Uncertainty of the Dionysian Tradition: Euripides’ Bacchae
Dionysos exists in a realm of contradictions and fluidity between binaries. Though a god, he appears in the bestial forms of a snake, bull, and lion, in addition to that of a human. Dionysos is a male god, yet has long, blonde, perfumed hair and red cheeks (273). He has the force and energy of a young man, yet the tenderness and charm of a female (416). He is Greek, but hails from barbarian Asia (18). An eternal youth, Dionysos lives between adulthood and childhood. While Dionysos exists comfortably between binaries, Pentheus’ movement from one opposite to another is disastrous. Throughout Euripides’ Bacchae, the antagonist, king Pentheus, undergoes a gentle transition from the binaries held in the beginning of the play to their opposites by the time of his death. This transition reaches completion in the fifth choral ode by the Lydian maenads (lines 1113-1159), which immediately precedes Pentheus’ murder by his own mother, Agaue. Each of Pentheus’ transitions prior to death – from adult to child, human to animal, hunter to hunted, and man to woman – affect the way viewers judge Pentheus’ murder at the hands of his mother, suspending viewers in their own sort of binary between outrage at and acceptance of this filicide. Euripides’ illumination of the potential dangers of Dionysos hinges on Agaue’s unsettling filicide, allowing Euripides to leave his viewers in a realm of uncertainty regarding the benevolence of the newly arrived god and the role that the Dionysian religion will play in Greek culture. Pentheus is characterized as increasingly youthful throughout the play in order to emphasize the power differential between him and his mother, which leads viewers to feel outrage at his murder and to fear the Dionysian cult.
The first characterization of Pentheus as a youth occurs early in the Bacchae (321) and as Pentheus continues to spurn Dionysos’ divinity, Pentheus’ transition to childhood progresses further. A 44-line stichomythia between Pentheus and Dionysos follows later in the play, where Pentheus’ childishness is highlighted through his acquiescence to Dionysos and praise of the god’s suggestions (919-963), which characterizes Pentheus as slightly naïve and worthy of sympathy. This increased sympathy of viewers for Pentheus and underlining of Pentheus’ young age makes the power differential between he and Agaue blatantly clear, and adds to the horrific nature of the filicide to follow. In the fifth choral ode by the Lydian maenads, which portends Pentheus’ death, Dionysos claims that he brings “…this youth / To the great contest.” Dionysos finalizes Pentheus’ figurative transition to childhood by referring to him, unequivocally, as a ‘youth.’ The use of the word ‘contest’ also seems odd given the scenario, but alludes to an underlying ephebic tradition in Greek culture, where adolescents would successfully complete a hunt. This contest is a “…task of the ephebe (youth between eighteen and twenty) before achieving full warrior status” (Notes 1044-1105). Viewers of this play surely would have been familiar with this ephebic ritual and could sympathize with Pentheus for his failure of this crucial test of manhood – due to his murder by Agaue – which viewers understand to be the result of Dionysos’ control over her.
Likewise, Dionysos’ enforcing of the power differential between Pentheus and Agaue due to Pentheus’ youthful characterization adds to viewer outrage at Agaue’s filicide. Through Euripides’ manipulation of viewer sympathy for Pentheus and viewer outrage as his death, Euripides highlights to his viewers the dangerous breakdown of familial ties that may result from the Dionysian religion. On the other hand, Pentheus’ transition from human characterization to animal characterization leaves viewers in an uncertain middle ground of support and fear of the Dionysian religion. The animal-based lineages proposed by the maenadic chorus in the fifth ode obscure the relationship between Pentheus and Agaue, yet draw new lineal connections between Pentheus and Dionysos. This obscurity leads viewers to consider Agaue’s filicide of Pentheus less horrific, yet the new lineal connections have the opposite effect, placing viewers in an uncertain middle ground between acceptance and outrage. Prior to the fifth ode, the only significant mentioning of Pentheus’ descent was given by the maenadic chorus in the third ode: “He is descended from / A dragon, fathered by earth- / Born Ekhion as a monster” (632-634). Thus, Pentheus is attributed to serpentine descent, just like Dionysos (Notes 630-638), who was born with the horns of a bull and a crown of snakes (128). The maenadic chorus then claims in the fifth ode that Pentheus was born “…from a lioness, /Or he’s descended from the Libyan Gorgons” (1126-1127). ‘Gorgons’ refer to the three sisters, Stheno, Euryale, and Medusa, who had snakes for hair, yet have no connection with Ekhion. Therefore, the fifth ode’s claim to Pentheus’ Gorgon lineage is different from the third ode’s Ekhion lineage, which is an odd contradiction of a previous lineage story, which already served to contradict Pentheus’ lineal connection to his mother, Agaue.
