Home » Greek and Roman Mythology » Eurpides’ Bacchae.

Eurpides’ Bacchae.


Euripides (Credit : crystalinks.com)

The next play that Peter Struck spoke about is Euripides’ Bacchae. 

In this story the identity of gods and mortals is under scrutiny. Dionysus, the god of wine and of tragedy, and also madness, appears as a character on stage. Through the dissolution of Pentheus, we see the terrible consequences that can occur when a god’s divinity is not properly acknowledged.

In the story of Oedipus we saw the disillusion of identity in the Bacchae  we to see another identity dissolve before our eyes. It happens in a slightly different way and is completely tied up with Dionysus.

Greek and Dionysian Ritual

Satyrs dance with Maenads (Creidt ; cnes.cla.umn.edu)

Dionysus is a God whose details are fascinating inversions of normal ways that great Gods are supposed to behave. He has another name, Bacchus, both names are equally Greek. Sometimes gods have multiple names one of them belonged to the Greeks, one to the Romans or someone else.  His story is fascinating, complex, and interesting. He is  an Olympian god from early on in the tradition. Early mentions of Dionysus appears on pottery. There are attestations of him as a standard Greek God, from as far back as we have attestations of any standard Greek god. But some of the things he does are a little strange and seem to be purposefully inverted examples of normal Greek custom and of normal ways of worshiping the Gods.

Most Greek rituals happen out in the open in broad daylight. We do them in public,in crowds, in very standard altars, in large, monumental temples. Animal sacrifices performed are a very carefully controlled killing of an animal. The animal is then cooked, carved up and served out to people to be part of their healthy diet that they then eat. There is a very public aspect to these general components or the rights.

Dionysus & Ariadne (Credit :theoi.com)

Dionysian rites are the opposite in each of these times. Rather than being in the daytime, they happen at night. Rather than being open, they happen in secret. Rather than being in the center of the city, they happen in the hinterlands. They are not at a main temple, they are in the, hillsides. Chthonic plays another role, when it comes to the Dionysian rites. There is a wild form of tracking down live animals and ripping them up with bare hands, rather than the controlled killing of the animal in a temple sacrifice. The meat is eaten raw. The Dionysius and his rites seem so carefully to turn on its head each component of Greek sacrificial rite, the main component of Greek religious ceremonies. It seems as though Dionysius is actually built on an inversion of what normally counts as Greek practice.

Dionysus is a God of wine. You take some beautiful fruit and put it through a special processes blend it together, let it ferment for a while and you get a wonderful drink which drink tastes good, maybe a little strange at first and after a while you might start to like it. If you do, you get welcomed into another world. It’s understood that Dionysian wine takes you from the space and the world that you are used to, and puts you literally outside of yourself. There’s an ecstatic component to being a Dionysian reveler.

Dionysus (Credit :pantherfile.uwm.edu)

Wine is a part of many religious ceremonies in antiquity, but wine to extraordinary excess is characteristic of Dionysus. It is of a sort of central part of what the Dionysian worship is all about. The idea of being not just tipsy, not even just plain drunk, but of being absolutely completely gone drunk that’s a part of worshiping Dionysus. It’s also a piece of the overturning of all of the other normal components of Greek ritual that Dionysian ritual seems to involve.  It is a consistent piece of the Greek pantheon.

Dionysus is pretty commonly looked at as a little strange, even in the Greek materials, he might be a foreign god, he might be a new comer. The Greeks wonder where  he came from. Yet there are historical indications that Dionysus is as old as any other Greek god. He seems to have been, from the very beginning, always very suspect. He’s that person in the family that has always been wondered about as to whether he actually is fully a part of the family.

In the Bacchae, we see some themes that are parallel to the themes we saw in the Homeric hymns. There are references to Dionysus’s birth. He tries to secure his place in the Pantheon, and find a stable position for himself. He is involved in establishing his rites, and making sure that human beings perform those rites for him. This lends itself to a myth and ritual analysis which claims that myths are there in order to give a background story behind normal ritual activity.The Bacchae fits very well into this kind of template to understand the myths and how they go.

