A Comparative Analysis of Bacchae and Genesis
The characters of Agave and Eve, while subordinate to their male counterparts, Pentheus and Adam, play extremely important roles within The Bacchae and Genesis, respectively. Their characters are portrayals of typical women who, because of encounters with the divine, are able to break away (albeit temporarily and not without repercussion) from the constraints placed on them because of their gender. Both women must give something up for this elevated power; Eve must give up her innocence in exchange for knowledge of “good and evil” and Agave must give up her ability to reason in exchange for power and freedom. The punishments handed down to each woman by her respective god are severe. This process of sacrifice-empowerment-punishment helps to demonstrate a main theme in both stories: humankind is subservient to the divine and cannot occupy a god’s position.
Eve is created by God as “a helper and a partner” (Genesis 2:18) to Adam. This establishes from the beginning that woman is in a way subservient to man. However, the use of the term “partner” suggests that this does not imply total servitude. Other than her position as Adam’s helper, Eve’s status is not clearly defined. She and Adam both are ignorant, naked and unashamed (Genesis 2:3). At the point that Eve decides to take a more active role in her life, thus departing from her role as helper, she heeds the encouragements of the serpent and “took of (the tree’s) fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband who was with her and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened” (Genesis 2:3). In doing this she disobeyed God’s explicit instructions not only regarding the tree of knowledge but also regarding her relationship to Adam, and is punished.
If Eve took a step forward by asserting her independence, then God moved her two steps back by demoting her to servility. Because of her initiative deciding to open her eyes and Adam’s eyes to good and evil she is punished by God. Any essence of equality that existed in their relationship disappears and she is relegated to the status of servant. God makes her a servant not only to Adam but also to her female anatomy and the desires it creates: “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing: in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for you husband, and he shall rule over you” (Genesis 3:16). For the remainder of the text, Eve is referred to only when “knowing” Adam and when giving birth.
The message in Eve’s defiance of God and her punishment is clear. The serpent tells Eve that in eating from the tree of knowledge she “will be like god knowing good and evil,” therefore, in doing so she attempted to take on the role of God (Genesis 3:5). As a human she cannot challenge God by attempting to assume his role. As a consequence of violating her status as a woman she is cursed with being dependent on Adam and desiring him. As a consequence of violating her status as a human being she is banished from the garden of Eden and barred by a flaming sword from eating the fruit of life and living forever like God (Genesis 3:22).
The message concerning humankind’s subordinate position in relation to God along with the pattern of sacrifice-empowerment-punishment is also displayed in Euripides’ The Bacchae. Although their situations are not identical?Eve willingly makes the sacrifice of her innocence to gain knowledge, whereas Agave is compelled by Dionysus to do so strong parallels exist between their relationships to their gods, their challenging of gender roles, and their ultimate punishments.In the city of Thebes women were denied citizenship rights and consequently could not run for office or speak out in the assembly. Socially they were thought to be of a lower class than men (Graham 2000). The case of Agave is no exception. However, because she (as well as other women) was used by Dionysus as a tool to exact revenge on the city, she was given a unique escape from this social constraint. While the sacrifice itself was not described by Euripides, it is clear that in exchange for her senses she gained a sense of freedom and empowerment that a woman in her position could have only dreamed of. Rather than being a mere subordinate to her son or husband, Agave became the leader of a band of equally empowered women, who were free to dance, sing, drink and hunt as they pleased (Bacchae 680-710). She was not only able to do things forbidden to women, but things forbidden to humans as well, in that she was granted superhuman, almost god-like powers of strength.Agave, like Eve, is ultimately punished twofold; once for a crime against God and once for a crime against man. For the crime against man, (the murder of her son Pentheus) she is banished from the city of Thebes. For her crime against God, (denying his very existence) she is made to murder her own child in a most gruesome fashion (Bacchae 1330).
It is true that both Agave and Eve shed their gender roles and attain powers that in their respective positions were god-like and that both were eventually punished by their deities for both human crimes and crimes against God. Despite these strong connections their situations are quite different. Eve is an archetypal woman, who, in ways too numerous too explain here, has helped form western views towards women, whereas Agave is already a victim of views similar to those which the allegory of Adam and Eve helped create. Eve was also a far more independent person who through her own will disobeys God and her gender role (Genesis 2:3). In contrast, the character of Agave is forcefully commandeered by Dionysus and made to challenge her gender role. The gods with whom the two women must deal are also quite different. The biblical God is a more rational being than Dionysus, punishing Adam and Eve (his own creations) after they disobey his only rule (Genesis 3:22). Dionysus, on the other hand, is a wrathful, vindictive God, punishing Agave for her impiety by forcing her to kill her own son and then banishing her from her home for the very crime he made her commit (Bacchae 1340). Although Agave and Eve both followed the pattern of sacrifice-empowerment-punishment, their situations were quite different.
For all the complexities of their similarities and differences, one simple message can be extracted from the experiences of these two women; “many are the ways of the gods. Many are the deeds of the gods. All beyond the mind of man. That which was expected was not done. That which was expected not, was done. The god found a way. It is finished” (Bacchae 1392).
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