The fifth ode’s mention of descent from a lioness is odd, as well, given that this is the first time such a descent is introduced for Pentheus and this unsupported claim is complicated shortly after when the chorus then appeals for Dionysos to “Appear as a bull! As a snake / With many heads, for us to see you! / As a lion with a mane of fire” (1153-1155). The connection between Pentheus’ and Dionysos’ serpentine lineages was pre-existing to the fifth ode, but the lion connection is proposed for the first time in this passage. Given that Dionysos often appears in the form of a lion, it is appropriate to question whether they hail from the same ‘lioness.’ Thus, the obscurities of Pentheus’ descent due to animal connections begin to pile on top of each other, dehumanizing Pentheus, and blurring the relationship between him and his mother. This makes his death at the hands of Agaue more palatable to viewers of the tragedy, as Agaue’s filicide is less pronounced. Although, the implication that Dionysos could share a common lion lineage with Pentheus – and, thus, be of the same blood – places Dionysos in Agaue’s role, refocusing the viewer on the reality of the filicide to follow. Therefore, Euripides suspends viewers between outrage at and acceptance of Agaue’ filicide through his inclusion of the choral ode’s discussion of animal lineage.
The animal that remains to be addressed is the bull. The chorus does not explicitly refer to Pentheus as a bull in the fifth ode because Pentheus metaphorically serves a bull-victim role in a seldom seen Dionysian sacrificial ceremony; Pentheus’ posthumous connection to the bull serves to demonstrate his movement from hunted to hunter, creating additional viewer sympathy for Pentheus due to the helpless victim role to which he is assigned by Euripides. While Pentheus intended to “…hunt down…” (266) Dionysos’ maenads and is still characterized as the “…hunter of Bakkhai” (1157) in the fifth ode, the maenadic chorus claims that Pentheus “…falls now under the trampling herd/ Of the maenads” (1158-1159). Clearly, the hunter to hunted binary transition has reached completion and this ironic circumstance evokes some form of sympathy for Pentheus. His role is not just one of a hunted human being, but rather a sacrificed beast. In the final scene of the play, as Agaue holds the murdered body of Pentheus in her arms, she unknowingly claims that she killed a “…young bull-calf” (1340). According to the Introduction by Charles Segal, the bull was the traditional sacrificial animal of the City Dionysia in Athens and, thus, Euripides posthumously offers an implicit explanation of his death as one of sacrifice to the god Dionysos. In this scenario, Agaue sacrificed Pentheus to Dionysos and his helpless role as a sacrificial victim serves to draw viewer sympathy and create outrage at his murder by Agaue. Although, from a viewer’s perspective, both Pentheus’ and Agaue’s ends are quite tragic; both were seduced to madness by Dionysos and placed into a metaphorical sacrificial ceremony, leaving Pentheus dead and Agaue wishing she were dead.
This horrific end demonstrates that not only those who refuse to worship Dionysos (Pentheus), but even those who do (Agaue), will experience the dissolution of familial ties due to the Dionysian religion. Pentheus’ change in appearance from man to woman, and the pseudo-maenad role in which this places him, illuminates the inevitable success of the Dionysian religion. Pentheus’ unavoidable madness is first foreshadowed by Dionysos when he claims that if Pentheus “…drives / His chariot off the road of sanity…” (971-972), he will wear women’s clothes. After carefully manipulating Pentheus into donning women’s clothes (940), Dionysos refers to Pentheus as the “…man who mimics woman / The madman…” (1116-1117). As a woman in appearance, and having been deemed ‘mad’ by Dionysos, Pentheus has figuratively completed his transition to maenadic (literally ‘mad woman’) status. As a pseudo-maenad, Pentheus does precisely what maenads do: he leaves the city and travels to the forest, placing him in reach of his mother and leading to his sacrificial filicide. While Dionysos’ seducing of his followers to madness is unsettling enough for viewers, the inevitability of this transition for anyone who does not follow Dionysos (i.e. Pentheus) leads viewers of the Bacchae to fear the overwhelming power of the new god. More so, it is Dionysos’ imposed madness on Pentheus and Agaue that leads to the horrific filicide to follow, causing viewers to fear what they may consider to be the inevitable consequences of Dionysos’ presence in Greece.
While many Athenian viewers of Euripides’ Bacchae may have found the ambiguous nature of Dionysos – who exists comfortably between strict binaries – quite unsettling in itself, the most horrifying part for many viewers would likely be Agaue’s filicide of Pentheus. Pentheus’ movement from each binary to its opposite serves either to enforce feelings of outrage at or acceptance of this heinous filicide. While most viewers would certainly feel immediate outrage at Agaue’s filicide, those who found themselves persuaded in the opposite direction – perhaps due to the maenads dehumanizing Pentheus obscuring his lineal ties to his mother – may realize the absurdity of their acceptance of a mother murdering her son. Euripides composed his Bacchae in such a way that any Athenian viewer, regardless of their relationship to the Dionysian tradition, would feel some form of discomfort with the events of the tragedy. Euripides presents viewers with a sophisticated portrait of the dangers that the Dionysian religion posed to Athenian culture, communicated primarily through Agaue’s appalling act of filicide. Euripides makes it overwhelmingly clear that Dionysos’ fluidity overwhelms Pentheus’ rigidity and that his Athenian viewers should expect the same phenomenon to occur in their society.