Stamnos with Eos and two youths. (Credit : wikimedia)

The background of Thebes came up in the story of Oedipus and appears again in the Bacchae.  Capaneus has his own connection to Thebes  particularly the theme of autochtonus birth  in his story. Thebes shows up in tragedies that survive from Athens especially as a  mirror image of the Athens that Athenians like to imagine, the Athens of stability, of rationality, of clear-headedness. When the Athenians talk about a strange place, where things are a little bit odd, they often talk about Thebes. Thebes represents to them a place that has a deep background and has an important mythic rootedness in the past. They weave in the legends of Thebes that particularly look odd, strange, and weird.

There’s a strong background in Cadmus‘ family of a certain kind of violence.  Cadmus, was originally a Phoenician, and went to Greece because he was chasing his sister, Europa who was chasing  Zeus in the form of a bull. She fell in love with the bull and tried to make contact with it. Cadmus was on his way to try to find her, when he ran into a serpent, killed the serpent, sows its teeth beings sprouted up that became the founding families of Thebes. These humans all turn on each other and start to kill each other. Fratricidal violence shows up in Cadmus’ family.

Birth of Dionysus (Credit : utexas.edu)

Cadmus’ children, Ino, Semele, Actaeon, and Agave each have a troubling story. Semele is Dionysus’ mother. Dionysus is deeply connected with Thebes in his own family lineage having a mortal mother from Thebes. When Semele gets pregnant by Zeus, through some jealous trickery of Hera, she insists that Zeus shows himself to her in his full glory. When Zeus does, she is immolated. Zeus then snatches up the infant and Dionysus is then born from Zeus’ thigh, in a kind of male womb taking over where a female womb started. Dionysus then joins the Pantheon.

Cadmus and Harmonia’s daughter Semele is thus immolated.   Their son Actaeon dies by being ripped apart by his own hunting dogs. Another terrible violent death in the family of Cadmus. Ino dies, she plunges into the sea with her son in her arms, when her husband turns in a frenzy and chases her and tries to kill her. There are awful things percolating in Cadmus’s family. We see Agave’s story  in Euripides’ Bacchae. The story has a  terrible version of things that happen to her too. Each of these installments shows us that Cadmus’ family is infected with this kind of violence. It’s not quite like the house of Atreus where that violence is constantly turning in on itself and unable to heal itself. Instead it just seems that awful things, seemingly at random, continuously visit this poor family. Each of them has an important connection with Bacchus or Dionysus.

Bacchae Themes

At the beginning of the play, Euripides tells us that Dionysus is angry.  His divinity is not being fully recognized and that makes him upset. Some people don’t believe that he is the son of Zeus.  The Olympians don’t like it if we don’t fully recognize their divinity. He starts in Thebes making sure that his own world receives admiration reverence from human beings.

For this city must learn, even if it is unwilling, [40] that it is not initiated into my Bacchic rites, and that I plead the case of my mother, Semele, in appearing manifest to mortals as a divinity whom she bore to Zeus.

Dionysus compels the women to celebrate his rites on Mount Cithaeron. Pentheus, grandson of Cadmus and the king of Thebes, is hostile to this, he bans it despite the fact that Cadmus and Tiresius  both tell him it’s okay. Pentheus’ resistance proves to be his undoing.

Euripides pushes the limits of tragedy by having Dionysus appear as a character on stage. It’s not the first time in tragedy this happened, it did with Aeschylus with Athena and Apollo. Dionysus has an earthy of role here, he is a physical character in the play who achieves physical ends through manipulation and through mind control when it comes to Pentheus. Dionysus causes Pantheus to bind a bull instead of him. Pantheus wanted to bind Bacchus to prevent him from getting involved out on the hillside, he instead binds a bull and that is the start of his disillusion. There’s an earthquake and lightning which causes his palace to fall. Pentheus is very disturbed and is unsure what’s happening.

A messenger arrives and talks about all these women going berserk out on the hillside. Then Dionysus convinces Pentheus to change gender and change at least his outward appearance to female. He could then blend in with those women out on the hillside. Pentheus is hiding in a tree disguised as a woman, expecting to see all sorts of lude behavior, when he is seen, his mother spots him. The women see him as potential quarry for Dionysian revelry. They grab him, pull him  down from the tree and tear him limb from limb (as part of a ritual known as the sparagmos), a living sacrifice in the way Dionysus likes. Argave then bears the head to Thebes in triumphs, she thinks she has a lion. Cadmus’s family then is banished from Thebes by Dionysus. Awful things because of Pentheus’ resistance are visited on this tribe at Thebes.

