, the divine brothers, we see human existence as a weaving of order and chaos, sanity and madness. Even writing was viewed as a weaving of words. 

Questions for study: 

  • How might the world of Dionysus and its ability to hold illusion and reality in simultaneous suspension, relate not only to modern theatre but also television and cinema? How about Milton Berle in his cross-dressing scenes on ‘50’s TV or Dustin Hoffman in the movie Tootsie? Or Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire? How about the dress of some modern rock groups like Kiss, Duran Duran and Marilyn Manson? 

  • Aristotle in his Poetics said tragedy involved “incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions.” [1449b]. How has this argument and opposing views been presented in recent times concerning both violence and a decline in moral values in the movies and TV? 

  • Euripides was an aggressive champion of women and suspected of not believing in the gods. What do you imagine to be his stance in this play concerning the Dionysus? How might his presentation of events be a condemnation of the god? 

  • Euripides is supposed to have once said that a noble poet should be praised “because the citizen folk he trains to be better townsmen and worthier men.” Do authors still retain this ethical stance today?

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