The dynamic personalities of Euripides’s Bacchae all serve allegorical purposes within the play’s lines: to represent social orders within ancient Greek culture. The interactions between these characters send a clear message to the audience regarding the practices of healthy society, and the harsh repercussions that result from straying too far from these practices. Pentheus and Dionysus are figureheads for the two main schools of thought represented in the text, respectively order (or constraint) and disorder (or freedom). The two figureheads differ in the rigidity of their ideologies; Pentheus stands for far stricter ideals, believing that there is no place within society for anything other than absolute order, while Dionysus understands the need for both order and disorder in society. The fierce opposition between Pentheus and Dionysus thus represents both a struggle between order and disorder and a struggle of flexibility within the social regime. Dionysus’s clear defeat of Pentheus and his stifling system of order suggests that a society completely devoid of a semblance of disorder and freedom will inevitably tear itself apart. Euripides uses the character of Dionysus, superior in his wisdom because of his divinity, to reveal the necessity for coexistence between the social regimes of order and disorder within society, demonstrating the unsavory consequences of tipping the balance in favor of either extreme. Euripides uses Dionysus to reveal the necessity of this coexistence, to correct an imbalance between the two social orders, and to show the consequences of upsetting this balance.Dionysus, as a deity possessing knowledge that a mortal could not, recognizes that society need not fall into the black and white extremes of tyrannical order or frenzied disarray, but that each has its place within a healthy society. Dionysus condescendingly enters the play with the intent of making justice with the house of Cadmus, for they have not “acknowledged him as a god”, and therefore “Thebes must fully learn – despite itself, if need be, what neglect of [his] Bacchic rituals means” (1458, 53-55). Thebes has chosen to accept neither Dionysus’s divine status nor his rites into its society, so Dionysus intends to show it, through punishment, the necessity of such rites in society’s inner workings. Dionysus, while representative of humanity’s wilder tendencies, does not condemn order, but simply advocates that within the community’s tight system of controlled lawfulness there exists a time and place for disorderly and riotous practices. Dionysus ordains himself and his rites as grounds for the community’s collective cathartic outlet. Dionysus thus does not punish them for having order, but for failing to honor the importance of “release from pain and sorrow” so that it is possible to “forget the evils of the day” (328, 30). Knowing that a society cannot thrive with no outlet for natural human rowdiness, Dionysus appoints himself head disciplinarian of the Theban transgressors. With society’s best interest in mind, Dionysus describes this disciplinarian role as “most terrible to mortals and most gentle” (980).Dionysus, seeing that the balance of order and disorder among the Thebans falls heavily on Pentheus’s tyrannical side, acts as a counterbalance to level the scale, “set [the house of Cadmus] to rights” and thus set society to rights (66). Just as a scale which has been upset over-corrects itself by plummeting on the other side, Dionysus sets complete hysteria loose in Thebes in order to over-correct Pentheus’s unyielding orderly strictness. He begins when, “like a gadfly stung these sisters to a frenzy, out of their very homes, to live crazed in the mountains” (45-47). By maddening the women of the family, he pulls the emotionally grounding force of Theban culture, the women who “take care of [them] and lift [them] to [their] breast[s]”, out of Pentheus’s orderly picture, thus turning half of the city into a state of anarchy (1470). Next, Dionysus sets the physical aspect of Pentheus’s ordered life into disarray by quite literally “burn[ing] down the whole house of Pentheus” (691). At this point, the only thing Pentheus has control over is himself. Dionysus finally takes this away too, “[derange[ing] his mind and put[ting] him in a giddy frenzy” (968). In turning Pentheus’s emotional, physical, and personal world to mayhem, Dionysus upsets the social scale of order and disorder in the opposite direction, so that society may slowly bounce back and forth between these extremes to correct itself. Just as the chorus of Aeschylus’s Oresteia preaches that “Justice will tip the scales to bring learning through suffering” (Agamemnon, 250), Dionysus indirectly murders Pentheus to bring learning to the community through heart-wrenching tragedy. Dionysus shows that in the absence of the social catharsis of Bacchic rites, a society will inevitably rip itself apart. The first ingredient in Dionysus’s stew of self-destruction is Pentheus’s demise at the crazed hands of his own mother. By literally ripping her son to shreds, she begins the process of ripping both her family and her society apart as well. Because she “was so eager for killing”, she “must leave [Thebes]” and “live the punishment that [she] deserve[s]” (1513). She is therefore responsible for the “ruin” of her son, the “sorrow” of her family, the “pity” of herself and the “whole clan ruined” (1506). Cadmos and his wife are to “lead barbarians and ravage many cities with numberless troops”, thus living the rest of their lives in mayhem (1550). Only when they have been influenced enough by the disorderly ways of these barbarians may they be “give[n] new life in the land of the blessed” (1556), signifying the leveling of the scales and the harmonizing of society.The idea of a god like Dionysus was thus used in ancient Greek society to both maintain and enforce social norms. Specifically, the worship of Dionysus gave society an outlet for their wild human tendencies so that in all other aspects of life, order could be maintained. Euripides’s Bacchae thus served as a reminder to society of the threat to them should they choose to oppose this school of thought.]