Themes of the Bacchae. 

Inscription delphi apollo (Credit :wikimedia)

There are multiple themes important in the play and we can only skim the surface. There is a Greek adage that is so famous it’s inscribed above the temple at Delphi that says, “nothing too much“. Don’t do anything to too strong a degree. Pantheus’s resistance to Dionysus’s worship was characterized here as something too much.  Pantheus resisted too strongly, he set himself up on a pedestal as though his judgment was better than everyone else around him, even including people like Cadmus and  Tiresias.

Dionysus then takes Pantheus, who’s putting himself up on a pedestal, and puts him up in the branches of a tree in front of his own revelers. When those revelers, the Bacchans, see this quarry up in a tree, they grab and pull him down and rip him apart. His haughtiness is redefined as him being up in a tree and now also becoming vulnerable. Standing out above everybody makes him vulnerable.

Another theme built in to this treatment of “nothing too much” is the inversion of hunter and hunted. This comes up in Cadmus’s family regularly. It’s true across the family.

Dionysian Atavism: Hic Svnt Liones vonfaustus.blogspot.com

Actaeon is torn apart by his hunting dogs. Ino was hunted down by her crazed husband like she’s a quarry. Semele is immolated like an animal sacrifice. Pentheus is hunted down by his own mother and ripped apart as though he is a quarry, as though he is a beast. The hunter and hunted slippage that gets worked into this play is likely to be a deep working out of anxiety that any hunting people would imagine. Bringing down a large mammal is not always a happy thing, humans wonder when they do such a thing if it is the right kind of thing to do. When humans hunt, they are doing something that could conceivably be offensive, could be some kind of awful thing. We realized that when we go from being hunter to hunted we see the awfulness of the situation that we ourselves are engaged in. Pentheus is physically dismembered. The disillusion of self such as Oedipus experienced is here brought to very graphic realization. The disillusion of his dismembered self in, in the face of the utter strength of the god, Dionysus.

Reading The Bacchae

A myth and ritual reading.

The Death of Pentheus theoi.com

We have a story of a God who tells us what rites he likes and how he wants to be worshiped. We see the consequences of not worshiping that God. The myth can be looked at as a large story to tell the background behind ritual behaviors that we might find strange. The Greeks may question why they are drunkenly running about on a hillside  ripping up some prey with their hands and eating it raw. This story gives us a narrative background that helps fill in the reasoning behind this behavior.  Myths are made up in order to give an explanation to rituals behaviors whose normal, sensible qualities don’t really seem apparent to us as we’re doing them, so we make up a myth in order to try to explain what it is we view those kind of things.

A functionalist reading.

To get a sense of what kind of social or cultural norm this myth is upholding we need to understand the Dionysus’s ritual activity. It seems pretty clear that with Dionysus we have set of rituals that is built on an upheaval of social norms and customs. The very celebration that’s being talked about here in Dionysus is purposely built in order to overturn normal social structures which doesn’t sound very functionalist.

(Credit ; shelton.berkeley.edu)

Dionysus’s cult is  built on gender bending. There is the story about Pentheus taking on the gender, of a female and being inserted into a ritual. This mirrors an aspect of Dionysus rites where it is women who are in control of the ritual. They are understood to be the key figures among the maenads. Men can perform in the rites but it’s women who have the most powerful role. This is  very much an inversion in antiquity. There is drinking to excess, more than what is normal. The raw and the cooked inversion. Young and old get all mixed up together. Tiresias and Cadmus put on leopard skins and get ready to go out and have a good time in this Dionysian worship. Social differences are almost obliterated as everyone is in a drunken frenzy up on a hillside. There is a loss of control of reproduction, interestingly. Sex is engaged in Dionysiac Ritual for orgiastic pleasure, not having to do with strict structures over which women can have sex with which men. In Hesoid’s Theogony that was something of great anxiety and interest to Greek male principles  that they tried to control, the female powers of reproduction.  Those powers linked with erotic desire are just gone, they run rampant. Pantheus’ very palace collapses. The destruction of social order is dramatized in the play. The revolutionary power of Dionysian ritual is strongly apparent.

