Uncertainty of the Dionysian Tradition: Euripides’ Bacchae

August 19, 2019 by Essay Writer

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.”[1] 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.

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