Matricide and Cross-Dressing: Gender Clash in Greek Justice
When two men confront similar situations and meet distinct fates, the perennial question emerges. Why does Orestes in Aeschylus’ The Eumenides win redemption, and Pentheus in Euripides’ The Bacchae die ignobly? Both address the same moral dilemma between condoning retributive justice and upholding social order. Both men witness women aggressing and doling out retributive justice, and, recognizing the burden of their sex, choose to uphold male social order. The son of Agamemnon succeeds in his quest because he remains true to his masculinity and proves rational, persuasive, and resolved; conversely, effeminate Pentheus perishes because he attempts to adopt an unnatural male identity. The Eumenides and The Bacchae demonstrate that triumph goes to those who remain true to their selves. In both plays, the abstract conflict of retributive justice versus social order becomes a concrete gender clash. The female forces of retributive justice include Clytaemnestra, the Furies, and the Maenads; the male opposition comprises Orestes, Apollo, and Pentheus, defending the testosterone-dominated status quo. As the female Chorus in The Bacchae declares, —O Justice, principle of order, spirit of custom, come! Be manifest; reveal yourself with a sword! Stab through the throat that godless man. (The Bacchae 1011-1013)Female justice of the Maenads, revealed with a sword, bursts with violent passion. Women rely on retributive justice, the “spirit of custom,” because they have no other means to realize order and rightness in their worlds. In contrast, the deliberative justice of the laws and courts are made for and by men. Asexual Athena, who sides with Orestes, tells the Furies, “Yes, I love Persuasion; / she watched my words, she met their wild refusals” (The Eumenides 981-982). Men have the ability to respond with words, to be rational and persuasive in their defense. Orestes asserts his male abilities when he enters Athena’s shrine as a suppliant. That he pleads to Athena, the divine guardian of rationality borne from Zeus’ head, showing his respect for not only reason, but also pure male reason untainted by female influence. In submitting to Athena, Orestes does not ignore his identity; he augments it. For when Athena establishes a tribunal with the “finest men of Athens” (The Eumenides 503), Orestes gains the opportunity to testify in his own defense and call upon a strong witness, Apollo. He can now reveal his powers of persuasion; he can now place the Furies, and the female cause they represent, out of their element. The Furies do not testify well because the gender they represent does not traditionally testify at all, and the principle they wish to defend, female retributive justice, cannot easily survive judging by its opposite, male deliberative justice. Finally, the jurors happen to be the best men of Athens. Orestes and Apollo almost win by default, because they embody male qualities of rationality and persuasion in a trial biased towards rewarding such qualities, a trial judged exclusively by men. Orestes gains the upper hand in the trial because of his masculinity. Although the Furies easily obtain an admission of matricide from Orestes, the fact of the murder itself becomes less relevant, superceded by a discussion of gender. Apollo presents arguments to show that “man is the source of life” (The Eumenides 669) and thus is deserving of more rights; killing a woman to avenge a man’s death is thus just, but not vice versa. The Furies decline to respond: “For us, we have shot our arrows, every one” (The Eumenides 687). These divinities shoot retributive arrows, but, in the deliberative court of Athens, rational words are far more potent. Because the Furies fail to show that women deserve equal rights, they lose the advantage. Due to his persuasive power, Orestes wins the trial. He shrewdly, in light of Apollo’s arguments, focuses his own testimony on associating Clytaemnestra with her most damning flaw, her female sex. Even his language universalizes his family tragedy as a battle of the sexes. Orestes, when testifying (The Eumenides 594-619), never once mentions his parents by name. Significantly, he states “my father” twice, but attaches no possessive pronoun to “mother’s blood” (The Eumenides, 612) in a deliberately impersonal reference. The Furies, in contrast, do employ possessive pronouns — “your mother” (The Eumenides 605), “your mother’s blood” (The Eumenides 614) — when questioning Orestes. Judging