Dionysus in The Bacchae

The Bacchae is probably one of my favorite of the Greek plays. I have read several translations of it. I consider Dionysos to be the hero of The Bacchae. In general, the Gods are not considered to be the heroes of the story, but Dionysos is not a typical God. As the son of Zeus and Semele, He is a child of both realms, both mortal and Divine. He is the only Greek God to have suffered death. When He was resurrected, His Divinity was confirmed, but He will always be a son of a mortal mother. After His own ascension to Olympos, Dionysos descended into Haides to get the spirit of His mother. He bought Semele to Olympos with Him, where she became a Goddess and was renamed Thyone, from thyriô, “Inspired Frenzy”. (Pausanias, Description of Greece 2. 37. 6, Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 3. 38) After Her apotheosis, Semele-Thyone sat beside Her Son at the banquets of the Gods and was hailed by the Maenads as their Flaming Queen.

Dionysos blurs more lines than just the one between mortals and Gods. Dionysos is a liminal God, Whose power is on the fringe, the border, twilight. Dionysos lives in the in-between time of night and day, life and death. He also transcends the divide between genders. He is referred to in both male and female terms. Sometimes He is portrayed as mature and bearded, sometimes as clean-shaved youth with long hair. It is this youthful manifestation that we meet in Euripides’ The Bacchae. Pentheus calls Him “That womanly man” and describes Him as follows:

There’s beauty, thus – woman-witching beauty / … in thy soft form; / Thy fine bright hair, not coarse like a hard athlete’s / Is mantling o’ver thy cheek warm with desire; / And carefully thy have cherished thy white skin, / Not in the sun’s swarth beams, but in cool shade / Wooing soft Aphrodite with thy loveliness.

Part of Pentheus’ objection to Dionysos’ worship that it upends what he considers the natural order, including that of “typical” gender expression. Pentheus wants the women of Thebes to stay in their place. He is not only angry that they are out in the hills worshiping Dionysos, but also offended by Dionysos’ womanliness.

And yet, by the end of the play the situation is reversed. Dionysos convinces Pentheus to dress in women’s clothing in order to spy on the Bacchic revels. As much as he is against the Bacchic rituals, Pentheus has a secret, almost primal, desire to see them. Pentheus thinks he is a rational person who has his emotions under control. He thinks that he can deny his primal nature. Yet his desire to see the revels overwhelms him, and at Dionysos’ urging he dresses in his mother’s clothes and climbs a tree to watch. This desire is what destroys him. The Maenads in their madness believe that he is lion, and it is Pentheus’ own mother Agave who delivers the killing blow.

In myth, Dionysos often curses with madness those who refuse to honor Him, or worse, who harass his devotees and impinge on their choice to worship the God. Through this madness, they are usually destroyed. There is much symbolism in this act. The Maenads and other devotees of the God, who honor Him willingly, are driven mad as well. But they are not destroyed by their madness; rather, they are strengthened by it. These frenzied women worshipers were said to wear animal skins and twine snakes in their hair and around their waists. Sometimes they would tear wild animals apart with their bare hands and eat the flesh raw. Other times the Maenads would be inspired to suckle baby wolves or deer at their breasts. They were impossibly strong, and fire and spears could not harm them. Through acceptance of our wild and animal nature, the madness is made temporary, and after the Bacchanalian revel the worshipers return to their daily lives. Our primal and sexual nature will not be denied. When suppressed, it leads to all manner of neuroses. What more proof do you need but to look around yourself? Look at what happens to people who force their instincts down into a deep down place within themselves. Look at the frigid and unhappy people who protest at gay rallies and abortion clinics, who look as if they have never laughed, or had an orgasm, in their entire lives! Laughter and sex are intimately linked. If a person truly succeeds in squashing one, how can the other not follow? Truly this is a lesson the Greeks knew well, and one from which modern society could greatly benefit.

This play, like many other Greek stories, tells us much about the Greek’s relationship with their Gods. The Gods of Greece are all around us. The Law of Hospitality was important partly because the Greeks believed that anyone you met could be a God in disguise. In The Odyssey Athena takes the form of a family friend to counsel Odysseus’ son. In The Bacchae, Dionysos poses as His own priest. It is common for the Gods to come down from Olympos to work Their will in the world. They have bodies, but They are not limited to their bodies. Their spirits are manifest in nature as well. They are all around us.

Yet, in a polytheist system, no God is the be-all and end-all. In fact, it could be said that in a Pagan system human beings need more then one Deity in their lives in order to be psychologically healthy. The lesson of  The Bacchae is that if you take logic or rationality to an extreme, you will suffer the consequences, and they will not be pleasant. Our emotions will burst forth. In the ancient world, the worship of Dionysos acted as a kind of pressure valve. The women of Greece were expected to be demure, proper wives. Especially in Athens, women did not have much freedom and spent most of their time caring for their husbands, the home and their children. But at certain times of the year, during the festivals of Dionysos, women were not only allowed but expected to run off to hills to worship. For a few days, sometimes a full week, the women of Greece spent all their time in the company of their own gender, for men were allowed into only some of the rituals. They danced and sang and worshiped and ran wild. They let loose all their primal urges.

Sometimes this included sex, sometimes not. One of the most misunderstood aspects of Dionysian worship, both in ancient times and today, is the supposed lewd nature of the rites. Pentheus believes that Dionysos is corrupting the women of Thebes, making them have sex with strangers. Tiresias tells him:

Dionysos does not force our modest matrons / to the soft Cyprian rites; the chaste by nature / are not so cheated of their chastity.

Note, however, that he does not say that Dionysos forces chastity on His followers, either. During one particular three-day festival, celebrated by everyone in Athens, even married women were allowed to spend the night with a stranger if they so chose. Dionysos did not, does not, force anyone to do anything. Dionysos is a God Who brings you to yourself, who strips away the masks placed on us by society, and exposes our true wild nature. Dionysos demands authenticity.

[Amanda Sioux Blake has been a Hellenic Pagan and devotee of Athena for ten years. She currently resides in South Bend, Indiana, with the various animals that find their way to her. She is the author of Ink In My Veins: A Collection of Contemporary Pagan PoetrySongs of Praise: Hymns to the Gods of Greece and the forth-coming Journey to Olympos: A Modern Spiritual Odyssey. She also runs her own online clothing store Otherworld Creations, specializing in fantasy and Pagan designs; mostly Greek Gods but a few Egyptian designs are on the way.]

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