The Train of Dionysus theoi.com

To consider another angle of looking at this revolutionary spirit built into Dionysian ritual we need to remember  that Tiresias and Cadmus are old and powerful men. They represent the established thinking, so when they endorse these rituals it’s probably okay for everyone to be involved and everybody should do it. It’s hardly some kind of revolutionary thing if these old gray beards are saying this is good for us, this is good for the city, we should do it. Following the Gods is a good thing. This is the message that they keep putting across. Submit, in other words, to the authority of the Gods.

Another message that is built in to these rites is that one should follow the crowd that being out of step with what everyone else is doing is not a good idea. Typically with things that are truly revolutionary people would be out of step with some large group. The impulse to follow the crowd shows respect and submission to the Gods. You should respect your elders and submit to the Gods and remember what happened to Pentheus for resisting these social norms. The play shows punishment for someone who resists the broader social authorized norms. These features make us wonder why Dionysian worship is considered revolutionary when the whole point of the play is you should worship the Gods, do what your elders tell you and follow what everyone else is doing. It is interesting to consider what kind of social norm the Dionysian cult is upholding.

(Credit ; Wikimedia)

For a functionalist reading we need to point to some social norm that the myth is endorsing. Peter Struck suggested that what is being endorsed here is the social norm of producing a space where it’s okay to violate normal social practice. You produce a space where something convoluted is allowed to happen. There are examples of this that are common in religious calendars across many different cultures. For example in the christian calendar, 40 days before lent there is a customary time known as Mardis Gras celebrated in New Orleans in the United States and other places around the world where strict Catholics who will be enforced in a period of abstention from some pleasures during  lent will go overboard and engage in all kinds of slightly bending the rules behaviors. This, while maybe not authorized by the highest officials in the church, is surely tolerated and at the local level it’s encouraged. We have then an area in which the powers that be circumscribe and say it’s okay in this area to blow off some steam. So first of the behavior is welcome, but only in this quarantine spot.

In the case of what happened with the Dionysian rites, it is hard to say that anything in Dionysus is anti-Olympian. Dionysus has these aspects of him that are a little strange, a little bit out of step. There are myths about him as just arriving on the scene, but those don’t make him any different than the other Gods. We saw this in the Homeric hymn to Demeter or the Homeric hymn to Apollo. These  Olympian Gods just arrive and they have to find their place. Dionysus is in that aspect quite traditional in the Olympian pantheon. Each of these Gods has their own way of being worshiped. Even when one of those ways of being worshiped is a little different than the others the larger point with Dionysian worship is that you owe respect to the Gods. You should give the Gods their ritual due. That’s hardly a revolutionary message. The larger sense that the Dionysian story gives is that you resist the Olympians at your peril.

There’s another cautionary note, with Dionysian worship you should be a little bit careful. Watch out. This authorized space in which norm can be violated. You should be a little bit on alert because there will always be a next day when you will wake up and have to pay the price. Whether that’s a hangover from way too much wine or something much worse in the case of Agave. This story definitely underwrites the idea that you can blow off steam but be a little bit careful when you’re doing it.

The great tragedies that are performed in Athens are performed in a grand Dionysian festival. Dionysus is the patron God of these plays. In order to show full and proper respect for Dionysus through tragic performance its very much the tragic performance of the Bacchae  that is built into this larger set of Athenian based plays. Its hardly a manner of a few people thumbing their noses at authority or some crazed younger ones going berserk. This is a performance set in a space of Dionysus, in the city of Athens, in order for us all to understand more fully our civic engagement and our proper kinds of ritual behaviors.

A functionalist reading could say that larger message is “worship the. Olympian divinities, they liked to get worshiped, show respect  for your elders show respect for the customs of the day”. The functionalist message of showing proper respect for the divinities is fully endorsed and underwritten through even this strange cousin of ours, Dionysus, who’s always been a member of the Olympian family and has his own ways of doing things.  Even though his ways are different than the others, they demand the respect of human beings.


1 Comment

  1. […] course with Peter Struck we started to read Virgil. In doing so we moved 500 years forward from Euripides’ and from classical Athens to classical Rome.  Virgil is also more recent that Herodotus who I […]

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