by his language, Orestes identifies with his father, but distances himself from the mother, casting her as a particularly malignant instance of a gender known for treachery. Because Orestes persuasively defends himself, Athena joins his side: “No mother gave me birth / I honour the male, in all things but marriage” (The Eumenides 264). Orestes then wins the case because of the rational powers that form his male identity and that identity itself, and his allies only add divine reinforcement to his triumphant masculinity. In The Bacchae, Pentheus fails to assert the powerful male identity necessary to overcome a female threat to Theban social order. Instead, Pentheus displays an irrationality more typical of women. He ignores the clear signs of Dionysus’ divine powers: the Maenads’ supernatural feats, Dionysus’ explosive escape from prison, the advice of Teiresias. Dionysus correctly describes Pentheus when he states, “You do not know what you do / You do not know who you are” (The Bacchae 506-507). Pentheus does not respect the limits of his strength and knowledge, integral to knowing himself. In other words, without a strong male identity or even a father figure, Pentheus tries to compensate with obstinate arrogance. He insults Dionysus with “stupid blasphemies” (The Bacchae 490), even though he may be a god. With his irrational behavior, he cannot possibly glorify his gender and save the Theban social order. Pentheus actually identifies more with his enemy than his adopted cause. He describes Dionysus as “effeminate” (The Bacchae 353), like himself. Dionysus, in contrast to Athena, comes from Zeus’ thigh, a body part connotative of female passion, not male rationality. Pentheus shows he possesses female sexual passion, though repressed: You are attractive, stranger, at least to women— … And what fair skin you have—you must take care of it— no daylight complexion; no, it comes from the night when you hunt Aphrodite with your beauty. (The Bacchae 453, 456-458)These suggestive comments reveal that Pentheus responds physically to Dionysus. His “at least to women” disclaimer does not avail him; inside, he is a woman. Ironically, he accuses the Maenads of unleashing sexual passions in the mountains (The Bacchae 222-223). His suspicions of others, later proven false, really show his inner disposition: his female nature and lust. Pentheus switches from threatening Dionysus with force of arms to conspiring with him; his lack of resolve seals the death of his male pretensions and reveals his true effeminate identity. In contrast, Orestes never wavers during cross-examination: “Yes, / and to this hour I have no regrets” (The Eumenides 601-602). Pentheus sinks low when he accepts Dionysus’ suggestion and agrees to “crouch beneath the fir trees” (The Bacchae 817) to spy on the women. He reaches his nadir when he decides to cross-dress. “I would die of shame,” he initially protests (The Bacchae 829), but moments later he asks for the type of costume. Subsequently, he emerges, coyly primping. His dramatic physical transformation shows his betrayal of the male cause. Because of his emasculation, Pentheus loses legitimacy in fighting his side of the battle, allowing retributive justice to triumph and expel the existing social order. He dies covered with the tattered linen cloth of femininity, not the durable, strong bronze of masculinity. Pentheus and Orestes both ultimately remain true to their identities. Orestes leaves a court system with exclusively male jurors; he institutionalizes male, deliberative justice. The Furies become The Eumenides, guardians of the hearth and tamed into domesticity. After Pentheus dies, Dionysian rites are also institutionalized, becoming part of the social order; society permits women certain times to leave the home and experience more freedom. The punishment of Thebes, individually destructive, brings societal catharsis and triggers reform. Orestes, through his male strength and life, deliberately ensures no true social upheaval or reform occurs. Pentheus, through his female weakness and death, unwittingly furthers truly progressive aims.
Genesis and the Bacchae
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 initiativedeciding to open her eyes and Adam’s eyes to good and evilshe 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 identicalEve willingly makes the sacrifice of her innocence to gain knowledge, whereas Agave is compelled by Dionysus to do sostrong 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).
