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.
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