Roughly halfway through Euripides’ The Bacchae, a messenger describes to Thebes’ bewildered king his encounter with the women who have left the city to practice their religious rites in the forest. His account cogently presents the basic opposition between nature and civilization that is inherent in the work by formalizing the interconnections between these crazed women, the god Dionysus, and nature. Though Agave later becomes Dionysus’ victim, this scene takes place in a separate context where she parallels his role in relation to Thebes. Foreshadowing the city’s eventual fate at the hands of the angry god, it encapsulates the play as a whole.Within this passage the women shift dramatically in character from languorous, peaceful creatures in harmony with their environment to frenzied bringers of destruction. Their metamorphosis mirrors the dual nature of Dionysus himself, the god who is “most terrible, and yet most gentle, to mankind (861).” Before they detect the threatening presence of men, the women drowse in the wilderness, adorn themselves with “writhing snakes” and leaves, and suckle untamed beasts. They seem to know the secrets of nature, enjoying its benevolence by only tapping their wands or scratching the soil. When they begin their religious rites, the forest takes part; “all the mountain seem[s] wild with divinity (726-7).” Their behavior changes radically when the women find the spying shepherds. They immediately become warriors on the offensive, causing the men to flee in terror, capitulating as fully as Pentheus did in the face of Dionysus’ overwhelming power. Dismembering cattle (domesticated, not wild, animals), burning and pillaging houses, and battling villagers, the women are brought to the extremes of violence as they punish all that conflicts, even symbolically, with their new religion. The wands that spouted honey moments before now inflict bloody wounds on the defenders of the village. Nature itself is the ultimate model for these sudden and comprehensive shifts in character. Like Demeter, who brings harvest or famine according to her whim, Dionysus’ initiates swing from nurturers to killers.Whether the women are behaving peacefully or violently, there is a quality of unrestraint associated with them throughout this scene. In the forest, water, wine, and honey burst unexpectedly from the earth, giving the reader a visceral feeling of liquid abundance. Milk swells in both the ground and their breasts, thus indicating that both the forest and the women are caught up in the same wild force of nature. This setting cannot be controlled by mere men; when the shepherds attempt to capture the dancing women, the hunted swiftly turns to hunter as they swoop down meadows (735-6) and fly like birds (748) to their prey, whom they overwhelm with numbers, swiftness, and force. Spears and flames cannot hurt them; just as Dionysus throws off his chains and goes on to destroy the city, the women scarcely pay any heed to attempts to restrain them as they rampage the villages. They move as an unthinking, collective will, not a clear-headed democracy. In contrast to the orderly adherence to laws found in the city, their chaotic behavior follows no rules and their power has no bounds.Perhaps the most striking aspect of this passage is the reversal of power between the sexes that Dionysus’ religion engenders. In normal circumstances, women stayed at home, barred from organized meetings of any sort, but here in the forest we see them apart from the city and the men that created such rules. In this strictly female community, men are scorned as ignorant outsiders. When a conflict between the sexes arises, the women immediately take the upper hand, asserting their dominance despite the traditional passive role of the Greek woman. In their frenzy, they become violent and destructive, as if they were men at war. Like an army they descend upon villages, plunder, and battle with the men who dare to fight. In this unexpected behavior the women follow the example of their leader; though he was born male, Dionysus clearly identifies himself with femininity and nature through his soft skin and long curls, his thyrsus and wreath of ivy. He rejects his immortal father, ruler of the skies, in favor of his human mother, who has already returned to the soil from which she sprang. Conversely, the men who face the angered horde of women fall into a submissive role. They are emasculated as they are defeated; their spears draw no blood (762) and their houses rest defenseless. All of Pentheus’ attempts at restraining Dionysus function in much the same way as these ineffective spears, for though his will itself is strong, his narrowly focused mind is easily conquered and molded into humiliating effeminacy. In both cases, society and its laws, represented by men, are completely subverted and overpowered.Much of the intensity of The Bacchae springs from this irresolvable conflict between nature and man, a tension that can produce the most stirring tragedy. In this case, both sides share the guilt for the ensuing violence; though the women are responsible for the actual destruction, it is a city-dweller who initially triggers the clash by suggesting the ambush. Clearly, Euripides felt that nature always triumphs in the end; the villagers’ spears, fashioned by mere men’s hands, cannot harm the god’s followers. Similarly, the Thebes that he depicts is past its prime, full of decrepit old men and ruled by a blustering adolescent. Pentheus clings to his power and standards of decency, but these concepts are stiff artifacts that disintegrate when confronted by Dionysus’ organic power. The Theban women, converts to a mystical religion that taps into the full power of nature, show the consequences of Bacchic violence unleashed on the unsuspecting.
Social Image in Euripides’ Bacchae
In the ancient Greek tragedy Bacchae, Euripides reflects the pivotal role of social image on the emotions and decisions of both gods and mortals. Throughout the play, Dionysus recollects the complex circumstances of his upbringing as the child of Zeus and a mortal, Semele. Despised by Hera even before he was born, Dionysus had to be birthed by Zeus in secret for his own protection: “But right away Zeus, son of Cronus,/ took him and hid him in chambers of birthing,/ tucking the baby inside his thigh/ fastened together with golden pins/ to hide him from Hera” (94-98). The effects of Dionysus’ secretive birth extend to his controversial recognition by the Thebans, who generally doubt his legitimacy as a god. Consequently, this also contributes to Dionysus’ desire to take vengeance on Thebes and its king, as he proclaims, “This city has to learn, by force if need be,/ what comes of its resistance to my rites./ And I must save the honor of my mother,/ by showing humans I am son of Zeus” (39-42). Unlike all of the other gods and goddesses, Dionysus does not receive an abundance of sacrifices and worship; Euripides reveals that Pentheus, King of Thebes, instead dissuades his citizens from participating in rites in Dionysus’ name. Thus, his followers are forced to worship in the wilderness, away from the public eye, instead of in the city temples.
Another feature that sets Dionysus apart from the other gods is his acceptance for citizens who rank lower in social status and his reputation as a foreigner to Thebes. As praised by Tiresias the prophet, “the god makes no distinction. Young and old/ must dance together, everyone the same./ He wants us all to honor him together,/ and no one is excused from joining in” (206-209). Euripides also describes Dionysus’ social reach as inclusive of women and the poor as devout followers. However, in the strict social pyramid of ancient Greece, Pentheus views his populist appeal as a danger to society. Furthermore, although Thebes was Dionysus’ birthplace, the city and its king still views him as an outsider to their traditions and culture. When messengers warn Pentheus of the travelling stranger in Thebes, the king immediately plots to arrest him: “Whoever he is, this foreigner deserve/ to hang for such outrageous wickedness” (246-247). Later, Pentheus interrogates Dionysus, disguised as a mortal, asking, “Is there a new Zeus there, who breeds new gods?” (467). Therefore, in both mortal and divine form, Dionysus is seen as a foreigner. Pentheus denies Dionysus of being a god, despite having been born from Zeus himself; in mortal form, the king also regards the Stranger as an outsider who seeks to destroy the delicate social order in Thebes.
Euripides also highlights the contrast between Cadmus, Tiresias, and the Chorus’ religious devotion to Dionysus and Pentheus’ blatant rejection of any ceremonies in his honor. For example, Cadmus and Tiresias uplift their praise for the god, equating Dionysus to the source of happiness for mortals: “This god is poured as offering to the gods,/ so through this god comes human happiness” (284-285). Therefore, they argue that the wine that the Greeks use to honor the other gods is due to Dionysus; satisfied with these rites aided by Dionysus, the gods bless the mortals with fortune. Cadmus and Tiresias also attribute “pain-relief to suffering souls… sleep and forgetfulness from daily pain” to Dionysus’ wine, as nothing else can provide a similar satisfaction to mortals (280-282). On the contrary, Pentheus’ defining trait is his criticism for the negative influence Dionysus spreads over his city, especially in ways that disrupt the social order. When Euripides first introduces Pentheus, the king is clearly concerned for the wellbeing of Thebes while under the influence of Dionysus’ cult-like followers. He downplays Dionysus’ divine nature and attacks the proceedings of the maenads’ rites, exclaiming, “New trouble in our city./ They say our womenfolk have left their homes/ for these fake Bacchic rites. They skip and dance/ up on the shady mountains, worshipping/ this whatshisname, this new ‘god,’ Dionysus./ Apparently their gatherings involve/ huge vats of wine, and one by one, those girls/ slink off alone to serve some man with sex” (216-223). This also connects to Dionysus’ reputation as the god of ecstacy, frenzied dancing, and wine, all of which were recognized as threats to the Theban social order by Pentheus. For example, many female followers abandoned their duties as respectable women in Greek society to celebrate Dionysus instead: “Every woman in the land/ has left her shuttle, left her loom, infected/ by the sting of gadfly Dionysus” (117-119). Therefore, Euripides heavily juxtaposes the fervent belief in the god held by Cadmus and Tiresias with the firm rejection of Dionysus by Pentheus.
Moreover, gender stereotypes also serve as a motif throughout Bacchae. When the Messenger alerts the king of the gruesome scene of the maenads, Pentheus vows to eliminate the threat, proclaiming, “We’ll run those Bacchants down. It’s too much/ That I be treated in this way by women!” (785-786). Ironically, Dionysus tricks Pentheus into disguising himself as a female maenad to infiltrate their rituals, thus attacking his sensitive masculinity. In doing so, Dionysus hoped that he would be publicly humiliated, losing his social status as a respectable king. By falsely reassuring the king that the maenads would not mock his feminine appearance, Dionysus successfully plans to punish his hubris, revealing to the Chorus, “I want him to be laughed at by the Thebans:/ I’ll lead him through the city in a dress” (854-855). Dionysus displays Pentheus, in his attire fit for a Theban woman, atop a tree branch for all to see and mock before the maenads brutally murder him. Thus, Dionysus also uses Pentheus’ fragile masculinity to lead him to his downfall. Ultimately, Euripides emphasizes the significance of social reputation in ancient Greek society through the ways it motivates both mortals and gods to act on their beliefs.
Ovid’s Rebranding of The Bacchae
When analyzing Greek mythology, it is evident the stories exist to legitimize, explain, or provoke interest in the societal structures in place. However, just as Vergil reworked Homer’s The Odyssey, as The Aeneid, to become a political propaganda for Augustus and the superiority of the Roman Empire, Ovid reduces the numerous myths that the Greek’s valued and structured their socio-cultural norms around to a form of entertainment. Book III of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, is a satirical rebranding of the famous Greek tragedy The Bacchae. Since Ovid employs vastly different tactics of dense imagery, tangential storylines, and humor, compared to his predecessors, his version of The Bacchae is much less focused on such cultural identity.
The Bacchae and Book III, both tell the story of Dionysus’ return to Thebes many years after the death of his mother, Semele, in order to refute the slander against her and authenticate his godliness. Ovid, in his characteristic style, starts off much further back, and elaborates on the founding of Thebes by Cadmus and the first tragedy of his royal family, Actaeon. The story of Actaeon transforming into a stag with “antlers foreign to his human shape” and being “gorged [by his hounds]” (p.77) at the hands of Diana, is not only brief in The Bacchae, but serves little purpose for Ovid other than to entertain his audience with his dark humor. Throughout the Metamorphoses, Ovid employs extensive imagery on mundane details of the plot to make the stories more intriguing and to incorporate the theme of human bodies and their transformation, whether it be into another creature or simply disembodiment in itself. Furthermore, when Ovid describes Diana during this scene, he focuses on her “fastidious limbs,” “hung loose” hair, and other aspects of her physical body (p.78).
This tangent also displays Ovid’s norm of blurring the lines dividing the gods, humans, and animals, that exist in The Bacchae and other Greek myths. Traditionally, gods are the divine and all-powerful, humans are at the will of the gods, and animals are pawns in the relationship between the two serving as sacrifice and food. Through the human like behavior of Diana, when her cheeks become blushed with embarrassment “as rosy as dawn” (p.79) in response to Actaeon seeing her naked, the physical transformation of Actaeon into an animal who groans and utters sounds that “[no human, yet no stag] could produce” (p.80), and the extended “dogalogue” of Actaeon’s own hounds devouring him, Ovid obscures the established hierarchical relationship between the three groups.
When the story of Actaeon becomes known, there are divided opinions about the actions of Diana (p.80). Some thought the goddess showed excessive cruelty, while others praised her chastity, however, both sides can be justified. This characteristic style of Ovid throughout his epics makes it difficult for the audience to derive any one clear lesson from his stories, contrary to the traditional Greek myths, which serve to teach a moral and justify pre-existing conventions.
Juno is rejoiced by the news that disaster has been brought upon the house of her “Phoenician rival” (p.80). This celebration is short lived when she discovers that Semele, the daughter of Cadmus, is pregnant with the son of her husband Jupiter. Ovid characterizes Juno as jealous, as she exclaims that she is “the queen of heaven, and the sister and wife of Jupiter,” while Semele is just simply overly “confident in her [own] beauty” (p.81). In The Bacchae, Hera is depicted as engulfed with “violence and rage” (9-10) and using her divine powers, rather than manipulation and human-like strategies to deceive Semele. Juno’s jealous character is furthered as she strikes Tiresias blind when he takes Jupiter’s side in a “playful argument” (p.82) that women enjoy sexual interactions more than men do.
Similarly, Tiresias’ character, although equally disrespected by Pentheus in both versions, is given a makeover. In Ovid’s version, Pentheus “taunts” and “laughs” (p.87) at Tiresias’ blindness and ignores his warnings of trifling with divinity. Tiresias, conscious of his fame and reputation, briefly and comically teases Pentheus that he would be “lucky” (p.88) to have his blindness so he could foresee the future that awaits him. Contrastingly, The Bacchae, describes Tiresias as a “wise” man (185) who extensively pleads the “crazed fool” (361) Pentheus to listen to his advice, rather the other way around.
In The Bacchae, Pentheus is depicted a stubborn king plagued by the need to “revolt against the divinity” (45) of Dionysus for invoking an uninvited religious crusade on the kingdom. Pentheus’ death is the doing of Dionysus, who convinces him to dress as a woman and spy on the Maenads, one of which is his own mother, Agave. This portrayal of Pentheus aligns with Freud’s idea that traditional Greek myths allow the audience to vicariously live out the socially and culturally taboo desires of the unconscious mind. Ovid does not throw away Pentheus’ proscribed curiousness in living in world of the opposite gender and seeing his mother naked, but instead emphasizes it. Pentheus’ demise is due to his own “roused” and “angry” (p.92) desire to see the mysteries, rather than the deception of Dionysus. This scene also contributes to Ovid’s theme of turning humans into something no longer human, as Pentheus is violently disembodied by the Maenads. In The Bacchae, Agave realizes her actions and feels “[great] grief” (1282) for killing her son, while Ovid’s version of the story ends with her exclaiming her “victory” and “achievement” (p.93) furthering the dark, satirical nature of his works.
While there are many obvious inconsistencies between The Bacchae and The Metamorphoses, such as Cadmus defeating a serpent, rather than a dragon and Acoetes being captured by Pentheus’ men, rather than Dionysus, these discrepancies serve the purpose to elicit the many themes Ovid carries throughout his poems. Through these variations, he is able to convey his own sardonic version of myth as a series of stories about characters who may or may not have existed and events that may or may not have occurred, but are nonetheless entertaining to hear.